Untamed Virginia 30-hour Adventure Race
Charlottesville, VA – June 9th and 10th, 2007
Report by Jim Weber, of Team A-List (a.k.a. Team Too Many Kids)
Photos by Kristin Eddy, Stefanie Hutchins, Brian Hutchins, Tom O'Donnell
The Untamed Virginia 30-hour AR was the inaugural event for longtime race director Grant Killian’s new organization, “Untamed Adventure”…and also Grant’s first race to feature more than 18 hours (and over 100 total miles!) of non-stop racing. We had done many of Grant’s previous races under the “HR Adventure” name, and were excited for this new challenge. The race offered online coverage, including leaderboard updates, satellite tracking for the teams and a “trail mail” feature where people following the race from home could post messages that would be read to the racers at various points along the course…which gave it the feel of a longer expedition style race.
A few months before the race, our friend Chris Rumohr (who runs the adventure racing informational clearinghouse “A-List”…check it out at www.areyoureadyforanadventure.com) was able to provide a free race entry for us (thanks Chris!)…so some of the usual suspects from Team “Too Many Kids” would be racing this event as “Team A-List”.
The composition of our team was in flux months before the race, and remained that way until just days before the race began. Since one member of the regular “Too Many Kids” crew (Scott Hottenstein) was unable to race, we planned to race as a team of three…me, Tom O’Donnell and Deb O’Donnell. However, for Tom and Deb the logistics of mixing a 30-hour adventure race with real life (and their four kids!) meant that there was a chance that either Tom or Deb might not actually be able to make it to the race. Since we wanted to race in the “premier” 3/4 person co-ed division, this meant finding another female to join us in case Deb had to drop out. Luckily we were able to recruit supergirl Kristin Eddy to join us. Tom and I had raced the Sproute AR with her a few months before, and we knew she’d be a great addition to the team. She was also the only one among us who had raced for more than 24 hours straight before. Unfortunately, Deb did have to drop out as the race got closer, so we were down to just me, Tom, and Kristin. To make matters worse, I started getting sick on Tuesday and by Wednesday I was not sure I would be able to race. However, at about that same time, Kristin mentioned that she had picked Scott Pleban up from the airport a couple days earlier as he returned from the AR World Championships in Scotland. He had expressed some interest in the race, and Kristin very wisely contacted me and Tom about asking Scott to join us. After a couple of phone calls and e-mails to make sure we were all on the same page with team goals (have fun, finish, and do as well as possible, in that order), Scott was on board by Wednesday…just two days before we were leaving for the race. Luckily, I was feeling a bit better by Thursday night (and Tom would not have let me back out anyway!), so I was “in” for the race. Rounding out the team would be our “first-timer” support crew, consisting of my sister Stefanie Hutchins and her husband Brian. We all traveled down to Charlottesville, VA from various locations in Virginia and Maryland the night before the race start, and we hoped that the huge lightning and rain storms were not an indication of things to come for Saturday morning.
(Brian, Stef, Kristin, Me, Scott, and Tom before the start)
At 6AM Saturday, 46 teams and their support crews began pulling into the parking lot of the Charlottesville Boys and Girls club to check in and get their maps and race instructions. The weather had cleared, and the mercury was already rising, on it’s way to almost 90 degrees. Piles of gear and gear boxes began to emerge, plotting tables were set up…someone even fired up a portable generator! We recognized LOTS of familiar faces as teams rolled in from 10 different states, plus Washington DC. Since there was no pre-race gear check, we now had a little less that two hours to plot points, analyze the maps and race booklet, and prep our gear. Scott and I started in on the maps and race booklet, while the rest of the group worked to organize and pack the support vehicles. As we reviewed the details of the race course, we saw that there would be LOTS of navigation work in this race. There would be two separate orienteering sections and one long trek, which we suspected would also include some challenging nav work. This made Scott very happy (which in turn made us happy!), since he is a very accomplished navigator.
