Tuesday, March 8, 2016

FLX - Sea to Sea AR, 72hr Expedition

(our GPS route in blue above)

Flash Forward to the End...

Race organizers decided to lift the 72hr cutoff, perhaps to ease the pressure of dead tired racers hoping to finish on time.  We had just started the final paddling section a little into overtime.  We regrouped and cheered to give one last breath of air into the final push of this gigantic race...a race longer than any of us had lasted before...a race where half of the field had dropped out of the rankings due to unfortunate circumstances.  We knew all we had to do was crawl into the finish line, and we would make our goal of qualifying for the national championship.  It seemed simple enough without any time constraints.  Play the video below and see how it went for us.

We were only a few kilometers away from the finish line!  "Dammit, we have to finish!" we panicked, as we gulped pints of brackish intercoastal water, treading our way back to the wooden shore.  Waves got more violent and chaotic as it reverbed off the shore walls and slammed against our faces in all directions.

In a sigh of relief, an alert local couple spotted an upside down canoe with people and gear scattered all about in the water came rushing out to pull us on deck.  Out in the distance down the road, we saw a pair of men walking our way.  The closer they came, the more clues revealed they were Sea2Sea racers too.  Team Summit Adventure Racing Team Commie Bar had also suffered a similar fate, arms wrapped in a bloody gauze bandage.  It was a comical, yet serious, scene for us and the locals to witness.

"What kind of race is this??"  "You have been up for how long??"  They questioned as we deliriously entertained them with ridiculous answers.  I'm not sure how much they believed us, but we are very grateful of their hospitality, treating our bloody limbs from grabbing razor-sharp barnacle-covered wooden poles along the shore.  (continued at the end...)

Flash Black to the Beginning...

This would be Greg Watson's first Sea to Sea AR.  He is one of the most resilient long-haul racers we have had on the team, with 30-36hr races under his belt, including the Atomic/Blue Ridge AR and Cauldron AR.  It's an attribute that's highly desired for multi-day events.  And onto Nate...this is his third time doing this.  He's always been right by my side on all of our adventure races for over 5 years.  He's got the highest tolerance for pain I know of.

team Canyoneros - EA Sports (Nate left, Greg, Hien)

The race meeting was held at the host hotel, where the race directors went over instructions and handed out a textbook worth of maps.  I scrambled back to the hotel to immediately begin mapping the details, while Greg and Nate committed the passport to memory.  "We gotta get to Manny's house" Nate urged as he learned of a bonus control point there.  I ultimately finished mapping the next morning while we were bused to Clearwater on an island called Honeymoon Island.

Nate had been battling a wicked cold coming into the race.  He had reportedly never had a cold in the past 7yrs so this one hit him pretty hard.  In fact, he had all the signs of heat exhaustion in the first jogging leg along the Gulf of Mexico.  He nose even spontaneously exploded into a bloody mess twice during the race.  The first day of racing was not friendly to him, to say the least.

The race began with a roughly 12km jog that toured most of Honeymoon Island, including its beach.  For the rest of the day, we were basically urban biking to make our way to a trekking leg, and then a fairly short paddle section.  The weather was picturesque of Florida.  Aside from a 10min drizzle at night, there was almost no rain during the entire race, which is ideal for an expedition race where chaffage always degrades you.

The Gulf of Mexico to our right, one of the "Sea" in the race name, Sea to Sea AR

Biking on a Railroad Track

The first night came and we found ourselves biking a 75 mile route through Green Swamp.  We initially envisioned a tough ride through it all, but we couldn't complain.  We found all CPs here with no issues, except for bonus CP21.  This one became 'the one'--the one you burn so much time trying to find it.  Coming off a quick find of bonus CP20, we decided to continue on the off-roads towards CP21 from the south.  The trails there were predictable until it just abruptly ended by going underneath a set of railroad tracks--yes, I said 'underneath'.  We poked into the adjacent forest a handful of times trying to find the parallel mapped trail.  One existed, but not too cleanly, and at times had us trucking through marsh more than anything.  Frustrated, we just bolted out of there riding on the railroad itself, which says a lot about choices when you decide that biking over blocks of wood is your best option.  It was amusing at the same time.  And just like the cartoons...a train did come our way.  In the end, we attacked the elusive CP from the north and easily found it.

