Adventure Racing With The Peanut Gallery
“This is where things really get interesting,” I thought, as the three of us hugged, lay down in the mud pit, and started rolling, struggling to hold onto each other.
Months earlier, my girlfriend and I decided to participate in the Hi-Tec Adventure Racing Series, taking place just outside Sacramento, California. This was to be my first adventure race, and Jenny’s third. The adventure racing series pits 3-member teams (co-ed, male, female and a handful of elite teams) against each other in mountain biking, trail running, kayaking and “special tests” that would be interspersed throughout the race. The sold-out Sacramento race attracted 350 teams, the great majority of which were co-ed teams. That makes for over 1,000 competitors.
“This will be fun,” Jenny would tell me. “Hmmm … OK,” I would reply.
We set about recruiting our third team member and approached our friend Dave, an outstanding athlete and ultra runner (when in doubt, stack your team). To give you a sense of perspective, Dave was filmed by National Geographic for a race he ran – against an Aborigine and a German – across Australia. Yes, you read that right; Dave is a machine. Luckily, with very scant details provided him (and what I would call a reasonable amount of cajoling), Dave agreed to join our team.
We then focused on the critical tasks for preparing for any adventure race. First, choosing our team name. Very important. OK, don’t laugh, but my pet name for Jenny is “Peanut” (she’s small and full of energy), while mine is “Boo” (don’t ask). Dave came up with the suggestion of “The Peanut, Boo, and Barking Sphincter Adventure Racing Consortium.” After the laughter died down, that one was soon discarded. We took the road of caution, and decided to honor our illustrious team captain by naming ourselves “The Peanut Gallery.”
That settled, I sprained my ankle. Badly. With 2 months to train for the race, I was out of the game. After a long recovery period and physical therapy, I was only able to ride my mountain bike about three weeks before the race, and run again only two weeks before. Come race day, it was still a sketchy situation. “Well, that’s why they call it ‘adventure’,” I reasoned.
We arrived at the race site on Saturday afternoon and stared at the sprawling yellow pile of Sevylor inflatable kayaks stacked by the shore, the tents of the various sponsors, and – the things that attracted our immediate attention – the 12-foot high sheer walls that we would have to scale. It was tall. We were short.
We were jolted out of our stunned reverie by an announcement that a kayak clinic was about to start, put on by Team Sevylor. This would come in handy, since these befuddling craft are so unlike actual kayaks that it’s still a curiosity to me how they were lumped into the same genus. Take your average inflatable raft from your pool (preferably one with the big frog head on it) and give it sidewalls and a couple inflatable cushions to function as seats. Don’t, by any means, give it a keel, a centerboard, or a rudder of any kind. Now, grab a kayak paddle, sit in it, and you’re ready to embark in your Sevylor “kayak”.
As the Team Sevylor guy spoke to a large crowd of knowledge-thirsty competitors, saying “know what’s the hardest thing about these kayaks?”, I looked up to see a hoard of them out on the water, being paddled in aimless zig zags and circles. “Keeping it straight?” somebody replied. “Yeah, keeping it straight. It’s not easy.” This guy was a professional adventure racer, sponsored by Sevylor, and he was telling us how difficult it was to control these things. This was not a good sign.
The next clinic was about how to get over the wall. Considering the “Wall vs. Us” math we had calculated earlier, we figured this would be a good one to sit in on as well. We took the time between clinics to register and grab our numbered team jerseys, numbered plates for our bikes, obligatory event t-shirts, and other various swag.
Team Clif Bar (made up of a gargantuan 6’5″ guy and two women around 5’5″) gave the wall clinic. After the usual reminder that we should hydrate the heck out of ourselves (we were told this about a thousand times), they first told us, and then showed us several different techniques for getting up and over. And they did so very impressively, of course. An interesting (and quite surprising) piece of information imparted was that other competitors – not just your own teammates – could help you out. So, the wall was not only a physical challenge, but a diplomatic one as well. We were still not 100% convinced of our success, but this wasn’t something they’d let you practice before the race … we’d have to do it cold when the time came.
Returning to the event site for the 5pm mandatory team meeting, we passed the transition area, a monstrous fenced-in pen of bike racks where we would store all of our gear and supplies for the race. Each event would dump us back at the transition area, where we would change gear before hustling off to the next event.
The main event tent was packed with competitors seated in white folding chairs awaiting the meeting. Since we arrived a little late, Jenny and I stood off to the side. I noticed people checking out my Dipsea Race t-shirt (worn intentionally for a little intimidation factor) and poking their teammates and pointing at me.
