Thunder Rolls 24-hour adventure race


As I start this report, it’s 6:30 a.m. and I’m lying in my bed for the weekend, a top bunk at YMCA Camp Benson, the HQ of this year’s Thunder Rolls adventure race. 24 hours ago we were 6.5 hours into our race, 12 hours ago we were still racing, 7 hours ago I went to bed, and about 1.5 hours ago I woke up in a dark cabin full of sleeping racers. Though I couldn’t fall back asleep, it took me about an hour to get my phone because that required me to climb out of bed. For the record, the top bunk was a poor choice.

The race, though, was a great decision. That was no surprise; I’ve been reading reports from Gerry Vollinger’s High Profile Adventure Camps and his races for the past two years and longing to go. I would be racing with two of my favorite people, my Virtus teammates Bob and Luke. A bunch of our friends (some of whom I met in person for the first time) were going. How could it not be an amazingly good time?

The weekend had all the trappings of potential epicnicity, which was a little scary. After all, the two most-anticipated Virtus races of the past year — March’s LBL Challenge and last August’s Lionheart — were beset by problems. This led to nearly every Facebook post and email mentioning how NOT excited we were about this race.

The guys picked me up at home, and even though they were running late, they beat me there since I’d made a last-minute Wal-Mart run to get medicine.  My allergies, which have been silent all summer, flared up in a huge way Friday morning, complete with watering eyes and faucet nose.  The generic allergy meds I bought didn’t seem to put a dent in my problems, but it was almost worth it just to see the look on the guys’ faces when I pulled into my own driveway after them.

We loaded up my stuff, hit Starbucks on the way out of town, and pointed the Virtus van towards Mt. Carroll, IL.  My excitement about heading towards the race was tempered by how awful I felt.  I’m not going to lie, I was pretty miserable.  By the time we were halfway there, I had doubled up on the allergy meds, gone through all the kleenex I’d brought, used up the tower of napkins I’d pillaged at Starbucks, and was blowing my nose on paper towels from a roll in the van.  Making another Wal-Mart stop, I sprung for the real Benadryl…which had absolutely no effect.

I’m sure the guys were wondering at least a little how I was going to do, but I was determined that no stupid allergies were going to stop me.  “I’ll be fine by race time,” I assured them, privately praying that this was the truth.  After one more looooong stop where we learned that Bob’s anti-chain restaurant agenda doesn’t guarantee a good meal (or clean bathrooms), we finally rolled into race HQ at around 4:00.  A big highlight was meeting my facebook friends Leisha, Kim, and Gerry for the first time. 🙂

We checked in, dropped our stuff in the cabin we were sharing with our buddies Whiskey Tango Foxtrot/Tardy Rooster and two other teams, and then headed towards the ascending practice area.

Home sweet home
The practice area.  I think it was about 40′ high.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m seriously afraid of heights.  I really thought I’d be more nervous as we walked to ascending, but I wasn’t.  I was really focused on learning what I needed to do so I wouldn’t let my team down at the race.  We hiked down to the base of the cliff, and our friend Dave and one of the volunteers helped me get all set up.

Getting set up
Let’s do this!
About to start…

Once I got the hang of it, it wasn’t too hard at all.  Well, the first half wasn’t too hard.  By the second half, I started getting tired.  Most of the way up, I realized that I hadn’t even thought about how high I was or about looking down or being scared.  I’d been completely concentrating on ascending. 


I trusted my harness, but I opted not to look down anyway. 🙂

Getting over the edge at the top was the hardest part, and I needed one of the volunteers to help with that, but overall I was really pleased with the practice.  I felt like I knew what I needed to do, I’d gotten one ascent under my belt, and it wasn’t that bad.  Also, while they returned after I was off the ropes, my allergy issues had completely disappeared while I was climbing.  That gave me a lot of hope that, once the race started and I was in my race brain, I’d be feeling OK.

We took our bikes to the bike drop, where Bob was playing bike mechanic to most of us in one way or another, and then grabbed some of the pre-race dinner.  The pasta, broccoli, and bread were good, but the highlight of the meal was some delicious yogurt with the most perfect strawberries and blueberries ever.  Finally it was time for the pre-race meeting, where we’d get the details of our next 24 hours.

The race would start at midnight with a short run from camp to the Wakarusa River, where we’d be coasteering (basically hiking and orienteering IN the river) for about 3 miles.  After checkpoint 4, we could get out of the river, and we had several more CPs to get, one of which was deep in a cave, and one of which was at the top of the rappel.  That’s right, my first ever rappel was going to be in the middle of the night.  In the dark.  Into the river.

Our first orienteering leg would end back at the bike drop, and we’d ride about 10 miles to the next orienteering leg.  There were a lot of points there (17, I think), and then we’d have a short ride to the canoe leg, which featured two sections of upriver paddling.  A long bike leg followed the canoes, then another orienteering section, then a bike back to the finish.

Unlike every other adventure race or orienteering meet I’ve done, this race was expedition-style.  This means that every checkpoint has to be found in order, and you aren’t allowed to miss a single one.  Your score is based on the last checkpoint (in order) that you’ve reached…as long as you’re at the finish line by midnight.  We had some points to plot, and we’d receive some of our maps pre-plotted once we got to those sections. 

Gerry, the race director, had warned us in a pre-race update that we WOULD be getting wet, and the race meeting confirmed that.  The river depth for the coasteering leg would range from ankle deep to neck deep (actually more than that, as it turned out).  We ended up deciding to wear different clothes for that first leg and then change into our team jerseys back at the bike drop.  I had brought my jersey, my bike shorts, and running shorts to wear in the race (I hadn’t been able to find a pair of pants suitable for the race, and that’s a mistake I’ve made for the last time).  I typically overpack, but this time I’d brought race clothes, sleeping clothes, and one outfit to wear back, so I ended up with just enough clothes as long as I rewore my Friday shorts on the way back home.

I was really glad to have my dry bag, because the water depth and the rule that we had to stay in the water until we reached checkpoint 4 guaranteed that my pack was going to be underwater.  Having decided on what to wear, I still struggled to figure out what should be in my pack, what I could leave at the bike drop, and then on fitting the necessary things into the dry bag and then into my pack.  Between helping Luke plot points, packing, repacking, and re-repacking, there wasn’t much downtime before lining up at 11:30 for the group picture, last-minute instructions, and national anthem.

Just about to start the race

I’d gotten 4 hours of sleep the previous night, had a week’s worth of Benadryl in my system, and 24 hours of racing ahead of me on a course designed to challenge the elite teams. This was going to be fun…

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