MIchigan eXpedition (MIX) AR, 4-Day Race, May 29 - June 2, 2007
The game: 103 hour, 350 mile expedition adventure race in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, consisting of mountain biking, trekking, kayaking, canoeing, orienteering, rappelling and caving.
The players: Team WEDALI, consisting of: Justin ‘Biz’ Bakken, Scott ‘Scooter’ Lund, Scott ‘Erl’ Erlandson, Ellen ‘the narrator’ Farseth
Section 1: bike 35 miles – canoe 20 miles – bike 40 miles
The race began with a helicopter circling the sky overhead, taking pictures and video of all 33 teams, everyone eager to start biking. Race director Zac started a quick count down and we were off. We chose a place mid-pack because the first 7 miles were going to be lead out by a police car escort through the town of St. Ignace. Almost immediately teams began jockeying for position, and brakes were squealing as all 132 mountain bikes fought for space on the road. As we were riding through downtown, Scooter and I heard a crash behind us – sounded like a few racers were down. Luckily, Erl and Justin were just ahead of the crash and managed to escape it. Finally the police escort pulled over, and the race was on. The lead teams started up a fast pace, hoping to drop the pack, but we held on. After a few miles, the lead group of about 10 to 12 teams broke away, us included. There was a fierce headwind, so we were content to sit in the pack and let the lead teams push against the wind. Scooter and I were hanging in the pack, warily trying to avoid any accidents. Erl and Biz hung back behind the peloton, chuckling at all of the craziness from their front-row vantage point.
We reached CP1 at 8:53am in record time, after the easiest 35 miles I have ever put in on the mountain bike. We dropped our bikes, grabbed our paddling bags, and ran to the canoes. A few teams were already in the water, and we quickly got in and started paddling. The sky was clear, and the sun reflecting off the water made us glad that we had packed hats and visors to shade our eyes. For the first few checkpoints, we were canoeing around a series of islands and peninsulas, where the water was relatively shallow and calm. Eventually we arrived at the 1 allowed portage, over a narrow sandbar. As we pulled up, our Minnesota photographer friend Jason was already there, snapping pictures. Once we got out and stopped paddling, the wind instantly whipped away all body heat and we started shivering and searching for layers to don. Back into the canoes, and at this point the course strayed away from the islands and out into Lake Huron. The wind was blowing and the water was choppy and white-capping in many spots. Our little boats were getting tossed around like driftwood, and every once in awhile I could hear Scooter’s shouts of surprise as the cold waves crashed into the front of their boat, soaking both him and Biz. There were a few dicey spots near shore, where we had to thread our way through large rocks as the waves pushed us into them. Erl expertly navigated through these sections, as I gripped my paddle with trepidation and moved it through the water as hard and fast as I could.
We pulled into CP3 and the volunteer told us that the canoe section was cut short due to the windy conditions and large waves on Lake Huron, and that we would skip CP4. We were happy for the change, and eager to make up some time on the bikes a as handful of teams managed to pass us on the paddle thus far. A short paddle to the take-out, and we hurried to transition to bikes, hitting the shore at 2:25pm. Even though we were shivering cold, we resisted the urge to put on more layers, as we would quickly warm up biking. As we put on a few miles, Scooter looked over the ferry schedule to Drummond Island. He realized that the ferry was scheduled to leave at 2:40, which we would never be able to make. However in the pre-race meeting they told us that the ferry may run more often during busy times of the day. So we got into an efficient pace line, trading off the lead often to fight the headwind. We pushed it hard as we neared the town, and sailed into the port – the ferry was still there! We flew right onto the ferry and joined about 7 other teams that had been waiting there for awhile. Not even a minute after we boarded, the doors were lifted and we were moving. What luck to catch up with these teams! We relaxed, ate and drank as much as possible in the 10 minute ride to Drummond Island. As soon as the ferry doors lowered, the race was on again, and it was a fast pace line for 10 miles to the only route choice on this section. All the other teams chose to go left, while we and team Salomon/Suunto went straight. After a fast 5 miles or so, we saw that this proved to be the quickest route as we arrived at the TA ahead of the other teams.
