Sunday, June 29, 2008

Aye Aye, TA Captain - notes from TA7

First a note – if anyone is interested in some awesome blogging from a support crew, Chad and Alan from Team Werewolves have been following their team with gusto, enthusiasm, and all kinds of reporting at

Somehow Susanna (volunteer lady) figured out that John and I could be useful running a TA. I’m not sure how well we’re doing at it as first-timers, but we’re doing our best. We had a couple stressful days at TA7. For a while I tried to do some blogging since we had web access, but the interruptions were so frequent (and I couldn’t see straight at 2 am when it was finally quiet), so I gave up. On the bright side, I may have lost a couple pounds after plateauing for a few months on my weight loss plan.

I don’t have a good set of notes from our time next to the Yellowstone River, so I’ll just throw topics out until I run out of things to say. None of this is in chronological order. Lack of continuity is becoming a common theme of this blog lately.

Our first night I was still trying to type a few things as we watched weather moving in. The weather report called for “thunderstorm squalls.” Hmm, I guess I better start thinking about maybe closing up the computer. Suddenly a huge gust of wind blew through the TA, necessitating an emergency laptop shutdown and a gear-toss into the truck (which was luckily parked right next to the easy-up). John and several med guys started pulling tarps off the sides of the easy-ups to try to reduce the kite-like nature of our setup. The coolest thing was watching John's feet go off the ground as he hung onto an easy-up that was attempting to get airborne (and almost succeeding). Now I think we can say that we have a pretty good idea what a “squall” might be!

I was falling asleep on my keyboard one night so I napped in my chair. A team came up to check in and I open my eyes and told them "you will need your river gear for the next section" and they gave me the blankest looks I had yet seen. Then I realized they were going to be biking out of there. So we got them squared away and I went to bed.

Noel on MOAT’s support crew brought marshmellows to cook around the fire that the med guys had built. When he handed me a s’more, it totally made my night. And then he came up with coffee the next morning. Thanks Noel! We also got some granola from one support crew (possibly team Big Sky), and Chad and Alan from Werewolves were kind enough to donate a big piece of pizza after their team had departed.

A bit of info about our setup at the TA. John and I were joined by Franklin Moreno, a volunteer from Puerto Rico. They nominated me to be the “TA Captain,” so I was officially in charge and in my comfort zone. John managed the crews and the parking, while I did a lot of the team check in/out, and all of us were involved in gear checks. We didn’t have a whole lot of detailed instructions from HQ, but we did have quite a few excellent forms to guide us and help decide how things should go in case of issues. Communication back to HQ started out as a problem (our radio didn’t work), but once I started using my cell phone instead, I was able to easily talk to the big cheeses.

Thank goodness for that, because our first day on the TA job was a bit rough. This gets a bit long and tedious (as if it hasn’t been already!), feel free to skim/skip parts of this post.

It started out OK, with Team Nike coming in, staying 20 minutes to prep for overnight trekking in the Crazy Mountains, and then checking out. We called for a gear check as we had been instructed, and the racers seemed surprised that we wanted to see ALL of the required gear. Granted, looking at every single piece of required gear at every TA does seem excessive (in a big way) to me. But I had assumed that all TA captains were doing this. And we were at TA SEVEN, so this shouldn’t be new news to the team. They flew through as much of the required gear as they could get their hands on as we called out “lighter, whistle, knife, wag bag, bear spray…” After a whirlwind of repacking, they were gone in a flash. Wow.

I went through the gear list and highlighted all the items I was certain we had asked for and seen in Nike’s packs, including all the important stuff for spending a night in the mountains (a pile of clothing, sleeping bag and tent, etc). We used that list the rest of the time, and while it wasn’t every exact item (I really could care less whether you have sunglasses and safety pins with you), it was still a lot. We worked pretty hard checking gear on each team, but we got pretty good at it by the second night. My favorite item to check was bear spray – since everyone was taking the bear warnings seriously and wearing the spray on the outside of their packs. Thanks racers!

Come to find out, TA6 checked the bike lights and that was it.

So when we set up TA14 the first night we discussed gear checking with Franklin and Marianne who is joining us here. Since the teams will be riding bikes up through relative civilization to the finish line on a relatively short leg, we won’t be doing a full gear check this time. Just a few things. But we will continue to check for bear spray : )

Back to day 1 at TA7…

As we reviewed and refined our check in/out procedures, I happened to overhear a support guy from team Merrell say something about snowshoes. I looked up over at the Crazy Mountains and realized that yes, there is snow up there. And no, we had not checked that Nike was carrying snowshoes (didn’t think so though). As I worked my way through the passport to try to understand whether snowshoes were mandatory, I started getting concerned. I had seen teams on other legs without snowshoes, even though the passport didn’t specifically say they were optional. And “snowshoes” was part of the mandatory gear list.

So I got on the phone to HQ and they told me that snowshoes were mandatory for the Crazy trek. Uh oh. In fact, as long as the teams had not received a piece of paper with a change to the race instructions, nothing was officially changed (verbal or posted signs supposedly didn’t matter, although that was not enforced as an across-the-board rule). I told them that Nike probably wasn’t carrying them (and verified that with their support). They said they would deal with it. No other teams were there yet, end of story. Or maybe not.

Teams Merrell and showed up close together, and when told that snowshoes were mandatory, wanted to know if Nike had taken them. My response of “we’re working on that” wasn’t good enough for either team, especially since one of them claimed that one of the race officials had told him directly that they would NOT need snowshoes. Back on the phone with HQ, more discussion. Merrell left with snowshoes. waited for another confirmation that “Don Mann says that snowshoes are mandatory” and then they also departed. I had my “racer protest form” handy but didn’t need to distribute any.

