Infiterra Summer Groove Adventure Race
Saturday, July 30th, 2005
White Lake Campground, Montague, MI
The Best Laid Plans of Mice, Men, and Adventure Racers:
A Race Report of the 2005 Infiterra Summer Groove
Adventure racing is a wonderful thing, it’s a sport that offers a little of everything, from the amazing, to the horrible, to the absolutely bizarre. I have experienced quite a bit in my 4 years of racing, but I think that this tale borders on the lip of just plain bad luck.
The Summer Groove is Infiterra Sports 15 hour race that takes place in late July. For the 2nd edition of the race, the event would start at 3:30 am, when racers would be bussed to the starting area. They would then paddle 12 miles down a very narrow twisting river, past checkpoints 1, 2, and 3. When this was complete, racers would drop off their boats at the Happy Mohawk Canoe Livery and trek to the CP 4/TA 1, where we would transition to mountain bikes.
The mountain bike section would range anywhere from 35 to 50 miles depending on route choices and would take place on paved roads, fire roads, sandy Michigan two-track, and of course technical single track. The mountain bike section contained CP’s 5 – 16 and two of them (7 and were optional, this will be explained in a moment. Racers would navigate their way to checkpoint 12 where they would enter a single-track trail. CP’s 13, 14, and 15 were placed randomly throughout the single track to ensure that racers don’t cut any corners during this section. The single-track eventually emptied out into CP 16.
Once racers reached CP 16, they would leave their bikes, and transition to the race’s orienteering section. The orienteering section contained CP’s 17 – 27, 10 controls in all. To stay ranked, racers would have to obtain at least two of these points. The catch being, and this includes CP’s 7 and 8, is that you can never be ranked lower than a team who has obtained less controls than you. For example, if one team takes 12 hours to complete the race, obtains optional checkpoints 7 and 8, but only grabs 2 controls during the orienteering course, then they will be ranked behind a team that takes 14 hours to finish, but collects ALL of the points. This has a huge impact on course strategy. Should the team take a gamble and go for a few more controls to be ranked higher in the standings, or head back early and avoid being disqualified due to cutoff times? Just nabbing one more control could place the team in front of five others who didn’t. Leading teams have no choice, if they want to win, then all points must be collected. The amount of controls to collect in the orienteering course is completely up to the individual teams.
The orienteering course was comprised of some amazingly complicated topographical terrain. Hills, depressions, swamps, lakes, and thick brush all challenged racers navigational abilities during this section of the course. When teams had collected all controls or had decided they had had enough, they had to make their way CP 28, this CP lay on the edge of a very steep ridge, which led down to the river, the one teams originally paddled down. Teams would then follow the banks of the river to the finish line, racing to beat the cutoff, other competitors, or just in a desire to complete this event.
I had competed in many adventure races prior to this, even in events longer than this, but never as a solo, so this was going to be a new experience for me. I wasn’t worried about the distance because I had put in the necessary hours training physically, mentally, and technically. I had prepared my body, my mind, and my equipment for whatever Infiterra Sports, and western Michigan could throw at me, or so I thought.
Lesson #1 – Never assume that you are fully prepared for any race.
I made my way to western Michigan and found the race site. Race staff setting up sponsor banners, racers milling around and chatting. I registered, got my bag of cool promos, and headed off to find a hotel room before the briefing.
The race briefing took place at 7pm on the Friday night before the race. We were given our maps, a large 2 ½ ft. x 3 ½ ft. beast of a map, given specific race instructions, and all headed in separate directions to plan out our race strategy. I drove off to my hotel to pack all my gear, prepare my map and get a few hours of sleep. I managed to get all my gear completely prepped for the opening segment, prepare my map in its entirety, and still get 2 hours of sleep. The alarm went off at 2 am. Gee, sure glad I got this hotel room. I woke, ate a breakfast of peanut butter and jelly, grabbed my gear and headed off to he race location.
When I got the to the race site the night was calm, cool, and clear. The sky itself lent a small amount of light from the crescent moon and the ocean of stars above us. Racers prepared for the race in silence so as not to wake the sleeping in the nearby campground. It was like an army of Special Forces operatives prepping for some sort of combat mission. We prepared, checked, rechecked, and headed off to the meeting point where they would bus us to the start line.
