If you don't say "oh f*ck, we've made a bad decision" at least once during an adventure race, are you even getting your money's worth out of that registration fee?
That's the question, 24 hours post Palmetto Swamp Fox 12 Hour Adventure Race, that I keep asking my husband, aka "team Captain", who still hasn't forgiven me for a slight navigational transgression. Nor has he forgiven our teammate Brian for going along with it.
But, let's start at the beginning.
2022 Palmetto Swamp Fox Adventure Race Recap
2022 marked the 17th year of the Palmetto Swamp Fox Adventure Race, a 12 hour event held in McClellanville, South Carolina, and put on by Steve Morrone of KanDo Adventures. For Team HSEC, this would be our third year participating - in 2020 we ran as a 2 person co-ed team, and in 2021 we brought Brian on board and raced as a 3 person co-ed team.
Though we are still novices in the world of adventure racing, the three of us have gained a good bit of knowledge and experience while training and racing over the last year together as a team, and we were excited to put it to the test.
(here is the visual, two minute YouTube version, if that's more your style...)
Friday night, we head to the mandatory pre-race meeting at the McClellanville town hall, where we are given our maps, and some very basic information about what to expect the next day. Among that info is where we'll be staging our boats (right there at town hall) and the UTM coordinates for where we are supposed to stage our bikes that night.
I take a quick look at the map, which has the start/finish, two check points on the water, and the boat docking/TA1 already plotted. Without even having to plot the UTM coordinate for the bike drop, I have a sneaking suspicion it's going to be at either Buck Hall (the location of TA1) or Nature Adventure Outfitters.
I pull out my UTM tool and plot. Nature Adventure Outfitters, bingo. This race is starting to look a lot like the 2020 course. But before I can let my brain go any further down that path, I check myself. if I've learned anything in the last 3 years of participating in this sport, it's to stop assuming I know what's going to happen.
Because I'm almost always wrong.
But that doesn't stop my husband, who acts like an excited kid on Christmas eve the second a race map is placed in his hands, from trying to "figure out" what's going to happen, before we're even given CP's to plot.
The one thing we CAN tell for sure, is that instead of paddling in the alligator infested waters of the Francis Marion National Forest, we're heading deep into Bulls Bay, and the waters of the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge.
The alligator infested waters would come later, no doubt.
We stage our bikes, come back for the pre-race meeting, and then head to bed, ready to get some rest before our adventure.
I can't tell you that I "woke up" race morning, because I never technically fell asleep.
We camped at Buck Hall Recreation Area, a place that we are no strangers to (thanks to our pal Chad Haffa and all of his Eagle Endurance races). But our favorite tent site, the one from which we normally watch dolphins swimming by, turned out to be pretty unfavorable in high winds.
Who would have thought a water front tent site would be sketchy in storm? But I digress...
I spent the night in a fog of anxiety that our monster canvas tent was going to blow over and crush us to death. At one point, I even climbed into the front seat of the car to try and catch at least a few hours of sleep, only to be reminded of the fact I've never been able to sleep in the car, either.
The 4:00 am alarm went off before I knew it, and when my husband cheerfully jumped out of bed, I rolled with it.
Alright I grumbled a little bit, but I definitely didn't whine or try to talk my way out of the race. I've been both a mother and an endurance athlete long enough to know that there's a hell of a lot the human body is capable of doing despite missing a night of sleep, so there was no sense getting pissed about missing a night of sleep. Besides, this would just be good practice for future expedition races, right?
Having learned our lesson the hard way about not showing up early to a race at our last adventure race, we roll into the Town Hall around 4:50 am. We stage our boats, get our list of CP's from Steve the race director, and get to work plotting.
There are 22 checkpoints, but only 17 UTM points to plot. CP1 & CP2 are on the water, and already marked. CP's 11, 12, and 13 are simply marked "Triangulate", indicating we'd be given more bearings at some point.
I get busy plotting and simultaneously trying to absorb copious amounts of caffeine, while Brian reads off the UTM's. After I plot all 17 points, Brian and I switch roles. I read off the UTM's and Brian confirms my points. Once we've verified all 17, the three of us come up with our plan of attack.
