**NOTE: This race report was written by me (Luke) with commentary added by Kate in Blue, Chuck in Green, and Brian in Red. If I feel like it, I might even add a response or two in Purple.
At one point, we thought we were going to have 6 Virtusans and a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot-er going to the premiere Adventure Race in the Midwest – nay, the nation – nay, the world! – The Thunder Rolls 24-hour AR. We were planning on showing up en masse to dominate all our competitors.
That was the plan, but I’m sure we’ve all heard this line from Steinbeck: “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” (And before any of you literary snobs chime in to tell me it was originally “/
When it came time to sign up for the race, we were down to Kate, Chuck, Brian from WTFAR, and myself. Brian needed to leave the race early to help his dad celebrate his 70th birthday party. So Kate and Chuck raced as Team Virtus, and Brian and I paired up as the formidable Team WTFAR-Tus (Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Adventure Racing + Virtus = WTFAR-Tus). We signed up as solos, though, so when he had to split, I could continue on with Kate and Chuck to suffer and enjoy the rest of the race.
Even though we were signed up as solos, we only took one passport since we were a team. In our hearts and minds we were racing togehter as Team WTFAR-Tus. We were racing as teammates. We were racing as brothers.
Brian: You guys need to understand, I wouldn’t be a top notch mediocre adventure racer if it wasn’t for Team Virtus. I remember fondly the cold January day where I sat in my comfy chair with a blanket and coffee reading their first adventures of rappelling at Camp Gerry. My hands got sweaty from fear as I moved from paragraph to paragraph but finally I came to the conclusion if those idiots could become the Midwest’s greatest team then maybe I could at least survive. And now I’m racing WITH them? I’d compare it to being a kid who got to invite Batman, He-Man, Daisy Duke, Fat Elvis, and a Dino bot to his birthday party. So yeah, I was stoked.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The Part Where We Drive to the Race
Part of the fun of a big race is the road trip. I can’t begin to tell you how many stories and jokes we have from previous road trips alone. For example, on one long road trip we learned that “Twister” is one of Robby “The Darkness” Brown’s all-time favorite movies. Seriously.
So I was stoked that Kate and Chuck were willing to wait for me to get off work at 9:00 so I could meet up with Chuck and then pick up Kate along the way. We piled into Chuck’s Adventure Jeep and much laughing and farting ensued. Unfortunately, Brian had to ride up to the Adventure Racing paradise that is Camp Benson by himself.
Chuck: At some point during the drive Luke spotted the big Gerber knife on the rollbar and had to check it out. The sheath has a tight fit, so you really gotta pull to get it out. I don’t even want to know how close it came to stabbing me in the neck when it popped loose.
Luke: The Adventure Jeep is a badass vehicle and that knife makes it even more so. And yes, I may have almost stabbed both Chuck and Kate once or twice.
Brian: SuperChuck…the most interesting adventure racer in the world.
On any road trip, we try to honor Bob’s rule of “No Chain Restaurants” whether he’s not with us or not, and in this case he most certainly was not with us since his brother was getting married (a valid excuse – family first, right?). Bob’s dining rule has resulted in some hilariously bad dining experiences as well as some really good ones. Fate was smiling down on us, though, when Chuck spotted a sign for Crossroads Diner.
This little diner didn’t look like much from the outside, and the interior followed suit. Even with Kate at our table, we brought the average age of the diners down substantially. Chuck and I ordered their specialty: Pork Tenderloin Sandwich with Fries. Kate, however, ordered a cheeseburger with onion straws, and then she decided to be a pain in the ass and substitute onion rings for her fries.
Ho-lee shit! We were not disappointed. Our tenderloins and Kate’s onion rings were hand-breaded in their delicious proprietary, super secret breading, and the portions were effing huge! Take a look:
Chuck: That picture is a lie. The tenderloin looked so much bigger in real life. I swear it was the size of an elephant ear.
Brian: I had lunch at Wendys, thanks for asking.
It was so freakin’ good! Seriously. If you’re ever near Mt. Olive, Illinois, you should stop. Just be aware that the bathroom doors are wicked-narrow. For real.
