Team Vignette traveled from Austin to west Texas for the first 2-3 day adventure race in the state. Texas summer was in full force early in the week, making us concerned about overheating. Boy, were we wrong!
We arrived in Haskell with our support crew, Bobby Sandoval and David Mittman. Wednesday evening was full of preparation, from check-in to a potato supper, to truck preparations for moving gear on the course and inflating our required car inner tubes. Our bikes seemed to be ready, with slime tubes as suggested by the race organizers. We thought we were doing ourselves a favor by using the lighter version of slime tubes, since we would be riding on roads several times. Boy, were we wrong!
From 10 pm to about 1:30 am we worked with our maps, starting by plotting the ranch boundaries and interior fences, then plotting the checkpoint coordinates after the race briefing. Sleep came quickly in the vehicles and soon it was morning. Amid gray and windy weather, we ate breakfast while finishing preparations. Jason had been sick and he was still coughing and not feeling too great, but he put on a game face.
A camera crew for Discovery Health and Fitness Channel converged on our team, and we talked about keeping our feet in good shape. Then it was time to head to the starting line on our bikes. A calf scramble was announced and John got very excited. He had won such an event as a youngster, so we decided to follow him as he attempted to pull a ribbon off the tail of a calf. It was a madhouse in the pen, but we kept sight of John as he grabbed a ribbon, and we got out of there quickly.
On bikes John towed me to keep my legs fresh. We set an easy pace and let other teams pass us, although we all had energy and were itching to ride faster. We discussed the team challenge at the lake. Obviously we would be going across the lake without our canoes, probably without a Sevylor boat, and most likely with the inflated inner tubes. We had brought fins just in case they would help.
At the lake were required to build a boat using the inner tubes, 4 boards (1X4's), and 50 feet of rope. We also had a big roll of duct tape, which the guys used to strap everything together. They made a boat of 4 inner tubes in a row, supported with the boards. The paddles were taped across the tubes so we could swim with fins and push the boat. We had decided to try swimming with fins instead of paddling.
Wind was blowing and the day got colder, but the water was warm. We kicked. And kicked. Every team moved rather slowly near the shore of the lake, while wondering if their boat design was optimal and how long this was going to take. I tried riding on top to paddle, but got very cold as soon as I tried to climb up so I got back in the water.
Mercifully, the race organizers let us wade near the shore to get around a peninsula and closer to the take-out at the power plant. However, without shoes this was not exactly easy. We will not enter water without at least river shoes or scuba booties from now on. I walked with my small Zoomer fins, but the rest of the guys had a hard time on bare feet.
Then Jason started shivering really badly. It was chilly, but his violent shivering was unexpected. We determined that his illness was contributing to his condition. Kip hugged him and I encouraged him to take fast, high steps to warm up. Finally we were able to get back into the water, which was warm enough so Jason felt better.
John had had enough of the water, however. He got on the boat and paddled while the rest of us kicked. We were halfway across the last stretch of water when we saw lightning in the distance. Safety crews began towing boats to shore and picking up racers.
We caught a ride on a boat and had an extremely cold 15 seconds where we all turned to icicles in the rush of wind. John's legs started cramping and when he tried to get off the boat to walk to shore he collapsed in the inner tubes. The rest of us grabbed our stuff and push him to shore as Jason tried to massage his legs. John was able to stand, so we walked him around. We scrambled to pull out warmer clothes and get everything in place to keep moving. The TV crew got some great footage when John took a nosedive into his pack after another round of leg cramps. Finally we were able to get our gear and boat up the road to find our bikes where the support crew had moved them.
Luckily John's cramps went away after that, but Jason's illness got worse with every passing hour. We grabbed liquid at the TA and watched teams struggling in the muddy road up the hill to the bike leg in the ranch. We verified that we did indeed have to bring our bikes with us, unfortunately. The first couple miles were a test of patience. We undid the brakes and tried to stay out of the worst of the mud. Every few minutes we would stop to un-goop the bike tires to keep the wheels turning. Teams were making tracks in the trees beside the main road, so we tried that as well.
Finally we made it to CP1! However, riding the grass without heavy-duty slime tubes created problems. We suffered 9 flat tires on that bike course. Fearing that we would not have enough tubes left to ride to the second ranch, we rode 1-2 bikes at a time while the guys took turns running. The trail conditions improved in the back half of the course, but we were not able to take advantage of it. The chain on Jason's bike got stuck in the frame for a couple miles, but eventually he got it out. Not long after that, his front tire went flat.
