Saturday, April 15, 2017

Too Cool April Fools race

Another excellent adventure race!  We're lucky to have Too Cool Racing designing fun courses in interesting parks around Texas.  We're also happy to be in Texas for a few months to participate in these races, and lucky to have Dave as an excellent teammate!

The April Fools race brought us back to Parrie Haynes Ranch where we hadn't been since August 2008, wow that's quite a long time, and it was great to be back.  Also, the weather this time around was SO much better, being that it wasn't August and it wasn't 100+ degrees.  We had clouds, a bit of wind, some tiny sprinkles, threats of rain that didn't hit us, and overall the most perfect day.

Art and Robyn gave us the race maps at 5 am and we mapped the route in Dave and Michelle's travel trailer (thank you for the comfortable digs, y'all!).  Michelle made biscuits and we plotted points and had breakfast.  Meanwhile John was off to the paddle put-in to hang out with the boats and wait for the teams to arrive.  We had guessed we might see him rather early in the race.  Kind of hoped so, in case it really did start storming later like it looked like it might.  I stuffed a biscuit in my pack for him, just in case he was hungry when we got there.

Here's most of the map, except for the cemetery and paddle put-in to the west and one bike point on the eastern edge:


We thought we were starting with a bike share leg (one bike per two teammates) but right at the end of the pre-race briefing Robyn mentioned we were ALL starting on bikes for the melee portion of the event.  Ah, OK, well, then I will go get some bike lights set up for me.  We kept expecting at some point to hear "April Fools!" but no, everything we were told was for real.

The melee was fun - called "Luck of the Draw," each team picked a random starting checkpoint and we quickly plotted where we needed to head.  Dave and I took off down the road, immediately alone in the dark.  Our first point was on a "wall" but we didn't see anything obvious right along the road where we had it plotted.  Dave wondered if it might be among the ropes area off in the woods?  We checked around the cabin, including all the walls of the building and even inside the bathrooms and around the water tank (lots of walls!).  Well, that was likely too far north anyway so we went back down the road a bit, and Dave finally went off into the trees and yelled "got it!"

He was on top of the structure by the time I got over there - wow, that's a challenge!  He had somehow managed to pull himself up on this platform that was maybe 10 feet off the ground?  He read off the coordinates to the next location while I scribbled them onto the map.  I sort of helped him down, with me wondering how I might have managed that one if, say, I had been racing solo.

The next checkpoint (CP) was back at the transition area (TA), so we rode back pretty darn quick (PDQ).  Time to assemble a jigsaw puzzle!  Dave told me that he's not great at these things, which is fine because I enjoy doing them and it's nice to feel useful.  He helped sort the pieces and I did my best to put them together quickly.  Funnily, the photo that Too Cool took suggests he was sleeping on the job, but I can assure you that he was busy moving pieces around in a mostly not-random way:

[Photo courtesy of Too Cool Racing]

One Snow White and a few dwarves later, and our little break was over.  Back to the bikes, back on the road, now heading toward the ranch entrance.  We started seeing more racers on the course, including a couple 6-hour rogainers collecting as many CP's as they could on foot.  Apparently they had 3 of our 4 melee points as well, fun!

We continued our trend of being slow to find points in the dark, standing right next to the flag and missing it completely (that was all me) before exploring more downstream.  No, that must be wrong, back upstream.  Yes, there it is, geez.  At least we recovered on this one more quickly and didn't go into any buildings along the way.  More coordinates to plot...

