There was a time, not that long ago, when I was not a team player.
I had gravitated towards ultrarunning because I craved time alone in the proverbial pain cave, to both work through the endless noise in my head, and to suffer in silence by myself.
Further, my obnoxiously competitive side couldn't stand the thought of someone else's actions or inactions interfering with a potential win, so a solo-sport like running just made sense.
On that same note, I knew that if I did something to ruin my chance at a podium spot - which I often did - the only person who would be negatively affected was myself.
Adventure racing has been a huge transition for me. Not necessarily in learning how to work as a team, but in learning how to accept help, and to remember that I no longer "need" to do hard things alone.
In fact, it turns out that doing hard things together can be a ton of fun.
The 2023 rendition of the Palmetto Swamp Fox Adventure Race would be the fourth year that Geoff and I attended this event, but the first time ever racing as a 4 person team.
Initially, the plan was to race with Brian (who raced with us in 2021 & 2022), and Greg, the new guy (we've collectively decided that the first race he joined us for didn't count). However, Brian had to back out pretty last minute due to work obligations.
So while we knew it was a long shot, we asked one of our clients and future teammates (we're signed up to race the Rev3 50 hour challenge together in May) Morgan to join us. Not only is Morgan a very busy mom of 3 and a physician in an ER, but she lives about 6 hours away AND was racing another adventure race the weekend before Swamp Fox.
Needless to say, were stoked beyond measure when she agreed to join us.
Friday Night: Pre-Race Staging
Per Team HSEC tradition, there had to be some sort of chaos involved around race weekend, and we did not disappoint: Geoff realized he left his helmet at home.
Keep in mind we are a solid 90 minutes from home, in an area where the largest store available for a 40 mile radius was a Dollar General.
Fortunately for us, Greg had not yet left his home, so he made the trip to our local bike shop back in Myrtle Beach. After a few back and forth phone calls, and me yelling "HEY, WILL A MEDIUM/LARGE WORK OR DO YOU PREFER LARGE/EXTRA LARGE" at Geoff through the campground port-a-potty door, Greg procured a helmet.
Once Morgan arrived, we headed down to the McClellanville Town Hall to check in and pick up our map. For whatever reason, Geoff was under the impression that the 6:30 pm pre-race meeting was not mandatory, but we found out at packet pickup that it actually was.
At that point, it was 5:20 pm, and we still had to stage our bikes (15 minutes away) and boats (30 minutes away). Cue the Benny Hill theme song as we scramble to drop off our bikes at Honey Hill Recreation Area (which we found with no problem), and then drop our boat and paddle gear off at a pre-provided-but-incorrect GPS location.
Picture me yelling at my GPS "BUT THERE'S NO WHERE TO TURN!" when it's telling me I have arrived at our location.
Luckily, we were on a road I have driven dozens of times before, on the way to my beloved Hell Hole Swamp. I knew there was a boat landing under the bridge we had just driven over (on the Santee River), so we turned around and headed down there.
My heart sunk when we rounded the corner and saw that no one was there. No people, no boats, nothing.
But just as I'm about to pull out my phone to try and figure out what to do next, we see an SUV emerge from a dirt road that goes under the bridge itself. It's fellow adventure racers, and they inform us that we are indeed in the right spot...we just have to go a little further.
Now, my poor little Subaru is practically touching the ground as is, so no way is she going to make it through that rut-and-hole covered dirt road, so we park and carry the boat down.
By the time we make the drive back to McClellanville, the mandatory meeting has started, and race director Steve is already talking about TA3. Feeling like a kid who was late to class, I patiently wait until the meeting was over, then find someone I know to ask what I missed.
Thank you Byron Nash for the intel!
Bikes checked, boats checked, and a relatively solid idea of what's to come, we head back to the campground to eat dinner, ogle at the oversized map, finally meet up with Greg, and get some rest before the race.
Race morning we show up to the McClellanville Town Hall at approximately 4:50 am. After four years of this race, we've learned that the early bird catches the good parking spots...and a prime oyster shucking table for plotting maps.
At 5:00 am race director Steve hands out a sheet listing 17 of the total 22 UTM coordinates, and we get to plotting. I tackle the first half, while Morgan tackles the second half. We then double check each other's work, and start coming up with a plan of attack.
All the while it's absolutely pouring outside.
In fact, according to the weather the day before, it was predicted to rain for the duration of the 12 hour race.
