A Tale of Two Teams: Thunder Rolls 2013 (part 1)
Note: This race report was written by Kate, with commentary by Luke in red, Bob in green, Robby in purple, and Travis in orange. My responses (if there are any) will be in blue because it’s my favorite color and I’m a bit of a diva like that. OK then…on with the show…
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, but not for all of us at the same time. If it’s true that a story of struggle and adversity is more compelling than one that dances from high point to high point, then you’re in for a treat. We may have set off for the weekend entertaining thoughts of glorious triumph (or at least a happy romp through Gerry’s house of pain), but we should’ve known it couldn’t be ALL rainbows and unicorns. After all, this was Thunder Rolls.
This year, Team Virtus fielded two squads for the 24 hour version of the Thunder Rolls adventure race: Luke and I on one, and Bob, Robby (making his first appearance in a 24 hour race), and Travis on the other. Even with two teams, though, the plan was always to stick together. ..once we got there, anyway. I made it to Camp Benson around 11:30, in plenty of time to visit with my volunteering buddy Brandy and snag a bottom bunk in the cabin. The guys rolled in a couple hours later, and once we were all registered and settled in the cabin, the first order of business was to get down to the ropes practice area. Travis and Robby would be rappelling and ascending for their first time, and I wanted to get in some practice.
Because we got to the ropes nice and early, there wasn’t much of a line (which is still plenty of time for me to get nervous). Our friends Dave and Woody were there so that Woody too could make his first rappel, and soon after we got there Chad and WTFAR’s Brian wandered down. We had a nice little reunion waiting for the ropes volunteers to have everything ready, Woody rappelled, and then it was our turn.
First Robby and then Travis made their first rappels and looked smooth and comfortable.
Luke: I must admit, I was both impressed and a little disappointed: Impressed with how easy they made it look, and disappointed that neither of them almost shit their pants like Bob and I did on our first first rappel a few years ago.
Robby: I was scared shitless, but didn’t want anyone to know I was frightened. Once I figured out what I was doing then it was pretty easy. The most scariest part was when the rock ended and I was left dangling.
Travis: The whole rappel and ascend were the two things that I was truly concerned about. But once I coached myself over the edge and got started down it was only mildly terrifying. Even with full finger gloves I was holding on with my left hand so tight that it was burning as I went down.
I was up next, and my reputation for cowardice preceded me as John remembered, “You’re not too crazy about heights, right?” Somehow backing up over that edge is way scarier in practice than in a race, but I managed it more quickly this time than at camp.
Bob came down next, and then it was time for us to ascend back up.
Robby: She actually did hit me. To bad we didn’t get a picture of me grabbing her leg. 🙂
Robby and Travis looked like old hands on their first try. Though I’d expected to be pretty comfortable after my additional practice back in March, I had a harder time than anticipated and needed coaching from John to get over the edge. The experience left me very nervous about the ascent in the race, particularly after my disastrous attempt last year. Since the line was so long, Luke and Bob opted to hike to the top rather than take time away from people who were getting their first ropes experience.
Travis: Once I got started I felt pretty comfortable going up, of course Bob may or may not have copped a feel of my ass in an attmept to boost me up the rope. And I was trying to catch up with Kate. =)
We said hi to Chuck and Robin at the top and then headed off to take our bikes to the bike drop. After about 15 trips back to the cabin for forgotten items, we finally crammed 6 of us and 5 bikes into the Virtus van for a hilarious (for most of us) and uncomfortable (for Brian and Bob) trip to Savanna.
We were able to leave our bike shoes and a stash of food and water with the bikes, eliminating the need to carry them with us for the first part of the race. By the time we got back, it was time for the pre-race dinner: pasta, salad, and bread sticks served family style on the table.
Finally it was the time we’d been waiting for: getting the maps and hearing about the course.
There weren’t many points to plot, so Luke took care of ours by himself (probably a good thing because my contacts had gone into open rebellion against my eyes and I could barely see) while Bob, Travis, and Robby went over their map.
The basic structure of the race was like this:
1. Midnight start with a short run to pick up the pre-plotted maps for our initial o-section, which would include both the rappel and ascend. The early ropes were kind of a good news/bad news situation. I was much happier to get ascending out of the way before I was exhausted from the race, but it also created the potential for a big bottleneck of teams waiting.
Robby: I was very nervous about the ropes sections after hearing Gerry ask how many had practiced. Then he said “That ain’t shit!”
Travis: My heart definetly sank after Gerry made the comment about the practice not being shit compared to what was coming in the race.