The Part Where We Prepare Ourselves
We arrived at Camp Benson, and Brian, who arrived before us, was nowhere to be seen. I really thought he’d be there waiting to greet us with a giant bear hug or something, but I was mistaken.
We checked in and got our schwag bag which was literally a bag this year – a cool littler cooler/duffle bag with Zanfel and BOETJE’S MUSTARD OMG OMG!!! and a few other things.
Chuck: And did you hear Gerry say they now have a bourbon barrel aged Boetje’s Mustard?! We HAVE to find some!
Luke: Yup! We need to make a sammich with the Boetje’s Bourbon Mustard and pair it with your homemade whiskey, Chuck!
Then we headed down to our cabin assuming we’d find Brian taking a nap or doing push-ups or something. No such luck. But we soon found him as we were walking back to the main lodge for the pre-race pasta dinner.
Brian: I was sitting by my car preparing my gear patiently waiting for my teammate’s to arrive. I wish they would create some sort of typing device that one could use to send a message to someone else that could arrive almost instantly. That way I would have know they had arrived. I guess the technology just isn’t there yet…
It had been WAY too long since we’d seen BVW (or as we started calling him, The Beev – another gem from the road trip), and it was great to see his model-like face and rockin’ body. We stuffed our faces as we laughed our asses off catching up with each other and seeing many of our AR friends. Then it was time for the pre-race meeting out in the new amphitheater.
After Gerry Voelliger finished scaring the shit out of us with tales of how epic and real the rappel and the rest of the course were, we got our maps and began to plot our points and stategerize our impending
Being the Den Mother she is, Kate was nice enough to write the clue for each checkpoint in the corresponding box on our passports. Kate read the UTM coordinates to Chuck who plotted them. Brian did likewise for me. And then we all planned our route together.
After a final bathroom stop, we got all our maps gathered up and headed out of the lodge.
It was time to head out to the Adventure Jeep and get our shit together. The race was starting at midnight which left just a couple hours to get ready.
The Part Where I Was an Ungrateful Dick
I found myself alone by the Adventure Jeep, going through my gear and figuring out what I’d need to take with me at the start of the race. I’m not sure where Chuck and Kate were, but The Beev had gone to his car to get his kayak paddles.
Out of the darkness, BVW appears and hands me a wad of black fabric.
“What’s this?” I said.
“Open it,” said he.
I unroll the fabric to see the inside of a black hoodie.
“What is it?” I said.
“Turn it around,” said he.
I turn it around to see that it is Brian’s North Face hoodie from 2012 The Thunder Rolls. Now before I tell you this next part, let me preface it by telling you how much I LOVED my hoodie from that year.
Yes, I said I loved my hoodie as in past tense. As in, I no longer have it because while I was pacing my brother at the Leadville 100, I loaned it to another runner who was freezing her ass off. She gave it to someone at the next aid station, but I never saw it again. It was my absolute favorite hoodie in the world from one of my favorite race experiences of all time.
It killed me to lose it. My wife and mom tried to surprise me by finding a replacement for me. They actually scoured the web and contacted Leadville HQ to see if it had turned up. They even contacted Gerry to see if he had any extras or possibly knew how to get another one. But alas, there was no way to get my hoodie back.
It’s actually been a long-running joke. Every time Kate or Bob wear their hoodie, they ask me about mine. And each time, a small part of me dies. And now Brian was in on the joke, flaunting his hoodie in front of me.
“Ha ha, you asshole. Yeah, yeah. I don’t have mine anymore. Good one,” I said.
“No, you idiot! I’m giving it to you!”
Well, I felt like an ass. I couldn’t accept this unbelievable gift, though. I tried to give it back, but he wasn’t having any of it. And since he’s the size of Sasquatch, I couldn’t force him to take it back.
“It doesn’t fit me anyway,” he said (which I’m pretty sure is a lie). “Besides, I appreciate your friendship.”
With those words, I was left speechless – a rarity indeed. I should have said a lot of things, but nothing came to mind. I hope I said, “Thanks,” but I’m not sure I did. Like I said, I didn’t know what to say. And we were scrambling to get all our shit together, so if I didn’t show my gratitude at the time, I’m doing so now.
Brian, thank you. Seriously. Thank you.