(plotting and reading the race booklet)
By 8AM, we had put the finishing touches on our gear preparations and Scott was set to go with the maps. At the pre-race meeting, race director Grant Killian mentioned that this race would be “carbon neutral”, meaning that enough carbon offsets had been purchased to account for the carbon footprint of the race…including travel by competitors, support crews and race staff before, during and after the event. Further adding to the “green” aspect of the event, each team would also have to complete a mystery “conservation project” at some point during the race. After a few short remarks, Grant gave everyone the driving directions to the race start location. As we left the parking lot, we saw many teams scrambling to finish their packing…and we wondered if some of the teams would actually be ready to leave the starting line at 9AM. After a short drive, we arrived at the start location (a local elementary school) a little after 8:30AM and unloaded boats, since we knew we would be paddling first. As the race start time approached, each team got their passport, their satellite tracking beacon, and their directions for the prologue, in which one team member had to navigate a short distance thru the woods and retrieve some sort of tool that would later be used in the conservation project. Scott and I were near the boats reading the directions and trying to determine which way he would run…and then we heard someone yell “GO”, and everyone took off. Scott disappeared for a few minutes, and after fighting his way back thru a crowd of racers, he was one of the first few people to emerge from the woods with a hammer…which became the source of many jokes and references throughout the race, as we “put the hammer down”, or “hammered up the hills on our bikes”. We quickly grabbed our boats and Scott led us down an embankment and onto a paved road for a 500 meter portage to the put in. We were moving fast from the start, with Scott running as he towed his kayak on wheels, Tom and I jogging along carrying the canoe, and Kristin carrying packs and paddles. Even so, one or two teams either hit the road ahead of us or passed us on the way, and we found ourselves hitting the water in about fourth place. We launched right behind our friends Amy and Rodney from Team Hype (very experienced racers with two Primal Quests on their resume), and passed a male team as we all got into the boats. At this point we were 3rd behind Team Hype and a two person male team, but as we matched the pace that Team Hype was setting, we soon moved up into second place. We settled in for what Scott told us would be close to a three hour paddle, matching Team Hype stroke for stroke. We decided to try to stay relatively close to them, but to let them stay in the lead and pick the best line thru the river…and then try to capitalize from any mistakes they might make. As it turned out, Amy and Rodney paddled a really great leg with no mistakes. We had to work hard to stay with them, and they picked excellent lines…with the end result that we both were able to build a 5 minute lead over the 3rd place team by the time we all pulled into the takeout together just after 12:00PM.
(Scott in his kayak)
Meanwhile, our support crew had already pre-staged our bikes at CP3 and they were now waiting for us on the bank of the river at the CP1 takeout. Crews were permitted to assist their teams during the 500 meter portage up to the TA, and Stef and Brian immediately jumped in and gave our tired arms some rest, with Brian carrying the front of the canoe all the way up to the TA and Stef grabbing packs and paddles. They told us exactly where we’d be able to find out bikes at CP4, and Brian even showed us a little hand drawn map of the area (great work!). Unfortunately, we were so hyped up from the adrenaline early in the race that by the time we got to CP4, we sort of forgot what he had shown us (“Did he say that the bikes would be out in the field or under the pavilion by the picnic tables?”), and it took us a minute or two to find the bikes…sorry Brian!
Anyway, we transitioned right with Team Hype at CP1 and ran a hundred meters over to the start of the mystery conservation project. Each team was given four plastic trail markers for the Fluvanna Trail, and a bunch of nails. Each team now had to run a mandatory three mile route along the yellow blazed trail that led to CP2 and then to CP3 (the second transition area)…and along the way we had to nail our trail markers to any tree that had a yellow blaze on it, thus blazing the entire trail with the new markers. We headed down the trail, and after we quickly resolved a slight misunderstanding on my part regarding the instructions we had been given heard at the CP, we were soon nailing our first trail marker to a tree. We quickly located places for the other three markers, and focused ourselves on getting to the next CP. The trail was not too well marked in some places (at least not before the race, anyway!), and there were also yellow blazed split offs that appeared to be alternate routes for horses. We actually started up one of the alternate horse routes thinking it might be shorter…but since we knew CP2 (for which we were not given any coordinates) was located somewhere on the yellow trail on the way to CP3, we were concerned that if we took a split off we might travel beyond CP2 by the time two yellow trails re-converged. So, we made a group decision to turn back and stick with what looked like the “main” yellow trail. This cost us a couple minutes, but since Rodney and Amy also went partway up the same trail, we were still right with them.
