Our team first met Allen Wagner, race director at Broad Run Off Road, back in 2022 when we asked if we could borrow his scissors to trim a map before the start of the Palmetto Swamp Fox Adventure Race.
We officially became friends with Allen the moment he and his teammate David followed us into the questionable abyss of the swamp in what still stands as the worst bushwhacking experience we've had to date (one that Geoff still hasn't forgiven us for) during the same race.
And since that day, we've been wanting to make the trip up to Virginia from our current home here in South Carolina in order to participate in one of his events.
Now, after a decade of dragging Geoff around to various ultramarathons and trail races, I am no longer the one in charge of our race calendar. So I can't tell you how or when we decided to participate in the 2023 Fall Foliage 15 Hour Adventure Race. It was likely something a bit more involved and formal than Geoff saying to me "pack your bags, we're going to stomp around the woods of Virginia with Morgan and Scott for 15 hours"...but for the sake of this race recap, that's the background story that pretty much brings us up to speed.
(Note: the lowlight settings I used for the GoPro cameras made for acceptable video, but downright horrible still shots. So, please forgive the lack of photo evidence compared to my normal race recaps...and be sure to give the video a watch instead.)
2023 Fall Foliage 15 Hour Adventure Race Recap
Saturday morning we wake up in our tent on the side of the parking lot at Motts Run Reservoir Recreation Area in Fredericksburg, Virginia. We had arrived the evening before, checked in, dropped our bikes off, caught up with some adventure racing friends, and went to bed early. Mainly because it was cold for these Myrtle-Beachers, and I was looking forward to busting out my sleeping bag suit for the first time this Fall.
But now it's morning, and I begin the semi-stressful process of deciding what the hell to wear.
You see, despite the absolutely gorgeous fall weather we encountered when we arrived in Fredericksburg the day before, and the absolutely gorgeous fall weather predicted for the day after the race, the actual weather forecast for race day was rain.
And lots of it.
In fact, the weather showed that it was supposed to rain from 9:00 am until midnight, which coincidentally, were the exact same hours of the race.
Touché, Mother Nature.
Many years ago I was a budding trail and ultrarunner who had a legitimate fear of running with wet feet. I clearly remember the mild panic I'd experience when realizing a race course would include a stream crossing. I was utterly convinced I'd end up with painful blisters that would ruin my race, and I go as far as taking my shoes and socks off just to cross a 6 foot wide, 2 inch deep creek.
Now as a semi-experienced adventure racer (can I call myself that yet?) I know that not only are wet feet inevitable, but there's a solid chance your entire body will be soaked at some point, whether it's from rain, a purposeful swim, or an accidental fall into a stream (which I would end up doing before the day was over). So instead of trying to avoid getting wet, you simply need to prepare in a way to mitigate the potential train wreck that being wet for 12+ hours at a time can cause.
My suggestions? Wool, a quality rain jacket (that you incessantly fear you'll tear on briars but you'll take the chance with), and lots of lube.
Once dressed Geoff and I head down the hill to race headquarters to obtain our maps. We're given two sets of four maps and a single clue sheet. I'm grateful for the two sets of maps, as our team has had a hell of a time this year with maps dissolving in the rain, despite map cases and valiant attempts at keeping them dry.
(See the "they are printed on waterproof paper but the ink isn't waterproof" maps of the 2023 Rev3 50 hour race, as one memorable example...)
We head back up the hill to gather in Morgan and Scott's tent to go over the maps and come up with a plan. The checkpoints (CP's) on the map are pre-plotted, which saves us a ton of time and allows us to get right to discussing our race strategy.
And our general strategy for the day is simply to have fun.
This would be Scott's second ever adventure race, and first AR longer than 4 hours. Oh and for what it's worth, he knocked out a sub 24 hour 100 mile ultramarathon a mere 2 weeks earlier, so you know, we didn't want to put too much pressure on him.
Around 6:45 am we hop on a school bus, where the true adventure begins. We are shuttled about 30 minutes away to the starting line of the race by a friendly and hilarious older woman, who asks us all to act as her second set of eyes as she nearly takes the entire front bumper off of a parked Honda Civic.