Brian: (Cue the sappy music…) You lost your hoodie being a good human, it was the least I could do. You’re welcome my friend… And now you can point out how big of assholes Bob and Kate are/were for taunting you so much.
Kate: And now you’ve spoiled one of our favorite ways of tormenting Luke, which makes you the asshole. Thanks a lot.
Luke: Yeah. What a bunch of jerks. I’d never make fun of them for something. And thanks again, man!
The Part Where We Start: Biking, Coasteering, & Fixed Ropes
With our PFD’s, paddles, and other appropriate gear loaded onto the truck to be taken to the canoe put-in, we lined up in the back of the pack at the starting line – you know, to give some of the other teams a chance to get ahead of us.
The pre-race group photo was taken, the National Anthem was played, and the race started with a short ride down to the river for some Coasteering to find the first 5 CP’s in any order.
Brian had put a new chain on his bike just before the race. He did not, however, change the cassette which caused his gears to jump all over the place. This would be an ongoing issue throughout the race, and it’s a mistake none of us will make again in the near future.
We rode a mile or so down to the river. There was a steep, rocky section where I almost ran over someone half-walking on one foot, half-riding with the other, so I had to stop and walk my bike for the last section.
Kate: I’d wanted to be in the back of the group at the start just so we didn’t have to be in the middle of a pack of people all crushing onto the doubletrack at the same time; instead, we ended up behind the people who felt the least comfortable riding it.
Brian and I caught up to Kate and Chuck, and we entered the river. We decided to first go to the farthest checkpoint away, perhaps grabbing the CP in the cave if there weren’t too many teams there. With just one team exiting the cave as we approached, we headed into the cave.
I snapped a few photos of the others entering the cave, but none of them turned out. I climbed into the cave just in time to see BVW’s powerful ass backing out of a side crevice. Kate had sent him down that small chute to make sure the CP wasn’t in there as it was one year.
Kate: I was trying to be nice and save him the extra walking if the CP turned out to be close, but I should have known Gerry wouldn’t put it there two years in a row.
I love this cave. It’s cold, and the water at the bottom is even colder. The bats are super cool, unless they repeatedly hit you in the face like they did to Brian. For some reason they were attracted to him. Maybe it was the bat pheromones we secretly sprayed on him before the race. Or maybe it’s just because he’s so damn handsome.
Brian: I took two bats off the helmet, and when the second one hit, my head lamp flipped down onto my face, making me think I had a bat stuck to my face. I screamed like a scared baby…I mean, damn, that bat was lucky I didn’t turn it into bat and urine stew.
At a couple points, the cave was quite narrow, forcing Brian to crawl (insert Kate’s short-joke about me here). The cave is pretty deep (200 feet? 300 feet?), and it’s just so damn cool. One of my favorite parts of any race.
It turns out the CP was almost all the way in the very back of the cave. We squeezed past Chuck and Kate in one of the not quite as narrow parts of the cave after they punched their passport so we could punch ours.
Brian: Please note the 2012 tshirt commerating my glorious victory over THE Bob Jenkins in our tetherball match. He may have destroyed me in every match since, but at least I have a cool shirt from my lone victory. Man, that guy can tetherball.
Luke: That’s not exactly how I remember it, but since you gave me your hoodie, this is how I’ll remember it from now on.
After the cave, we headed over to the Ascending CP. On the way, we grabbed CP 4 which was up a little ways in a creek bed. Chuck was spot on finding this one.
From CP4, we headed over to CP 5 for the ascent. There was quite a line. In hindsight, we would have been better off going to get the other ones and then coming back to this one, but we decided to wait. I think we waited in line for 45 minutes or so.
Brian and I already had our harnesses on so we’d be ready. Chuck and Kate waited to put theirs on, assuming (correctly) that they’d have time to do so while waiting in line.
And that’s when it happened…
There was no warning. There was no sound. There was just a smell. A smell so foul, we heard Sasquatch himself shriek in horror as he ran away. Poor Chuck got the worst of it. And I actually caught the moment on film. Well, I guess I caught it on a memory card since film is pretty much dead, but I digress. Back to the stench…
Here we see the the exact moment when it happened:
It hit Chuck first since his face was so near the source – with his mouth open and everything.
