Standing at the start line for the group picture, I realized that my allergy symptoms had miraculously disappeared, just as I’d said they would. I could only hope that they’d stay gone, but just in case I had packed as many napkins as I could fit into a baggie and a large supply of Benadryl. The National Anthem played, Gerry said “go”, and the race was on. Like always, we ran past the start line and the cameras. Unlike always, we didn’t stop.
I struggled to keep pace with my team and the WTF/TR guys. Bob is historically much more of a biker than a runner, but he easily stayed ahead of me and in the lead of our group. I really wanted to walk, but there was no way I was going to be the one who asked to stop. After all, we had to reach the river eventually, right?
We clambered down the banks of the Wakarusa River and into the cool water. I’d been afraid I would be cold, but the night was warm enough that the water felt good.
|This was more or less what you could see.|
The depth ranged from ankle deep to neck deep to (at one point) over our heads. We were swimming, wearing our packs, and it. was. awesome. If I’d been out there by myself, I’d have been terrified, but being there with friends in the context of a race was the coolest things ever. Even though I knew all the water resistance was going to leave my legs toast later in the race, I felt good during this part of the race. My shoes kept out the majority of rocks and sand from the river, but keeping your footing was tricky.
|Photo credit: John Morris|
Between the dark and the 100+ other racers who’d already waded before us, you couldn’t see anything in the water. We were regularly tripping over rocks, and while I was the first one to fall I certainly wasn’t alone. At one point or another, I think everyone but Todd splashed down, many of us more than once. The navigation wasn’t difficult; it was just a matter of staying in the river and not missing the CP when you passed it. There was one that was a little hidden, and we caught up to a couple teams there who must have missed it.
Wait…what? Team Virtus running? Catching other teams? Maybe this was going to be a breakout race for us.
After punching CP 4 we were allowed to leave the river, and as fun as that had been, we were all very ready to be able to see the obstacles in front of us. We had an uphill climb to the next CP, and our WTFAR/TR buddies chose a different route than we did. They beat us there and we all exchanged hi’s in passing. Luke checked the map for the next point and gave us the option of going back down and around or staying high and doing some possible bushwhacking.
The guys are kind enough to always include me in the decision making, but it’s pretty rare for me to give an opinion on navigation since I’m basically incompetent. I don’t need to give input just to hear the sound of my voice, but I’ve listened to them discuss potential routes enough that I’ve heard a lot about the benefits of stable elevation vs a lot of up and down. “Why don’t we stay high?” I suggested, and Bob agreed. Luke led us directly to our next CP. Sweet!
The next checkpoint (I think) was located in a cave alongside the river. We had to cross the water again to get there and then climb up some rocks and into a long passageway. Most of it was high enough to walk through standing, but it wasn’t much wider than my shoulders. Since other teams were coming back out as we were heading in, the narrow tunnel made for some awfully close contact as we tried to squeeze past each other with packs on. The cave trek was really, really cool.
After that, we headed towards the rappel cliff. This was a big deal for two reasons. First, I’d never rappelled before, and second, the time had arrived for Bob to pay off his Speedo bet. For anyone who’s missed it, Bob and Luke had a bet about donut eating at the Tour de Donut (check out the comments to see how a simple call-out of your friends can morph into a nightmare). The loser had to wear a speedo for a leg of Thunder Rolls. Bob lost, and Luke ordered this little gem for his BFF:
|Seriously…what bet could POSSIBLY top this one? I’m afraid to find out…
Photo credit: Brian VanWeelden
A poll on the Team Virtus site allowed our fans and friends to weigh in on which leg the speedo should be worn on, and the result was the ropes course. Bob had to rappel wearing nothing but shoes, a gold speedo, and his pack. Seriously epic. We’d been looking forward to this for ages, but I was really bummed that Brian, Todd, and Dave were going to miss the big event. They as excited about it as we were. Luke and I climbed into our harnesses while Bob disrobed, and just as he finished changing the WTF/TR boys came running up. They hadn’t missed it after all
|It’s like Cupid meets S&M|
The speedo paparazzi was out in full force, so after several photos and much laughter we headed over to our rope. Luke went first to belay me at the bottom, and Bob went third so I’d have someone to keep me from wimping out. Remember, I’ve never rappelled before. My only ropes experience ever was that single ascent the previous day. As Luke dropped over the edge, I was seriously nervous. My hands were shaking big time, and I was very, very quiet (rarely a good sign for me). Brian asked me how I was feeling and I gave some very unenthusiastic response.