Paddling Across a Choppy Lake Minnehaha

When we arrived at Pahahahaha River Park, we refueled after an incredibly long bike ride through the night.  Some of us had completely run out of water that night.  We barely missed the cutoff that unlocked an orienteering section in Lake Louisa, but we had determined to drop that section in our race plan anyways.  We weren't thinking about clearing the course due to evaluating performance at past Sea2Sea's, so dropping bad-bang-for-the-buck controls was part of our strategy, esp. for this year which included more distance that we had ever seen.  One, we are not the fastest paddling team as a 3-man, and two Nate had developed feet blisters that crippled any future opportunities to shuffle the trekking sections.

After we launched our canoes into the water, we grabbed one nearby control and headed north towards the winding mouth of a 3km wide Lake Minnehaha.  "Left, Nate" we communicated, but canoe would always have this 5 second delay in steering.  "Right, Nate" it continued, as we zig-zagged like a amateur team who was paddling with a reversed canoe.  "Nate are you falling asleep??"  Sure enough, he was.

The twisty channel opened up with team Summit Adventure Racing Team Commie Bar sizing up the chop ahead.  We noticed these guys bike with flip-flops, by the way.  Winds had picked up for the morning which brought the waves to life.  Being in the front at the helm, Greg ordered for us to go straight into it.  The safer alternative would have been to hug the shore but that would have lengthen the distance tremendously.  Luckily the chop was going against us, which provided a little more safety.  You just don't want the winds to blow perpendicular to your vessel--that's just a recipe for capsizing.  Once we took the initiative, team Summit Adventure Racing followed suit.  Nate, who just had the luxury of a 15 min nap, shockingly woke up and paddled like our life depended on it.  The adrenaline rush sped up our blood flow.  By the time we got into the middle of the lake, waves started coming at us in a couple directions, pivoting the canoe from the center.  However, the alertness forced upon us gave us the focus that boosted our confidence and speed for later paddling sections.

"Hien, is that Manny's house in the distance?"

Biking with Dash

After finishing the paddling section, we were happy to see solo-racer, Dave Ashley, or "Dash" as he is fittingly known as.  He had been chilling at the transition area (TA) here for an hour or two, because he had been going too fast for race directors to keep up.  We didn't know it at the time, but I guess we had shot back up to the front of the pack here.  Dash had teamed up with us before at the Boar AR and single-handedly took us to our very first first place.

We headed out of Lake Minneola on a fast biking leg that took us on the West Orange Trail and had us looping the perimeter of the giant Lake Apopka.  I noticed Greg did not have clip-in shoes here, as he opted to brute force the uphills in regular shoes and egg beater pedals.  Only Greg can do such a thing and not complain about it.  With Dash in our group, we had a renewed sense of excitement that powered our biking.  We knew he was fast as heck, being a multi-time USARA champion, so we told him at any time, he could bolt ahead, but he appeared to enjoy the company more.

Manny's House

"Manny's house at last!" Any other day, Nate would blissfully throw down with Manny when it comes to drinking.  Today, we were treated to sweet cookies and drinks.  We racers go through such extreme highs and lows that any mundane item on a regular day would be the elixir of life during a race like this.  There was something about Manny's house that totally reversed Nate's ailing fever and wretched cold, as if this was the promised land.  From there on forward in the race, he seemed to recover at an astounding pace, voluntarily taking lead on pace lines and such.  On a side note, Manny's house would have been really difficult to find with the supplied maps had I not Googled it during race prep and had local knowledge of the West Orange Trails.  We saw and heard of many teams having difficulty finding it.