Section 2: trek 30 miles
Wanting to keep our momentum and place in the top 5, we tried to limit our time in the TA to just the essentials – eating something substantial, and preparing for the long trek. After an 18 minute transition, in which we liberally taped our feet and applied Hydropel, we were off and running, packs loaded down with mandatory gear, water, and food for at least 12 hours. Biz and Scooter had used an ATV map of Drummond Island while plotting our route the day before, and had hand-drawn in some of the trails that looked useful. Biz decided to try those out to hit CPA, and we were quickly on very rocky double-track through the woods and prairie. There were many trails that weren’t on the map, even with the ones Biz had added, and it seemed a confusing maze that didn’t quite match up with our map. We tried out several trails, and finally came to what seemed to be a dirt road, where we saw at least 5 other teams, all seeming to be going the same direction. After awhile of sitting down with the map, we figured that they were all on their way to CPB. Time to circle back and get CPA. On the trail and running again, we passed team Allez going the other way, and one of our friends from past races looked at us and said “Oops!” Now we were sure we must have passed CPA somehow. We circled back to a trail that we had been on before, and tried a different attack. After a few miles, we wound up all the way back on the paved road that lead to the TA. As we contemplated our next move, a local on an ATV rolled up, confirmed our location, and advised us not to go into the swamps where we were headed, as they were pretty nasty. Not having much of a choice, we headed back in on the trail we had just left, retracing our steps in hopes of seeing something we had missed last time. Biz was a bit frustrated, as the CP was on the north side of a large lake – why couldn’t we just see the lake as we got closer? A few more miles and a twists of the maze of trails, and we were back into the woods. At last, Justin spied the lake as we approached it from the southwest, and we ran to CPA. It had taken us roughly 3.5 hours to get here, and we had dropped to 21st place.
Trying to pick up our spirits, I focused on the fact that we were only 15 hours into a 100 hour race - we had plenty of time to make up for this minor detour. Looking back, this was the only CP that we had trouble finding; all of the rest Justin navigated to quickly and efficiently, usually finding the fastest route possible. The next few CPs flew by quickly, and we checked into CP7 at 10:58pm. We were still running and feeling good, and our plan was to push through the night and skip sleep. We ran into other teams throughout most of this trek section, and gradually kept moving our way up in the rankings. At CP8 we were in 16th place, and at CP9 in 12th. Eventually we made it back into the top 10 as the sun started to rise.
Around this time, I started to have a tough time fighting the sleep monster, and wanted more than anything to just lie down for 10 minutes and rest. My teammates were all raring to go and finish the trek section, so I went on tow (yes, literally was pulled by Erl with a rope attached between us) and managed to pound through the last few hours. We finally made it back to TA2 at 8:51am, where we spent almost an hour in transition to mountain biking. We were all starving and had to take some time to pack in the calories and replenish our liquids. I was a mess – minus a few toe nails, ridiculously sleepy, and my right eye wouldn’t focus. I checked the mirror and was appalled at my reflection. Aside from the usual mud, scratches, and tangled hair, my eye was flaming red. Upon further inspection, I realized there was a mosquito caught in there from the canoe leg yesterday. I hadn’t wanted to stop paddling long enough to dig it out, and now I was paying the price. Scooter was sweet enough to give me his eye drops so that I could at least see during our biking leg. After a quick nap cuddled up with my gear tote, we all managed to pull ourselves together and get on the bikes.
Section 3: mountain bike 40 miles
After our last monster trek section, it was evident to us why the race directors had nicknamed Drummond Island “The Rock,” to which our aching feet could attest. We knew we would be in for some fun on the mountain bike loop that circled the island, anticipating the rough conditions as we started out on smooth blacktop. Soon enough the road turned to gravel, and then we were on double track through the woods. The trail was flat and fast, and we were flying along, enjoying the ride. The first few CPs seemed easy, then we started making our way over to the other side of the island. We hit some ½ mile long rock gardens, and had fun playing on the big rock slabs up to the Marble Head Lookout CP. By this time the sun was directly overhead, and it was heating up. We arrived at the CP and the generous volunteers greeted us with ice cold Cokes. There is absolutely nothing like cold soda during a long, hot adventure race. It always tastes ridiculously amazing. Giddy off of our carbonated nirvana, we hopped back on the bikes.
When Scooter checked us out of the TA at the beginning of this bike section, the race directors gave him all of the website shout-outs from our friends and family, and one of the highlights of this section was getting to read these. It really motivated us to know that so many people were wishing us well, and cheering for us from afar. We hit some pretty swampy areas on the bike, where the trails deteriorated into thick mud and puddles of water. During this section we caught up with and passed a few teams, as the mud and muck was causing some bike issues and slow going for a few people we talked with. More fast miles on the trails through the woods, and we dumped back out onto a paved road. From here it was a hammer-fest back to the TA, during which we saw the 3 top teams riding in the opposite direction, already done with the kayak section and heading out. The first 32 hours really spread out the teams, as we saw a few still out on the trek while we were halfway through the mountain bike loop. We arrived at TA3 at 2:26pm and spent 30 minutes in transition to kayak. By this time in the race, Erl’s feet were a mass of blisters and wet macerated skin, painful just to look at. Luckily there was a top-notch medical team on hand who spent a generous amount of time checking things over and re-taping the worst spots. During some of the sketchy rock gardens I broke a spoke, so I dropped my bike off to see if they could replace it. No luck, but somehow the tire stayed in true and I finished out the race with no further bike issues.
