“You know, Larry, there's good days in racing, and there's bad days. Ricky Bobby just had himself a bad day.”
One of the major appeals of adventure racing is the fact that you really have to think. Unlike ultrarunning where you can just put your head down, mentally check out, and rely on your fitness to get you to the finish line, adventure racing requires that you stay fully aware of what's going on for the entire duration of the race. One simple mistake left unchecked can ruin your entire race.
Coincidentally, this is also what I hate the most about adventure racing.
Long Creek Adventure Race, held at the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, was a last minute replacement for our local Independent Republic Adventure Race, which was canceled just a month earlier.
Having been to the USNWC a number of times in the past for Tuckfest, Geoff and I were both excited at the prospect of racing at this location. Not only was Long Creek Adventure Race going to be our last race of the season, but it was also going to be the first adventure race ever for our newest teammate, Greg.
We'd been training all summer (well, technically for the Independent Republic AR, but I digress), we felt confident, and most of all, we were excited. Not even the last-minute-mid-November-tropical-strom that blew in and over the top of us the day before the race could ruin our pre-race-buzz.
Rather, I, personally, would ruin our race before it even started.
But let's not skip the details. (Though, if you want to skip the details, you can just watch the video version.)
*Heather's note: I recognize that this post may come across as obnoxiously negative, and make me seem like a cranky, petulant child. But, bad races happen, and this one got under my skin. I feel it would be unauthentic to portray my emotions about this day any other way. I promise you it has a positive ending. If you read the whole thing, thanks for sticking it out!
Long Creek Adventure Race: the Prequel
Geoff, Greg, and I arrive at the Whitewater center around 7:10 am, for the 7:30 check in. We assemble our bikes in the parking lot, then head up to the pavilion to secure a spot on one of the large picnic tables.
It's our understanding that this area will serve as the sole transition area, so we start arranging all of our gear (holy cow does this sport require a lot of gear) accordingly.
At 7:30 am we get in line to check in. We're handed race t-shirts, a single large map, and sheet of paper with 18 UTM coordinates to plot. I hurry back to our spot on the picnic table, and get to work.
Right away, I'm having a bit of a hard time. I attribute this to three things:
- The gridlines on the map were difficult to see. I refuse to believe that this is because I'm 40, things are starting to fall apart, and my up-until-now-perfect-eyesight may be compromised. No, I'll blame the map.
- I didn't really sleep well the night before the race. I rarely do, but I can usually solve this problem with caffeine. But, when I headed back up to our room to grab my extra caffeinated beverage, the door handle on our hotel room was literally dangling.
This wasn't much of a surprise, as pretty much everything in our hotel room broke or was about to break, including (but not limited to): the wall hook that fell down when I put my jacket on it, the bathtub faucet that was barely hanging on by a thread, and the toilet flapper chain that snapped in half.
- I forgot my Adderall at home. The irony being that my I take this prescription drug for my inattentive ADHD namely so that I stop forgetting to do things.
It takes me longer than it should have to plot 18 checkpoints.
I feel like I'm second guessing myself often.
I feel like I have to re-read the coordinates a dozen times each before I get it right.
I feel like Greg (who hasn't learned how to plot yet) and Geoff (whose new glasses didn't come in until the day AFTER the race, so he couldn't see anyway) were breathing down my neck (they weren't, they were just understandably excited for the race).
I'm feeling stressed that the race is starting in about 15 minutes, and the race directors haven't given us any sort of pre-race meeting yet. Adventure Racing is generally a "figure it out as you go/choose your own adventure" type of situation. But there are usually some sort of parameters regarding rules of travel.
So far, we had been given nothing. Does it matter what discipline we start with? Are there other TA's where we drop bikes, or boats? Is anything off limits?
And more than anything, I feel like I'm missing something very, very important...something that I perhaps haven't learned myself yet about plotting UTM coordinates.
(For the love of adventure racing gods, Heather, read Squiggly Lines already, damnit!)
Leg 1: The Run
All of five minutes before the 9:00 am start, the race director fills us in on the rules of travel:
- Both the 8 hour & 4 hour racers must go after the "RUN" CP first, where they will be given their passport.