2. Coasteering leg (hiking down the river)
3. Short run (walk) to the canoes
4. Canoeing the Plum River (paddles, pfds, and food staged here)
5. Bike leg (bike shoes, water, and food staged here, climbing and paddling gear could be dropped here)
6. Bike-o at Palisades Park. You could ride your bikes on the park roads to get closer to attack the CPs on foot.
7. More orienteering on foot
8. Advanced course (it was pretty clear from the maps that we wouldn’t be experiencing this)
9. Mandatory bike route back
There was a lot of discussion about whether or not to bring extra shoes to change into after the coasteering leg. We could send dry shoes with our paddling gear and then change after we finished the canoeing. I kept going back and forth about what I wanted to do until Bob told Travis, “I’m taking my shoes because that’s what Luke is doing, and every time I don’t listen to him I’m wrong.” That decided me; there were three times in last year’s Thunder Rolls that I didn’t listen to Luke’s advice, and I regretted each one.
Luke: I think the main point here is I’m always right. It has nothing to do with the fact that I’ve made WAY more mistakes than everyone else.
Travis: I figured that Luke was probably right, but I also figured that my shoes would dry by the time I needed them, I did not take into account how much sand would in my shoes though.
Weirdly, we were all packed and ready in time to lie down for a little bit, if not actually sleep, and there was no last-minute rush (unless you count Bob and I having to lug Luke’s gear up to the start line). We dropped off our paddling gear, took some last-minute pictures, sang the National Anthem, and then at exactly midnight the race started and we wished Orange Lederhosen’s Kyle a happy birthday as we dashed off to pick up our map.
Thunder Rolls is primarily an expedition-style race, meaning you have to get each checkpoint (CP) in order and if you miss one, you’re done; scores are based on the last consecutive CP punched. This first section was a rogaine, though, where the points could be found in any order. Anticipating a logjam at the ropes, we’d discussed tackling the other points first, hoping to make some forward progress while other teams were waiting in line and then arrive at the ropes once the crowd died down. Looking at the map, we rethought this plan: it looked like a lot of doubling back would be required.
Our nav was spot-on for CPs 1 and 2. There was a bit of a line at the rappel (CP3), so we skipped ahead to CP5 which wasn’t too far away. Following a ridge that narrowed as we got closer to the CP, we came to what appeared to be the end of the ridge…but didn’t find the flag. There were steep drop-offs on three sides, and we could see lights below. Noticing that there was another rock outcropping just a bit further ahead, we made our way out to that one with some careful climbing. We ended up getting there about the same time as Alpine Shop and Wedali, and even though they’d already found an additional two CPs it was still really cool to be at the same spot as two top teams. Usually that only happens at the pre-race meeting.
Robby and I had the passports for our respective teams, and it was sketchy getting to the CP. We had to hang onto trees and swing out on the rocks because the flag was on the very top tree facing out. I was trying very hard not to think about how high and how exposed we were; it makes me a little sick to my stomach to think back about it now.
Robby: I was actually quite scared.
Luke: I believe there was a CP here at one of the Lightning Strikes races where we had to clip into a rope just to get on top of it before we could rappel. At TR2013 we had no ropes whatsoever.
Next up was the rappel, where thankfully the line had died down. We got our harnesses on and basically got right onto a line. Luke went first so he could belay me (for some reason no one trusts me to belay anymore) and made quick work of the rappel; then it was my turn. I gingerly backed over the edge to LE’s coaching and before I knew it I was standing in the river. This was my fifth rappel ever, and for the first time I loved it. I think all of my previous rappels have involved overhangs where my feet weren’t touching the rock. This time, Luke and I had a straight shot down a wall and I could just kind of walk my way down.
Over to our right Bob was belaying for Robby and then Travis.
Robby: I wasn’t very nervous here. For some reason, not being able to see the ground helped. The descent was a lot faster then practice though. It was pretty cool coming down in the river.
Travis: I was still pretty nervous about going down, but maybe that was just because the rope seemed like it had a lot of stretch in it as I leaned back to go over the edge. Or maybe because when you are rappeling your life is basically in your own hands.
The guys looked like they’d been doing this for years. Once we were all down, it was time to go around the corner to the ascending wall. There was a pretty good line waiting, and as luck would have it right in front of us were our friends (and cabinmates) Kim, Donovan, Chad, Chuck, and Robin. I felt pretty good that we were sticking right with them, especially since we actually were one CP up on them all at this time. And then I looked at the ascending wall and felt even better: “That’s it?”
Now, make no mistake…it was a big cliff, but it didn’t seem all that much bigger than the practice wall and I’d been anticipating something twice that size like last year. I knew I would still have a hard time, but I was really relieved that it wasn’t worse. When a rope came open, Bob, Robby, and Travis went first since there were three of them to get up their rope.
Bob started up line 4, and almost immediately things seemed off. He was struggling to make any progress. Ascending is exhausting when it is going well, and it’s debilitating when it isn’t. Now, Bob isn’t a pro climber or anything, but he knows what he’s doing. Remember, this is the guy who coached me up the wall at last year’s race when I had pretty much accepted that I was going to spend the rest of my life hanging off the cliff…and then zipped the rest of the way up with a smile while I collapsed at the top.
Now, it sucks to struggle at something, but there’s a whole added layer of frustration and confusion when you’re suddenly sucking at something you can do. And the icing on the shit cake was that this was all happening very publicly, in front of volunteers and other racers who were still in line, amid good-natured teasing and coaching that tapered off as it became clear that Bob’s predicament wasn’t at all funny.
