There were some great successes and some frustrating mistakes, but in the end, Canyoneros took podium for the second time ever in a mind-blowing 18hr long race that spanned across two days.
A short bike ride started the foot section, where we received a new map to hit 8 controls out of the 10 plotted. Two paired-controls would equal one CP, and each pair was located almost opposite at ends of the map. There wasn't much time to measure out distances to see which four pairs were the shortest distances, so we just grabbed A,C,E, and D, creating two loops.
a large turnout of 24 elite teams participating
lots of grassy trails
finding CP C2 with team Swamp Gators - Joel Young(left), Tim Cowan, Leslie Cowan
A quick transition into bikes and we rode to the boat TA to pick up two more controls. The first one was easy, but the route to the second one had us entering a swamp and crossing the murky foul-smelling stagnant water. It was easily waist high with feet sinking mud at the bottom. I told ourselves that we would not want to cross this swamp on the way back. I noted a trail head near CP2 that appeared like it could cut straight east for us to return later on.
Once on boat, I decided to skip CP3-5 and go immediately downstream.
Canoe TA - looks like monsoon season in Vietnam
We arrived at the first control and punched it. None of the numbers corresponded to any on our punch card. I had mistakenly thought our punch card contained all the boat CPs, but apparently not. We figured it would take 30min to backtrack to the boat TA and back just to get the correct punch card. It was not worth it for us, esp. after one excruciating boat whack, so we just used the current card to punch the rest of the controls. After asking the officials after the race, they said they would not penalize us for this mistake, so our mishap proved lucky.
trust us, there is a river underneath this!
By skipping the first three CPs, we were trail-blazers, carving routes through thick, overgrown vegetation and fallen logs in various areas along Black Water River, where we had to lift and carry our bulky canoes over. The length of this paddling section was mind-numbing to say the least, esp. from CP6 to 7.
At CP7, I switched to a hand-drawn map that I had copied onto paper from the Google images provided at the pre-race. Google images reflect better accuracy, as opposed to illustrated topo maps, which usually round off and omit some river bends. My map was easier to read and it led us into CP8 really well.
glorious canoe map (bottom right corner)
Nightfall struck, which made CP9 more difficult to navigate to. We even ran down the wrong channel of the river at one point, only to cut across to the correct one by accident. I didn't even realize it until I reviewed the GPS route afterwards. Even then, we made several attempts at attacking this control along the many dead-end channels. Eventually through luck, we crossed paths with team Crew Zen at the exact location of CP9. Had it not been for them, we would have completely paddled by, not seeing it. It was only about 3 meters away too!
only adventure racers paddle and find excitement in rainy, remote places like this
Nate and I have paddled this Wekiva River on a previous Scar AR before, but during the night, this river looked just the same as any other river we've been on--palm trees to the sides and the occasional logs underwater to suddenly jolt our boat unstable. This time however, the glow of our headlamps revealed red pairs of gator eyes in the night. We must have spotted a few dozen of them on our way back to Wekiva TA, some floating across the middle of the river, but most looking out from the sides. Mating calls were in full force as they barked away after sunset.
twilight hour - the race is only 1/3 complete
We were so excited to get off the boat and move onto a different exercise. Energy was high and endurance amazing. This leg proved extraordinarily successful in every way possible for us. We kept a constant steady trotting pace the entire way and pinpointed every turn, every trail head, every CP. Nate was like a radar here--incredible navigator aid.
Pangea added another CP12A at the start of the race, as to discourage people from swimming across Wekiva River on their way to the first CP on Trek. You don't really wanna swim 200m in the night while the gators are out in full force anyways. That's just a stupid idea. You're guaranteed death by gator chomp.
My GPS recorder only records 8hrs, so I was selective on what to record as we ran our way back up to the Boat TA. Historically, our night navigation has shown funny things, so I turned it on during this leg, but nothing outstanding happened--which means success! Success indeed! We cleared this leg in a blazing 1hr 55min, one of the fastest!
Being the first team out on this leg, we plowed down giant structures of spider webs that were spun across the running trails. Some were 8-10ft wide and strong as steel cabling! It was interesting to see the many types and colors of giant spiders at the centers of these creations. Every now and then a dragonfly got trapped and you saw the viscous aftermath of the spider injecting flesh-melting venom within its death grip happening right at the moment. I was glad we were not on bikes where we would have flown by and eaten a dozen or two to the face.
It started with an pleasant ride to CP15 and 16, but this leg of the race gave us the most trouble. I usually have no problems navigating on bike, so maybe confidence was too high.