Luke reached the bottom way too quickly. I was up.
|The face of fear. (Photo credit: Brian VanWeelden)|
The volunteers told me what to do and hooked me up, and then it was time to walk to the edge and sit back over it. As frightened as I’d been while waiting, the fear mostly evaporated once it was my turn. I think if I’d been doing this just for “fun” I’d have been petrified, but somehow it’s easier to do scary things in the context of a race. It’s all kind of a blur, but I think I basically had to walk myself partway down the cliff face. At one point my feet lost contact with the wall and I spun in the opposite direction, which made me really uncomfortable. The top of the rappel was basically an overhang, so after 20 feet or so (?) the rock just dropped away and the remainder of the rappel was a controlled freefall…into the river.
I’m sure the volunteers had told me this at the top, but I guess it didn’t reallly sink in because I wasn’t expecting to just be hanging from the rope. Again, I wasn’t really scared, more a little nervous and somewhat confused. Luke called to me from the bottom not to worry, just come down the rope. A volunteer at the top had talked me out of borrowing Luke’s full-finger gloves, so I just had on my half-finger bike gloves and as I sped up my hands started burning a little from the friction. I was really glad to hit the water, but I’m looking forward to my next rappel when I know a little better what I’m doing.
As I waded to shore, everyone told me to turn off my headlamp. Apparently there were hornets all around the cliff face and someone had been stung earlier. I’m SO glad they left me alone, because it would have really freaked me out to be hanging from a rope 100+ feet in the air and being stung!
Bob was up next, and they had me belay him…which probably wasn’t the best idea because I had no idea what I was doing. Between having a clueless belayer and ropes being tangled, he ended up with a nasty rope burn on his stomach. I feel pretty bad about that, but at least he got to soak his burn in the cool river water:
|Photo credit: John Morris|
A short trek had us back at Camp Benson and the bike drop, where we changed into dry clothes and ate a quick bite. It seemed like we were moving pretty quickly, but looking at the splits our 25 minutes was one of the longer transition times for that TA, and WTF/TR came in after us and left first. Like we always say, transitions are an area for improvement.
|Photo credit: Luke Lamb|
Thankfully the first bike leg was relatively short, around 10-11 miles. We rode a combination of gravel and pavement with a couple of pretty good hills in there. The short ride was a good news/bad news type of thing for me. Good because my legs were pretty much toast, bad because I tend to need a little time to warm up my nerve on downhills, especially gravel ones in the dark. We had one small navigational hiccup when we passed the road to the next TA, but we realized our mistake pretty quickly (and, naturally, towards the bottom of a hill) and turned around.
We rode into the TA2 at 6:12 a.m. to see Chad (my ascending tutor from the previous day), Courtney, and their two girls. What a cool family to spend their day (and night) volunteering there! Our bike leg took us nearly two hours, which seems pretty slow and I think can be attributed to a combination of our dead legs and my hill timidity. I really need to stop being such a big baby on downhills; really, I just need to get back to riding more regularly so that I’m more comfortable all around.
|Our map case had leaked during the coasteering leg, washing away the highlighting Luke had done the night before. He laid them out to dry while we were on the orienteering leg since we were using a difrrerent map for that.|
This next orienteering leg was a big one, something like 18 CPs. As we headed towards our first, we saw Wedali returning to the TA, and Emily called to us to make sure we had our climbing gear. We assumed that they were finishing the leg, but we later learned that they’d left their harnesses behind and had to sprint back from the ascending wall to get their climbing gear. (And, um, still won the entire race. There were some amazing teams there this past weekend.)
