**NOTE: This race report was written by me (Luke) with commentary added by Kate in Blue, Chuck in Green, and Brian (I renamed myself Captain Jack for this tale) in Red. If I feel like it, I might even add a response or two in Purple. And if you need to get caught up, go read Part 1 first.
The Part Where We Tried to Start the Paddling Leg
We rolled in and dropped our bikes at the TA where saw the smiling faces of some of the best volunteers in the AR biz. We dropped our bikes and grabbed an ice cold Red Bull before grabbing our paddling gear: paddles, PFD’s, throw bags, and glow sticks (which were no longer needed since the sun was already quite high in the sky).
Kate: Daytime paddles that are supposed to be nighttime paddles are something of a Team Virtus specialty at Thunder Rolls.
We walked over to the canoes and picked out what we hoped were good ones. That’s when we decided we might need some sun block. None of us had packed any, though, but thankfully our friend and super-volunteer Brandy had some. Brian went back to the TA to get some, and we applied the cream liberally as Chuck and Kate hopped in their canoe.
As they headed out onto the calm water of the cove, I realized I had forgotten my maps. Once again, we had to go all the way back to the TA to get our maps. Finally ready to start paddling, we started to climb into the canoe as Kate and Chuck paddled back toward us. It turns out they, too, had forgotten their maps at the TA. If only someone had just told them they were going back for maps. Oh, wait…
Captain Jack Sparrow (aka Captain Handsome): I had to move my legs in a fast motion repeatedly in order to go back and get the maps. It’s a new fad. I believe it’s jogging or yogging. It might be a soft j. I’m not sure, but apparently you just run for an extended period of time. It’s supposed to be wild….and to be honest, I didn’t like it much.
Kate: Sadly, we hadn’t heard him mention the maps because I was too busy giving Brian shit about taking the time to put on sunscreen.
Chuck: There is a picture of us somewhere laughing so ridiculously hard that we could hardly paddle back in.
One final trip back to the TA to get Chuck’s maps, and we were all ready to actually begin the paddling leg… at long last. And we wonder why we take so long in the TA.
The Part Where We Actually Paddle
Now I’m used to manning the back of the canoe, but Brian stepped up and took control of the stern as I sat in the bow. We’ve never paddled together before, and it showed. We zig-zagged all over that damn cove as Kate and Chuck made a beeline for the Mighty Mississippi.
We literally hit the lily pads on both sides of the cove several times before making it to the main river, and by then Kate and Chuck were well ahead of us. Being a wee bit heavier than Kate and Chuck only helped them pull away faster.
Captain Sparrow: Where I’m from, we just call it the front and the back of the boat. Much easier than all those other fancy terms.
Kate: We assumed they’d be way faster than us, having two strong men in their canoe and not being hampered by my noodle arms, but we hadn’t thought about the weight difference or the fact that Chuck and I have paddled quite a bit together now.
Luke: Kate doesn’t give herself enough credit. She no longer has noodle arms, and she’s become a much stronger paddler. Just ask Chuck.
Chuck: Seriously. She could slay the MR340 and set a new record time.
Kate: Only if by “slay” you mean “experience a psychotic break and murder everyone involved”.
Captain: Before this tale gets too far along, I want to press the pause button so I can reflect quickly on a few of my past experiences in these canoes. I’ve flipped one in a flooded parking lot, I’ve spent a whole race squatting in the middle of one so that we wouldn’t flip, I’ve been out on the Mississippi in one when the waves were so high we had to stop racing, and I also spent a whole race just last year paddling through a thunder and lightning “What Does WTFAR taste like when BBQ’d”-fest. The adventures have been mighty in these plastic yellow bananas, so I was looking forward to what this year’s race had in store for us.
Luke: In retrospect, maybe I never should’ve gotten in one of those things with you.
