It was time for Too Cool Racing's 7th annual Spread Your Wings adventure race at Camp Eagle. This is such a fun location that David Bogle and I have raced it all seven times. We'd be competing in this year's event with Julie Standing (who'd raced it almost every year), and Chris McWatters (who literally lives at Camp Eagle). You'd think that with so many repeat visits that the course would be boring and predictable, but race directors Art and Robyn always mix things up and make the course unique every time. It helps that Camp Eagle has so many obstacles and activities to choose from, and they work with neighboring ranches to get access to new areas each time for us to navigate on.
We arrived on Friday, and enjoyed the fabulous pre-race burgers for dinner (included with the entry fee!). We set up most of our TA gear on a handy picnic table and retired for the night. The weather was wonderful on Saturday morning as we listened to the pre-race meeting, and while it would warm up as the day went on it wouldn't get nearly as hot as it did at last year's race.
Leg 1 - "Go!" - Trek
At 8:10am everyone unrolled their maps and we learned that we'd have to visit three points around camp on foot, in any order we wanted. We headed southwest out of TA towards CP 1 at the "Millhouse", along with team TXAR Flight Risk and a couple of other teams. We attempted to read the instructions as we jogged, and learned that we'd have to pick up an item at each checkpoint. Then we'd use the three items back at TA to open locked boxes. Neat.
We had already arrived at the Millhouse, so there was no more time for reading. We climbed the ladder up into this structure, then bounced our way across the balloon-like inflated floor to the other side. Chris made it to the other side first and picked up the item, and yelled for us to turn back. We scooched our way back down the ladder and started jogging off, when Chris fortunately had the presence of mind to wonder it we were also supposed to punch our passport back there? We quickly finished reading the instructions, and it turns out that yes, we needed to go back and find the checkpoint punch, as just picking up the item wasn't enough. D'oh!
At least we hadn't made it very far from the Millhouse before realizing our mistake. Unfortunately, we'd have to go up and down the ladder again, which was now a bit of a bottleneck with all the teams that had arrived. Oh, well, serves us right for not reading all the instructions.
We climbed back in and got the punch, and jogged out of the area for the second time. We headed north towards CP 3 at "The Fort." Chris had us forgo the obvious route over the suspension bridge and instead we took a slightly more direct line cross-country, just west of the natural amphitheatre. We made it to the fort along with a bunch of other teams, and found the checkpoint and item inside.
The final checkpoint was CP 2, at the pool. The suspension bridge was the only direct route there, so we jogged over it. This proved to be rather challenging, as all the teams running over the bridge in both directions were causing it to sway around significantly and unpredictably. We managed to stay upright despite the shaky footing and made our way to the pool. Turns out the third item we sought was on the bottom of the pool, so Julie dived in and looked for one. She couldn't find anything near the pool entrance, probably because other teams had already cleared that area out, so she went to the other side of the pool and when she dove down there she found a nickel.
So our three retrieved items were a nickel, a Six Flags over Texas pamphlet, and a number two pencil. At the pavilion we had to use those digits (5, 6, 2) to open a combination on a lock box. Other teams that had had a smoother opening leg (such as TXAR Masters of the Universe) were already there trying to open their locks. Dave tried the digits in the order that matched how the checkpoints were numbered, but that didn't work. So he kept trying the digits in other orders, and found that 5-2-6 did the trick. Dave solved it all fast enough to jump us back into the lead as we received our next leg. Art and Robyn pointed out to us later that the combination corresponded to the date (5/26).
Leg 2 - "I want to ride my bicycle" and "Hackberry Hollow" - Bike, Trek, and Rappel
We plotted the next three bike leg points on the map, and they were all generally along the county road to the south of camp. We decided to get the farthest point first, partly because the clue sheet said that we'd be receiving additional instructions there.
We got in a pace line and biked down the dirt road. We crossed a couple of fords through the river, with the water never being more than a couple of inches deep over the road. At one point we saw a snake lying across the road in time enough to dodge it. And we had to open one "bump-gate" along the way. As the road turned to the northwest we knew we were near our destination. Dave found the old road that split off to the right, and 100 meters later we came across the volunteer who was manning the bike drop.
We dropped our bikes, punched CP 4, and the volunteer gave us two more trekking points to plot. We decided they were both close enough that we didn't need to bother bringing our packs along, so we dropped everything except for a single water bottle and our mandatory gear and headed north on foot.
