Sunday, March 12, 2017

FLX - Sea to Sea AR, 72hr Expedition

Helicopters, Search and Rescue

I figure I'll just start the writing off with this story since everyone witnessed part of this fiasco and some of the rumors we heard were pretty far-fetched.  Every team was mandatorily equipped with a Spot Tracker safety device for a race of this magnitude.  "Do not press the SOS button.  Call me and we'll get you any help you need, as we know the areas very well..." Ron Eaglin, the race director, explained the night before at the pre-race meeting.

On the second evening of the race, we were walking along a berm in Sunnyhill, when we saw a helicopter flying and constantly diving overhead.  We pointed up and jokingly chuckled, "look, a team pressed the SOS button," thinking it was some random chopper.  Moments later, Ron pulled up to us in a red truck and he asked if we had seen any teams in distress.  We answered no and assured him we were the only team in that north orienteering area at the time, and if we did see an incident, we'd react accordingly.

As we continued to trek along the course, Nate goes "Hien!  The SOS light is blinking on the Spot Tracker!"  I thought he was just trying to be funny, because it's not likely you can accidentally press it.  There's a lid that covers the button and you have to press and hold it for four seconds.  But then when I looked at it, sure enough, it was lit up.  We wondered among ourselves if it was a protocol to send every team nearby an SOS light when another team in the area has a problem.  This has never happened before, so it was all new to us.  So onward we went towards completing the orienteering course.

Later into the night, a fire truck spots our headlamps in the forest and pulls us over with their loudspeaker on.  "Are you team Habaneros?"  "We're team Canyoneros" we replied.  "Can you come out, Habaneros?"  After a 30min interrogation and troubleshooting of our Spot Tracker, they confirmed our device was malfunctioning and sending false SOS signals.  All while the entire Marion County emergency response team had descended upon the area to execute a Search and Rescue for us on land and in air (several fire trucks, EMS vehicles, a helicopter and dozens of cops).  You gotta agree, it was an impressive response!

The Start

This year we fielded two EA Sports teams.  Nathan Whitaker, Greg Watson and I formed one team.  Johnathan Wolverton, aka Leonides, led the other team with Ben and Stan, who characteristically each raced one smaller 8hr race in the past that enticed them to do the 72hr.  These guys were Spartans who were never deterred by any challenges and had a great spirit of adventure.

We met up in Crystal River the night before the race on the west coast of Florida and were bused to Ponce Inlet the next morning, on the east coast, where we would make our way back to the west in three days on foot, canoe, and bike.  At the start, you couldn't have asked for better weather--blue skies and no rain.  The start was a short ~13km jog along the beach to warm up, while taking photos at key points as you went through Ponce Inlet Preserve.

Afterwards, we transitioned into the canoe to paddle to a technical biking trail for a time trial.  The time trial wasn't exactly as straightforward as we understood it, seeing how we went in circles a couple of times.  After slowing things down to figure out where we were, we finally got on the right track and cleared all three control points.  It was heating up and the team was feeling the effects of heat exhaustion.

We continued out of the technical section on a long biking leg after this time trial, gathering controls along the way through the city of Deland.  Most of these controls were pretty straightforward without requiring much navigation.  However, we missed the next time cutoff by 45min, where we could have picked up two points on foot, and so we were re-routed to Blue Springs boat launch to start a paddling section.

Along the way, we had heard stories of our other Canyoneros team having quite a few mechanical problems with their bikes--flat tires, broken chains, and even a lost GoPro which was recovered later at JC's Bike Shop after another team found it.

The paddling section at night was pretty pleasant.  It started raining and got a little chilly by the end, but other than that, we enjoyed the Snake Creek paddle around Hontoon Island.  Our skills as a 3-man team on canoe has improved greatly over time.

Up next can be summed up as the "Sugar Sand Zombie Walk".  19 miles of nonstop walking in sugar sand.  This is the section where we developed some excruciating feet blisters.

At the end of the night trek, what seemed to never end, we finally made it to the Ocala National Forest to transition into a long biking section.  We opted to skip the optional two points that added 22 off-road miles.  As if the previous trekking section didn't give us enough sugar sand, we were presented with even more on the bike!  This time, we were gifted hills too.  Imagine that...riding uphill through sugar sand only to coast back down through more sand that acts as a brake--anyone who didn't race, you guys missed out on this unique experience!  :D

Sunnyhill Orienteering and the Med Pack

After covering 30 miles through sugar sand on bike, we transitioned onto foot at Sunnyhill.  This is where Greg had a number two itching away at him, after uncharacteristically not having one the first two days.

"I'll hold it, I forgot to pack some Wet Wipes on this leg," he said.  On map, I didn't realize it was about a 15 mile long trek but it initially looked clearable in a few hours.  It actually took us well over 8hrs to finish since the team couldn't shuffle jog anymore due to various training injuries and blisters that occurred before and during the race.  We had banked on biking and canoeing as our power disciplines for this race, which we did awesome on.  The trek was strategically to be used as a recovery and refueling discipline for us.  As the hours wore on, Greg just ducked into the forest and told us to hold while we looked for the "bear clearing".  This one gave us fits as it was finally found much further north than plotted.  We must have attacked this half a dozen different ways before finding it.  In fact, this entire trekking section was quite tricky as we found ourselves on the wrong side of a non-crossable channel on two occasions.

I typically wear long pants on these races so I can plow right through thorn and vines with no slowdown.  But on this leg of the race, I wore shorts.  I forgot I had shorts and still trucked through shrubbery like I had pants on.  I paid for it.  Both of my legs looked like this (pic above).  I asked Greg for the med pack so I could clean it off and put some antibiotic ointment on.  Greg sheepishly replied "we're all out of gauze and sport tape."  Nate and I both scratched out heads for a bit and looked at each other, thinking the same thing.  "Did he...?" we thought.  Then we looked at Greg and his face just gave the answer away...he indeed used it all up!