“Oh my God! What the hell is that,” Chuck said in disgust.
Then it hit Brian. “Holy shit! That’s worse than Bob Jenkins’s ass!”
In this next photo you can see the reaction to the awful event – Chuck is trying to stay upright without passing out, and Brian is unsure if he should breath through his nose and smell it or through his mouth and taste it:
Chuck: We’ll never get her to admit it, but I bet this stealth attack was a carefully planned and well-played act of revenge. God knows she owes us.
Luke: This is true. She definitely owes us, but this one made up a lot of ground. Let’s never let her eat onion rings before a race again.
Brian: Wow. Sometimes the nicest people do the nastiest things (allegedly). My nostrils still burn thinking of that.
It was finally our turn, and although the ascent was by no means easy (unless your name is Wes Black who literally flew up on the rope next to me faster than anyone I’ve ever seen – literally), but it wasn’t awful either. Kate went up first followed by Chuck, myself, and then Brian.
At the top, Kate realized she had forgotten to put her Town Hall inside her the walls of her war village and our war was about to start. She checked her phone to see if she had a signal, and she made it right with no time to spare. It turns out we lost that war, but we survived to fight another day. And for those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, you haven’t had the pleasure and shear joy of playing Clash of Clans with your team. No, it’s not dorky. It’s the coolest thing in the world. Jenkins Clan 4EVA!!!
Brian made short work of the ascending, and we headed out. In hindsight, we should have given Brian a few minutes to recover here. He said he was fine, but the rest of us had anywhere from 10 – 20 minutes of rest at the top. Having never raced with Brian, I didn’t insist that we stop, and I should have. Sorry, Brian!
Brian: I did NOT make quick work of that ascend. Those guys were high on Kate’s fart. My form sucks, I went all arms and tired out quickly. Luckily we weren’t on the straight overhang rope, so I had a few rocky outcroppings to rest on. The first one I stopped at looked like it had poison ivy all over it. I sighed, said f#$k it, and rested on it anyway. My gross ooze covered arm now reminds me of that stupid decision. And…I should have taken them up on the rest offer. Moving 500 lbs of ass up a rope is hard work, and I struggled for 15-20 minutes after that as my team took off like jackrabbits.
Luke: I don’t think we’ve ever been called jackrabbits before. I’m all arms too when ascending. This is something I need to work on.
Anywho… We found our way back down to the river and soon reached the rappel. Again, in hindsight we should have gone and gotten CP 1 before rappelling, but we didn’t. We ended up waiting in line for the rappel for another 45 min or so, but that’s what happens sometimes when you’re not one of the faster teams.
I’m really glad we did this rappel at night. We had to walk across a knife’s edge (clipped into a safety line of course) just to get to the small table top where we would begin the rappel. It would have been much more terrifying in the daylight with the ability to see how far the sheer drop off on each side was.
Chuck went down first, and then it was my turn. It’s always reassuring to have LE and April helping out on the rappel, and then to have G Scott at the very top was even more reassuring. We literally trust these people with our lives, and not only are they superb instructors, they are super awesome people.
As I sat on the table top with G Scott, he said, “Oh boy. You have a Figure 8.”
“You’re going to have to listen to me very carefully and do exactly as I say,” he said.
*WTF?! I’m going to die! Why didn’t I bring my ATC instead of this stupid Figure 8?! Why?! WHY?!*
“You need to make sure you keep tension on both sides of the rope or this rope will come up over the top of the Figure 8 and you’ll get bound up.”
*Okay, so I might not die. I’ll just get stuck on the rope. That’s not so bad, I guess. Phew.*
To say I paid very close attention to G Scott’s fine instructions is an understatement. It would be like saying the Green Bay Packers only sort of suck when in reality they suck more than any other team ever in the history of sports.
Kate: I didn’t hear the conversation, but I heard G Scott’s tone and its seriousness threw me; it’s how he always sounds when talking me through my fear of heights, and I know Luke isn’t nearly as scared as I am.
Brian: I had a figure 8 too, so my story mirrors Luke. I thought I was going to die. Especially as I crawled my Sasquatch body to the edge and then spun around on my stomach while having G Scott repeat everything numerous times because my wife tells me I never listen and I thought I should REALLY pay attention in this case. So scary and fun.
