Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Swamp Fox 12-Hour Adventure Race

Palmetto Swamp Fox Adventure Race (12 Hour) - Francis Marion National Forest, SC
Team Sons of Thunder - Solo

March 19th, 2011

It has been quite a while since I’ve written one of these up, so bear with me! I competed in my first race of 2011 this past weekend north of Charleston, SC. In brief, it was a 12-hour race that started with an approximately 2 mile prologue run to break up the crowd followed by a 9 mile paddle along the tidal areas, 4 or so more miles on foot then a transition to bike which covered over 50 files plus a few more on foot intermixed during this portion.

We had a great day to race with the morning temps hovering just below 60 degrees and low wind increasing to around 80 degrees in the afternoon. Just enough to feel the heat, but not too much to really wear you down a significant amount. This was an early start, leaving the hotel at 4:15am in order to drop the bike at a TA around 5:00am at a location south of the start/finish in McClellanville, SC. We were given our CPs once we checked-in that morning and went to work plotting out the locations and intended routes. It was obvious there would be a good amount of biking in this race.

The race started with a prologue which included four CPs around the town of McClellanville. Each team was handed a town map with instructions and at 7:09 the race was off. We covered just under 2 ½ miles around town before returning to the start area to unscramble a word in order to continue. Another racer from Charlotte I train with, Matt Getz, and I worked together to getting our kayaks in the water as both of us were racing solo. I was off from the dock around 7:35. We were lucky to have relatively calm water for our paddling section which took us out through tidal marshes and a portion of Bulls Bay before returning to the Inter-coastal Waterway where we took out at Buck Hall ramp. There were four CPs along the way while watching the sun rise and dolphins surfacing not 10 yards from the boats. A fairly easy paddle, but going solo you have to be more efficient as you don’t have the benefit of team members keeping the boat moving forward while you take a break to refuel or check the map. In all, the paddle covered 9 miles and I was at the TA to foot at 9:43.

At this point I was sitting around seventh or so, with three teams leaving the boat ramp heading into the foot section. Here I caught up with Matt again and he and I took off on foot to grab the next few CPs. The terrain was easy along the trails and we were able to make good time picking up CP5, then catching up to two other teams (Northern Lites 3-person coed, and another solo) before reaching CP6. This checkpoint consisted of a rope latter/zip line combo which I was able to get in and out before the other teams. I was glad to put some separation between me and other racers but ended up boggling the next CP when I second guessed my distance and retraced my steps just before reaching CP7. Another 30 feet and I would’ve been there, but I turned around and wasted a good 10 minutes before making it back down to the CP. As soon as I punched my passport, I could hear the other teams behind me. Both Northern Lites and myself sat looking at a swamp crossing for a few extra minutes thinking, we could easily loose a shoe in that stuff never to be seen again. Finally, I got restless and tried to jumping lightly through, but ended up shin deep in rank swamp muck. Which reminds me I still need to clean those shoes. I was able to pull away a little between here and the TA to bikes, just behind Matt. However not before noticing too late that some vines or tree limbs had ripped open my pack and took my rain jacket and headlamp with them. No time to fret I suppose. We were in the TA at 10:40am, after covering approximately 4 ½ miles on foot.

After a few minutes changing over, I was on the bike and heading toward CP8. This CP was just off the Swamp Fox Trail; an easy, flat, straight trail which you could cruise right on through. I cut off the trail up a couple of paved roads to get to the intersection I was looking for which would act as an attack point for the next CP. When I was a few hundred yards from the intersection, I saw Matt just leaving and heading back up another trail so I was still feeling pretty good. I took my bearing from the intersection and began bushwhacking through some heavy brush. There were a couple of other teams out there looking for it as well, and before long I came across an old road and just down a bit was the CP. As soon as I punched the passport and began heading back, I saw atleast four teams barreling up the road toward me on their bikes! Turns out the spur road on the map went a little further than shown… as in all the way back to the CP from the intersection. So as I was on foot, all these teams caught up with me due to taking the road. Goof number two. A little heated, I tore up the trail toward the next CP, skipping the water stop and blowing right past CP10, luckily realizing it a minute later. I was able to skip over to a road to get off the trail (which had turned slower due to a plethora of roots) and made up a little time picking up CP11, passing another team back on the Swamp Fox Trail on the way to CP12.

