It's becoming tradition for the first paragraph of my race reports to tell about the inevitable teammate changes that we struggle through leading up to the race start, so let's get it over with. This time I was one of those changes, as team Werewolves of Austin asked me to race with them when one of their teammates had a scheduling conflict. Two other last-minute drops and replacements followed the week leading up to the race, with our final substitute racer Beth Reyburn stepping in literally less than 24 hours before the race start (thanks, Beth!). Beth and I joined two of the regular Werewolves, Tom Lane and Elaine Scott, for the race at the beautiful Mineral Wells State Park.
As we checked in on race morning, they asked each team to turn in a front bike tire. Then when we lined up at the starting line, race director Rodney Skyles explained that we would find our bike tires down the trail a short ways, and all of the race maps and the first leg's worth of instructions would be strung between the spokes of the tire. And with that, Rodney yelled "go!" and everyone charged down the switchbacks of the wide bike trail. Sure enough, we soon spotted all the bike tires lined up in the park amphitheater, and we quickly found ours and ran back up the trail to the TA to plot the first points.
The first leg would be a hike and bike, where each team of four was only allowed to bring two bikes with them, and the other two teammates had to run. We hurriedly setup a couple of makeshift tow systems on the bikes, so that Beth and Elaine could tow Tom and me while we ran. Then it was time to charge back down the bike trail to retrieve the points. The navigation was simple, as the points were right on the trail, so this leg was really just a short warm-up exercise to spread the teams out a bit. We spent most of the section with our friends on Team Backpacker. Instead of towing with the bikes, they used an alternate strategy of having their two bikers ride ahead, then dropping the bikes and running, allowing their trailing runners to pickup the bikes and then leapfrog ahead in turn. So our two teams wound up continually passing each other throughout this part.
After the steep uphill back to the TA, it was time to pickup our boats for the next leg. We would have to portage the boats from the TA down to the boat ramp, just under a mile away. Rodney had warned teams ahead of time about the portage, so it was interesting to see the various wheeled contraptions everyone brought to help transport their heavy boats to the water. We'd decided to stick with simplicity, and just used small plastic carabineers tied to the boat handles, that clipped the boats into the straps of our backpacks. This system put the weight on our shoulders instead of our arms. Tom and I carried both boats at our sides, and Elaine and Beth carried the paddles, and we jogged down to the water. The system worked pretty good, except that the knots I'd tied slipped on some of the cords, so by the end of the portage we were strong-arming more of the weight than we'd have liked, but we managed to muscle our way through it. Thankfully we were using new boats made of Kevlar, which were much lighter than most adventure racing boats. We were able to do the portage without any heavy water in our packs, as before the race start we'd cleverly hidden a gallon of water near the boat ramp, which we retrieved before launching onto the lake.
The navigation on this first paddle leg was straightforward, as two of the checkpoints were on piers, and a third was up an obvious creek. There was little wind or waves to deal with, so we were got into a good rhythm and kept up a decent pace, trying to lose as little time as possible to the superior paddling skills of Team Backpacker. I'd actually guest-raced on Team Backpacker before, and their captain David Bogle had also previously guest-raced on our team, so this day was turning out to be a friendly rivalry between two well-matched teams.
The instructions said to leave the boats at the final paddling CP, and that we'd be returning to them. We assumed that this meant there would be instructions at that CP about another checkpoint that we would have to trek to, or something along those lines. As we rounded the bend to the CP, Team Backpacker was still there, looking around the pier to see if there were any hidden instructions as to what we were supposed to do. They'd been searching for a while and hadn't found anything... so we finally both just decided that the instructions were a misprint, and headed back to the boat ramp to finish the leg. Rodney was there, and confirmed that the instructions were actually supposed to specify that we were to leave our boats at the main boat ramp for a later paddling leg, and we were now to head back to the TA on foot for the next leg. So we ran back up the hill, now neck and neck again with Team Backpacker, though they would be awarded a slight time bonus to compensate for the fact that they'd wasted some time from the bad race instructions.
The next leg was mountain biking. Again, the navigation on this section would be easy, as all the points were on trails. There was a long paved road section to get to the trailhead. The road went over the dam spillway, where Tom had slipped and taken a race-ending fall at the same event last year. Damn spillway, indeed! The memory of the accident kept us hyper-careful, and we fortunately managed to avoid repeating a similar tumble this year. At the end of the paved section we entered a short trail section to fetch checkpoints. The trails had deep sections of energy-sapping sand, so after collecting the four points we decided to take a shortcut back that involved leaving the park and riding back on a road that ran parallel to the bike trails. The shortcut worked fine for a while, and we flew along a nice, flat, paved road. Then we discovered that we'd accidentally entered a prison complex. One of the guards jumped out of her van to explain to us we weren't supposed to be there, so we bargained with her, and she radioed in to her supervisors and arranged permission for us to pass through the complex (since we were already within it!), but reenter the park at the next possible opportunity. The prisoners who were lounging within the fenced-off area got a hoot out of the whole situation, yelling to the guard to "let them through!" and such. It must have been a minor security prison, as we hadn't even passed by any warning signs to end up there.
