Note: I already wrote a race report for the team blog, but that’s about the team’s race. This is basically the same story, but it’s all about me. 🙂
What a difference a year makes.
This past weekend (August 24) was my second time at the Thunder Rolls 24-hour adventure race, held at Camp Benson in Mt. Carroll, IL. Last year, I both loved and hated the race. Well, that’s not true. I loved the race; I hated how I felt. The late-August date is a bad one for me, because I tend to get lazy and gain weight while off work for the summer, and I certainly did in 2012. I’d arrived at camp out of shape and as heavy as I’ve been since I started with endurance sports.
It showed in the race. Granted, we had a couple experiences that further went against me (yellow jacket attack, dragging myself up a cliff for 45 minutes), but the inescapable fact is that one cannot spend the summer eating and sitting on the couch and retain any hope of doing well in a 24-hour race. One one hand, I had a fantastic time — that’s a given with any race I’ve done with Team Virtus — but my happy memories were tainted by deep disappointment in how I’d felt. We had to shorten our race for reasons that weren’t related to me, but I was relieved. Glad even. That’s a first for me in any adventure race.
I still gained weight over this summer (though not nearly as much as last year), but I stayed active. I didn’t have any major adventures or races after Dirty Kanza, but I spent a lot of time on my bike and started training for a half marathon. Back in March I’d gotten additional practice on rappelling and ascending so that I’d hopefully have a better ropes experience. I drove back to camp in much better shape than last year…but still heavily medicated.
I’d spent the previous race dosed with Benadryl to hold allergies at bay; this time it was a nasty head cold that hit on Wednesday. Sick two years in a row? Waking up Thursday with a headache, sore throat, and congestion, Most likely the cause is has more to do with beginning of school stress and exposure to everything my new students might be bringing in, but I’ll admit that I started fearing some Thunder Rolls curse. Feeling like crap made shopping for race food fun…nothing sounded good.
I eventually filled my cart with crap food (pop-tarts, slim Jims, almonds, Payday, and Ensure), packed my gear, and left first thing Friday morning for camp. This year, Team Virtus fielded two squads for the 24 hour version of the Thunder Rolls adventure race: Luke and I on one, and Bob, Robby (making his first appearance in a 24 hour race), and Travis on the other. Even with two teams, the plan was always to stick together…once we got there, anyway. I made it to Camp Benson around 11:30, in plenty of time to visit with my volunteering buddy Brandy and snag a bottom bunk in the cabin while the guys had a longer drive from Missouri.
I hung out down by registration and read my magazine while teams slowly trickled in (registration didn’t actually start until 2). I met some guys who were there for their first ever AR…the 24 hour. They’d read my blog (and Emily’s…where they got any valuable part of their information!), so that was pretty cool. I jumped in and helped for a little bit with registration (“helped” being a bit of an overstatement…I sat at the table and highlighted team names for a while), confusing some friends. “Are you volunteering or racing?” Both!
Once the guys arrived and we were all registered and settled in the cabin, the first order of business was to get down to the ropes practice area. Travis and Robby would be rappelling and ascending for their first time, and I wanted some practice.
Because we got to the ropes nice and early, there wasn’t much of a line (which is still plenty of time for me to get nervous). Our friends Dave and Woody were there so that Woody too could make his first rappel, and soon after we got there Chad and WTFAR’s Brian wandered down. We had a nice little reunion waiting for the ropes volunteers to have everything ready, Woody rappelled, and then it was our turn.
The guys looked a little nervous while they waited, but Robby and then Travis made their first rappels and looked smooth and comfortable. I went next, and John, who was volunteering on ropes, remembered, “You don’t like heights much, right?” That’s putting it mildly, but he talked me through sitting down over the edge and getting started. It’s so much scarier in practice than in a race!
Bob came down next, and then it was time for us to ascend back up. Robby and Travis looked like old hands on their first try. Though I’d expected to be pretty comfortable after my additional practice back in March, I had a harder time than anticipated and needed coaching from John to get over the edge. The experience left me very nervous about the ascent in the race, particularly after my disastrous attempt last year.
Since the line was so long, Luke and Bob opted to hike to the top rather than take time away from people who were getting their first ropes experience.
We said hi to Chuck and Robin at the top and then headed off to take our bikes to the bike drop. After about 15 trips back to the cabin for forgotten items, we finally crammed 6 of us and 5 bikes into the Virtus van for a hilarious (for most of us) and uncomfortable (for Brian and Bob) trip to Savanna.
We left our bike shoes and a stash of food and water with the bikes, eliminating the need to carry them with us for the first part of the race. By the time we got back, it was time for the pre-race dinner: pasta, salad, and bread sticks served family style on the table.
Finally it was the time we’d been waiting for: getting the maps and hearing about the course.
There weren’t many points to plot, so Luke took care of ours by himself (probably a good thing because my contacts had gone into open rebellion against my eyes and I could barely see) while Bob, Travis, and Robby went over their map.
The basic structure of the race was like this:
1. Midnight start with a short run to pick up the pre-plotted maps for our initial o-section, which would include both the rappel and ascend. The early ropes were kind of a good news/bad news situation. I was much happier to get ascending out of the way before I was exhausted, but it also created the potential for a big bottleneck of teams waiting.
