Too Cool Racing hosted a rogaine for the first time this year, which was very exciting to our team. Lots of navigation, on foot, not far from Austin - what more could you ask for? Well, maybe several fewer cedar trees and less bushwhacking, but at least we ended up with the body markings to prove we had accomplished something adventurous that weekend.
My husband John and I raced together, while other Vignette team members (my brother Kip and friends Dave and Jason) formed a second team. We drove to the park on Saturday morning and greeted several other adventure racing friends. In addition to the folks that we know, various fast-looking teams came from as far away as Seattle and Canada. That certainly made us feel like the $500 first-place prize might be out of reach on this day.
We received our map and clue list at 9 a.m. and spent the next 2 hours planning our route and preparing our packs. Based on map area, we decided to aim for clearing the course within the 24-hour time limit, so that made the CP point values irrelevant and made it easier to plan. The one unknown was speed of travel, as we could tell during our drive into the park that open land would be hard to come by. We decided to do one loop east across the Pedernales River and then return to the TA to get supplies for the remainder of the race, bringing enough food for 18 hours total.
Robyn from Too Cool Racing made a few announcements, including the mention of possible high cliffs near the creeks and the strong suggestion to use the ford to cross the Pedernales River. That was counter to our route plan to our second point, so we were in for an interesting start. Promptly at 11 a.m. they blew the horn and we were off and running.
John and I took off along a dirt trail heading northeast to CP20, coming upon the flag just as Team Mergeo was leaving it. Not sure how they got there so quickly. They returned toward the TA while we headed down the draw to the river. The water was shallow and not too fast, so John helped me step from rock to rock in several inches of water to get across. That saved us from having to go around via the ford.
We climbed up a draw to get off the sandy and overgrown riverbank, and then we followed the river to the next draw and up to CP44. We heard voices here and John said Hi to someone we know (Curt?) but I was concentrating on pace counting and moving through the thick trees.
From there we had a rather vague plan to head east toward a park trail, which worked OK from an underbrush standpoint, but it wasn't great for following our location on the map. We discussed, pace-counted, and ran along, eventually finding the trail, the hill, and the clearing near CP65. After finding the river again, we managed to circle the checkpoint - to the north, east, and finally south of it, all within 50 meters of our goal before we finally jumped in through the brush and found the orange and white flag. We heard voices again so we boogied on outta there.
We took a bearing, aimed off left, pace counted, and easily hit CP58 in a draw. We decided at this point that we wouldn't alternate navigation duty at each checkpoint like we had originally planned. Instead, we were more effective with me on the map giving bearings and instructions, plus pace counting, while John forged ahead and found the best route through the crap. John was really fast through the trees, ducking and dodging and scouting for the clearest passage while keeping us on the right bearing. I focused on trying to keep up while staying back far enough so I wouldn't get whacked with branches swinging back at me.
A trail took us up a slight rise, and then we ran down through a field to a steep draw. After a bit of down-climbing on rocks and steep slopes we found CP43 at the bottom. On the way down we scared up some deer with long horns - cool! The CP was near the bottom of the draw, so from there we followed the edge of the river for 600 meters to the next draw. Running across sections of sand was a bit slow, but at least the way was clear of crap. The climb up to CP42 was an interesting and prickly experience that I'd rather not repeat, but we found the checkpoint without navigation issues.
We opted for a cross-country route to CP43 - 900 meters on bearing, aiming off to the right. We found quite a bit of open land here, albeit covered in rocks and occasionally cactus. I watched John high-step through the fields and tried to emulate his graceful style. A couple cactus spikes still made their way into our shoes, darn it all.
After hitting the draw, we ran down to CP41. We met a team of 2 women who were heading in the opposite direction around this loop. Next we did another cross-country jaunt to another draw, this time hitting the draw a bit low. We climbed up to CP30, then ran north to find the trail. A couple hundred meters later we were on our way down the hill to the ford. Upon crossing the river we said Hi to a guy and his smiling little daughter - I heard later that they found several checkpoints and had a fun time.
From there we climbed a draw and located CP22 amoung the boulders, then ran back to the TA. It took us 1:45 to complete this loop. We quickly refueled, loaded up our packs, and left the now-quiet start/finish area. Jogging down the road with full packs, we were glad we had at least covered part of the course with a much lighter load.
We reached the main park road and ran north, greeting a couple other teams who were finishing the northwest section. CP23 was a matter of following a shallow draw down about 125 meters, then we returned back to the road. We ran/walked until we found the turn-off onto a trail which led northwest. I was in the middle of pace counting 500 meters when John spotted a shallow dip off to the right. We went to investigate and found CP52, nice catch.
The trail continued northwest to an intersection with another unmapped trail going north. We decided to chance it since it seemed to head toward the river. At the shoreline we saw the upper part of the Pedernales Falls in front of us, and I guessed that the checkpoint was upstream. John spotted it right away, bagging CP64.