Four busses loaded with racers, who were in turn loaded with gear, traveled toward the start line at 3 o’clock in the morning. It was like a scene from Steven Spielburg’s TV mini-series Band of Brothers, the American paratroopers stuffed together into dozens of large aircraft, loaded with equipment, and flown out into the middle of nowhere, dropped, and sent off to complete their mission. Except this time, we wouldn’t be fighting other soldiers, today we would be battling ourselves, the land around us, and our mission was to complete this race, and to finish as high as possible while doing so.
Part 1 – Shi!$ Creek
It was 3:30 in the morning when the large group of geared up adventure racers heard Luke Osborn, one of the race directors for the Summer Groove, give the 10 second count down, sending a mob of 160 racers into the woods. Our first task was securing a vessel to take down the river. There were kayaks for solos, and canoes for teams, but they weren’t labeled, so we had to beat the others to them.
I dashed into the woods with the other racers and quickly found a group of 5 kayaks. Three of them were already taken so I lunged myself at one of the others. I placed glow sticks on both ends, and asked one of the other solos if he wanted to work together to portage the kayaks the 3/4ths of the mile down to the river. One of them agreed. He grabbed the front, I grabbed the rear and off we went. I still don’t know the solos name but I gave him the nickname “The Tractor” because the only other things that I’ve seen rip through forest like that are large pieces of construction equipment. I still don’t know how we got 2 kayaks through that forest, but in an instant we were on the road, chasing down a team just ahead of us. We practically ran the entire distance to the river, only stopping to readjust our grip several times. We got to the put in first and I noticed that I didn’t have a glow stick attached to the front of my kayak anymore. It must have fell off along the way. Well of course I didn’t have another one, so I pulled out my emergency strobe, turned it on and hooked it on the kayak. I figured this would probably do in place of the glow stick. Well, while I placed the strobe the other racers had caught up to us. I carried my kayak down some wooden steps to the river, got in and pushed off into the murky black darkness.
Lesson #2 When paddling at night, you should have as bright a light as you can get.
The darkness was complete except for the small beam coming from my headlamp, and the lights of the other teams. As we made our way down the river, the fog over the water interfered with the light coming from my headlamp sometimes making it difficult to see what was coming. I had also brought my bike light, the very bright Niterider HeadTrip, which I had secured to my pack to help with the darkness; this made things a little easier to see, but not much. There were, what seemed, an infinite amount of logjams as we progressed down the river. At its widest point the river was no more than 200 ft. wide, at its narrowest, probably around 50. This would have made a hilarious blooper reel, with all the canoes and kayaks bumping into one another, flipping, doing everything to avoid the logjams and bypass each other, hearing racers say things that you never read in the Bible, and basically just mass chaos and confusion on the water. It was pretty intense making your way down the river with all these teams. Canoes would be tangled up in logjams, while others would slip past thankful that they had someone to show them the way NOT to go. The groans and screams of racers could be heard up and down the river.
Lesson #3 – During a night time narrow river paddle with logjams and 100 other teams is probably not the best time to try to move up in position, its best to just minimize the damage.
While I had been fighting my way down river, I saw a few canoes flip over and I thought to myself, wow, I’m sure glad that I’ve never had that happen to me. In all the races that I’ve competed in, I’ve had some bad luck but I’ve certainly never capsized or flipped. Well God had decided that I could not continue living my life without having experienced the extreme thrill of being flipped in a kayak.
I hit the log at about waist height and was immediately locked into place. The log was high enough to allow the kayak to go underneath, but not high enough for me to go with it, so I was stuck. The current was pulling the kayak underneath and I was trying to make my way down the log to where it got high enough for me to go underneath it. Well that wasn’t going to happen, unless you have abs of rock hard iron and steel, you’re not going to outdo the current of a river in a battle of strength. As I moved the kayak to the right, my weight shifted, angling the kayak into the water. Well it didn’t take much more and I was passed the logjam. Unfortunately I wasn’t in my kayak anymore, and I was left wondering if I had lost my maps and my passport. After pulling the kayak up on a bank, and dumping out the water inside, I took inventory. Luckily my map and passport were ok, but I had lost my sunglasses, my Niterider light, and my emergency strobe.