We meet Allen and David, race directors of Broad Run Off Road in Virginia, who kindly lend us their scissors so I can trim the map to better fit in the map case. They ask us if we feel like this is going to be a short/easy course, based on the plotted check points. We explain to them that the swamp is deceivingly difficult and unforgiving.
I continue to chug caffeine.
Captain's Challenge / Start O-Course
For the last two years the race has started off with a "captain's challenge" O-course in order to separate the field of athletes right from the start. RD Steve asks one person from each team to come forward, and hands them a hand drawn map of downtown McClellanville, as well as a list of clues as to where you will find O-flags hidden around town.
On those flags are cards with matrix letters and numbers. Instead of grabbing a punch, you have to write those letters and numbers down, bring them back to the town hall, compare them to the matrix card to find your new letters, and decipher a jumbled word. Once you have the word figured out, you can get your passport from the RD and officially "begin" the race.
Geoff and Brian send me on the challenge because I'm voted "most likely to enjoy running", but also tell me something along the lines of "don't blow your wad out there". I assure them I won't, I'm sleep deprived and not at all in the mood. But in classic Heather form, I take off probably faster than I should have anyway.
I easily collect all of the clues quickly, partially because I know where most of them are located from the previous years, and partially because there are SO MANY TEAMS this year (this is a great thing!) that it's nearly impossible to not notice crowds of people hovering around flags.
Anyway, I half-haul-ass (as instructed) back to the town hall, and get to collecting my letters for the jumbled word. Once I've got them, Geoff, Brian and I head to an empty table and stare at them...and we've got nothing.
"Damnit, where's my mom and sister when we need them? This is what they DO all day!" Geoff exclaims. All three of us are cursing ourselves for not hopping on the Wordle craze, or whatever that current Facebook trend is.
I'm staring at the clue "Swamp Fox", I'm staring at the letters "TTPIOAR". I figure this has SOMETHING to do with Francis Marion, local revolutionary war commander. But as a Vermonter who didn't grow up in the South, the details about this man are mostly obscure historical knowledge that I do not possess (rather as a New Englander, my elementary school brain was filled with stories of Fort Ticonderoga and Bunker Hill).
Just like lightning, it flashes across my brain. I don't even double check to make sure the letters line up, I just yell to the guys "I'VE GOT IT!" and take off running to find Steve.
Disclaimer: Our catch phrase on this site is "Let us make the mistakes, so you don't have to". Yeah, well, we're still learning - and making mistakes - with the GoPro. So please excuse the grainy, blurry photos scattered throughout this post. We end up taking the case off about 4 hours into the race, and things get clearer. We'll get it right eventually.
The Paddle to TA 1
We run down to the boat landing and hop in our boats. I'd say we're in the top 1/3 of racers on the water at this point...a stark contrast from the 2020 race, when we were the absolute, dead last team in the water by a LONG shot. (So long that the RD and volunteers were wondering why there was still a boat on the grass and who was missing).
Again, it's not hard to figure out where to go without even looking at the map - there are seemingly endless kayaks ahead of us heading out to sea.
OK that's a bit dramatic. We're heading from a creek, across the Intracoastal Waterway, and out into the Cape Romaine National Wildlife Refuge, which is essentially endless miles of saltwater creeks running through marshes of pluff mud and oyster bed covered barrier islands.
Since there isn't a ton of navigating to be done - both because the CP's were already plotted, and there's a floatilla of adventure racers ahead of us, I put my head down and paddle.
It's not long before I'm freaking exhausted: the triple threat of not sleeping, running harder than I probably should have for the Captains O-course, and the fact that I've always struggled with upper body strength (despite practically living in the gym) makes it hard to keep up with my two, strong guy teammates who have been chomping at the bit to get this race started.
Thankfully, we have a tow rope hooked up to the back of Geoff's kayak, and he doesn't hesitate to hook my kayak up and start towing, not 5 minutes into the race. I, for one, am not complaining.
We settle into a nice rhythm and made some ground, catching up to and passing numerous rental kayaks ahead of us. We are far from "good" at this sport, but we actually do practice paddling a few times a month and have our own boats...and it certainly helps.
CP1 isn't hard to find. It's about a 4km paddle straight from the start. The checkpoints on the water are actually wooden planks painted orange and stuck in the mud, as the oyster beds and pluff mud are nearly impossible to walk across. We write down the name and symbol on the plank as proof that we were there, turn our boats, and head SouthWest down Sett Creek.