We knew that Brian would probably have to skip a few CP’s on the paddling leg to make it to his father’s 70th birthday party in time, so we decided to go for the farthermost CP’s across and upriver a couple miles away. Then we’d reevaluate to see how many other CP’s we would have time for (in hindsight it’s laughable we thought we could get more).
As calm as the cove was, the main river was anything but. The wind had picked up in a big way, and there were serious whitecaps out there. The wind came from the side, so the waves were nearly tipping us anytime we got sideways to them. We had to angle our canoe in such a way that we were going in the general direction of our intended CP while pointing the canoe into the waves. It was terrible out there.
It was weird, though. There were shallow areas with seaweed-like plants and tall lily pads where the river was very calm. While these sections were much less rough, paddling through them wasn’t much fun since our paddles kept getting caught in the plants with seaweed and algae spraying both of us, and there was a lot of drag since Brian and I aren’t exactly built like your typical endurance athlete. At one point we simply got stuck in the muck. I hopped out and dragged us through the shin-deep sludge as Brian used his Sasquatch strength to push us forward. All this effort to just continue paddling back into the really rough stuff. It was really, really tough paddling.
Captain: Let me really paint the picture for you…we’re out paddling in the middle of what appears to be an ocean. Water as far as the eye can see with a few random islands here and there. You’d think that the water would be so deep that you could find Atlantis down at the bottom depths of the darkness, but instead we’re literally sitting in inches of water. Unfortunately for us, we’re both naturally already in wintery-thick mode for the hibernating season, and our large asses made that canoe draaaaaaaaaaaaaaaag. And then all of the sudden…we’re stuck. Not moving. Done. Finished. Probably going to eaten by birds. As Luke mentioned, I started stabbing the muck and trying to find a way to push us forward. It was.not.working. And then…it happened. Luke jumps out of the canoe INTO THE MISSISSIPPI FREAKING RIVER. Think about that, those of you who aren’t insane adventure racers like Luke. He got out of a the canoe in the middle of the MISSISSIPPI RIVER. He should have plummeted down to Davey Jones locker to visit a Krakken or the Loch Ness monster, but oh yeah, we’re in inches of water. He quickly grabs onto the handle on the front of the canoe, and with his mighty hairy Wolverine strength lifts the canoe and starts dragging my Sasquatch girth towards the “deep end”. There was no Sasquatchian strength on my part. It was just this small thick man walking on water pulling a large thick man in a giant banana. You know, just typical every day stuff you see at the local Crossfit gym. Adventure racing….you gotta love it.
We could see Chuck and Kate up ahead, but from our angle, it looked like they were headed into a dead end of lily pads and the bank of the river. So we went around all that. This was a big mistake. We ended up WAY north of where we had intended, partly because of the vicious wind and partly because I suck with the river maps.
Kate: From my angle it looked like a dead end, too. I don’t remember the wind being terrible on the paddle to the Elk River, probably because it was so much worse on our return trip. We did barely drag through some shallow areas, and Chuck kept tormenting me by slapping the river with his paddle to make the Asian carp — which I hate — jump out of the water. I was so paranoid that one of them was going to jump into our canoe.
Chuck: The bearing we were following looked like a wall of jungle to me too. I had no confidence that we weren’t heading into a dead end, but when the Suunto MC-2 says ‘go that way’ … we go that way, and somehow always seem to luck out.
Luke: And perhaps it was rougher for us since we took the loooooong way to the Elk River. That and we outweigh you guys by just a few pounds.
Eventually, and with a tip from a couple of fishermen, we found the Elk River. And oh what sweet, sweet relief the calm waters of the Elk River provided. It was a nice break from the Mississippi, and we soon found the CP. There was no sign of Chuck and Kate, though.
Captain Jack: That fisherman thought we were idiots. Yeah, he’s out there in one of them there motor boats like a lazy loser, and we’re using all muscle. Who’s the REAL idiot?
