They never start adventure races on time. This truth seems to hold constant regardless of the race's length or how experienced the race directors are. The organizers of SWEAR have found a clever way to avoid this little truism: They deliberately don't tell you when the race is scheduled to start. Instead, they give you a range, in this case between 8pm and midnight on Friday, so everyone is caught off guard when the starting horn is blown. We like this particular format, as we're pretty good about getting moving quickly.
However, on this particular race we were hoping that the afore-mentioned adventure racing truth would apply instead to the mandatory 8pm pre-race briefing. Since we all have a slight lack-of-vacation-days problem (an Eco-Challenge will do that to ya), we had all worked Friday morning. So Friday afternoon saw us speeding across Texas towards Louisiana in Marcy's SUV, hoping we had enough time to get there through all the traffic (with one quick stop at Sonic's to carbo-load, of course). Turns out that we calculated perfectly, and pulled into the camp about 2 minutes before the briefing was about to start. The race directors chuckled at our tight timing, and upheld tradition by letting us set up our tent real quick before they started the briefing (hey, I didn't say that it was necessarily the race director's fault that these things don't start on time!)
The race briefing covered the usual safety instructions and rules. SWEAR usually has a minimum of rules, but this time they'd added a couple, such as requiring teams to stay together at all times and hitting all the checkpoints strictly in order. We probably were partially responsible for these new rules being instituted, because at the last race we would often split up for the out-and-back checkpoints, sending two of us to get the point while the other two of us would rest and eat. Hey, we never cheat, but if there ain't no rule against it, then it's just being clever, not cheating!
This was the third-ever SWEAR race, and we'd participated in the previous two as well. We expected that our primary competition for this race would be Team Traveler, who had just won the National Championships. It turns out we would be right!
After the briefing, we had some more time to sort through our stuff a bit and prepare for the race. We marked some areas off on the topo maps that were listed as being private property (and off limits for the race). We reconciled our topos with another map we'd been given that marked out two long bike loops through the park. Then, when we were satisfied we had arranged all our gear properly, we actually went to sleep while we waited for the race to start. After all, none of us had slept since early that morning, and it was going to be a long race!
Sometime around 10:30 the starting gun went off. We'd been sleeping fully clothed, so all I had to do was grab my headlamp and run to the transition table to get our first set of UTM coordinates. Looks like they were starting us off with a short bike section this time. I ran back to the tent and informed my team, so we could start changing into bike shoes.
Marcy quickly plotted the points on the map, and figured out that the most direct way to get to the first point was to ride the looping bike trail through the woods. Since it was a short leg we didn't bother to take all of our packs or food. We were the first team to bike out from the start, mostly because we hate to waste time in the transition areas.
We found the entrance to the bike trail and started down it. It was curvy, hilly, and a bit sandy at times. After we'd been riding the trail for a while, we realized we'd made a mistake: We hadn't taken any compasses with us! It's inevitable in every adventure race that you're going to make some kind of error (usually several), but THAT was a new one for us! Usually we carry two or three compasses, but we'd left them in our big packs back in the tent. Fortunately, this mistake turned out to be a minor one, since John can tell our direction from the stars, and luckily the sky wasn't cloudy, so we pressed on. That's an important part of racing, quickly acknowledging your mistakes and dealing with them without wasting energy by getting upset.
The trail merged with a clear-cut strip of land over a pipeline, and we accidentally followed the pipeline down a ways before we realized our error and backtracked to find the trail again. We ran into another team on the trail that had been pondering the pipeline route as well, but they learned from our mistake and went the right way. Figuring these things out was a little difficult because our information wasn't consolidated on one map. Instead, the map with the bike trails was completely separate from the topo maps. But, we soon figured out how everything worked together, and we proceeded with more confidence.
We managed to stay ahead of the other team despite having problems with the sand and puddles on the trail. It wasn't too technical of a trail, it was just slow to bike on at night. After some time, we finally came to where the trail hit the road, and the first checkpoint. It looked like we were the first team to arrive, which is always nice. We punched the card and headed out to the road towards the second point.
On the road, halfway up a long hill, we were suddenly surprised to see another team heading down the hill towards us. Then we realized what they'd done: They'd taken a longer route around to the first checkpoint that enabled them to stay on the roads. While our choice to take the trail had been faster, the roads made for much easier biking, so both ways made good sense.