- No bikes were allowed on the Gaston County side of the race.
- If you weren't back by the 5pm cutoff, you were disqualified. No point deductions, just a straight up DQ.
- And of course, all of the usual adventure racing rules: stay within eyesight of your teammates at all times. No using GPS. No traveling by motorized vehicle.
Other than that, it was a free-for-all. We're OK with this.
The countdown to the race start begins. I turn to Greg and Geoff, and in my best mother-hen-Heather voice say "8 hours, kids. EIGHT. HOURS. We're not running like bats out of hell to that checkpoint."
I know them both well.
They laugh at me, and when the race begins, keep their promises to run at a casual pace.
Being coastal, sea-level dwellers where any sort of elevation gain is as elusive as a unicorn, we opt to take a bit of a roundabout approach to the CP. Knowing that we do not have the trail legs others do, and that we are not familiar with this trail system, we decided to sacrifice a little bit of distance by attacking the CP via roads.
This idea is quickly shot down when we dip away from the race pack to head up the aforementioned road, only to encounter no short of four "no trespassing" signs plastered side by side on some concrete barriers blocking the road.
"No trespassing" signs are typically taken on a case-by-case basis during a race, sometimes with the "beg for forgiveness" instead of "ask for permission" approach. But four signs across a barricade? Someone really doesn't want you trespassing.
We quickly stop to re-evaluate. I look at the map and realize there should be a trail immediately to our left that will also take us where we need to go. We step into the woods, and sure enough, there is the trail.
The three of us run along the trail for a few minutes until one of us realizes "hey, this isn't the swamp, and it's not the munition laden grounds of Croft State Park...we can bushwhack!"
...and so we do just that.
I'm feeling utter joy at the fact that everything I see in front of me, I can also see on the map. Steep climbs, sharp drops, and even the summits of hills. I'm sure many of you are thinking "well obviously, that's what a map is for", but here's the kicker, friends:
we don't have contour lines on the coast.
I know that sounds ridiculous, but hear me out: when the elevation only changes 2-3 feet, TOTAL, over the course of many miles, no one bothers putting contour lines on topography maps.
Needless to say, it makes navigating pretty hilarious.
So, here I am, reveling in reentrants and valleys, when I look to the left and see a hilltop I've been looking for. No sooner do I say to Geoff & Greg "we should be getting close" that I hear voices. I look in the direction of the voices, and see the bright orange and white flag we're looking for.
We burst through the bushes and tell the guy manning the checkpoint our team name. He hands us our passport, and we're shocked to see that there is still a pretty thick stack of passports in his hand. Did our inadvertent bushwhacking pay off?
We punch the card, and head back the way we came, absolutely elated.
There's only one single checkpoint on this leg, so as we run back towards the TA, we collectively decide that we should bike next. I (naively) assume that the bike section will be on the 50+ miles of trails on the Whitewater center property, and my cycling skills (and strength) still aren't where I would like them to be. So, I want to do the bike leg while I'm still feeling fresh.
Leg 2: The Bike
We hit TA, grab our helmets and bikes, and head back out quickly. According to my prior map plotting, this leg should have 8 total checkpoints. One of which - CP #1 - appears to be in the trails relatively close to the main park itself.
So naturally, we head there first.
Let's get to the highlights of the next, oh, hour.
- We almost immediately can't figure out what trail we are on. The trails in this section are wound tightly together, so much so that at certain points, you could place one foot on one trail, and another foot on an entirely different trail.
From past races I've run out here, I remember permanent trail signage. But today, those signs seemingly no longer exist.
- The trails are littered in soaking wet leaf cover. I slip and slide a bunch, and actually fall hard once. This, as it turns out, would be where and when I lost my brand new compass that Geoff bought me. But of course I didn't realize this until many miles later.
- The "are you SURE we're in the right spot?" and "where is the checkpoint SUPPOSED to be?" comments start.
- My mapboard tries to leave my handlebars. I stop to fix it, Geoff and I bicker.
- We wander around on foot in the exact place where I have marked the map. We find nothing.