We had some trouble finding the first CP, but once we got on track our navigation was spot on. Time after time Luke led us directly to the next point. It was a pretty awesome feeling. I always learn a lot watching the guys navigate, too. They’re really good about keeping in contact with the map. Where I would look and say, OK, we’re going to go East until we hit this trail, and then walk and walk and walk. Luke pays attention to land features as we’re walking, so that when that trail that’s on the map doesn’t show up on the ground, he knows where it SHOULD be and can make adjustments on the go instead of getting totally lost like I would.
So overall, things were going pretty well. My upper legs were pretty scratched up thanks to a combination of thorns and stinging nettle. I had planned to replace my old adventure pants but couldn’t find a pair of pants locally, and I hadn’t been able to get to St. Louis to look there thanks to night class and family obligations. That left me in shorts despite the warnings of my teammates. I wasn’t all that worried, though, since I’ve worn shorts and tall socks for every AR I’ve done so far and survived just fine. The thorns and nettle suck, but they’re something you come to expect and deal with.
I did not expect what happened next.
If you’re not an adventure racer, keep in mind that we’re frequently off-trail bushwhacking through the woods. That’s what we were doing between CPs 17 and 18. Luke was leading, I was behind him, and Bob was maybe 10 feet behind us when my legs suddenly started hurting terribly.
Ow! OW! Ow ow ow ow ow!!! I yelled. Luke turned around to ask what was wrong; I had no idea, but I was in pain all up and down my legs. Behind us, Bob saw what looked like a red swarm rise up and called, “RUUUUUUNNNNN! Just run!!!”
So we ran a little ways and stopped. I looked down at my legs to see yellow jackets all over them. Luke and I swatted them away and ran more. Swatted yellow jackets away and ran more. Bob caught up with us, having been stung on the arms and once on the face. I had been stung conservatively 25+ times all up my legs. Luke had lucked out and not been stung at all, though he had to brush some yellow jackets off of his pants.
Note: after doing some reading on yellow jackets, it might not have been so much luck as what he was wearing. Apparently yellow jackets are particularly annoyed by bright colors (such as my red socks) and dark colors (such as my black shorts) while they avoid light colors (such as Luke’s arm warmers).
I felt a little bad for Luke because it’s hard to be the one who wasn’t hurt when your friends are in pain, and we were in some awful pain. I felt bad that Bob had been stung, too, but a small part of me was thankful just that someone else knew how badly it hurt. I didn’t want to be a big baby, but part of me just wanted to curl up in a ball and cry. A tiny part of me wanted to quit, but I couldn’t imagine how terrible it would feel to be back at the finish line early, watching all the other teams who’d stuck it out. We hadn’t spent all that money and all that anticipation to stop now.
As Bob and I stood there wrapped in pain, me trying not to cry, Luke remarked, “If those had been tracker jackers you’d both be hallucinating on the ground right now!” It was so unexpected and funny that it made me laugh. I was never going to quit, but that comment made the difference between tears and no tears.
Here’s the kind of funny thing, though: remember how terrible I felt the day before the race? The insane allergies that were resistant to every medication I took? How I’d ingested about a week’s worth of Benadryl by the time the race started? The doses I was taking regularly to stave off any allergy resurgence? Maybe all that happened so that any possible reaction to all those stings would be muted, and so that I’d have Benadryl with me to give Bob. That’s kind of cool.
At the same time, if the medicine did help, I can’t imagine how bad I’d have felt without it. Despite ibuprofen and Benadryl, my legs felt like they were on fire for hours (FYI, mud doesn’t soothe yellow jacket stings. I tried.). I was really suffering and whining like crazy…on the inside. This reputation I have with the team for not complaining, it’s a little bit of a curse (and a little bit of a joke, because they’ll turn any complaint I make into a “factual statement”) because it makes me not want to complain. Hmmm…maybe that’s their plan…
We limped to the next CP and took a little break there before heading to CP19. It was located along a powerline, and we had a bad moment where we couldn’t find the passport. Thankfully it turned up in a different pocket than where it was being kept.
|Evaluating our options while Bob and I look for the passport|
|Did you look there? What about there?|
We had a couple different options to get to the next CP and opted to stay on the powerline. It was a steep downhill, uphill, downhill, uphill that had my knee screaming.
|My lungs weren’t happy either|
By now it had gotten pretty warm, and much of the powerline was in full sun. I had run out of water, and though Luke still had a decent amount it wasn’t a good feeling to have my own bottles dry. We knew we’d be able to refill at the next CP, though. It was at a campground. The water pump and flush toilets took on the allure of a desert oasis, and we made the most of it when we got there.