Section 4: kayak 15 miles
Back on the bikes, we peddled a few miles down to the kayak put-in. We picked what we hoped were fast boats, packed our gear securing everything tightly, and started paddling. It was a beautiful afternoon on Lake Huron, and this section would see us hitting 5 CPs on islands near the shore. The sun was out, the water was calm, and <snore>; Bizo and I were quickly lulled to sleep. We talked Scooter and Erl into pulling over on a sliver of an island – a sand bar really – for a quick 20 minute nap. Asleep before Erl and Scooter even hit the beach, we stole a few minutes of restorative sleep, and got back in the kayaks just as another team was passing by. We quickly nabbed CP15, and were on our way to CP16 when the wind picked up and the waves got sizable. Scooter and Erl switched kayaks, and we were again battling the wind and waves which by now were 3 foot swells. Wanting to keep close for safety, Biz and I were paddling next to each other, but in our sleep deprived state, we were apparently too close. The waves were coming from all directions and tossed our boats together. Before we knew what was happening, the front of my kayak went underneath the front of Biz’s, lifting it out of the water and tipping him over. All of a sudden I see an upside down kayak and Biz and in the water freaking out, huge eyes wildly looking around and shouting for Erl. I tried to calmly reassure him that I was right there and was trying to help. When Scooter heard all of the commotion, he turned to see what was going on and wound up capsizing as well. Seeing that Biz and I were ok, Erl quickly paddled over to rescue his little buddy Scooter, and within minutes, we had both boats righted, bailed, and with their rightful owners at the helm. We were eternally grateful for our 5 hour kayak safety course in which we spent most of the time in the water next to overturned kayaks, practicing all of the ways to self and team rescue.
Now thoroughly awake, Biz checked the maps – luckily they stayed dry and readable. We picked off the next few CPs in fairly good time, and rounded the corner to head back to the beach with the kayak put-in. Bam! The wind hit us full-on, and the waves were white-capping, making any forward progress an exercise in futility. We started drafting behind each other, but it was still a battle. The guys seemed to be doing much better than I was – I guess all of those 12 lb curls in the gym didn’t cut it out here. I finally had to modifying my paddle stroke because I no longer had the shoulder strength to lift my paddle in the relentless wind. Finally, we made it back to the beach, dumped the kayaks, and hopped back on our bikes, rolling into TA4 at 7:39pm for a 40 minute transition. At this point, we had still managed to hang onto our top 10 position.
Section 5: bike 80 miles
As we were all pretty ragged at this point, there was some debate about getting a room at the resort where the TA was located, but we decided to press on. We had to keep alive the pipe dream of soft, warm beds and a hot shower to motivate us through our current section of the race. Of course, once we finished that section, we never actually followed through with the hotel utopia – a dirty little mental game that seemed to work given our vastly compromised reasoning abilities.
It was a fast 15 miles across Drummond Island to the ferry, so we got into our pace line and clipped along at a good speed. We had left the TA without even thinking about the ferry schedule, and Scooter realized that the next ferry would leave at 9:10pm – we would have to step up our speed to ensure we made that cutoff, or we would be waiting another hour. Just as we were settling into our pace, we saw another team ahead of us, going just a bit slower. We debated our strategy – do we lag behind them and risk missing the ferry? Or do we balls-to-the-wall it and try to blow by them and hammer to the boat? We had to look at the bigger picture – aside from what this team would do, we could not risk missing the 9:10 ferry. We picked up the speed from 20mph to about 25-28 – screaming fast on mountain bikes, up and down some sizeable hills. As we passed the team, they managed to hang onto our pace line and sucked wheel for the next 10 miles to the ferry. Scooter, Biz and Erl were giving it everything they had leading this train – I was just trying to hang on – but we could not lose the team behind us. Finally, our knobby tires loudly humming on the pavement, we descended the final hill to the ferry at a few minutes after 9. We made it! Collapsing exhausted on the deck, we tried to regain our breath and stop our legs from shaking. Again, we had made the ferry with only minutes to spare; a major stroke of luck for our team. As the ferry docked on the mainland, we decided to let the other team go ahead, and tried to find a gas station to get real food and cold soda. Alas, the only show in town had closed at 9pm, and though we searched that small town high and low, not even a working pop machine could be located. We gave up the hunt, and hit the pavement for some fast miles as night approached.