Eventually Geoff says we've spent too much time here, and we need to move on. Because this CP is supposedly somewhere around here, close to TA, we can come back later if we have time. So we decide to ride out to the furthest North CP on this side of the Catawba river, which is only about 3.5 kilometers or so away.
As we leave the trails and take off back down the road, the unsettling realization that we didn't see a single other racer on this side of the park, never mind on the trails, washes over me.
Are Ya'll With the HOA?
We leave the Whitewater Center and head towards the town of Sodyeco. As we're headed towards the main road, I finally see other racers. I breathe a sigh of relief - at least we're headed in the right general direction.
We turn right onto route 27 and settle into the "let's get through this heavily car traffic section as quickly as possible" pace. We're not on the road terribly long before we turn into a residential neighborhood.
The endless roads and cul-de-sacs are littered with two story homes packed in relatively tightly. I'm beginning to wonder if maybe the RD put a checkpoint in his front yard or something (because that would be pretty hilarious).
We follow the map to exactly where I plotted the check point and...
Nothing but houses. There's not an O-flag to be seen.
I double check our route. It was spot on. Geoff double checks the map, and is just as confused. Greg starts taking off around the neighborhood, to which we had to remind him more than once to stay closer, less we be accused of not following the rules.
Not that there was a single other racer around to call us out.
We start riding around the neighborhood haphazardly at this point. A women sticks her head out of her front door and yells at us "Hey...are ya'll with the HOA?".
Geoff laughs and assures her we are not. I suppose scrupulously staring at peoples houses looking for an orienteering flag looks just like scrupulously staring at peoples houses trying to find HOA violations.
Freshman Level Navigating
Geoff once again decides that we've spent too much time looking for this CP, and it's time to head out. We're not a few hundred yards down the road when the proverbial lightbulb goes off in my head.
"Hey guys, stop for a minute...I need to check something."
I pull over to the sidewalk, lay my bike down, pull out the map, AND pull out the sheet of UTM coordinates. And that's when I realized...
I plotted off of half kilometer grid lines as if they were kilometer grid lines.
I sometimes listen to ultrarunning coach Jason Koop's podcast, where he often refers to various science topics as "Freshmen level physiology". He's kind of brash and snarky, which is part of the appeal, and I take this "freshmen level physiology" statement as an undermined way of stating that the topic in question is bare-minimum-level knowledge a professional should have, and if you don't, you clearly need to go back to school.
I made a freshmen level navigation mistake.
To give myself credit, I've never been presented a 1:24 map with half kilometer gridlines before. But at the same time, when I realized the error I had made, I felt like a fool.
Nevertheless I try to explain to Geoff what I think I did wrong, while Greg rides his bike in circles with the enthusiasm of a first time racer, hoping to stumble upon the checkpoint. Geoff isn't understanding what I'm trying to tell him. So I re-plot CP#7, the one we were just looking for, and tell him that if I'm correct in figuring out my error, CP7 should be less than 1/4 kilometer away. Let's just go for it and see what happens.
We hop on our bikes, pedal for mere minutes, and what do you know:
we find CP #7.
We drop our bikes and stomp into the woods. I'm equal parts elated and PISSED at my error. We grab the punch, and then I sit down on the sidewalk and get to work.
It takes me probably a half an hour to re-plot the coordinates on the map. By the time I'm done, it looks like a toddler with a Sharpie marker got a hold of the map: there are scribbles and marks everywhere.
But finally that sinking feeling that I've done something wrong is gone. I'm confident once again.
CP's 16, 7, 8, & 4:
The next five CP's come relatively easily, because you know, I've finally plotted them in the correct place on the map.
All of the next five CP's are located off of paved roads. Those who know me know I'm not a huge fan of riding with traffic on pavement. There's a reason I took up off-road sports, and that reason is because I don't trust anyone behind a wheel when I'm on a bicycle.
Eventually, we find ourselves on the Southern end of the Whitewater center property, and head back towards the TA.
We're four hours into the race, and we've collected a whopping 6 out of 18 CP's. But, we do notice that the next leg of the race - both the paddle on the Catawba River and the trek through the town of Mount Holly - have a lot of very closely grouped CP's.
