Cal-Eco Kernville 2001
by Gordon Wright
“I think everyone should be a machine,” Andy Warhol once sighed. I don’t think he would have expected to find the realization of his desires in the harsh desert scrublands of Kernville, California. But everyone around me at the pre-race briefing for the Cal-Eco adventure race was, it seemed, a machine. Raid veterans here, Eco-Challengers there, iron legs and steely gazes all around.
And the guys looked pretty tough too.
Fighting an urge to crank out some surreptitious push-ups to blow up my pecs, I turned my attention from the hard-body competitors to race director Dan Barger. Of course, even the race director is a freak: Barger is the former world-record holder for the Ultra Running Grand Slam, having completed the four most-esteemed ultrarunning events in one year in the ungodly time of 78 hours and change.
“The race this year is a little shorter,” Barger began, to soft and faintly sarcastic applause; last year’s Kernville race was a grinding suffer-fest held in weather hot enough to melt the pennies off a dead man’s eyes. Barger continued, “but it should also be extremely hot - you really need to be concerned with hydration.”
Buoyed by these breezy reassurances, my teammates and I gathered to plot our map coordinates and highlight our proposed course. To be more accurate, Eddie Freyer did all the UTM work, while Kim Cross, Mike Parker and I alternated between holding down the map edges, handing Eddie his pens and racing to the outhouse to deal with our pre-race jitters .
This was Team King Oscar (named for the world’s finest sardines), headed by Eddie, an Eco-Challenge veteran, and filled out with three adventure racing novices. Kim, Eddie’s girlfriend, had covered the Presidio Adventure Racing Academy for her magazine, Business 2.0. Eddie was the general manager of the Presidio Academy at the time, and showed remarkable PR savvy in getting very, very close to Kim, who turned out to be a pretty gifted athlete herself.
Mike, an accountant for Dreyer’s Ice Cream and Eddie’s friend of 20 years, had also competed in the Presidio Challenge, as well as the Markleeville Deathride and countless triathlons. That these three close friends would welcome me into their ranks says a lot about the deep concern and altruism of adventure racers. Or, as Eddie put it, “I just didn’t want you to do this solo and leave your wife a widow.”
Barger withheld the first five (of 13) checkpoints from his pre-race briefing, so after our short map-and-outhouse relay, we trundled to the local pasta restaurant for a serious carbo load before heading to the staging area for the midnight start. Unfortunately, the pasta restaurant was filled with adventure racers and drunken firefighters (who were gathered for a convention and who looked a little like adventure racers themselves, but with pot bellies and facial hair), so we went to the fly-blown local diner. My poor choices there led to my own proprietary adventure racing tip: never carbo load with a greasy tuna melt.
At the staging area, I was a finely-tuned machine, arranging my gear and food, efficiently dressing, stretching and prepping my bike, and haranguing our support person Scott Claremon. Scott, a former intern of mine, would turn out to be an even worse support person than I was an adventure racer.
I was smugly napping when Eddie awakened me to say that Mike had forgotten his race bib back at the pre-race briefing area. As casually as I could given the sudden realization, I mentioned that I, too, had left my race bib in the car, which led Eddie to mumble something that sounded like, “nookie.”
On the 12-mile drive to pick up our bibs, Mike gave me a preview of some of the tactics he would employ during the race. Cleverly distracting oncoming traffic with full-time high-beams, he used BOTH sides of the treacherous two-lane highway -- undoubtably a strategy meant to rattle any other competitors who may have been on the road.
Once I was reunited with my bib and confident that I had survived the most perilous part of the race, I lined up with the rest of Team King Oscar at the start. As soon as the gun went off, I got a first-hand look at our race strategy: Eddie plotted the first five check-points faster than almost any other team and we took off ... walking.
We were subsequently passed by the entire field. First a trickle, then a stream of panting, jangling, sweating men and women hustled past us on a flat paved road as we stolidly marched on.
Trying to maintain a stately pace while dropping from fifth place to, oh, 42nd was an exercise in the Zen practice of letting go, but over the next twelve hours, the beauty of the strategy paid off: we would walk slowly and with great dignity, like the Pope, relying on Eddie’s navigational genius, while other teams blew up and scattered all over the course, passing us again and again.
After three hours of hard uphill trail hiking, we arrived in a saddle between two peaks at about the 6400-foot elevation mark. Bedlam ensued. There were roughly 20 teams milling around the saddle in the dark, searching for the first CP.
We poked down a few side trails, stomped around some bushes, and spent a great deal of time shouting, “See anything??,” all to no avail. Finally, Eddie replotted our course, huddled with some rival navigators, and then told us that the CP just flat-out wasn’t where it should be. After a no-brainer poll (“Do you want to stay on this ridge looking for a capricious spirit, or head to the next CP?”), we left our competitors, who were peering down gopher holes and shouting imprecations to Mr. Barger. In Dan’s defense, it turns out that his ATV had catastrophically broken down a few miles up the trail as he had been on the way to set the PC. We found a glow stick placed smack in the middle of the trail on the way to CP2, with a little note of apology from Dan.
