Where the Winds Blow
It took me 9.5 hours to drive from Philadelphia to Williamsburg for Soggy Bottom Boy’s Sproute Adventure Race. One way. For an 8 hour race. That rule of spending more time on the race course than in the car? Yeah, shattered.
But somehow, Joel and I were rewarded with an epic little adventure that one might find in a much longer race but which is rarely if ever found in sprint adventure racing. And I have a race report that may be my longest aside from those written for expedition races. Yeah, it was a crazy day in the woods!!
Before I continue, I would like to firmly and definitively state that there were some genuinely scary and dangerous moments in this event, not because of what the organization did, but because mother nature decided to add a last minute twist to the race. As a long-time racer and race director I know that these situations are very real for all those involved. While Rootstock Racing was able to weather the metaphorical…and somewhat literal…storm and have a successful and rewarding day of racing, others were not so fortunate, and our thoughts and sympathies are with those whose day ended early. Thankfully, as far as I know, everyone was and is OK, safe, and healthy, but still: we all take on risks in the sport of adventure racing, and even when you are least expecting a wild and dangerous situation, anything can happen. Those moments are intense and the gravity of such situations is not to be taken lightly. I’m just glad that the race organizers and emergency personnel were able to help all those in need.
On with our story:
To get right to it and summarize, the course overview:
- Prologue: foot orienteering with three checkpoints in a loop around the start/finish/central TA in York River State Park.
- Bike to a remote TA for a 10+km or so paddle. We had to provide our own boats. We brought a canoe as we don’t have a tandem kayak. Paddling on the York River. A canoe would be fine, right? Almost everyone had kayaks. We noticed two other canoes. Canoes…
- The paddle ended at the central TA, start/finish. From there, to be done in any order:
- Either a foot orienteering loop or:
- A mountain bike loop. Minimal navigation necessary. There were ten unmapped controls hanging along a twisty, turny, fun single track trail. Teams simply had to navigate to the trail, ride it one way, find as many flags as possible and then return to the finish/TA on whatever trails worked.
Seemed simple enough. Seemed comfortably clearable. Seemed fun. About what you expect in a sprint race. So, we got ready, and off we went.
We made quick work of the prologue and were the first team onto the bike. We put our heads down and rode the 6+ miles to the boat TA. My legs felt like crap, and I feel like I increasingly suck at sprint racing.
We made it to the TA in…second place! Chip Dodd had elected to short cut along the coast and he found a fire road that cut the distance dramatically. Frankly, we just didn’t even look at other options, partly because Mark Montague publically suggested there was no other way around except whacking along the coast. Had that actually been true, the road around was the best way to go. But we heard him say that and didn’t really look at the map, so we didn’t see the fire road. Oh well!
We transitioned fast and still managed to get out on the water first by a few minutes.
The York River is rather large. We set off in rolling but manageable water, paddling our way straight across the river to a large bay and some estuaries that housed two checkpoints. Half-way across, we noted the wind picking up. Nothing too crazy, but enough wind and water movement that paddling wasn’t too much fun and we had to fight a bit to keep our big tank of a boat in control. Once we reached the other side, we portaged across a marshy peninsula into relatively calm and protected waters.
It was a lovely 30-45 minutes of paddling and running. We cruised through the inner bay and water channels picking off the first point and then beaching to run for the second control, the right move for sure, but our legs were cramping a bit from the cold water and the fast start, and the run felt longer than it should have.
Back in the boats, we headed back toward the bay and immediately found ourselves fighting much firmer wind and waves. It was increasingly difficult to control the canoe. And we were still in the protected inner bay. We had opened a small lead on Chip and a team of two men, and it seemed that our three units would battle it out for the rest of the day. As we neared the marshy peninsula once more, I had the uncomfortable premonition that we were in store for something precarious at best and downright dangerous at worst once across the marshy spit. If things were picking up in the shelter of the inner bay, what would they be like as we tried to paddle back across the open water of the York?
Before we found out, we struggled across the peninsula, picking a poor spot for our traverse and finding ourselves having to cross several small channels. Chip and the two person team, meanwhile, took a better route and snuck through, closing the gap.
And so we set off into the wind and waves. Things had picked up considerably. Ultimately, we were supposed to paddle downriver and take out at the start/finish, but no matter how hard we tried, we continuously were pushed up river. In fact, the elements seemed to be conspiring against us, directing us back to the TA on the far shore. I had been anxious about this crossing for some time, and I began to consider the very real possibility that we would not make it back without swamping.