While they are fading, there are still hopes that we can still pull this race off.
Leg 3: Paddle/Trek Gaston County
Paddling is typically team HSEC's strength. We don't have a ton of trails, we have zero elevation, but damnit, WE HAVE WATER AND BOATS! In fact, our team typically meets every Sunday to put in 3-4 hours worth of paddling up and down the Waccamaw River.
We're confident in our paddling skills, and we know this is our time to shine.
Now, we had made a last minute decision to not bring our own boats to the race. We opted to stay in a hotel the night before the race in Charlotte, and we were unsure of how safe they would be on the tops of our vehicles. The Whitewater center offered kayak rentals, so we figured this would save us some headache.
And it did.
The sit-on-top kayaks that were provided were certainly not as stealth as our personal boats, but I took this as a challenge in patience.
Newly-obssessed with adventure racing, I've spent plenty of time pouring over Youtube videos and documentaries, and have seen that it's not uncommon in expedition length races (or adventure racing in general) for all teams to be provided with the exact same boats - whether it's kayaks, canoes, rafts, or even SUPS. And there is no guarantee that these boats are going to be fast or easy to maneuver.
So this would be a good experience for all of us.
Check Point #1: Part 2
Remember the very first checkpoint we spent far too long looking for - to no avail - at the start of the race? Well obviously we never found it - because it wasn't where I plotted it.
Turns out it was ACTUALLY on the small island directly across from the boat launch at the Whitewater center.
There is a small stream that cuts through the middle of the island that would provide a shortcut to the CP. Geoff and I have been through this before, when we took some SUP's out exploring the last time we were here.
And just like last time - sections of the short cut are too shallow to paddle, so we have to get out and walk (this is where those sit-on-top kayaks came in extra handy!)
We find CP #1 with no struggle at all, and continue on our way.
Check Point #2: Part 1
Geoff connects a tow-line from his kayak to mine so I can take a few minutes to look at the map strategize our next moves once we hit the Gaston County side of the river.
There was a time when I first started adventure racing that I felt a tow-line was a sign of weakness. These days, I realize it's a sign of a well planned strategy in getting your entire team to the finish line, so I gladly put my paddle down for a bit.
We paddle down river for less than a kilometer before we see at least a dozen other rental boats parked on the shoreline. I double check the map to confirm this is where we need to be (I've learned the hard way to always trust the map, NOT other teams) and park our boats as well.
We ditch our PFD's and grab our hydration packs, knowing that in addition to checkpoint #2 - which should be less than 0.5 km up a stream from where we are standing - there are two other CP's further inland that we would need to run to.
And then we proceed to stumble about in the woods for awhile.
CP #2 is nowhere to be found. We follow the stream through the woods for a solid kilometer before hitting Route 273, and find nothing. At some point another racer heading in the opposite direction asks if we're looking for CP#2. We say yes, and he tells us that he - and a number of other athletes - haven't been able to locate it either
Since we have to come back this way, we decide to head inland to try and find CP 12 & CP 11, and will try again for #2 on our way back through.
As we hit the main road, we see a co-ed pair of racers headed back our way. We make the usual cheery small talk, and then I decide to ask them "Hey, did you guys find CP#2?"
Competition during adventure can vary wildly from race to race, and team to team. Sometimes you'll find yourself neck and neck with another team, racing for a podium spot, and so you try to interact as little as possible. Other times, you'll find yourself at hour 10 of a 12 hour race, with 6 other teams towards the middle of the pack, all teaming together to find those last few CP's so you can all officially clear the course.
Asking another team if they've found a CP can result in answers as simple as "Yes" or "No", to the other team giving you hints as to where to find the CP, or even telling you EXACTLY where to go, how long it's going to take you, and what kind of tree the flag is hanging on.
You just never know.
This team was very helpful and gracious, but must have misheard my question. Because when I asked if they had found CP#2, they said "Yes! It's behind the cemetery near the old church". We were both moving quickly in opposite directions, so I didn't want slow them down to ask for clarification. I just said thank you and kept going.
