The Beast of the East 2005
The Beast of the East is one of America’s original adventure races and is part of the elite Adventure Racing World Series. The race is put on by Odyssey Adventure Racing, a unique race organization that specializes in premier ultra-distance events. Their motto “Your Pain is Our Pleasure” is well earned – the Beast has a no frills, Navy Seal tough reputation. Although smaller in scale and production than the last big one I did in Lake Tahoe, (Primal Quest), the Beast has been looming on my “to do” list for about 5 years. I hadn’t raced anything big since the Primal Quest, just shorter ones. So when John and I talked in August I knew I was doing it. John is my teammate and primary navigator from the Primal Quest and works as a busy trauma surgeon in Cincinnati. He has a very nice, supportive wife, Kim, and 3 young kids. Our other main teammate, Brad, was unable to race due to work issues so John and I signed up as a two person team, recognizing the difficulty of doing such a long race with just 2 of us. Our team name evolved from “Sawbones” to “Limbskins”, which is the name of the new high tech, coolmax arm and leg warmers that I am designing. (Note: we had Limbskins prototypes all ready to use in the race for introduction in the AR world but we never got to wear them because the weather” wasn’t quite right”. More later on that)
John was able to pull together yet another outstanding support crew. I never really have any options or possibilities when it comes to this. Jay needs to stay with the kids, and all of my friends have kids and families too. My Dad is retired now and I was thinking of asking him to come along to the mountains of southwest Virginia, to crew…. To set up and take down camp about 7 or 8 times in 5 days, to follow us around the 500 mile course at all hours, make us hot food, clean up our dirty wet stinky clothes, provide moral support at 4am, fix blisters, fix bikes, pack and unpack the Burb with endless amounts of gear, sleep only in short shifts on the ground, never shower and even help us with the mapping and navigating (all in subfreezing temperatures, snow and freezing rain) I think Dad was going hunting or something or maybe he would have. Maybe next time ??? Anyway, we ended up with two awesome ladies, Claudia, John’s secretary and her outdoorsy friend Amy. They seemed so small and lady-like when I first met them and I was worried about the task that lay ahead of them. I was wrong, fortunately. What I will remember about them is how TOUGH & competent they were. It blew me away! I will proceed with the story, of which they are integrally related, part of the team, inextricably part of our success, and an important part of this spiritual journey.
My journey actually started before the Race did. I had been feeling exceptionally strong and confident in the weeks leading up to the race, despite the fact that I had not been training as much as I would have liked. I wasn’t quite sure why I didn’t have the usual pre race freak outs, or days of total “what the hell am I doing this for.” I had this simmering sense that what was to come would be great. The week before the race I went to my friend, a massage therapist that I have been to a few times for various aches and pains, who is a genius when it comes to the body and its mechanics. He grew up in the jungles of Columbia and has since studied alternative medicine all over the world. I was simply there that Wednesday to work out a problem with my hamstring. I left with much more. While he was working on me, he asked what I was training for. I told him that I was doing this big 5 day adventure race in a couple of days, blah blah blah. He asked me what my goal was in doing such a race to which I responded, “oh we would really just like to finish the pro course in regulation time….blah blah blah”. He said, no really Steph, you must have a deeper reason for doing such a beast. I tried to come up with a meaningful response but he cut me off politely and told me that when he first met me 3 years ago, he recognized a very powerful aura about me….he likened it to a guardian angel. He told me that it was a very very protective guardian angel and that the vividness of the aura was startling to him. I thought for a moment and told him rather unemotionally that I have been told this before. I told him that my Mom had died when I was very young and that sometimes I feel it is her. He again interjected “Ahhhhh, you are going to visit your Mother.” With this, combined with the physical release of the massage, I was overcome by emotion right there on the table. I could not stop crying (and I never cry.) I gathered myself and talked to him before I left and he told me that she (my mother) had a message for me. It was what he said that hit me like a ton of bricks. I do this sort of extreme (ok, really extreme) adventure racing because I feel close to her when I am out there in such a raw and extreme state of being. I have never put this all together and it was very powerful for me. Clarifying. Empowering. Strengthening. I shared this with Jay before I left and with one of my best friends, Joanne. I left for the race with this feeling of unshakeable inner confidence and peace of mind about what I was going to do. (I want to interject here too, that I also had a tremendous amount of support from Jay, my husband, throughout this whole adventure, start to finish, which is just as important and just as empowering!.)
After getting the kids’ schedules all set up and arranging for all the help while I was gone, I packed up all my gear, which seemed surprisingly easy after doing it so many times. It used to take me days…this time it only took a few hours. I said my goodbyes (it was really emotional with Annie) and drove to Cincinnati to get John and the “girls.,” Claudia and Amy. OMG the gear that we had to pack at John’s! The Burb was full to the brim. We had to leave some extra stuff behind, mostly stuff from Claudia and Amy’s pile, just to fit it all in. (THANK GOD we did not leave the propane space heater! That saved our race no doubt.) We drove to Claytor lake, Virginia and discussed our race strategy and support crew roles. I knew that Claudia had a little clue as to what she was getting into because John had talked other medical secretaries to do the job for us before and Claudia had heard some of the stories. But not Amy….no clue, thankfully or she would have not come at all. We slept in a small hotel and got up the next day and started preparing our gear for the race. Bike lights, food bags, mandatory gear bags, paddling equipment, bike tires, climbing gear, race clothing, mapping gear. We try to eat and eat and eat to top off our energy stores, knowing from our past experience that there is always the race within the race, that is, between the calories you can consume and the inevitable total mind/body BONK. .
