Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Hellgate 100K

I have heard for a few years about the infamous races that David Horton puts on in Virginia - "Horton miles" are said to be longer than actual miles and the courses are tough and interesting.  Living in New York seemed to put us a bit closer to Virginia, but it was only as we were driving back to Texas that I managed to fit one of these races into our schedule.

I picked the Hellgate 100K - a midnight start near Natural Bridge VA, a long race, in the cold of December.  It seemed like an appropriate challenge on our way out of the winters of the northeast.  David Horton doesn't let just anyone enter this thing, but apparently he was suitably impressed with my running resume.

In fact, he seeded me 5th in a field of highly talented runners, which made no sense to me.  When we arrived he came over and said "You're fast!" - I was wondering if he was mistaking me for someone else?  I insisted that I am not fast, and John added that I am steady.  David didn't look convinced, but I was about to show him.

Not only am I not intrinsically fast, I was treating this as a training race - a good start to next year, a warmup for Bandera and everything that follows.  Not only that, but if I don't train on mountains (which I haven't been), my uphill speed is completely unimpressive.  Hellgate is all about the mountains.

So I approached the race cautiously, hoping to maintain my climbing legs, my downhill knees, and my flat-running hip flexors.  That last part would never be an issue on this course, it turned out.  But it was good that I didn't overdo the ups and downs early-on.

A bit too cautious in the dark at the start, I ended up standing behind a group of spectators that I thought were runners and after the "GO!" signal it took a second to realize that the entire pack had departed.  Oh well, I imagine I'll catch up to a few of them soon.

Yeah right!  David apparently screens for fast people, and most of them actually are.  I was alone right from the start and not catching up to anyone.  Oh well, run your own race.  It's not the first time I've started at the very back.

The first section through the woods was pleasant, mild climbing and getting used to the trail markings (plenty abundant).  The famous stream crossing was a simple matter of getting my feet wet to get across, not worth the time to look for rocks to hop but also nothing compared to some of the creeks we have traversed in the past.

I was the last one into the first aid station, got some water for a Spiz baggie and moved on up the road.

The climb up the road was nice, it was a good grade for speed hiking and using my poles.  I was able to run a little here and there but mostly kept it at a fast walk.  I could see headlamps up on the switchbacks up ahead, that was neat.  Eventually they started letting crew cars back down the hill but everyone was really nice, most of them stopped for me, and it motivated me to run parts of the last bit to the top.

Hi John!  He was crewing for me, not the easiest job on this cold night.  He helped me fill part of a water bottle and gave me an Ensure to drink.  The theme throughout the race became cold Spiz on the course (chilling me right down to my stomach) and warm Ensure out of John's pocket (the best Ensure ever!).  I made it to aid station #2 a couple minutes before the projected "Last Runner" time, not a whole lot of leeway there.

Finally some downhill!  Usually I start catching people on the downhills.  Not tonight.  Those fast folks are apparently good at that too.  I was also somewhat careful through the rocks on the singletrack.  David had mentioned in the pre-race briefing about being thankful for being healthy, and it struck a chord with me.  Compared to one year ago, I was SO thankful to be able to be doing this.  I appreciated every minute of it, and I didn't want to do anything stupid to jeopardize my year-long comeback.

Through the woods I could see headlamps way ahead on the next big climb.  Eventually I got to the road, right after a few vehicles drove down it.  That was the only traffic I would see for quite some time.  The climb up to aid station #3 is long but I was mentally ready.  Here is where it started snowing.  It wasn't supposed to start precipitating until later in the morning.  C'est la vie.

Long climb, cold Spiz to drink.  I saw some headlamps approaching below me and wondered if a couple runners had gotten off course?  Then I realized it was the sweeps who were clearing the course.  I haven't been close to course sweeps in quite a while.  Back to work!