We gather with other racers near a picnic shelter, putting the final touches on our race strategy. My ADHD brain hates this part of adventure racing the most: not only do I have a hard time thinking about the entire race at once (I tend to compartmentalize each stage), but I just want to get out there and see where the day brings me.
I have learned, however, that this approach rarely works (and my husband/teammate hates it), so I will my brain to focus. Thankfully Morgan is there to keep me on track.
After the standard pre-race instructions and question session, RD Allen pulls out a box full of small luggage locks with number tags attached to them. He pours them onto a picnic table and simply says "find your team number".
I'm instantly having flashbacks to the 2012 Spartan Death Race, when I watched dozens of PFD clad athletes dive into a small, murky duck pond with the goal of finding the ping pong ball that matched their bib number.
My brain instinctively goes into "race mode", even though the race technically hasn't started yet. I lean over and rudely get into the personal space of the poor volunteer medic who happened to be sitting at the table and grab our team's lock: #400 is easy to find.
"I'VE GOT IT! MORGAN, WHERE'S MORGAN? I'VE GOT OUR LOCK!" I shout, before realizing I have absolutely no idea what we are supposed to do with it, and that I guess there was no need to rush.
Once all the teams have their locks, Allen instructs us to line one team member up. They will need to run across a field to a few waiting volunteers, get a clue sheet, answer the questions based on the color of their team's lock in order to figure out the code to unlock it, then your team could start your race.
As Allen is explaining the process, an older gentlemen raises his hand and says calmly "I already unlocked mine." As we all look at him in disbelief, he explains how if you gently feel the spinning dials on the lock, you can "feel" the correct numbers to unlock it. I give it a try, and feel nothing, now convinced this guy must be a former professional lock picker or something.
(Kidding. He was awesome.)
We nominate Scott to run across the field, as those 100 miles he ran a few weeks ago make him the clear "runner" on our team. He does, and brings back the clue sheet quickly. We figure out the code relatively fast, and we're headed off to start the first paddle.
Leg 1: Paddle
4/6 CP's collected
The park we are in had double booked events that day, so we run across the field, throw our gear into canoes, and awkwardly lumber them down to the water's edge past a large crowd of confused (and dare I say, slightly bewildered) Walk to End Alzheimers participants.
Geoff and I hop into one canoe together, Morgan and Scott in the next. We easily clear CP's 1A and 1B, before opting to skip 1C & 1D, and instead turning around to grab 1E upriver.
It may seem crazy to many to purposefully opt to NOT clear the course this early into the race. However, our decision was based on two important factors: the tide and our team's collective experience.
Geoff and I are fortunate enough to paddle until our hearts content, as we live a mile away from our local river, and work from home. Morgan and Scott do not have the opportunity to paddle as frequently as we do and have more limited experience on the water.
Further, RD Allen had mentioned at the start of the race that the Rappahannock River is tide dependent...and the tide was going out. Not only would we be fighting current for the entire nearly 5 mile trip back, but the river was already getting so low in spots (on an already drought stricken river) that it was becoming hard to paddle.
So, in the name of "our goal is to have fun", we turned around.
Leg 1 Highlights:
- The giant bald eagle that circled overhead. Morgan and I are now 3/3 on bald eagle sightings during our races together.
- Seeing Doug Silk taking pictures at CP 1B, shouting out to him "hey, wanna hear a list of all of the birds I've seen so far?" and his immediate response of "have you seen this one?" as he flips me "the bird" . I love adventure racers, haha.
- The gorgeous stone Richmond, Fredericksburg, & Potomac Railroad (RF&P) bridge. Dad would have loved it (and he would have loved that I took the time to google the exact railroad that used this bridge. )
Leg 2: Trek
7/7 CP's collected
Boats dropped, paddle bag full of gear and returned, we head out on the first foot section of the day. This would also be the only "urban" portion of the race. The majority of our route was spent on a paved walking path that meandered around town. This was great, as it kept us off the roads and out of traffic. As an added bonus, the rain kept pretty much everyone else (outside of adventure racers and Walk to End Alzheimers participants) away, making it a fast trek.