We get through the registration, gear check, medical check and such, early in the afternoon and hope that we will get the maps early. No such luck - we have to wait till 7pm at the pre race meeting. Knowing that the race starts at midnight tonight, we feel nervous about the short time allowed for mapping such a huge course. I know John is really anxious about this…I’ve seen it many times before. We got to the race meeting at 7pm which takes place outside under a pavilion at the Claytor Lake State Park. The wind starts to pick up and the temperature drops about 10 degrees just as the meeting starts to roll. An ominous sign of what is to come no doubt! The race staff goes through the usual safety first, the bad weather predictions, how to use the emergency radios, map and passport hand outs. I remember Ronny Angel (the race director) specifically telling us that the weather is looking unusually bad due to the Hurricane Wilma. And that there are solo competitors in this race, (in addition to the 2 & 4 person teams) in very remote mountainous country and that this is just a race. Teams need to look out for each other’s safety. He was very adamant in this point, which stuck in my head. I remember thinking about what kind of guy would do this thing solo? We would soon find out!
We got the maps and returned to the hotel to plot the course. We received a total of 2 large 1:70,000 scaled maps and a couple of Xerox copies of smaller maps. This was surprising to say the least. Usually for a race this big we would get 20 or so maps of a much smaller scale. It made it easier to plot our course and keep track of maps, but harder to read the topo info. Oh well, that is what everyone got. We had only 3.5 hours before we had to be at the start line, which allowed us only to get through about 2/3 of the race mapping. This was distressing because it meant that we, and particularly John, would have to complete the rest of the nav on the fly, most likely in an exhausted state. Nothing we could do about it. It was off to the midnight start at the Claytor Lake beachfront. We would begin the Beast 2005 with a nice long cold paddle…..58 miles to be exact.. (I was actually thinking all along that we would start with a trail marathon….this I think was worse.) It all happened so fast. Before I knew it we had barely said our goodbyes to our crew, got our wetsuits on and we were running to our canoes in a lemans style start, along with 16 other teams from around the country. (10 teams of 4, 4 teams of 2 and 2 solo teams.. The number of teams was much lower than I expected but the level of experience and rank was quite high. There were no rookie or inexperienced teams here at the Beast.)
Nighttime paddles are always quite impressive. Each Mad River race canoe had to have a glow stick on the bow and the stern and each racer had one on the pfd. This makes for a mesmerizing, glowing blur of light as the teams move to spread out. John and I settled into our cadence. We both were using Simon River Sports 5 piece wing blade paddles, which are sweet for the flat water sections. We note that the team next to us right up in the front of the field is Simon River Sports (SRS) …they are speaking French back and forth between there 2 canoes. We are hanging with them and also Team OLN and Team Adidas. I worry about going out too hard and trying to stay with these big guns, but I don’t really feel that I am paddling too hard. We keep the pace. Claytor Lake is dark and surrounded by high cliffy rocks and the shoreline is not straight. There are numerous fingers and coves which from experience can be a nav nightmare, especially in the dark. But we are hitting the nav really well, so well that we are in first place for the first 5 hours of the race. We talk about this nervously, figuring that it will not last but savoring the moment, which is even more sweet with the shooting stars above us. We are really good paddlers, efficient especially in the flat water and I notice how well we track in the canoe with our size and our cadence. A moment to remember during our lead – it was really freaky and came about 3 hours into the paddle leg, before CP2. We were paddling in a pace line with team SRS leading when suddenly they stop. We sort of drift up towards their canoe, me up front and closest to their guy in the back. The guy stands up backwards and starts undoing his pants, pulls IT out, right when I am about face to crotch with this dork. He starts peeing right towards me with total disregard for my presence. I told him to not pee on me just as John made a sweep stroke to move us away. It did not leave me with a whole lot of respect for those French Canadians. Weird. (I chuckled inside though thinking about what my good friend Joanne’s mom would have done!)
We paddle on and beat the field to CP2 which is a take-out and portage up and over the dam, into the New River. I brought the canoe wheels (yahoo) just for this, because I am no good at carrying 80 lbs of canoe and gear while running up & down steep embankments. It saved us a ton of energy over the 2 mile run. Now we are in the much faster whitewater section, class II’s & III’s on the New River. The paddling became much more technical and demanding, and we were definitely tiring from the length of the paddle. I must add though that this section of the river was amazingly beautiful, especially at sunrise with all the bright fall colors on the high cliffs and the mist rising from the warmer-than-the-air water. We were really wet now and it was only high 30’s and low 40’s so I was really cold. The river was low so that we often had to get out and drag the canoe over rocks and rapids. This was maybe the most tedious part of the whole race. There were a couple of spots that we had both thought to portage, since we had the wheels, but it looked like such difficult terrain to drag a canoe up and over, especially in the dark. We decided to stay conservative, maybe because we both remembered the brutal portage section at the Primal Quest at Rattlesnake Bar. In any event SRS did portage and gained at least an hour on the rest of the field. We finally paddled into the Transition Area (TA) in Pembrook, after 58 miles and 13 hours of paddling, in good position, in good spirits, hungry wet and cold.