Brian takes a turn towing me, and we notice right away that things are starting to get more difficult. You see, the night before, we noticed the Weather Channel had issued a Small Craft Advisory for that day, in this location. The early morning had been gorgeous, albeit slightly breezy. But now, it was pushing maybe 8:15 am, and it was getting windy.
But the true wrath of the wind is not felt until about 2.5 km later, when we spit out into the open water of Bulls Bay. The wind is harsh as we try to make our way West towards CP1. At this point, I'm being towed by Geoff again, and we immediately decide to disconnect. The water is choppy with occasional whitecaps, and it doesn't feel safe to be tethered to each other in these conditions.
Come on little Heather lats, you can do this!
The next 5.5 km paddle just kind of sucks, but in a "I'll probably reflect on this later as an awesome adventure, but right now I'm questioning my life choices" sort of way. While there were only a few minutes where I was actually nervous (including the moment I blew into a patch of marsh grass and simultaneously dropped my map case into the water...5 stars to the new Aqua Quest map case I bought just a few weeks prior. You had one job...to keep my map dry... and you did it well.)
While we were struggling to make forward progress, all we kept saying to each other was how glad we were that we got a fast start. The wind was only supposed to get worse, and the teams behind us - especially those with less paddling experience - were going to have a hard time.
(Race Director Steve would tell us later that 15 teams were pulled out of the water and brought back to shore).
In typical adventure fashion, the last kilometer to TA1 was seemingly the most difficult, with a head wind that made it feel like each paddle stroke only kept you from blowing backwards, but not actually making any forward progress.
Nevertheless, we finally made it, reported our findings for CP1 & CP2, and grabbed CP3, stoked to no longer be in our boats.
CP 4 & 5 to TA2
After tucking all of our paddling gear into our boats and gearing up for the next section of the race, we take off on foot through Buck Hall Recreation Area in an attempt to find CP 4.
All three of us have spent a ton of time both at Buck Hall and on the Awendaw Passage section of the Palmetto Trail, so we're wildly confident with our approach and attack for this CP. It takes us almost no time at all to run the less than 1km to the location where the CP is "supposed" to be, according to my plotting.
Aaaaaannnnnddd...we can't find it.
In my limited experience adventure racing (this is race #6, I feel like I need at least 10 before I allow myself to graduate from "newbie" to "intermediate", or whatever comes next), I've found that the first true checkpoint goes one of two ways:
- You immediately find it, and think "HELL YEAH, I'M REALLY GOOD AT THIS SPORT!"
- You bumble around in the woods, cross referencing your map a thousand times, wondering what the heck you've done wrong ALREADY, and really wish you would have gotten around to reading Squiggly Lines.
I find myself in situation #2, already feeling the frustration creeping as my husband/team captain starts in on the "are you SURE we're in the right spot?" questioning. I'm sure we are, and I'm reassured by the fact that there are at least 3 other teams also bumbling back and forth, up and down the trail, looking for this CP.
Eventually, we see a solo athlete coming out of the woods at a speed which I can only define as "I found what I'm looking for, and now I'm on to the next one". I catch his eye and he does the silent-but-kind head nod over his shoulder, indicating that what I'm looking for is indeed back there. I thank him, and my teammates and I head into the woods.
Lo and behold, there's CP #4.
To give myself credit, I nailed the plotting and the navigation when it came to the spot on the trail where we should dive into the woods. We just didn't dive into the woods far enough. It's always hard to gauge map distance with actual walking distance at first. I assume this is something that might come with time. I also assume I should probably learn pace counting.
From CP 4 we continue heading down the powerlines to shortcut our way towards CP 5 & TA2. Having already been there last night, we were able to find them with zero issues.
The Bike: Part 1
Two weeks ago, my husband surprised me with a brand new Trek Procaliber carbon fiber hardtail for my 40th birthday. That, my friends, is a brave man. For had he made the same massive purchase at any point prior to 6 months ago, I probably would have lost my ever loving mind over the fact that he spent so much money on a gift that he wanted far more than I did.
