There comes a time in every endurance athlete's life where they brush aside their beginner insecurities and say "fuck it, I'm going to try and win this race".* Maybe they've trained hard for this moment. Maybe they have no business making such a bold declaration, but they're just happy to not be riddled with an active case of the shingles virus.
*That is, endurance athletes who participate in super duper niche sports like Adventure Racing where the competitive field is significantly smaller than say, the Boston Marathon or Western States.
Who knows the reason why, but that's exactly what Geoff and I decided to try to do for the 2023 Savannah Scramble 10 Hour Adventure Race: win it.
We had never been to Savannah Georgia before. And we had no idea who else was coming - we could be racing against Team Avaya for all we knew, but it didn't matter.
We figured we've been participating in adventure racing long enough now that it was time to stop frolicking through the forest and lallygagging at TA's (not that there's anything wrong with frolicking and lallygagging, in fact, these are two of my favorite things on this great green earth to do) and instead try to see if all of the hard work and training we've been doing could pay off.
So, we put that declaration out to the universe and ourselves that we were going to try and win this race. Not just place in our category, but win the whole damn thing.
Friday afternoon we had driven from Myrtle Beach to Beaufort, SC. While there was no shortage of hotels available in Savannah, we had a hard time finding a place where we felt comfortable safely leaving a tiny Subaru loaded to the gills with bikes and kayaks. Fortunately, our awesome friend and Hart Strength & Endurance coach, Maggie, let us crash at her place, which was just about an hour from the race start.
Saturday morning we drove to Skidaway Island State Park, and checked in - ready to race.
After handing in our waivers, we're given a packet of 11 maps, and 3 pages of race instructions/clues. I sit down at a picnic table to start planning our route, but find myself wildly overwhelmed and distracted by everyone else around me. I am officially 3 weeks unmedicated for my ADHD and it shows.
So I take my stack of maps, wander over to the nearby (unoccupied) playground, and get to work.
Route planning is one of the more difficult aspects of being the navigator on an adventure race team. My instinct is to want to figure it out as we go - otherwise known as "winging it". But this has proven time and time again to be a less than ideal approach, and so for the sake of both our race outcome, and my marriage, I cover the maps in highlighter and notes.
For those new to the sport, a prologue in an adventure race is essentially a way to spread out the race pack so not everyone heads out onto the trails (or wherever) at once, causing a bottleneck. Sometimes the prologue is long and complex (like assembling a lego snowman). Sometimes it's short and to the point, like in this race.
We start by running about a quarter mile through the park to a set of cones placed on the benches of an outdoor amphitheater. Each team had to grab one cone and bring it back to the picnic shelter, hand It in, and grab our first punch card (there would be a total of three, and 23 checkpoints, throughout the entirety of the race).
Once we grab our punchcard, we immediately turn North and head for CP #4. Race rules state that checkpoints can be collected in any order. This section is essentially a big looped trail. However, the long stretch out to CP 4 looks pretty straight forward, and I figured it would be a good way to warm up.
And it was.
We take off running probably a bit faster than we should have, but if you aren't immediately questioning your approach, are you even racing?
(That's a rhetorical question...)
About 1.5 miles later we easily find CP4 in an oak tree just beyond an observation tower. Team Disoriented is right on our tails, so we immediately head back down the trail without a pause.
We luck out with CP#3 as I spot it easily as we're running down the trail. .
And I say "luck out", because not 100 yards further down the trail, we stumble upon a HUGE pack of racers bumbling around another campsite looking for the CP that had approached from the opposite direction.
I see some racers with their phones out, ready to take the "we're here but the CP is not" photo. Someone says to us "good luck trying to find this one!" as we approach. I can then see the confusion on their faces as we blow right past them, not even stopping.
We're almost past the group when Geoff stops and says to the crowd "You guys haven't gone far enough, it's up the trail a ways". Once we're out of earshot, I jokingly scold him. Normally, we're mid-packers happy to help other racers and share tips. But TODAY, we're trying to win this damn race, and less than 20 minutes into a 10 hour day is too soon to be giving away secrets.