Leg 2 Highlights:
- Stomping through knee deep swamp, knowing there won't be a single alligator in there.
- Stopping to pee in a giant field of tall green leaves, which nearly one week later I massively regret, as my legs and butt are covered in what I believe to be a poison oak rash. But boy, was it a beautiful field.
Leg 3: Bike
11/11 CP's collected
Transition area (TA) 2 is the same location where we had dropped our bikes off the night before. We spend a solid 5+ minutes getting our gear together, shoving food in our faces, and preparing to spend some time in the saddle.
But, it turns out we won't be in the saddle for too long to start.
We're only on our bikes for about a mile before we hit the Monolith and Naysayer trails. These are moderately difficult (blue) trails, and they are already soaked. Morgan reminds us that during the pre-race meeting, we were told that we don't have to collect the bike check points ON the bike...we can park our bikes and navigate to the CP's on foot.
So that is exactly what we do.
And I'm grateful, because we get so turned around on this trail, backtracking in order to try and figure out where the heck we are, more than once. Trying to navigate wet, slippery trails (or pushing bikes) would have made everything infinitely more difficult.
Further, bike-wacking was explicitly prohibited in the race rules, however, bushwacking on foot was not.
Leg 3 Highlights:
- Finding a Box Turtle in the woods (better than finding a CP!)
- Taking an accidental swim in a stream (I fell)
- Standing next to a highway billboard on the side of a hill (they are bigger than you'd imagine)
- Ripping off my rain pants after getting them caught on my saddle one too many times, fearing I'd be cold and wet, but realizing I can somehow handle the cold better than I used to. Hooray for that extra 15 lbs + perimenopause hormones that seem to have raised my core temperature, I guess? I'm calling it a win.
Leg ?: Climb
Canceled due to weather
Originally there were two check points that had to be obtained through rope-and-harness rock climbing. I was looking forward to this, as this is a discipline I've yet to encounter during an adventure race.
Unfortunately, it turns out that "all day rain" doesn't make for the safest rock climbing conditions. So understandably, this portion had to be pulled from the race.
I guess we'll have to go back next year.
Leg 4: Bike
2/5 CP's collected
Back on (still on?) the bikes, we continue making our way towards Mott's Run Reservoir. We collect a CP at a creepy but awesome looking old silo, and then have ourselves a bit of a team meeting.
Morgan and Scott aren't as comfortable riding on the wet terrain as Geoff and I are. This is in no way a criticism of their abilities - if anything, it's simply a demonstration of how much less-reckless and more responsible they are than Geoff and I. I can tell that the stress of the conditions are wearing on Morgan, and she's starting to bonk.
We collectively decide that when we get back to the reservoir, we should drop our bikes and move onto the paddle.
Leg 5: Paddle
After dropping our bikes at the TA, we grab our paddle bag and get ready to head back out on the water. This time we decided to switch things up and put Morgan and Geoff in one boat , and Scott and I in another, to balance out our paddling skills. It works perfectly, and we knock out all 6 CP's in just over an hour.
Leg 5 Highlights:
- Geoff losing his paddle gloves, going back to the TA more than once to try and find them, failing, and spending the entire hour blaming me (jokingly, I think) for taking them. (Spoiler alert, he found them two days later in his PFD pocket. I didn't do it.)
- Finding a creepy plastic baby doll floating upside down in the water.
- Watching Scott wade through knee deep mud as he took one for the team to grab CP 5I
- Finishing the paddle before sunset.
Leg 6: Trek
6/13 CP's collected
Back on dry land, we take a minute to head up to our tents and do a clothing change/regroup. It's raining (still) and we are all soaked. And we know that we certainly won't stay dry, but heading into the night trek starting warm and dry will be a morale booster for everyone.
Leg 6 Highlights:
- Learning that Scott's eagle-eyes for spotting CP flags during the day are somehow even better in the dark.
- Morgan navigating us directly to check points, as if she had some sort of internal beacon guiding her there.
- Skirting the outside perimeter of the "out of bounds" water treatment plant while security guards watched us (likely very confused as to why there were four people wandering in the rain at night) the entire time.