My low point in the race came at CP5 when I realized that I had not punched our control card at CP4. We had to punch a card plus write our team number and time on the pole at the checkpoint. I was too busy reading the information for teams ahead of us at CP4 and forgot to punch the card. We decided to run back as a team and get the punch. Luckily it didn't seem as far back as I thought it might be. We ran an easy pace but Jason was suffering, as he told us later.
Back to CP5 to get our bikes, then we crossed the creek and climbed up a steep cliff to the top to find CP6. Kip took us on a good route back to the TA, cutting across a short section instead of riding around on the road. Jim from Rattlesnake Racing showed up with his video camera right about when we hit the nasty mud again, so we yelled into the camera about how much the bike course sucked.
We arrived back at the TA and Jason told us he didn't think he could go on after the next trek. We huddled in the truck with Bobby and debated what to do. Finally when Jason announced that he had just spit up blood, we determined that he had to stop and get medical help. We left the bikes with Bobby in the hopes that she could do something with the remaining tubes to get them ready to ride on the roads.
John, Kip, and I took off on the first trekking portion. It started with the same muddy road, but it was much easier to deal with on foot. Soon Rob and Val from team Live in the Dash joined us. Sheila (Jason's fiancée) and Art had opted to stop, based on their lack of warm clothing. Rob was not much warmer. We moved quickly though the trek.
There were four river crossings in the trek. The first one was the only section of river that was over our heads. We located a ford - just downstream of a zip line that tempted us briefly. Then we got in the navigation grove as day turned to dusk. Headlamps came out by the last river crossing and the cliff climb. Then we headed back to the TA. The distance was about the same as the bike loop, but we did it faster on foot. With less distress!
It was dark, cold, and raining. Bobby had fixed up the bikes while having to get the truck towed out of the mud to the road. However, Kip's bike would not cooperate and still got a flat even with a new tube and a complete verification of no thorns. He had already been contemplating stopping because we were no longer a ranked team and he was not enjoying the experience. The bike issue pretty much sealed his decision.
At that point I wanted to leave that ranch really badly and get moving to the second ranch. It may not be better, but at least it would be different. I was adamant about wanting to go. John wavered because of the temperature. Luckily Bobby had managed to retrieve Kip's fleece from town, so along with my fleece we would stay warm. John and Jason had not packed backup clothing for poor weather, so our race would have been in jeopardy in any case. We were learning more by the hour!
Kip and Bobby helped us refill our Camelbaks and compile spare clothing. We made plans for moving the SUV to the second ranch, which Art helped with, so the gang could get a good night's sleep in town. John and I would have access to our gear, along with a dry place to lie down later. Finally we stepped out into the night and immediately started shivering. Despite John's misgivings, we checked out with the Transition Queen and biked off into the night.
The road started out solid but as soon as we coasted down to a bridge it turned into slippery mud. The road surface varied for 20 miles from solid to partly muddy to 4 inches of gray, slippery gunk that made it hard to steer straight. The consolation prize was that it did not stick to the tires, so as long as we stayed upright we could keep peddling. Periods of effort kept us warm, with brief respites on solid road to let us recover. All in all, I have had worse biking experiences. Heck, we had one of those earlier in the same day!
After about 3 1/2 hours we were on the road down to Krooked River Ranch. It was very quiet, with just one woman greeting us to check us in. John had been nodding off during the last section on the road, so we decided to sleep in the SUV. Our assumption was that the entire race course would be left intact, meaning that we would probably finish on Saturday afternoon. In addition, the two lead teams had left the TA many hours ahead of us. With this in mind, we set our watches for 3 hours of sleep and took to the sleeping bags for some solid rest. Looking back, that is the one race decision we regret, as we could have gotten by with a few winks and taken off into the night.
Regardless, we arose around dawn and quickly packed and started up the road. It appeared on the check-out sheet that we were the fourth team to leave, but as soon as John took us to the first checkpoint we determined we were in third. Perhaps we read the sheet wrong or a team decided to stay at the TA instead. Soon we were moving well, following a large pipeline up and down the hills. I navigated the next point, taking us to a nice road at the top of a hill and then down into a drainage. We aimed off to the left but managed to run into some thick briars at the bottom of the hill. Moving slowly to the right, we found the marker about where the dense brush opened up into easy walking. That's when we discovered we had gained an hour on the lead teams since the previous point. That was pretty neat. They had been navigating in the dark, which is always slower than daylight nav.
