Tuesday, March 10, 2015

FLX - Sea to Sea AR, 72hr Expedition (Day 3)

(continued from Day 2...)

One of Wolverton's knees was flaring up on the super long bike ride to Fanning Springs.  We did as much as we could to help out, including a tow.  Heck, this is the most biking any of us have ever done in one event.  We would finish the race traveling 360km (223 miles) on bike alone!

Canoeing and Hallucinating on the Suwannee River

The evening started setting in again and nightfall made its way through.  At Fanning TA, we were treated to hot chocolate and hot dogs.  After days of eating gels and sport beans, this was top notch gourmet food.  Canyoneros II was hurting pretty badly now and pondered efficient ways to get back to Cedar Key.  We spent a good amount of time measuring distances of different options, and discussed whether to brave the the next 18 mile paddle with them.  It was either a 4hr paddle to potentially grab four controls or a ~2hr bike ride for no controls.  We ultimately decided on paddling.

Somehow temperatures were once again forecasted to be in the low 40s for the night.  I had mistakenly miscalculated when we would receive gear bins again earlier in the day.  I had no jacket and had to borrow a headlamp from Tim.  We had no issues finding the first control upstream.  Downstream was fast, but the current fizzled out after a few miles.

During this entire race we had only had 2hrs of sleep, so Nate and I passed the monotonous paddling time by describing what we were hallucinating at the time.  We saw lots of people in these lake houses, hosting party after party.  We knew all of them couldn't have been partying, but at one point, one of the distant houses had people talking to us and we were holding a conversation with them.

Around river bends, the tree silhouettes turned into abominable snowmen holding freaked out cats.  Every now and then Nate would halt the entire canoe bracing for an impact that was not there.

After counting river bends and identifying a lit up disco ball that rhythmically spun circles in the forest, I found a good attack point to CP78, "Catfish Hotel".  "What are you talking about?" Nate wondered as he dug deep to try to figure out if I had lost it in the head.  There was a metal dock that I had Nate park our canoe for me to run up.  I ran all the way to the parking lot at the end of it, where there were more canoes.  I browsed the area and couldn't find any hint of a hotel building and returned with nothing.  Upon returning, I couldn't stop shivering.  Wolverton noticed and handed me an extra tshirt and a do-rag to put on--all the extra clothes he had left.  (After reviewing Google maps post race, apparently "catfish hotel" is the name of a pond).

With the failed attempt at finding a "catfish hotel", we continued down the river and tried to find the next two boat ramps that hosted two more control points.  I don't think we went down the flooded trail far enough at "Usher's boat ramp" to locate the CP.  Now everyone was starting to experience pre-hypothermic symptoms.  Unmotivated, we didn't spend too much time trying to find the two boat ramp controls here.  Time was against us and all we wanted to do was get to the next TA in hopes they had a campfire.  We spent the next 15km paddling non-stop in an attempt to keep moving and generating heat.  It was as though the team mood quickly shifted to throwing in the towel--no one spoke for the rest of the paddle.

Ultimately, we made it to Fowler's Bluff TA and there was indeed a campfire!  We nearly jumped into the fire itself.  The thawing legs and arms felt so nice!  And gear bins!  We were able to get fresh new clothes and jackets!  Giving up was out of the question again :)  As much as we fought the the urge to go against our goals, it was very difficult when true survival mode kicks in.

Disorienting Night Biking

Our two EA teams parted ways for the final time at this transition area.  One needed more rest and recovery and the other was ready to get it over with.

We had a huge bike orienteering section up next.  It was described as fast biking and it sure started that way.  The first control was quick and easy, but then we made failed attempts at the next three.  However, I believe we were right on top of the control, but just couldn't see it in the night very well.  Nate and I were getting extraordinarily sleepy.  After this many failed attempts in a row, in the dark, we bailed straight to the next transition area, Scrub TA, where we decided to gather the best-bang-for-buck, final CPs to end the race.  Two legs of race left, one on bike that had us traveling through the entire city of Cedar Key, and another canoe leg that had us paddling out to a historic island right off the key.  With the end in near, Nate and I turned on beast mode and left speed trails behind us.  It was surprising to see that we had averaged our fastest biking speeds on the 3rd day.  Also worthy to note was that our ass chafing had gotten so bad on days 1 and 2, but somehow the body adapted and it did not feel so bad on day 3.  Don't ask me how?

The View at Cedar Key was Breath-Taking!

By coincidence, we had hit Cedar Key right when the sun rose.  What we saw blew our minds away!  We were brought back in time when explorers tapped into the primitive lands that Florida offered and saw the natural beauty that surrounded it.

the race ends on the Gulf of Mexico

Tim and Wolverton made their way back to Cedar Key not too long after we did, collecting a couple bike controls and the city CPs along the way, and we met up again.  It was great to see us all cross the finish line on our own power.  We had experienced so much, in so little and so great of time.  You couldn't have asked for a better adventure with the undeniable highs and bittersweet lows that accompanied the race.  And thus the mighty and epic 72hr journey ended.

As it turns out, both teams scored high enough to qualify for competing at the national championships in Kentucky (2nd and 3rd in the all-male division)!  This exceeded our expectations and we indeed will be competing at the national level in October!