Going towards CP17, I remember noticing a trail head at CP2 that I was hoping cut straight east to the road (so I could take the planned blue route below). It did not. We ended up taking the same damn route back across the swamp after several unyielding calls of "we're past the point of no return". This time we got punished by being forced to cross not one, but three swamps with our bikes--one being neck high to me! Bike whacking is the slowest form of transportation. Never choose it when given roads as another choice. I recall taking a route similar to the yellow illustration below.
From 17, we wanted to stick to our plan of clearing this portion in a counter-clockwise method, heading for CP19 next. I wanted to head down the mapped trails to 19 (blue lines below), but trails just didn't line up according to map in that area. We found another trail that slowly curved and headed up northeast (yellow), and I thought it was the green trail (below). This mistake forced us to change plans and get 18 instead. However, we weren't on the trail we thought we were, so we attacked CP18 at the wrong corner (A). After completely clearing the area, we knew something was wrong, so we determined that heading out to a known trail was the best course of action. Team morale was starting to plummet after two debilitating errors. While heading east to the main road, we were relieved to find team Hunter attacking CP18. It finally hit me and I realized my navigational error.
CP19 was a little tricky to find too. The clue was 20m southeast of wetland. When we got to the junction, there was no trail heading further south, as mapped. All we saw were vast fields of palmettos. The fields weren't really thick yet, so it was easy to travel through. After 5min or so, the wetland revealed itself and Nate was able to sniff out the control.
CP20, 21, and 22 gave us no troubles. The grassy and muddy ground was terrible to ride on though. Chaffage was a problem for me. I had to stand up and ride the rest of the way, which was like another three hours :)
Heading up to 23, I lost track of where I was on map, so we followed a series of disorienting trails. We bailed to the main Fechtel Road at first opportunity, where we biked to the main TA and tried to enter the trail head east of there, but never found it in the night. Two attempts at this CP and we called it off, saying we would return to it in the end from CP24, using a clearer trail to come down into. It was obvious the long hours of the race was taking a serious toll on our thinking and focusing abilities.
Up we went to CP25. It was a LONG ride. I had completely run out of water and began sipping what little water Nate had left in his Camelbak. With the mind shutting down, we followed the dirt path all the way to the park entrance. Park entrance? How did we end up there?
Back we went and saw the sign that said "North" to continue our route to CP25. It was a grassy trail with some sugar sand sections. The return route was equally mind-numbing.
Going towards CP24, we met up with team Swamp Gators, our coworkers, and found the control together. We split ways after that and hunted down the elusive CP23. Our mistakes on bike were probably due to not measuring out distances and constantly keeping track of the compass. We were sure to keep on top of our 3rd attempt at CP23 and it worked.
At the main TA, we refueled, ditched some heavy items in the backpack (food bags and light gear) and headed out. It was apparent we were in zombie mode as we could not locate the trail head to CP26. "Fail fast, fail cheap" became our motto. Plans changed. We headed towards CP30 for the start of an inefficient route. Chaffage was at its worst here. It severely limited my running abilities. I fought through it, however, to the point it desensitized. I knew I had hell to pay later.
We went counter-clockwise, hitting 29 and 28. The clue stated shooting a bearing off of WP28, but the control there matched our punch so there was no need to hunt.
After that, I navigated us to the park entrance. Park entrance again...?! "Why are we here," I asked Nate. What was going on? I had no idea why I led us there, but perhaps the bolded blue font on the map looked like a CP destination. What a terrible, unnecessary ~1.4km of jogging during our wretched physical state. We usually laugh off stupid mistakes like this, but frustration overcame us and we had no energy to laugh.
From there on out, we put every ounce of focus towards going back to the basics of counting pace, checking compass, and reading the map, as we completed one of the lengthiest races we have ever set out to do.
At the end, we finished finding every control we set out to find. Our rank was third overall as we crossed the finish line, but with an hour left, there could still be teams coming in who cleared the course or found more than we did, putting them ahead of us. We felt proud about how hard we physically pushed and did not think twice about a podium finish.
When the race time cut off, our 3rd place (1st in our Open division) surprisingly stuck as we heard our team name over the loudspeaker! It was a spirit-raising end to a race that had us riding the highs and lows. Our team was originally born without navigational finesse, but if there's one thing we Canyoneros can rely on, it is our constant pace, stubborn brute force, and strong mental perseverance, that allows us to make up for our mistakes.
I have to give big props to team Honey Stinger (1st overall) who were the only team to clear the entire challenging course.
Team Canyoneros - Nate Whitaker (left), Hien Nguyen