What Am I Doing Here? – An Ultrarunner’s Foray Into Adventure Racing
Here it is, the morning after and I have no idea how to tell the story of the 30 hours just spent with my teammate Ed Baggett in the 2007 Swamp Stomp – an adventure racing event staged by the good folks in the West Central Florida Adventure Racing Club from down near Tampa. Having run a number of the Croom 50K events over the years, I was familiar with WeCeFar and their commitment to adventure racing, but never did I think that I would find myself actually taking part in one. I guess that leads to the “how” question, which is really what led to this experience.
Ed Baggett, for all of his other remarkable attributes, also married well. (The how of that is another wonderful story that will have to be told by Ed or his wife on another day). For now though, suffice it so say that Ed’s wife is Kirsten, our 2005 GWTC female runner of the year and one who has now entered the masters era of her life and is continuing to leave her mark out there as she trains for her debut at Boston in April. Until a little over a year ago, Ed was always “Kirsten’s husband” and a fellow church member at Faith Presbyterian. Our paths crossed on Sunday mornings and occasionally when he would be out with their two kids watching Kirsten run at GWTC events. On one of those Sunday mornings in the spring of 2006, Ed asked if I would be a part of a team at Swamp Stomp. I probably asked what it was, and then proceeded to utter a word that I would come to have serious regrets about over the next year or so. Suffice it to say that it is easy to say “yes” to something (anything?) while standing in a church sanctuary, and suffice it to say that I was certain that my mouth had written a check that my butt was not going to be able to cash.
Quite frankly, after that Sunday encounter, I forgot about Swamp Stomp. Totally. Ed reminded me of my “yes” in November and I was struck with the serious realization that – as my granddaddy used to say – “the chickens had come home to roost.” It was time to face the harsh reality that I was going to have to take part in something that was very alien to my way of being – something that involved far more than simply running. The funny thing is that when Ed had described this event to me 10 months earlier, I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I didn’t own a mountain bike and hadn’t been in a canoe in years.
I am – or at least was – the poster child for one-dimensionality. There have been many days I have headed to the gym at Forestmeadows only to find myself stepping out of the car and heading to the woods to run – under the guise of “it is too nice a day to be inside.” I am – plain and simple – a runner. At 57 I am also aware that my days of one-dimensionality are waning, and the opportunity that Ed put before me may have been inspired by a higher calling than his desire for a teammate at Swamp Stomp. And so it was that beginning in November, I became a cyclist, a bit of a gym rat, and even a paddler. Swamp Stomp, with its expected 10 hours each of canoeing, mountain biking, and running/trekking, along with something having to do with a climbing harness and carabineers, would demand far more than lacing up the running shoes. The day the “mandatory gear list” was posted on the internet is a day that I will never forget. As I read over the list of items such as the aforementioned climbing harness (what’s that for!?), the first aid kit with snake bite items (what’s that for!?), the space blanket and the hydration system and enough food for 30 hours (say what!?) and on and on, I realized that this was becoming more and more unlike your basic trail 50K. That day, however, pales in significance with the day I first put on the required hydration system, a/k/a, Camelbak. That is the day my life changed. Running, to me, has always been fairly effortless. I mean, it has its moments that can rip your heart out and make your legs feel like linguine, but I always knew it was what I did best and that I would somehow manage to meet the challenge. The day Ed and I did my first 50 mile mountain bike ride (on a Dana Stetson hand-me-down that I have come to love) I felt as if I had run a 50K. Ed’s constant encouragement and “You’ll be fine out there” helped to temporarily ease my doubts until the day I first wore a loaded Camelbak and went for a run. If you’ve never done that – don’t. It is not good for your psyche. That day in early January when I put on the Camelbak with 70 ounces of water and an extra pair of shoes stuffed into it for weight and went for a 10 mile run at Munson Hills (without drinking any of the water in order to mimic the sustained carrying of the weight) was the day that I began to doubt my ability to complete this affair. It was as if I had gained 15 lbs overnight and 9 minute miles became tortuous. How was I going to do that for 10 hours? Ed continued with his words of encouragement and assured me that “you’ll be fine.” To be sure that we could paddle together for 10 hours we spent two hours one morning on the St. Marks River as I used kayak paddles for the first time. Did I tell you earlier that I am one-dimensional?
Just so this crash course in adventure race training wouldn’t get too focused, I was shipped off to Atlanta to teach for three weeks in January and confined to a downtown hotel. The sun came out 2 hours in 10 days and the kayak paddles and the bike never left the truck. In order to put aside any concern about going into this fresh, I ran the 30K, a 10K in Atlanta followed by a 12-miler the next day, the Mountain Mist 50K and the Tallahassee Marathon on consecutive weekends.