The meeting got underway with a little pep talk and requisite cheering. The race organizers were very proud of the fact that they’ve managed to do all these adventure races and still have only four rules, which were:
1. you must complete the course as marked,
2. no outside assistance is permitted at any time,
3. no dragging the kayaks (Huh? Why is this a rule?), and
4. teams must complete the special tests together, and finish the race together.
After they introduced the elite teams, the Race Director (a veteran of innumerable adventure races, including the Eco-Challenge) told us what we really wanted to know: tomorrow’s race plan. (In the Hi-Tec Adventure Race, you don’t know the order or distances of the events until just before the race.) He informed us that we’d start with a 5-mile trail run, followed by a 1.5-mile kayak, and finish with a 9-mile mountain bike ride. He emphasized that he was particularly excited about the mountain bike trail. It featured several “triple arrows”.
The Hi-Tec ARS uses a system of colored arrows to mark the course, and tell you which way to go. Single arrows provide you with basic direction. Double arrows up indicate a steep climb. Double arrows down warn of a steep descent. Triple arrows (either way) means, in the words of our race director, “heads up”. He had several triple arrows on the trail, the news of which elicited cheers from the crowd. I had come to the right place.
Of course, various special tests (physical, mental and teamwork tests) would be sprinkled throughout the race … we didn’t know what these were, where they would appear, or how many there would be. This was a trademark of the Hi-Tec ARS.
We spent some time discussing our race strategy, including what pace we wanted to maintain for the run, how we would situate ourselves in the kayaks, tethering systems, wall techniques, and what we’d bring to the transition area (the transition area would be open from 6am to 7:15am, and any teams still in the transition area after 7:15 would be disqualified). And with that, we headed out to an early dinner and an early bedtime, readying ourselves for the 7:30 start.
We arrived at the race at 6:30am, and got our gear to the transition area. As we left for our warm-up at 7am, I noticed a lot of people were crowding the start line, already jockeying for position. At 7:20, we squeezed in towards the front of the pack at the start line. I was nervous at the start, as I usually am, but knew that once I got my rhythm on the first few miles of the trail run it would shake out. They introduced the points-leading elite teams and sang the national anthem. And without a countdown, the starting gun sounded.
The course filtered quickly onto a singletrack trail, and I had to jump off trail and run through the star thistle to pass people, and keep up with Dave and Jenny. We had contrived our own call and response system – borrowed from the Hash House Harriers – to communicate in the crowds so we wouldn’t need to continuously look back to check on each other. One would yell “Are you?” and the reply from the other two would come “On on!” This was important since you had to finish the various events together, and inevitably you’d get somewhat separated in the crowds. Well, unless you were one of the teams who tethered themselves together, that is. This was kind of annoying during the run, because to pass a tethered person, you had to pass their whole team at once, and the rutted singletrack trail wasn’t always offering a lengthy passing lane. Some were tethered to stay together, others to tow their weaker teammate(s). In our case, we were all equally (or close enough) fast and strong to be able to stay close.
We ran a sub-8 minute pace, held steady by Dave, and I – being the slower runner of us – took up the rear. I would catch up in short order when we hit our next stop.
The First Special Test: Running with a Purpose
The run took us along a fun, relatively flat singletrack through the trees, and down to the edge of the lake by a beautiful secluded inlet. We came up to the table, and were handed a laminated topo map labeled “Foxtrot” with a bunch of points marked with red pen. Orienteering. The instructions told us to run to each of the four points marked on the map, and collect a playing card found in a bag there. Return the cards to the start/finish table. We were to collect 4 cards of very specific suit and numbers and suits, and we had to be together when we picked one up.
When the map wasn’t specific about the bag’s location, we would spread out and scan the area, and call to each other when we found it. One of our bags was floating in a Sevylor kayak, tethered to a mooring out in the water. We had to wade in – as a team – and grab it. Now we were running with wet, heavy shoes. About this time, other teams started to filter into the area en masse, and as we ran towards the center of the orienteering area, teams were criss-crossing all over the place, scanning maps, calling to each other, running wild in every possible direction. Suddenly, this was like a birthday party game in your backyard. It was cool.