We'd managed to leave the bike drop before any other teams arrived, so we were happy we'd have the chance to find the trekking checkpoints without having anyone follow us there. We jogged along the old road, and the curves of the road matched up with the topo map well enough. Then the tree cover opened up a bit, which also matched what we'd expected from the topo. We veered off the road and headed northeast, and found and crossed the creek bed. We found a fence on the other side, and since the clue for CP 8 was "Fence" we figured that it would lead us right to it. That turned out to be almost true... at the last minute the fence actually turned a corner and headed away, but CP 8 was hanging on a tree close to there, so we found it easily enough.
We proceeded northwest and caught the road again. I debated trying a direct bearing to CP 7, but there were not many distinct contour features near CP 7 (and the direct route required more bushwhacking) so I decided to play it safer and take the road around to a closer attack point. Then it became apparent that the main road wasn't really following the road as drawn on the topo anymore, but we found a fainter, older road split that seemed to still generally match the topo. So I was fairly confident of our location when we crossed over the large dry creek tributary.
We followed the dry creek south a bit, then cut southwest towards the elevated road that ran alongside an elevated bluff. According to the clue CP 7 was supposed to be on that bluff somewhere. It turned out that CP 7 was actually on the flat ground slightly off the base of the bluff, but fortunately I'd brought us in at the right location and eagle-eyed Julie spotted it, so we pretty much hit it perfectly. Excellent, as it was a potentially tricky point, seeing as it was in the middle of a large area that all looked very similar.
We decided it would be a waste of energy to climb up the steep bluff to the main road, so instead we stayed low on the way back to our bikes. We followed creek beds, then makeshift trails, and then the dirt road again. On the way back to the bike drop we had a kilometer of running where we kept passing by other teams heading out in the other direction on their way to find CP 7 and 8. We had fun high-fiving the other teams, and made it back to the bikes and confirmed with the volunteer that we were the first to complete the trek circuit.
We put our packs and helmets back on, and grabbed a quick bite to eat as we started biking back. As we biked over one of the many river fords I accidentally turned my front wheel just a bit, but it was enough to send my bike sliding sideways on the slippery surface. I scraped my arm slightly from the fall, but it was no big deal, so we kept on going.
Dave had us stop at the river crossing for the next checkpoint. We left our bikes by the road and trekked 150 meters downriver until we saw a tributary coming into the river through the steep rocks on the right. The clue for CP 5 was "Slot", and sure enough, walking up the tributary was like walking into a miniature canyon with rock walls on either sides. It was a neat-looking place to hide a checkpoint.
The last checkpoint for this leg was back on Camp Eagle property, in a cave on the other side of the Armadillo bike trail. We biked across the cable bridge and then backwards along Armadillo until the trail became too technical to bother with riding. At that point we dropped our bikes and continued up the trail to the split in the dry creeks, then we hiked up the hillside until we found the cave. Chris took a light into the cave and found CP 6, and then we returned to our bikes and rode them back to the road.
CP 40 in this race was unique, in that it was a ropes point that you could get any time during the race, during any leg. Well, since we were about to bike right by it anyways, we figured we might as well get it now before a line of teams formed at it. We dropped our bikes yet again, and the helpful volunteers geared us up with camp harnesses, helmets, and "lobster claws". There was another team there getting ready for the same ropes point, though they hadn't visited CP 6 yet. Their plan was to get CP 6 while in the middle of the ropes. It was a clever plan as the middle of the ropes circuit did indeed head out partway towards CP 6, but to make it all the way there they'd have to travel up and down a lot of extra elevation while carrying the ropes gear.
Both of our teams clipped into the rope line that went along the wall, and we traveled sideways along the "sherpa line". There were several bolts to pass over as we went. The whole time on the wall we had wonderful elevated views of the river valley. At the end of the line we unclipped and started climbing up the hill to the rappel site, while the other team headed down into the valley to go and find CP 6 in the cave.
At the overlook we found more friendly camp volunteers who attached us onto the rope for our rappel. We didn't bring any gloves with us, but wrapping the extra webbing from the harness's leg straps around the rope was good enough to create a makeshift glove to keep our hands from overheating on the rappel. One by one we went over the edge and the overhang. This spectacular rappel is always one of the high points of this race.
We removed and returned all the ropes gear, thanked the volunteers, and biked our way back into TA.
At TA we learned our next leg involved swimming to find any four of the six underwater checkpoints in the swimming area. They had posted six pictures that gave hints to the locations of the checkpoints, and most of the pictures were of floating swim toys or border ropes. We grabbed our goggles and put on camp PFDs and headed over to the huge water slide that was the quickest (and most fun) way to enter the water below.