Hallucinations on Night Two

The second night came and we found ourselves in Wekiva State Park, literally our backyard.  We know all the nooks and crannies and even every tree that lives here.  The night brings a mystique to it that makes adventure racing so adventurous.  We started on the southern end of Wekiva state park, trekked up to Buck Camp, crossed a river into Rock Springs Run, and walked like zombies finding a few CPs--terrible bang for the buck, but we had no choice in the race route.

We walked, and we walked, and we walked...for hours and hours and into the early morning hours.  The 1ft deep sugar sand in Rock Springs did not help matters any.  It appeared that the deeper we went into Rock Springs, the deeper the sugar sand got, and the more uneven the ground became.  We even overshot our turn at one point by a mile.  When we backtracked, the turn was clear as day.  The mind started blurring the lines of what was real and was not there.

Somehow, uphills looked like downhills and downhills looked like uphills.  I started becoming mesmerized by the stylistic clip art illustrations scrolling down my pathway like musical notes in Guitar Hero--all in full color.  Greg had never experienced this level of self-induced adventure racing psychosis before.  I recall snapping out of my walking slumber and witnessing Greg stumble into the side of the trail, into a ditch, wobbling in front of a tall lonely plant with glimmering leaves.  A few more steps to the right allowed him to fully balance himself.  He mumbled something about city buildings in the upper trees.  Nate and I were too zombie-like to try to make sense of it.  Onward we went.  We continued to make comments about how it looked like we were walking up the longest hill ever.  (in reality, Rock Springs does not have any hills).

Two kilometers away from the Horse Barn TA, Nate's paranoia roared to life.  We saw a pair of racers in the distance, about 500m ahead.  They kept looking back at us with their shining headlamps and then running away, as if they were playing a childhood game of tag.  "Why would they do that??"  Nate desperately desired to understand.  It would repeat itself for over 20 minutes.  Greg and I were too tired to answer him.  "Guys, turn your lights off!  Those people do not exist up there!" Nate persistently persuaded us.  Rather than spend energy debating with him, we complied.  "They are not real!  Just like the disco ball near Catfish Hotel last year was not real!!"  Sure enough, the game of tag ceased to exist after we turned our headlamps off, but we finally made the connection later in the race, one year later, what the phenomena was.  Turns out at night, when your headlamps glance off of someone wearing reflective clothing in the distance, it reflects so brightly, you think they're headlamps from people running back and forth or in circles.  When you're hallucinating and holding onto a thread of awakeness, stuff like this twists your brain like no other.  I know this story probably makes no sense to you, but I am hoping I captured our state of being at the time.

Once we arrived at the TA, we knocked ourselves out within seconds of laying down and caught 2½hrs of sleep.

The next morning, we continued our trek into Upper Wekiva, west of Katie's Landing.  It was incredible how that 2½hrs of sleep felt more refreshing than a workday's worth of sleep any other time.  There was one CP that gave teams fits, CP54.  Once we resorted to our second map and took a bearing from the intersection near there, we found it with no further issues.

Paddling the Slaloms at Blackwater Creek

Nate and I had paddled Blackwater Creek before.  We remembered it as a very twisty river with a nice current.  As a 3-man team, we had never satisfactorily clicked in terms of paddling like an elite team, even in training.  The technicality that Blackwater Creek presented gave us challenges at first.  Negotiate the line badly, and you ended up eating the opposite bank and having stiff twigs poke your eye out.