Like always, once I sat back into my harness and felt the rope hold my fat ass, I was fine, and the rappel was a lot of fun. We got to see our friends and super-volunteers, Dave and Leisha Huntley, on a small ledge near the bottom before we continued downward into the river.
Kate and Brian came on down with no problems, and then it was up a beautiful creek bed to find CP 1 before heading back on our bikes to the TA at Camp Benson where we changed into dry clothes and headed out on our bikes again.
The Part Where We Bike and Everyone “Helps”
Dry socks and shoes felt wonderful, but the air was cool. It was hard to regulate our body temperature. The climbs would leave us sweaty, and the downhills would leave us chilled.
The hills were particularly fun for Brian who was had only 1 or 2 gears that wouldn’t skip and jump all over the place. Remember that part earlier about him changing his chain but not the cassette? Well, now he was paying the price. But he never complained, and he kept up just fine. He’s basically a stud.
Brian: I’m so bike stupid. I was always a bit behind the whole ride, but tried to stay with them the best I could. It was mildly disappointing as I had trained pretty hard on the bike.
Luke: You kept up just fine. Especially considering your chain issue.
We got the first CP or two with no problems. One of them was under a bridge:
We did make one navigational error on the bike that put us at an off-limits highway. It would have been much faster and easier to break the rules and take the highway, and I doubt anyone would have ever known. But we would have known, and that’s not the Virtus hhhhway. We race with strength AND honor even when it sucks to do so. So we headed back around the long way, losing 30 – 40-ish minutes in the process.
Another CP or two and the sky was juuuuust beginning to brighten. It was roughly 5:30-ish AM. We had all been up around 24 hours or more at this point, and we could definitely feel the sleepiness setting in. The sun rising always acts as a pick-me-up and brightens our spirits, though.
As we rolled up to a 4-way intersection, I realized my front tire was going flat. So we pulled over to swap the tube with a new one. Now this is where Team Virtus/WTFAR-Tus really shines. We work together as a team to get shit done in a hurry. Everyone has a job, and everyone does it quickly and efficiently. We are like a well-oiled machine with no wasted time or energy. To see us work together is a thing of beauty.
In their defense, they did offer to help. But honestly, there’s not much anyone else could have done to make things go faster. And I’m a grown man who changes his own damn tires! The only thing that would have made it go any faster is if I hadn’t taken the time to snap these photos, but it was too good to pass up.
Kate: I never fell asleep because I kept having to add clothes, but just lying down and closing my eyes for a few minutes was glorious, and I’d much rather have a picture of myself sleeping on the side of the road than a really unflattering picture of me allegedly farting in my teammate’s face. Oh, wait…
Chuck: I remember asking if Luke needed any help….and that was all. I was totally asleep and didn’t even know he came over to borrow the frame pump off my bike.
Brian: my favorite part of the race.
A couple cars went by us here. They probably didn’t know what to think. It’s 6:00 AM on a Saturday, three people are sprawled out in the road and ditch, and a chubby guy (me) has his back to the road doing what appears to be something lewd and lascivious as he pumped his tire up. It probably looked a lot like this:
With the sun up, three-quarters of our team well rested, and a fresh tube in my tire, we rode onward. We entered the French Bluff Natural Area which held the closest thing to single track that we’d see in this race. The map looked easy enough that Brian said even his usual teammate Todd could find the CP’s.
To prove how “easy” these CP’s would be, Brian (our least experienced navigator) took the helm and led us through the trails. While the map looked innocent enough, the hills were tough (especially that first one), and the terrain was rough. But Brian did a stellar job as the lead navigator.
Kate: I’m pretty excited to have graduated to non-least-experienced navigator, even if it’s only when Brian is with us.
Brian: I don’t nav, I carry things & paddle.
It was tough but fun riding. The rocky downhill was especially fun (Yes!!). We left French Bluff and rode between some corn and soybean fields on a flat, gravel road.
Brian: I suck at single track and rocky sandy downhills, its the WTFAR way. I stayed WAAAAAY behind everyone and managed not to die on the way down.