Julie and Chris were our fastest swimmers, so they carried the swim-passport around to collect the four points while Dave and I did our best to keep up. The only real difficulty on this leg was when Julie had trouble diving underwater to punch one of the checkpoints, because her PFD didn't want to let her go underwater. But we managed to find everything easily enough. At the end of the swim Michelle was there with a camera, so Dave pretended to be drowning me, but again the PFDs made that difficult.
Leg 3 - "Camp Fun!" - Trek
Next we had to find six different points around camp on foot. We were given a preplotted map for this section so we didn't get the usual short break while we plotted. We knew the Masters of the Universe was only six minutes behind us at this time in the race (though weren't sure if they'd done the rappel point yet), so we took off again quickly to try and extend our lead.
We ran south alongside the river to the "Lifeboat" for CP 14. This is a new feature at Camp Eagle... and it turns out it really is an actual lifeboat from a large ship. The checkpoint was hidden inside the boat... cool.
Next we trekked up the steep hill at the mine site to the Foreman's Cabin for CP 12, which is the other huge Camp Eagle slide. But this one doesn't dump you out into water, and you need to carry up a "sled" to ride on the trip down. We didn't get pictures of our team doing this, so instead here are Dave's boys Nick and Logan demonstrating the fun:
Right near the slide is the infamous underground "Mine Maze" containing CP 13. We had lots of difficulty finding the point in this labyrinth last year, so we were glad to have Chris on our team this time. But it turns out the race directors had managed to keep Chris in the dark as to exactly where the checkpoint was hidden, so we wound up trying every underground intersection until we finally stumbled across the correct one. It was also a bit challenging because we only brought one headlamp and we had to have our entire team navigate through the maze, but our trial and error method was eventually successful.
We jogged to the north end of camp to CP 9 at the Archery Range. Each of us had to hit a target with an arrow, but at least we could take as many shots as we wanted. I took the most tries to get my technique dialed in, and Dave helped me by telling me if I needed to raise or lower my aim before shooting. We all hit the target, which was good enough to earn us the checkpoint, but none of us got the ten-minute bonus for hitting a bull's eye. Hopefully the race wouldn't come down to a lucky bonus shot by a competing team!
CP 10 involved riding a two-wheeled kick-scooter down "Terrain Park", which is a short hill with moguls. Fun stuff. Only one of us could go at a time, so we took turns flying down the hill and then running the scooter back up to the top.
Our final point for this leg was CP 11 at the "Jungle Joe" floating obstacle in the river. Julie swam over to the obstacle to fetch it, and then we headed back to TA.
Leg 4 - "Around the World" - Bike/Trek
Next was a long-ish bike/trek leg. It was now the middle of the day, and Robyn warned us to take a lot of water so we wouldn't run out. This leg started off on familiar territory around west of the TA, but would also take us onto new land further west that wasn't part of Camp Eagle, and that hadn't been used before in any race.
After plotting the points on our map we decided that 100 ounces of water per person would be enough for us. We biked up towards the main windmill. One obvious approach to this leg would be to bike a wide loop around, staying high on the trails on the plateaus, to reach the four points off to the west. However, we decided instead to drop our bikes on a plateau about 1 kilometer east of CP 15, and trek from there directly to the points. Hard to say if our chosen route was faster overall... it was less distance than biking around, but it involved more trekking, and more elevation gain and loss. But when you can't immediately determine which route will be fastest, oftentimes it's best just to not waste too much time debating it. Instead just make a decision and go for it.
After dropping our bikes we trekked down the steep hill into the valley below. We crossed the dry creek bed and headed up the tributary towards CP 15. For a while there was a bit of a faint trail to follow, which was nice. After we crossed a fence the trail mostly died out, so we had to bushwhack our way up the draw. Not an entirely unfamiliar feeling at this venue.
We reached CP 15 and continued up the draw to find the trail above. A little bit south along the trail and the area reached a bit of a high point, so we ducked into the bushes to find CP 16 on the knoll. We continued following the trail around, and I had us travel a bit cautiously because there were several draws to our east and we wanted to make sure we headed down the correct one. I was fairly confident about our position on the ridge, so I had us drop down, down, and there was CP 17. Hooray for getting that right on the first try.