We gathered the last of our cards, returned them to the start/finish table, and were told to follow the arrows to finish the trail run. The trail took us back through the orienteering area, which was by this point an absolute beehive of activity, and led us down to the water’s edge. We ran for a while long the beach, the thick sand punishing our quads, until the trail sent us into chest-deep water to walk-swim through. Jenny ended up having to swim when the water got above her head, but we all got a kick out of it. Now it started to feel like an adventure race. As if it didn’t want us to forget it, the trail led us through more sand, into a stand of trees, forcing us to climb over and crouch under branches, and to slog through ankle-deep mud back into the transition area.
Special Test #2: Paying Attention
On our way in, a race volunteer handed us our race booklet, which Dave sealed safely in his waterproof map carrying case brought for this purpose. We were directed to a structure that looked much like a series of voting booth stalls, and were told to go in as a team and read the instructions. The instructions said to read them all before starting, so we did. There were a myriad of things we had to do, including 10 push-ups and 10 sit-ups, have two teammates exchange a shoelace, sing the first few bars of the national anthem, make a human pyramid, write our team’s number on the arm of our team captain with permanent marker, then ring a bell.
We hurriedly started in on it, and combined a bunch of them together at once. As Dave and I kneeled to exchange heavily mud-soaked shoelaces, Jenny climbed on our backs to create the pyramid, as we sang the national anthem. Curiously, nobody was really monitoring what we were doing to make sure we had accomplished everything. Jenny wrote our team number on her arm, and looking at the instructions, exclaimed “oh no, stop, guys.” Re-reading the 7th instruction, the subtle semantics became suddenly clear. It stated “after reading these instructions, only complete instruction #8. Ring the bell. I had read the line, and in my rush to get through it, I had mis-read it to say “after finishing these instructions, only then complete instruction #8,” as in we could do all the things in any order, except the 8th. Nope. So, feeling duped, laughing at ourselves, and impressed by the cleverness of the race organizers, we rang the bell and took off for the transition area.
We later learned that a lot of competitors did everything and never even realized their mistake. It was quite entertaining walking around after the race, seeing people with numbers written in indelible ink on their arms, and sporting mismatched shoelaces. Badges of idiocy.
Special Test #3: Working as a Team
We filled up on water in the transition area, and ran through a fairly large crowd lining the race route. Suddenly, we were handed two 2′ x 2′ plywood boards and a rubber ring 8″ in diameter (much like a dog’s chew toy). We were to cross a 20 yard space, all three of us holding onto the rubber ring (“The Ring of Love” we were told), and never touching the ground with any part of our bodies. Simple enough. Toss down one of the plywood boards, we all step onto it, toss the next one, step over, pick up the previous board, toss it, and so on. Well, it’s all easy enough until you accidentally throw one too far, and you can all get to the next board, but can’t reach back to get the other board without falling off. Which we did. Luckily, it was only our second toss, so there wasn’t a huge loss of time. Lesson learned, all future tosses would be within close reach, and we cruised through this test.
We handed off our boards and our Ring of Love to one of the race volunteers, and sprinted down to the lakeside to pick up our kayaks. We were still at the forefront of the pack, so there was a healthy selection of kayaks at our disposal, and we were able to select ones that were nicely inflated. We carried them into the water, and I tied them together with a length of rope that Dave had brought, being careful to leave 10 feet between the boats. And with that, we were off.
Being more experienced in the watercraft steering department, I took the stern of the front-most boat, while Dave squished in up at the bow. Jenny would be towed behind us, ostensibly to reap the benefits of our power and speed up front.
I think it’s safe to say that my mother would not want to overhear the vitriol that transpired over the next hour or so. Desperate attempts to straighten the boat and maintain momentum were largely fruitless and utterly frustrating. We have since estimated that we turned the 1.5 mile course into something more akin to 2 miles, given the unceasing zig-zagging that we did.
We tried everything to get the boat to go straight. And I mean everything. Slow paddling, fast paddling, shallow paddling, deep paddling, yelling at the boat, alternating strokes, staying in synch, yelling at the paddles, dropping in rudders, shifting weight, keeping weight centered — you name it, we tried it. Meanwhile, other teams streamed past, and we watched helplessly as our formidable lead disappeared before our eyes. It’s not unlike driving on the freeway with your alignment completely out of whack, and your steering wheel loosened. I think the great majority of competitors were in the same boat – so to speak – so we didn’t lose that much ground relatively speaking, but boy, if we had that kayak down, we’d have been golden.
We thanked a wide variety of deities as we neared the beach. Taking care to lift and carry the kayaks out of the water (dragging them would get us disqualified), we dropped them off with a certain amount of …enthusiasm. We ditched our paddles and life preservers, and headed around a corner to see a huge crowd surrounding a large rectangle filled with what looked more or less like sewage.