The race director told us solos that the mandatory 10’ length of rope would come in handy “later in the race”, and CP12 was it. The CP was suspended on a rope in the middle of an old gully, probably 12’ off the ground. I pulled out my rope and threw it over the CP rope, wishing it was a foot longer because I couldn’t reach the other end… damn my 5’8” stature… I ended up having to find a long tree branch, carefully pulling down the CP rope while throwing my length of rope over it until I could reach the other end, finally enabling me to reach the CP punch. This took about five minutes and a good 10 tries until I was able to reach it. The next three CPs (13,14,15) could be reached two different ways. Everyone I saw was grabbing 14 & 15 first, followed by 13 on the way back, as you could take the road it was located on to get to CP16. I decided to grab 13 first, backtracking near 12 and heading up to get 14 then 15. Matt passed me again as I turned down a side road to grab CP14. He had gained some ground on me by my estimation. After CP15, instead of heading back the same way I just came like many others, I rode a bit further north to hit a paved road which took me back around to approach CP16. About a mile short of CP16, I saw another solo that was ahead of me pulling out coming from the other direction. We both arrived at CP16 together and he put enough pressure on me to get me to speed up a little. CP17 was an easy punch and I passed Matt sitting on the side of the road refueling and screwing around with his map. As you can imagine, I was really feeling good now! That ended up being short lived. Minutes later he’s on my ass and we shoot up an old overgrown road filled with downed trees to grab CP18. Low and behold, there was the leader, only minutes ahead of us! I believe at this point, both he and Matt felt like they must’ve been taking it too easy because they turned it on! I had to refold my map so I lost more precious minutes after punching the CP. On my way out Northern Lites and another team passed me heading up the road. After grabbing CP19, I turned up the road to grab CP20, both the leader and Matt passing me heading to CP21. Instead of following a bearing from an intersection to get CP20, I thought “eh, it shouldn’t be too far in”, so I just ran in the woods looking blindly. It didn’t take long for Northern Lites to catch up, and they ended up finding it before I could.

Only a minute behind Northern Lites, it was apparent they were going to take the same route to CP21 as I intended. Bad choice. We turned down a side road, immediately questionable due to the overgrown condition, which was supposed to connect through the swamp to another road with the checkpoint about halfway down. It appeared I was gaining some ground only to realize they were off their bikes walking and looking around. Uh-oh, I thought. The road had simply disappeared. Wondering what to do (turning around and going the long way around not being one of them) we all talked about what in the world to do next. I decided to just shoot a bearing though the swamp brush and began bike-whacking (aka pulling myself and my bike through chest to head high brush), assuming they would be following in-kind. After a few minutes, I look back and see nobody. Then I look around and see nothing but swamp and brush. Luckily it wasn’t very wet, but I couldn’t see a thing on the ground. Hoping I would have no luck at finding a rattler or rogue gator, I forged ahead, finally making it to the road I was looking for. Whew. From there, the CP was easily found coming back up the “lost road” from the other direction, where I made the mile out and back on foot. Ah, there they are again, Northern Lites. I hopped on the bike and started making my way to CP22, only for the neglect of my nutrition to start having an affect. Not a mile down the road my inner thighs began cramping along with my right calf… all at the same time. I stopped briefly to eat a couple of granola bars and suck down the rest of my electrolytes. As I reached CP22, I saw the cooler first… filled with Gatorade! Yay! Great timing (thanks KanDo!). However the joy of carbs and liquid pleasure was quickly eroded when I saw the CP hanging (again) up a tree with a very skinny rope “ladder” type contraption at about a 30 degree angle leading up to it. There was no way my arms could make that journey, so I dropped my gear, passport in mouth, and shimmied up the tree hoping my legs wouldn’t begin cramping again. Sliding back down the tree (leaving a top layer of shin skin on the bark) I felt nearly out of gas. Making it to CP23, I again had trouble finding it in good time and Northern Lites was on me again. Again finding it first. I make it to the attack area for the last checkpoint just after Northern Lites and tear ahead through the bush on foot without hesitation, thinking this is my last chance to try to get and stay ahead of them. Although I left with the punch a minute before they did, there was nothing I could do to hold the team of strong bikers from passing me. The road back was easy and I glided to the finish for a total time just under 10 hours, finishing at 5:06pm and good enough for 4th overall, three minutes behind Northern Lites.

All in all, I had an awesome time and learned a little about racing in the swamp. It was a great course design and very well put together. Kudos to Steve Morrone of KanDo Adventures and his volunteers as well as the other racers that made it an exciting race. It felt more like a sprint race than a half-day race as we kept the pace strong throughout the race, knowing any slip ups could easily cost a finishing position.

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