The wind was blowing snow in my face as I rounded the corner to the aid station.  They helped me fill a Spiz baggie to carry, thank you!  I got out of there just ahead of the two guys running sweep, ready to run and try to put some distance on them.

More and more snow, wow.  And no tracks ahead of me, either I'm really far behind everyone or the snow is falling fast.  I started running on the high exposed doubletrack road, and it felt great to actually be running for once.  The footing was good and it was slightly downhill.  The only annoyance was the huge snowflakes getting into my eyeballs, nose, and mouth.  I dug out my cap so I could use the brim to keep the flakes mostly out of my eyes.  Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes!

I started making out footprints ahead of me, yay!  Then a light, then a figure.  I was having a great time running downhill in the snow, using my poles for balance.  The lady up ahead was having a tougher time with the footing.  We greeted each other as I passed, then I finally wasn't last any more.  That took forever and a snowstorm.

Long, long road run.  Eventually the fun gentle downhill stopped and there was some climbing.  My legs were still doing well and I was basically babying them to hopefully be able to continue the half-decent climbing for the rest of the day.  I also leaned heavily on the poles (and surprisingly my arms did not about fall off the next day as a result).

A green light ahead - a radio tower?  No, a runner finishing up a roadside break.  This was a guy in shorts (!) who I would see a lot throughout the day.  We started the big descent and I was very thankful for my poles through some icy patches.  They were so helpful that I was able to pass another couple people on the way down.

The group of us made it to aid station #4 with about 15 minutes to spare on the cutoff time.  Happy day!  I started to believe I was moving well enough to stop thinking about the cutoffs.  At the very least, I wasn't going to see the course sweeps again (that part was true).

I may have gotten a bit complacent through the next section.  It was supposed to be getting light but it was so overcast that it took forever for the sky to brighten even just a little.  It had stopped snowing anyway.  My first climb went fine, then I futzed around a bit with a pit stop and some Spiz and just enjoying the pretty woods.

The run down to aid station #5 seemed to take a long time, even though I was still enjoying the downhills quite a lot.  I passed several more people, making me think I was doing better than I was.  When I pulled in to see John (yay John!) my watch had me back to within 5 minutes of the "Last Runner" projection - what?  It seems there was still some clock-watching to be done.

I have no idea how they set up the "Last Runner" projections to perfectly match my pace all day, but that is how it turned out...

John helped me with a quick pass through the aid station, then it was on to another climb up a road.  For a while I was near a couple other runners (including Shorts Man) so it was nice to have a little company for a change.  A woman ahead of me pulled up at one point and asked if I thought that was a bear or a stump up ahead?  Hmm, it's in the shape of a bear but not moving.  Definitely not a bear, I told her.  It took a few more steps to be absolutely certain, but it was pretty funny.

Big climb, check.  Big downhill, OK that seemed to go on a long time... it took forever to reach the road at the bottom.  I had thought I would have 45 minutes to go up, 30 minutes to go down, then 45 minutes for the next climb to the aid station.  The downhill took me closer to 40 minutes so I started worrying about the time cutoffs.

I followed Shorts Man up the next road and we passed a couple people who were moving more slowly.  Shorts Man seemed to be on a mission (I saw him looking at his watch too) and I took it seriously that we needed to move.  Still, he zoomed through aid station #6 and was completely gone by the time I turned to follow.  Well, I did spend an extra minute talking with another runner and the aid station people, but the runner seemed intent on hanging around to make small talk and I finally realized that was not something I should be doing.

I had gained a couple minutes on the virtual cutoff time, but only enough to understand that I needed to stop guessing about where I needed to be at what time in between the aid stations.  I just had to move the best I could and trust that the "Last Runner" times at each aid station were what mattered.

Because the next aid station had a real cutoff time, and the next section was billed as long and difficult.  Time to get moving then!

I ran great along the road, moved pretty well on trails around the corner, apparently passed the AT without seeing it, and started the long traverse back to the southwest.  The trail itself was easy enough, with good footing.  It started going up and down more, requiring some work but that's OK.  Then it turned to switchback down, then it climbed seemingly almost to the top of the ridge, then it turned some more.  Where were we going?