John led us back over the hill and down into another drainage system to the next control. It was on a road at a gate, not too difficult. Shockingly, we had made up another hour on the other teams. OK, that was cool. We jogged a little along the road toward the next checkpoint. While walking and talking we almost passed a faint side road up a hill. Once at the top, we discovered yet another hour had been gained. We were now about 3 hours behind instead of 6. It dawns on us that we should have slept less. Because even though we are an unranked team, there is definitely pride involved!
John took the lead through a system of roads down toward the river. We talked about how to climb the steep hill on the other side and whether to follow a drainage up. Then we came upon the river and stopped to stare. We were at a ford, which should be able to be crossed by a vehicle under normal circumstances. This was not a normal circumstance - the water was much higher than expected and moving swiftly. We tried wading, but at waist deep we were slipping on the bottom and only several feet from shore.
The thought at this point was the following - the other teams made it across, and I'll be damned if I'm going to give up a chance to catch them. Race placing is done by # of checkpoints located first, then by time. Skipping the control across the river was not an option if we wanted a chance at coming out ahead (unofficial or not!). So it was time to swim.
We filled our camelbaks with air to give the packs buoyancy, and then put the packs in garbage bags. We tied the bags so there was air around the packs to hold them up. I noticed that my rain pants were holding a lot of water in between the layers, so we stripped down to just enough clothing to be legal (plus shoes). As we were preparing, we heard the hum of a helicopter so we stopped to watch. However, it flew overhead and kept going, apparently not noticing us. We shrugged and started looking at options for crossing.
After walking upstream until the bank got steep, John waded in and started swimming. The water was moving swiftly, so he passed the ford exit but the bank was shallow for a long way down the other side. He stepped out of the water without incident. I followed, not swimming quite as strong but moving OK. A small log floated along with me. What little debris was present was moving at the same speed downstream as we were, so there was no danger of getting bonked in the head. I eventually touched bottom a bit further downstream than John but we were soon reunited and redressing.
OK, that was fun! John decided to head straight up the hill to see what we could see. By the time we realized it was a hill covered in pricker bushes, it was too late to go back down. It was a slow, tedious climb, but no matter what we went through that day, everything was easier than the jungles of Borneo! It helps to have a reference point. Finally we came out on top, to a field of cactus plants. We picked our way through and then found a road.
It took some time for us to figure out the contours at this point. The map changed from dark contour lines to a different map with really light lines that were not obvious at first. We were expecting a large area of flat land but we were walking down a ridge, rather confused. When we finally figured out the actual contours on the map, we weren't too far from our target. We headed back down one spur and then a second one which turned out to be correct. Finally, another control point! Both teams had been there and we still were gaining ground, after all that.
We headed down the hill, this time using a drainage instead of bushwhacking. The race organizers were right, every plant has thorns on that ranch. When we reached the bottom we had to re-cross the river. The ford in this location was just above an area of steep bank on the opposite shore, so we headed upstream to find a better crossing point. We found an island and a narrower section of water and decided to cross there.
John and I jumped in together and pushed out to avoid a small strainer on our side. John made it to an eddy next to the island. I just missed the eddy and floated further down in the current, but then I stopped moving next to some water that seemed like one large boil. The water movement around my body was weird, so I had a moment of panic. I looked at John and yelped "Help", knowing of course that he couldn't help me, but I wanted him to know that I wasn't happy! I considered letting go of my pack but then I realized that I should use it to hold me up. Once I got an arm over the top I relaxed and started kicking out of the strange moving water. John waded toward me and told me to try to touch bottom and it turns out I was in waist-deep water not far from my episode. I was a bit freaked out, so John helped me cross the other side of the island and then climb up to a flat area where we could put our clothes back on. Soon we were walking again and I felt better.
We trekked along the road, stopping to empty small rocks out of our shoes and to pull out some food. We found a gate and the next checkpoint, where Leiza (one of the race organizers) pulled up in a 4-wheeler asking where we had been. The helicopter had been sent to evacuate the other two teams who had been stranded when the river rose. Apparently they had crossed the river before it flashed and were able to walk across it easily only a couple hours before we got there. There had been no rain in our area for hours, but upstream in Albany, TX, 12 inches fell that morning! Leiza had found the teams behind us and rerouted them around the river. No more swimming!