(Tom carrying the infamous hammer)
After a little more running, we passed Amy and Rodney and did not see them again until much later in the race. By the time we had traveled nearly the entire three miles toward CP3, we still had not seen CP2 and we were concerned that we could have missed it. Luckily, CP2 showed up with only a few tenths of a mile left to go to CP3. We had been moving pretty fast for a 24-hour race, and by the time we reached CP3 we were able to locate our bikes (eventually!), do a quick transition to our bike gear while answering a few questions for the guy who was videotaping the race, and exit the TA even before the next team arrived. Nice! We now had to bike on the road to unmanned CP4, and then on to CP5 (and the next TA) where we would start the riverboarding section. Despite the fact that this was a 24-hour race and we were only a few hours into it, Scott’s plan was to push the pace as hard as we possibly could, in the hopes that we could complete the entire first orienteering section (and maybe even part of the second?) during the daylight hours. So, despite the fact that we turned in our conservation project tool at CP3 (we later learned that at least one team carried theirs the entire race!), we still “hammered” our way to the next bike CP and then down to the river. Stef and Brian greeted us with filled and chilled water bottles and bladders, and all our paddling/river boarding gear was laid out and waiting for us. We had not seen at any other teams out on the road, but any illusions about a significant lead were quickly destroyed, as Ronnie Angell and Hollie Flynn of Team Odyssey (Ronnie is the owner of Odyssey Adventure Racing), and the former mountain biking pros of Wishful Thinking Fools pulled in together, just five minutes behind us. We quickly launched, with Scott in his kayak, me and Tom in the canoe, and Kristin paddling/kicking her way along on the race-provided river board.
Kristin had originally expressed concerns about the dangers of riding a river board solo thru rough white water…but once we were on the river we saw that there was nothing to be concerned about. As it turns out, the river boarding section consisted of mostly slow moving water, with only an occasional section of class 1 or less rapids…and we were allowed to paddle right along side her in the canoe (although towing was not allowed). While I am sure the cool water was quite refreshing on what was turning out to be a very hot and humid day, no one was envious of Kristin when it became evident that she would have to paddle and kick her way pretty much non-stop all the way to the next CP. After just the first 10 or 15 minutes, her toes started to cramp up from all the kicking with her fins, and she alternated between riding the board and pushing it along in front of her to try to use some different muscles. Kristin soon realized that although we were not allowed to tow her, there were no rules against her towing the riverboard (we checked the race book just to be sure), so she occasionally made use of the webbing that was attached to the board and pulled it along behind her as she alternated between doing the crawl and kicking on her back while we guided her downriver.
Despite the fact that Kristin had BY FAR the hardest work to do during the riverboarding section, everyone kept busy as we progressed down the river. Scott paddled a little bit ahead of the canoe and the riverboard, studying the maps and picking the best line for us to travel. I paddled the canoe a few feet ahead of Kristin, showing her the way and warning her about any underwater obstacles. Tom steered the boat, made sure everyone was eating and drinking when we could, kept a close eye on one or two teams visible far behind us, and talked us all thru what we’d need to get done at the next TA.