I could hear the highway down below, then if I remember right I think I heard a train whistle.  Civilization, but not exactly.  I was stuck on this trail that seemed intent on exploring the entire side of the ridge from top to bottom.  I remembered that this was built as a horse trail so I guess that's what the horse people wanted to see.

Finally a bit of running... oh wait, the road goes straight but the trail turns and climbs uphill.  That seems most unnecessary.  Well, for that bit of complaining I was rewarded with some rocks covered with leaves.  Urgh, someone at the start said there wouldn't be any of those this year.  Yeah right.  I stopped for a quick break - I had to get some food in me and take a pee, even though I was starting to wonder how I was going to make the cutoff.

The next mile or so was the worst of the entire day.  It was curse-worthy.  On a slope that I could normally run quickly, there were tons of rocks and lots of leaves, so I moved carefully through it.  No way was I going to jeopardize my current running health with this thing!  Not worth it!  Cutoff or no, I had to take it easy.  That didn't stop me from talking about it.  Who puts horses through this stuff, anyway?  That just seems mean!

So I fretted and stumbled my way for a while.  Finally a little creek crossing, then I heard a car on a road!  There might be hope after all.  I ran as hard as I could up the next hill to try to get to the aid station in time, finally the trail was clear and I could actually run.  John saw me (Hi John!) and told me I just had to get TO the aid station by the cutoff (which I did, by less than 10 minutes I think), not OUT the other side.  Nice to get a little break.

Yay for making the 2nd cutoff!  I'm getting to the finish line now, even if it's past the 18-hour cutoff there.  I was going to be OK with not making the cutoff at aid station 7, but now that I was there I was ready to continue scratching and clawing to stay in it.

My climbing legs were still doing great, very happy for that.  Somewhere through here it sleeted for a while but it just bounced off me so I decided that was the best form of precipitation we could have.  Sadly it turned into rain and then we started getting wet for real.  I was warm, it just wasn't super pleasant all the time.

I followed a couple guys (including Shorts Dude again) up the next hill.  This section featured a bunch of "swoops" in and out of ravines on a mostly-flat trail, never-ending back and forth.  I was happy to still be running well, swooping in and out.  A bit up and down too.  It was impossible to tell when it might end.  Just trust that if I keep moving OK, I will make it to the next aid station in about the right amount of time.

And I did, passing another runner along the way.  In fact, he was only the 2nd person using trekking poles (other than me) that I saw, and both of them were hobbling.  Not sure that was a glowing endorsement for poles, but I also didn't see all the rest of the pack ahead of me so who knows what I missed up there.  All I knew what that I was really happy with my poles on that course.

I finally saw a sign for the Appalachian Trail - I've been looking for you all day!  I was on it briefly and then it took off again down a different path.

It was raining pretty good at aid station #8 and I had to wait just a moment for John to get back from the truck but soon he got me going again.  He even gave up his gloves when I mentioned my hands were cold and my overmitts were wet on the inside.  His gloves plus the overmitts were all I needed, even as it started raining harder.

Time to run!  One last big section before the final aid station.  It was a long downhill on a road but I kept moving, kept running, passing Shorts Guy one last time on the way down.  Aren't you cold?  I watched for and found the turnoff onto the trail, then proceeded for several miles on singletrack as the trail went up and down, crossing creeks and weaving a bit.  But the trail was going mostly in the right direction so I didn't complain at all.  Plus - no leaf-covered rocks!

I was motivated to try to get to the finish line on time.  Then my brain would start questioning, how in the world are you going to get through these 8+ miles in 2 hours?  How is it even possible to make it the final 6 miles in an hour and a half?  SHHH!  Quiet, turn it off!  Trust that the time sheet is made for you today.  Just do the best you can and shut the heck up.