We continued down into the main draw, and then climbed back up the other side to the plateau. We spread out and headed along the plateau top, looking for another high point. Julie saw it first, as she usually does... CP 18. Now we just had to find a good way down back to the main dry creek valley. We headed generally east and looked for a decent route of travel. We got cliffed-out a bit once, but were able to find a way around and down fairly easily.
We climbed up the steep hill out of the valley, glad that we didn't have to push our bikes up the hill. We found our bikes where we'd left them at the top of the hill, and got ready to ride. Oops, my bike had a flat tire. We changed it quickly (there had been a thorn in the tire) and started off again. We didn't see any other bikes in the area, but that really didn't tell us if any other teams were on our tail, since they very well could have biked around and ignored this wacky bike-dropping plan of ours.
We found the hand-plotted trail that lead to CP 19. Actually, we took a decoy trail first, but soon discovered our error and went over slightly to find the real trail. CP 19 was at a "Cave Entrance", but we didn't have to climb down into a cave like we had for the earlier CP 6.
From that point there was a more direct route back to TA other than going back to the windmill. We followed an old road east along the northern border of the camp property. On the big rocky downhill Dave's bike got a puncture flat, so we had to change another tire. Then we hit the county road heading back to camp, and I got a second flat tire. Yikes! We were starting to worry about having enough supplies to fix all these tires. That was my last spare 29" tube, and we were running low on CO2 cartridges for the tire pump.
Since we were so close to TA Julie suggested she could probably ride my bike in by putting most of her weight on the front tire, so we wouldn't need to fix the flat until we were in TA. But we decided the roads were too bumpy for that. We didn't want to risk messing up the rim, since we likely still had another bike leg before the race was over. So we went ahead and repaired our third flat on the road side, less than a mile away from TA.
We managed to get back to TA without any more breakdowns, where we had a real stand-up bike pump to get everything back in shape. But first... it was time for something completely different. That is, the next leg of the race.
Leg 5 - "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" - Paddle
The two paddle points were simple enough that we were able to memorize their locations and numbers and leave the map behind in TA. We used our own kayak paddles, but borrowed the camp's boats and PFDs. We launched two plastic kayaks into the river and headed north towards the dam. We hauled the boats up and over the dam, then paddled past the camp swimming area to the "Inlet" for CP 20.
We turned the boats around and headed back downstream. Michelle was above us, capturing a montage of our team in action as we got our boats back down to the other side of the dam:
We paddled to the large southern dam to find CP 21. There were some other folks in boats down there, but they were just messing around and having fun in the water, and not racing. We don't think we saw any other teams in the boats that were racing the same 18 hour course as us, but it's hard to be 100% sure of these things.
We paddled back to the boat launch and dragged the boats out of the river. Then we took a moment to submerge ourselves in the water, to help cool off a bit. It was nowhere near as hot as it had been last year, but it was still possible to overheat if you weren't careful.
Michelle caught a couple of pictures of us carrying our paddles back up to TA:
Leg 6 - "Trails" - Bike
As expected, we had to hope that our bikes would hold together for another ride. We spent some time making sure the flats were properly fixed and that our bikes were generally in good shape before we left the comfort (and tools) of our TA. This leg was another preplotted map leg, so we'd had to plot a lot less often than normal. This trail map was certainly more detailed than a topo map, so that was nice.
CP 24 was straightforward enough; it was just up the roads a bit and then on to a nearby intersection on Boot Trail. From there we took our bikes back to the jeep road and then up until we were underneath the huge new zip line that was under construction. It's a pretty breathtaking zip line; we heard that it was going to be the longest line in Texas and the sixth longest in the nation. It wasn't open for us to play on yet (next year!), but we could follow underneath it to guide us to CP 22. We had to push our bikes along with us since this was a pure bike leg, not a bike/trek.
After punching CP 22 we came back to the zip line, then back up the jeep road to a different section of Boot. We rode this trail to CP 23 at the Mine Shaft. Here we had to decide whether to loop around on trails to gradually bike our way to the top, or instead just bushwhack with the bikes straight up. Well, going straight had served us well so far today, and every time we rode our bikes we were worried about getting another flat, so straight up the hillside we went. We had to carry our bikes through trees and such, but we've taken much tougher shortcuts in other races. Soon enough we made it to the zipline entrance tower at the top of the hill and found CP 25.
We rode the jeep road down the hill, and then headed cross-country across the hillside to CP 26 at the Oak Grove campsite. Chris knew a couple of precise shortcuts in this area to cut all the switchbacks off of Armadillo trail, which was awesome. Less great was the fact that we couldn't find CP 26 in the campsite, so we started following some blue flagging up a trail that left it. After pushing our bikes up this trail a ways we decided that we must be leaving the campsite behind, so we turned around and came back. Oops, there was CP 26, a little bit hidden from view down in the gully. We'd walked right by it the first time... D'oh!