After going along the road for a while, we came to checkpoint two, which was back in the woods behind a natural spring. We'd come up along this side road enough to where it soon hit the main road back to the camp. The main road was nice, paved instead of gravelly, so we enjoyed cruising back to the transition area. The only problem was that we were speeding down a long downhill, and all the wind was making us a wee bit chilly. But, we figured we'd get a chance to get warm again once we hit the transition.
We were right about that, though not in the way we expected. At the camp we were greeted by a group of men dressed in military fatigues who were there to guide us through our first special test. Actually, they were there to continually yell at us, in classic drill sergeant style, as we scurried to complete some basic-training type tasks. We executed synchronized pushups, sit-ups, and a canoe carry, and if we made any mistakes we had to start all over (which for us happened twice!). It was certainly a unique special test, and was a pretty accurate replica of my early days in the Air Force.
Once we'd finally completed the tasks to our drill sergeant's satisfaction, we got the information for the second leg. Hmm, biking again. These next two checkpoints were on different parts of the long biking trail loop. However, we decided to stick to the roads this time, as the road route would only be a little longer and definitely much easier than the sandy trail. Off we went again (after we picked up a compass this time!), biking into the night.
Another team overtook us shortly after the start of the second bike leg. Turns out they were Team Traveler, which wasn't too unexpected. They were friendly folks, and we weren't too concerned about them taking the lead. We had known before the race started that if anyone was going to give us a run for the money, it would be them.
We had a little trouble finding the third checkpoint. We left the road a bit too soon, and crashed around in the woods for a while before deciding we weren't in the right spot yet. A bit further down the road we encountered a trail that went right to the spot we were looking for. After some more road biking we found checkpoint four as well.
We weren't biking as well as we normally do. One of our bikes was having problems, and the sandy, gravelly road made for slow going. To get around this problem, we chose to go back to the transition area by an even longer route that would get us back to the paved road sooner. It was worth it, as that paved road sure was pleasant to bike on!
Back into the transition area for the second time, we found that our biking difficulties had dropped us down into third place. But, we were glad to hear that the next section was our favorite kind: A long, cross-country trek involving a lot of navigation. We plotted the points, changed into our walking shoes, grabbed our loaded packs, and off we went.
John discovered a neat shortcut to the first trekking point: Instead of looping around on roads, the pipeline provided a perfectly straight line that made for a much shorter route. We happily marched along the line, happy to be off the bikes and looking forward to the sunshine that would soon be warming us up.
After the first trekking point, it was back to trudging along the roads again for a while. We ran into a team coming down the road the other way, and when they went by us we realized that they had been ahead of us, but they'd overlooked the pipeline shortcut so now we'd moved back up into second place. Cool! We found another place to save time by cutting off the road to the next checkpoint, and happily did so.
We proceeded throughout the day, navigating our way from point to point. We wasted some time at one point that was not quite on the map where we thought it should be, but all in all we made excellent time and very few mistakes. We would alternate jogging and speed walking on the roads, then hiking cross-country when we left the roads. We were worried at one point we would have to cross what looked on the map to be a swampy bog, but luckily it turned out to be just a winding creek that wasn't too difficult to jump over. Which was nice, as we'd already waded through a waist-deep swamp in our first SWEAR race and weren't overly eager to do so again!
In the afternoon we arrived at checkpoint eleven, where John spotted the one team that was still ahead of us, Team Traveler. We'd managed to catch up to first place again! However, here we had a dilemma. The next checkpoint was quite a long ways away, and on a river. And then checkpoint thirteen was downstream along the same river. Checkpoint twelve's clue was "prepare to get wet", so all the evidence was suggesting that we were coming up on a canoe leg. The problem was, we knew that by the time we got to the canoes, it would be dark, and cold. Doing rapids at night is very difficult, and getting thrown into cold water was a scary proposition. Plus, Terry had told us stories before the race about how intense the water section could be.
We discussed our options for a while. We could hike to the canoes and scout the river, and if the river looked too risky we could wait until morning to go. But this method would lead to us shivering all night while we tried to sleep. We could stop by our tent, which was pretty much on the way to checkpoint twelve, and pick up some sleeping supplies to use at the canoe site. But then we'd be stuck carrying the heavy supplies, and probably still sleeping out in the cold whenever we encountered the first section of rapids. We decided that since we'd probably be sleeping until daylight anyway, it made the most sense to do it in our tent in the transition area.