Push, run, use the poles, start pushing harder up the hills now that my legs seem to be OK for the duration.  Be efficient, watch the trail, keep going.  But how in the world...?  Shh!  Just SHHH!

Sometimes it's better to be stubborn than smart.

I caught a glimpse of a runner behind me but only for a moment then I was around another corner and off again.

Finally a gentle straight downhill and I hoped I was getting close.  There's John, Hi John!!  He tried to take a photo but I yelled, "No time, gotta go!!"

At the previous aid station I had told John of my plan to do the last section without a pack, just my poles and a couple items in my pocket.  He placed a headlamp on my head and offered me a backup flashlight just as I was asking him to grab the Fenix out of my pack.  We turned everything around in a rush and I was out of there.

Apparently the aid station people were considering not letting me go on, but they saw that I was still moving well... I was motivated and pretty much ignored everyone except John.

Up the hill - 3 miles up and 3 miles down to the finish line, less than an hour and a half to do it.  Is it possible?  I don't know but I'm going to find out!

I took off at a fast walk/something of a run.  I had heard that there is a gate about 1/3 of the way up, and I was happy to reach it in 15 minutes.  Still gotta push, breathing hard, giving it all I've got.  Then a voice next to me - what?  It was one of the volunteers, a guy named Jeff who works for David.  He was coming along for a run over the mountain.  I was happy for the company but made it clear I couldn't carry on a conversation at that point!

I worked my butt off up that hill, pushing as hard as I could and knowing that it would take a while.  Finally - the top!  I got there in about 40 minutes, phew.

I relaxed going down the other side, and Jeff and I had a great conversation while loping down the dirt roads through the fog.  The downhill took quite a while too (3 Horton miles?) but Jeff pointed out landmarks and helped me figure out that I would make it as long as I kept running.  No sprinting needed.

And I did - 17:52:47!

David Horton was there to greet me and he said I was cutting it close.  Indeed!  I asked if he believed me now?  That I was tough? he asked.  No - that I'm NOT FAST!

A nice jacket and warm socks for finishing in less than 18 hours, most excellent:

Huge props to Mr Horton for putting on such an interesting and challenging race, and for letting me try it.  Also to anyone who finishes it, that is a Big Deal.  Kudos to you all!

By the way, a shout-out to Aaron Schwartzbard for his writeup and map review of the course - hugely helpful for a new Hellgate runner.

OK, enough of the snow for now, time to go south for a while...

Monday, December 30, 2013

Winter in Maryland

Coming back from Puerto Rico to Maryland was a bit of a transition...

It sure was pretty in Kathy and Bob's backyard!

Not quite cherry blossoms:

The local sledding hill was busy:

John took a moment to lament the shift in latitude:

Kathy had the most excellent idea to check out the light display at Brookside Gardens - and wow, what an incredible assortment of creatures and concepts and well-designed lights!  I wasn't sure the camera on my phone would capture it very well, but it didn't do half badly and I should have taken more pictures.

Loch Ness Monster in a loch:

Partway through the garden there was a building where we could get warm (good thing because it was pretty frigid outside).  We loved the train sets and all the detail around them:

Something of a group shot in low lighting:

Bird of Paradise:

Funny trees:

John trying to stay warm once we got back outside:

A huge rainbow, clouds with falling rain, colorful trees, and somewhere around there was a squirrel running up a tree:


And... time for hot chocolate!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

GUR championships - Puerto Rico

Time for the big race!  We were excited to be competing in the Great Urban Race championships in a new location - San Juan, Puerto Rico.  The race started in the Caribe Hilton and we figured we would be visiting at least Old San Juan.  Top eight in the morning race make it in the afternoon finals.  That was my main goal - make the finals (after not participating in the GUR finals the past 2 years).

We got our clue sheet and verified that there was at least one checkpoint in Old San Juan.  As soon as we stepped outside we found that it was pouring!  Teams scrambled to figure out what to do about that, and we paused but then decided to just get going.