Special Test #4: The Mud Pit
We stared dumbly for a moment at the nasty-looking particles afloat atop the 20 yard by 20 yard pool of muddy water, as Dave fished the soaking-wet instructions out of his purportedly “waterproof” carrying case. They soggily instructed us that we must hold each other in a kind of group hug, and roll as a unit across the length of the mud pit. Engaging in any other form of locomotion – or failure to get all the way across before we stood up – would result in our having to start it all over.
We looked at each other, and stepped into the pool. We looked at each other. There was an awkward high school dance moment as we negotiated the best way to grab each other and lie down at the same time without totally humiliating ourselves. The dark brown water came up to around my upper ankle, and I started to worry a bit about having my two teammates piled on top of me, pressing my face underwater (I have this thing about drowning). We kind of all half-sat down and hugged each other. We lay down completely and – eager to get this over with – we flipped ourselves over, again and again. When I was in the rear, I would weight my foot on the muddy bottom, and give it a fierce push to flip myself over the top. Dave would do the same. Jenny more or less held on for dear life, howling as my knee jammed into her quad on every flip. My bare elbows dug roughly into the rocky mud at the bottom of the pit.
“Gee, Dave … I never knew,” I croaked, as the dirty water filled my ears. I struggled to keep my head up and out of the water, and to not shove Jenny under. It would be bad form to drown my girlfriend. I swung between uncontrollable grunting, groaning and laughing. I thought it would take a seeming eternity to get across, but it was over before I knew it. I stood, and with a strange sensation of bonding, I extended my arms for Jenny and Dave to pull them to their feet. When you’ve gone through something like that together, you certainly look at each other differently from then on.
Special Test #5: Memory
Soaking wet, dripping with mud, and a bit disoriented from the whole experience, we moved quickly to the next test. A long table had been set up, and about a dozen volunteers sat behind it in folding chairs. We were shuttled to one of the empty slots, as the volunteer held up his hand to call us over. In his hands he held an 8″x12″ piece of cardboard flat on the table. “I know this one!” Jenny exclaimed. “We have to memorize the stuff and quantities of the things on the board. OK, Will, you take the left, Dave take the middle, and I’ll take the right!” The guy just sat staring at us, expressionless. “Ready?” he said. “Sure, go.” He showed us the underside of the chunk of cardboard. On my side, there was a penny, two stamps, a picture of two shoes, and a pencil. No problem. 10 seconds after he lifted it, the card was placed back on the table, face down. “OK, go,” he said.
Dave and Jenny started in unison, telling him what they saw. With nary a word out of their mouths, and before I could grasp what happened, he said “Sorry … back to the mud pit.”
“Read your instructions,” he deadpanned.
Dave dug into his map case, and extracted the soaking paper. It took a while to peel the saturated pages apart and find the right test number. What the heck test are we on, anyway? Reading the instructions incredulously, we saw our error. Only one person was allowed to speak to the volunteer. AUGH!!
Special Test #4a: The Mud Pit (Again)
We did the mud pit again.
Special Test #5a: Memory
This time we got it right, dammit. We whispered our answers in Jenny’s ear, as she relayed them to the volunteer. “Nice job. Right through there, please.” Elated, yet frustrated at our stupidity, we ran back to the transition area.
When we trotted into the transition area, there were a couple dozen people in there, and a ton of bikes. This told us we were still very much towards the front of the pack. We hadn’t lost as much ground in the kayaks as we had thought.
We were wet to the core. And even in 80 degree temperatures, we were actually cold. I wasn’t about to undertake a 9-mile mountain bike ride feeling like this. I whipped off my shoes and socks, and my running shorts – soaked and sandy. A woman behind me saw my naked lily-white posterior and called “Hey, nice ass!” “Thanks,” I replied, “I made it myself.” I threw on my bike shorts, clean socks, cycling shoes, gloves and helmet. I felt like a new man. We hopped on our bikes and rode off through the sand onto the mountain bike course.
The trail wound through the trees, loosely paralleling the running trail we had been on earlier, and sometimes joining up with it. It stayed singletrack almost all of the time, making it difficult – if not impossible – to pass. In many adventure races, teams will use a tethering system for their bikes to tow slower riders, but that couldn’t realistically be done here given how technical this course was.
Had it been empty of participants, this would have been a fantastic ride, albeit technically challenging. There were no long grinder climbs, or steep white-knuckle descents, as I had expected there to be. We cruised along tight, rutted out, rocky singletrack, packed with people. A few wide yet steep and technical spots presented an opportunity to pass riders who didn’t know how to conquer such obstacles.