It is afternoon Day 1 at the first TA. We make a fast transition to climb gear, eat get on dry clothes and we are off to Castle Rock for the ascent and the rappel. Castle Rock is shear granite vertical 300 foot cliff overlooking the River. It looks huge as we approach the ropes…but not as huge the Primal Quest. I’m not afraid because I did a lot of time on the ropes in my backyard, making sure I had my equipment dialed in for this. And I was fresh….not tired like before. Bring it on! We got to the base of the cliff just in front of a huge bottle neck of teams. We ascended using our jumars which are mechanical hand devices, and then rappelled back down in just under 6 hours. And all in the day light. It was a small sweet victory for me, after the nightmare in Tahoe and I felt exonerated. It helped too the tough old dirty dozen guy, Travis, was yelling up to me at the jug in front of everyone, that “see that girl she has got it! Now that is efficient and that is the way to climb. Girl what is your name?” Geez, I just feel weird cuz I’m a 40 year old mom in a minivan with 3 kids. Anyway back to the TA to top off our food stores, down a couple of Red Bulls and we are off on the third leg of the race, an 18 mile trek to Cascade Falls.
We leave with our running/trekking gear on and trekking poles, which are a must in a race of this length. They transfer about 20% of the work from your feet to your arms, which over hundreds of miles is a big deal for your dogs. We are feeling pretty good as we trek along, now in the dark keeping about a 14 min per mile pace on the trail. We opt to trek fast as opposed to running, saving precious energy for the long haul. John knows the trail as he has visited the Falls before….he tells me they are beautiful but I can only hear how big they are. We punch the passport at the unmanned CP5 and head out to the next CP at Butt Mountain. We struggle initially trying to find the correct trail and hit the first little navigational slump. We both know the feeling all too well…. tired, bonking, frustrated, stumbling around the woods looking - knowing that we may have to go back and retrace. That always sucks. But just then we literally stumbled onto a cabin in the middle of nowhere, which we know has to be near a trail or road of some sort. Sure enough, we find the trail and get back on track. It is the first time I notice our extraordinary and timely good luck and I think about what Max said. We continue on to summit Butt Mountain where we run into Team Naked Bean, a good team we raced with in Primal Quest. It starts to rain really hard now and it is really cold. We make it back down and into the next TA around 3am. We have been racing straight and hard for 27 hours. We know we have a monster 150 mile bike next so we elect to bank 2 hours sleep in the tent.
IT IS REALLY REALLY HARD TO WAKE UP AFTER 2 HOURS OF SLEEP WHEN YOU KNOW YOU NEED 12. We have Claudia and Amy wake us but they have hot food and are upbeat and encouraging, despite the freezing rain. We pack our clothes and food carefully, knowing that this could be a 24 hour + bike leg in some very dangerous conditions. We don’t want to run out of food and we need to stay dry and warm. I put all of my gortex and fleece on that I have. I can’t believe it but I do not have any gortex or winter gloves of any sort. It was not supposed to be this cold and wet! I make due with the stuff I have and we take off just before day break.
It just sucks going out in the freezing rain at 5 am barely awake. But I tell myself that it will bring me closer to the finish. We barely talk for the first hour. The freezing rain just pelts our exposed faces and our eyes. We can’t wear glasses because they fill from the mud. We were headed to climb Potts Mountain, (all the mountains are about 4000 feet) but we had to stop underneath an open empty shelter along side the road to try and get some circulation back in our hands. it, I did not have winter gloves! John studied our maps while I swung my white hands around and around to get some blood going. I saw a plastic bag with a bunch of white towels laying out under the shelter. So I reached inside thinking I could use one to dry off. The smell was so disgusting….I knew just what it was….the smell of dead mice and mouse poop. I tried to get the smell off my hand by rubbing it on the freezing cold wet ground and wondered if I’d contract that disease people get from mouse poop. Those thoughts were quickly extinguished as I remembered the more serious problem of having frozen hands. So I ripped big pieces of plastic off of the bag and fashioned a glove/wrap for each hand. Off we went again. We started to get used to the mud and pelting rain and we are passing teams. We both are strong riders and like to take advantage in the bike legs. John has (had) this shiny new Ellsworth Truth full suspension sweet new bike that he never even rode before the race ( a big no no but it worked out fine). It was spotless and brand spankin’ new and now you can’t even see what color it is. We see a well known team sponsored by E Caps that has dropped out due to a knee injury and we hear that other teams, like our friends Team Towanda, are dropping out too due to exposure and weather related problems. Part of me feels bad, knowing how easily this can happen to any of us. But then the other part of me gains strength and courage to press on harder when I hear that teams are dropping.