There didn't appear to be a bus in our immediate future, so John and I took off running.  We were the first ones in the area, but the next set of teams (that waited for a bus) was not far behind.  The rain had mostly stopped by this point, just a quick shower.

We started on Calle del Cristo at the Galleria Botello where we found this:

John knew where the statue is, so we headed up the street to get our photo there:

Back down Calle del Cristo to the Spicy Caribbee to sample some hot sauce and put them in order from mild to hot.  John took this task, which apparently gets more difficult as you go because at some point everything just tastes "hot" - but eventually we got our answers approved and got our photo out front:

A short way to the pigeon park where we were supposed to actually feed the birds, but the park was closed due to the recent rain so we were allowed to take a cup and pretend:

Next door was a spa where John agreed to take off his shoes and fish some beads out of a bowl of water with his toes.  Our requisite CP photo after he finished:

Back up the street (it wasn't the most efficient route, but at least the street was short) - to Ben and Jerry's!  One of us had to be blindfolded while the other reached around from behind their back to feed them some ice cream from a cup.  John suggested that since he had suffered through the hot sauce, this might be a nice way to compensate.  Works for me.  I don't think I even got too much ice cream on his face.  Nope, still looking good!

Finally done with Calle del Cristo!  Back east a bit to the Puerto Rican Art and Crafts store where we filled in the blanks in a sentence written in Spanish.  Then got our photo:

Next it was time for some CP's on the waterfront.  We found a Bacardi catapult challenge at the Chicago Burger Company - fun!  John took a few tries to figure it out but then nailed three in the bucket so we could get our Instagram picture and get out of there:

The next checkpoint involved learning how to dance the salsa - or at least pretending really hard:

The last CP in Old San Juan was at Senor Frogs.  We walked in and learned that one of us would have to swallow a goldfish.  A live goldfish.  A WHOLE live goldfish.  Well then.

John suggested that since he had already done 2 eating challenges, plus the fact that he is vegetarian (which all of sudden included fish, apparently), well, this was "all you!"

OK fine, the things we do in the name of racing!  We got a video of it, but I already tortured Sheila with an audio version of my post-swallow hacking and retching that I don't feel the need to inflict anything more on anyone else.

By the way, I still can't believe I swallowed a goldfish.  The next day (after spending the morning at Bacardi) my stomach was a little "off".  As I told my friend Kathy later, I'm not sure if it was the rum or the goldfish.  Kathy thought maybe that was the first time those words had ever been spoken in that particular combination...

The other funny story here was that there were leftover goldfish.  So Senor Frogs had "goldfish shots" that evening.  Too crazy.

We were SO out the door from that checkpoint.  We ran to the bus station and got incredibly lucky in that a bus was just loading up.  Nice!

Quite late in the game, we started looking at the tic-tac-toe.  Which was written in Spanish.  Neat!  Our crew had translated most of it, from a postcard to a picture with Santa.  The funniest one was when a local lady told one of our teams that we needed to find a snail farm.  What??  This turned out to be a spiral staircase.

We hopped off the bus across from the Caribe Hilton and ran over to the Club Nautico to autograph a large St Jude banner and get our photo:

We had our standard moment of panic that comes in almost every race, this time when the wind grabbed the clue sheet out of my hand and almost blew it into the bay.  I'm not sure John saw that happen because he was trying to keep track of our "I love St Jude" stickers which were also attempting to join the fun and get airborne.  Luckily no one was around to see this bumbling and my blog audience already knows we're a bit of a mess sometimes.

At this point it looked like the tic-tac-toe was going to be really difficult to complete, especially since we had already departed Old San Juan.  So we took off running across the bridge toward Condado.

Here we expected to do a stand-up paddle challenge, so John went running through the crowd toward the water to find it.  I showed up a few seconds later and found the tent with the GUR volunteers right at the entrance to the little park, so we waited until John made his way back around to us.  Hi John!