Feeling awake and energized, we pounded mile after mile of easy pavement, and then it was onto gravel. We spotted team TravelCountry.com ahead of us from time to time, and wound up leap-frogging with them on a few occasions as we picked up the CPs. The biking was smooth, and the route choice Biz and Scooter planned out pre-race was proving to be excellent. Soon we were back on pavement and sailed into CP21/TA5 at 2:19am, learning post-race that we somehow managed to clock the fastest time for this section, winning a Pearl Izumi outfit complete with shoes. We made up for our fast bike with a 4 hour transition – sleeping for just a bit over 2 hours. We ate like starved animals as soon as we opened our gear totes. Chef Boyardee still tasted luscious, and I had a new appreciation for Dinty Moore. The hearty meals were a welcome change from the bars, GUs, and crackers on the trail. After a quick change into clean clothes, we stuffed all of our gear back into the tubs and quickly crawled into our tents for 2 dreamless hours of uninterrupted sleep. We awoke with the sun, after Scooter reset his watch alarm for another 15 minutes. Justin and I jumped out of bed, eager to start the next section. More canned and highly preserved food for breakfast, the never ending organizing and packing of gear, and we hauled the canoes down a steep shore to the fast flowing river.
Section 6: canoe 15 miles
We quickly settled into a comfortable paddling rhythm. This windy river had a few fast, fun sections of minor rapids, and we were glad that the canoes were rentals with all of the many rocks that we bumped and scraped over. There weren’t any CPs along the river, just at the take out, so it was a thankfully uneventful ride down the scenic river. A beautiful way to wake up to our third day of the race; watching the ducks swim with their new baby chicks, and listening to the birds sing in the warming sun. We realized that Biz was trying to enjoy the grandeur and remote nature setting through his eyelids. It occurred to me that Biz never got sleepy on the trekking or navigation sections, and an idea came to me. Navigation takes a lot of mental gymnastics, while paddling can be mind-numbingly boring, with hour after hour of the monotonous right-stroke, left-stroke, right-stroke, left-stroke. I suggested that Scooter start quizzing Rip-Van-Bizo with math equations. He started easy; 9+13, and 27+52. Biz started perking up, so Scooter moved onto 4th grade multiplication. Even more response from Biz, and their boat started moving faster as Biz was doing far less air-paddling. Scooter decided to mix it up by playing hangman, as it kept both participants awake trying to keep track of what had been guessed and how many body parts were currently dangling. By the time we completed this 4 hour paddle, I was pretty sure they had exhausted most of Webster’s Dictionary and were also fast approaching differential equations.
Section 7: trek 20 miles - rappel
Back on shore, we dumped all of our paddling gear and got ready for the trek, taking the time to apply tape and Hydropel to our feet. According to the CP volunteers, we were somewhere around 6th to 8th place. We started out running along the road, and quickly slowed to a fast walk as the sun was directly overhead and it was steamy hot on the black pavement. A few miles in, we decided to stop in the shade to re-tape Erl’s feet, as the short distance we had traveled had been painful with his every step. As Biz carefully doctored Erl’s feet and toes, 3 teams passed us in short order. We were not concerned, as the upcoming 20 mile trek section would spread the teams out, and hopefully give us an advantage with Biz’s top-notch navigation skills.
Fixed up and ready to face the next challenge, Erl heroically pushed through the pain and we were up and moving, alternating between a fast hike and a slow jog. Erl and I were using trekking poles to help move us along, and Biz and Scooter were strategizing routes to the next few CPs. The area that encompassed this 20 mile trek was littered with huge marshy swamps, thick vegetation, and a ridiculous amount of mosquitoes (which weren’t depicted on the map in any fashion). On our way to the first CP, there were a few other teams running around in the woods near us. We spotted the CP, however we didn’t want to give it away, so tried a bit of acting and evasive maneuvers to throw them off and gain some distance. It seemed to work as we were then alone on the trek for quite some time. A few more miles, and the pain in my feet and the shin splints were starting to wear on me. I kept focusing on the trekking poles, trying to keep up with my teammates fast hike, but finding that a slow jog seemed to work better. Scooter was a life saver and pulled out our first real food all day – he had packed 4 huge turkey sandwiches. After I debated whether or not meat and cheese that had weathered 2 days in an 80 degree gear tote was still edible, we devoured the feast in minutes, not even realizing how hungry we had been.