With the innumerable patches of deep sand and rock outcroppings, where dismounting afforded better energy efficiency and speed, the most valuable skill was to be able to rapidly dismount and re-mount the bike without losing momentum. And uh, make sure not to slip and crank your pedal into your shin. That doesn’t feel so good.
Around the mid-point of the course, Jenny was out in front of me by about 30 yards. I had gotten caught earlier behind an impassable hoard of people, and she had gained ground. As I rode up a slight incline, I looked up and saw Jenny’s distinctive red rear tire go flipping up into the air above the heads of the people in between us. “Uh oh, that’s Jenny,” I thought. By the time I got to her, she had scrambled back onto her bike, and slipped cleanly into place behind me. I saw the source of her problem – she had tried to pass somebody and dug her front wheel into some deep sand, couldn’t clip out of her pedals, and pitched over the handlebars. A classic end-o. “You OK?” “Yup.”
The last 3 miles of the course was ripper singletrack, and we had a great time blasting around the sharp turns, passing slower riders. We were separated by a couple minutes by the end, mostly due to my having been severely stuck behind slower riders, but it wasn’t an inordinate amount of time.
Towards the end of the course, we could hear cheering coming from the event site as the lead groups finishing. We cruised off of the trail, and back within sight of the huge white tents and the crowds. We blasted down through the sand towards the transition area. As we ran our bikes into the transition area, we were told to keep our helmets on for the next tests. We quickly changed out of our cycling shoes and into trail shoes, and headed towards a sign that said “open your instruction booklet here.”
Special Test #6: The Inverted Climbing Ladder
We had to climb up, over and down a 15 foot ladder, with large 4″x4″ rungs spread 3 feet apart. It was tipped at a 60-degree angle, such that the climb up to the top would be inverted. We put our rock climbing skills to work, and enjoyed the big juggy holds and fat heel hooks. Fun stuff, no problem. Up and over, and down the front side … Jenny had a little trouble stretching her 5′ frame to reach the extended rungs, but she monkeyed her way up and over beautifully.
Dave plunked down to the ground behind us, and we set off for the last challenge of our race – The Wall.
Special Test #7: The Wall
There was enough room on the three walls to fit 6 simultaneous teams, and we were pointed at the one we were to climb. They had spotters to make sure nobody took a header, which was comforting.
Without thinking (it’s probably better that way), we executed the plan we had contrived the day before. Dave stood with his back to the wall, and Jenny climbed up on his knee, onto his shoulder, onto his hand, stood up, and Dave pushed her straight up. I held her butt so that she wouldn’t pitch backwards off the wall. She grabbed the top, and pulled herself up and over.
We tossed her the rope. She synched it against the back of the wall, and threw the length of it back over to us. I climbed up on Dave’s knee, and onto his shoulder. I grabbed the rope, kicked Dave in the face, and went up. I grabbed the ledge, and pulled myself up and over.
Dave grabbed the rope, and walked his way as far up the rope as he could get. I stood looking at him suspended there, almost at the top, wondering what he wanted to do – go for it, or be assisted. “Grab me,” he grunted. I grabbed his arm, and pulled him up. He threw up his leg and I grabbed it and pulled him over. I quickly climbed down the backside, and waited for them to descend, adrenaline pumping. We had done it. Not only had we done it, but we had flown over it like it wasn’t even there. That was cool.
As they came down off the ladder, I grabbed Jenny’s hand, and Jenny grabbed Dave’s hand. We ran around a corner and through the finish chutes. I looked up and saw our time – 3:16:28. We came in 30th overall, out of 350 teams. We would later kick ourselves for our dumb mistakes, but it didn’t matter … we had finished strong, and had a great time. There were high fives and hugs all around as the adrenaline took its sweet time dissipating. After running races, I usually feel exhausted. Today, standing just beyond the finish line, I felt far from tired. I felt elated, strong, and powerful.
So this was adventure racing. Where do I sign up for the next one?
About the Hi-Tec Adventure Racing Series
The Hi-Tec Adventure Racing Series (http://www.hitec-ars.com) is the largest of its kind in the United States. They stage 8 races each year in different venues across the country. Adventure racing is quickly gaining popularity amongst sports enthusiasts and I, for one, am certainly thankful for it.
You can watch television coverage of the Sacramento Hi-Tec Adventure Race on September 11, 2002 at 10:30pm EST on the Outdoor Life Network (OLN).