We found CP2 not long after, manned by a hypothermic and aggressively defensive volunteer, who let it be known that he was IN NO WAY RESPONSIBLE FOR THE MISSING CHECKPOINT. By that time, it was 4:40 in the morning, and on our short uphill trek to elevation 7000 feet and CP3, the birds awakened, the night lifted, and we were repassed by about 15 of the teams we had abandoned on the phantom site of CP1.
Just after nailing CP3, we saw Team Radioactive Beagles, a top West Coast team, and realized that we may not be terribly off the pace. Our spirits were soaring as dawn broke and we bushwhacked through face-high alder and chaparral and skittered across steep forest slopes. Hitting a remote fire road and closing in on CP4, we knew we only had to turn right and go downhill about a half-mile before we would find...
More bedlam. Teams running back and forth, arguing, waving their maps and plunging down gullies to find yet another confusing CP. This time, we didn’t even take a poll. We simply walked quietly past the studly teams, telling anyone who asked that we were just looking for a good picnic spot where we could enjoy the nutrient-rich wonders of King Oscar Sardines.
Not soon after, as we were ambling along in our contemplative way, we saw a team running flat out -- in the wrong direction. Turns out that CP4 DID exist, only it was misplotted by a bit. So we too wandered back into the woods, and voila, found another aggrieved and defensive checkpoint man. “Jon” was kind enough to point out, in the face of our very gentle japes, that “we do this for fun.” Thanks, Jon. It was 9:30 in the morning and the sun was no longer a friendly glow in the sky.
From CP4 back to the transition, it was all downhill. We needed to lose about 3000 vertical feet in a hurry, and yet did so at our familiar, mulish pace. Once again, team after team blew us off the trail until we fetched up around noon at a tyrolean traverse across the evil and capricious Kern River (a merry sign at the Kern Gorge entrance tells you exactly how many people it has killed: 298 since they started counting, about 10 per year). A lively subject of conversation on the decent was the ungodly length of time it had taken. We had assumed a worst-case scenario of eight to nine hours. Laurie Bagley of the Beagles confidently predicted that it would take them around five. The winner of the event, Paul Romero’s Team Epinephrine, wound up with the fastest time: nine hours. The Beagles clocked in at eleven hours. King Oscar? Twelve hours and forty-five minutes flat.
Kim had begun to suffer on the downhill - something about how the trails she normally hiked were not completely overgrown with stinging nettles - and the river was a welcome sight. As were the teams coming out of the transition area: Team Earthlink, headed for the New Zealand Eco-Challenge, was there, and we were still somehow still in the hunt to finish.
After zipping across the river and jogging into the transition area (the fastest we went all race), we roused Scott from his slumber and started chowing food. The race organizers told us that because of the very slow pace of the field, they were canceling the last segment - a short but very tough mountain bike stretch. So all that stood between us and an official finish was a brutal 16-mile hike-a-bike and a 7-mile river and lake kayak.
To our dismay, we would be doing it as a two-man team. Kim, eminently reasonable, said, “this is simply no fun, and I don’t want to slow you guys down.” I pointed out that that was impossible, but Eddie, chivalrous as the day is long, pulled off his race bib and suddenly it was just me and Mike. The good thing was, we now had two people to supplement Scott, who was too busy flirting with some support girls to be much use. The heat, to our dismay, was becoming hellish.
Back across the Kern River went our diminished team on another tyrolean, this time with our bikes dangling beneath us. I had trekked this same trail in the 2000 Kernville Cal-Eco, and Mike began pumping me for details. All I could remember was that it was narrow, rocky, sandy and hilly, and not fit for mountain bikes. Unhappy with my grim assessment, Mike suggested we pull out the maps and get a general idea of how long it would take us. What ensued was an all-too-typical adventure racing Laurel and Hardy routine: “All right, let’s look at the maps.” “OK, let’s pull them out.” “Right, why don’t you pull out those maps.” “I don’t have the maps, you have the maps.” “Nooooo, I don’t have the maps, I gave them to you...”
Mapless, we began pushing our bikes up the narrow, rocky, sandy hill. Down into a steep, sandy wash, the first of 623 identical washes, and back up, pushing all the way. After what seemed like an hour and gaining about 1000 feet of vertical, I made my first mistake: I looked back. Below us, and roughly a half-mile away, I could see the transition area. In fact, I thought I could see Kim and Eddie enjoying a cold adult beverage. Kim was wearing a fetching bikini.
