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Steel Sports Mineral Wells 2006 Race Report

April 22th, 2006
Mineral Wells, Texas
By Kipley Fiebig

Scott Appleton and Sheila Torres-Blank from team Run Amok asked Jason Mittman and me if we wanted to race with them at the Steel Sports Mineral Wells adventure race. Jason and I said, "Sure! Sounds like fun!", so we signed up. Unfortunately, Jason developed back problems in the week leading up to the race, and so we were left to compete as just a threesome. Get well soon, Jason!

The race began with a special test, where one team member had to sit on a bike while the rest of the team had to run alongside them and maintain contact with them down the hill to the rails-to-trails path, and then push them back up the hill for the return trip. The bikers weren't allowed to pedal, and to enforce this rule a pedal was zip-tied in place to the frame. We rigged up a system where the front of the bike was tied by a rope to my waist, so I could tow Sheila up the hill while Scott pushed her from behind. It worked pretty well. Our only minor problem is when our zip-tie came loose partway down the hill, so we had to stop and reattach it, while trying to avoid being run over by the stampede of teams coming down the hill behind us. We still managed to finish the test in about sixth place, and then received our instructions for the first real leg of the race.

We managed to plot the checkpoints onto our map and get out of the transition area (TA) before any other teams, so now we were leading the race. The ability to plot points very quickly is our team's secret weapon. We biked on roads to the north end of the lake, then onto the maze of bike trails to find five checkpoints. The sandy trails were still soggy from the rain earlier that week, and there were occasional large puddles for us to ride around (or through!). All of the points were located directly on the trails for this section, so the navigation was pretty straightforward. Well, it was straightforward if you had the bike trails already pre-plotted on your topo map, which we did, because being prepared is our team's other secret weapon. The race director, Rodney Skyles, even met us at the trailhead and biked the first part of the section with our team, just for the camaraderie. The farthest checkpoint was an out-and-back, so as we headed back from it we could see several teams close on our heels coming the other way.

Finished with the biking leg, we now had to carry our boat from our transition area about a mile down the hill to the boat put-in area. We'd decided to use a two-person Kevlar canoe to hold our 3-person team (with an inflatable seat for the middle person), so that we'd only have to carry one boat. Having a super light boat for the long portage is our team's other, other not-so-secret weapon. Two of us carried it overhead, while our third teammate carried the paddles and gear. As we walked we realized we'd neglected to assemble our paddles ahead of time, but since we could do it as we walked, this oversight cost us no time. Scott even managed to put his paddle together while still carrying the canoe, which we thought was a neat trick. With my head wedged into the front of the canoe, I was walking pretty much blind, just looking down and following the edge of the road. I was surprised to discover, that when you're walking under a canoe without being able to see, you can't really tell if you're going uphill or downhill... it all felt the same. I'm sure the difference would have been more obvious if we had tried running with the canoe instead of walking.

At the boat put-in, Sheila grabbed the gallon of water that we'd hidden in the area prior to the race start. Because strategic "caching" of heavy fluids, to save you from having to carry them on boat portages, is our team's other, other, other secret weapon. There were three paddling checkpoints to get. The first one, which was set a bit inland from the water, gave us problems. The closest reference point on the map was a fishing pier, but unfortunately the pier was a feature that I had hand-drawn onto the topo map by cross referencing it from the (inaccurate) park map, and so its location wasn't reliable. Unfortunately, we didn't figure this out until we'd spent about ten minutes searching in the wrong area. Scott finally wandered far enough to where he found it, but by then team STAR had arrived, and so we wound up pretty much leading them right to it. Oh, well, it happens. We jumped back into our boat, trying to leave them behind again.

The other two paddling checkpoints were straightforward enough, and visible from shore, so we collected them without problems and headed back to the boat dock. We were instructed to leave our boats there, and head back to the TA for another special test. This test required us to transport a kickball a set distance, without touching it with our hands, arms, or kicking it with our feet. We figured out pretty quickly that the best way to do this was to hold it in between the stomachs of two teammates, and simply walk sideways with it. No problem.

