Tuesday, March 10, 2015

FLX - Sea to Sea AR, 72hr Expedition (Day 1)

The Florida Sea to Sea AR was the most challenging journey in our adventure racing history.  It spanned an astounding 72hrs across the entire width of central/northern Florida, touching both ends of the coast.  Two Canyoneros EA Sports teams braved the challenges that stood ahead with hopes that at least one team would qualify for the National USARA Championship in Kentucky.  The usual suspects of Nate and I would race with another veteran racer and excellent navigator, Tim Cowan, and newcomer Johnathan Wolverton.  Wolverton, an ex-Air Force and ground troop, had two other races under his belt, a 6hr and an 8hr.  What better than to keep increasing those numbers and jump to a 72hr next?  He had no idea what he was getting into, but we needed someone with a proven tough-as-hell mindset, someone who had stared Afghanistan in the face before.

Johnathan Wolverton (left), Nate Whitaker, Hien Nguyen, Tim Cowan

Florida Xtreme Adventures' race directing team put on an incredible race that had a wide variety of racing elements, from lengthy distances, tough night navigation, bonus courses, food/campfire TAs, trivia control points, and a sweet Cedar Key ending that had us exploring the entire Cedar Key city and historical island there.  Major props to them and the volunteers.

The day before the race, we browsed Cedar Key looking for as much food as we could eat to fuel up for the next 3 days in which we would be in a constant calorie deficit.  Cedar Key is a quiet small town with buildings that appeared survived the last century or more.  A race meeting was held in the creaky town library.  We received our passports and maps for the first half of the race and then proceeded to load the Uhaul trucks with our bikes and paddling gear.  We spent the next couple hours eating microwavable ravioli and planning the maps in our hotel.  We also decided for a fairly early cutoff time to go to bed, banking on the more crucial aspect of sleep.  There were just too many maps (21 maps for the first half of the course alone) to strategize everything so we were determined to rely on spontaneous decision making and measurements.

The Start (Day 1)

The next morning, we were bused to Flagler area along Highbridge Road, where we started off on a relatively quick jog to collect four control points (CPs).  The sun was beating down on the day and temperatures were rising quick, as it was forecasted to be the hottest day of the race.  This was Nate's day to survive, as the Englishman's got a history of easily overheating.  We did what we could, including slowing pace down to manage this.  If he could survive this day, it was assumed the rest would be smooth sailing for him.

race starts on the Atlantic Ocean

Bonus Technical Biking

From there, we jumped into canoes and paddled our way up Bulow Creek, biked down Bulow Ruins, and back up John Anderson Hwy to start a bonus technical biking section.  It was a sweet 6.2 mile set of trails that I had no idea existed there.  We picked up five(?) controls here on the 'easy' route.  Any other day I would have loved this area, but this section took a solid 2.5hrs to complete and took its toll on the team.  Nate's heat was noticeably building up and Tim was getting pounded on the technicality.  We constantly fed Nate NASA water to manage this.  Even with steam coming off his head and cheeks as red as fire, he would mutter "Hien, I always shake this off."

Nate the CP Sniffing Dog

For CP14, we had a long pre-measured distance to travel before attacking into the control.  I couldn't find any other nearby attack points to minimize the measuring error that would occur with longer distances.  Our best bet was to send Nate, the hound dog, to lead us into the forest to hunt this one out.  He didn't fail us.  It was amazing, as this was one of many others we relied on him for.  The objective was get Nate within 200m and he'll sniff it out, always :)

Evening was setting in.  We found several more control points in the city of Bunnell, as we made our way to the next section, another canoe segment.

Canoeing over Fallen Trees

There was a tight channel that poured into the main river at Black Branch TA.  Along the way, there must have been ten areas where a tree or two fell over the channel and forced us to plow our muddy canoes over them.  The first few were really cool, as it gave us a great sense of adventure.  It was nightfall, bugs flying everywhere, and no one else out there but lunatic racers.  We would paddle up to the fallen tree(s) and then decide whether to portage our boats on the sides of the channel, or just flat out haul our canoes over the fallen trees.  We saw snakes, frogs, and many spiders here.  At one log, where we knew we would need to exit the canoe into the water, our flashlights revealed the glowing red eyes of a big gator sitting, watching us.

For about an hour on this paddle leg, I kept hearing a hissing noise coming from inside the canoe behind me. I kept freaking out and was concerned that a snake had fallen into the canoe and was hiding somewhere under our paddling bag. Eventually Nate couldn't hold it any longer and his laughing gave it away. It turns out every time he moved, his canoe seat pad would let out a little air making a loud hissing noise.  That guy...

In the middle of the paddling section, there was a bonus trek section embedded in.  There, you had until 11pm to collect as many controls as you could in the dark.  We got there pretty late, but still found three of the closest, best bang-for-the-buck controls, and headed right out with only minutes to spare.

Most teams re-converged at this point, as they tried to maximize their points on that 11pm cutoff.  From there, it was a long paddle to the next transition area (TA).

City Biking in the Night

The long paddling legs set the stage for some nasty ass chafe since you were constantly wet while sitting in the boat.  At Bull Creek TA, a couple of us were treated to a warm shower in the public bathroom facilities there.  We spent time eating some substantial food and putting on fresh new clothes before heading out.

Next up was a biking segment that had us picking up several controls off Hwy 20, enroute to San Mateo.  A couple of the controls here had you answering questions like "what is the church's name at the CP location?"  CP23 gave many teams that converged there fits.  The clue was "east side of pine along road".  No one could find it, as the trails there did not really match what was on the map.  Apparently, word was that it was only 5m from the road, but most teams were poking about 70m deep into the fields, ultimately giving that one up.  The lack of visibility in the night made control hunting really difficult.

Tim started hallucinating this night, seeing images crawling out of the blinking red bike lights that mesmerized him.  Sleepiness was dropping the curtain down fast on him.

At CP27, I had gotten so depleted of energy I couldn't even push my bike on a grassy trail leading up to the control.  All of a sudden, I felt so dead.  The team took a quick few minutes here to eat and eat, and it was just enough to recharge me.

(continue onto Day 2...)

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