Because I was NOT a cyclist. Mountain biker? I'm not sure the appropriate term, other than cycling was something I had to do to participate in the sport of adventure racing, rather than something I truly enjoyed doing.
But at some point - if we're being honest it was probably at about halfway through the 2.5 hours it took us to ride up an 1,800 foot off road climb during The BEAR AR back in September, with tears in my eyes and my legs pushing myself and a 35+ pound Surly Pugsley up the hill that would never end - that I decided that I was, indeed, in the market for a legitimate mountain bike.
Don't get me wrong, you don't need a fancy bike or top of the line equipment to give adventure racing a try. But decreasing the weight of your bike by about a third (or more)? It definitely makes a difference.
Anyway, I turned 40, was gifted a sweet bike, and at this point had only had the opportunity to ride it once before. But that one ride was the one that finally convinced me that I do, in fact, enjoy mountain biking. So being the brave woman that I am, I decided that my second outing ever on the bike (including the stock saddle...crazy, I know) should be during a 12 hour adventure race.
WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG?
Holy cow was I excited to get on my bike.
We ride off
into the sunset down the road and take a left onto the powerlines to cut into the trail. Not 20 yards down the trail I yell to the guys to stop. I'm looking at the map and thinking we should take the powerlines to shortcut our distance to the CP6. I show them the map, and they agree. So we turn around, ride 20 yards back towards where we came from, take three steps down the powerlines and...
...realize that's not going to work. Sure, the distance covered would be significantly shorter, but the ground is partially flooded, full of holes and covered in downed saplings and other gnarly brush that would make for slow riding.
I'm doubting myself AGAIN. I've just made an error that allowed three other teams to pass us. We turn back around, head back down the trail the way we've just come, and take the "long way" to CP6.
Fortunately, we find it, and that seems to snap me out of my funk. We nail the next 4 check points, covering single track trail, dirt roads, and this mess of a powerline:
I immediately have to start talking my teammates off the ledge and remind them to focus on their own race when we notice another team in our category blatantly paperclipping check points among their three person team (sending one teammate ahead to look for the next CP while the other two stay behind trying to find the previous CP, over and over again), in order to collect the CP's as quickly as possible (this continues for the duration of the race, and for those new to this sport, is NOT allowed).
For once, it's not me being the obnoxiously competitive one.
Bike Drop/ Foot-O
We make it to TA3 where we drop our bikes, and we're given coordinates to plot and triangulate. I find myself glad I gave myself a refresher course on triangulating before the race, and plot the points quickly while shoveling "warmed by the sun sitting in a 5 gallon Lowes bucket" pizza in my mouth.
We head out on foot and struggle, along with seemingly EVERYONE else, to find CP 13. We spend far too much time stomping around the woods, and we're just about to quit and move on to the next CP, when we hear some commotion and see a ton of racers head in one direction.
The part of me that loves finding CP's on our own is a little bummed at how seemingly crowded the race is, but the part of me that wants to clear the course is glad that SOMEONE finally found CP 13.
Next we head to CP 12, and I'm wondering why so many other people are dipping into the woods at a different spot along the way, a spot nowhere NEAR where I had triangulated a check point. I have a sneaking suspicion I've done something wrong. So when we find CP12, I immediately sit down in the swamp, throw open the map and re-triangulate. Sure enough, I've transposed two numbers. I re-plot, and of course, the new check point is in the exact location everyone else was heading towards earlier.
Fortunately we found it without much trouble.
The Bike: Part 2
This is becoming the longest race recap ever, so let me finish this off with some highlights:
- There's an obvious, major road on the map that no longer exists. It confuses the hell out of at least 5 other teams near us, as we give each other the "I have no idea what's going on" face while we ride back and forth on Stede Creek Road a million times. We later find out from friend and experienced adventure racer Rob that the RD often uses maps that were "pre-Hurricane-Hugo". For those not from the Carolinas - Hurricane Hugo hit in September of 1989 as a category 4 storm, and pretty much destroyed the coastal SC region. In this particular area, when it wiped out some roads, they just didn't bother rebuilding them.
We eventually backtrack down what we initially assumed to be THAT road (it's not though), only to accidentally stumble upon the check point. I had passed it at least 4 times before, and was so mad that I never noticed it.
Lesson learned: when given the map the night before the race, take time to cross reference the map with current maps.