We planned on stopping at the campground to fill up with water and unload some feces. As we approached the campground we met Team Alpine Shop as they were heading back out on their bikes having already completed the paddle. We asked how it was to which they simply replied: “It was hard.”
Oh shit. If the paddle was hard for one of the top teams in the nation, then we were screwed. We knew it was going to be rough, but none of us were prepared for what was about to happen out there on the Mississippi River. *shudders*
Stay tuned for Part 2… More to come!
I’ve heard that racing with your spouse can ruin a marriage. I’ve heard horror stories of couples nearly killing each other out there. But I’ve never had doubts about my marriage, and the High Profile Adventure Camp only made me realize how fucking lucky I actually am to be married to Becca. The weekend in Mount Carroll, IL only confirmed that my wife is indeed my soul mate… even though she literally wished she was with another man at one point, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
The original plan for Team Virtus was to all go to camp together and bring our significant others. It was to be an epic battle (and party) with all of us there. Unfortunately, this thing we call life got in the way. Work, children’s sporting events, medical procedures, and perhaps a touch of Antisocial Behavior Disorder kept many Virtusans and their partners from attending camp. But nothing would stop Adam, Michelle, Becca, and I from going. (EDIT: There was one more Virtusan there. Kate, as she pointed out in the comments below, was also there. She volunteered, and she kicked ass as the camp’s social media guru and helped clear the orienteering course.)
We saw a lot of our AR friends as we made our way through the painless check- in at Camp Benson, and we got our fantastic swag bags (worth well over $100 at least). Then we hauled all our gear down to our
orgy love shack cabin before heading back up to the lodge for burgers followed by Gerry Voelliger’s opening talk on all things Adventure Racing.
After Gerry’s talk, I headed over for the advanced orienteering lecture (although I am anything but advanced). Adam stayed with Michelle and Becca for the beginner orienteering talk, and our friend and camp volunteer Dave Huntley promised he’d help out if Becca needed it. Big thanks to him.
It was great sitting next to our friend Scott Frederickson from Team Bushwhacker at the advanced orienteering lecture. He chimed in with some great pointers a few times, and anything I didn’t quite understand was easily explained by Scott.
After the lectures, we hiked back down to the cabin for some
group love shut-eye. The flatulence was somewhat disappointing without our friends from WTFAR there and no Bob Jenkins, but Michelle almost made up for their absence. She can really rip ’em!
The next morning we practiced our orienteering skills at Palisades State Park. Unfortunately, the Mississippi was partially frozen over, so there would be no paddling practice for us. That’s probably a good thing since Gerry still uses this damn photo of us from our first year at camp in his opening lecture. That also meant we had more time to practice our navigation and, later, fixed ropes.
We decided we’d stay in a group of four for the orienteering practice. We headed straight up – and I mean straight UP – to our first checkpoint. On the way, we had to stop off at one of our favorite views, a spot we’ve visited every time we’ve gone to camp.
We were mostly successful, although I led us astray on one point that other teams swore was not there. So of course Adam and I had to try and find it. That was stupid. We spoke with our friend and camp volunteer Kim Heintz later, and we figured out where we went wrong. Even though I’ve been doing this for over 10 years, I still have lots to learn and a ton of room for improvement.
Although we didn’t have a perfect run of CPs, I thought we were all having a blast. But then, as we were hiking, Becca turned to me and said:
“I wish Bob Jenkins was here. He’s way more entertaining.”
Ouch. That one hurt. I tried to hide the tears, but everyone knew I was crushed. She’d rather be with my BFF than her own husband? Damn! That just killed me.
Becca claims that she thought she was boring me and that I’d rather have Bob with me instead of her. Don’t get me wrong. Bob always makes everything fun, but there was no one else I’d rather have by my side than Becca. (Cue the sappy music all you want, but it’s true.)
Becca and Michelle are brand new to adventure racing and orienteering, so it was good practice for them as well. They even lead us to one of the CPs without any help. For real! Check it out:
Being new to adventure racing, Becca tried to avoid using the woods as a bathroom (maybe we should get her a Go Girl?). She tried to hold it, but eventually had to succumb to nature’s call. Adam was a gentleman and turned the other way as Becca went behind a tree to take care of business. About 30 yards down the trail – literally – we found an outhouse which Michelle gladly used.