Since the guard had stopped us, our shortcut probably didn't save us any time, and we biked back into the TA still in second place behind Team Backpacker, pretty much where we'd been all day. For the next leg you could either use a non-motorized kick scooter or inline skates to get a couple of points on the roads. The leg took us down and up the steep hill, so we were quite glad our scooters had decent brakes. Since it was an out and back leg, we would once again see Backpacker slightly ahead of us, and then Team Miss Phitz slightly behind us. The rest of the field was spreading out by now, but our three leading teams were all still very close together. It was going to be an interesting race!
Next came the climbing leg that we'd been looking forward to. We threw our ropes harnesses into our packs and jogged to the climbing site. We had to rappel down one person at a time, and then once our entire team was down we would take turns tackling a climbing section. If any team member couldn't do the climb, then the team would receive a ten-minute penalty. But the climbing routes were pretty easy this year, so the penalty was never much of a worry. It was a very cool, fun ropes section, though our climbing guru Elaine wished that it was more challenging!
Back to the TA, where we learned that we would have to run back down to the boat ramp where our boats were still waiting from the earlier paddle, do another paddle section, and then portage the boats back to the TA. Since we noticed that the instructions didn't specify that you HAD to trek down to the boat ramp, we got a little creative, and decided to scooter down. Since we would have to portage the boats along with the scooters back up the hill when we were done, we took just two scooters for our team, and rode two people per scooter. Since it was mostly all downhill and we didn't have to do much kicking to move forward, it worked pretty well, though it did take a bit of balancing and coordinating to apply the brakes without falling over! But still, it was faster and easier than running!
Two of the paddle points were plotted above the shoreline this time. They weren't located on much of a defined land feature, and the clue for both of them was just "rocky area", so to find them would require some searching. It took our team a bit of wandering around the general area to locate the first one, and unfortunately by the time we'd found it Team Miss Phitz had arrived, so we basically lead them to it. Darn, now the race for second place was even closer! We paddled up to the second tricky point, where we discovered Team Backpacker had parked their boats and were still looking for it. We joined in the hunt, and shortly thereafter Team Miss Phitz was there too, so now all three lead teams were wandering up and down the rocky slope of the shoreline, desperately looking for the point and hoping to not give it away to the other teams! We were the ones lucky enough to find it first, but we weren't able to tag it without the other teams noticing, so the race for the top three was now wide open!
Team Miss Phitz traveled along with us across the lake to the farthest easy point, which was a repeat of the earlier paddle point that was up the creek. It turns out that Backpacker had already gotten this far point, as you were allowed to hit the points in any order. So we were chasing Backpacker yet again. But, as we paddled back we spied Backpacker's boats parked by the first tricky checkpoint... it turns out that they hadn't found it on the way out! Now things were getting interesting!
We finished the paddle right behind the new race leaders, Team Miss Phitz. We spent a couple of minutes retying our portage system that allowed us to clip our boats onto our packs, as we didn't want to deal with the knots slipping again. Then it was time to charge up the hill, Tom and I with the boats, and Elaine and Beth with the scooters. Team Backpacker had caught up to us while we were retying things, so we were pretty much traveling together, again. Good thing we liked these guys, as our teams were destined to be stuck with each other all day!
We finally arrived back at the TA to drop the boats, quite glad to be done carrying them. The next leg was a trek, with the twist being that the final point was located on the other side of the lake. You could get this far point either by swimming across the skinny section of the lake, or doing a longer trek around the outside of the lake. Leading up to that decision point were three easy points on trails that led to the best attack point for the swim. We looked at the distances and decided that it made more sense to swim for the last point instead of run, so we shoved the mandatory life jackets in our packs and headed out.
Turns out that all three lead teams got started on the trek at about the same time. We were suddenly traveling in a "peleton" as we all ran together along the trails from point to point. This was a pretty new experience for us... usually in these types of events, the teams are more spread out by the time you're two-thirds through the race! Who would have thought a twelve-hour adventure race could all come down to how fast your team could do a swim?!