Of course I knew, I had been racing for years and stuff like this happens all the time, and you just have to get back up and keep going. It was also during this time that I jokingly asked God “what more could you possibly want from me, what else could I give?” Well, a few more miles down the river, I found out…He wanted my paddle.
During another logjam, I placed my paddle inside my kayak, pulled the kayak over the log, got back in, looked for my paddle…and it wasn’t there. I could not believe it. I was so sure that the paddle was inside my kayak that I pushed myself away from the logjam, took my headlamp off and swung it around inside the kayak thinking it somehow got lodged down inside farther. It was absolutely not there. It was at this moment that I noticed that the current was carrying me farther and faster away from the logjam, and farther away from wherever my paddle was. I tried to use my arms to paddle against the current back toward the logjam; I’ll let everyone at home use their imagination to figure out how effective that was. Then I tried yelling out to the 6 or 7 teams that were crossing the logjams in canoes if anyone could see a paddle. The logjam was as bright as day with all the teams crossing, yet the paddle was simply not there, and no one saw it. I was at a complete loss of words. How could it just disappear like that?
Lesson #4 – If you’re going to be paddling at night, put reflective tape on your kayak paddle.
Well after manipulating my way over to the bank I pulled my kayak on shore and went back to look for my paddle. There was nothing in sight, and that includes any teams, there was no one else around. I started to wonder if I was in last place, and if there would be anyone else coming down the river. Eventually, another team came paddling by and I asked them if they had seen a kayak paddle anywhere near the logjam. They said no and after I explained my situation they broke one of their kayak paddles down and gave me half. Now that is an act of true sportsmanship. They placed themselves at a disadvantage so that some bumbling solo racer could make his way down river. I thanked them like 10 times and made my way back into my kayak and began to paddle down river.
It was almost light now as the sun was creeping into the sky. There was still no one around. I continued down the river to CP2, received some words of encouragement from the staff there, and pushed on. It took around 5 hours for me to finish the river paddle. It was a lot of work paddling with half a paddle, but it was a lot less difficult than not having one! …or having to deal with dropping out, which of course is never an option. So all jokes aside, I was up Shi!$ creek with half a paddle.
I was extraordinarily happy to see the Happy Mohawk canoe livery where I could get out and walk, and have the ability to walk around any logjams that may be in my way. I pulled the kayak up on shore, punched in and ran down the road to the first TA.
Part 2 – The Neverending Two-Track Trails
After I punched in at the TA, I ran over to my car where my gearbox, mountain bike, and gear for the next section were placed. The next step...the 40 mile mountain bike leg. I was psyched for this leg because I knew that I could make up some time and still possibly pull in under the 15 hour time limit. I wanted to punch all the mandatory controls (or as many as I possibly could) so that I could be ranked above those that decided not to punch them. I hurried into my bike shoes, packed all the necessary food and water for this section, grabbed the map, and rocketed down the road toward CP 5.
After a few miles down the paved road, I came to a point where the road continued but the pavement ended. It was at this point that I was introduced to the infamous Michigan sandy two-track. I have heard people complain about the sand, yet never experienced it until now. Since I’m from Ohio, I had only dealt with muddy wet riding that challenges your skills, not sand. Initially things were a little challenging, because you’re constantly swaying left and right and correcting your line. It takes quite a bit of balance and core strength.
It also helps to maintain a high cadence in sandy sections. After a few minutes the challenge was actually quite fun. I eventually reached CP 5. There were probably around 10 people either preparing to head out or standing there punching passports. I set my bike down and walked over to the control, went to pull out my passport…and couldn’t find it. I thought to myself, hmm, maybe I put it into my Camelbak. I took off my pack and looked inside. After about a minute of searching inside my pack, I realized it wasn’t there either. At this point, I tore my stuff apart looking for it. I searched every pocket, and every crevice. I had placed it in its own map case so I couldn’t figure out where it was!