For the first time in my life, the weather forecast did not deter me. Those of you who know me in real life, or who have read my ramblings in the past, are fully aware that I can seemingly get hypothermia when it's 65 degrees out. I hate being cold. Cold and wet? Even worse.
But, I had spent pretty much all of 2022 accumulating cold and wet weather gear for the 2023 Sea to Sea 72 hour race...which I didn't end up using, because it was sunny and 85+ degrees the entire time.
I guess Mother Nature wanted to make sure that gear was not collected in vain.
Around 6:45 am, Steve gives some last minute instructions, and the racers head out into the rain to board a handful of school busses. In years past the race has started and finished at the McClellanville town hall. This year, however, we were being bussed to the Santee River Landing in Jamestown, where we had staged our boats the night before.
Remembering ALL too well the motion-sickness-filled bus ride of Sea to Sea, I plunk us down towards the front of the bus, refuse to take out the map to try and read it, and instead, close my eyes and relax for the 30+ minute drive.
Once the bus arrives, we climb off the bus and get ready for the prologue. The purpose of a prologue at the start of an Adventure Race is to try and break up the pack right from the get go, in order to avoid "traffic jams" at trail heads or boat landings.
Our plan from the beginning had been to have Greg complete the prologue. In years past, the prologue for this race has involved a 5K around the town of McClellanville, collecting letter clues at various check points for a word-jumble puzzle. Figure out the word, get your passport, and your race would start.
Greg is a short-distance speed demon, and we figured we'd let him burn his legs out at the beginning of the race, so we could all keep up with him for the remaining 11 hours and 40 minutes.
This year however, the prologue was a simple sprint to the top of a hill, where one teammate would grab a word-search puzzle, sprint back to their team, and solve the puzzle before obtaining their passport.
Geoff and Morgan decide to head down to the boats to get us staged and ready to go. The rule follower in me is hesitant - is that allowed? We're not sticking together. We're supposed to stick together. But seemingly "everyone else is doing it", and the race hasn't technically started yet, so the two of them head towards the river.
Meanwhile, I seek shelter from the rain under the overpass with dozens of other racers, and wait to help Greg when he returns.
The cannon (yes, cannon) goes off, and everyone sprints away.
Mere minutes later, athletes are returning. I'm looking everywhere for Greg, but cannot see him. More minutes go by, and still no Greg. Keep in mind, I have not moved from the spot I was in the last time I saw Greg. Eventually, I see the back of the pack walkers return, and still no Greg.
"Great" I'm thinking to myself, "5 minutes into the race and Greg is either lost or injured..."
Eventually I hear someone calling my name and see the rest of my team clear on the other side of the bridge, asking me where I've been. I immediately retort that I've been exactly where they left me, and go into full on racer-mom mode lecturing about how "this is why we shouldn't split up in the first place".
Once a mom, always a mom.
We find our word search words quickly, but struggle to actually circle them. The paper is soaked, and even our waterproof, permanent markers don't want to cooperate.
This, my friends, would be but a foreshadowing of what was to come.
Thankfully, RD Steve isn't really checking our work to make sure we circled everything (though we did - just some of the words were circled by carving the paper with the tip of the pen rather than circled with ink). He hands us our passport and we run down to the water to get in our boats and begin the first paddle section.
Leg #1: Paddle
8.5 ish miles / 2 ish hours
While our team normally opts to each paddle our own kayaks, we decided last minute to borrow Brian's canoe (aka "Big Red") so Morgan didn't have to stress about bringing a boat down to South Carolina.
We figured three people in one boat would give us a bit of a speed advantage. What we didn't anticipate was that three people in one very lightweight canoe would be incredibly unstable, or "tippy", if you will.
We're not 20 feet into the mile paddle leg and we've already pulled over to adjust pretty much everything our canoe to ensure we don't fall out. At this point, we're pretty much one of the last few teams at the very back of the pack. But, last is still better than having to self rescue a flipped canoe while all of your racing gear is floating down the river.
Eventually everyone is situated in a more stable, practical way, and we start flying down the river in the absolute pouring rain.
We opt to have Morgan NOT paddle, as three kayak paddles in one canoe tends to get a little messy. I know she felt bad about this, as if she wasn't contributing. But sometimes in a team sport, NOT doing something is actually beneficial to the team as a whole.
So instead, she entertained us with stories and songs instead, which was a welcome distraction over the next 8.5 miles of paddling through both intermittent rain storms and what felt like absolute monsoons.