We press on but after 7 or so hours we are soaked to the bone and really really scarey cold. I was trying to use that old piece of plastic to cover my hands to block the relentless wind and freezing rain but my hands were still frozen…stark white to be exact. I don’t even want to mention my feet. We need to stop to eat and get warm because we are shaking and shivering now. We see an open sided barn on some farm property that we go to for shelter. I want to make a small fire to warm up but it doesn’t look safe. I notice that there is a house trailer too, with smoke coming out of the chimney, which is terribly enticing when you are shivering uncontrollably. I decide to knock on the door and see if someone there would let us dry off by the fire. This really nice old lady answers and lets us come in to her basement by the fire stove. We meet her husband who just had back surgery, we tell her what we are doing (she is aghast) and she proceeds to dry all of our clothes and gives us hot tea. It is incredible, really, her kindness and willingness to help us. I have never experienced this in a race before but know deep down that she is making the difference for us…whether we can continue or not. I can’t help but to think about my mom. We stopped shivering and put on all our biking gear again after about 45 minutes and took off into the freezing downpour and high winds. At least we had a big climb next so that we could generate body heat. (note: we obtained the address of these nice farm people, Ruth and Alton, and I wrote them a thank you and sent a picture of us on the finish line)
We continued on our bikes that afternoon, to Maywood, then to the top of Sinking Creek Mountain then back down to the bike orienteering course at Pandapas Pond by about 6pm. We would have to do this next technical section in the dark. This is a score O section where we received a separate map with 5 checkpoints to get in any order. You can choose to omit any of the CP’s in this part of the course for a 3 hour time penalty per person. We feel strong and our bike lights and bike skills are good so we take off on this knarly very rocky trail system. If I didn’t have 25 pounds of pack weight on me I would have loved to fly though this stuff…this is what I do best! But we are conservative because we are navigating and it is dark. We are hitting all the points and making great time up until the last one. John is in front bombing down this steep rocky decent on his new sweet full suspension Truth. I am in back on my titanium hard tail (but sweet) and my back wheel suddenly locks up. It won’t spin and I’m going over my handle bars. Thank god for packs – they save the day every time. I landed on my pack and was fine but my bungee cord from the back rack snapped off and wrapped about one hundred times around my rear cassette and hooked onto my spoke. The same thing happened in Tahoe. I was and a little shook because I could really be hurt. And now I have to fix this mess. And it is cold and I’m shivering and wet. I cut all the bungee mess with my knife and now I want to rest and regroup but I am too cold and shivering. For anyone who has ever done this before, I feel that dread, that I can’t go on. Where is that checkpoint so we can get out of here? This is when we met Sean O’Donnell, the deer slayer as he will come to be known. He came bombing down the same descent I just wiped on, riding a cyclocross bike…yep, rigid fork, skinny tires. Crazy, but he was actually doing very well. He stopped to see if all was ok and then drops down a few yards and says “oh here is the check point”. Well that was just the boost I needed at just the right time. The energy of my race just did a complete 180 degrees and I feel a strong connection with this young stud. We were only a couple of yards away from the flag, hanging in the tree. As I was punching my passport, he asked me if we could travel together but I didn’t answer him. I knew it was pretty extreme conditions, especially for a solo guy on a cross bike. I wasn’t sure what John would want so we just sort of pushed on. We finished out the O course in really good time, nabbing all of the CP’s and now in about 5th place. But we aren’t off the bikes yet. We now are headed off to another little town 30 miles away or so and we are traveling on dirt and paved mountain roads. This makes for fast times but the wind chill is horrible. And it is late at night and snowing. I wonder where Sean is, because we haven’t seen him in a while. We have been on the bikes now for about 14 hours. I know John is feeling pretty bad and I am surely getting frostbite on my feet. And we are feeling the need to stop and eat and take a break but it is too cold to stop for more than a couple of minutes. At CP13 we again see a small house with a light on and it just lures you right in when you are desperate. I peeked in the window and saw a guy who looked reasonable. I figured that he must know about the race, seeing that the CP flag was right outside on his property. So I knocked and asked if he would let us warm up inside. Again I was blown away by his willingness to help perfect strangers. He did know about the race and said that he helped another team as well. (By the way this is entirely legal from a race standpoint.) He let us lay down on his bare floor in the back room and rest, which I thought for a while that I might be hallucinating. He even went to bed and told us to just shut the door when we left. (We never got his address) After about an hour we tried to get back out there but John’ s body revolted. He just started puking and puking. He couldn’t keep anything down, which had me really worried.
We managed to get out of there and now I have a short confession to make. There were some really good looking homemade blueberry muffins sitting on the counter which were too good to pass up. We each ate one (john puked his) and I took one in my pocket. If that isn’t bad enough for race karma, this is….they were stale and they sucked! They were made with some sort of organic grains and had no sugar. I forced them down anyway figuring they would be good for me.
So now we are back out on the bikes trying to climb over this mountain in the middle of the night. It was brutal cold, and we could hardly stay awake, John was so sick. I was scared about stopping and freezing to death but we had to. We broke out the emergency bags (we did not have our tent on this leg) and camped right out on the side of the mountain with the snow falling. We tried to sleep but we both shivered the whole time. The silver emergency bags make so much noise when you shiver. (Someone has to come up with a material that is warmer, less noisy and light…I’m gonna work on this) This was a pretty bad time for John…maybe the worst I have ever seen him in any race we have done. We “woke up” to the sound of another team asking if we were ok. I was hoping to see Sean, but it wasn’t. I tried to get John some fuel…I had brought an Ensure which he tried to sip. And I think he ate one of his favorite things, a Little Debbie Oatmeal Crème Pie. That high fat Little Debbie stuff is the best for racing. …that company ought to sponsor our team. (I will talk to Bryon’s brother, Brad, the Little Debbie rep)
We are able to press on again, now as the morning light shows all the fresh snow that has landed and weighted down all the colorful leaves and branches. We bike through this amazing high meadow all white with the fresh snow, showcasing the bright colors of our packs and gortex and helmets and such. I receive the energy that this beauty offers and it actually seems to heal the damage from last night’s ordeal. I can tell that John is better and also taking in the moment. We remark to each other that this is what we come for. So down the mountain we fly. John is bombing on his new bike and this time I am glad because I know he will be ok. Usually I am mad at him biking too crazy and fast on the down hills. To top it off this special moment of high, at the bottom of the 4000 feet of dirt decent, we notice a mailbox in the middle of nowhere that says “Wyrick.” This is John’s (not very common) last name. Too weird. We both feel it this time…..this race has higher meaning. It is a spiritual journey. John remembers out loud that this is where his roots are…in this rural, mountainous Appalachian part of our country. We press on.