We cruise along finding CP2 and CP1 easily. I think I declare "THIS PLACE IS ABSOLUTELY GORGEOUS" to no one in particular at least a dozen times. As much as I miss living in New England, there is something magical about the beauty of the Southeastern coastline.
We make it back to the picnic shelter in about 30 minutes. We're the first ones there, and despite running my mouth the entire time we're at transition to Tracey the RD about how pretty the park is, I'm moving with intention. If I had to guess, we were there less than 2 minutes before we had our helmets on, bags packed, and we hit the road.
Bike 1 / Trek 2
Now the fun truly begins. When plotting our route on the map, I had realized we could save a couple of kilometers if we bushwacked from the park, across a neighborhood, and hit the main road we needed to be on.
We immediately dove into the woods, only to come up with a barbed wire fence covered in "NO TRESSPASSING" signs.
Now, we're only 35 minutes into a 10 hour day, far too soon for me to feel like breaking the law. So we head a few hundred yards down the trail we're on, only to find even more signs. I declare that we're wasting far too much time to try and save a few kilometers when the main road would be fast anyway. So we hop off the trail, and onto the road.
And we do ride fast. Over the last year, I've become quite comfortable drafting on my husbands (huge, fat tire) wheel, plus I'm full of early race adrenaline. So it's no surprise to me when Geoff calls back "uhhh...are you good? We're cruising at 18 mph on mountain bikes..."
This, for the record, is kind of fast for "not-a-cyclist-Heather", but I am good. And we reach the first bike drop after a very short stop for Geoff to move a turtle off the road.
We're the first to arrive at the bike drop, and the volunteer doesn't even have the flag up for CP5 yet. But no worries, we hit the ground running (we had to come back here anyway). We are now in what Google tells me is a park called "Moon River at Downing Piers". It's a just shy of 8 mile loop trail that winds through a marshy forest with gorgeous coastal river views.
Now, these trails are clearly mountain bike friendly. I know this not only because of the MTB features I ran over like the 6 year old that I am but because of the fact that they twist, turn, and chicane in every direction imaginable. As such, I get us turned around and sort of lost almost immediately.
In retrospect, I'm not sure why we didn't just shoot a general bearing and follow it. This is something I thought about after the race, and wondered out loud when my navigation skills will evolve to the point where I no longer immediately assume that following a trail is the best course of action.
Long story short, I have no idea where we are. We stop to look for CP 9 about a half a dozen times before we actually find it, a solid kilometer further North than where I thought we were.
During this time, Team Disoriented passes us, as does team Florida Xtreme. I'm already kind of irritated, but it turns into full blown frustration when I hear Geoff say "uh oh..." and then pull the punchcard out of his pocket in four different sweaty, soggy pieces.
I'm not mad at him, but rather at myself. Geoff's been causing maps to disintegrate with his sweat since the first time the two of us even attempted anything that required a map - the 2.5 hour scavenger hunt/"Adventure Race" at Tuckfest back in 2017. I knew this, and should have held onto the punchcard.
Nevertheless, we grab CP9 and head to the opposite side of the loop to snag CP 7 & CP 8.
The way back to our bikes feels significantly shorter, only further emphasizing the fact that we did, indeed, get turned around initially. We're flying through the trail when all of a sudden I go flying through the air. I'm not sure what I tripped on - likely one of the hundreds of tree roots that litter coastal trails - but I didn't even have time to react before I was face first on the ground.
Typically when I fall like this, I immediately jump back up and declare "I'M FINE!" before anyone else has a chance to react. But this time, when Geoff asks "are you OK?" I respond with a frustrated "NO! But I will be." I take inventory of myself and my stuff. My left knee and left elbow lost a fair bit of skin, but structurally, I'm fine. My GoPro is covered in dirt, but nothing is broken. Everything that was in my hydration vest pockets is still in the pockets.
I'm good. We're good. Let's go.
We're the second team to arrive back to our bikes. There were a handful of routes you could take to return from CP 8 - the last place we had seen both Team Disoriented and Florida Xtreme. Team Disoriented is hopping on their bikes as we arrive. I grab CP 5 (the one that wasn't set up yet when we got there) and hand in all four pieces of our punchcard to the volunteer. He hands me the next punchcard, I slam down half a mini-can of Coke (why and how does it always taste SO DAMN GOOD during the middle of a hot race?) and we're off.