After a few CPs we came to an open swamp area which was thankfully mostly dry with a shallow river snaking through it. We stopped to pull water and refill our bladders, as we had been hiking for hours in the hot sun and were almost out. The cold water felt incredibly refreshing as we dunked our heads and cooled our sunburned faces. I stole the opportunity to take a quick 5 minute cat-nap on the banks of the river, and then we were off to face a thickly vegetated swamp. Justin estimated either a .5 mile slog through the swamp, or a 5 mile road run taking us far out of the way. Trusting his instincts and compass work, Justin charged into the swamp and we immediately started fighting our way through the thick trees, thorny shrubs, and ground cover that consisted of mossy rocks, sloppy muck, and slippery grass tufts that were almost impossible to balance on. I was beyond frustrated trying to duck and squeeze myself, pack and trekking poles through this dense swamp vegetation, always seeming to find every eye-level branch and shin level stump. I was so low on sleep, having gotten about 2.5 hours in 54 hours of hard racing, and the heat of the day was directly upon us. Despite the temperature, I had to stop and put on tights to protect my legs; anything to make this section more endurable. We finally made it through the swamp, but by then I was too far gone and my emotions got the better of me. Justin and Scooter had lead us through the swamp of death for almost a mile, dumping us onto a trail 20 feet from the CP. Navigation just didn’t get any better than that. I wasn’t able to revel in their celebration, and my eyes started welling up as Scooter punched the CP. This was my low-point of the race. Needing to tell my teammates what was up, I managed to choke out between sobs “I am having a melt-down. I just need to keep moving,” I had no shame left, and my personal pride was long gone. I moved up the trail a bit ahead of my team, and they were kind enough to give me some space. Huge gulping sobs, tears poured down my face and I just let them run, my hands being occupied with trekking poles. I cried as a child; mouth open, nose running; I just couldn’t stop. I kept asking myself why I was crying, and it boiled down to frustration of my personal limitations – physical, mental, and emotional. I had reached some sort of breaking point in that swamp-whack and needed to let it go. Eventually the tears stopped; I wiped my eyes on the new jersey my teammates had worked on tirelessly for the past few months, and continued on the trek.
A few more miles on roads, and we were then bushwhacking up a huge hill to a lookout point for the CP. Justin and Scooter lead us right to it, and Erl and I were thankful for the trekking poles that helped us along. We sat down for a minute at the CP, broke out some food, and continued on. I was again struggling, so I towed up with Biz and changed my tactic from hiking back to the shuffle run. Biz was trying to force gummy candy at me, but nothing was looking remotely appealing. At this point we started running into a number of other teams, all who had been short-coursed due to time cutoffs and teammates dropping out. We had a long section on gravel road, and it was like a switch was flipped – suddenly I didn’t need the tow cord anymore, and was feeling strong again, jogging next to my teammates. A few more miles and we were back on trails, heading to a last CP and the rappel. We were moving along at a good clip, found the CP after a few more miles, and were on our way up the hill to the rappel site in a large quarry. The rope was very fast, and we zipped down one right after the other. Shucking our climbing gear and checking out, we ran ½ mile to CP26/TA6, arriving at 8:16pm where we spent 45 minutes stuffing our faces and transitioning to bike. Thanks to Biz’s rock star navigation, we had fastest time for this section, and took home a set of Petzl ascenders and Keen shoes. We were in 5th place and holding steady. The next section initially seemed like a quick 22 miles to Fiborn, where we would see our tubs again. I heard rumors that it was taking top teams 2.5 to 3 hours. Were they taking a slower route? What were we in for…
Section 8: bike 22 miles
All I could think about was sleep, and hoped that the bike would soon be over and we would be snuggled in our tents for at least 3 hours of shut-eye. Little did we know, we were about to enter what was the hardest section of the race for our team. A quick mile on gravel, and then the road turned to thick sand, the sugary slippery kind as deep as a beach. Many sections were virtually un-rideable, so we trail blazed on the shoulder and tried to get through as many miles as possible before nightfall. If pushing our bikes through the sand wasn’t enough, the mosquitoes were out in force. It was a full-on blood-fest and even though we had liberally sprayed with Deet, they were not deterred. We could not stop moving as they would swarm and bite every inch of exposed skin, and were even biting through our clothes rather proficiently. We finally made it to the end of this sandy section, just as we lost the last bit of daylight. There was a 2-person team stopped in the road, digging out more bug spray which they generously shared with us. They were wearing bug head nets, and I longingly thought back to our bug nets that were in our first set of gear bins, which we bid a fond farewell to on Drummond Island and wouldn’t see again until post-race.
Back on pavement, I had the uneasy feeling that we had more sand to slog through, as the mileage and the timing just wasn’t adding up. We had a welcome respite from the bugs, as they couldn’t keep up with our 15 to 20mph pace. This came to a screeching halt as the road suddenly degraded to the deep slippery sand. If the map was correct, we had at least 5 miles of this stuff until the next CP. It was completely dark, and we didn’t encounter any other teams for the rest of this section. We alternated between riding the sand, riding the shoulder, pushing our bikes, and spending time horizontal in the middle of the road after yet another fall. The dangerous part wasn’t the fall, but the swarm of mosquitoes that descended when we stopped moving. Even when we were biking they were flying in our eyes, mouths and ears – the constant high pitched buzzing driving us slowly over the edge of sanity. The miles ticked by so slowly, I had to think of our progress in tenths of miles instead. We were crawling along at a snail’s pace, frustrated with all of the sand and hoping that the road would improve just around the next corner or over the next hill. No such luck, but we finally came to the end of this sand slog when we turned off the road and headed east along some railroad tracks. Hooray! No more sand! Anything could be easier than this. My short-sighted optimism had underestimated the next section.