Lesson #5 – Hot Glue the passport to your arm, or find some other very, very, very secure attachment to yourself, where you can never lose it or misplace it.
Sigh. Well this is just one more setback. I exhaled, relaxed and thought “you know what, you could be inside somewhere wishing you were doing this, so I’m just going to have a great time while I’m out here”. I mean, it’s not every day that I can go out and tear up some new trails I’ve never been on! So I punched the control using my map instead of the passport (hoping maybe they would give me some kind of a time penalty) and off to CP 6 I went. I had absolutely no trouble finding CP’s 6, 7, or 8 (7 and 8 were optional), so after collecting those I set off to CP 9. CP9 was a river crossing that would take us south to follow the trails to the single track and orienteering course. I set off on what I thought was going to be the right path, but it turned out to be wrong. I was riding sandy two-track waiting for it to turn into a gravel section then a paved section. Well, the paved section never came. I kept riding thinking, “it’s got to be here eventually, hmm this seems awfully far”. It seemed like every road I found was made of sand. It was like being in a desert that had a forest placed over it, the roads you traveled on were always made of sand, but your surroundings suggested forest. Now the sand was fun to ride on initially but it gets really fun when it gets so deep that your tires begin to sink into it. I felt like I should be riding on a camel, and started to worry about the cutoff time because it probably took around 2 hours for me to find CP9.
Eventually, I came upon a paved road, not thinking twice, I took the necessary turn and continued toward CP9, or so I thought. What I had actually done, was overshoot the necessary road, and would then overshoot the checkpoint by about 5 miles.
Lesson #6 – Never assume because the map says that a road is paved, that it will be paved.
Lesson #7 – Measure the distances on the map so that you have an idea of how far you have to travel, never just think “Oh, I’m sure its just right up here….”
Eventually after talking to some of the locals, I made my way back and eventually found the trail that led to the checkpoint. When I got there, Chad, one of the race directors was supervising the point waiting for stragglers like myself to come through. He sympathized with me about losing my passport but in the end, told me that I would be disqualified as I had suspected. I took the time to fill up my hydration bladder in the river and treat it with some iodine tablets because I was running low on H2O. While I was doing this, another team came on through, checked in, waded through the river and took off. After filling up on water, I waded the river, which sure felt good, climbed the opposite bank and went on my way.
I caught the other team shortly thereafter. They were a two person coed named “A Stick and a Rack”, they were originally a 3 person team, but they’re 3rd member dropped out before the race due to some broken ribs. Unfortunately for them, their 3rd member was also the team navigator. We cycled along, on our way to CP 10 swapping stories about races and such, and discussed how disappointed we were in our performance so far in this event. We agreed that it could be worse, none of us were injured, they were still ranked and were bent on finishing this race as a ranked team. I told them about my misfortune and decided to help them out as much as I could. We settled into a pace line and made our way toward the next CP. We didn’t have too many troubles finding CP 10 and 11, but we did come across another team sitting on the side of the trail. They looked absolutely beat, and were “contemplating defeat”. We invited them to join our squad however they declined, so off we went. Once we arrived at CP 11, we were informed that we were to head directly to CP 16 on a “shortened course”. This disheartened Jackie and John of “One Stick and a Rack”, but they still wanted to finish ranked so we set off to the bike drop off at CP 16.
Part 3 – Almost…
The day was drawing closer to its conclusion as we reached CP 16. This was the bike drop off point and where we would enter the orienteering section. There would only be enough time to collect two of the checkpoints to stay ranked and head off toward CP 28 and the finish. After dropping off all cycling equipment, I set off with my adoptive team “A Stick, a Rack, and a Solo”. John rocketed off to find the first checkpoint, which was located at the base of a steep hill. We had no problem finding it, and we took off to find another CP to keep their “official” hopes alive. The next checkpoint was fairly challenging.
Lesson #8 – On a map, swamps and small lakes are differentiated, in real life, they aren’t.
We were constantly looking for 2 small lakes, which the checkpoint was in the middle of. There were plenty of swamps near here as well to mix things up. Coming across a body of water, I thought we had found a swamp, not a lake. Jackie and John looked at it and thought maybe it is the lake. It didn’t appear to be a lake of any kind because it appeared shallow, muddy, and there were large weeds and plants that appeared…well swampy! So we passed it up. We looked around a little more and discovered nothing. Ultimately we decided to take another look at that “swamp”.