We ran east along the shore, hopping large rocks and trying to find the best path. John was moving fast and I did my best to keep up. At various parts of the race I had images of Gimli running after Aragorn and Legolas across the rocky plain in The Lord of the Rings. Not to mention the hobbits pushing their way through brush and getting lost among rocks...
John led the way over a neat little rock cliff and then up the stairs to the road. We had a brief discussion about the road and trails up here, but John figured out the correct path up the hill to find the side road down toward CP53. We dropped down and around a spur, climbing a short ways up a draw to the checkpoint.
We altered our original plan of following the shoreline and climbing the next draw, in hopes that the overland route would be faster travel. It seemed to work out decently enough, and when we slipped down into the draw we had to travel only 50 meters up through rather thick branches to find CP45. We came back down to find the next draw intersection, climbed up the hill, pushed through some more crud, and broke through at a trail that we followed down to the next road.
It was a quick "run" through really tall grass to get back to TA road. We had cleared 14 CP's (out of 45 total) in about 3 hours, so we were starting to wonder if less than 18 hours might be possible. Of course, it would be slower later in the dark, and the topography in the southern section could be more difficult to navigate and push through.
We fueled up with SPIZ, then followed a trail to a shallow draw and CP21. Our legs were feeling good, so we continued to run as we took the trail to a road and down through a big camping area. I spotted a little bike trail that ran south and then west parallel to a big draw. When we felt a little dip in the trail we turned south and into the draw. A little ways upstream, John stopped to figure out how to get around a big pool of water. Then he looked up to see the CP31 flag just behind the rock he was standing next to. Another one down.
Going south from there was a bit of an adventure. A rocky cliffband stood in our way, and although it wasn't very high, it took us a couple minutes to find a way to climb up. Fun! We popped out on a dirt road that took us south along another draw. I noticed a little trail leading down to the top of another band of rocks. Standing there above the draw, we could actually see the checkpoint down at the bottom. A bit of down-climbing brought us to CP33.
Back up to the road, we continued south to the tip of the draw and then followed that up to a small side draw and up to CP47. John continued to find decent travel routes through the trees and brush, and we felt like we were moving OK. Back at the dirt road, we followed the road northeast and around to the next draw. I had heard several people remark earlier in the day that the checkpoint clues were pretty much "draw, draw, draw, creek, draw, draw". It is certainly the predominant feature in this park.
We cut across the next draw to bag CP34, then found the road again on the other side. Apparently we missed the intersection we were looking for, however, and soon had to climb up a side trail to try to find the road up the hill. Instead we found a bunch of tents and some Boyscouts blowing a whistle and playing football. One of them took a look at us and said, "You stink!" Thanks kid, you don't smell all that fresh yourself.
After that little detour we found a potential road but it wasn't going uphill enough for our liking, so we cut cross-country until we found the real road. John spotted the hill we were aiming for, so at least we were going the right way. We found the side road from the park map and followed it to a draw where we jumped down and punched CP51. We heard voices coming from the other way, but didn't stick around to see who it was.
We went downhill to the bottom and contoured around the bend to find CP50 up the next draw. We started south from there, taking a brief SPIZ and map-refolding break. After 21 CP's it was somewhere around 3:30 pm, but we still had a long way to go. We climbed up the hill and followed the contours to CP60 at the top of a small rise.
Then we found a pipeline clearing and we were able to run for a ways along it and down a dirt road. We jumped off the road to hit CP55 in a draw. There was a trail along the draw, so we followed it northeast until the trail turned and we could sort of see the saddle we had aimed for. John led us up the next hill, although we kept thinking we were at the top until we saw yet another little rise through the bushes. We tagged CP54 at the top.
We aimed east and took off running down the hill, looking for either a fenceline boundary or a draw (since the CP was at the intersection of the two). We found the draw first, then CP56 at a spring just a little ways down. Turning south, we hoped to follow the park boundary fenceline up the hill. Even better, there was a road nearby that went parallel to it.
It seemed like we were at the top of the hill when we found a fence intersecting from the east. We figured this was the fence boundary from Flat Creek Ranch next door, so that was our cue to go west and back down to the creek. It seemed like a long ways down the hill, but we found a side draw heading downward so we figured we were right on target. Except there was no checkpoint at the bottom.
We spent 20-30 minutes trying to figure out where we were and what had gone wrong. Initially we started downstream, but I had a strong feeling that wasn't right. So we turned upstream to find a draw intersection. John thought it might be the intersection to the south of the checkpoint, but I wasn't so sure. We decided to continue for 150 meters to see whether the draw petered out or if it continued in the right direction.