One last melee point, this one in the middle of a pond to the north of the TA.  On the way there we discussed whether there was any advantage to starting with one particular point out of the 4.  Well, if all of the points required you to go back to the TA afterward, there shouldn't be much advantage to any one (except the timing of the break for the puzzle).  Ah, but from the pond point you could bypass the TA on the way to the wall.  So actually, we started with the least optimal of the four.  Dave mentioned this to Art later and he told us that's why they called it "Luck of the Draw"  :)

We rode up a long gentle hill, down some rocky drops (with me taking it slow but happy that it was getting light out so I could see - one advantage to doing this one last).  Dave offered to wade into the water to punch the control, thank you Dave!  That was not an insignificant thing.  Here's Art demonstrating the depth of the pool in a pre-race photo:

[Photo courtesy of Too Cool Racing]

Back to TA, with Dave now quite wet but not complaining.  OK, well, that opening leg took an hour and a half, plenty of time for darkness to disappear (which is probably not physically, nor poetically, correct).  Excellent, now I can do the riding part of the ride-and-tie without needing lights, and in fact we don't even need to carry the lights to the river at all.

We did a quick transition, Dave changing into running shoes, me picking up my bike lock, both drinking some Spiz and dropping off headlamps.  Still got the biscuit in my pocket though!  Don't worry, it's my pack pocket and not in my pants.

I rode up the hill, Dave running along wondering how long this hill goes?  We would get to know this hill pretty well by the end of the race.  I asked if he could try riding my bike?  Sure, he says!  I rode ahead, dropped the bike and helmet, and ran a ways before Dave passed me and repeated the process for me.  I made sure I got to run down the rocky part, that was definitely the faster option for me and probably for Dave as well but I wasn't really thinking about him.  You can tell because I ran ahead and made him push the bike up the next hill which had so many rocks it wasn't all that rideable even for him.  Eventually he passed me near the top of that hill and we went back to switching off riding and running.

Some easier trail, a few barking dogs (mostly confined to their yards), and a tiny bit of navigation later and we were at the bike drop.  I found a spot in the cedar trees to lock the bike to a branch, managed to forget the key in the lock even though I lock my bike to things almost every day while riding around town, went back to retrieve it, and we were finally on our way.  The fence had the tightest barbed wire we've ever seen, making it about required to go over the top.  Finally, onto the road!

The next several miles were uneventful, just running and chatting.  We found one CP next to a cemetery.  Looked at a potential shortcut that avoided the last hill but decided not to thrash through some crap and possibly wake up potential dogs and maybe an irate Texas landowner.  Running down the last bit of road over the bridge we could see John was awake and waiting for us - Hi John!!


John hanging out with a bunch of boats:

[Photo courtesy of Darby Stewart]

Here John, have a biscuit that I've been carrying around for a couple hours!  He seemed to appreciate it, or at least acted like he did.  We had fun talking for a couple minutes while we prepped to paddle.  John had fun watching our reaction at the boat put-in location - a nice big drop down a concrete bank.  OK then!

He told us there was also a little trail we could take, but he had strung a nice rope down the embankment, so of course we had to do that.  Not so fast, Dave!  Yep, through the trees, sure why not...


My least shining moment of every race is usually figuring out how to get in a canoe off some rocks while trying not to get my feet wet (I'm not proud of this but I haven't committed to changing it - yet).


In the water, practicing the back stroke:


And finally on our way, let's do this:


John took a bunch of pictures of other teams, and this certainly was a good spot for that.  Here's a view of the trail (which he told us later might have been tough to get a canoe through):


Another angle on the incline:


Another canoe coming down:


You could probably calculate the angle from this photo:


These guys don't need no stinkin' rope:


More like our "through the trees" method:


View of the bridge underside:


The river paddle was fun!  It has been a while since we'd done a river paddle, especially for me sitting in the front of a canoe using a kayak paddle on moving water.  Good practice.  I enjoyed reading the river, remembering how to spot potential obstacles just under the water, to look for nice downstream V's to start the little rapids, and to plan for steering around the corners.  Dave had the same take on everything and did a great job with the steering.  I most need to work on my draw stroke with the kayak paddle, something that doesn't come naturally to me like it does with a canoe paddle.

Good current, interesting twists and turns, a few shallow spots that slowed us down, a few trees to avoid, curiously shaped limestone rocks in the water below us.  Then there were herds of deer running across the river ahead of us.  A kingfisher swooping around.  A slight headwind as we headed south, changing to a tailwind as we went around a large U.  More river reading, lots to keep our attention, plenty of loud directions on my part, hoping Dave could hear at least the important stuff.