Jackie and John were correct, because using they’re eagle like vision, they spotted the CP on the opposite side of the swampy lake. It would take us a bit to get around the outside of the lake so I told them that since it appeared relatively shallow that I would walk/swim across and get the CP that way. They tried to talk me out of it, but I told them it would just be faster.
Lesson #9 – Never, especially if you’re by yourself, attempt to cross any body of water, especially if you could apply the word “swampy” to its description.
I took two steps into that muddy swamp and I was sucked up to my waist. My leg literally went straight down into the filthy stagnant mud. Now I’m a pretty tall guy at 6’2” and my legs make up a nice chunk of that, so I was not so pleasantly surprised at the consumption of my entire leg. I’m sure it was pretty funny too because, one minute Jackie and John were getting ready to take some pictures of my attempt and the next minute, I was completely out of their sight. John came out and tried to pull me out with a stick, and when that failed to work, cautiously came out farther and pulled me out using his arm. It took a tremendous amount of force to pull me out of there and I was left wondering how I would have handled that had I been alone. Thank God for the mandatory cell phone! Lets just hope that it would have worked. We made our way around the outside of the lake, punched the control, and made our way out of there. At this point things were looking pretty good, because we had about an hour left to get to CP 28 and follow the river down to the finish. We rocketed back to the road and followed it to a point where we could take a direct bearing to CP 28. We entered into the woods and started to make our way along the degree bearing, a little more than a mile distant. We traveled for what seemed like an hour with the clock ticking down and the CP just seemingly around the corner. Eventually we hit the extremely steep ridge, which would label the CP. We had aimed off to the left (at least I thought we had) and hit the ridge which would mean that we needed to head to the right. I looked at my watch on our way out to this point and we had a mere 15 minutes to find the checkpoint, make our way to the river, and follow it to the finish…not good odds.
We spread into a 3 person line, John on the hill, Jackie on the trail and myself down by the river looking everywhere for the CP, we covered a huge area desperately looking for this thing, and John and Jackie were definitely not giving up after having gone this far. But as time ticked by, I saw my watch go from looking somewhat hopeful, to the point where we knew that disqualification was inevitable. 7:00 pm. The race cutoff. Now not only was I disqualified because I didn’t have my passport, but they were DQ’ed as well because they were on the course for longer than the race cutoff time. After looking for a point where we could follow the river, we headed back south, up the massive hill and back out to the road, where we called in to the race director to let him know our whereabouts. The race staff sent out team member number 3 for “Two Sticks and a Rack” who was supporting their race with his 3 broken ribs to pick us up. While we made our way to the point where they would pick us up, we came across another racer who had just as much trouble finding CP 28. We chatted about the CP until Mike Klassa, the other “Stick” pulled up in the van, at which point we piled in, and drove off the to finish line.
These races challenge us at every point, in training, at the start, during the course of the event, and even when we finish. The Summer Groove was a great experience, even when all those things that I hadn’t planned for went wrong, there were people around me who were facing similar experiences and either understood, or went out of their way to help me. The team that gave me the paddle, I couldn’t thank you enough. I was at the point where I was looking for paddle shaped sticks lying in the water. Your sportsmanship is a model for which all racers should judge themselves by. I’m very glad that Infiterra Sports rewarded your sportsmanship. You placed yourself at a disadvantage so that I, someone you’ve never met before in your life, could make his way down river. Thanks again.
Team “One Stick and a Rack”, you two should be extremely proud of yourselves for the push you guys made to stay ranked. You never gave up once, even as the time ticked down while we searched for the last checkpoint. You made my journey in this event a fun one, and I hope that I helped you guys out in some way, or at least made it enjoyable in some way. Great race guys, and good luck in all your future events!
It’s always the people you meet and the experiences you have at these races that keep you coming back for more. Great job Infiterra for putting on another quality event, and you can bet that after this race, I’m looking forward to the next one!
Lesson #10 – "Success is getting up one more time than you fall down."