The challenge instead involved popping three balloons using only our bodies (no hands or feet or the ground, if I remember right).  We put one in between us and John grabbed me and we smashed the balloon in between our hips.  Pop!  It was rather suggestive, especially when I turned my butt toward John to avoid banging the same spot on my hips again, and I think the crowd appreciated the show.  Made me laugh, anyway!

We ran back across the bridge and around to the finish line.  First ones back!  We added several minutes to our time as we tried to get a Twitter picture to upload but we finally got it and crossed the line.  Still first, all photos good.  We were in the finals!  Mission #1 accomplished!

Our friends Phil and Peter also made it, along with Kip and Dave.  We spent some time in between the races eating and recharging everything.  Also blow-drying my phone to get it to charge again... I think the rain was not so good for the phone.

Not only the phone, but my earpiece was having issues, except I didn't find out until 5 minutes before the start of the second race.  We were the ones in the back of the room exchanging phones and whispering to Sheila and finally exchanging earpieces so Sheila and I could hear each other.  Just in time for the next "GO!"

The clue sheets were down at the hotel beach, so we hustled down and got our envelope.  The first CP was on Ashford Avenue, so we started off toward the east, into the wind, as it started to rain again.  We were all the way across the bridge when Sheila asked if we had looked at CP4?  Why no, that sounds like something we should be doing.

That's when we figured out we should have stopped by the Starbucks at the Caribe Hilton to pick up an egg from the GUR staff.  The egg would need to be visible in all photos and it would need to stay intact the whole time.  Hmm, we did a calculation on the time to run back and get it, then the chances of not breaking it during the race.  John said skip it, so that was that - our skip was determined right off the bat.

Our next genius move was a detour toward Calle Mariana until we realized it was further out of the way than we thought.  The only benefit was being out of the massive headwind that was spraying rain in our faces, at least for a few minutes.  So we came back onto Ashford Avenue and ended up at CP1 where we were aiming in the first place.  Finally out of the rain for a few minutes!

Here we had to have all four hands on a little maze and get 3 tiny balls into the center, without talking.  The CP volunteer was super strict, not even letting us make noise or try to communicate wordlessly, but eventually I figured out that John had a plan and I just needed to try not to "help".  Carefully, carefully, finally got it!

We ran into Kip and Dave as we were exiting the area, and they pointed us back down Ashford to the fire-starter challenge.  With our detour getting here we had bypassed this CP, but Kip and Dave helpfully got us back on track.

It was still raining but at least not nearly as bad anymore, so we got our firestarter materials and got to work at creating a flame in some tissue paper.  It took a while, and the video is therefore way too long to post (and I'm too lazy to edit it tonight) but we eventually did get fire.  Next time we'll do better!

On a side note, and completely unrelated to the race, John received flint in his stocking for Christmas... a little tidbit you would have missed if I had written this report in a more timely manner.

Finally it was time to head over to Calle Mariana.  Sheila told us that there were still several CP's not solved, and I looked at the clue sheet but didn't see anything we could help with.  We took a chance we weren't leaving a checkpoint behind but decided to go to the next known spot and we could come back from there if needed.

We found Kip and Dave waiting out a penalty at a hostel.  We took our turn browsing a small room + bathroom to check out all the details and remember as many as we could.  Then we came outside and tried to answer questions about what we had seen.  The color of the bathmat by the tub?  Purple.  The number of mirrors?  One (no - 3, including the 2 in our photo below!).  The first letter of the WiFi code?  You have got to be kidding.  We got maybe 6 or 7 right out of 10, resulting in a 3 minute penalty.  Seems reasonable!

Plus I think some of the people staying there were amused by watching all of this hullabaloo.

Our photo after we were allowed to have our electronics back:

Time for a decision or two - and if we had been asking the right question we would have done ourselves a huge favor here.

