Adventure racing opportunities are usually quite sparse in Texas during the winter. It must be that Texans by nature are afraid of cold weather, or something. But this year Art Cook and Robyn Cantor created "Too Cool Racing" to fill the void. Their inaugural event was the "Big Chill" 24 hour race in Bastrop.
Originally our team was going to be Jason Mittman, Leslie Reuter, Denver Fredenburg, and me. But Jason had a motorcycle accident before the race, so we had to find a last minute substitution. As luck would have it, I'd run into Brad Pennington at the Bandera 50K trail run, and we'd already discussed the idea of racing together. Brad's schedule was free, and fortunately he was able to jump in and race with us at the last minute.
Only Leslie and I had ever raced with each other before, so we had no idea if this new team would work well together. We didn't even all meet until we staged our boats a couple of hours before the race start, early on Saturday morning. The weather started off nice and warm, as if spring had arrived early. However, the forecast for the day called for plummeting temperatures and 30 mph winds, so we knew that the Big Chill was sneaking up on us!
Oh, and Denver had secured sponsorship for our team, so we were racing as Team Nike Timing this time. Thanks, Denver!
At the starting line, all 22 teams received the instructions for the first section: a trekking leg on foot around Bastrop State Park. As we plotted the points on the map it became apparent that the leg would be relatively short and easy, as most of the points were located close to the main road that looped the park. We took off running for the first point, and arrived there just behind Texas Rough Riders. We figured this team would be one of our main competitors, as they'd had an amazing 2004 season, winning many races and taking the TSARCS series championship. We caught up with them and both our teams reached the second point at the same time.
There was a volunteer at this point who handed us instructions for the third point. It was two strings of letters that we had to decipher. Brad immediately figured out that it was a simple substitution of letters to digits (A = 1, B = 2, etc.), and the digits represented the UTM coordinates of the third point. No problem, we quickly plotted the new point on our map and were off again, leaving the Rough Riders behind.
Point three was at a trail intersection inside the road loop, where we learned we had to take a rubber chicken to carry back to the transition. So we jammed it into the outside pocket of a backpack and kept running. Back to the road for the fourth point, which was a sign at a trailhead that talked about the endangered Houston Toad, and the instructions required us to remember some of the facts on the sign. Still running at a fast clip, we headed back up the road towards the final point of the leg.
On the way to the last point we started seeing other teams. That's odd, we thought for sure that we'd been running fast enough to be in the lead. I scanned the clue sheet again, and realized my mistake... on this section we were allowed to get the points in any order! Argh! Silly us, we'd gotten them in numerical order, when the optimal order would have been 1, 2, 5, 4, 3. Well, too late now, let's just keep running and try not to lose too much ground. This error was all the more frustrating because it's one that we've made before at other races... and aren't you supposed to learn from your mistakes? Sigh.
We had to record the license plate of an old abandoned rusty car at our final point. Then it was a sprint back to the starting line. Since we'd run at least an extra kilometer than was necessary, we figured that there would be a couple teams ahead of us, but we arrived back at the transition area to find that we were somehow still in the lead. Our quick plotting and fast running must have made up for our error. Quite surprising, but we'll take it! We turned in the rubber chicken and read back the information from the other points we had to record, and then proceeded to plot the next leg.
Time to trek to the paddling section. There were a couple more points to get on foot that lead us cross country through Bastrop State Park, and then we had to cross over highway 21 and follow a winding road to South Shore Park on Lake Bastrop, where our boats were staged. We kept the pace up, hoping beyond hope that we could get the paddling started before the wind picked up. But it was not to be! The mirror-calm lake where we'd setup the boats only a couple hours earlier was now a wavy test of nerves. Since the wind was blowing from the north, we would have to paddle into the wind for the first half of the section, and then we'd have it at our backs for the return trip.
Brad was our most experienced paddler, and he went in his own solo kayak. The other three of us jumped into an aluminum canoe. It was actually a two-person canoe, but we'd rigged it up so that there was a makeshift middle seat. Unfortunately, it wasn't a perfect rigging job, as the middle cross-beam in the canoe meant that we had to put the third seat forward of the center. Which was terrible for paddling into the wind, as the front of the boat was low in the water and the oncoming waves kept creeping over the top of our canoe. About half-way across the lake we'd taken on enough water that we knew we would swamp if we kept going on like this. Fortunately we'd brought a bilge pump, so we took turns bailing, and managed to empty out the water just slightly faster than it was coming in. Enough to stay afloat! We finally reached the north shore of the lake, where we were sheltered from the wind and could flip the canoe to empty all the water out of it. That was close!
