As we put together a team for Rattlesnake Racing's Fort Parker race, we realized that all of our usual "fast females" had schedule conflicts. So we decided to give Karen Burks a try. Karen's background was in triathlons, and outside of the Women's Adventure Race sprint, she'd never done any longer adventure races. But we weren't worried, as she already possessed the two most essential skills for excelling in our sport: She was a strong runner, and she knew how to do quick transitions. In my opinion, you can usually fake your way through everything else. Just ask my teammates... I've been pretending that I know how to ride a bike and paddle a boat for years now.
It was fun answering Karen's "newbie" questions leading up to the race. (E.g.: "What should I eat?" Answer: "Whatever you want, as long as you can eat it while we're moving!") Even with a new teammate, we figured we still could put in a decent performance at this race, especially since we were quite familiar with the park, having raced there three times before.
The race started with a chaotic special test to spread the teams out a bit. It was essentially a standard three-legged race, well, make that a five-legged race for the four-person teams. Unfortunately, they used duct tape to tie our legs together (instead of ropes), which didn't hold together well, so there were some mid-leg repairs to be made to the setup. At least the test was quite short, so soon we were done and received the instructions for the first real leg.
Now we had to find three quick checkpoints, one for each race discipline: biking, paddling, and running. And we could get them in any order. We decided to go for the biking checkpoint first. We made one slight error biking past a trailhead as it didn't quite match up with the map, but the team ahead of us did the exact same thing, so at least we were in good company.
The lead team decided to do the boat point next, while we decided to do the run, to warm up a bit before jumping on the water. The run was the longest of the three points on this section, but the navigation was easy... just run down the road, punch the point, and then run back. We dropped all of our backpacks except the one holding the race GPS, and turned on the speed. We took turns carrying the backpack, and soon reached the point, which was on a tree that leaned out over the Navasota River. Cool! On the return trip to the TA (Transition Area) we got to pass several other teams still on their way out, and exchange high-fives.
We had two boats, a three-person canoe and a solo kayak. Since this paddle point was so close, we decided it wouldn't even be worth the trouble of launching and then re-docking both boats, so we just piled all four of us into the canoe. Doing the paddle point last paid off, as the other teams that did it earlier had already broken a path for us through the reeds surrounding it.
We returned and docked our boat, and learned that we'd taken the lead. The race directors handed us the points and instructions for the remainder of the race. We plotted the next section, which was going to be the long paddle up the Navasota River to the Confederate Reunion Grounds. Eager to get going, we decided to plot the rest of the points later, and jumped into our boats.
Since Brad Pennington is such an awesome paddler, he was actually able to tow our three-person canoe with his solo kayak. Jason Mittman sat in the middle seat, so that he could give Karen paddling lessons as we went, since she'd never really paddled before. We made good time on the winding upstream paddle, and passed a fisherman right as he pulled a rather large fish from the water.
Soon enough we were at the short dam, where a race volunteer instructed us to lift our boats over the dam to stow them while we collected the checkpoints on foot. As we left our boats, we were surprised to see another team paddling in right behind us... looks like we hadn't left all of our competition behind after all! Newly motivated, we sprinted off to find the four points. They were all nearby, and we pretty much ran straight to them, so we got back to our boats quickly. Unfortunately, our boats had drifted upstream of the dam, so Brad and Jason had to go swimming to chase them down and bring them back. Then we were off again.
We still had to plot the checkpoints for the rest of the race onto our map. We decided to try an experiment: I sat in the middle seat of the canoe and plotted them as we paddled downstream. It worked fairly well, but eventually the (waterproof) map and pen became so wet that the pen stopped working. Ah, well, it was worth a shot. In hindsight, it would probably have worked better if I had sat in the front seat, as then I might have been more protected from the paddle splashing and the map might have stayed dryer. No matter, we'd just finish the plotting in the TA as usual.
As we docked our boats in the TA, we were still ahead of the second place team by a few minutes. I went to work drying the map and Jason helped me plot the points. The next (and final) long leg of the race would be a bike to a designated "bike drop" area, then we would trek on foot to get a bunch of points in any order, before finally retrieving our bikes and heading back to the finish line. The second place team arrived as we finished plotting the points, and they were still plotting their points as we headed out of there. We hoped that we'd be able to leave them behind us for good.