After another CP or two, it was time to go back to the Virtus Van and head back to Camp Benson. We stopped at McDonald’s on the way back, because there was a line at Subway. Believe it or not, we were running behind – shocker, I know! – so we opted for the quicker and much greasier burgers and fries than to wait in line at Subway.
Back at camp, Gerry gave the Ropes Safety Talk which terrified me the first year we went to camp. Then the one and only Robyn Benincasa gave a brief talk about paddling followed by some great, quick-hitters on AR gear, strategy, navigation, nutrition, and more. It was a short but jam-packed session as the knowledge bombs kept raining down on us.
And then it was time for the fixed ropes practice: rappelling, zip lining, tryolean traversing, and ascending (we skipped the rock climbing to practice more of the skills we’d encounter at the race the next day).
The first time I ever rappelled was at High Profile Adventure Camp, and I was flat-out petrified. I was nauseated and sweating profusely. I wanted to chicken out badly, but I didn’t. Even today, I get a little nervous, so I was expecting Becca and Michelle to be quite scared. Well, they weren’t.
After watching my wife give birth to our four amazing kids and pass kidney stones as easily as Bob passes gas, I already know she is way tougher than I’ll ever be. Watching her crush all of the fixed ropes proves she’s braver than I’ll ever be as well.
Rather than bore you with words, I’ll just show you how much fun we had on the ropes.
Michelle opted to conserve her energy for the race in the morning, so she decided to skip the Tryolean Traverse. It’s not too bad for the first half since you’re going slightly “downhill.” But then you have to pull yourself the rest of the way, fighting gravity. It can be very tiring.
Later that evening, Robyn Benincasa gave her world-class talk on what makes winners win, what makes a good team, and what makes a good leader. This talk alone is worth the price of admission.
Then Gerry gave the pre-race briefing, and we got our maps. The Lightning Strikes report will come out soon – sometime within the next two years.
As you can probably tell, we had an amazingly good time the first day and a half. The High Profile Adventure Camp is hands down the best way for beginners to get started in adventure racing, and it’s also a great place where veterans of the sport can continue learning and expanding their skills.
For what you get – the top-notch instruction, the lodging, the awesome swag bag, some food, the super safe environment, the fun, the adventure, the laughs, and then a 4- or 8-hour adventure race – it is an absolute steal. You’re crazy if you don’t go at least once.
We’ll definitely be back (a fourth time for me), and hopefully we’ll have more Virtusans and spouses with us.
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…
If you haven’t heard about this adventure racing camp, then you need to go check it out right now. The 3-day camp will cover topics such as orienteering, canoe and kayak paddling, and fixed ropes (rappelling, zip lines, ascending, traversing). There will also be the longest and highest tyrolean traverse in the Midwest at this camp – over 500 feet long – holy donkey turds!
The paddling portion is taught by Jeremy Rodgers, an elite adventure racer, professional paddler, and a member of the US Canoe and Kayak Team. So I guess he has enough credentials to possibly show me a thing or two. On the other hand, maybe I’ll be able to give him some advice – “Don’t push the water, pull the canoe.” Well, maybe not.
I’m a little nervous about the ropes stuff since I’m not a huge fan of heights. However, if I ever want to do longer races, I’m going to have to learn this stuff sooner or later. It also looks so flippin’ fun… I can’t wait. Check out a couple of pics from last year’s camp:
The camp concludes with a 6 hour adventure race including orienteering, mt. biking, paddling, fixed ropes, and caving. The race, called Lightning Strikes, also happens to be a qualifying race for Nationals. You have to place in the top 3 or 4 as a 3-person coed team, though, which means we won’t be qualifying for Nationals. The Lightning Strikes race is also part of the Checkpoint Tracker Series, which is pretty cool.
All instruction, the 6 hour race, lodging, and some of the meals are all included for a measly 175 bucks. Since most adventure races cost $100 or more anyway, we thought this was a pretty good deal. The camp takes place the last weekend of March in Mount Carroll, Illinois. I can’t wait to go, and we’ll take lots of pictures to post. So… Who else wants to go?