Kristin completed the river board section in under an hour (the only competitor to do so!), and at CP6 we got her back into the boat for the short paddle (maybe about three miles) to the takeout. She had done a great job on the board, and we had long since lost sight of any teams behind us. We pulled our boats out of the water and hauled them a short distance to the TA, where Stef and Brian were scrambling to pull out our gear. It turns out that by the time they got directions to the TA and were able to get out past all the other team’s cars and boats, they were only able to get to the TA a few minutes ahead of us. Even so, they once again had our bikes ready to go, our bladders and bottles filled, and they had even gone thru and tested all of our bikes lights to make sure they were working. It was about 4PM, and based on the course tester’s pre-race comments, we knew we had to be prepared to be away from our support crew for as long as 10-12 hours, as we would have to complete three bike sections, two orienteering sections, and a ropes section (with the last few fours being done in he dark) before we would see them again. Given the heat of the day, we re-loaded our packs with LOTS of fluids and plenty of food. Just as we were finishing up in the TA, Team Odyssey pulled out of the water in second place, now about 15 minutes behind us. When we left the TA, we once again biked hard to try to reach the orienteering sections in the daylight. We reached the first O-course just before 5PM. The course only included three CPs, but although it was relatively short, it would definitely turn out to be tricky for some teams. Scott made very quick work of this section, with the only real problem coming in the form of the nasty stinging nettles that we had to run thru both at the start and the end of the course, and a swinging bridge that threatened to topple us over when we tried to run across it.
We had already visited all three points when we saw Odyssey headed in to get their first one. A couple other teams were also not far behind, and we saw at least two of them starting the first O-course as we hopped on our bikes to head to the second O-course.
Unfortunately, the fast pace and the heat had really started to take a toll on me during the short o-course. I started getting goose bumps despite the 85+ degree weather, and my quads and calves were on the verge of completely cramping up. I was feeling badly, and at that point I figured there was only a 50/50 chance that I could keep this up and actually finish the entire course. Kristin towed me a bit toward the end of the first O-course so that we could keep running rather than walking, but I knew that what I really needed was to somehow cool off and just slow down the pace. I started to feel pretty sick, and I began to worry about having a complete bonk and not being able to even finish the race (let alone stay in the lead) if we kept up at this pace. Luckily, the short bike over to the next O-course gave me a chance to cool down and recover a bit, and the next O-course (although it was long, with 8 CPs) consisted mainly of bushwhacking. This meant that our pace was slower…and we also crossed a few nice cool rivers where I would soak my hat and pour water all over myself to get my core temperature back down. Despite facing some really difficult navigation, Scott continued to nail point after point. It was impressive to see how quickly he worked and how he so easily visualized the terrain in relation to what he was seeing on the map. I’ve done the nav work for lots of races, but Scott is on a different level and he made this challenging navigation look easy.
(Scott leading thru the woods)
I remember thinking how sorry I felt for all of the teams who would have to tackle this entire section at night! By the time we were nearing the end of the second O-course, I was feeling a bit better…but now it was Tom’s turn to suffer, as he battled some serious intestinal problems. We slowed down the pace for a little while, and Tom eventually asked us to stop while he disappeared into the woods for a couple minutes. Let’s just say that when he came back his intestinal problems had “left him”, and he was feeling much better. Somewhere during the section, Scott also took a very hard fall and landed on his hand…the same one that he had injured when he took a hard fall on the bike the week before in Scotland. By the look on his face and the amount of time he stayed on the ground, it was obvious that he was really in a lot of pain (and for a moment I wondered if this might be the end of our race)…but after a few seconds he simply got up and continued on. We got him to take some ibuprofen, and although I am sure his hand continued to bother him a lot (especially in the final technical bike section), he never once mentioned it again.
When we finished the second O-course just before 8:30PM, we learned that our lead had grown to about 45 minutes at the beginning of that section. We later found out that Odyssey had some significant difficulties with the first O-course and that by the time they completed it and biked to the second O-course, our lead over them had grown to hour and a half…which now meant that another team (UltraBambi) was now in second place. The second O-course had taken us just under two hours, and we were the only team who was able to finish it all in the daylight. The strategy of going out very hard early in the race to complete the orienteering in the daylight would end up pay HUGE dividends here…and with the difficulty level of the navigation we knew that by the time the second place team finished the second O-course in the dark, our lead would probably be even bigger. I remember telling the cameraman that I felt really sorry for teams who had to tackle that section at night. We would later learn that some teams would spend as much as 8+ hours on that section alone, without getting all of the points!