2. Coasteering leg (hiking down the river)
3. Short run (walk) to the canoes
4. Canoeing the Plum River (paddles, pfds, and food staged here)
5. Bike leg (bike shoes, water, and food staged here, climbing and paddling gear could be dropped here)
6. Bike-o at Palisades Park. You could ride your bikes on the park roads to get closer to attack the CPs on foot.
7. More orienteering on foot
8. Advanced course (it was pretty clear from the maps that we wouldn’t be experiencing this)
9. Mandatory bike route back
We had a lot of discussion about whether or not to bring extra shoes to change into after the coasteering leg. If we sent dry shoes with our paddling gear, we could change after we finished the canoeing. I kept going back and forth about what to do until Bob told Travis, “I’m taking my shoes because that’s what Luke is doing, and every time I don’t listen to him I’m wrong.” That decided me; there were three times in last year’s Thunder Rolls that I didn’t listen to Luke’s advice, and I regretted each one.
Luke: I think the main point here is I’m always right. It has nothing to do with the fact that I’ve made WAY more mistakes than everyone else.
Weirdly, we were all packed and ready in time to lie down for a little bit, if not actually sleep, and there was no last-minute rush (unless you count Bob and I having to lug Luke’s gear up to the start line). We dropped off our paddling gear, took some last-minute pictures, sang the National Anthem, and then at exactly midnight the race started and we dashed off to pick up our map.
Thunder Rolls is primarily an expedition-style race, meaning you have to get each checkpoint (CP) in order and if you miss one, you’re done; scores are based on the last consecutive CP punched. This first section was a rogaine, though, where the points could be found in any order. Anticipating a logjam at the ropes, we’d discussed tackling the other points first, hoping to make forward progress while other teams were waiting in line and then arrive at the ropes once the crowd died down. Looking at the map, we rethought this plan: it looked like a lot of doubling back would be required.
Our nav was spot-on for CPs 1 and 2. Since there was a bit of a line at the rappel (CP3), we skipped ahead to nearby CP5. Following a ridge that narrowed as we got closer to the CP, we came to what appeared to be the end of the ridge…but didn’t find the flag. There were steep drop-offs on three sides, and we could see lights below. Noticing another rock outcropping just a bit further ahead, we made our way out to that one with some careful climbing. We ended up getting there about the same time as Alpine Shop and WEDALI, and even though they’d already found an additional two CPs it was still really cool to be at the same spot as two top teams. Usually that only happens at the pre-race meeting.
Luke: I believe there was a CP here at one of the Lightning Strikes races where we had to clip into a rope just to get on top of it before we could rappel. At TR2013 we had no ropes whatsoever.
Robby and I had the passports for our respective teams, and it was sketchy getting to the CP. We had to hang onto trees and swing out on the rocks because the flag was on the very top tree facing out. I was trying very hard not to think about how high and how exposed we were; it makes me a little sick to my stomach to think back about it now.
Next up was the rappel, where thankfully the line had died down. We got our harnesses on and basically got right onto a line. Luke went first so he could belay me (for some reason no one trusts me to belay anymore) and made quick work of the rappel; then it was my turn. I gingerly backed over the edge to Ellie’s coaching, backed down the face of the cliff, and before I knew it I was standing in the river. This was my fifth rappel ever, and for the first time I loved it. I wished I could go back to the top and do it again.
I think all of my previous rappels have involved overhangs where my feet weren’t touching the rock. This time, Luke and I had a straight shot down a wall and I could just kind of walk my way down. I was way more comfortable with that.
The guys looked like they’d been doing this for years. Once we were all down, it was time to go around the corner to the ascending wall. There was a pretty good line waiting, and as luck would have it right in front of us were our friends (and cabinmates) Kim, Donovan, Chad, Chuck, and Robin. I felt pretty good that we were sticking right with them, especially since we actually were one CP up on them all at this time. And then I looked at the ascending wall and felt even better: “That’s it?“
Now, make no mistake…it was a big cliff, but it didn’t seem all that much bigger than the practice wall and I’d been anticipating something twice that size like last year. I knew I’d still have a hard time, but I was really relieved that it wasn’t worse. When a rope came open, Bob, Robby, and Travis went first since three of them had to get up their rope.
Bob started up line 4, and almost immediately things seemed off. He was struggling to make any progress. Ascending is exhausting when it is going well, and it’s debilitating when it isn’t. Now, Bob isn’t a pro climber or anything, but he knows what he’s doing. Remember, this is the guy who coached me up the wall at last year’s race when I had pretty much accepted that I was going to spend the rest of my life hanging off the cliff…and then zipped the rest of the way up with a smile while I collapsed at the top.
Now, it sucks to struggle at something, but there’s a whole added layer of frustration and confusion when you’re suddenly sucking at something you can do. And the icing on the shit cake was that this was all happening very publicly, in front of volunteers and other racers who were still in line, amid good-natured teasing and coaching that tapered off as it became clear that the predicament wasn’t at all funny.
Meanwhile, I had started up rope one, calling encouragement to Bob as I went up, and my ascent was going really well. It was the best of times and worst of times all at once. Everything was clicking, I was making good progress…and the irony was agonizing. My friend — my hero — was in the midst of one of the worst moments of his life, and I couldn’t do anything to help him.
Luke followed me up our rope, and we waited at the top, having no idea what was going on below with Bob (you can read all about the ordeal in his words on the Team Virtus race report). In the end, after an hour or so long ordeal, the ropes staff rigged the ropes so that Bob could rappel back down, exhausted, spent, and ready to quit. Robby was next up the rope, and then Travis hiked up to update us on how Bob was doing (not great). Luke and Travis hiked down first, and Robby and I followed them shortly afterwards.
Bob may have been ready to quit, but the rest of us weren’t taking no for an answer.