At one point, I casually wonder out loud how far we've paddled. From his kayak Greg yells "about 5.76 km, according to my GPS!".
All three of us in the canoe start simultaneously shouting back various iterations of "WHAT ARE YOU DOING? YOU'RE NOT SUPPOSED TO HAVE A GPS WATCH IN ADVENTURE RACING!"
Poor, bewildered Greg starts shouting back "I DIDN'T KNOW! YOU GUYS DIDN'T TELL ME THAT!"
Oh yeah, uhhh we thought you knew. Sorry, new guy. Our bad.
Leg 2: O-Course (Foot), CP 1-6
11 ish miles / 3 ish hours. 5 of 6 CP's collected.
Many races tend to start off with a quick and easy CP, perhaps to help build confidence and excitement. CP #1 for the 2023 Palmetto Swamp Fox Adventure Race was a full 8.5 miles into the race.
At this point, we were instructed to park our boats, and we were given new coordinates for CP's 2 through 6. While CP's 4 & 6 were given as UTM coordinates, CP's 2, 3, and 5 were found by triangulating.
So, we pull out the maps in the pouring rain, and I get to work plotting. Or trying to plot, as it may be, because our map is quickly disintegrating in the rain.
Neither my fine tip Sharpie marker nor my "write on any surface" waterproof pens will leave any ink on the map. They will, however, erase the map ink, so at least there's some sort of "mark" to help us figure out where we're going.
Spoiler alert: I triangulated incorrectly.
It didn't FEEL right as I was doing it, this is the only race I've ever had to use this skill in, so I haven't practiced it in over a year. No one else on the team knew how to do it either, so I took a wild guess. Fortunately, when I realized my error not 10 minutes into our trek, we hadn't gone off course at all, and we were able to fix the errors.
For at least a little while.
During the course of the next three hours, we had to stop two more times to re-plot the coordinates / re-triangulate, and not because they were incorrect. Rather, because the marks on the map - both the ones we had made and the map itself - were slowly disappearing before our eyes.
The wet conditions had made a sloppy mess out of everyone's maps, not just ours. At one point, another team asked me for help in confirming that they plotted a CP correctly. I tried to show them on my map where to go...except that whole section of my map had been wiped completely clean.
In retrospect, it's hilarious.
Nevertheless, we made the best of it. Team HSEC ran, walked, and laughed our way around the forest, finding all but one of the CP's fairly easily.
Ultimately, a combination of both the initial plotting error and the disintegrating map left us taking a completely inefficient route in order to collect all of the checkpoints. When it came to the very last CP on the O-course, we realized we had two options:
- run about 4km to the CP, then another 5km back to our boats, or
- skip the CP, and just run 3km back to our boats.
We looked at the clock, realized we had already spent a lot of time on this leg, and decided to cut our losses. We headed back to the boats.
Leg 3: Paddle to TA 1
3 ish miles / 1 hour
Back in the tippy canoe, Morgan and I had decided to alternate paddling, switching off every 3 minutes. We were both soaking wet, and neither one of us wanted to get cold sitting still.
Our interval plan worked well, and we continued to entertain ourselves with canoe karaoke, including our own rendition of the ear-worm "Proud to be an American" after a bald eagle flew overhead (much to Geoff's dismay, who felt we should have been inspired to sing Hulk Hogan's "Real American" instead.)
Leg 4: Foot to TA 2, CP 7 - 13
10 ish miles / 3 hours. 6 of 7 CP's collected.
Around 6 hours since the starting cannon was fired, we arrive at Pleasant Hill Landing, the location of TA2.
We shove all of our paddling gear back in our paddle bag, and drop the canoe off at the boat trailer, not terribly sad to say goodbye.
(Sorry Big Red, it's not you, it's us.)
This is the only time during the race that we have access to our drop buckets, so we take our time shoveling snack food into our faces before we head out on foot.
Pleasant Hill Landing was the location of the paddle start back in 2021, so I'm vaguely familiar with the area ...but nothing like the other side of the "swamp", where I could navigate the Palmetto Trail and surrounding forest service roads with my eyes closed.
(Oh Wambaw Swamp, how I love to hate you...)
We're all in great spirits still, though 6 hours of wet feet and wet chamois are starting to get the best of Morgan and Greg. Fortunately, Geoff has a spare stick of Squirrel's Nut Butter, so our team lubes up where necessary.
We then spend the next few miles cracking jokes about our future all female AR team, which we will name "Lady Nuts".