Several signs pointed toward potential disaster:
- As noted, the wind and waves in the inner bay were merely a preview of the harsher forces of nature waiting on the river.
- We had noted and were surprised that we didn’t see more teams as we paddled back out of the estuaries. Where was everyone?
- When we emerged into the York River proper, our eyes immediately took in the ominous sight of two helicopters flying over the far edge of the river.
- The TA was still a ways away, but we both took note of the fact that there seemed to be far more activity over there than when we had left. Far more vehicles than the lonely U-haul we had seen upon departure.
- As we made progress, we were able to see more of the TA, and all of a sudden we could make out the glimmering red and blue lights of emergency vehicles.
- Two rescue boats were chasing after the helicopters.
“Joel,” I said at some point early on, before we had actually registered all of the above, “I think there is a very real chance we’re not going to make it. Secure your bag to the boat.” We actually had this conversation back on the peninsula before we could see anything of the river itself. Even then, I was concerned. If we were swamped in the middle of the York, we’d be a very, very long swim away from shore, at the mercy of the wind and waves and tides, and in rather cold water.
“And Joel,” I continued, imagining us in that churning water with a canoe full of water. “If we end up in the water, forget about the canoe. We aren’t going to be able to save it. Swim to stay warm, screw the boat.” I think I may have used some cruder words than that.
So, we set off, simply trying to roll with the waves, jealous of the kayaks Chip and the other team were cruising along in. We talked, we watched with wonder and uncertainty as boats and helicopters flew about, we worked hard to keep the boat in line with the far shore, no longer worrying about heading down river as that was impossible. And we concentrated on trying to be as one with the waves as possible, balancing precariously as we rolled in the foam.
At a certain point, we crossed a threshold of comfort, and all conversation stopped. We had already been taking on water, and it took a considerable amount of focus to keep our balance as the burgeoning pool of water in the bottom of the boat began to affect our balance, sloshing about with every wave and gust of wind, threatening to tip us into the York’s grey waters. We vaguely took note of the fact that Chip was able to work his way downriver in his kayak. We let him go, knowing that he would establish a solid and perhaps commanding lead on us, but unable to turn downriver ourselves.
We simply had to stay afloat. Slowly we managed our way across the river, and ultimately we were able to make it to the far shore, pulling out at the TA. The two person team had passed us as well though they too ended up at the TA rather than the start/finish. Emergency personnel littered the small pier and parking lot. We counted at least ten emergency vehicles. The volunteers checked in with us as did some first responders.
It was not clear at that time what exactly was happening in regards to the race. All indications from the volunteers and emergency responders were that the race was over. A number of people had been rescued from the cold river, we learned, and three had been taken to the hospital for hypothermia. As far as I know, only 5 or 6 teams/solos made it across the river to start the morning. The rest were either swamped, capsized, directed straight down the shore to the start/finish or simply bussed back to the start/finish.
It was clear that everyone expected us to jump in a truck or van, but Joel and I quickly and quietly broke down our paddle gear and told the volunteers we would hike back to our cars, hugging the coast. We had no reason to think the race was still on, but we were cold and sitting in the parking lot would have been much worse than moving. Experience told us that though we were cold, a few minutes of walking and jogging would do the trick.
So, we quickly set out, bushwhacking along the shore line for the start/finish. We laughed that we had driven 9 hours the night before for less than 3 hours of racing, but what a bizarre, memorable experience anyway. We had fun on our way back, even swimming when we reached an unfordable creek. Why not?
A safety helicopter, clearly anxious, followed our progress for the last several hundred meters. In retrospect we imaged the following conversation among their crew:
“Hey, we have two guys here on the shoreline!”
“What are they doing?”
“Looks like they are trying to get back to the park, but they’re going to run into that estuary in 200 meters.”
“Think they’ll turn back?”
“I don’t’ know, but I think it’s too deep to cross.”
A few minutes passed as the helicopter floated above, and I was thinking to myself that this was undoubtedly one of the weirdest moments of my AR career.
“Think they’ll go for it when they get to the water?”
“No way. Too cold. Plus they have those packs on. They’ll either go back or head up stream until it gets shallower.”