I explored every little side draw while John followed the main creek. We passed 200 meters and I had just about decided that we needed to bail. Then we both spotted a strong draw at the same time, and there was CP67. Thank goodness! We saw a team heading down to it as we worked our way back up the hill. Disaster had narrowly been diverted. And it wasn't even dark yet.
At the top of the hill, we found the actual Flat Creek fenceline (the other one was just a red herring). We followed the fence and a trail to a shallow draw, then followed the draw across a paved road. Team Mergeo showed up again here, and they stayed in the draw while we tried a logging road on the north side of it. We reached CP70 together.
There was a trail heading east from there, so we altered our plan of going north to the boundary line and instead ran along the trail until it turned the wrong way. At that point we bushwhacked north and found a paved road - what the heck? John and I had been to Flat Creek Ranch several times, but we had never looked at a topo map to notice that the roads aren't on the map. So it was familiar and yet we had to figure out what it meant for us that day.
We followed the road down to a gulley, and then followed that up to CP73 at a big rock bowl. I noticed a nice little trail to take us back out to the road. We ran down the road toward Flat Creek, with dark clouds looming above us. There was a team coming up the hill who commented on the fact that we were running - well, it was downhill, after all.
The road curved away so we cut across toward the creek, following a draw. We discovered a drop-off at the edge of the draw and had to backtrack slightly to get down to the bottom. John led the way along the creek where we greeted Garrett and his teammate. We found CP80 next to the creek, crossed the creek, and continued east.
John noticed a yellow balloon hanging out near a bush for no apparent reason, so he tied it to my backpack. For the next couple hours I was accompanied by light "boing boing" sounds of the balloon bouncing around back there. I'm not sure how it stayed on as long as it did or when it came off, but it was gone (except for the string) when we finished.
We followed tracks around the top of a draw and then greeted Chris and Richard and their teammate going the other way. Hi guys! It was a bit muddy climbing up to CP81 in the draw, and we were now wet from running through a light shower and rain-covered grass. It wasn't quite as much fun as that point, but I got over it. We contoured around to the next drainage system, which we followed up to CP82. We had cleared the 80's, yay! It got dark on us really quickly, so we got out our headlamps. Coming back to the creek, we could see lights moving on the other side. Richard's voice called out that we should be careful up there. We soon saw why - there was a big drop down a cliff to the creek below.
John checked the bottom of the drainage where you might reasonably expect a passage down, but that also dropped off immediately. Hmm, this looks like a challenge. John called over to Richard to ask how deep the water was, at which point I backed way away from the edge and told him he was nuts.
We decided to move along the cliff to the south to see if there were any downclimbing opportunities. Gradually it changed from cliff to trees and rocks, and John found us a way down. There was even a place to rock-hop across the creek there. We weren't sure where we were, so we climbed up the other side and found a trail.
The trail took us north next to a big rock wall. We were looking for a "slot" so we aimed our bright light in various directions. I decided to explore a neat-looking wooden ramp, and at the top we found a trail through two large rocks. CP71 was in there, yay!
We took the trail back to the south and followed the creek until it made a bend. John led us down to the next draw to find CP74. It was an interesting little draw, mostly flat with sandy sections and flat rocks to walk on. We decided to follow it west toward the next checkpoint instead of going cross-country like we originally planned. This was mostly an OK decision, although there are probably faster routes. We didn't hit much brush, but the bigger challenge was following our location on the map. We think we found the draw intersection partway up, so I pace counted from there. We tried exploring a side draw, and when that didn't work out we decided to stay up high and move west until we found the draw with the checkpoint in it.
We came down into a draw and had to decide which way to go. We tried to the left, whereupon John found a draw intersection. We thought we were too high, so we went down to the right. After a while John realized that we had actually come back into the main draw and we were never in a side draw at all. Oops. To top it off, that draw intersection was the one we were looking for. So close, and yet we had turned around. Once we figured this all out, CP72 was a cinch. We wasted perhaps 10-15 minutes going in circles here.
Coming out of the draw to the south, we found the pipeline that we followed to a park road and then to a little cabin where we were promised a water source. Except we couldn't find the spigot at first. I was about to go around to the back of the house (even though the lights were on inside) when John spotted it right next to the stairs. He mixed up a SPIZ for us to share and we filled our Camelbak bladders. I counted 11 checkpoints left, and it was somewhere around 7 pm.
We started a countdown to zero on the checkpoints, plus I kept an eye on the watch to see how long we had before the 12-hour mark. It was an arbitrary target but gave us something to shoot for. Let's see if we can get 3 checkpoints per hour in the dark... without making any more mistakes.
The next CP was easy, just follow the ranch road out to the main road, and then follow the fenceline to the corner to CP57. Next we followed the fenceline west, through 2 draws and then to a third draw that we followed up to CP75 (the last of the 70's). It was harder to move through the crap in the dark. John used the bright Fenix light and crouched down to try to see the best way through, but we still pushed through a lot of brush and branches. I think most of the scratches on my arms and hands occurred at night.