We acknowledged our paddling shortcomings and decided to just try new things.  There was no navigation needed here until we hit the St. Johns an hour or two later, so calling upon my 7 years of autocross racing, the lines you use in paddling is very similar to automotive racing.  Greg got the hang of my racing fundamentals, with all of his Mario Karting dominance back then, and we did an awesome job looking ahead, communicating the directions, and positioning our canoe through turns very well.  It was poetry in motion as we went in wide, clipped our apex, and exited with authority.  We were fully steering in the front, the middle, and the back with well-executed coordination.  The skill at which we displayed and the speed was intoxicating.  It further motivated us to go even faster and had locals freeze in their tracks and just witness :D

But then all of a sudden, we were faced with a new problem.  Never before had we had "too much speed".  If anything, we never had enough speed.  For the first time ever, we had to add braking as a paddling skill.  And just like an F1 car approaching a narrow turn, downshifting with glorious engine music, the two back guys would apply equal braking right before the hairpin turns, only to resume proper cornering protocols.  What great timing for us to finally click on the paddling!

Hatbill Trek at Night

We had another urban biking leg where we had to strategize time due to a 10pm cutoff.  It was about 6pm before we started and race directors said any bonus controls we gathered would be nullified if we missed the time cutoff.  And off into the distance we went, teaming up with Team Disoriented on the second half of the ride.  Their race blogs are very entertaining to read, and as much as they downplay themselves, they are a highly athletic and quick couple.  They pulled us for a good stretch while we powered through the night to try to make the cut-off.  In the end, we found all of the mandatory CPs and one bonus, with five minutes to spare at a TA that was grilling burgers and hotdogs, and giving away caffeinated sodas!

Now that to me was the elixir of life, as I had multiple burgers to start the trek with.  Race organizers did an awesome job with the food they provided, and the longer the race goes, the more instinctive and survivalistic it becomes, the more this real warm food is like gold to us.  Thank you guys!

Looking at the maps for the final sections ahead, one was a massive trek that was advertised to be 12 miles on the short course.  As we walked 15km to our very first control on this leg, I detailed all the calculations and distance measurements for the rest of the race, including contingency options in case we fell behind.  It was no 12 miles.  It was actually closer to 16.  I never even considered anything more than the short course for us here.  Walking at a snail's pace, that put us at the next TA right at around the next cutoff time of 6am.

Whilst the maps kept my mind away from the monotonous task at hand, Nate and Greg were dying with boredom.  "Are we there yet", "did you overshoot us by a mile again," they jokingly whined like kids.  Hatbill is an area we've raced before and the topo maps do a poor job of matching the trails very well in some areas.  At night, the illusion is even more prominent.  The only highlights of this leg was a frigid neck-deep river crossing with team Wet Feet AR, trekking through waist deep flooded trails while hearing gators bark nearby, and the joining with Dash again, who seemed dazzled with sleep deprivation.

The morning rose on the final day of racing.  It was a beautiful clear blue sky, sunny day.  Here we are biking into Cape Canaveral, hitting key areas in the island, including taking a photo with a space shuttle.  We biked with Dash, who used to work at NASA with the Air Force, and Rev3 here for a stretch, but could not keep up with their blistering 35kph pace line.  Those guys are on another level.  From there, we transitioned into the final paddling leg of the race.

Nate swore he would start selling his new sunscreen lotion this year...for free

(continued from the top...) Walking away from the dire scene and to the finish line and dropping the last two control points, we reflected back on the 3 days prior and somewhere deep in our mind, did not want the race to end.  It was an epic journey accompanied with such impressive feats.  We biked a whopping 443km and God knows how much trekking and paddling we did--probably a total distance of 600+km across a length of almost 76hrs!  Watching the race live on Trackleaders.com/s2s16, race directors Ron and Manny described our performance as one of the best slow and steady teams, never the fastest nor the slowest.  Nate, who put up a fight of his racing career with the cold/flu, was finally safe to say "the Sea2Sea is a cure for what ailed me."  We finished 7th overall (out of 29 teams), an improvement over last year.  It was enough to hit our goal of qualifying for this year's USARA national championships.

I wanna reiterate that race organizers did an awesome job putting together such an adaptive race that accommodated young and veteran teams.  The food and hospitality at the TAs were always the warm light at the end of our tunnel during those harrowing and cold nights.

The Atlantic Ocean in the background, the other "Sea" in the race name, Sea to Sea AR

the finish line