On the rainy drive from Austin toward Camp Eagle on Friday afternoon, we saw creeks overflowing and roads flooding. Would we be able to get to the camp? Would the Nueces River be a raging torrent? Would the race happen at all?
Once we crossed I-10, the sun came out and it turned into a beautiful day. The answers turned out to be: No problem, no, and definitely yes. Good news!
I was racing with my husband John, my brother Kip, and our good friend Dave from Team Backpacker. We had been looking forward to this race for several months and we were excited that this weekend was finally here. Dave brought his family along, including his parents who would help out in transition.
Race check-in was easy, we met a bunch of our racer friends, and then Too Cool supplied a burger dinner where we had a chance to relax and talk with everyone. That night Dave and crew stayed in their RV, while three of us bunked in the dorms. The dorms turned out to be really comfortable and quiet, so we got good sleep every night.
I started out on race morning wearing sunscreen (not needed), DEET (which may have helped repel some of the chiggers), and Hydropel (my feet ended up shriveled from being wet all day, but I had no blisters). I was the calmest I have been at the start of a race, and I wondered what that meant.
The race began with a run to the boats, so we put some effort into getting there before the main mass of people started bumping for position on the water. Dave steered, John paddled from the front, and Kip and I sat in the middle of the canoe and tried to be helpful. A couple hundred meters downriver we were told we needed to swamp the boat and then empty the water and get back in to paddle back to the put-in.
As I had requested, my teammates let me jump out before they rolled the canoe over (aren't they nice?). Soon we were all in the water with a swamped canoe. John tried getting up on a rock to help empty it out, but the volunteers told us we needed to stay in the water. Worth a try! Between the 3 strong guys they got the boat empty and started clambering back aboard. Dave gave me a hand from across the top of the boat and soon we were all back in and ready to fend off the approaching vessels. We mostly accomplished that, barely avoiding a couple collisions, and made our way back to the boat staging area.
The next section was supposed to be a "Sweet, Sweet Mountain Bike", although I'd like to have a chat with whoever called it that. No matter, I had seen the trails before and I knew they would be a challenge for me in the best of conditions. Robyn had mentioned they were "a bit slippery". I was ready for some difficulties.
We got out of transition near (or apparently "at") the front of the pack, then got passed almost immediately by teams Werewolves and MOAT. I expected many more teams to pass us, as I'm weak on technical trails and there were some excellent mountain bikers out there. I just wanted to focus on moving forward at a decent rate and not worry about placing.
My plan going into the race was to follow John's wheel and have him help me decide what to ride and what to run, plus try to get off and back on as quickly as I could. The mud gathered on the tire treads and made all of our wheels slippery, but we were lucky that it didn't gunk up in any of the important bike parts.
I soon lost confidence with the slippery tires and I started running more of the trails, but I was hoping not to slow the team down too much. The main side effect was that I kept hitting my shin with my pedal. I would have thought I was getting better at running with my bike, but apparently I need more practice to perfect that art.
I also wondered whether knobby tires would have been better than my semi-slicks, but eventually we realized that the mud was covering everyone's tread, so the semi-slicks maybe were as good as anything. And perhaps better because there was more clearance in the brakes. (Side note: I sure would like some disc brakes...)
We climbed up switchbacks and passed a couple intersections manned by cheerful volunteers. Soon we were climbing up and up to the top of the Texas trail. Well, I don't know that it's a real trail; at least it wasn't until 100+ riders turned it into one today. We passed the cross at the top and started down the steep trail on the other side. I got off my bike and ran, bouncing off rocks and for once actually keeping up with Dave.
We passed Team MOAT who was working on a chain, but we figured we would see them again soon. We heard other teams behind us, but in the end we never saw them. More trails, more mud, more running. Along the way we found 4 checkpoints and had no trouble finding them or following the designated path.
I ran along a bunch of the creek bed of the Armadillo trail as I had expected to, but did end up riding more of the other trails in the second half of the leg, so that was something. We wondered later whether all that running was perhaps easier on the bikes than trying to ride through the difficult, muddy conditions. In any case, we were lucky and didn't have any bike problems.
Finally we were done with the trails and riding over the nice new bridge over the river - thanks to Camp Eagle for rebuilding it after the previous one was damaged in a flood. We had a bit of difficulty following the trail over the rocks back to the road because there was lots of water covering parts of the trail. Eventually we spotted the white markings and rolled/carried our bikes through the water.
As we rode in to the TA, we saw Team Werewolves heading out on a trekking leg. It appeared we were in second place, so we were happy about that. Kip plotted the next points, I grabbed a handheld bottle, let's go!
We jogged down the road as Kip worked with the map and John focused on looking for features that Kip described. We climbed up a draw and along the edge of the beginnings of a cliff. I could see people down below along the creek, and I expect that they were camp folks taking pictures.