The second bike consists of about 18 miles, 4 check points, 2 bridges, 382,000 stop signs, and one marital squabble, or "row" as my husband who was greatly influenced by the BBC during his formidable years calls it.
We leave Moon River at Downing Piers with the end goal of downtown Savannah. Along the way, we are instructed to take Truman Linear Greenway - a beautiful bike path - and stay off of the Harry S. Truman Parkway.
I, of course, spend the next hour singing Linda Belcher's Harry Truman song on repeat in my head:
After experiencing crazy crosswinds climbing up and over the Moon River bridge, we stop at a point where, on the map, it looks like we can simply bushwhack to a trail to take us to CP 10. Once we get there, we realize what isn't pictured on the map is a creek - at high tide no less - that probably isn't passible with our bikes.
But we did stand there for a solid two minutes contemplating whether or not we should attempt it anyway.
The safety squirrel in Geoff won out, and we took the "long way" to our next CP.
We find CP 10 & 11 with zero issue. CP 12 is located a little more than halfway through the Greenway trek. As we're cruising along, I see a paved side trail that leads from a parking lot to the Greenway. On the map, this trail looks like a tiny blip of ink - small enough that I didn't really notice it at first. I yell to Geoff - who is riding ahead of me - to take the turn.
He turns, we ride not even 100 yards and the trail ends. He asks me "what are we looking for?" and I tell him the clue is "woods", nothing more, nothing less. He asks something like "why here, do you know where we are?".
I pull up next to him to explain that this little side path is visible on the map. But here's the thing, my dear friends. Currently unmedicated ADHD Heather has a hard time processing multiple things at once, especially while exerting physical energy. So, when pushing on the bike, while using mental energy to navigate, something else has got to give.
And that thing is, apparently, the English language.
"Yeah, I know where we are. Look here, you can see this little squeebble squabble that juts off of the trail..."
Geoff interrupts "the WHAT?"
"Squeeble squabble...this thing right here" as I point to a mark on the map that my mostly blind husband will absolutely not be able to see.
What follows is a solid 60-90 second spat where Geoff lectures me for using made up words, I lecture him for being so grumpy while reminding him "WE'RE SUPPOSED TO BE HAVING FUN" and then I angrily stomp off to collect the CP while he's still venting in frustration about how necessary it is for me to use real words.
In normal Heather / Geoff fashion, we ride off in anger and frustration, and 45 seconds later we're "weeeeee"-ing in delight at the chicanes and bridges of the bike path.
I also find delight in the fact that I can sit down while collecting CP 13. It's the little things in life...
Grid Lines & Stop Signs
Once we leave the Greenway, we find ourselves on a major 2 lane (or is 4 lane? 2 in each direction) road with zero shoulder. We spend a few terrifying minutes riding on the road, before hopping on the sidewalk.
We spend a few more minutes there realizing this is painfully slow going and likely even scarier, before it occurs to me that we are now in the depths of downtown Savannah.
And downtowns = streets laid out like grid lines.
We take the next right with a street sign that we can actually find on the map: Reynolds (Avenue? Road? Street? I don't know.) It's significantly quieter and much more relaxing to ride on.
Except for the fact that there is a street light or stop sign every block, and we have no short of 50 blocks to go before our turn. We stop and go for what feels like hours, before finally arriving at the TA, located at the White Whale Craft Ale brewery in downtown Savannah.
Neither of us have ever been to Savannah before, but today we were about to see what felt like ALL of it. We check in with the TA volunteer, lock our bikes up and attempt to take off running down Bull Street.
Except...there's some sort of festival going on, there's ten million people wandering the streets (not that you can tell by these particular photos, but there were), and also that street is made of cobble stone.
All of the CP's in this area are "photo only", so we play tourist with the rest of masses, stopping to pose for photos in front of specific areas and monuments.
Highlights from this trek:
- Finding the green where apparently the infamous bench from Forest Gump *used* to reside, but isn't there anymore.