We bumped one solid rock with the front of the canoe and I made some kind of incomprehensible noise while shifting my weight toward it.  Need to work on a brace to complete that maneuver, but we stayed upright just fine.  We mostly avoided the rest of the obstacles except for taking out a few leaves on some low limbs here and there.

Hey, some wild pigs!  A whole bunch of them, all running once they spotted us.  Wow, that was super cool.  That got us started talking about bacon and favorite foods.  We agreed on pizza with Canadian bacon (with pineapple for me).

One last set of branches hanging down alongside the river... just... stay... left... OK, now we're in the middle of them (yeah, that lack of a good draw stroke I was talking about...).  To avoid getting completed whacked I lay back and grabbed limbs to slow the boat.  We extracted ourselves with some pushing and pulling, and I came away with only a couple minor scratches but way too many spider webs.  And spiders!!!  In the boat!  Luckily the next section was easy navigating for Dave because I was busy removing as many as I could from the front of the canoe.  Several ended up catching a ride to the take-out.

And there it is, the end of the fun 5 mile paddle.  We pulled up to the rocky beach and schlepped the canoe fairly far away from shore in case there was a stormy deluge later that caused the river to rise.  One short walk up the hill and we were almost back to TA.  The bluebonnets in the field were lovely, I noticed - here are a couple other racers climbing the hill from the take-out:

[Photo courtesy of Too Cool Racing]

Well, that was fun!  Thank you for the excellent river paddling experience.  Time to go collect my bike.  Another quick transition and this time we had Dave's bike with us.  His bike has egg-beater pedals and a taller seat so it wouldn't be so easy for me to ride.  I told him I was happy running the whole way, so he took my pack and handed me the towline.  Sweet!

I felt really fast without the pack, getting towed up the hill.  Just like in the old urban racing days with John pulling me around the city.  I let the bike go ahead for the rocky downhill, then got back on tow for the nice trail along the upper fence.  Soon I was unlocking my bike and handing it over the fence to Dave.  Time for some road riding.

The road loop was pretty uneventful, giving me time to ponder how we were over 4 hours into the 12-hour race and had gotten only 5 of the 20 numbered checkpoints.  Although actually if you count the first 4 points from the melee, 9 out of 24 total CP's wasn't bad.  But there wouldn't be a lot of leeway for clearing the course in the allotted time.  Gotta keep pushing to make that happen.

We saw a rogaine team at the north end of the course as they popped out onto the paved road to trek to the CP we were riding toward.  We were happy to be on bikes for this part, quickly reaching the intersection but not finding the control flag...  I happened to glance down into a little ditch and saw it hidden in the brush by the culvert - not likely to be found by anyone who wasn't actually looking for it (and maybe if you actually were).

More pavement, some gravel, a checkpoint under a bridge (thank you Dave for thrashing through all the vegetation and obstacles to reach the CP punches), and a climb up a small hill to start heading south.  The headwind wasn't bad, but look at that dark sky.  We figured we would be happy to get as much of this bike ride finished as we could before the rain hit.

And - no rain - just a solid ride back to the ranch entrance and then all the way back to TA.  1.5 hours for the loop, not too shabby.

Trekking nav, yay!  We started with CP 10 because we knew the route almost all the way there, up the hill and past the "swim pond" again but going straight instead of on the trail to the bike drop.  Through some cedar, Dave collecting spider webs as he led the way (thanks Dave!), a couple hundred meters up a creek to the CP.

We came back to a trail and began some trail nav.  Because I thought I knew what I was doing, we then took a fenceline trail to a drainage that we wanted to cut across (to save a bit of distance vs. going around on trails).  Well, I don't know nothin', because the vegetation through the drainage was crap.  We spent some time and effort finding a way through, and I made mental and verbal notes to not do that again.