Kip found a cave and green flagging that designated a checkpoint! The clue was "look up, look down", so that had to be it. John climbed down into the little cave, reporting afterwards that it was quite an adventure finding the CP. He didn't sound upset about it. We continued up the hill to the Eagles Nest overlook and the next checkpoint (awesome view).
Kip aimed next for a draw to the north, doing a good job leading us to the right one where we found another checkpoint. We then went up the draw and over to the edge of a flat area for the next CP. I got to help with the route choice for CP9, and we decided to drop down and across an open area and up to the opposite hilltop. No problems finding the checkpoint there. Finally, we went down the other side and back along a fence towards camp and the last CP at the end of the dam.
We briefly played "chicken" with another team crossing the dam from the other direction, then found a spot to step aside so they could continue. I took it easy to make sure I didn't slip - I was slow and somewhat tentative but made it OK.
We checked in and found out we were the first ones back, cool. We must have passed Team Werewolves somewhere. The next section was a refreshing swim. We went back to the TA for our masks and goggles, expecting we'd all have to dive down to find punches underwater. Down at the shore we took off our shoes, put on PFD's, and jumped in - it was chilly!
I climbed the iceberg feeling clumsy and getting in Kip's way at the bottom, but once I got started it wasn't too bad. Near the top I reached up and John took care of punching my wristband for me. Dave and John jumped off on the side toward the upstream buoy. That would have required me to climb over the top of the iceberg, and I figured I was high enough in the air already. So I turned to drop down from where I was. Dang, that thing is high.
I took a deep breath - hesitated - jumped off and slid way down, down into the water, touched bottom and finally surfaced. Phew! That was the hardest part of the whole race, quite honestly!
Next I tried to find a swimming rhythm, taking off with Kip and moving slowly toward the buoy. It turned out that the punch was reachable from the surface of the water, so I didn't have to do any diving, yay! Hoping for a bit of current to help us downstream, we headed for the second buoy and eventually got there. I finally started working my sidestroke and got some momentum going on the swim back to shore. I even caught up with Dave.
Well, I paid for it, because as soon as I climbed out of the water my left leg wanted to completely cramp up. I had to sit for a few seconds while slowly getting my shoes on and PFD off. John helped me up the stairs and back to TA where Kip would plot points for the next leg - a bike/trek.
As we rode on the road toward the climbing site, the bikes seem to be working OK despite all the mud, and we were thankful for that. We climbed up the hill and dropped the bikes at the top of the climbing wall. A volunteer helped us put on harnesses and helmets. We also took some "lobster claws" (similar to via ferrata equipment) and headed to the rappel.
John went first and I followed. It was an easy rappel and at a good speed (we used the camp's figure 8's which were probably faster than ATC's). I had fun walking down the wall, and soon I was at the bottom. John belayed all of us, Kip and I waited at the start of the cables for Dave to finish, and then we took off along the traverse along the wall.
At each anchor we clipped one lobster claw to the next cable and unclipped the previous one. We were moving well and soon were headed uphill, following little flags back to the bikes. Climbing equipment off, back on bikes, ready to go.
Next was more riding along jeep roads. John put my bike on tow to help me in walking up the first steep hill, then to help me ride up the road and around to the windmill. Thanks John! He found CP15 in the middle of a rope stretched across a stock tank - so he untied one end, brought it around to punch the passport, and then retied it where it had been. Funny!
We continued along the road and debated how to get CP16 - obviously this was not a good place for a bikewhack, but it seemed like a long way down the draw and back up to the bikes. I suggested that we ride around and hit it from the bottom (since we would be down there anyway for two other CP's), and my plan was accepted. So we rode around and found a very steep downhill. I ran part of it while my teammates rode down.
We followed the road until it crossed the rocky creek bed and figured we knew where we were on the map (we didn't have the odometer running, so we had tried to estimate the distance; but really we're not good at that when we're on bikes). We ended up going up the wrong draw, mostly at my insistence that the contours made sense. Eventually Kip figured out which draw we were in, so we decided to jump over the spur next to us and drop down into the right draw. We spent some energy, but at least it finally got us in the right place and we soon found the checkpoint.
After scrambling down the draw to the bottom, we jogged along the road where we found the windmill (which was on the map) that we should have been looking for in the first place but didn't really believe would exist because it was in a valley - ? We followed the road back to our bikes.
We biked back one draw, ran up a trail and hit the side draw right on. Dave spotted the CP that John was standing right next to. Back to the bikes, up another creek bed, find another CP, and then back to the steep hill.
John again towed my bike while we walked up, this time with the towline attached to his pack, which apparently was easier for him. Either way works for me! At the top we saw Team Werewolves heading for the downhill. We turned left and started down a long hill. After some easy riding, we found the next CP in a small draw.