We opted to go over the hill to the next checkpoint and were rewarded with a few open areas at the top before reentering the brushy stuff to go down into the next draw. We had aimed off pretty far to the right, but the draw wasn't too overgrown. We found CP66 and then went west-of-north to find the main road.
That seemed to take a long time, even when we could here a car pass by on the road above us. Finally we reached the road and located the powerlines overhead to figure out our location. John mixed up a SPIZ so we could drink it before heading back into the woods. We crossed a fence and found a trail that I wanted to follow, except it wasn't going the right way. Sigh.
Instead we went over a hill and took a bearing toward a little draw. Somehow we managed to come down directly on top of it to find CP62 waiting for us there. That was a neat trick. More difficult was actually getting back to the road, going around the hill to the west and trying to stay between the hill and the draw without going through too much brush.
When we found the powerline again, we decided to stay under it instead of crossing the fence to run on the road. We were still able to run and it was clear sailing to the park entrance. We had a brief powwow about which fence to follow from there, but we found a little path instead and everyone was happy. The trail took us close to CP63. Time to head back to the north, 6 checkpoints to go.
I wasn't thrilled about the path to the next CP, but we had to suck it up and follow a couple draws. First a draw back to the road, not too long. We ran up the road, bypassing one draw and going into the next one to minimize the time spent in the creeks. Once we got through the brush right next to the road, it actually wasn't too thick. We found a draw intersection and turned left.
Here we ran into a flowing creek and pools of water. I tried to avoid getting my feet wet for a while but ended up following John's example and sloshing through it instead. At least we had brought spare shoes to change into later. We found CP61 and mulled over our options from there.
We wanted to get to the powerline/pipeline cuts that had been so nice to us all day. Downstream from CP61, however, the draw was full of pools of water and not easy to follow. So John tried cutting uphill to the north. There we ran into the thickest bushes and trees we had seen all day. At one point I was completely halted by branches and vines holding me back in at least three places. I squeezed through eventually, muttering and swearing. I'm pretty sure it wasn't under my breath either.
Somehow John found a way to the powerline cut, phew. We went over the hill and down to the next draw, then through more dense vegetation to the pipeline where CP40 was stashed. That was supposed to be one of the shorter distances between checkpoints, but it took more time and effort than expected. We heard later that teams in this area during the day had a lot less trouble. Nighttime sure made this a much bigger challenge.
Time for some running. We took the pipeline to the road and followed the road until it turned. There was a nice path along the fence and down to the draw where we found CP46. Three points left! We followed the draw across the main road and then took a side road for about 200 meters. We turned back down to the draw and found CP35. Now we're moving.
The side road took us around past a parking lot and back to the main road. We went up the road to find a little trail that started out in the right direction but eventually veered away from the draw we wanted to follow. So we had to work our way back to the draw and then climb up to CP32. I'm pretty sure there was a faster way to get to that CP.
From there we went downhill and across a wet field to the road. Headlamps approached from the south, and another team was above us on the road. The next (last!) checkpoint was on a hilltop to the east. John left the road seemingly a little early and then headed southeast. I was more of a mind to go a bit more northerly.
This wouldn't have been a question, except that this whole area was actually pretty flat and thick. We couldn't find any sign of the promised hilltop, just places where the ground would start to drop off. We searched every clearing that we came to, but there was no CP. We found Frank and his teammate also looking, then we decided to go back to the road to try another way in. On the way back John spotted CP24. Yay!
As we were heading back to the road we ran into Tom and Marilyn, plus Randall and Lee. It was like a mini-reunion on a non-hilltop. Back on the road, John and I started running. We drained water from our Camelbaks as we went. We thought we were doing pretty well, but the course was short enough that a really fast team could already be finished. We were motivated to get to the end and so we gave it all we had. We passed a couple 12-hour teams walking in along the road.
When we got to the check-in table and told them we were done with the whole course, Robyn said something to the effect of "no frickin way!" Then she told us that we were the first team to get all the checkpoints, so we had won $500. We couldn't believe it! We decided then and there to use our winnings to go to The Lord of the Rings all-day movie-watching feast at the Alamo Drafthouse. (And it was worth it!)
Our final tally was about 35 miles traveled in 11:25. I sat on the sidewalk and watched the 12-hour teams finishing up, chatting with people about the interesting checkpoints and the cliffs on Flat Creek. The other Vignette team came in second place with all of the checkpoints, only 10 minutes head of Mergeo (good job!).
Thank you so much to Art and Robyn and all the volunteers. It was a fun, interesting, and challenging course. Please put on another rogaine next year!
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