I stood at the water pump and ran the cold water over my stinging legs for a nice long while. They still hurt, but it sure felt good. A good Samaritan at the campground asked if we needed anything, and while I was hoping for a diet Pepsi I was thankful for her offer of coconut water. We refilled our bladders and bottles, ate, and rested for a bit. A long bit. We were there around an hour. And while all of us were all about the race, I think those yellow jackets were a big turning point. It slowed us down for sure. And it made me feel kind of fragile. I’ve already been yelled at for expression this opinion, but I just wish I’d been able to be mentally tougher.
Eventually we moved on, but not before I made probably my biggest mistake of the race, all three of which came about by ignoring Luke’s advice: I didn’t wear pants (OK, I didn’t ignore that advice, I just couldn’t find any), I didn’t wear the full gloves, and I put on wet socks at CP 20. I had brought three pairs of tall socks with me, and the yellow jacket-bait red ones were pair #2. Digging through my pack, I couldn’t find the last pair anywhere…until I’d put the red ones back on. Unfortunately, I hadn’t put the last pair of socks in a water proof bag, so they were still soaked from our river journey. Over Luke’s suggestion, I put them on anyway. The cold legs of the socks felt wonderful on my stings, but the wet feet quickly made walking uncomfortable. My feet never got to the point of being torn up, but they were progressively sore-er for the rest of the day.
The next several CPs seemed to come pretty quickly, and before long we were at the ascending site. It was waaaaay bigger than the practice one; I knew that would be the case, and I’d been quietly worrying how this was going to go. I’d been pretty worn out when I got to the top of the practice cliff, and now my legs had hiked a river, biked, and trekked all kinds of uphills. Arriving at the ascending wall, I looked up in dismay. It was really high.
|See where those ropes lead?|
Luke went first and seemed to be at the top in no time. Then it was my turn.
I had a hard time getting started since I’d forgotten one of the steps, but once I remembered the first section was OK. I took it very slow. So slow that not only did the guy to my left get to the top before I did, so did his partner…and Bob would have if he hadn’t hung out (literally) with me.
Things were slow but OK until I reached the ledge in the picture above me, but I had a terrible time in the second half. I was just exhausted.
I was making barely any progress and taking lots of breaks, taking my hangs off the ascenders and just hanging in my harness. I can’t tell you how defeated I felt. I knew what to do, I knew the only way to get off that wall was to do it, but I couldn’t do it. Again at the brink of tears I leaned my head against the rope and tried to catch my breath.
|Bob to the rescue!|
Climbing another rope below me, Bob called up, “Hang on Kate! Just wait there for me.” He caught up with me and pulled out a camera. “You’re going to thank me for this later.” The funny thing was that I was going to ask him to take my picture.
|It’s really a shame the sun was where it was, because you can’t quite see the look of hopeless exhaustion on my face.|
Bob totally talked me off that wall. His coaching was a huge help. It still took me a while, and I’m sure it was frustrating to be telling me what to do and me not be able to do it. At one point, trying really hard not to snap at him because I was so grateful he was there, I told him, “I know what you’re telling me to do. It makes total sense. I just can’t make my body do it.” Eventually, though, I made it.
|Huge thanks to G. Scott (in red), too, without whose help I might still be swinging from the edge.|
|How I’d like to feel at the top|
|A very accurate depiction of how I actually felt.|
It took me a looooong time of laying there and then sitting there before I was ready to move again. Even then, I had to lift my legs with my hands in order to move them. HUGE thanks to my teammates for being patient with me.