Meanwhile, I had started up rope one, calling encouragement to Bob as I went up, and my ascent was going really well. It was the best of times and worst of times all at once. Everything was clicking, I was making good progress…and the irony was agonizing. My friend — my hero — was in the midst of one of the worst moments of his life, and I couldn’t do anything to help him.
I’ll let Bob take it from here…
I had decided to ascend before Travis and Robby in hopes of showing them that ascending wasn’t that hard. Sure, it’s exhausting..but as long as you think about what you’re doing and keep good form you’re ok. I had, after all, been successful at this before. The volunteer got me set up, and I started moving up the rope. I think I made it about ten feet up before I realized something, no.. everything was wrong. Ropes were twisted, ascenders wouldn’t move, muscles burned. What just happened?
Kate: Must’ve been a shit rope.
Travis: Even though I had pretty much zero prior experience I recognized right away that something did not look right. Whenever Bob would stop to rest it looked as if he let go of the rope that he would just flip upside down.
I’ve always prided myself on being level-headed, so I stopped for a moment to assess what was wrong. I tried to sit in the harness, but couldn’t stop myself from falling backward. Nothing made sense. I tried untwisting the straps to get things moving properly, but that didn’t work either. It was frustrating, and I was burning a ton of energy. We’d done so well to get to this point, and any gap we had on other teams was dwindling away quickly.
I tried to wrap my brain around what was happening, but came up with nothing. There were a lot of jokes and advice coming from the racers below, and I knew it was all well-intentioned humor, but the negativity just consumed me. I pushed and pulled and did everything I could think of to get up that rope, but it was obvious I wasn’t going anywhere. Chad climbed past me and tried to help…no dice. Minutes later, some other guy ascended past me and accidentally teabagged me…how appropriate.
I couldn’t begin to describe the level of shame, self loathing and exhaustion I felt on that rope. I’ve never tried that hard to do something and failed. Ever. I lost all my grip strength, so I had to hold the rope with the bends of my elbows. I tried to take my pack off, but it was twisted into my harness. The rock face was about 8 feet away, completely out of reach. The harness pinched the meat on my ass until it burned like fire, and I couldn’t feel my junk anymore…it was totally asleep. This was the lowest I’ve felt in many, many years. I don’t know how long I hung there, but I can tell you it was a long damn time.
When the other racers had come and gone, I was left to my own thoughts; none of them were good. As I wallowed in my gloom, Ron was suddenly on the rope beside me. Unaware that I’d completely given up, he was trying to coach me into ascending. We tried, but I was just completely spent. I’m not ashamed (anymore) to say I begged him to get me off the rope. To say I’d been humbled is a drastic understatement. Ron worked hard to get a rappel device set up, but even with that, I was too weak to get the ascender unhooked. I was no help at all.
Ron made the call to cut the loop. I didn’t give a shit anymore. If he’d have handed me the knife and told me to cut the rope and hope for the best, I was game. Robby and Travis held a tight belay on the rope below me and Ron did the knife-work. When the loop finally gave way, they lowered me to the ground and I just laid there in a heap. I think it was Travis who pulled my harness off.
Travis: Ron had called down for us to belay Bob, of course neither me or Robby really knew what we needed to do. So we just both got ahold and pulled down on the rope in hopes that Bob wasn’t going to come screaming down at us when the sling was cut. Once we got him down my only concern was getting his pack and harness off and restoring blood flow to his lower extremities. I knew he felt terrible and I knew that without some help there was no way he was going to get up off the ground anytime soon.
I didn’t want to quit, I was quitting. Of this, there was no doubt. I couldn’t breathe right, my stomach was spinning, I couldn’t lift my arms…continuing was simply not an option. I had completely ruined this race for the entire group.
Guilt. Shame. Failure. Inadequacy. Embarrassment. Pick a synonym for pathetic and multiply it by a thousand.
And now Ron and Luke are talking about how “there’s still a lot of racing left to do.” I would’ve laughed if I had the energy. Clearly these people don’t know what’s happening here. If I’d had my way, I would’ve been on an evac-chopper headed back to Holts Summit.
I knew I was about to puke, so I got to my knees. After a fair amount of burping and some “visualization coaching” from Luke, the vomit finally came. Several times, actually.
Finally done with that, Luke handed me a bottle of something to drink.
It was delicious, so I guessed that was a good sign.
Then they got me to my feet, and Travis shouldered my gear. I knew I’d never make it, but the rest of the team wasn’t taking “quit” for an answer and I owed to them to give it a shot. We were just gonna have to see how things played out. We lined up and made our way back onto the course.
Read on for Part 2…
Posted on August 29, 2013, in Adventure Racing, The Thunder Rolls and tagged Adventure Race, Adventure Racing, ascending, Fixed Ropes, Rappelling, The Thunder Rolls Adventure Race, Thunder Rolls. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.