After a few more hours biking in the freezing rain we are a bit confused on the roads and where we are. It may be due to our physical state but nothing is making any sense. I remember that we were trying to find this little town that could possibly have a store or diner where we could get food (we are running short). We for some reason are willing to ride several miles out of our way to find this elusive little town with food to buy. I still am baffled by this. But we are confused enough to stop riding and ask a nice guy in a truck for some direction. “Keith” is a 30 something big muscular ex-cop turned farmer who lives up the road. He listens to our story, and then tells us with obvious & sincere empathy for our adventure, how much his own backcountry adventures into the mountains with his family mean to him. I see in his eyes and hear in his voice a very real and true understanding of what we are doing. He gives us the direction we need, then gives us PB&J sandwiches, milk, fig newtons, and Mountain Dew, so that we can skip the far away town. Just another incredibly nice human being. (I got his address and wrote him later too). On our way again navigating the tricky back roads that don’t have any signs on them (this should be outlawed), we end up passing Team Naked Bean again. I think John had a flat tire and we had to change it on the steps of one of the million churches we see. Once we get to the CP, low and behold, the name of the nameless road is right there….”Wyrick Road.” Another lift.
After a few more hours, we make it to the mysterious “Worm Hole” CP which is a bit of a let down as it is only a long wet tunnel that we have to pass through with our bikes to get under and across the highway. I guess I was secretly relieved it wasn’t some cave with worms or god forbid, snakes.
Finally we ride into the TA about 4:30pm day 3, after 33 hours of biking for 150 miles. Our support crew never looked so great! But they were distressed upon seeing our state, I could tell. We ate like we were starving to death and opted to sleep for 2 hours in the tent with the propane heater. It was glorious but way too short. It was also at this TA where we met Sean’s Dad, also a marine (I think) and former EcoChallenge Borneo finisher. We tell him that his son Sean is really good on the bike and that we love traveling with him. We enjoy talking to him as we eat and dress for the next leg, a 35 mile trek. Sean suggests that we travel together for the next leg which becomes a good move for us since Sean trains in the area. His Dad seems relieved to have him hook up with us, given the extreme conditions. So after the food, talk, sleep and gear check, we leave as a hybrid team of 3. This time we are carrying all the big stuff….tent, sleeping bag, stoves, plus all the other mandatory gear. We anticipate having a 15 hour mostly dark trek through this next mountainous stage, which we relay to our support crew.
Off we go, feeling the energy from the company of Sean. Sean is a 26 year old marine who guards nuclear weapons in Tennessee. He recently got back from Afghanistan, and is doing the race as a solo competitor, just to keep his skills sharp. He looks like he is only 18 or so and reminds me of my friend’s son “Brandon” back home. I can’t believe how young these boys are who fight for our country. In any event he is extraordinarily confident and efficient with the nav. He is quick and strong, carrying twice the weight that I am. I can tell he has blisters on his feet because his gait is weird, but he doesn’t complain or slow. We are trekking fast and feeling much better on foot than on the bikes despite the continued freezing rain and steep terrain. We climb to the top of 4000’ Big Walker Mountain and then proceed to bushwhack down the other side, to find a trail. I sprained my ankle during this bushwhack and freak out for a minute at how much it hurt. But I had trekking poles so I just crutched it along until it just felt numb, I remember trying to walk through the “sleep monsters” a lot during this section, which is basically sleeping while you walk. We do this by holding onto an awake person’s arm and then letting your self fall asleep for a few minutes. It is actually refreshing enough to keep going, as long as you don’t trek off a cliff. The sleep deprivation was still catching up with me and I started to hallucinate pretty wildly. At one point during the trek I grabbed John in total fear and disbelief that there was a wolverine right in front of us on the trail. John said it was a dark puddle but I still am not sure. Later, something huge fell from a tree right in front of us stopping us in our tracks. I saw it as a deer carcass being thrown from the tree by a mountain lion. It was so real and scary…I hid behind Sean, who surely thought I was a freak. It turns out that it was a 12 foot tree crashing to the ground from the high winds. I also saw images of my kid’s sweet faces in the gazzillion leaves on the ground. So the trek continues swiftly but I can’t remember much of this one. I think I remember playing name that tune with Sean and John and also I remember that Sean smoked cigarettes every couple of hours, which was shocking to me and John really. I guess he picked up the habit in Afghanistan. It really just doesn’t seem to fit at all with his strength and fitness, and lends to his mystique.