Through this Sea to Sea AR, we have also raised awareness and $3400 for the Wounded Warriors Project to help injured soldiers who have served the US military.

FLX - Sea to Sea AR, 72hr Expedition (Day 2)

(continued from Day 1...)

Rice Creek TA Trekking

The sky was lighting up again as we made our way to Rice Creek TA.  We were told they cancelled the following paddling leg, as the race directors determined they needed to move the teams west quicker.  That and people started hating the paddling legs haha.  It was a great relief, since we were planning to can that leg anyways.  One...it was paddling and we started hating it too, and two...I had predicted many of the controls there might be pretty tough to navigate to.

Up next was a trekking leg.  The sky was overcast and the environment was like a tropical jungle with lots of swamp.  It was one of the coolest sights!  We began by latching onto an incorrect set of trails.  This burned a an hour or so before we found the right one.  Once we lined up the trail map to ours, we immediately set foot to find the CPs here fairly easily.

Wolverton climbs over fences

At Backwoods TA, there was a bonus trek course.  We had to plot UTM coordinates for five control points.  This was the first time I had to plot them, and there was another team nearby who noticed my difficulty, so they graciously gave me tips.  We cleared this section pretty fast, utilizing a 60 second shuffle, 60 second walk methodology.

There was a long bike ride to the next stop at Newnan's TA.  We easily picked up a handful of controls along the way.

Somehow, Tim had managed to get a hold of a 5-hour energy shot, I think from Nate's bin.  It supercharged him so much he took navigation and bolted forward on bike at a pace that maxed us all out!  I'm not sure he realized it at the time until we told him about it afterwards.  But hey, he was hitting all of his points, so we left him at it.  Once we got to Newnan's TA by nightfall, Tim proclaimed, "I feel like the race just started!".  Those 5-hour energy shots had some serious kick to it for him.

Tim Goes into Hypothermia

Newnan's TA was the start of a giant swamp, and CP47 and 48 were situated deep in it.  This place had massive cypress trees everywhere, fallen over, uprooted, you name it.  There were also plenty of cypress elbows, aka death stumps.  We saw plenty of giant snails, most of them the size of a fist.  So in the night, we made an attempt to shoot a 400m direct bearing to CP47 but could not find it.  We found only a two CPs in this entire trekking section before Tim started spiraling into hypothermia.  Nightfall brought in low 40s temperatures.  When Wolverton and I saw him convulsing like someone with Parkinson's disease, we immediately cut off any progress, he busted out the emergency blankets to wear under the jacket, and we all went back to the TA where there was a campfire.  As we stumbled back, Tim's competitive mindset forced him to utter, "Hien, give me six 5-hour energy shots and I will finish the race!"  Adventure racers are a crazy bunch alright :D

Wolverton Catches on Fire!

It was apparent everyone was dead tired, cold, and miserable on this second night.  We made the call to warm up at the campfire and then catch some sleep in our sleeping bags.  Tim and Wolverton slept by the fire since they didn't have a sleeping bag.  In the middle of the night, Wolverton deliriously wakes up to the horror of people beating him with clothes.  "WTF is going on," he thought.  He was on fire!  A campfire log had fallen on him and burnt his clothes and racers nearby were trying to put it out!  Seeing this, the race staff decided to lend them both a sleeping bag and a spot in the staff tent.

Nate and I woke up after two hours of sleep.  It was a significant recharge to a heavily degrading team.  We had only gotten two controls in the last 6hrs.  But now we were ready to get back to work.  We touched basis with Tim and Wolverton, and parted ways with them.  It was sad to finally separate the two EA teams after sticking together for a solid two days.

The morning brought optimism.  Ron Eaglin was out and about, and offered to lead us and a few other teams to CP47, which we missed that previous night.

The Windy Paddle

We then transitioned to canoeing, where the boat launch was in the same giant swamp we had just trekked over.  How was there a channel that existed there?  What we saw the previous night was a giant swamp with several streams of water here and there.  I'm not sure I recalled a channel that led from the transition area to the lake, but in the morning after some much needed rest, it was clear.

Canoeing on the lake was very pleasant at first--the water was as smooth as glass.  That is until the sun rose and brought in billowing winds to the lake.  We DID NOT wanna capsize on this lake in really cold conditions.  There were two control points along the way to the next stop at Kate's Fish Camp.

Once there, we transitioned onto foot, where Nate and I picked up one trek control before calling the rest of the other controls off.  Teams reported how tough that section was, both in terms of navigation and bushwhacking conditions.  Nate's knees were an infected mess, swollen, bloodied and battered by thorns in previous days so he was in little shape to beat them up some more.  So we walked back to the TA again.  There, I wanted to go light, so I opted not to pack jackets and head lamps.  On the flipside, Tim and Wolverton had banked some more sleep and skipped the paddle section, and decided to ride their bikes quicker to the other side of the lake instead, but for no control points.

Amazingly, both of our teams re-united at this transition area.  We felt great synergy again.  Tim and I were swapping navigation roles, where one guy would have one set of maps viewable on the bike map board, and the other would have the next set of maps, seamlessly planning and transitioning without a hiccup.  Nate and Wolverton also did a fine job of hunting/punching the controls.

(continue onto Day 3...)

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...)