All that was left of that section, then, was to walk back to the TA. Another team showed up, included several guys we know, so we walked with them and talked. We mock-raced to the Transition Queen and got instructions for the next section. The second trek was modified so we would end up back at the TA instead of with our boats. The paddle might be done in the morning, and the final bike section had been removed. Yay!
Kip was there to film us and help us make a quick transition. We took off again and moved quickly up a hill, with Jim running along with us and asking us questions while filming us. We had fun chatting with him and talking about other races like Eco-Challenge. The first control point was at the top of the hill, then we headed down the side of the hill to a small drainage system. Jim headed back to the TA when he ran out of camera battery. The next control was in the middle of a dry creek bed and easy to locate.
I set a route to the next control up the creek and then up a spur to the top of another hill. At the bottom of the spur we found a really nice trail which took us all the way to the top. Sometimes you get lucky and can avoid cactus for a while. John followed contours and took us down to a pond and the next checkpoint. We read the times of the top 2 teams, noticing how they were moving well and pushing each other. We didn't gain any time on them during the day. We tried running/walking for a ways along a cow path, but then John's ankle started hurting so we slowed to a walk. The next control was along a windy road. We moved around a small hilltop, then reached the top of a high bank over the river. John was almost limping, so we stopped to tape up his ankle. We discovered Ace bandages in the med kits (required gear which we don't normally carry), and that helped John's ankle a lot. We may need to carry an Ace bandage all the time, after finding how useful it was.
We headed down a long, muddy road to the bank of the river, then along a cow path to the next point. It was possible to climb the hill straight back up, but after our previous experience with the sticker bushes we opted to take the road back around. We located one more control along the ridge, then started walking down a long road. Based on the times written on the poles by the teams ahead of us, we didn't have a chance to catch them unless we ran fast or one of them had major problems. I started losing my edge and my mind drifted toward auto-pilot. I was still walking fine but I gave John all nav duties from that point on.
After a really long walk down a "thumb" above the river, we finally located the second-to-last control. It turns out that the second-place team had run that section and caught up to the first-place team. But that was their last shot. After that, the first-place team beat them to the last control and then ran back really quickly, while the other team had to detour to punch a control (they were there but didn't punch their card - sound familiar?!). The drama was neat to watch from one place back!
Darkness approached. John and I headed back to find a path to the last checkpoint, when we heard voices. It was Potluck, the team we had walked with earlier, and Caged Tigers from Austin. We wished each other well and continued on. John unerringly led us to the top of the next ravine, while I had the thought of teams behind us to keep me moving at a decent pace. We worked our way down the hill to the last point and then climbed back up.
There was no obvious route back to the TA, so we decided to go for shortest distance. We cut across a grassy field and found a road to take us back to the section of our long walk. Heading back down the muddy road to the river, we came upon a team walking up. We exchanged greetings and smiled at each other. At the bottom we found a nice cow path that took us along the river's edge all the way to the TA. It was a good change from the jeep roads we had followed for most of the second trek. Finally we saw the lights and buildings of the TA, then woke Kip up to let him know we were back. It was still before midnight so we had a few hours to sleep before finding out whether we would paddle in the morning. Zonk, we were out cold in the back of the SUV.
In the morning, teams gathered. Leiza told us that the river was OK to paddle, so we would be done after 16 miles on the water. Kip drove us out to our boats and we downed some breakfast while putting on sunscreen. After one day of rain and cold, one day of gray and cool, we were rewarded with sunshine and warm temperatures. John and I let other teams slide through the first section of river, then got in our boats and headed after them.
Caged Tigers paddled well and soon were out of sight. We went back and forth with several boats, finally edging most of them out. Smoked Eggs, the team that came in second, eventually passed us and finished a couple minutes ahead. We were destined to be in third for everything in the race. There were short sections of minor rapids and quick turns, good for steering practice. The water moved quickly and almost helped us overcome all wind, except one section with a strong headwind that seemed to take a while. Finally, there was the finish line and a bunch of people to cheer everyone home! It was great to see everyone again and to congratulate Smoked Eggs and Tri-West Army, the race winners.
We spent the afternoon cleaning up and enjoying an excellent dinner at the ranch before heading home. It was quite an experience, very satisfying and full of lessons to apply to future races. The course was beautiful and challenging, and it was great to race alongside so many people we know. Hope to see you out there for the next one!