But it was not going to be that easy! We reached checkpoint 12 on the bike trail, and I stopped to study the map, as we knew checkpoint 13 would be off the bike trail and would require precise navigation to know when to start looking for it. While we were discussing our strategy, the other team caught up to us. We finally learned their name, Team Dead Reckoning. We didn't recognize them from other races, but they were sure racing well today!
Both of our teams biked along to the general vicinity of CP 13. I knew when I plotted it that it would be tough... it was located in a "shallow draw", amongst a dozen other shallow draws, and since the bike trail wasn't on the map we wouldn't even know for sure which side of the trail we should be looking. Both of our teams started dropping our bikes and scurrying up and down every draw we encountered. No luck yet. Since the checkpoint clue said "just off the trail", we didn't venture too far from the trail each time before hopping back on the bikes and heading for the next draw. Still no luck. I was beginning to get worried about this one.
Then we heard another set of bodies crashing around in the brush. Had a third team caught up with us during all of our searching? No, it turned out to be Lee Torbett and another race volunteer, who were out trying to verify that all the checkpoints were still in place. Lee asked us if we'd found CP 13 yet, and we informed him that we had not. Lee announced that he had not found it yet, either, and it was obvious to us that he'd been searching for a while. That was all we needed to hear, and we made the decision to skip the checkpoint for now. We figured it might be missing, and even if it wasn't, we could always pick it up on the return bike trip, as the instructions stated we could get CP 13 and 14 in any order.
Team Dead Reckoning stayed behind and continued to look for CP 13, while we headed for CP 14. Unfortunately, we managed to overshoot CP 14, and wound up at the bike drop-off point. Oh well, now there were two points that we'd have to get on the way back. This would make it hard to tell whether we were actually leading the race or not.
Next we had to get about a dozen points on foot, in any order. This section of the park had all sorts of obstacles to make life interesting: walls of prickly vines, poison ivy, swamp crossings, and such. Hey, it's an adventure! At times we wished we'd brought a machete to cut a path through some of the gnarly stuff.
The good news is, my navigation was "on" for this section. We pretty much traveled directly to every checkpoint. Not only that, we got lucky and usually found trails (that were not on the map) that led us safely through the nastier thickets of the vegetation. Gotta love it.
There were a couple of points tied high up in trees that we had to climb to reach. We had to forge through a waist deep swamp (twice) to reach the far section. And as we jogged down a fence line, we kept herding in front of us a poor confused cow, which was very perplexed and annoyed to see us running around on its home turf. The one thing we didn't see was other teams, until we were almost back to the bikes. Then we ran into other teams just heading out. We also saw Lee again, who hadn't yet had a chance to verify all the other checkpoints, so he was relieved that we were able to confirm that the rest of the trekking points were indeed all still hanging where they were supposed to be.
We arrived at our bikes, still in first place. Now we just had to find the two bike CPs that we'd missed on the trip out. We'd talked to the other teams that we'd passed, and learned that CP 13 and 14 did actually exist. We even traded information with other teams, and learned the general location of the two points in exchange for tips on how to get to some of the other later points. That should make things easier!
CP 14 was relatively simple... as the other teams had told us to look for it right after the bike trail crossed over a pipeline. One more to go! We were still running into teams on the bike trail heading towards the trek, and they kept confirming that CP 13 was indeed ahead of us, in exchange for info from us on how to locate CP 14.
We got to the area of CP 13 and started checking the shallow draws. At least now we knew which side of the trail we should to be looking. But still, no luck. Eventually we even went too far and wound up back at CP 12, and had to head back. Frustration started setting in, as we were sure that any minute now another team would blow by us and beat us to the finish line.
Finally, after at least a half hour of searching just about every draw between CP 12 and 14, we stumbled across our elusive quarry. It had been so difficult to find because the draw wasn't even visible from the bike trail. But, at least it was the only checkpoint that gave us any real trouble all day, so I suppose we can't complain.
Happy to finally be moving again, we got on the bikes and flew back to the finish line. We were pretty sure that nobody had gotten ahead of us, but it was always possible that someone had sneaked by while we were off the trail searching for CP 13. We made it to the finish, to learn that... yes, we had won the race! Woohoo!
This was Jason's first race since recovering from a motorcycle accident, so he was quite happy to confirm that he'd managed to rehab himself back into decent shape. Brad was awesome again on both water and land, and managed to find time to take several cool digital pictures of us during the race. And Karen is definitely a natural for this sport... she didn't slow us down at all, and she had a blast the entire time. I don't know how I'm so lucky that I get to keep racing with such great folks, but I plan to enjoy it for as long as it lasts!
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