Cedar twigs down the back of your neck, well, it's not the worst thing in the world.  We found the road on the other side and followed it toward a jump-off spot for a little pond.  More cedar and thick vegetation, this stuff couldn't be helped.  Oh, yes it could have been.  We found the pond and CP 9, then found a spectacularly clear way out directly west, complete with a cairn at the spot where we hit the road again.  Lovely.

Bygones.  More road/trail through the woods, then an excellent turn uphill to climb way up to the water tower.  A good opportunity to look ahead on the map.  We found CP 8 behind the tower and Dave pointed the way to the steep "trail" down the backside.  Oddly, there was a racer coming up the hill wearing his bike helmet - ?  Really not sure what that was about.  He told us there was another team just ahead of us, and we looked to see a couple figures off in the distance along the boundary trail.

Turned out it was Tammy and JD, who had skipped the paddle leg completely with the thought that they wouldn't be able to clear the course but might be able to collect more CP's than many of the other teams that chose to do the paddle.  Interesting strategy.  We found CP 11 and then chatted with them for a bit as we ran toward the center park road.

Dave and I discussed how best to get back to the TA, settling on a plan to take a trail cutting up and over the ridge.  That worked great, as when the trail ended in a T we continued straight along a clearcut through a couple ditches and popped out close to camp.  This trek took 2 hours for 4 checkpoints, right on pace for the "2 CP's per hour" needed to clear the course.  Still, not a lot of room for error.

We discussed possibly doing something different and next going counter-clockwise for once to shake things up?  Naw, let's stick with what we know - no sense taking silly chances when there's not a lot of room for error, right?  One more bike leg, this time mostly on trails.  It still wasn't raining, happy for that!

Back up the road on the long gentle hill, past the swim pond, back to the fenceline trail.  This time we took a right turn along another fence and followed a trail until it started steeply downhill toward a "gulch."  We were wondering about the use of the term gulch instead of a creek, but it turned out to be a pretty large drop so we agreed it was warranted.  CP 13, done.

We retraced steps and headed out past the bike drop spot again - there was still a bike there, yikes!  We wondered how long John had to hang around the paddle put-in.  Maybe I should have brought him 2 biscuits.

Another bike hand-up over the fence, this time I tried crawling under and managed it OK.  We were happy with another bit of pavement riding, this time stopping at the fence where we had seen the rogaine team earlier.  Another bike hand-up over this fence, maybe we were done with fence climbing.  This was actually a solid gate so it was a bit easier.

We found CP 12 in the bushes, had a quick bite to eat, then started down through the middle of the ranch on trails we had run earlier.  Dave did some excellent trail nav and I tried to pay attention since I suspected we'd be back here for the final trekking leg.  We spotted the giant oak tree, trying to figure out why it was on the wrong side of the trail, but it was definitely the right tree.  Complete with the checkpoint flag up in the branches!  Another adventure checkpoint for Dave, fun!  (at least, it was fun for me to watch).  This is another racer up in that tree collecting their punch:

[Photo courtesy of Darby Stewart]

Back to TA, done with the bikes, no rain, and we had 3:45 to get the remaining 6 checkpoints on foot.  At 2 CP's per hour, this should be doable, but you never know until you've done it.

For old time's sake, we started the final leg in the same dang direction, up the long gentle hill.  Dave jumped back into the swim pond to punch that control one last time (not just for fun, nor was Dave overheating, it actually was CP 17 as well as one of the first melee points).  Thank you for swimming again, Dave!

We headed northeast to locate the trail we had followed earlier, followed a couple more trails, and made careful note where we expected to turn off later for CP 18 since there were two possible fencelines to pick from.  We were also looking up to the top of the next hill where there was a pretty overlook in the area of CP 15.

But first!  A dry pond and CP 19.  No problem.  OK, shall we go straight up this little mountain?  Sure, why not?  There wasn't an obvious alternate route that looked any easier, no trails or roads besides going all the way around to the saddle, and that would only help partway up.  Let's do this.