- Complimenting a woman in a bachelorette party on her perfectly timed "that's what she said" joke while we climbed the "Stone Steps of Death" (SO MANY BACHELORETTE PARTIES in downtown Savannah
- Some little kid belting out Soul For Real's "Candy Rain" in the middle of the street:
- The endless, confused looks we got from pretty much everyone we passed.
We only cover about 5 miles during this section, but we are on our feet for well over 90 minutes. Not only is it slow going because of the crowds and traffic, but both of us are hurting a bit. My achilles is on fire - something that NEVER happens to me, and Geoff has been having unidentified "feet" issues for a few months now.
Oh, and it's Georgia in late April: it's hot and humid. Needless to say, we were both looking forward to getting back on our bikes.
CP's 19 & 20
Shoutout to the Mom & Son duo who suggested we take Bull Street back out of Savannah, versus the way we came in, because there were maybe 3 stoplights, versus 50+. We opt to turn on East 63rd to bring us back to the Truman Linear Greenway, and we're super glad we did: this route took what felt like half the time of our approach into town.
As we were getting ready to leave TA2 earlier, we had seen both Team Disoriented and Florida Xtreme take off well before us. So imagine our surprise when we popped hit the Greenway, only to see Team Disoriented coming in a different way, now behind us.
"Ready to put down the hammer? Let's go." Geoff said to me as we both suddenly remembered that we were racing.
We FLY down the Greenway, grateful that we only pass two civilians on this 5km section. Once we hit the main road and leave the Greenway, we look back and do not see Team Disoriented.
But it doesn't matter, because we're about to get lost.
For whatever reason, the road names on this section of the map and the road names in real life do not match up. After about 2km of riding on this 3 lane (6 lane?) road - again with nary a bike lane to be seen - we pull over in a church to try and figure out where we are.
We, of course, have NO idea.
Geoff suggests we go just a little further, but my gut instinct is to turn back. I suggest another road labeled on the map (I think "Water St.") as our backstop, and cross my fingers that it actually exists under that name.
We turn back, and not two blocks later, we find what we're looking for.
Thankfully, this next stretch has a bike lane, and we cruise our way to CP 19 and CP 20. At CP 20 we catch up to Team Disoriented once again...
...and then we tear our legs off passing them.
Of course, we play it cool when we go flying by, like this is our everyday easy pace...and then both gasp for air and question our choices as soon as we are out of eyesight.
We ride into TA3 located at ButterBean Beach to start the paddle section. Now, paddling is one of our team's strengths. We are fortunate enough to a) own our own boats, and b) live exactly one mile from a major river system that is wildly conducive to flat water paddling for nearly as many miles as you want. We've become strong paddlers over the years, and figured this is where we'd shine.
But instead, utter chaos would ensue.
As we're getting into our kayaks at a moderately crowded boat launch, a teenager flips a jet-ski right in front of us. What's worse, said teenager does not surface (or at least, we can't see him from our location). I begin running through everything I know about how to not also become a drowning victim while trying to rescue someone who is drowning, because I'm certain we're about to be involved in a rescue.
But as we start paddling in that direction, the kid surfaces, someone (presumably a friend) dives in and starts swimming towards him, and a couple in a larger motor boat pulls up next to him with a rope. The kid is fine (the status of the jet-ski is questionable) and we're in the clear to keep racing.
Before hitting the water, the kind and awesome volunteer told us that we'd be paddling against the current on the way out. He was correct. A combination of a headwind and a current flowing in the opposite direction made for a difficult, slow going paddle. We pushed at what felt like 2mph at best to reach the shoreline and CP21, less than 3/4 of a km away.
Once we got there, we had our first encounter with the pluff mud.
Pluff mud, for those who have not had the pleasure of getting stuck in it, is a sticky, clay like mud common in the salt-marshes of the coastal Southeast that smells like rotting eggs, it wants to swallow your shoes, and it will infiltrate everything you own.
I'm not sure why we feel the need to bring our boats ALL THE WAY up the shore through the mud, but we did, tandem carrying them a solid 15 meters above the mud. All the while I'm gripping my shoes with my toes as hard as I can in an attempt to not lose them, as both of my heels have slipped out the back.
We finally park our boats, and grab CP 21.