Well, now we just had to get out of here. We knew the bottom half of Armadillo is very technical and not much fun to ride, so we cut up one switchback and followed the upper part of Armadillo back to the lookout, which is a much faster and smoother section of trail. Then we had to bike down the steep hill behind the lookout. Julie took a scary fall halfway down the hill, so we walked the rest of the way down so as not to tempt fate.
At the bottom of the hill the trail flattened out again and we rode it across the cable bridge to CP 27. That was that... we'd finished out last bike leg without getting any more flats... whew! We biked back into TA and prepared for the last leg.
Leg 7 - "Fi-nally" - Trek
We had nine points to plot for the final trekking leg. We threw headlamps in our packs just in case, though it looked like we might have a chance to finish the race in daylight if everything went well.
Everyone was feeling good, and at this point it felt like we had a decent lead on any following teams, so all we had to do was keep moving and not mess up any of the navigation too badly. We headed west out of TA and picked our way up a steep hill to find CP 36 on top, by an old fallen radio tower. We headed south along the old road to connect to the familiar jeep road that headed to the main windmill for CP 28. We dunked our hats in the water at the windmill, as it was still pretty warm out.
Directly south was CP 33 at a tall fence. In years past there'd been a ladder-tower here to cross over the fence, but not this year. So we crawled under the fence instead. We followed along the fence on the other side and then dropped down into the top of a draw for CP 32. So far, so good.
We climbed back up from CP 32 and followed the trail south. I had us go past the saddle and then cut east and follow the spur down into the big valley. We hiked along and over the spur and the dropped down into the draw intersection at CP 31. We then climbed back up the draw, went over the trail at the top, and then down, down, down into a steep, deep draw for CP 34.
Climbing back up from CP 34 took a while because it was steep and we were getting a little tired. There's always a lot of up-and-down at this race! We hiked east along the trail, then managed to pick out the correct draw to the south and dropped down into it to get CP 35. My original plan was to go straight back up to the trail after finding CP 35, but it was so nice and free of underbrush down there I modified the plan and came back up the big open draw to the west from CP 35, instead.
I had us stop briefly on the high point to verify that we were heading down into the correct (and yet another) draw, and then down we went. Bingo, there was CP 30. The good news was, there was no more climbing up out of draws to be done... instead, we would simply follow this huge gradual valley down to CP 29 and then back to the road.
As we made our way down the big valley we started encountering teams heading up it from below. Some were likely teams doing the 12 hour course that had a smaller subset of points to visit, while others may have been 18 hour coursers that had decided to clear this loop of points in the opposite direction. We greeted the other teams as we went by and let them know that they'd run into the point as long as they kept traveling up the stream.
And then... whoops, we came to a fence at the bottom of the valley and saw our stream exit into the river below. That's no good, as we were supposed to have hit CP 29 before this point. Last year the final checkpoint on this course gave us difficulty, and it seems like that pattern was repeating.
We hiked back up the valley about 150 meters and found the missing checkpoint. Turns out it had been in a side draw that emptied into the main valley, and we'd walked right by it and hadn't noticed it. Sigh. Well, other than a couple of minor mistakes such as that the day had been quite solid from a navigation perspective.
We got CP 29, went back down the valley, pushed our way under the fence, and walked into the river. The clear running river helped wash all the mud from the stream off our legs. We followed the river to the county road and then took the road back into camp. We were feeling good enough to manage a victory jog to the finish line... in first place... and it was still daylight when we crossed at 7:15pm!
While we'd been most worried about Masters of the Universe catching us most of the day, they wound up having navigation difficulties and falling behind. The second team to cross the finish line turned out to be Seek and Destroy, a three person coed team that finished at 8:04pm.
It was certainly nice to be able to put away all of our gear, and shower, and eat dinner, all before it got dark for a change. Certainly can never count on finishing so early at this place.
On Sunday Too Cool continued the fun with a Kid's adventure race. And then a Muddy Outlaw obstacle run. And finally on Sunday evening Art and Robyn let me direct a Murder Mystery Night Orienteering race. This weekend is certainly a whole lot of bang for your buck.
Thanks to Art and Robyn for directing the race(s), to my teammates for being so awesome, and to Camp Eagle for the amazing land, obstacles, and volunteers!
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