By this time we were having some discussion about the rest of our race. Bob had forgotten his seizure meds, and going too long without them after so little sleep and so much exertion was a recipe for trouble. We discussed finishing the O course, riding to the canoe put-in, and then getting one canoe point before heading back to the finish line. It was really weird to be talking about finishing when there were still over 7 hours left in the race, but it didn’t feel safe to go any further than that without the medicine, and the option of riding back to the start, getting the meds, and then riding back to the canoes was unbelievably unattractive.
So we headed off in search of the remaining CPs.
CP 29 was in another cave. Not as deep as the first one, but still cool. Literally cool, too; it felt great.
After going in and punching all of our wristbands (to prove the entire team had gone in), we sat at the mouth of the cave, ate, and just hung out for a while. It was a great time. There was no point in hurrying…we had over 7 hours to get one or two more CPs and ride 10 miles back to the finish. It was, as Luke remarked, the antithesis of our frantic LBL finish, riding 20 miles in an hour and a half to beat the cut-off.
And as far as I’m concerned, the medication issue made a fantastic excuse. Most importantly, it was without question the right thing to do, and not one of those “right things” like you’re only going along with it because you have to. But while I’d have kept racing without a good reason to stop, I was truly grateful to have a reason. And if that makes me a wimp, well, it’s nothing I haven’t been telling you all along. 🙂
Eventually we got moving again (seems like about the third time I’ve typed that line :D) and found CP 30. I was exhausted to the point that I took it as a personal affront when some thorns caught my arm. I looked at them angrily: “Really?”
From there, Luke led us uphill through a patch of stinging nettle and back to the campground, where we were about the last team to arrive. Still in no hurry, we hung out with Chad and Courtney, and relaxed for a long while.
“Another ‘strength’ picture”, Luke remarked as he took this, but I felt anything but strong. This race humbled me. I felt so good and so strong at LBL that it hurt a little to race Thunder Rolls and struggle over and over again. And don’t get me wrong…I loved every minute of this race. Well, except the tracker jacker attack. We did so many amazing things, and I had so many firsts. And you really can’t beat racing in such amazing conditions with two great friends.
And I guess we got a little closer this weekend. This is (if I’m remembering right) the third race I’ve done with Luke (the Deuce, LBL, and Thunder Rolls) and the second with Bob. It’s been an adjustment spending so much time in the woods with guys when even when on trail runs with female friends I’ll go a ways into the woods to go to the bathroom. This race I still moved, but not nearly as far as before…and the topper was at the campground.
I’d been wearing my bike shorts for about 15 hours, and the chamois cream I’d applied at the bike drop was long gone. I wasn’t miserable, but I was slightly chafed, and we were about to get back on our bikes. Since chamois cream stings when you’re already sore, I decided to use Body Glide. I muttered something about “this isn’t going to look very delicate” and stuck the Body Glide inside my shorts. Bob and Luke just looked at each other like “did that just happen??” It’s a rare thing, indeed, to shock them.
We rode back, walked some hills, and got to cheer for Bushwhacker as they passed us on their way to a second place overall finish.
We were excited to be able to cheer for our WTF/TR friends, who we knew were way ahead of us, but when we reached the finish line they were there cheering for us.
|At the finish line with race director Gerry Vollinger (Photo credit: John Morris)|
Never fear, though, we got to applaud as they received their awards for being first in their division. Very cool.
|Way to go guys!|
And it was a pretty awesome night. We clapped for the teams coming in, we ate pizza, and we hung out with friends and heard and retold stories from the day. Of course, the biggest story of all was the speedo rappel, and everyone wanted to hear about that. It was a new experience to be hanging around after the race instead of finishing at the last minute, and while I wouldn’t count on that being a regular thing for us, it was pretty great this time.
The best part of all was that we were all staying at the camp (really a FANTASTIC feature of the race, which I hope they continue next year), so after showering and collapsing into beds to finally sleep, some of us got to wake up and hang out some more.
|Tetherball with a sack of dirty laundry. Just call us McGuyver|
|Ah, Kountry Kettle, we’ll be back!|
It may not be our best result ever, but it was quite possibly my favorite race yet.