Lately our weekend training has been anywhere between 6-15hrs long and on several occasions, overnight. The Nocturnal AR was just another training weekend with the way things have been going :D
For this race, the goal was to give Nate some more night-time navigation experience, use single-sided canoe paddles during the canoeing portion (where we normally use the faster double-sided kayak paddles), outfit ourselves with larger expedition-sized backpacks with some extra weight in there, test some new shoes, and continually work on good habits and efficiency.
So during pre-race, Nate took the maps and started pre-planning our routes immediately. The race was broken into three simple segments--run, paddle, bike. The canoe section was a little trickier, esp. at night, so he decided to let me take that one. I was only able to look over his trekking route and it looked good. I didn't bother looking at his biking route, cuz I wanted to have him learn through trial-by-fire if it wasn't optimal, but he often comes up with some really efficient routes that I don't see during the frantic pre-race moments.
The race started with a relatively short running section that had us finding eight control points (CPs) on our way to a river. We joined forces with all of the Elite teams to find the first few CPs. Night time navigation can be really tricky because you can't see far. As the pack started separating, we started getting in our zone of calling out every terrain feature and pace count so that the navigator can confirm positioning on map.
There was a full search party at CP6, but CP7 was the one that gave us the first big trouble. From CP6, we dialed in our compass and tried walking in a straight line for over 250m in the thick woods at night. We didn't nail it the first time, so we decided to go back on the yellow-dotted trail, south of us, find another attack point (in this case the highest point of the trail) and then shoot another bearing back in, but this time be more mindful of staying as straight as we could. The night is all about the technicals of pace counting and staying slow and sharp.
The end of the running section led us to the beginning of the canoeing section. Equipped with canoe paddles, we spent a few minutes dialing in our technique and feeling out the awkwardness. With three people, there would always be one guy paddling on one side by himself, causing the boat to veer more to one side, but we made sure to keep flipping sides on cue. It was definitely slower going but I'm sure that was because we aren't fully proficient yet. On top of that, it was dark and Nate (the steerer in the back), couldn't really see ahead well enough to make the steering corrections himself and completely relied on Greg's full-time communication job in the front of the canoe to keep us as straight as we could, given the circumstances.
The river was quite 'overgrown' with sea grass and lily pads. At times we just paddled right through the middle of it using V8 power. Craig Sheriff, the race director, noted that you just had to follow his reflector markers on the river, and that was enough to allow locating the CPs fairly straightforward. That and he eliminated five controls to shorten the paddling section so we could have more time for biking section.
At some point on our return route, we floated over a log that wedged tightly under the center of our canoe, not allowing us to go anywhere. We've been there many times before so we started the protocol of shimmy'ing and rocking the canoe back and forth in unison. After several minutes of being badly stuck, we upped the vigor and it finally start moving off of the log. With more strength comes less control and you know how this ends, haha. This log was spring loaded. As soon as enough of the canoe dislodged itself, we immediately dunked over into the river and capsized the boat!
In the dark, in a river full of croaking frogs and who knows what else lurked, the only thought that crossed our minds was, "please don't let there be an alligator under us." As we swam our canoe over to an island in the middle of the river, there was this nasty warm, chunky muck that enveloped our entire lower body. It was the quick sand of the swamp, slowly sucking us down under and emitting thick burps of foul smelling sewage. Nate had accidentally gulped some of this gritty stew and started gagging this demon out.
There was too much water in our canoe to continue on. We had to beach this thing in the tiny little space we had on shore, with little solid footing to support our progress towards it. Closer and closer, we finally grabbed a few overhanging branches and pulled ourselves up and the canoe in. Our pant pockets, shoes and socks were filled with this swamp diarrhea. Defeated, we flipped and poured the water out of the canoe and continued on, laughing at the reality and comedy of the situation.
That wasn't the only event. My headlamp battery, a high powered Chinese Ebay knock-off that was encased in a mere piece of paper cover, shorted out during that ordeal. Greg promptly gave me the only backup battery we all had, but then that shorted out instantly too! From there on out, Nate was my headlamp from behind for me to read the map.
We switched to bike at the Main TA (transition area) after finishing the paddling segment of the race. Luckily I kept a spare headlamp in my gear bin here and was able to swap it out and see clearly again. Two teams left ahead on the biking section some 10-20 minutes ahead of us, but we needed to refuel here. No one ate on the paddling section because of how much more coordinated we had to be as a team while using single-bladed canoe paddles...in the night.
All of a sudden Nate returned the maps to me and said he wasn't feeling up to navigating this section. I took it and treated this like an FLO orienteering event, where you only get to see the map when you start the race. I didn't even know what the route looked like. I just trusted Nate's highlighted route and took it one control at a time. I turned on the navigational after-burners during this section of the race. The guys did an awesome job as usual calling out all the technical metrics and observations, while finding the controls with some kind of x-ray vision. I just had to make sure what they said lined up with the map, which resulted in a near flawless execution of the plan. When things go flawlessly, there isn't much drama or story to tell. I don't really recall anything outstanding in our story here, which is probably a good thing? Well, there was a bike bushwhack to get bonus CPs 15-16-18. That was pretty fun. And oh yea...Nate's headlamp battery shorted out too lol.
With everything said and done, we finished the race in about 10hrs and 40min. We made up significant grounds on that biking section and took 1st overall. With our stories of capsizing and headlamps dying on us, Craig decided we earned the "Tough Break" award too lol.