Instead: Should we continue on the course vs. waiting to see whether we would need to go back to Condado?  Yes (which turned out to be correct, yay!)

So we ran up to Ponce de Leon and galloped westward toward the airport to look for a helicopter ride.

Question 2: Which side of the airport should we run on?  John knew that it would be difficult (impossible, it turns out) to get from one side to the other without coming all the way back around to the front.  So we focused on that question and decided based on the address (Hanger 4 South) that the south side made sense.

The question we really should have been asking was - is it worth the time to run all that way plus ride a helicopter (even though that would be WAY COOL) plus run back vs. a 30 minute penalty?  The answer to this unasked question would have been a resounding NO.

Which is apparently why GUR would not have placed the checkpoint there, instead they worked with the helicopter company because it was now based at a new location that was actually in line with the rest of the course...

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Instead of knowing all this, we started running and running, eventually catching up with Kip and Dave, with my questioning of "why are we doing this?" getting louder as my running legs got proportionally slower.  And we did not find the helicopter tour company.  Finally we all decided we had to give up on this wild goose chase, get back to the actual course, and eventually we would find out what this had cost us.

So I was not in a proper race mood when we went next to the Sizzler and tried to find the boat docked behind it where our next CP was located.  John found an old guy in the marina parking lot who said he knew where "Sail Old San Juan" was located, but it was obviously going to take him some time to explain it, and I was highly skeptical that anything useful was going to result from this slow conversation.  I walked away (which apparently is a highly offensive thing to do to a Puerto Rican who wants to be helpful) but luckily John is a charmer and managed to get the guy focused again.

I turned the corner, finally came back, couldn't find John, and wandered around until he called me to explain where he was.  Which was on a dock stuck way behind the Sizzler in a place that is not easy to explain.  At least John was also helping Kip and Dave who spotted his green shirt from within the restaurant, so eventually we all found the sailboat.

Not our finest hour (and including the airport incident it literally was about an hour).

Coming up - we got better!  We had to blindfold one teammate while the other would explain how to tie a specific knot based on a diagram.  The guy opened the picture and I said "John it's a bowline".  John tied one quickly, then did it again after finding out he had to tie it around the boom.  We were both really glad it was a bowline!  Finally we accomplished something in a way such that we could be slightly proud of ourselves!

Here is Dave explaining the task to Kip:

One more CP just across the inlet - we found the Skipper Shop at the Club Nautica (again) and this time one of us had to dig out some puzzle pieces from inside of a fish, with a spoon, without using our hands.  Since it didn't involve ingesting said fish, John was game to try.  We took a short boat ride while this was happening, put the soggy puzzle pieces together, and we were off running again - another small boost of confidence.

Finally we could go to Old San Juan and finish it all off.  We ran down a bus route but didn't catch a bus, so my legs were getting more tired by the minute but they were still trying.  Our crew had discovered the actual location of the helicopter ride - in Old San Juan!  We wouldn't miss it after all!

But we would miss a cool-looking trapeze challenge.  The earlier rain had canceled that challenge for some teams, so they had to keep it fair and we just had to get our picture there.  That was a bummer.

Right next door was the new location of the helicopter tour.  So cool!

John got a bit crazy with the picture taking while up in the air - here are some of those shots:

Looking down at El Morro:

Wow, the highlight of the race for sure!

Next up was a large version of a Bacardi catapult, neat!  It was so big that people were helping the racers load it each time.  I was allowed to move the catching barrel around and we figured out a good spot to land the beanbags in it.  We knocked this one out in no time.

As you might guess from our expressions below, the next checkpoint was up a little hill... to one of the narrowest houses in the world where we had to complete a challenge involving really small text.  We took this photo upon our arrival up that hill, not after completing the challenge, just to be clear why we look rather pained:

Up one more little hill to the top of Old San Juan and a coffee house inside the Cuartel de Ballaja.  We put on headphones to hear the instructions, then had to use chopsticks to put 40 coffee beans in the cup in a certain (short) amount of time.  While doing so, there were sirens playing in our ears and a guy's voice saying all kinds of numbers.  That part didn't bother me.  What killed me was not getting the chopsticks to behave.  Clearly I need to eat more sushi to practice.