We still had to travel east, broadside to the wind, to get to the inlets where the farthest paddling points were located. We briefly discussed just parking the boats and running along shore to get the points, as we certainly didn't want to end up swimming if our boat swamped. But we decided that since we'd finished most of the upwind paddling that the worst was probably over. So we headed out again. The open areas of the lake were tricky to cross, but we kept moving and soon we'd reached the far "fingers" of the lake, where we were protected from the wind and could just enjoy the view. We had to snake our boat through trees as we explored the inlets to find the points on the far side of the lake. One of the points required us to leave the canoes and travel across land to find a pond, and we were lucky enough to find a trail from the shore that went right to it.
The last point on the northern side of the lake was on a bridge, where a race photographer took pictures of us as we climbed out to punch the point. Then it was time to turn around and head back towards the south shore, this time with the wind at our backs. I was expecting the return trip to be easier, but I suddenly had a terribly difficult time steering the canoe in a straight line, and it wasn't until after the race that I realized why. With our jerry-rigged middle seat making our canoe front-heavy, the stern of the boat was catching more wind than the bow. So the canoe was acting like a weather vane, and it naturally wanted to point back towards the direction of the wind. The net result was that I had to fight to keep it pointed downwind, so I traded my double-blade paddle for my trusty single-blade, and spent much of the return trip "planting" the oar to keep us on track. Not the most efficient way to paddle, but at least the wind was pushing us in our desired direction of travel for a change! We even managed to get our boat to surf some of the larger waves.
On the way back we passed several other teams still paddling north. Team MOAT (Mother Of All Teams) was in a custom lightweight four person boat, and looking strong. They were actually the ones that we thought were "the team to beat", as they're all amazing athletes and have a lot of race experience. We were surprised that they were so far behind us this early in the race... they must have had some problems earlier on.
We had to go south of the boat dock, around a peninsula, to get the final two paddling points. After that we made the decision just to carry the boats directly back to the start instead of paddling back into the wind again. Brad could have easily paddled back around the peninsula, as he wasn't having any of the problems that us canoe-bound people were, but we stayed together and lugged the boats as a team back to the launching area. Whew! Still in first place, and we managed to avoid taking a cold swim! I handed our bilge pump off to the volunteer in the area and told him to loan it to any teams in canoes that didn't have one, and then we were off.
Jogging back was a great way to get warmed up again, and dry off a little. We had to revisit the same two checkpoints that we'd hit before on the way out of the park, and then we were back to the main transition area. The next leg was a section where we were allowed to rollerblade or scooter, or just hike. We'd brought Kickbike scooters, which have a small platform to stand on between a large front wheel and a smaller back wheel. You stand on one leg and kick the ground with the other leg to move. They're surprisingly fast and efficient, not to mention fun! There were only two points to get on this short leg, both on the park road loop, so we cruised through it. This was the first experience on Kickbikes for both Denver and Brad, but they picked up the technique easily and we made great time.
Coming back on the scooters we saw another two-person team just leaving on their own scooters. At the transition area we confirmed that that was the closest team behind us, so we had at least a twenty minute lead on everyone chasing us. The next leg was going to be a monster: A long biking leg that left Bastrop State Park, traveled on a scenic road to Buescher State Park, and then to the mountain biking trails at Rocky Hill Ranch. Oh, and there would be several side "mini-leg" diversions along the way. I let everyone know that we'd be gone from the main TA for a long time, so we loaded up with food, water, and grabbed our cold-weather gear and lights for the dark.
We zipped along the scenic curving road to Buescher. When we arrived there was a designated area for us to drop our bikes while we navigated on foot to find three points within Buescher. But first we had to punch a checkpoint at the bike drop location that was attached high in the air, too tall for a single person to reach! Each racer wore a wristband to record the checkpoint punches, to verify that everyone on the team actually visited every point. So we had to take turns standing on each other's backs to reach the punch.
We hiked up a drainage to find the first two points, then hit the state park boundary and followed it up to a knoll to locate the third point. Then it was a quick jog back down a fenceline to return to our bikes. As we got ready to head off biking again, we saw two other bikes lying on the ground at the drop zone, so we knew the two person team was still hot on our trail.
We flew along the road to Rocky Hill Ranch. This ranch has over sixteen miles of technical single-track biking trails, so we were anxious to get as much of it done as we could before the sun set. The biking loop designated by the race management had us do most of the trails on the ranch, except that it bypassed some of the earlier trails, as we'd come back to them later. This section was tough for me, as I'm not a great technical biker, but I was eager to finish it in daylight so we only took the shortest of breaks to refuel on the trails.