This section is also where we had the infamous Search and Rescue team come after us.  You can read about it up top (beginning of this blog).

Oklahawaha Paddle and Hypothermia

Many teams decided to skip this paddle and bike to the next section instead.  We were one of few who braced for the adventure ahead.  The paddle started off like any other, and on night two, sleep monsters started to appear.  The air was very cold, low 40s as an average, but amazingly, the water was warm.  This combination gave rise to a thick fog that had me seeing dragons growing out of the water.  Trees in the distance turned into clownish creatures.

For every hour that past, we lost another half an inch in feeling of our fingers and toes.  At the dam CP, Team Disoriented saw us shaking uncontrollably and graciously gave us a pro tip that saved our ass, literally.  They told us to wrap our legs with an emergency blanket to keep the water off.

Greg did an awesome job commanding our canoe up front, and Nate an excellent job steering it in the back.  I didn't have any issues navigating it.  We paddled constantly so I was able to accurately rely on time as our distance keeper.  We actually paddled harder and faster as it got colder in an effort to burn more calories and create more heat.

The team latched onto my hopeful words of a bridge that ended the section and the possibility of a nice cozy campfire.  We finally got there 5hrs+ later and let out a big sigh of relief.  As soon as we stopped paddling and clumsily stood up though, voilent shivering set in.  We started panicking as we saw no one around.  We forgot the TA was 1.6 miles away.  We dropped everything we had and ran to the TA to continue to build heat, heat that would only last a few seconds before the nightly wind chill blew it away and bit our skin.  By that time, ambient temps were reportedly in the high 30s.  The wet clothes were enhancing the hypothermic conditions we were battling.  Once at the TA, I wanted to jump into the little hand fire there.  The best thing you can do in this state is strip down, dry off, and get into new clothes.  Wet clothing is a silent killer.  We all hunkered down and took a 2hr nap here.

The Third Morning

The two EA Sports teams woke up at the same time and headed out to trek Marshall Swamp together.  It was great camaraderie. 

We arrived at Santos trailhead and got ready for a massive biking leg.  This section took us completely through Santos' Epic Ride and down the Withlacoochee Trails.  This was voted to be the most fun part of the race, as all of us love biking.  It had twisty trails, single track, technicals, everything.  We blew through this section with some crazy speed and shortcuts we knew of.

And then it happened again...a helicopter flew overhead.  I was becoming paranoid as my teammates assured me it was probably some random military exercise.  But after an hour of it buzzing around with sirens echoing in the distance, it become apparent it was no coincidence.  I called Ron and we decided to shut the Spot Tracker off.  He alerted the new county we were in about the malfunction, and sure enough, 30min later, Santos was quiet again.  If anyone ever wondered if these devices work, we can at least testify that the emergency response team will save you alright.  In our case, the Spot Tracker just didn't work properly.

There was one trail we went through that seemed to never end, "Tricycle Trail".  Fittingly, we biked by a tree that had a tricycle mounted on it.

Greg's pedal started seizing up, causing his bike to scream like a banshee.  He had to over compensate for it on one leg, blowing it out at the same time.  Unfortunately, he didn't have clip-in shoes either.

When we got to Holder Mine Campground, we had a series of orienteering courses to do, each course worth only one point.  Some of the controls here were really difficult to find in the night, but we completed two of them.  It took a lot longer than expected, so we decided to get about 30min of sleep before heading out the next morning.

More Biking Woes

At 4:30am, Ron yelled over the loudspeaker to wake us all up.  It was like an Army wake-up routine, where everyone frantically packed, grabbed some food, and got our bikes ready to storm out of the transition area at 5am (when the Dark Zone was lifted).  Along the way, my bike started having trouble shifting gears.  Within five minutes of first symptoms, the derailleur pulley bearings gave out in rapid fashion.  It seized up and I couldn't pedal anymore.  I had to quickly rip out the derailleur system and convert it to a single speed.  I initially selected a middle gear as a balance for all of the biking we had left, but it eventually fell down to the smallest cog and was most stable at that highest gear.  That meant I had to put all my quads into keeping this thing spinning.  Every time we started from a stop, it was like a fully loaded 18 wheeler getting off the line, where no amount of turbo spooling could get this thing up to speed fast enough.  I ended up not having any issues burning the quads out with one last push of adrenaline, even through the tight technical trail leading up to CP53.

We again met up with the other Canyoneros team.  On our way out of CP53, we lost our other team for a little bit, but when we looked back, Stan came running out onto the main trail with a bike on his back.  He also had a derailleur break on him.  We quickly performed some repairs and split ways briefly for the last control point.  Rumor has it, Stan ran the entire length of the way back to the finish line with the bike on his shoulders, as strong of a runner he was.  Our team cleverly rode our bike to where the paddling CP was located and picked it up on bike instead of paddling it (we didn't get credit for it in the end though).

We coincided near the host hotel again, the finish line, where Stan still had his bike on his back to finish together.  The locals came out and cheered us on at the end, which was really cool.  It was an incredible journey of two EA teams making best of whatever circumstances gave us.  We finished 3rd in the division and 9th overall after 70hrs of racing (46 controls found out of 54).  The Florida Sea to Sea AR is always a race that puts life into a new perspective with plenty of memorable experiences that gets us back into the primitive and instinctual ways of living.

 Nathan Whitaker (left), Stan Snyder, Ben Kackley, Johnathan Wolverton, Hien Nguyen, Greg Watson