For the last bike/trek point, Kip pulled out the trail map and we figured out how to match up the jeep roads to the topo map. He determined that we could ride the road until the first trail crossing, then drop the bikes and walk up until we found the second part of the Texas trail. We ended up dropping the bikes a bit early, which we realized when we could see the road from the trail for another couple hundred meters, oh well.
We found the two intersections with the Texas trail, turned up on the second one and climbed the steep, muddy trail. At the top we found the checkpoint and then turned to run back down. We remounted the bikes and rode back to the TA to find that we had a decent lead on the next teams. That was good but we didn't want to get overconfident.
By the way, we sure had some great weather! It wasn't hot at all, the little bit of rain didn't bother me, and we were comfortable all day. That was not what we had expected, to say the least.
The next leg was paddling, so we ran down to the boats and started north on the water. We dealt with several short portages and dam/ford crossings, which were good practice for beaching, launching, and jumping in and out of the boat. On one wall, John jumped out of the front of the boat and then pulled the boat over the wall until I could get out onto it also - unexpected and funny!
We got our feet wet a few times, found one CP upstream, headed back down and admired the horizon lines at each of the dams. Then the rain started, then thunder and lightning, hmm. We discussed getting off the water, but figured that the race organizers would have come to the deck to yell us off if they were worried about us. I looked back to see people still climbing the iceberg, so I guess no one was too concerned.
We headed to the far shore to jump out for the second paddle CP, landing in some nasty, smelly mud, eww. The small draw was relatively easy to find, provided you were in the right area, and John clambered up to punch it. Back to the boats - John waded in a bit early and ended up in mud up to his knees.
The rain and thunder started to abate and there was no more lightning close by, so we were glad that it was a short storm. We paddled down to the next dam and started a longer portage, included shoe-cleaning wading, climbing over rocks, and trying to find the best way downstream. I dropped into a deep pool that my teammates had somehow avoided; I'm not sure how that happened. I had a bit of trouble keeping up with John and our boat. He would look back to see me trying to get a hand on it and just missing as it slid out of reach. Apparently we kept Kip and Dave entertained.
There was one last short paddle under the bike bridge to one last checkpoint. Then we repeated the paddle/portage sequence back upstream to the take-out. For the long portage, John took our boat, lifted it over his head and ran with it while I carried our paddles and tried to keep up. He's an animal.
Next it was back to the bikes for a road ride. We grabbed some food and liquid and started up the road, briefly moving to recovery mode after the rather-tiring portaging. After we got warmed up, John towed me and Dave towed Kip, and we started making better time.
We tried to avoid the biggest puddles because I was getting a decent amount of mud in my face from my front tires, not to mention spray from John's back tire when I was on tow. I admired Dave's clear glasses and decided that I need to get me some of those. We rode and talked, eventually finding the northern CP. Then it was back on a quick return trip with more mud splatter. I know we were cleaner before the start of this leg.
Coming into the TA, we greeted Team MOAT who was finishing their bike/trek. I ran into the bathroom for a quick pee while Kip filled his Camelbak with Gatorade. We continued to bike south. We rode across two fords without any trouble. Kip had warned us of possible difficulties with slipperiness, but we were all careful not to brake or make sudden turns during the water crossings.
We found the southern CP and headed back, waving to a couple teams on the traverse wall along the way. Upon checking in we learned that there was only one leg left - a big trek. Excellent. We loaded up with water and food and started off on the final leg at about 6 p.m.
Kip suggested we start with the point that we knew up on top of the hill at the cross. Along the way he mentioned that there was a midnight cutoff time for CP30 (which was to be our second-to-last checkpoint); this gave us pause but we decided to continue in a counter-clockwise direction and keep an eye on the clock.
We climbed up along the powerline until we found the bike trail and then followed our friend the Texas trail up to the cross again. From there we headed across the plateau toward 2 CP's, and I was jogging along when someone asked if I wanted to do the nav for the next point - sure! That apparently was a ploy to slow me down to a walk, but I didn't care because I was game for trying some navigation.
First order of business was to change the order of the next CP's to optimize distance and elevation gain/loss. Then I led us around to the left toward CP34 ("top of draw") and started pace counting. Sooner than expected we hit a trail intersection, so I directed the team down into the draw to the left. No CP, more searching, no CP. Finally we got Kip involved in the question of the trail intersection and he verified that this was not the trail intersection we seek - oops.
We went further along the plateau, found the intersection with the real jeep road, and dropped down into another draw. Although the CP was lower than expected, we didn't have any problems finding it.
OK, enough of the map for me! Kip took the map back and we helped him find the next CP in a draw, no problem. Then it was back up the hill on the other side and a bit of a trudge up the road.