We weren't allowed to talk while we were chopsticking and we had to give a total # at the end, which had to match the number of beans in the cup.

We tried a few times as I got fewer and fewer in the cup even as John was doing well (just not enough to make up for my deficit).  Kip and Dave showed up, completed it, and left.  Finally I found a method that worked MUCH better and it took only one extra try for us to get the count correct.

FINALLY, we did it.  Wow, that was a tough one.  At least my legs got a rest.

Downhill!  We ran down to our final CP at the Biercade bar.  One of us was to walk on cartons full of eggs and take a "spin around a pole" penalty for every egg we cracked.  The other racer was allowed to support that person, so John basically put me on his hip and I tip-toed across while the volunteer got our photo.  No cracked eggs, no penalty!

Another downhill run, this time to the bus station.  We confirmed with Sheila that Kip and Dave were almost back to the finish, but we still had a chance to get in the money (top 3 got the big bucks).  It was a tense couple of minutes but then a bus started up and we were on!

A short bus ride and a short run to the finish, then we got to face a sliding block puzzle as our final challenge.  GUR had announced this mystery challenge before the start of the finals, with a 15 minute penalty if you decide to quit the challenge (clock starts when you make that decision).  People were urging us, "you can do it!" and of course it was something we thought we should tackle.

It took us a while, somewhere just over 15 minutes to solve it, but at least we got it  :)

And it was really close because Phil and Peter showed up and whipped right through the puzzle to finish just behind us - way to go, guys!

In the end it was three teams of friends who finished 1-2-3 and a huge group of excited folks at the finish line!  Along with the egg that Phil carried the whole time (on the left side of the picture):

MANY THANKS to everyone who helped us and cheered for us, both in San Juan and far away, especially those who got up wicked early Saturday morning at the start of the day!  We could not have gotten anywhere close without each and every one of you!  What a team!

Saturday, December 28, 2013


Another amazing day!  We drove over to see Arecibo, the largest radio telescope in the world.  It is featured in several movies and we have been excited to see it ever since Sheila told us about it earlier this year.

One of the towers showed up as we were driving through the crazy topography to get there.  They picked this location because it was a natural sink hole, and the hills and valleys around it are some of the strangest we have seen.  Would love to see a topo map and do some orienteering in that area!

Anyway, back to the radio telescope...

Awesome view from the visitor center:

An IEEE milestone:

John getting a close look at the camera for our selfie:

"Flashing the X" and pretending we are at an XPlore race:

Another view of the telescope - as it's moving!  Also possibly one of the more boring videos I will ever post:

Inside the visitor center there are a bunch of interesting displays detailing how the telescope works and all the many things it has been used for, including finding out the rotation rate of Mercury, studying pulsars, and imaging asteroids.  It has also transmitted a message into space and done some "listening" for SETI.

The anatomy of the telescope:

A Nobel Prize for astronomers Hulse and Taylor for discovering the first pulsar in a binary system:

Playing with a cloud machine:

We spotted this tree that looks like a cell tower made to look like a tree... except this is actually just a tree:

After all that excitement, it was time for some ice cream.  We drove over to the town of Lares to sample their famous flavors.  They have all kinds of interesting options.  I settled for Rum Raisin while John was taken with the flavor of "Corn" - and actually, it was pretty good!

Something called "tamarind" which might be a fruit, corn, coffee, pumpkin, sweet sesame, and sweet potato:

Another case (there were several others as well) with ginger, some kind of cherry I think, sweet milk, casserole (?), pineapple, and carrot:

It was a fine celebration for our last "driving tour" day in Puerto Rico.