Dave led the way, clearing spider webs again (thanks Dave!).  It got quite steep, but thankfully the vegetation was fairly clear.  In fact, I remarked, it reminded me of the Barkley course.  Speaking of which, the Barkley was going on that day!  I wondered how everyone at Frozen Head was doing.  In the meantime, we had this tiny little climb and then we were at the top.

We checked a short way to the right to verify we were indeed at the southern end of the mesa.  Yep, go back the other way.  And there's the overlook - spectacular!  Dave decided we had time for a quick photo, nice!


I thought it was funny that racers on trails below us might be able to see us, so I waved (such a dork sometimes).  We poked around through the rocks and trees but didn't see any checkpoint flag.  Hmm, we must not be to the western point yet.

More west, more west, ah yes, we agreed that we were now at the western edge.  Hmm, still no CP flag.  We started climbing around on the rocks and finally I spotted it down below by a boulder.  Nice one!  That one took some real navigation work, I like it.

We worked our way back past the overlook (wave!) and started down the way we had come up, no sense in trying to push through another unknown area that might have nastier underbrush.  Suddenly Dave says hey!  I don't have the map!  Uh oh.  I don't either.  He decided he must have dropped it back near the last CP.

We debated a few seconds - we had 3 CP's left and I thought that I *might* remember enough about them to find them without the map.  But it was a risk.  No, better to go look for the map before trying something crazy like that!  So we went back up the hill (more training!), past the overlook, back toward CP 15, there's the map on the ground, whew!

Once more across the overlook, now I figured anyone sitting down there watching us must really wonder what the heck we were up to!

As we were going down the mountain for real, I told Dave I wanted to try navigating without looking at the map just to see if I could do it?  He was game to try, although I'm guessing he thought I was nuts.  We came out at the road a bit far to the east, and since we weren't precisely sure where we were, I figured it would be stupid to make a mistake right now just because I wanted to try some strange map memorization trick.  So we checked the map and decided to go west.

Yep, that worked, we knew where we were.  Past the windmill, to the fenceline we had looked at earlier, down a trail toward a trail/draw intersection.  We found the spot easily, but had to search around to find the CP 18 flag behind a bush.  Two to go!

We used the trail map to try to figure out the fastest route toward CP 16 at the bass pond.  The trails seemed like maybe they were working, but the intersections we hit were kind of vague although we were mostly going the right direction.  I didn't think it was possible to cross over one large north/south trail without noticing it.  But then Dave asked about the contours so we stopped to look.  And hey, isn't that water over there to our west?  Since we're looking for a pond, maybe we should go check it out...

Yes, that was the pond, somehow I had messed that up pretty good but we also recovered just in time.  Still not sure what happened there.  The funny thing is that without a map, I would have backtracked from CP 18 to known trails and followed our biking route from earlier directly to the pond.  So for once I might actually have done better without the map, who knows  :)

CP 16, disaster averted.  One more checkpoint, this one at a tower.  I could not remember an obviously visible tower in that area (near the wall from the beginning of this story), and it was mapped in the middle of nothing, so this CP was the main reason I had hoped we would find the map.

We ran into Kim finishing her penultimate trekking loop and ran together to chat briefly.  Then it was time for us to detour toward the giant tower sticking up above the landscape (so yeah, not one I needed to worry about!).  We ran across a nice field and found CP 20 inside the bottom of the structure (no rock climbing today!).

About a mile to run back to TA and we were done!  Course cleared in 10 1/2 hours, yay!  That was a fun one.

John took a picture of Robyn taking a picture of the top three 2-person and solo teams - congratulations everyone!  Especially Kim who overcame a large early error to take 2nd place overall, and Darby who was 2nd solo (two women at the top of the leaderboard for the solo category, nice).


We pushed hard the whole time, a good effort for the whole day.  My biking legs were quite tired by the end, phew.  Dave says his trekking legs were tired by the end (phew).  So it all worked out.

Big thanks to Too Cool Racing for an excellent adventure!

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