Looking at the map, however, I realized that I had plotted CP11 on the map near "Ebenezer Church Cemetery". That must have been what they are talking about.
We look across the street, see a church on the back side of a huge open field, assume that must be it, and take off running.
We assumed wrong.
Wrong Church. Wrong Cemetary.
At this point I'm going to blame the fact that we're all frustrated and probably in a caloric deficit (I know I haven't been staying on top of my nutrition or hydration as I've been too busy trying to figure out what we are doing wrong), but we make another Freshmen Level Navigation error in that we just blindly run towards a church based on the words of another racer.
And the error is not in trusting the other racer. No, the error is in naively assuming that this was the only church around.
Because, spoiler alert, it wasn't.
Nevertheless we spend a RIDICULOUS amount of time looking for CP11 near the completely wrong church.
Let's fast track through the rest of the details during the next hour:
- Geoff and I bicker some more. I can't blame either one of us for that.
- I gladly give him the map. I don't want to be in charge anymore, and am sick of hearing "Are you sure? Are you SURE?" from my teammates every other minute. Not that I can blame either one of them for that at this point either.
- We wander around an apartment complex. I'm still not sure why, I'm just glad to not be in charge.
- I ask a woman who is in her front yard to confirm the name of the street we're on. She says "I don't know, I don't live here." and rushes inside. (The HOA is up to no good again...)
- We wander behind another church, and another cemetery. No CP.
- Geoff wants to head back, but I convince him to wait while I ask another 2 person team I see if they have any hints. They point to YET ANOTHER cemetery, so we run towards it.
- As soon as we make it to the cemetery, a solo racer kindly says "it's just over there (and points towards the woods). Stay on the tree line, you can't miss it!"
- We completely miss it. We never find CP 12.
Is that Bojangles, or an O-Flag?
We've now done a full circle, and we're back near the first church.
Geoff stares at the map, trying to figure out...well, anything at this point.
I shovel food into my face and convince Geoff that we should try one more time to find CP11.
We head towards the area where the map says the CP should be. I look towards the bushes and see a glimmer of white and orange from a distance. My heart jumps - did I just find it? - and then immediately sinks as I realize that what I'm seeing is actually just the orange and white of the roof of the Bojangles restaurant across the road.
Nevertheless I start walking closer to the bushes...and it pays off.
Because hidden among the leaves and views of Bojangles is the checkpoint.
Check Point #2: Round 2
We sit, again, analyze the map, again, and figure it's time to head back to our boats.
Highlights of this section include:
- Passing the hotel we're staying in, where I threaten (jokingly) to just stay there and call it a day.
- Taking the long, scenic route through a tunnel that goes under the road, because why not.
- Greg succumbing to extreme chafing of his nether-regions, as we forgot to tell him that running and paddling in full cycling shorts isn't always the best idea (triathlon shorts are so much better). He changes into pants while Geoff and I wait further down the trail.
- Geoff takes a bite of an SIS bar, and immediately spits it out. He asks me to check the expiration date, to which I reply "OH-SIX." Geoff's eyes bug out, thinking he's eating a bar that expired 16 years ago. "Wait, wait wait...oh-six-twenty. This expired in 2020." We contemplate whether or not this is any better.
- We still do not find CP #2.
Paddling & Peep Shows
We eventually make it back to our boats, and we aren't really surprised to find that our three kayaks are the only ones left. Rather, I think we're all kind of glad they are still there at all, because it's been that kind of day.
We have maybe two hours left, so we decide to head up river and salvage whatever we can of this race. CP#3, which is directly on the river, is found easily. From here, we decide to start paddling the 2.5km up river to CP#6, which should be fairly close to CP 13, 14, & 5.
We settle in to our paddling, just as the wind and current decides to settle in as well. The sky is getting dark, there is no doubt a storm coming. While we have a tailwind at our backs, we're still not moving very quickly in the rental boats.
Greg's boat manages to get caught on fishing line, and he comes to a complete stop. While we work on getting him unhooked, we have that inevitable team meeting where we realize that, with the current and a headwind on the way back, we're never going to get the rest of the CP's AND back to the finish line on time.