Around 9:30 pm or so, I asked Morgan to show me on the map where we were. While we had co-navigated for much of the race, once we started this last trek, I had kind of mentally checked out and let her take over. This was our third race with Morgan, and I not only trust her entirely with navigating, but hope to be as skilled as she is one day.
But point being, I had no idea where we were, and felt it was time for a team check in.
She points to our location on the map, and I say something entirely unhelpful along the lines of "That's it? We're only there?"
We are effectively halfway around the reservoir "as the crow flies", but less than halfway around if we follow trail.
And we're kind of running out of time. It had taken us over 2.5 hours to get to this point on foot, and we only have 2.5 hours left in the race. There's a 1 CP penally for finishing past midnight, a 1 CP penalty for every 5 minutes past midnight, and a total disqualification if you're more than 30 minutes late.
We spend a few minutes discussing our plan. Morgan thinks we can make it back in time if we run. We've been power hiking (or, "old lady mall walking") this entire time. It's now my turn to be the weak link of the team, as I admit that I'm not sure how much trail running I have in my legs at this point during the day.
It's been a strange training year for me, and very, very little of it has included running. If we were on a road or a flat trail, I could fake my way through another 6-8 miles of running. But I was legitimately concerned that my tired and out of practice legs would trip on a root and face plant at this point.
Not to mention, my left knee was starting to swell a bit - an ache that has been coming and going for the last few months, quietly whispering "you should really go get a professional bike fitting, Heather!"
(I will knee, soon enough. I promise.)
But the cool thing about a team sport is that when you have the right teammates - and I do - they get it. You learn to give and take, to play off of each others strengths, and work with and through each others weaknesses. And that's part of what makes adventure racing such an incredible and unique sport in the endurance racing world.
So together we somewhat reluctantly decide that it's time to turn around, go back the way we came, and make it back to the finish line in time.
Much to our surprise, we make it back within striking distance of the finish with plenty of time to spare, so we decide to go past the finish area and grab one last CP (6N, for those following along with the map).
In absolutely perfect and fitting fashion, our last CP of the race would be, hands down, the most gnarly CP of the race. It was located about halfway down a maybe 2/10ths of a mile long reentrant between two trails. Had you navigated down the trail to the approximate area of the CP and headed down the slope, it wouldn't have been too bad.
But that's not what we did.
We entered the reentrant from the top, and fought through a mess of super thick rhododendron bushes and endless downed trees. Every time I had to squat down to climb under a log or through an opening in the brush, my knee would scream at me. It was the first moment all day that I was ready to simply be "done" with the race.
Fortunately not long after, we crossed the finish line.
At the finish line we discussed our strategy to turn around rather than continue around the reservoir with RD Allen, who confirmed we absolutely made the right decision (and did so while tracking other teams who were at that moment, getting lost out on the trail sections we skipped).
We filled our bellies with hot food from a local catered BBQ restaurant (three cheers for the Mac and cheese, please don't tell the vegetarians if there was pork fat in it, we'd rather be blissfully unaware) and stuck around for the awards presentation.
In total, we collected 33 out of 44 check points plus all mandatory TA punches. We were happy with our performance, but had absolutely no idea how we stacked up against the competition.
Needless to say all four of us were shocked when we found out we came in 1st for the 3/4 person co-ed division. We each scored a Fall Foliage glass mug to match the awesome race shirts we were given before the race.
In no particular order:
- When we drove into Fredericksburg, the GPS told us we were three miles away from the race start...yet we were in an incredibly bustling metro area, with stores, businesses, and hotels as far as the eye can see. We were absolutely shocked that literally a few miles away would be one of the most gorgeous wilderness areas to race in. The course truly was beautiful, even in the rain.
- RD Allen's check points are EXACTLY where the map says they should be. I mean, exactly. While they were all in unique, beautiful areas that you had to put in some work to get to, nothing was hidden or overly difficult. In my opinion, that makes for a great course for navigators of all experiences. I would love to do this race again.
- My team was awesome. We worked SO well together, through our individual strengths and weaknesses. I can't wait to race with the Cheatham's again!
- I did not steal Geoff's paddling gloves.