On to the ropes! A ropes section is a big highlight of any race, and this one would be no exception. The park has an excellent ravine covered with all types of rock-climbing routes. Upon arrival, we quickly donned our harnesses, and then rappelled down the rope into the ravine. From there, we had to take turns rock climbing our way back up. The climb was fairly easy, but still great fun nonetheless. As we were packing up our gear and heading out, we saw that team STAR was starting their rappel, so we knew that our lead was still slim. So, no time to stop and eat, but we did manage to wolf down some lunchmeat during the jog back to TA.

For the next leg, we would bike out to the far trail system again, then leave our bikes and navigate to five trekking checkpoints. These were all located off the trails, so it would finally give us a chance to put our navigational talents to the test. My specialty is the ability to navigate on the fly, always keeping us moving in (hopefully) the right direction, and minimizing the amount of time that our team has to come to a complete stop to study the map. On the other hand, Scott excels at accurate navigation to the more difficult points, where teams can waste significant chunks of time if they're searching in the wrong area. We were able to combine our nav talents and work together exceedingly effectively, and we traveled directly to all the checkpoints with no problems to speak of. The points could be found in any order, and we chose to go clockwise, while most of the teams that were hot on our heels went counter-clockwise. So when our paths crossed, we had a chance to gauge how far back everyone was. We could tell that we increased our lead during this section, but some of our pursuers were still running hard, with very determined looks on their faces, so we knew it wasn't over yet.

Returning from the trek section to our bikes, we discovered that my front tire had gone flat. Must have parked it on a cactus right by the trailhead. D'oh! Since it was all paved roads back to TA, we decided to see if the leak was slow enough where we could just pump up the tire, without wasting time changing the tube. Luck was on our side, because the air pressure held, right up until TA, when it pretty much went flat again. But, since we were now done with the bikes, the tube change could wait until later (and it's still waiting!).

The next leg was a second short paddle leg, so it was back down to the ramp to launch our awaiting boat. This leg was short and straightforward, with just two checkpoints to find, both on the shoreline and visible from the water. As the temperatures were getting hotter, it was nice to be kept cool by the splashing water. We'd been afraid that the wind would kick up in the afternoon, but the lake was friendly, and stayed pretty calm. Things seemed to be going our way today.

After the paddle, it was time to portage the boat back uphill the mile to the TA. We hadn't been looking forward to this part, but it turned out to be not nearly as grueling as we'd feared. In fact, it was a rather pleasant walk, and we passed the time playing the sides of the boat like a drum, which sounded really cool echoing around our heads inside.

Another trekking leg was next on the list, to find three points surrounding the TA. They were all located off the trails, but our good luck continued, and we went directly to each one with no errors. It certainly was helping us that we were familiar with the park. As we headed downhill through the forest to the shoreline to find one of the points, we encountered team STAR, who were implementing a very ingenious strategy: They were portaging their boat cross-country, through the trees, up the side of the steep hill! While this method was obviously more physically challenging than taking the expected route around on the roads, it meant that they'd cut off distance from their final paddle, and more importantly, from their boat portage. Clever!

Even though STAR had found a quicker way to portage back, we still weren't too worried, because we figured by now we'd built up enough of a lead where nobody would catch up to us. But still, seeing them chasing us down renewed our sense of urgency. We finished our trek, and received the final leg, which would be a "ride and tie" on the rails-to-trails system. This is where half the teams get bikes, and half the team travels on foot. One common strategy teams use for a ride and tie is the leapfrog strategy, where a teammate rides ahead with the bike, then drops it and runs, and when the trailing runner reaches the bike, he hops on and passes the other teammate, drops the bike, and so on. But we decided instead to use the tow strategy, where the bike has a piece of stretchy surgical tubing attached to the waist of the runner, enabling him to run faster without expending more energy.

Our three person team was allowed two bikes for this section, so Scott and I alternated running while Sheila towed us. Riding Scott's bike was challenging for me, because his legs are so much longer than mine, so I pretty much had to stand up on the bike the whole time when I rode. But it was still much better than having to run the whole way.

We punched the last checkpoint, and climbed back up the hill to the TA for the final time. It was official, we'd won the race, in eight hours and twenty-one minutes, edging out all nineteen of the other teams. By quite a convincing margin, too, as the next closest finishers still hadn't returned from the trek to even start the ride and tie section yet. It was great to do this race with friends, as we'd had a blast the entire time. Our thanks go out to Rodney for creating another great race course that was fun, challenging, and well laid out. And also thanks to the Malt Shop we stopped at on the way back... that hit the spot!

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