This race didn't offer point deductions for being late - not that we had a lot of points available to sacrifice. If you weren't in by 5 pm, you were immediately DQ'd.
So, we reluctantly decided to head back.
We cross the river and start paddling against the wind and current, which has picked up once again. At least that us feel better about our decision.
We're now paddling along the Mecklenburg county / Whitewater center shore of the river. I see a beautiful great blue heron sitting on a log. Typically they fly away long before you get close to them, but this one wasn't moving. I turn on the GoPro and take a video of the beautiful bird as we paddle past.
What I didn't expect to catch on film was the couple in the woods that didn't hear us coming, scrambling to stop doing whatever they were doing (just kidding, we saw what they were doing) as soon as they caught sight of us.
It gave us all the giggle we needed at that point in the race.
"Well - We're Not Done, but Our Day is Done"
We take our sweet time docking the boats, climbing out of the boats, and returning our rental gear.
Our walk/jog back to the finish line is not at all rushed, but we manage to crack a few jokes about our poor performance along the way.
When we finally reach the finish line, I head to the timing table to hand in our passport.
"All done?" the race staff member asks me.
"Well - we're not DONE, but our day is done." I reply.
We stay for the final awards ceremony - we may be cranky but we're not poor sports. Then, we went back to our hotel to drown our sorrows in pizza and beer while watching Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.
Laughter is the best medicine for broken and humbled adventure racing hearts.
In the end, we would place 4th out of 6 in the co-ed team category - but that's only because 5th place was DQ'd (presumably for not finishing on time) and 6th place never even started the race. We only collected 9 out of 18 check points. For reference - 10 of the 22 teams in the 8 hour race cleared the course (collected all 18), so it certainly wasn't a course issue...
...it was a team HSEC issue.
A bad day of adventure racing is still better than not adventure racing at all.
It's true. As incredibly frustrating as this sport can be, it's still a whole TON of fun, and I'm grateful to have had the experience. It certainly beat staying at home doing my normal Saturday chores.
Forget the mistakes, remember the lessons.
The Long Creek Adventure Race marks adventure race #8 for me.
We're in that phase of this sport where we're no longer BRAND new, but still new enough that we're letting our excitement for the sport get ahead of the skills we're still trying to build.
So, while I admittedly did beat myself up about this one for a solid 48 hours, I've also learned some very valuable lessons.
- Listen to your intuition. Right from the very start, when I was plotting the UTM coordinates before the race even began, I had this tiny voice that kept whispering that I might be doing something wrong. I brushed it off.
- Put away your pride. When I heard that whisper, I should have said to my teammates "hey, am I doing this correctly? Am I missing something here?" Instead, I put my often too-stubborn-for-my-own-good head down and kept pushing forward. Because as the team navigator, I was "supposed" to know what I was doing. In the end, my pride only hurt our entire team.
- FOLLOW. THE. MAP! Since I'm writing this post, I should say "I" and not speak for the others, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say "we" in this statement:
We still have this horrible habit of just assuming the map is wrong, and not that we could be wrong. (But to give us credit, we HAVE done some races with pre-plotted maps that were, in fact, plotted incorrectly).
For example, the first church that we spent a ton of time circling was NOT in the same location on the map as the church we were looking for. Why we casually and collectively assumed it was "close enough" or a mistake on the maps part is beyond me.
Or, when we spent two hours searching for the first two CP's, we mentioned numerous times that "maybe the flags were stolen?" instead of stopping, pulling out the UTM's, and verifying the plotting.
- Don't let Greg race in fully padded bike shorts.
Here's to the upcoming 2023 season. Next up is the Sea to Sea 72 hour race. We've got about 3 months to improve our navigating skills and lubrication practices, and I, for one, am looking forward to it.
Oh, and p.s. Greg? You rock. Thank you for sticking by our side while we fought like the old, married couple that we are, while it appeared that we had NO idea what we were doing (mostly true), and while we poked fun of you for your chafed butthole. We hope your introduction to adventure racing was a memorable one, and we can't wait for you to join us again!