During the trail trek we all traveled together, with nobody bothering to "attack the peleton", because we were ignoring the sprint points, and concentrating on the yellow jersey! (I've been watching too much Tour de France lately; my apologies!) The swim would be the chance for teams to spread out again. Team Backpacker was the best equipped for this section, as they'd brought along swim fins. While we'd brought fins to other races in the past, for this race we were caught unprepared. Team Miss Phitz didn't have fins, either, but it turned out that they could swim faster as a team than we could. We could have gone faster if we'd had some sort of a tow system for our team... we have tow systems for just about every other discipline, but an unexpected long swim was a new experience for us in an adventure race. Live and learn!
So after the swim across the lake and back, Backpacker was once again in the lead, followed by Miss Phitz, and then us in third place. At least the swim had been a refreshing way to cool off mid-race! After running the trail back to the TA, we had to stop to do a special test. We were handed diagrams of four different knots that we needed to duplicate with a piece of rope. Elaine and Beth were both happy to demonstrate their rope-tying abilities, so Tom and I stayed out of their way as they quickly tied and untied the required knots. I should have had them tie the clips on our boat portage system before the race, as they obviously knew more about knots than me!
Our next sheet of instructions was for a longer mountain bike, which would turn out to be the last leg of the race. Most of the points were located off-trail this time, which meant that the navigation would be trickier, so that at least would give us a fighting chance. It turns out that we didn't even need good navigation to get back into second place, as we managed to plot our points faster than Team Miss Phitz, so they were still in transition as we headed out on our bikes. Time to see if we could catch Team Backpacker, who had been tantalizingly just ahead of us for practically the entire race!
The first bike checkpoint was an easy one, right on the trail, so it was just a matter of grinding our way through the sandy parts to get to it. The trails finally got a bit more pleasant as we entered the far north section of the park. Up a steep hill and along a plateau lead us to the next point. We had to drop our bikes and find it on foot, but we hit it dead on, so all was well. More biking along the plateau, when suddenly we encountered Team Backpacker, passing us on the trail in the opposite direction. They had chosen to do the points clockwise, while we were going counter-clockwise. We started doing a little mental calculation, and realized that we had passed each other pretty close to the farthest point out on the bike loop. Which meant that even now, halfway through the very last leg of the race, victory was still up for grabs! I'm sure that both of our team kicked up the speed a notch after that, though we were all getting a little tired of racing so hard against the close competition all day long! Beth still had the strongest bike legs, so much so that she was even able to tow us when needed.
Right before a screaming downhill was another checkpoint off the trail, and we managed to nail the navigation to it as well. The final "off trail" checkpoint was at the bottom of the hill, in a creek bed, which we also found without any trouble. We had just one more checkpoint left to complete our loop, and the clue for it was "on trail", so we weren't worried about it. But, it turns out that we should have been... as we biked past it but never saw it. We turned back around at the next trail intersection, and followed the contours of the trail back to where the point should have been, but it wasn't there. So we finally decided that perhaps the "on trail" clue given for the point might have been wrong, and started searching off the trail for it. Sure enough, we soon found it hidden in some trees. Precious minutes wasted! We realized, though, that Backpacker must have gone through this very same process with this point, because otherwise we wouldn't have been able to catch up to them as much as we had when we last saw them at the far point of the loop.
So we still figured we had a chance, as anything can happen in a race, and even with our problems with the final point we still couldn't be too far behind Backpacker. Also helping us was the fact that we knew we could take another shortcut by going outside the park again. This route would actually be slightly longer than the trails, but it would be all on nice flat paved roads instead of the slow sandy trails, so we figured that it would be worth it. Fortunately this particular shortcut didn't involve riding through the prison, so it was uneventful and quick. Now it was just a matter of finishing the paved road section back to the finish line. We still had no idea at that point if Backpacker was ahead of us or behind us. We yelled to a man parked by the bike trailhead if he'd seen a team in red shirts go by, and he said "no", and we got excited. Then we asked how long he'd been there, and he said "one minute", and we were less confident. A few minutes later, we crossed paths with Team Dynamic Health, who were biking their way out to the trails. They gave us the bad news... Backpacker was indeed ahead of us. Since all that was left was a routine paved section to the end, unless they got a flat tire, they had the race win locked up.
We climbed the familiar hill one last time up to the finish line. We had indeed finished in second place out of 19 teams, only three minutes behind Backpacker! With their time bonus from earlier on in the race, their winning margin was actually slightly larger, but still... what a close finish! Team Miss Phitz, who had been on our heels all day, had bike maintenance issues on the final leg, but they still managed to hold onto third place.
It was quite an intense experience racing neck and neck with the other top teams all day long. Usually by the end of the race one team has managed to secure a comfortable lead and they can take it easy, but not today! Congratulations to Team Backpacker for maintaining their incredible streak of adventure race wins, despite our best attempts to dethrone them! Thanks to the Werewolves of Austin for letting me come out and play with them! And thanks to Steel Sports for putting on another excellent, fun-filled race!