We moved through the 36 mile mountainous section that night almost too quickly I guess because we arrived at the 4th TA to find no support crew! We had made the trek in just under 12 hours. Our support crew had figured us gone for 16 hours and had opted for a well deserved night in a hotel. Not to worry though, we got hot soup from another team and crashed out in Sean’s tent until our support crew showed up an hour later. My heart went out to them because I knew how bad they felt and I knew it must suck being the support crew! No time to dwell though, we had to get going again.
It is now the morning of Day 4 and we are off on another 100+ mile bike leg, still in wet snowy conditions. We leave after only 1 hour rest because we are now humping it to make the drop dead cut off times. These are time cutoffs established before the race start that if you don’t make, you are redirected onto a shorter, non-pro course. We were in the rankings right now with the pros, doing so well. And, we wanted to keep it that way. We are riding with Cyclocross biker Sean now, who knows the area pretty well from his training. It feels like we have been friends and teammates forever now. We make it to the drop dead time at Hurricane Gap by 5 hours so we are feeling pumped. We climb our biggest climb yet, 4300 foot Skull’s Gap, which has about 5 inches of snow covering and is also very muddy and technical. This is making it treacherous for Sean on his skinny tires but we stick with him. We finally come into the little town of Damascus, which actually has a business, a Dairy King (not Queen). Are we hallucinating again? We absolutely pig out on burgers fries and cokes, strip down to dry our clothes and I sleep on the floor for a few minutes, right there in front of other freaked out customers. I am covered in mud and can’t imagine what I must look like. I wonder if those people would believe me if I told them I am a 40 yr old mother of three married to a doctor. After the DQ we bike to the next CP and feel that the temps had dropped even lower, like into the 20’s. It is dark again so we make a strategic decision to break out the tent and sleep a couple of hours to help with our push to the finish. Plus we can’t afford to get sleep monsters when we are flying so fast on the bikes. When we get up we see Team Hype, which gives us a boost to get going. They have been behind us the entire race and darn it, now they are right with us. Less than an hour out of the CP I got a flat, which really sucked trying to change in the freezing cold. But John gets it changed in about 5 minutes and off we go, albeit frozen.
Now here comes the freakiest part of this whole race. The race directors had altered our course because of high winds and blizzard like conditions on White Top Mountain (el 5600). We were now supposed to head back over Hurricane Gap, where we had just come from. The weather was getting worse so we made a strategic decision to ride a trail at lower elevation. I remember being up front on the climb, pulling Sean on my back wheel. When we crested the top, he pulled up in front of me presumably to block the cold wind for me on the decent. I remember looking at my speedometer which read 35mph and I had this fleeting premonition of something bad to come. Just then a deer jumped out right into Sean, who was just feet in front of me. The impact was tremendous, the sound horrendous. He never saw it coming and never even braked. I braked as hard as my frozen hands could. It was slow motion like. The deer was down, Sean was on top facing backwards towards me, with his bike all tangled up with his legs. His young face had a look of total shock and horror as the tangled mess slid down to a stop. I slid right into them and could feel the deer’s warmth and heard the hooves frantically scraping the ground to get up. The deer ran away. Sean was just gasping and his mouth was bleeding. I could see broken teeth. I was screaming for John who was now running up to us. I untangled his legs from the bike and tried to get him to lay back. At first he could only grunt and I was terrified that he was going to die right there in my arms. He started to move his legs and his body and then he started to say he was ok. I still kept trying to get him to lay back but he wouldn’t. After a few minutes he was talking ok but saying some crazy stuff like, ”I don’t know what happened but I opened my eyes and there you were, an angel.” I’m thinking major head injury. (Or did he perceive something deeper and more profound? Maybe he saw “Her”) The vents in his helmet had also made impact marks on his forehead. I actually picked fragments of his teeth out of his skin on his face. He was able to stand up and walk around. We looked him over and saw that his pack had taken the major brunt of the impact. It was shredded, as was the shoulder of his gortex jacket and under fleece. He had a pretty big road rash on his hip and that was about it. We marveled at the condition of his bike. The fork had broken in half in two places. Sean lit up a smoke and started making jokes. I was worse off than he was!
Well his official race was over no doubt and we had to call on his radio for evacuation. He wanted us to just leave him there so we wouldn’t risk missing the cutoff but neither John nor I felt right about that. I still couldn’t believe that he was ok. So we pitched our 2 man tent and huddled all 3 of us inside until he got picked up a couple of hours later. I was pretty upset but somehow I managed to go on. I kept thinking that it could have been me hitting that deer and I don’t think I would have fared as well. I felt the strongest presence of my guardian angel at that time, which gave me the strength to go on. But I couldn’t get Sean out of my mind. John and I continued and hit some big time technical mountain biking which would have been very difficult for the cyclocross biker/deerslayer Sean. The rest of the ride and final brutal hike-a-bike up to Comer’s Rock, TA5, took much longer than we expected but we still made it 5 ½ hours before the cutoff time.
We had just completed another brutal 102 mile bike leg in 28 hours. All I wanted to do was to get warm and sleep. But the crew had other ideas. We now had the help of our racing friends from Team Towanda, who had DNF’d early in the race, working the transition area. Being the seasoned racers that they are, they knew that we still had to hustle through there and get back on course if we were to make the 12 noon race finish, which was only 22 hours away. We hardly got to sit, let alone sleep. I took off my bike shoes and was aghast at the condition of my feet. I knew I had some frostbite and that I should just keep them cold till the end of the race. But I also now had a huge left ankle and foot which would not go into my running shoe. So they got me the medical guy who gave me a shot in the butt of something to take the swelling down…with no penalty, and then he taped it tight. I took the insole out of my shoe to make more room and I shoved my Shrek foot in. The support crew repacked us with food and water, and ran us out of the TA in 45 minutes.