The directions stated that we could travel on the side of the tracks, but not directly on them. The tracks ran along the top of a ridge whose sides were steep and filled with dense vegetation. At times there was a narrow trail through the rocks along either side of the tracks, however it proved difficult to stay on and there were a few close calls which almost sent us careening off into the ditch. If it was at all possible, the mosquitoes were worse in this section; we just had to keep moving and pushing through. Our feet were already trashed when we started this section, and after miles of pushing our bikes through sand and now rocks in our bike shoes, I could feel blisters rupturing, and more toenail carnage. Stopping to tape was not even a remote possibility, so I just gritted my teeth and thought about how much worse Erl was faring with his mangled feet and toes. We finally arrived at the CP, and turned off the railroad tracks and back onto more sand. We were able to find small patches of road that were actually rideable, but still had a number of wipeouts. We left a few full body profile imprints in the sand, which hopefully provided some humor for the teams behind us. The road conditions improved to the point of being able to ride at a decent pace, and we eventually arrived at CP27/TA7 Friday morning at 1:08am, thoroughly whipped pups. If I had a tail, it would have definitely been between my legs. We took 20 minutes to transition from bike to trek/caving. Our strategy was to get the caving out of the way when no other teams were around, as only 2 teams were allowed in the cave at a time; a high potential for bottlenecking. Then we planned on sleeping, and hitting the O course with the sunrise.
Section 9: caving – orienteer 20 miles
We left for the caving section with map in hand, and Scooter was navigating. We scaled a steep embankment, and stumbled onto a trail which lead to some posted wooden signs with maps and information about the area. The directions stated that we should look for a kiosk, and from that point there would be flagging along the trail all the way to the cave. We thought that the wooden signs were the kiosk, and couldn’t seem to make heads or tails of where we were supposed to go. Bumbling around in the dark, completely spent and sleep deprived, we wandered around for a few more minutes until Erl spotted the flagging next to the kiosk (which turned out not to be the wooden signs). A short hike to the cave, and we had to wake up the volunteers to sign in. Quickly donning our helmets, gloves, and warm layers, we climbed down the slippery rocks into the mouth of the cold wet cave. Despite the warm temperatures during the day, there was still ice in the cave, and the water was up to our knees in places. We slithered through tight spots on our bellies, and at times it opened up to many feet above our heads. Scooter was first, and reached the CP at the waterfall, having to make a 7 foot leap of faith into a pool of ice cold water. Justin captured a few pictures, and we headed back the way we came. Signing out of the caving section, we had just a short hike back to the TA and I realized sleep was just minutes away.
We arrived back at CP28/TA8 at 3:12pm, set up the tents without the rain flies this time, and flopped into our sleeping bags, asleep before our eyes could close. Awhile later, it started to rain, so Justin hopped out of the tent wearing only his unfortunately short jersey and put the rain flies on both tents. Seeing as how I was snuggly wrapped up in the fly just moments earlier, I started to shiver and shake from the cold. Justin was kind enough to let me huddle next to him for warmth, and I promptly fell back asleep for another blissful hour. Up with the sun, and we spent an inordinate amount of time preparing for the long trek ahead of us. Erl and I taped our feet, and we shoved all of our worldly belongings back into our totes.
We left CP28/TA8 at 7:27am after another breakfast of canned and pre-packaged meals. At this point in the race, Chef Boyardee was barely palatable, and unfortunately made a repeat appearance for Erl. We were all quickly exhausting the food choices that looked remotely edible, and wondered if we would have enough to finish out the race. Through most of the race my stomach was either growling from hunger or upset from all of the crap being shoved into it. I couldn’t decide which was more bearable. We left the shelter of our tents and were instantly swarmed by blood-hungry mosquitoes. While we slept, many other teams had arrived in the TA, and every one of them were wearing bug nets. Having so many other teams right on our heels spurred us on to get out of the TA and onto the O course. Somewhere along the last few sections, we moved into 5th place, and hoped that there would be an opportunity to move up a spot or two with the time that was left in the race. There were 9 CPs on the O-course, which could be obtained in any order, and only 1 CP was needed to continue as a ranked team on the course. However, teams with more CPs would be ranked ahead of teams with less, so it was imperative that we find them all. Biz quickly navigated to CP9, where we had our first sighting of team Salomon/Suunto who had left the TA shortly before we did. Moving on, we managed to utilize a lot of trails and two-track roads through the woods and prairie, and hadn’t encountered any swampland yet. A few more miles and we passed Salomon/Suunto on the side of the trail, analyzing their maps. Biz checked his map, and thought that they must have been really off the mark to be changing course at this point. We realized later that since they are a strong navigation team, they probably didn’t want us to simply follow them through the O course, and were pulling off the trail waiting for us to pass them.
