There's something extraordinary about a race starting at midnight. And one ending 36hrs later. That race would be The Cauldron, starting in Marianna, FL. Nate, Greg, and I spent 5.5hrs driving up the panhandle of Florida, listening and laughing to stand-up comedian Iliza Shlesinger and Kevin Hart, while taking turns banking on sleep. Once we arrived, teams were already deep into the 28 pages of maps. Since there were so many maps and I didn't have enough time to develop a route for it all, Nate carried the clue sheet and planned the bigger picture of the race, which worked really well.
The night was quiet and bugless, a far contrast from last year's event. It started with a running section around the park to find 14 controls. Facing his claustrophobia, Nate volunteered to be the first one to crawl on his stomach inside a cave to find a control. We found many of the controls here with Team Pangea. We left CP9 to the end and ultimately couldn't find it.
Once back at the transition area, we grabbed our bikes and headed out on a 5hr biking section. There were barely any cars on the road in this tiny outskirt town east of Marianna, at this time of the day. The enormous industrial lumberyard we passed was quite a lively area--wood was still being processed well into the early hours of the morning. We found control points in backroads, main roads, in a hidden shack, in downtown Marianna, and even inside a train caboose. Country dogs chased us in a few stretches of road. We even latched onto Team Disoriented's draft, but those guys had the eye of the tiger that day, so we had to let them loose ahead. The last control was only a couple kilometers away from the Main TA, so we swung by to replenish our water supply and pick up our running shoes.
The biking segment finished at Hinson TA, a conservation area and park, where we started a trekking section. There were 13 controls here where bang for the buck was high. We opted to go slow and steady to hit them all accurately. The light of day shone down to reveal some beautiful blue-green water in the river that we ran alongside. We were treated to some magnificent caves as we traversed through them to punch our control card. And then came the elusive CP13. We attacked that one after grabbing CP12 by going south on the trail there. I swear the illustrated red trails on the map did not correspond well enough to real life, as we made multiple attempts to find CP13. We then bailed north to finish finding the others before successfully coming back at CP13 from the west.
From there, we biked back to the Main TA and started an incredibly scenic paddle through the crystal clear Merritts Mill Pond river. It couldn't have been a more gorgeous day to paddle, and through any clearer spring-fed river. The water was very refreshing to feel as the day heated up. On this section, we found controls in rocky caves, underwater, in ruins, and we even had a sighting of the mythological Bigfoot! We skipped the three further controls on this leg as we made mental calculations on the next biking section, which we had to finish before a time cutoff of 7:30pm.
Next--biking. The day was at its hottest now. This section was a mix of paved roads and dirt trails. Some of the control points were placed in creepy abandoned houses, straight out of a horror movie. We came within eye sight of Georgia at one point. As we headed for our first few biking control points, I was continuing to estimate our times for how many controls we could find here, so I cut a couple off our route, on top of the ones that the race directors cut. That meant I had to map out new routes to our destination. At the time, I didn't see enough map to make a connecting route from our final CP19 to Florida Caverns State Park. We decided to take a gamble by going west on Timberlane, in hopes that it T-boned Hwy 71. And if we hit Hwy 71, we can find our way to Caverns Rd to get us to the state park.
Along the way, Greg ran out of water. We all shared what droplets of water we had left to fuel the team, and eventually, we all ran out. "Let's just knock on their house and ask for some hose water" as we passed several country homes out in the middle of nowhere. We never did and kept suffering. Greg was absurdly fatigued after two hours of running on fumes but he still made sure to eat. Keep in mind, we would finish this race doing 237km (147 miles) on bike alone, a mix of paved and off-road trails. These biking segments were no leisurely feat!
Timberlane Rd., which had changed into several different street names by now, eventually tee'd into another unfamiliar road. We were off the maps and it was getting dark again. Hopes went down a little. All I knew was that we needed to go west and south. We took a few turns, followed a few more roads in that general direction, looked in the distance to see street lights, and finally ran into civilization--Hwy 71! Alas, we hit a gas station! Boy, did a run down ghetto-looking gas station in the boondocks ever look like the promised land. We crashed the place with the few dollars we had in cash. The cashier told us they would be closing in five minutes. What impeccable timing!
Greg, with eyes locked on the purchased refreshments, reportedly gulped down a quart of Gatorade and the better part of a gallon of water. 20min later into our continued bike ride, he flagged us down to stop on the sidewalk. His stomach was sloshing the water around so much it made him queasy. He took a 2min 'Canyoneros power nap' while I shuffled around some maps, and then we were off again.
We finally made it to Florida Caverns State Park an hour after cutoff, which I believe we got penalized in added time for. At that park, we transitioned into trekking. Craig, one of the course designers, gave us reports of how difficult this section was in the night. I took the challenge, went on a roll, and almost got us a straight bushwhack from CP29 to 34, had it not been for the dark murky river in between us. We backtracked, ate plenty of cobwebs, and continued north onto the red trails. There, I was nailing every control with precision, until CP25, a hog trap. The trail leading east towards it unexpected turned north, which we did not want. We carved a trail east anyways, couldn't find it, and then bailed west--too far west as we spotted the circular lakes that were mapped. I performed another safety bailout to the east and got us back on the red trails to attack CP25 from the south on the trails this time. We totally forgot about the bonus controls and did not pay attention to the extra notes at this control, which we would have easily obtained two more CPs.
In the midst of the woods near CP23, our headlamps reflected off a pair of glowing eyes. The loud chaotic hooting from the screeching owls nearby sounded like the Wicked Witch of the West, which further added to the aura of the eerie night. We froze and observed two more join up with it. They trotted like dogs, or wolves, or coyotes. It was one of those moments you braced for an attack, 3 vs 3, but we somehow knew our headlamps would be so out-of-this-world for them to see. They intelligently ran off into the darkness. We loved every bit of it.
As we skirted near the paved roads, yet still in the forest, a car stopped ahead. Instantly, a bright spotlight shined our way. A voice called us in the distance over a loudspeaker. We were being pulled over by a cop, in the woods! "Some locals have called in to report strange lights in the woods" he mentioned. Our explanation of adventure racing seemed to pique his curiosity more than anything. "You do what for 36hrs? And you find them where? With no sleep?" Our uniform and gear were a dead giveaway that we were legit, and so he let us go on our way.
The rest of the controls on this trek portion were found with a slow and methodical walk. It took us some nine hours to do!
The next morning at the transition picnic area, Craig gave us his sales pitch on doing the next paddle and trek. My calculations could not fit another leg at our current pace. We decided to skip it and go on the last biking segment to find a few more controls south of downtown Marianni before finishing the race. We came in with no expectations in order to fully absorb the remarkable experience that is the Cauldron, but came out with first in our division, third overall! We also won an invitation to next year's USARA Nationals 2017 with this win.
Erik Wise and Craig Sheriff did a fine job of putting us through some memorable areas. The caves, sheltering some flying bats, were definitely a unique treat, as is night racing.
Team Canyoneros - Greg Watson (left), Nathan Whitaker, Hien Nguyen