The amazing part was that Sean joined us again, to finish the rest of the course unofficial. He was banged up and had cracked broken teeth but he was now rested and feeling better. We were grateful to have him along in our exhausted state. We began our 30 mile trek by jogging the downhill and flat sections which helped us make time as well as stay awake. Sean just kept joking and talking to keep us from falling asleep but I can’t remember all what he was saying. It had been at least 30 hours now since we had just 2 hours of sleep, so most of the trek is another blur. I do remember trying to stay on the Virginia Highland Horse Trail, which wound it way all through these little areas of Appalachian mountain residences. The passport warned us that we should be cautious in these communities as these people would not be accustomed to bikes, racers or high tech gear and such. (The hillbilly song from the movie “Deliverance” should come to mind). Well we did have a not so pleasant encounter up in such an area, close to midnight that night. We lost the horse trail and found ourselves wandering around this trailer/house. Out came this lady in a nightgown “What da hell you doin’ on our property? Bubba, git ‘cher gun and git out here. “ (I’m really not sure what his name was but it sounded like Bubba) Well out came Bubba with his big gun. Oh I said to John, who was sitting calmly under a tree now. Sean was trying to explain that we had lost the horse trail, using sort of a southern hillybilly drawl in his words. I tried to speak up too so they would hear a female voice. (like that would help?) Well Bubba was hesitant to speak to us but said in almost non- discernable English that there had been a lot of robberies up here in the woods and that we would “git ourselves shot if we were gittin’ round here.” We just turned around and left quietly. We found the trail again and just kept walking. I think Sean just barely talked us out of that one.
We arrived at the river’s edge at around 1pm, where we found a rope stretched across the rapids. It was dark but you could see some rocks to step on and then some dark pools. I have been racking my brains to make an estimate of how far across it was….I estimate about 50 -75 yards wide. We stripped down to underwear and put our warm clothes in dry bags inside our packs, put on our helmets, lights and pfd’s that we had been carrying all this time, kept shoes and socks on and made our way to the water. The air was 26 degrees. And there was steam rising from the water. I really thought up until this point that the race directors would eliminate this section because it would be too dangerous in the freezing temps. I forgot the race motto though, ”your pain is our pleasure.” Sean was first, then me then John. Sean told me at this point that he was gonna fly because he was worried about not making the paddle cut off, being solo and slower in the canoe. So across he went. I saw him up to his waist, then I saw him up to his neck, pulling himself across the rapids with the rope. I went next and immediately went down in the water. I didn’t expect it to be that fast or hard to walk in but it was. So now I’m totally under up to my shoulders, just scrambling and gasping to get across. When I came up onto rocks is when I got cold. I could see John coming across behind me and another team of 2 – a girl and a guy who are not on the pro course anymore – just standing there wet, in the river freaking out. I could hear Sean yelling at them to keep moving but I think she was having a breakdown. It started to get scary and I just dug deep and pulled myself across. I remember thinking how screwed you would be if you let go of the rope because you’d be so far downstream from the climb out. I didn’t wait for John because I was panicking a little. I could see his head lamp bobbing up and down behind me so he was getting across but I feel bad to this day that I didn’t wait right by him. When we got to the other side, which took almost 40 minutes or so, we were shaking violently. There were a bunch of medical people there watching us and telling us to keep moving. They gave us something hot to drink. There was a fire that we huddled by, with a couple other teams, as we took off the wet underwear and put on the dry warm stuff from our packs. I knew that the only way was to keep moving. The girl that was freaking out in the river was in hypothermia trouble and was taken out of the race right there in front of us. Taken to the hospital I think. And we learned later that the girl from Team HYPE, coming in behind us, ended up in the same hypothermic predicament, after letting go of the rope and ending up downstream for quite awhile. Honestly, I don’t know how I made it through this, as most of you know cold is not my friend at all. It was like someone else was driving me.
John and I did stop shaking I (it took me nearly 30 minutes to undress and redress) and we pushed on up to the fixed rope section. I had all my clothes on from my pack now. We now had to climb out of the gorge, up this knarly nearly vertical rock face, using 3000 feet of fixed rope. We got our harnesses on and safety set ups dialed in and started up. I got really because the first 100 feet of ropes was right over the river and the ropes stretched which dunked me in the water. Now I am wet again and it’s freezing. Fortunately (in some ways) we were working hard and generating a lot of heat climbing up this steep rock face. We were making good time and moving efficiently, John in front, me right behind. It was surprisingly harder than the jumar section. Rocks were flying down from all over the place kicked loose by teams above. I was glad we had our helmets on and I tried to keep my face down. About ¾ of the way up we literally had to climb over Team Adidas because their girl was having trouble. Another freak out. Glad it wasn’t me. By the time we reached the top, we were pumped because we knew we were in 3rd place overall and we knew the finish was in site. All we had to do now is pick up our bikes at the top at the bike drop, bike another 26 miles down the mountain to the river put in and paddle 20 miles to the finish by noon. It was 4 am at the top of the mountain, when we got on the bikes. Team Adidas was right on our heels and the race would be close.