We reached the estuary. Joel and I looked at each, a knowing twinkle in our eye and a brief shrug, and we were both in. Wading and then swimming across the cold ribbon of water, our breath momentarily sucked away.
And in the helicopter? Who knows? Gasps. Cheers. Curses. Name-calling. Tears. Whatever their reaction, the moment we stepped out on the far bank, the helicopter peeled away and headed back toward the TA.
A few minutes later, we reached the final control of the leg, imagining Chip had reached it 20-30 minutes before, though we had no idea. We scaled the steep bank and popped out into the TA.
That coastal trek was a highlight of the race. While the river crossing had been nerve-racking, and while it proved terrible for many, it too was a highlight. Again, I feel terribly for those who suffered in a genuine manner. For Joel and me, however, it was just another day in an adventure race. It was a brief moment, an epic moment, a memorable one. We were able to apply experience, plan accordingly, manage the situation and undoubtedly we had a bit of luck on our side. One more rogue wave than we encountered, perhaps another half kilometer of paddling with the additional intake of water that would have accompanied it, two more knots of wind, a third teammate. Any of these scenarios would have likely doomed us to the cold waters of the York.
Instead, we had a terrific adventure, and the coastal trek was beautiful. The helicopter shadowing us, eerie. The swim invigorating. We fully expected the race would be over, the TA would be dead. We assumed the trekking would be off, no maps available. But we knew what the biking course was supposed to be, so if no one needed our help, we figured we’d go for a bike ride before heading out.
But in the back of our heads, we also kept in mind that in AR you never stop unless you are definitively told to. If the race was perhaps still on, we figured Chip probably had escaped us, but we thought the two other guys might be hot on our tails as they indicated they too would hike back (it turns out they didn’t, and they sat in that parking lot, cold and wet, for over an hour before being bussed back around). We didn’t know the full story about anything, so when we crested the river bank and saw the TA in full swing (with a few stunned looking faces here and there), we immediately shifted back into full race mode.
We checked in, started with the foot section and didn’t look back.
The foot loop was wonderful. We started it with another short swim to shorten the distance to the first point since we were already saturated. And then we dried out for good, making our way steadily and efficiently through the foot section. We nailed everything cleanly and enjoyed the beautiful terrain, woods, and marshes of York River State Park. We were able to get a feel for the bike trails and even ran into two of the bike points.
We were alone for the duration of the section, except for the first and last checkpoint, and we returned to TA to quickly transition onto our bikes. For various reasons, we elected to ride the John Blair trail in reverse. We were told that the ten controls were in zones A-E, but there was no indication of where these zones actually were. We assumed A-E made up the entire trail. So we bombed out to the far end of the trail and began riding it backwards, only to discover that there were in fact two more zones. We sighed with resignation, riding some extra tight, fun single track, knowing we didn’t need to but unsure where zone E actually was. We figured this cost us any chance we had to catch up to Chip or keep our lead on the other two person male team (unaware that they had elected not to follow us earlier).
A bit frustrating, but the riding was wonderful, and once we finally reached the beginning (end?) of zone E, we found our first checkpoint. From there, we just rode. We gambled twice since we had seen a couple of controls earlier in the day and guessed we could cut off some of the twisty John Blair trail by using more established, linear ones. Thankfully, both gambles paid off, but for an hour or so, we were almost entirely on that serpentine dirt track through the woods. We were able to cleanly finish the section and then hammer back to the finish.
As of this writing, I have no idea what the official results are. But as it turned out, I believe we finished 40-45 minutes ahead of Chip, finishing in 6 hours 20+ minutes. As far as I know, along with Chip, we were the only ones to clear the course considering that the other team of two lost all that time waiting in the parking lot and then didn’t do the bike. Again, however, I really don’t know who did what!
Looking back, it was a great event. Unfortunate and unpredictable turn of the winds, but it seemed like everyone made it through, most with happy smiles and stories to tell. For those who weathered the wind storm more literally, I am relieved that all were rescued, and my thoughts and best wishes go out to those who did end up suffering more thermal exposure than the rest of us. I thank Mark Montague and his team for a really enjoyable and memorable event, and I congratulate everyone who made it through this race, regardless of how they did so. The word “epic” is usually reserved for races of longer duration and more wild terrain, but for a brief moment the Soggy Bottom Boys 2017 Sproute Adventure Race was epic indeed!