CP 23 is about a quarter kilometer (or less) away, so we do some sort of hilarious and kind of pathetic powerhike/shuffle down the trail to grab it....
...and then it's right back to our boats.
We have no idea where Team Florida Xtreme is, but we know we are still ahead of Team Disoriented...though just barely. They are headed for CP 23 as we are headed back to our kayaks. We have about a 1.5 km paddle to the very last CP of the day, and we're feeling STOKED to almost have this course cleared.
Insert Mother Nature's (and maybe Tracey the RD's) evil laugh here.
We're on the water, looking for an observation tower as our catching feature, and see it in no time. As we get closer, we also see the bright orange and white flag in a tree along the waters edge.
Or, what WOULD have been the waters edge at high tide.
But now at low tide, there's about 150 meters of pluff mud between the water and the flag. So we do what any good adventure racer would do: we park our boats and get ready to trudge through the mud to reach said flag.
My first step into the mud was shin deep. My second step was knee deep. Geoff who had a slight head start, was already surpassing his knees.
We decide this particular path wasn't going to be safely passable (this stuff can be quicksand-like) so we get back into our boats, paddle a dozen yards down the shoreline to try a different approach to the CP.
This time I make it slightly further, to an oyster bed that I naively assume will hold my body weight. As I sink down to my shins I'm suddenly remembering the endless stories I've heard from fellow coastal dwellers who have ended up in the E.R. needing stitches thanks to rogue oyster shells. These things are like the razor blades of the sea, and one wrong move at this point may leave my achilles tendon dangling from my calf (but hey, it would probably take care of that earlier Achilles pain...)
At this point we take a video of the CP that we can see, and hope that we can plead our safety case with Tracey the RD at the finish line.
Meanwhile, we see some teams - including Florida Xtreme - who had paddled too far up the river looking for the CP heading back our way. We have no idea if they'll be able to actually reach the CP, but we figure if they do, they deserve the win.
We hop back in our boats and paddle once again against the current and the wind (how does this always happen?) back to the boat drop. Along the way two dolphins surface right between our boats. Geoff yells something like "What was that? Narwhals?" to which I replied "No, dolphins!" but in retrospect should have totally rolled with the Narwhal narrative.
We make it to shore, carry our boats up to the grassy area, and hop on our bikes within minutes. Everything I own is covered in pluff mud, my legs are shredded with oyster shell cuts, but only about a mile and a half separates us from the finish line, so I don't care.
Bike to Finish
Back up and over the monster bridge, turn left into the park, take the unnecessary left turn into a parking lot for the third time that day, and across the finish line. As it would turn out, neither Florida Xtreme (who finished just a few minutes after us) nor Team Disoriented would actually make it to CP 22 either, which made us the overall winners.
Not only was this our first overall win at an adventure race, but we actually did what we set out to do. No one got the shingles, no one plotted the CP's on 0.5km grid map like it was a 1km grid map, and no one cried.
Final Stats & Final Thoughts:
Total Time: 9:20:00 ish
Total Distance: 64 ish miles
CP's cleared: 22/23 or 23/23, depending on who you ask.
The Savannah Scramble as a whole was a wildly fun, and well put together race. The maps were spot on in regards to the CP. The CP's were placed in locations that were both fun to find AND beautiful to see, but not at all difficult to reach* (it was absolutely a beginner friendly course in that sense). It was a great balance of trails, nature, urban, and sightseeing.
*CP 22 being the obvious exception.
While I'm not normally a huge fan of urban riding, we found the motorists in Savannah to be entirely respectful of cyclists on the road.
As a team, I'm happy to see our training is paying off as far as our physical abilities. With each race, however, I realize how much more I have to learn in this sport, specifically when it comes to navigation skills. While clearly I understand the basics of navigation, there are so many nuances in route choice or strategy that seem to become second nature with time and experience. And I'm just not quite there yet.
Nevertheless, we had a great time exploring Savannah, and had a blast racing and meeting new adventure racing friends.
Huge thank you to Tracey the RD of Possum Jump Adventures for a fun event. And shoutout to both Team Disoriented and Florida Xtreme - you guys kept us on our toes the ENTIRE day, making the race that much more fun.
Until the next adventure...look out for squeebble squabbles.