Geoff is calling out run/walk intervals, and we're moving forward at a decent clip.
We find CP #8 with no problem, although it does FEEL like it takes a lot longer to get there than it should. This should have been a glaringly obvious sign that we were not originally on the road that I thought we were on...but I think we were all riding the high of a) not being in the boats anymore, b) feeling the warmth of the sun that was trying to peak out from behind the clouds, and c) the entertainment factor of CP#8 (it was about 15 feet up a tree, and you had to climb an incredibly narrow wire ladder to get to it).
CP 9, however, would get the best of us.
You see, the Francis Marion National Forest is a delightfully hilarious place to navigate. Forest roads seemingly pop up and disappear overnight, meaning any given road that exists in real life, might not exist on a map, and vice versa.
Plus this area is incredibly flat. Topography lines are rare, and there are absolutely no high points to use as reference or shoot bearings off of.
In retrospect, a combination of my ADHD brain, which is quick to rearrange the order of things AND become easily distracted, paired with me not listening to my gut, is why we missed CP 9. Three times I stopped and told my teammates that I couldn't help but feel the (unmarked, fresh looking) road we had passed was indeed the road we needed to take. Three times we all collectively decided that it couldn't be, for various (incorrect) reasons.
I even told another team we passed that I was 80 to 90% sure we were headed in the right direction. But there was 10-20% still shouting "YOU SHOULD HAVE TAKEN THAT ROAD!".
About 1.5 km later we stumbled upon forest road (5032, to be exact) that we had declared our "backstop" - a predetermined point that lets you know you have indeed gone too far. At that point, we decided to write off CP 9 and keep moving forward.
CP 10 & CP 11 were found easily. We continued to entertain ourselves with endless chatter, and by holding our wet maps out like kites, trying to dry them as we moved along.
Eventually we take a turn down what should be a 2.5 km straight shot to our next CP. I declare that the CP "must be" in a neighborhood, as I "remember" passing the area on the way to the boat drop the day before.
This stretch feels long and unforgiving, as it's a recently dug up road that is anything but "flat" underfoot.
We stop at one point for Greg to change his socks, and for Morgan to re-lube up her downstairs chafing situation. I'm feeling guilty that I feel so good, so I try to entertain the troops with a "sitting in the forest selfie", among other Heather shenanigans.
Back up and moving forward, we're suddenly all surprised when Morgan yells "look, a CP!" Sure enough, in a tree just on the left hand side of the dirt road is CP 12. The one that I was certain was in a "residential area" is, in fact, in the middle of absolutely nowhere.
Fortunately, my teammates are not mad at all when I tell them I need a second to look at the maps and figure out our next step.
Which, also fortunately, is simply "keep walking about a kilometer down this road until you hit TA 2".
Leg 5: Bike to Finish, CP 14-22
20 ish miles / 2.5 hours. 6 of 9 CP's collected.
We're all glad to be at the bike TA, and excited to get on our bikes. We are bummed, however, that we only have a couple of hours left before the race cutoff of 7 pm.
It's at this point it really clicks that despite the race being a "12 hour" course, we spent about 50 minutes of that first hour on the bus and waiting for the race to officially start. So in reality, we had just over 11 hours to complete the course.
But, that's adventure racing for you: whatever the race director says, goes, and your job is to figure out how to get it done.
I ask everyone on our team to give me an honest assessment of their current status, and what they each feel a current doable pace on the bike looks like. Based on our collective answers, I decide right off the bat that we're going to skip CP 15 in order to try and make it to the finish line before the cutoff.
We don't spend a ton of time at the TA before heading out. Thankfully, the rain has held off for a few hours now, but the dirt roads are still soft and muddy.
We ride just under 3km before reaching a 4 way intersection that I'm convinced is the intersection we need to take for CP 14. Except the intersection includes only one road, and what appears to be either an ATV or mountain bike trail.
Looking at the map, this makes sense to me, especially considering the cross road is marked with dashed lines, indicating it may be a bit more rough. We get maybe 20 feet in, and Geoff and Greg stop.
"This isn't it" they tell me "There's no other bike tracks in here, this isn't where we are supposed to be." For the first time in over nine hours I start to argue with them. This HAS to be the right spot, and I give my reasoning why.
They, on the other hand, are convinced it isn't. And that's when the first sign that I have under-fueled today rears it's ugly head, as I give a very dramatic, teenage-snark-worthy "Fine. Whatever you say. I'm wrong. Let's go." and head back to the road.