Now that you know all this, what happened over the course of 30 hours? Well, we had fun first of all. And secondly, Ed was right: I was fine. I was fine because he is adept at navigation and orienteering. I had been told in advance by others knowledgeable in the sport that good orienteering is the key to success. Ed, a former Army Ranger, is incredibly good. In adventure racing the entrants are required to find all mandatory checkpoints, and then as many bonus checkpoints as possible. Our strategy was to get all of the mandatory points (required for an official finish) and then as many bonus points as we could on the bike and run segments. We blew off that strategy in the first 3 hours when we crawled out of the canoe and spent 2 hours hunting 3 bonus points in a hardwood swamp and forest on the Withlacoochee River. Accordingly, it wasn’t until sundown on Saturday that we dragged our sore butts and soggy feet out of the canoe. We managed to stay warm in spite of a 29 degree start and a breezy day. (In a little side challenge that wasn’t hinted at in the pre-race meeting was the fact that we then had to carry the canoe over our heads for ¾ mile to the bike segment of the race. This 98 pound weakling was wishing he had skipped a couple of those afternoon runs at FM and headed for the gym….)
By 7 PM we were on the bikes and headed into the woods. A half hour later I first saw my nightmare. Someone had constructed a wooden replica of Devil’s Tower, that Wyoming monolith that was made famous by 2001 – A Space Odyssey and is beloved by those who get their kicks out of climbing up sheer rock walls like Spiderman. Personally, I don’t. Personally, I am a weenie and like keeping my feet on the ground. The cold hard fact was that now I was going to have to climb up this 100 or so foot vertical wooden wall and then – horror of horrors – rappel down the other side. Fortunately, it was pitch dark and I couldn’t see the ground and knew better than to try. Darkness was good. If I had, chances are I would still be up on top of that thing. My friend Jim Bodoh – a Badwater finisher and a director of some of the Croom races – was on top. I’ll never forget his words of instruction. “Just keep stepping back until you step off the edge.” Jimmy – it is 100 feet down to the bottom! Haven’t you ever heard of gravity? I thought of my upcoming retirement and all the years that I hoped to have ahead of me, and how very fleeting they seemed at this time. I also remembered the words of Jay Pichard and those of Steve Barraco, both experienced adventure racers who had assured me going in, “You’re not going to die out there.” Both, as it turned out, were correct. I’ve had my last encounter with Devils Tower though. Let the aliens have it.
After that, it was anti-climactic. We pedaled through the swamps in the rain until about 3 PM and managed to find all the mandatory checkpoints. Some were extremely difficult. It is dark out there on a moonless night and there is no shortage of cypress knees. I lost a clip off one of my toe pedals and had to ride without it for the rest of the race. At 3 PM we began the running/trekking section – our expected strong suit. We did well and found all of those mandatory checkpoints. Our time was running short, though, as we had spent those 2 hours the day before away from the canoe and had struggled to find some points on the bike during the night. We completed the run segment by 9 a.m. and with a 40 mile bike ride – some off road – back to the finish, were told that we would be “right on the edge” of finishing if we pursued what was the last checkpoint before the return leg. The words “give in” and “quit” are not in Ed’s vocabulary, so there was no doubt where we were headed. Off we went in search of the last point, on what turned out to be a pretty but nasty section of sugar sand and gnarly upland woods strewn with logs. As a reminder that this was not supposed to be easy, I proceeded to have a flat tire. Another surprise and obstacle arose when what was believed to be a one-stop point, (i.e., you find the flag, you get the point), was actually a bit more complicated. As it turned out, when we got to the location of the checkpoint we then learned that there were actually 3 more locations that were required for the point. What we expected to accomplish in an hour took nearly two. After that, we had the long ride back to the start. We rode hard for the first half, just to the point where we knew we could make it, and cruised in with a half hour to spare.
We came away from this affair able to hold our heads high. Going in, my goal was simply to have fun. We accomplished that to the fullest. Fun, it was! We also hoped for an official finish, which meant getting all of the mandatory checkpoints. We accomplished this as well. In our wildest dreams, the Kwitchaynin team of Baggett and Griffin thought they might pick up a few bonus points and finish in the top 10 of the 18 two-man teams. Our 4 points brought us in at 5th. To top it all off, there was one additional unexpected treat awaiting us. You see, adventure racing at this level is pretty much a young person’s sport. Most competitors are in their 20s and 30s. Ed and I toed the line with 100 years of living between the two of us. There were 4-person teams out there with fewer cumulative years. I was the oldest competitor and our team was the oldest team, and that fact was recognized at the post-race awards ceremony.
After all was said and done, I was very glad that I said “yes.”