Finishing the biking loop, we came to the most fun part of the race: The ropes section! The race had employed local ropes guru Byran Rooney to setup a "Tyrolean Traverse", which is a line stretched horizontally across a gully. We grabbed our climbing harnesses, and took turns clipping into the line, jumping over the edge, and then pulling ourselves across to the other side. Very fun stuff, we can't wait to see the pictures that the race photographer took of us!
As a bonus surprise, Leslie's husband Noel and their two children were at the ropes to cheer us on. The ropes supervisors had even let the kids try out the ropes while they were waiting for us. Neat! From here we had to drop two bikes, and head out on a "ride and tie" loop, where two teammates run and the other two bike. Leslie's daughter seemed to think our transition was taking too long, so she urged, "Go, mommy, go!"
So go we did. Brad and I happily volunteered to run as we were glad to be off the bikes. We talked about whether it would make sense to switch riders occasionally, but Brad and I were having fun running, so we pretty much stayed in that configuration for whole leg. The six mile loop covered the rest of the trails of the ranch that we'd skipped earlier. It was during this section that the sun finally set, and we congratulated ourselves on finishing all of the technical biking while it was still light.
As we came back from the ride and tie, we crossed paths with another team just starting that section. It turned out to be Team MOAT... they'd obviously made up some time on us on the bikes! This gave us a new sense of urgency, and we quickly said goodbye to Leslie's family, hopped back on our bikes and headed out the ranch.
On the return biking trip we would have to detour from the direct route between Buescher and Bastrop and get a couple more biking points on side roads. On the first big uphill it was obvious that my uphill biking legs were shot after Rocky Hill Ranch. Fortunately, Leslie is an incredibly strong biker, so she attached a line to my bike and towed me all of the way back. Thanks, Leslie! The tow system worked great, except when I got distracted looking at the map and found myself veering off the road instead of following Leslie like I should! It occurs to me that there are guys out there that would be too proud to let a woman tow them. Fortunately (for me), I'm a die-hard feminist!
We made it back and finally were able to get off the bikes, still without any teams in sight behind us. The final leg was going to be a long land nav section on foot around Bastrop State Park in the dark of night. We all wore headlamps, but we also picked up a couple of brighter flashlights for this section that we would use on occasion when we were looking around for a specific checkpoint or land feature.
This section was where our secret weapon came into play. (Well, after this it's not going to be a secret anymore!) Most teams had already figured out that it was worth picking up the 1:15,000 scale orienteering map of Bastrop State Park, which showed the park in much greater detail than the 1:24,000 topo map that the race provided. The thing is, comparing the two maps to determine where a given point on one translates to the other isn't nearly as easy as you might think, since they have different scales, contour intervals, orientations, and levels of detail. So before the race we took the time to carefully determine exactly where the UTM coordinate grid would lay over the orienteering map, and then we drew the grip on the map. Then, we created a 1:15,000 scale plotter, so we could plot the checkpoints directly onto the more detailed orienteering map. It worked great, and it made the land nav in Bastrop oh-so-much easier than it would have been otherwise!
Even with this trick, the navigation on the final section was far from trivial. There were several checkpoints that were off by themselves, without any nearby "handrails" or "attack points" to assist in navigating to them. Several times during the leg, I informed my teammates that we'd come as close to the point as we were going to get by following the land features, and now it was a matter of taking a direct compass bearing, walking straight 300-400 meters, and hoping that we would stumble into it. And each time we attempted this, we were rewarded with the beautiful sight of our lights being reflected back to us from the checkpoint, usually directly on the bearing that we were walking. It sure is great when you get lucky like that!
The two most remote points on this leg were in the far corners of the park, and were connected by the huge clear-cut path under a large powerline. As we walked along the long straight path, we had plenty of time to confirm that our team's headlamps were the only things lighting up the night for as far as we could see. Heading back again towards the finish, we only had a couple more points to visit. Since you could get the points on this leg in any order (this time we HAD read the instructions!), we began encountering teams that were getting some of the same points as us, because they had chosen to do the loop around the park in the opposite direction, and were just starting out.
Because of the order we visited the points, our final route back had us sneak into the finish line from the back. We popped around the corner of the race director's tent, where Robyn was waiting for us. She was happy to inform us that we had indeed held onto our early lead, and had won the race! Excellent!
It's always refreshing when a race unfolds so wonderfully. Our brand new team worked together very well to handle the challenges of the course. The race itself was amazing, and surprisingly free of the common organizational snafus that plague first-time race directors. Art and Robyn are both experienced adventure racers themselves, and it showed in their course design. The race was well laid out, challenging, fun, and beautiful. All of the checkpoints were where they were supposed to be, and none of them required you to fight your way through the usual nasty Texas vegetation! That's our idea of a great way to spend a weekend!