We continue riding down the road, and Lo and behold two minutes later we come across another four way intersection, where other racers are coming back out of the woods. Not only that, but we're at the point of the day where the mid to back of the pack teams aren't even hesitating to say "the CP is back there, just keep going" without anyone even having to ask. So now, we're clearly in the right place.
Oops. My bad.
We continue on with our plan, skipping CP 15, but collecting 16, 17, & 18 easily enough. They are, per usual, either in absolutely gorgeous locations, OR in trees...something not uncommon at the Swamp Fox AR.
After CP 18, we continue another 2km down the road, before taking a left and heading East towards CP 19. And that's when everything kinda fell apart.
The road we turn down wouldn't have been a problem in most cases. But, ten hours and fifteen minutes into a race day, the slightest bit of effort it took to pedal across this soft, grass covered dirt road was the proverbial "straw that broke the camels back".
I bonked, hard. Up until this point, I was feeling so strong, and having such a fun time, that I admittedly wasn't keeping up with my nutrition as well as I should have. I scarfed down an extra gel AND a 5-hour-energy as soon as I felt the onset of the crash, but neither one seemingly helped.
While she never complained once, the look on Morgan's face let us know her chafing issues were exacerbated by this less-than-smooth road. I felt like the worst bearer of bad news when she asked how much further we'd be on this road after CP19, and I had to tell her at least another 3km.
When we eventually came out to a slightly easier to travel road, I asked the team to stop. I wanted to consult the map, because we had a decision to make.
There was no way we had time to go after CP 20, which would require around a 3km out-and-back path of travel. CP 21 was, however, on the way to the finish line. If we headed towards CP 21, there was the potential of riding 4+ km on similar, soft terrain. But, if we skip CP 21, we could take a smoother (and thus, faster) road, cutting off a few km as we headed towards the finish line.
The team as a whole was a little wishy-washy with their answers. No one wanted to be the one to throw in the towel.
I looked at my watch and realized we had less than 20 minutes to get to the finish line before the 7 pm cutoff, and frankly, that was NOT going to happen, no matter what. But heading out for CP 21 had the potential to slow us down even more.
"We're going this way." I declare, as I head towards the shorter route, opting to skip CP 21. No one complained.
We easily snagged CP 22 on our way to the finish line, complete with a thigh deep water crossing (twice).
Finish / Results:
From CP 22 we have around an 8km ride to the finish line, on mostly paved road. This is the same finishing route that we've taken during the previous 3 races, and I'm grateful that there's seemingly zero car traffic at all this year (road riding still petrifies me).
Once we cross Highway 17, we make a strong push through downtown McClellanville to the finish line. I'm caught behind a guy from another team, and so I follow him as he barrels into the parking lot, and under the town hall looking for the check in table (it's usually pretty obvious when you ride into the lot).
Another racer starts to yell at me "don't ride in here" with the same tone you would use on a toddler, and I'm fairly certain I whipped my head around and shot daggers out of my eyes at him.
I'm going to go ahead and say we were probably both hangry.
We find the check in table hidden around the corner, hand in our punch card, and officially call it a day.
Final Race Stats:
- 53 ish miles covered ( about 12+ paddling, 19+ on foot, and 20 on bikes)
- 11:38:07 total moving time (NOT counting the bus ride)
- According to the official results, WITH the bus ride, our time was 12:05
- 17 of 22 CP's collected
- one point deducted for late return, giving us a final tally of 16 CP's
- 3rd place 4-person coed team (admittedly out of only 3 total 4 person co-ed teams. In fact, out of 128 total racers, only 5 were female - and two of them were on our team.)
I cannot possibly find the words to express how extremely proud of my team I am. There were a lot of "firsts" for all of us, including:
- First time racing as a 4 person team (for all of us)
- First time meeting Morgan "in real life" (and we all got along smashingly)
- First 12 hour race of any type for Greg
- First time in a pace line for Morgan
Despite the less-than-ideal weather, despite having never raced together as a team, and despite the various discomforts teammates were feeling, everyone stayed positive and contributed to the team as a whole.
I'm proud of the fact that all four of our teammates trekked through the woods to each and every CP, never straying more than a few yards apart (no waiting on the side of the road for us).
And I'm proud of the fact that every time someone on my team offered to help me - whether it was carrying a part of the map, or handing me extra calories - I let them. This is a big step for me.
Per usual RD Steve put on a fantastic, fun race.
And, per usual, I cannot wait to do it again next year.