Another CP, and we made our way through a marshy swamp, managing to keep our feet dry up to this point. We searched through the swamp and woods a bit, and finally found the checkpoint, just as a 2 person team approached. They were the same team who had shared their bug spray with us the night before, so we chatted for awhile, compared routes, and went our separate ways to the next CP. We met up again with these 2, and got the next CP together. We hiked and chatted, sharing stories of the race as well as our rally-time Skittles. I was on-tow as even the shuffle-run was not enough to keep up with my teammates. The heat of the day was upon us, and it was increasingly difficult to keep drinking and eating. More miles, more CPs, and always the constant pain that we were all experiencing in different body parts. All this combined with the ever present mosquitoes turned this trek into a suffer-fest, a battle of attrition to just keep moving. It wasn’t fast, it wasn’t pretty, but we were making our way through the trek.
Finally we were down to the last CP, and then it was about 3 more miles on trails back to the TA. I was going to plead for a 10 minute nap, and some time to refuel as I was bonking pretty badly by that point. Then we noticed Salomon/Suunto ahead of us. We gradually caught up with and passed them ½ mile from the TA, checking into CP29/TA9 at 4:28pm, 3 minutes in front of them. Now it was a race for 4th place! The first 3 teams were long gone, and we legitimately had a shot at 4th – it would all come down to the last bike and canoe section. The race directors, sensing a chase, eagerly watched as we hurried through our transition, with Salomon/Suunto in the TA right next to us. Race directors asked us for a quote to update the website, and Salomon/Suunto says “The race is on!” Game on! We hurriedly transitioned to bike and whipped out of the TA after a blazing 17 minutes, Salomon/Suunto hot on our heels.
Section 10: bike 30 miles, canoe 20 miles, bike 8 miles
I bonked pretty hard on the O-section, and was beyond starving when we shuffled back to the TA. Given our race for 4th place, we didn’t have any time to eat, drink, or take a breather in the TA – it was a mad rush to get our gear changed out, our bikes ready, and be out the door. In the hustle I decided to grab 2 cans of Chef Boyardee to eat on the paddle, along with the 2 cold cokes that the volunteers had graciously given to us as we entered the TA. This, along with my full camelback bladder, change of clothes and various other assorted gear made my pack extremely heavy. Apparently I wasn’t thinking very clearly due to my greatly decreased mental capacity, because that pack must have weighed 10 pounds, most of which was taken up with substandard canned pasta. About a mile into the bike ride I was lagging behind my teammates – Justin biked near me and asked what was up. I told him my pack was too heavy – so we pulled over and he strapped it on top of his already full pack. Amazing.
We were biking along on a gravel road and got a few miles before Justin realized that he had forgotten the last canoe/bike map in the TA. Blast! We pulled over and saw that a short-coursed team was right behind us. As luck would have it, we had been joking around with them in the TA right before we took off, and were friendly with each other having been in a few races together previously. They slowed down and asked if everything was ok – we said “actually, do you have your maps for the last section?” They did, and were kind enough to show them to us. Justin and Scooter committed the last canoe and bike section to memory, and I took my pack back, redistributed weight between Erl and Justin, and we were on our way.
Shortly, the gravel road ended, and we were on fast pavement. We saw a train and noticed that the track paralleled the road. Justin, always quick on his feet, checked the map and noticed that the train tracks criss-crossed through the next town. We didn’t want to risk getting caught behind the train and having Salomon/Suunto catch up with us. We kicked it into high gear and pace lined it through the town, beating the train by at least a few minutes. Whew! Another hammer-fest on the bike. My teammates were all looking really strong and peddling with ease. Why did my pack still feel heavy? I was surreptitiously draining water out of my camelback, and jettisoning food items that I had quickly jammed into my pack at the TA, but that my stomach would no longer tolerate. I figured that we could always pull water from the river during the paddle if we ran low. Still feeling really spacey, I knew that I had to keep eating and drinking to pull out of the hard bonk I had, and finish this race strong. After over 3.5 days of racing, eating was a dreaded chore, and even though we forced down the food, we couldn’t keep up with the 8000 to 10,000+ calories/day that we were burning through.