Mike was starting to get a vacant look in his eyes at this point. He asked, “Is it even healthy to be out here in this heat doing this?” At that point, I made my second strategic error. I said, “It’s only...” and looked at my bike computer thermometer. Freaked, but committed, I continued, “118 degrees.”
“Hey, this thing is in the sun,” I temporized, “usually you read temperatures in the shade.” Mike countered with the fact that we, too, were in the sun. But we were each carrying about three liters of fluid, and were determined to push the pace a bit to try to catch up.
We finally caught some downhill; of the steep, rocky, and perilous nature, then some flat parts, which were sandy, and rocky, and perilous. But it FELT like we were going faster, and the temperature plummeted to 112. I mused out loud to Mike, “wouldn’t it be sweet if we caught a team on this leg?”
We didn’t catch one. We caught eleven. We found them strewn across the bike course like broken pinatas after a kid’s birthday party. We found them clustered around creeks and the Kern, where they looked like alligators wallowing up to their nostrils. I even engaged in a little gamesmanship upon climbing out of the river myself, dripping wet. “Hey,” I said to a team that came up behind us on their bikes, “Boy THAT feels good. Yessir, that’ll cool you right off!” As if on cue, they pitched their bikes and staggered down to the banks.
My water was gone after 3 hours. No matter: at the next creek crossing, I bent down and gulped great drafts of cold water, risking girardia over heat stroke. On we rode, to the point where we could see the powerplant where our next TA was. The only problem was, it was back on the other side of the Kern. Barger had told us we could get there any way we wanted, which boiled down to either bushwhacking and fording the Kern, or circling all the way down to Kernville on a paved road and looping back up to the powerplant.
I was adamant in opining to Mike that we should forget the bushwhacking and river swim. He wasn’t so sure. In fact, he was epic in his indecision. As I pushed into a big cog and started humming south along our loopy detour, Mike kept calling from behind me, “Hey, maybe we could cross here.” “We could cross here!” “Should we cross here?”
Oblivious, I skidded to a halt a few miles later front of a deli in Kernville, with Mike right on my heels. It turned out to be the right choice; not only were we able to beg a free soda from a friendly counter man (adventure racing tip #2: ALWAYS carry some money), but the teams that chose the more adventurous route had a hard slog that took far longer than the paved road.
To our astonishment, we arrive at CP9/TA 2 at 6 p.m. in 15th place. And I was finally confronted with my greatest fear: white water. After Eddie stuffed us with calories and electrolyte replacement fluids, we jumped into our ridiculous, two-person pool toy - I mean, Sevylor - and immediately faced a series of rapids. Mike and I were a poor match. I am a craven coward on anything above Class I ripples, and manifest my fear by talking myself through it. Mike is not only a good waterman, he’s taciturn and soft-spoken to boot. So as we crashed through raging Class III rapids, I was screeching, “Hey, rock on your right! Which way are you headed there Mike? We’re going to DIE Mike!!! Hey, we made it, !”
This was unnerving for Mike and exhausting for me, but he guided the Sevylor and his stress-case bowman into the outflow of the Kern and onto Lake Isabella. We had punctured the bottom of our inflatable, and the going was slow and wet into a freshening breeze. Mike powered us down the length of the lake, as I began coping with a truly ironic affliction: I was getting cold. Frigid, in fact. Actually, I was hypothermic, and shivering with a tooth-jarring intensity from the sloppy waves breaking into my lap. The finish line was within reach, but we were running out of time: we had to be off the water by 8:40 p.m. or risk disqualification. Remembering that Barger had said we could walk to the finish with our kayaks, we beached the crappy thing and stood in the gloaming; me shivering and trying to wrap myself in my emergency space blanket while Mike methodically deflated the Sevylor and gathered all our stuff.
Mike began mumbling quietly about how in the hell we would get back to town. “Town? Forget town, Mike, we can finish this thing,” I chattered. “All we have to do is follow the lake shore along that fire road and we’ll run into the finish.” Dubiously, Mike hefted the Sevylor while I clutched the paddles and miscellany, and we headed once more off on foot.
Blessedly, we were overtaken by a team from Arizona - freaks of nature who, it seemed, all met in Hawaii at the Ironman Triathlon. We had seen them pass us, several times, earlier on the course and to our delight they had not only a great attitude, but maps AND headlights. Stumbling in their wake, we spent another hour wending through yet more hills, and finally sighted the arc lights of the finish.
After craftily handing in our passport just ahead of the Phoenix adventure racers, I accepted a hug from Kim, a proud a slap on the back from Eddie, and a query as to the location of the nearest bar from Scott.
Weeping seemed too melodramatic, even for me, so I turned to my partner, beaming with pride, to thank him for his effort. “Mike, my brother, I couldn’t have done it without you.”
“I know,” said Mike.
Gordon Wright is the president of Echo Communications, a PR and sports marketing firm in San Francisco.