And so we hiked back up the bike trail to the camp. We were dragging a bit by now, so the sleep would be good for us, anyway. It just wasn't worth the risk of falling into the frigid water at night! We finally hit camp and informed the race directors of our plan so they'd know where we were. Then we ate a good meal, and got ready for bed. We saw another team pull up in a car. They'd analyzed the canoe leg pretty much the same way we had, but they'd decided to drop out of the race altogether instead of waiting until morning. Ah well. John set an alarm for 2:30am, which we figured would give us time to trek to the canoes by dawn. Then, we proceeded to sleep for the longest stretch we'd ever done in an adventure race: 8.5 hours of solid sleep in a nice comfy tent! We figured we'd drop down into last place, but we didn't care, we were dry and warm!
The cruel alarm awakened us, and we blearily awoke and set off hiking again into the night. The trek to the canoes was all on roads, but very long and repetitious. At least our calculations had been right on the money; we got to the canoes just as the sky was starting to lighten. We cautiously walked them down into the river, and managed to put them in just below a swift flowing section. Happy to be off our feet for a while, we pushed out into the river and started paddling. We used our headlights for about twenty minutes, until it was light enough where we didn't need them.
The river was not nearly as treacherous as we'd feared. There were plenty of logs and other obstacles to go around (or between, or through, or over), but there was no real danger of capsizing. In fact, it was one of the more scenic and enjoyable paddling sections we'd ever experienced. In hindsight, had we known the river was going to be so calm, we might have attempted it at night. However, even doing the river at day was chilly business. We stopped about half way through to get out and move around on shore a bit, just to warm up.
We paddled into checkpoint thirteen, breaking our long-held tradition of capsizing our boat in every race. Here, it was time for another cool special test. We had to paddle to the far side of the river, put on harnesses, and take turns crossing the river hanging on a "zip line" from a pulley. In addition, we had to somehow get our canoe back across the river during this whole process. While we figured that most teams would just ferry their members back and forth, always leaving one canoe on the final side to retrieve the other canoe at the end, we decided to just use our throw rope to drag the canoe over with us on the zip line. This would save a bit of time, and more importantly, it would be a cool thing to do!
All four of us got in one canoe and we crossed the stream. The race directors gave us harnesses to put on. I pulled myself across the rope first, and then John came over dragging the throw rope that was tied to the canoe. When John was above me on the shore he tossed me the throw rope so I could pull the canoe over while he concentrated on getting down off the zip line. While Jason and Marcy crossed the zip line, (and Jason did it FAST!) John and I carried the canoes to their final destination and got everything else ready to go. From here, we just had to hike back to the transition area. To our surprise, that would be the finish of the race… no more legs! We'd been worried that with the long sleep we took we wouldn't be done the race until late Sunday night.
Even more surprising was the fact that we were still somehow in second place! It seems that only one team, Team Traveler, had dared to do the paddle at night. Everyone else that was still in the running had waited until the day to paddle, same as us. Our spirits were high as we headed home, knowing the end was in sight.
Marcy found us another great shortcut home, and soon we were walking up the familiar bike path. We were getting happier and happier and moving faster and faster. We'd never thought we'd be feeling so good this late in a two day race; just goes to show you what a good night's sleep will do for you! Since we knew we couldn't catch Team Traveler, and we weren't worried about any other teams catching us at this point, we started collecting trash as we went. We had garbage bags with us that we'd used to keep our packs dry during the canoe section.
We were able to run strong across the finish line, complete with bags stuffed full of collected garbage. Team Traveler was already there, having gotten a couple hours of well-deserved sleep of their own after finishing the race some six hours earlier. They were very nice, and cheered us in, and took pictures of us. They said they'd been very cold on the river at night, but at least they'd kept from falling in the water.
We'd managed to place second overall in race where we took a 9.5 hour break! And had we dared to risk the river at night, we might have even been able to win outright. But, we have no regrets about that. Doing it the way we did was fun, and we were actually awake enough at the end of the race to drive home, which was a totally unexpected bonus! Of course, before we left we first had some fabulous hamburgers that were available at the post-race grill! Ummmm, haaamburgers!