Race director Grant Killian (in the middle in the photo below) was at the start/finish of the o-course while we were there, and we got our first batch of “trail mail”.
It was really fun to hear Grant reading out all of the posted messages from friends and family who were following the race online at home, and we also got to post a message back to people following online. I think that part of the message we asked Grant to post was something like “Team A-List is still feeling strong”…which I definitely wanted to believe even if it was not quite true in my case! Actually, Tom and I were both feeling much better by the end of the second o-course, and as darkness fell and we set out on the bikes, we were starting to feel pretty good about our chances in the race. Scott led us to CP12 (the first of many we would have to find in the dark) and then on to CP13, which was the start of the ropes section. We dropped our bikes and bike gear and put on our harnesses. Tom asked a volunteer whether or not we were supposed to wear our packs during the ropes course (which would finish at the same place it started), and the answer came back by radio…”Of course, it’s an adventure race!”. What else did we expect?
(Jim on the ropes course...note the ever-present thorns!)
We made our way thru the ropes course in maybe 15 or 20 minutes, then back to where our bikes were. From here, we had a five mile road ride to the next TA, where we would finally see our support crew again. In total, it had only been about seven hours since we last saw them (rather than the 10-12 hours predicted time), mostly because we had moved thru the orienteering so fast in the day time. We learned that Stef and Brian had been productive in their spare time, handling their support duties but then also fitting in a road bike and a run (I think?) to get in some training for their upcoming Olympic distance triathlon…followed by a swim in the James River. They had set up their tent and had managed to enjoy a couple cold beers and even a couple hours of sleep.
(Brian hanging out in the TA with Sam...Sam Adams)
(Stef and Sam)
Their timing was perfect, as the alarm they had set went off just 10 minutes before we arrived. They welcomed us into the TA, and gave us the pizza that had been pre-ordered and delivered right to the TA…another really nice touch that race director Grant Killian had arranged via the “Calories for a Cause” program, with the money raised going to benefit a local environmental cause in the area of the race location. The pizza was awesome, and along with it came the news that as of the end of the second orienteering course our lead had grown to about two hours…and the second place team also had a one hour penalty. This made us feel pretty good as we headed out onto the last trekking section. The nav here proved to be challenging as well…but as usual, Scott led us thru it with no significant difficulties (other than the large angry creature whose night time resting place we disturbed…was it a bear? Maybe or maybe not…we did not stick around long enough to find out!). There were only three CPs, but much of it was slow going with thick undergrowth and seemingly endless thorn bushes. At one point Scott was swearing so loudly at the thorns bushes that I think they actually got scared and backed off a little bit! Despite the slow going, we kept ourselves moving forward, and this section took us about three hours. We never saw any other teams out of the course during this time, which we felt was good news. We arrived back in the same TA for the second time, with only a long technical bike section and then a road ride to the finish left to go.
(prepping for the technical bike section)
We knew we still had a large lead, and since we would be doing the ride at night while we were pretty tired, we raced fairly conservatively on this section to make sure we took no wrong turns and made no mistakes (and hopefully had no crashes!).
I think it was here that Grant showed up to give us another batch of trail mail. The well-wishes from countless numbers of friends and family gave us a little more motivation to keep rolling and to power thru to the end of the race.