- We don't see a single alligator this year. Just one beautiful, tiny corn snake (my favorite!). Giant pink fat tire for size reference:
- Speaking of roads that aren't there...at some point we find ourselves heading down a road that just...ends. It appears to be only about a half a kilometer, maybe a tiny bit more from the intersection with another known road.
I say we should bushwack it. Geoff says we should not. Brian says "I'm the tiebreaker, and I say we should". Probably 6 other guys behind us agree. And thus, we begin what felt like an hour long, nasty, puke inducing, bushwhacking-through-Carolina-swamp-brush adventure.
To say it was bad was an understatement. If you haven't had the pleasure of stomping through the untouched woods of the Lowcountry, know this: the plants are all out to get you, and the hot, humid air simply does not move, but rather tries to suffocate you along with the vines.
The brush was unrelenting, taller than head high, full of flesh tearing thorns, and nearly impossible to get through. Geoff used his big Surly Pugsley (thank goodness he brought that thing) to literally plow a path for the rest of us, cursing the entire time. I got my derailleur stuck on vines so thick that I couldn't move, more times than I can count.
I also secretly panic, more than once, that perhaps we are setting ourselves up to get really, really lost. But, the effort it takes to move myself and my bike through the brush is enough of a distraction to not worry about that...yet.
Eventually we find our way out of the woods, where Geoff collapses on the road and says something like "I'm never forgiving you guys for that, that was a really, stupid, dangerous mistake", while I laugh it off as "all part of the adventure" and then more seriously remind him "you're the captain, you know, YOU could have said no." (clearly, I'm the middle child in my family and super used to deferring blame...)
- Check points seem to be either super crowded, or completely desolate. It's an interesting and unpredictable mix. Nevertheless, they are all fun, not terribly difficult to find, and we enjoy helping out other teams (and vice versa) when we can.
Somehow, before we know it, it's around 4 pm, and we're on the last check point. We have a three hour buffer until the cutoff time, and we've successfully found every check point thus far.
So of course - the last one is the most difficult to find. Not by course design, but rather, by low blood sugar and late-race-mental-exhaustion.
We complete a few circles in the correct area, but simply do not make our "circle" wide enough. We miss the check point by mere FEET, before finally another team comes along and points us in the correct direction.
Team HSEC has officially "cleared" a course for the first time.
From there, we head to the finish line, with one last adventure of playing frogger across Highway 17, and cross the finish line at 5:07 pm, effectively earning us 3rd place Co-ed team of 3.
- I fueled like a friggin champ. I know this sport is about the team as a whole, but endurance nutrition is something I've always struggled with, especially in events over 6 hours. While I certainly got tired towards the end of the race, I never once bonked from a lack of fueling.
- Our paddling practice paid off. While I still felt I could have been MUCH stronger, I know our team paddle was still stronger than many other teams, and helped us make it through that rough paddle.
- Geoff did NOT drop his chain 27 times (like he did in 2019). In fact, the only technical we had were having to reset the poor speedometers after the bushwhacking incident...
- We cleared the course!
- Cheating isn't cool. Just going to put that out there.
The Lessons Learned:
- Cross reference maps the night before the race (when given the unmarked map prior to the race start). Yes, it's time consuming, especially when you don't have the UTM coordinates, so you aren't sure where you'll even be going. But the effort may save you a TON of time during the race.
- I need to learn to trust in my navigation right from the start, and not fall into the habit of following other teams
- Bushwacking when you can't see ANYTHING is probably not the best option, when the other option is a clear and easy to follow road, which while longer in distance, would have been shorter in time and easier in effort.
Once again, race director Steve from KanDo Adventures put on an INCREDIBLE race. He does a fantastic job at finding the most unique, beautiful locations for check points in the otherwise drab and monotonous swamp. The post race celebration, snacks, and prize table are impressive and much appreciated!
The linear nature of this year's course (versus last year) did result in large clumps of teams racing together for almost the entire event. While that's not necessarily a bad thing (it's easier to find the check points when multiple teams are hunting), personally I find it much more challenging - and rewarding - when we have to find the check points on our own, without any hints from a pile of bikes parked on the side of the road.
I guess that just means I have to get faster for next year (and you better believe we'll be there next year!)