We gave John the map for his shot at glory. He led us up along roads and I pace counted until he directed us off to the side, down a draw, down further, there's the CP - good job! We continued down the draw and popped out to see Team Steelsports on bikes at the base of the big hill.
We followed the road around so we could get a visual on the side of the hill where the "rock face" was supposed to be - sure enough, there were a lot of big rocks visible up there, but we couldn't see any sign of the CP. So we headed up without a strong plan, which was a bit worrisome.
We spread out with a few meters between us, then partway up Kip and I found ourselves at a big rock face running along the side of the hill. Kip called to John, who was a bit lower, to let him know what we had found, while I debated whether to search left or right. John asked Kip if he could see the CP, so Kip looked around and there it was in the tree in front of him. Very cool.
We slid back down the hill while I tried to read the map and point out our next draw to John. From the bottom we headed across to the next draw and started up - suddenly I stopped us because it was the same draw we had been in earlier on the bike/trek - lots of footprints and I recognized the trail - wrong draw! Oops again. I was not doing very well with the nav today.
Kip and John got us back on track and we found the next draw. We followed it up and had a mini-race to the CP (John in the draw and the rest of us on the little road beside it). Kip picked the right spot to jump in and he found it first.
We jogged back out to the big field, next to the windmill in the valley, and started working on the nav to the next point up another draw. The roads seemed out of whack because there was a big fence in the way, and it didn't quite match the map. We tried one draw but soon decided that the draw intersection we were looking for was actually behind us in the field, so we backed out and tried the next one to the right; that worked a lot better. Kip called out draw intersections and distances while I pace counted. Everything was making sense as we climbed - and there was the CP - good job!
More climbing up the draw, seemingly a long ways. We got out the headlamps and I think we were moving slower because it was getting dark. At Kip's instruction, we kept following draws to the right at the numerous intersections. We finally popped out at the top with just a little bit of dusk-light left. I noticed the high windmill exactly north of us, plus a fence corner right in front of us, but not the road we were expecting to see.
This was odd - we followed the fence southeast in search of the road until we finally realized that there was no road. Next we tried following the top of a spur around to figure out which one it was by its shape, but the vegetation was too thick to make this a useful exercise. Eventually we popped back out on the fence.
There we ran into Team MOAT who was also looking for CP30. We had a discussion about what each of us had seen, then parted ways. They headed for the windmill to start from a known point while we jumped down into the nearest draw (our best guess) and started down. We combed the right side for a possible small and elusive CP marker and tried to keep an eye on which direction the draw was heading.
Near the bottom of the draw we circled around to see a big drainage area open up in front of us. Dave sat to ponder this and shine his bright light around. Then he noticed a cable running overhead, leading directly to the platform that was almost right above him, with two guys sitting quietly and watching - hey dudes!
It turns out that Dave had found the finish point of the tyrolean traverse that was CP30, good find. We crossed down the draw and over to the start of the cables. There we got suited up with helmets and harnesses while having a discussion about who should go first since there were only 3 sets of traverse equipment and someone would have to run back before the fourth person could start. John quickly stepped up, got connected to the zip line, and stepped off into the darkness. Wheee!
As John was running back, Dave went next, then it was my turn. Woo hoo! It was fun gliding over the dark trees; the line was set up so well that I could pull myself almost horizontally over to the other side, with very little upward work, nice setup.
Getting up onto the platform on the other side required a big hand up from the volunteer, and getting down off the platform (choice of a rope or the diagonal supports on the side of the platform) was a bit tricky.
John met me at the bottom of the draw to help me climb back up to the start, Kip soon arrived, we got all our climbing gear off and we were on our way again - thanks for a great special test!
We saw MOAT heading to the traverse as we were leaving, and it looked like they were holding onto second place. We followed the draw down and found the bike trail. After counting paces, we found the next draw with our final checkpoint. As we were heading back to the TA we ran across several teams heading toward CP29. Good luck everyone!
We made our way across the bike bridge and across to the road. Then we walked it in, well, until we were almost to the pavilion, then John and I couldn't resist running.
Apparently the time estimate for that leg was 3 hours, which would have been a fast 20 minutes per CP with lots of cross-country travel and climbing up/down draws. We took 5 hours, and I guess Robyn was wondering where we were; well, they gave me the map a couple times, what can I say?
We were glad to be done! Dave's mother served up an incredible, delicious breakfast, and then we had an incredible, warm shower before going to bed and sleeping hard.
The aftermath: Chigger bites on the tops of my feet, black and blue left shin, and one ultra-cool bobble-head eagle award.
Lots of fun! Thanks again to Too Cool, Camp Eagle, and my awesome teammates!
Teammate Dave's race report from this same race
An 11 minute video of this race
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