Unfortunately, we had a bit of a navigation issue right at the start of the leg. We left the TA and headed down to Oak Hill Lake to find the blue blazed CMT (the Cumberland Mountain Trail, I think). I saw a CMT sign just before the lake pointing toward blue blazes on the right, but Scott took us past that to the far end of the lake where we saw another faded CMT sign, also pointing to the right…although the map really showed the trail continuing on straight for a little while past the lake. After looking around and seeing no trails going straight in that area, we followed a faint trail to the right which paralleled the lake. We only got a couple hundred yards when the trail faded away, leaving us confused. After a little bit of scouting and discussion, we went back to the starting point, where Scott was convinced that we need to find a trail going straight past the end of the lake, as was shown on the map. However, I was thinking that we needed to go back across the lake to where I saw the first sign and the very clear blue blazed trail. The problem was that I did not have the map, and I thus did not realize that this was a section of the trail loop coming BACK, and it was NOT the trail we needed to follow on the way out to start the loop. After a bit more discussion, Scott showed me the map and I saw that he was right…but we were still having trouble finding the trail. Right about this time, our friends on Team Hype showed up, making their way onto the trekking section. They were looking for the same trail as us, and they very nicely let us know when they located it (thanks guys!). Scott in turn gave them a little info on how to zero in on one of the trekking CPs, and then we parted company.
Following the trail was slow going in the dark, and once or twice we missed turns and had to backtrack…but we knew that as long as we did not make any HUGE mistakes and no one crashed and got hurt, we were in very good shape for the race. The technical CMT loop would have been a lot of fun to ride in the daylight…but in the dark hours between 2AM and 5AM, after 18+ hours of racing it was a little bit less of a joy. I tried to conserve my main halogen handlebar light running it on low or medium power in the less technical sections. When we hit road/fireroad sections or easy trail sections, I would turn it off altogether and just rely on my headlamp and my LED handlebar backup light. Even so, I had to run on high during the many technical sections, and the light died with only a mile or two to go. Kristin’s helmet mount for her most powerful light was accidentally left at home, so she had to rely on much less light…but that did not seem to slow her down a bit. I think this section took us about another three hours, and the sun was coming up just as we finished and returned to the same TA location for a third time. Our support crew was still hanging around, because the park where the finish would be (a few miles away) was not actually open yet, and they would not have been able to get in. However, this location was now just a CP rather than an official TA, so we were not permitted to pick up or drop off any gear or food. Unfortunately, Scott noticed that his tire was going flat. It seemed to be a slow leak, so rather than changing it we just pumped it up and hoped it would be fine for the final 4 or 5 road miles to the finish. As we flew down the road toward the finish, the team looked strong and I was feeling really good. Although we were only about 21 hours in, I now felt that I could have kept going for many more hours if necessary...what a change from earlier in the race when I thought I might not even finish! We saw lots of teams on bikes heading toward the TA to begin the trekking section…they still had as much as 6-8 hours of racing ahead of them, and we offered them whatever encouragement we could. The last couple of miles rolled by quickly (though we did have to stop once more to pump Scott’s tire), and we soon were riding past the park gates (which were still locked) and down to the dining hall where the finish line was. It was just after 6AM and it was very quiet in the park. Since no one (race volunteers, support crews, etc.) could drive their cars the final quarter mile to the finish area, it made for a very anti-climactic end to the race. We rode right up to the dining hall and recorded our own finish time, since it appeared that no one was actually there. However, when we knocked on the door a race volunteer came running out to congratulate us and take our finish time.
(Team A-List at the finish line)
Team UltraBambi finished about 1 hour and 40 minutes later, and managed to hang onto second place even after a one hour penalty was assessed. This was a VERY impressive finish, especially given that one of the team members was a high school student competing in his very first adventure race! Team Odyssey was third across the finish line at 8:18AM, but a 2 hour penalty dropped them all the way back to 7th. That meant that third place went to Amy and Rodney on Team Hype, who finished at 9:22AM. Rounding out the top five were Wishful Thinking Fools (9:52AM) and A Pride of Lemmings / NV Racing (10:12AM). Less than 20 of the 46 teams finished the entire “pro” course.
Grant and Jill and all of the volunteers at Untamed Adventures designed a really great course and ran an awesome race…which is exactly what we have all of which we have come to expect from Grant’s events! Thanks to everyone involved and to all the racers who participated…I am already looking forward to next year’s race!
(One of the three box turtles that Kristin found and photographed along the way!)