Justin and Scooter had found a little known gravel road short cut to get to the next CP. As we were rolling into CP30, we saw another team pulling out. Who were they? How did someone pass us? Justin checked us in, and came back with the good news that this was team Checkpoint Zero (CP0), who had been in the battle for 2nd place most of the race, and was currently in 3rd. We had managed to make up hours on them, due to the route choice of taking the 2 mile longer paved route. The option they chose was the shorter 2 track route, which wound up being another sand slog-fest, taking top teams 1.5 to 2 hours. We continued biking on gravel, and saw CP0 pulled over ahead, with one guy hunched over his handlebars. We got into a pace line and hammered past them to the paved road, and by doing so, moving into 3rd place. As we were nearing the top of a hill, I saw CP0 about ½ mile behind us. They were chasing us down hard - time to punch it! We pushed it to CP31, the bike drop and canoe put-in. We hustled through a quick transition, and our second boat was just pulling away from the shore when they arrived. I heard Paul from CP0 say, “We have the sails ready.” Crap! Sails?! They would pass us for sure. I reveled in the knowledge that at least we would be in 3rd place for a few minutes before they passed us on the paddle. We were on a narrow windy river, and in past years, our paddling skills had not been strong compared to other teams. We settled in for a 12 mile river paddle, and I kept looking back over my shoulder for CP0, and also Salomon/Suunto. An hour passed. Then another. Where were they? I figured they were just out of sight behind us, so we kept paddling hard and strong. What we didn’t realize at the time was that we had stumbled upon another stroke of luck; the water levels were really low. This meant that our short, light-weight team had the advantage over taller, heavier teams. Our canoes were sitting higher in the water, and we floated over a lot of shallow spots that slowed down many other teams.
Despite our hobbit-esque size, we still managed to get hung up on a few shallow rock piles. After pushing and heaving our way out of one particularly rocky section, Erl paddled next to Biz and Scooter, asking “How do you like your AquaBound (paddle brand) pry bar?” A short time later, I noticed some type of waterfowl flying and swimming in the water ahead of us. Ellen, “What type of bird do you think that is?" Erl, ”I don’t know, maybe some type of duck.” At this point in my sleep-deprived state, I decided it would be fun to try to communicate with it. Ellen, “buk buk baGAWK!" Erl, “Well, I don’t think it is a chicken…” I could barely sit up straight from laughing so hard, much less continue to paddle. Suddenly everything was ridiculously funny. I just couldn’t stop laughing. Was it the sleep deprivation, the bonking, or the massive amounts of Excedrin and caffeinated Jolt gum? We reached the end of the river where it poured out into lake Huron, and CP32. It was almost dark so we stopped to put the glow sticks on our boats and PFDs. Still no sign of any other teams.
We pushed on, with another 8 miles of paddling to complete this section. It struck me that CP0’s sails would do them no good on the lake tonight, as it was smooth as glass with absolutely no wind. I counted our lucky stars, and paddled with the sole goal of possibly capturing 3rd place in the longest race we had ever attempted. By now it was dark, and Justin was fighting the sleep monster. We towed up canoes, and tried to navigate using only the memory of the maps hours ago. We had a rough idea that we needed to go out and around a large peninsula, and then on the far side of a large bay, but it was night and the shore was dark, so it was anyone’s guess as to where we should end up. Oh no – could we lose this coveted 3rd place spot bumbling in the dark on Lake Huron, trying to find CP33? We turned on our headlamps a bit too late – and wound up beaching our canoes on the very shallow rocks at the end of the peninsula. We hopped out, pulled them around, and quickly got back in. As we headed into the large bay, I saw a bright white light flash a few times. Was this a signal from the checkpoint? Justin had the great idea to use our headlamps to flash back at them. Bingo! They signaled back to us, and we had a visual on the CP. With renewed vigor, we paddled hard to the shore. During this paddle the moon was rising, huge and orange, reflecting off the calm water and making the night even more magical. We finally arrived at CP33, and hurried to transition to bikes. As we were getting ready to ride, I looked up and around at the people in the CP, and saw Ann and Al, Scooter’s parents. What a great surprise! They had driven around St. Ignace and happened upon our canoe take out point – no doubt where Scooter’s navigation skills originate. We pedaled the last 8 miles to the finish line, trying to stay focused and safe, and arrive in 1 piece. As we rounded the curve into the park where the finish line was located, Scooter clipped the curb a bit too close, and crashed his bike, rolling off into the grass. All I saw were sparks flying from his peddle on the curb, and an expert tuck-n-roll maneuver. Scooter hopped up and was on his bike before anyone knew what happened. We cruised through the finish line just after midnight to shouts and cheers from the volunteers and race staff. We dropped our bikes and huddled up for a huge team hug, wet, filthy, beyond exhausted, but most of all jubilant that we had captured 3rd place in a strong field of 33 teams. The 350 mile race had taken us just over 89 hours, and our hard push on the bike and canoe to the finish resulted in a final stage win of Lendal paddles.
We could not have persevered without the encouragement, support and patience of our friends and family; every step of the way we were reminded of them cheering us on back home. From Erl’s parents who generously loaned us the JDeere Suburban, to Molly who put together a care package complete with motivational sayings and pictures for our gear bins, to Al and Ann Lund who were able to be there in person, waiting at the finish line with hot pizza. So many of our friends, coworkers, fellow racers, and family had written shout-outs on the website for us to read during the race, and it spurred us to keep moving, strive ahead, and never stop until we were across the finish line, shouting and crying and holding onto each other.
(C) 2004-2008 WEDALI adventure racing