After sitting down heavily in order to recover from being involved in a potential race penalty situation, we moved on to other incoming teams. No one else questioned it (beyond wanting to know if they were REALLY needed, plus a really good question of whether crampons might be helpful). I heard later from Nike support that helmets would have been a really good piece of gear to have instead of any required footwear, due to possible falling rocks. Flashbacks to PQ Telluride…

End of story now? No. The next morning I got a call from HQ saying that snowshoes are no longer mandatory as of that moment. Oh. My. Gawd. John gave me a “what the hell are they doing up in decision-making land?” look. Based on my previous conversation with HQ about needing changes made on paper, I proceeding to compile 40+ little handouts that stated that snowshoes are not mandatory for this leg. That was fun.

How about now? No. When Chad and Alan from team Werewolves arrived (yay!), they said they saw a sign at TA6 that said gaiters are now optional. WTF? I called HQ; yes that is correct – so why the heck didn’t you call me to let me know? As you can see, the behind-the-scenes stuff is not pretty. I added “& gaiters” to my little notes and FINALLY the story ends, at least my involvement in it (at least I hope so!). Team Nike ended up carrying their snowshoes for the next long trek and bike leg as an equalizing factor, and perhaps everyone will be happy.

So if you’re still reading after all that nonsense… let’s see, what can I report that is more interesting?

A medical guy at our TA told us about a team he met where the woman asked if they could just leave one of their teammates who was sleeping and continue on without him – apparently he had not been eating, was bonking and needed constant towing – and she was pissed. When they came through our TA they looked a lot better and seemed to be doing OK in the team dynamics department.

I could not believe the amount of moaning from racers about how heavy their packs were. I picked one up and it felt like the weight of a normal expedition-length pack. Especially remembering Borneo where we had to carry all our food for half the race at a time. I didn’t have a whole lot of sympathy.

Team “Number Twenty Nine” came through in the middle of the night and I was sitting in a chair nearby while John and Franklin checked them out. They started explaining how they LOVED their wag bags (human waste bags). One guy tried it and raved about it, so the other two guys also tried it and agreed. Apparently they had even used them indoors? At one point all 3 guys were in the woods using their wag bags and they started giggling about it, while the woman racer was like “I can’t believe this.”

They told us how they might come up with a better design and call their product “S..tbag”, with a big red product name stamped across the bags. Then they could be sponsored with an actual team name, Team S..tbag. And the woman would be Captain S..tbag. They mentioned that a friend of theirs would be a number one salesperson, when I piped up and suggested he might be number two instead. We were all laughing so hard I was having trouble breathing. I cannot WAIT until I get to do a gear check on these guys again, starting with “Alright S..tbags!”

Well, I can’t think of anything else even remotely funny as that (and I’m sure with a little sleep I’ll fail to see the humor in that whole paragraph as well). So I’ll dwell on another topic for a bit. Race management told us to hold the support crews for 3 hours (and later 4 hours) after their team had departed, because the crews were sharing the road with the racers. I guess they didn’t want to give anyone even the slightest incentive to provide assistance to a team outside a TA. Fair enough.

But they told us that the crews had to stay at the TA the whole time. We started bending this a little to let people take a second vehicle and leave their TA set up while they went to town for food or whatever. Then when a mass of 20+ sets of crews descending on us during our last 24 hours at the site, unrest threatened to break out. One woman had allergies and really needed to go. Another group had already checked into a hotel they wanted to go back to. John and I wracked our brains, argued, discussed, and tried to figure out how to manage this without too severely going against our instructions while allowing some people to leave. Finally I called HQ and was told that we didn’t actually need the crews to stay there – they just couldn’t go pick up the bikes for 4 hours after their team had departed. We sure could have used that directive a LOT sooner. Oh well, problem solved!

We cheered for team MOAT when they came through our TA, learning that Shaun was moving OK but still feeling the deep bruise from hitting a rock on the riverboard section. Wink (Nathan Winkelmann) was having a problem with one knee, ending up in the med tent next to us. The doctor made a diagnosis and injected something into it – I’m pretty sure that wasn’t a pleasant experience. When they left, they appeared to still be moving well.

Several teams actually beat their crews to the TA, which is not a happy experience for the racers. We weren’t allow to help them (unless it turned into a health issue like dehydration or hypothermia), but we suggested they ask other crews that were still waiting for their 3-hour hold period to expire. Before we knew it, crew folks were bringing things from all directions – food, water, chairs, offers to stay in the shade under their easy-up. Awesome. Then when another team had the same problem later, one of the crews who had been late got to help them out. They called it “pay it forward.”

One of the teams that had to wait, Dirty Avocados II, had some foot issues. In fact, Susan Bower on that team had really bad foot sores and had a long discussion with the doctor. He cleared her to leave, but she could tell that it was with reservations. Finally she decided she had to stop, which was pretty upsetting for her. John had just brought back some cold Dr. Pepper from town, so when I confirmed that Susan was stopping, I offered her one. She nodded with tears in her eyes and said it was her favorite – she had been eyeing them next to her med cot (we’re idiots for putting them there in the first place). So at least I got to help a little.

Now that this is 10 pages long, I can’t think of anything else to add. Thank goodness! If I think of anything important I’ll write an addendum!

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