Friday Nov 4th, 2005 – Riverside Park, Tampa, Florida: 70 three-person co-ed teams who qualified by winning local USARA Adventure Races around the country toed the line in Florida for a chance to be crowned the 2005 adventure racing national champions.
The week prior to this race I had a sore throat that never got better or worse–that is, until the pre-race meeting. Then I started to feel really sick. That night, I felt really weak and my sinuses were a mess with loads of mucus, which caused a couple of throw-up sessions in the bathroom. Although there was no option of me not racing, the times I was able to fall asleep I had nightmares of being so sick I would not be able to get out of bed. I would wake up and try to assess how I felt throughout the night, and it was not good; it seemed to be getting worse.
Although certainly not 100%, I woke up and was able to get out of bed, and I felt much better than I thought I would. The race started on foot with an orienteering section where you had to grab tokens out of buckets at four different CPs. We ran well and stayed on our bearing most of the time, with a few exceptions where we had to retrace our route back to our known point and start over. These exceptions made me think we would be way behind teams that nailed them all.
After dropping our tokens off in fourth place, we tore out for the next nine trekking CPs on foot. We had to cross a significant river, a prime gator spot where we heard someone had been attacked. If you look at the photos from the race you’ll see the two walking zip lines set up by the race directors for you to get across. We didn’t even consider them; it’s faster to swim. RVG, our fearless leader, dove in and we followed; we would end up doing this what seemed like 100 times through the race. After getting all nine trekking CPs we arrived as the first place team was shoving off in their canoe. Even with our mistakes we were fast enough to still be in a good spot.
The canoe section was crazy, gross, ridiculous, hard, itchy and fun as shit. A volunteer forced us to take a red “heavy” canoe because it was closest to the water. Teams behind us were able to grab the 30 lbs.-lighter white canoes. At the time I had no idea they were different and might not have cared that much – however, I had no idea what lay ahead. We first paddled upstream for a CP in the major part of the river, then back down. We had quite a nice rhythm going. Once we got into the thick of the swamp, however, things changed. First, they call this area “17 rivers” because there are 17 rivers you can head down–16 HUGE mistakes to make. We were warned of this in the pre-race meeting. People have gotten lost paddling this area, requiring search parties, etc., “so follow the flow of the river at all costs” we were told. This was easier said than done. As we paddled deeper into the swamp, we approached our first downed tree that blocked the river. We couldn’t go under it, couldn’t drag the boat over it. The first three teams were still trying to portage around it when we arrived. OK, a quick portage, no problem. We got out and portaged our heavy ass canoe through the swamp, put it back in and we were on our way again. As we kept on down the river, it got worse. Teams were all over each other, trying to push their boats over logs rather than portage, fighting for position, almost pushing their canoes down on each other – at times – an ugly scene, but we quickly became good at it. Depending on how big or bad, we would either get out, stand on the log and drag the canoe over it, or portage around in the swamp. Some of the logs were such that there was enough room to paddle under, as long as we lay down in the boat. It was scary at times: You had to paddle, then hit the deck or get your neck broken. It was a challenge and while racing you had to somehow try and be careful about it all. Dan Weiland from Nike was not so lucky: Their race ended with him being knocked out and getting stitches in his head. And so it went for the next few hours, constantly getting into and out of the canoe to portage, dragging it over downed trees while balancing on logs, swimming in the nasty while pulling the boat over debris, lifting it over obstacles, killing half-dollar-sized spiders that kept jumping in the boat, flicking off leeches, hoping I’m not drinking too much of the brown/yellow swamp water that I’m swimming in, etc. During this hotly contested section we would fluctuate from top three to 11th, then back again.
The first bike section was fun for a few minutes, then the trail hit another swamp. We waded through with our bikes on our shoulders. I am the sweeper, so I’m usually last in our line. This is so I can make sure no team member gets dropped. So it was RVG, Jen then me. As I watched RVG almost disappear in the swamp with his bike over his head, I was certain that I would have to help Jen, but somehow with just her head above the water she got through it. But we did not come out of the water unscathed. RVG lost one of his egg-beater pedals, just the stem was left. This was not good news. We pressed on and RVG then got a flat. As I was changing it, we were passed by the team that went on to get second place. After the bike, we headed out on foot for the next trekking section and this was where our race ended.
We caught up to the front pack at an intersection and they said they couldn’t find CP12. RVG had a good grip on the map, so we headed out down a trail as he followed the curves on the map. He knew right where we were, but we could not find the surveyors’ trail that was supposed to lead us to CP12. We continued to look, going down a bit farther.. nothing. We assumed it was overgrown and since we knew the first teams had not found it yet, there would be no worn path through the jungle yet. So we headed in where it was supposed to be on RVG’s bearing and convinced ourselves we were on some sort of old trail. Within minutes we hit swamp, and it fluctuated from ankle to just above knee-deep. We followed this bearing for a while; it should have been 700 meters in. It started to get dark. Eventually we crossed paths with a pack of about six teams and joined forces, all of us slowly trekking through the swamp in the middle of the night. It was very surreal. Shining your headlamp out into the swamp you could see little eyes reflecting back at you–gators, snakes, etc.; we were traveling through their living rooms. This swampy, dangerous terrain was no man’s land, and we spent about 4.5 hours out there, sharing theories and ideas. Florida is flat, so if there are no features to go by when you’re lost. With us were a couple of good navigators from well-known teams. Jennifer Shultis from EMS pulled the cell out and called the race director. The race director informed us many teams had found it and there was ribbon on the path. Whoa. She also said it was better to miss a CP than the 12:30am cutoff time for this section. As a group we decided to cut our losses and head for the trail again, skip CP 12 and move on. It wasn’t long after hitting the trail that we found the surveyors’ trail to CP12, much farther down the road than we thought it should be.
After getting 13, 14, 15 and 16 we ran back with EMS and another team to the TA. We would arrive just over 30 minutes too late for the cutoff. About 18 teams had made it in time. Our race was over. None of us had ever been short-coursed before; it was a yucky feeling. At this point continuing would be for fun and training. We would have finished the short course but Jen was not feeling that well. She had severe chafing, but worse yet was her year-long injury of plantar fasciitis. It was obvious for the last few hours she was hurting pretty badly: She ran bow-legged and only spoke when asked direct questions, and even then she only answered a quarter of the time. Whenever we entered the water she would howl in pain. So RVG and I left it up to her to decide. As a team we have one more race left, the Baja Travesia, a 3-5 day expedition in Mexico. So it simply didn’t make sense for her to continue for fun and risk still being injured for the Baja race. At the time I was torn, but now I am of the opinion that was the right decision. We need her in top form in Mexico. First place wins $10,000.