We got on our bikes and started the decent. Once again our sweaty bodies (from the hard climb) froze as we rode down. My stomach started feeling weird about this time, which normally doesn’t happen to me. But I think the huge fluctuations in body temperature, among other bodily insults, was taking its toll. I had to stop. John didn’t want to but I could not stay upright. I was going to just lie down on the frozen ground but I noticed a small post office just off the road a bit. Middle of nowhere, nothing else around. The light was on. I thought I was hallucinating again but went over to the step to sit down. Just on a whim I reached for the door and it was open. Open, warm and dry inside. I went in and found the mat where people wipe their shoes to be the lap of luxury. I curled up in a ball and crashed hard for about 30 minutes. I think John slept next to me sitting up. My stomach settled down and I was able to get up and get back on the bike. We were pedaling hard to stay warm and to make up time on other teams and my stomach just started doing flip flops again. As we passed another team it just came out. I could not stop puking for the rest of that ride and it caused us to slow down. I was worried now about making the race cut off but I couldn’t stop puking. Finally we got to the paddle site, the last CP before the finish. It was 7:10am Day 5.
The support crew, now consisting of about 7 people, dressed me, got me some electrolyte drink, and put my wet suit on. I think it was Shari who put the Ensure and hot water mixture in my camel back, inside the front of my wetsuit, with the bite/suck valve right at my mouth, which kept me warm and made it easy to sip. They just threw food and our packs into the canoe. We were hustled into our canoe within 18 minutes and in almost a zombie like state, shoved off into the water. We had 20 miles of flat water paddling to do and about 4 ½ hours to finish in time. Doable but we are going to have to paddle down like there was no tomorrow. We start to glide in the glass like water and the sun (yes the sun) was coming up over the cliffs. We don’t really talk much for the first hour. We just paddle, concentrate on our cadence and try to stay awake. I know he is thinking like I am….that after all this, we might not make the race finish in official time. I can feel the tension and I know we are both struggling in a deep way. I feel that we need to keep talking but there isn’t enough energy for words. After about 2 hours John thinks we are close to the finish because he sees the dam, which I know is only a bridge. We weakly argued a bit which distressed me. I knew he was hallucinating or confused. Eventually we passed under and he figured it out. I think he got the maps out and we started to realize that we had a ways to go but that we were making good time. I can feel something happening to me, some energy from somewhere fueling my spirit. My body still felt empty but my mind, which was watching from above (I know I know this sounds bizarre) took over. I could feel the power in my stroke and the matching of cadence from John. John was steering the boat in a perfect line, wasting nothing. I was on my knees up in front in the power position. We started to talk and I remember telling John that I was having an enlightened experience, not only now in this water, but all throughout the race. He knew of my visit with the massage therapist and my story when I was young. We just silently marveled at what was unfolding for us. I know John felt what I was feeling and he respected it. I told him that I felt many times in the past that he was sort of “hand picked” by my mother to be my teammate. You see, John brought no baggage to our team or to our relationship. He sucked nothing from me. He had no ulterior motives or agenda for me or our team. He races with a clean conscious and a pure heart. He thinks he is a hard ass and insensitive, but he really isn’t. This is not to say he didn’t have his own problems or that he didn’t need me as a teammate. It is just that being the person that he is, he allowed me to go where I needed to go spiritually. I told him that I was able to unleash all of my physical and inner strength when I raced with him because of this. I think he gets this.
The paddle is coming to an end as is the race. We see another couple of canoes at the finish (Team Adidas). We are overcome with emotion as we glide up to the shore. John’s parents are there, our support crew, Deerslayer Sean, his dad, all the race staff, the three pro teams that beat us, and photographers. We are congratulated with champagne and hugs and I can’t even remember what else. Team Adidas gets their big hooorah cut short as everyone flocks to us. They all want to know what LIMBSKINS is. We finished the race at 11:12am, almost 45 minutes ahead of the cutoff. We are 4th overall, just 7 minutes behind the 3rd place pro team Adidas and we place 1st for 2 person teams, and 1st for American teams. Only 4 teams actually finished the whole race out of 16 teams.
(Team Simon River Sports 1st, Team OLN 2nd and Team Adidas 3rd, Team Limbskins 4th)
We covered nearly 450 miles, climbed 28,900 feet (100 feet short of Mt. Everest) on about 8-9 hours of total sleep in 5 days, 11 hours and 12 minutes. John and I agree that it was harder than the Primal Quest 10 day 500 mile race, due to the weather, stricter time cutoffs and brutal sleep deprived conditions. I have frostbite on both feet, which I am struggling with even weeks after the race. But I have a strong feeling of fulfillment, inner peace and clarification of what this is all about for me. As for the “message” … I did receive the message during the race, but that is another story.
So it is weird to sit here and write this story because my regular life is so far from these extremes I just endured. But the experience fuels my soul at such a deep level. Friends and family enjoy reading my stories and are actually in disbelief. Some are even disgusted that I would “risk my life so selfishly.” My Dad thinks it is un-lady like to be out in the woods with a bunch of guys and sleeping in the dirt. I try to tell them that that is when I feel the most feminine! They have no clue what I do and what I can do, how strong I am. It bothers me a little because they don’t understand. But then again, this is MY journey.
So, so be it.