Kate: The Elk River was heaven compared to the Mississippi. We found both CPs without much drama, and though running into some of the 12-hour teams was a little demoralizing we also saw a couple other 24-hour teams too. One of them was Chad’s team, who told us they’d seen Luke and Brian downriver, the first word we’d had of them since we’d gotten separated.
Knowing the paddle back across the Mississippi was going to suck and since it had taken so long to get just one CP, we decided to head straight back to the TA so that Brian could go to the party on time. Again, this was foolish thinking.
Captain: We got some really good Clash of Clans discussions during our romantic ride on the Elk.
Luke: Clash of Clans 4 Eva!!!
Even though we were paddling downriver, we couldn’t tell. We were going pretty much directly into the wind, and it was serious work to make slow progress. It was terrible but sort of in a good way. Brian and I even remarked that as terrible as it was, we were glad to be out there suffering together. It was kind of awesome in a way.
And then the wind and waves got even worse. At one point I swear the waves were coming at us from 3 different directions, and we almost tipped several times. Our bungholes were at pucker-level 10, and it was a fight to stay upright.
It was scary. Not as in we were going to die scary, but as in if we tip, we might not make it off the river for several hours.
Captain: Luke is insane, it was totally die scary. There was not a lot of talking going on at all. Due to the fact we’re brothers from a different mother, we quickly developed a series of grunts and groans to signal what was going on. Mostly, nothing. Once in a while Luke would bark out “RIGHT BRIAN!, RIGHT BRIAN!” even though I was already madly paddled on the right. It was freaking insane.
At one point we tried to go more east-west to…I don’t really know why…and we were immediately sideways and riding a giant wave. At that moment we looked EXACTLY like George Clooney and Mark Walberg in “The Perfect Storm”, not giving up and attempting to overcome the world’s most gnarly of waves. It was so much like the movie that in fact that in the middle of the wave Clooney and Walberg were already in negotations to play US in “The Perfect Storm Too”. But luckily we used our powers of Spongebob and Gerry training to work out of that horrible idea. So, so puckery…
Luke: The idea behind turning east-west was to get the waves and wind to our backs. It turns out that was a really shitty idea.
Kate: Conditions were difficult enough that the safety kayak returned to shore and Gerry “loves to make you suffer” Voelliger cancelled the paddle for
lucky later-arriving teams.
Captain: And oh yeah…even though that was all pretty insane and nuts, I paddled with a sense of calm because each time it got a little hairy I knew my main man up front had it all figured out.
Luke: I’m glad you had such blind faith in me. That was really stupid of you, though, because I wasn’t sure we were gonna make it.
Then we found ourselves next to a small island with lots of pelicans and seagulls on it. It was pretty cool actually, but it seemed like we were next to that damn island for 45 minutes. Remember, we were paddling “down” river.
After paddling hard for 15 minutes and only gaining 10 yards, Brian broke the silence and said, “So, uh… Luke. What’s the plan here?”
I said, “I’m just trying to stay upright and keep moving forward, man!”
I looked ahead a bit and saw a couple of downed trees in the river a hundred yards ahead or so, and I said, “Let’s aim for those trees and hope they provide even a little bit of shelter from this bullshit!”
Having a specific goal to shoot for seemed to help a little, but the trees provided no shelter from the wind and waves. Eventually, we made it to one of the shallow, calmer parts of the river. As we unpuckered for a bit, we paddled slowly through the “seaweed” and algae, throwing the vegetation all over ourselves. We dragged a few times, but we never got stuck.
Captain: It was at this point that I was delirious from paddling and was pretty sure the slowly waving weeds, just barely under the surface of the water were going to reach up and yank us down into our watery grave. That and those stupid carp that kept slapping the surface and scaring the crap out of us.
Slogging through another couple of rough patches left us with one final rough section before we could coast down the sweet, calm cove to the TA. We almost tipped another time or two before reaching the cove, but we managed to make it… finally.
Paddling down the cove made us realize how much we had improved as a paddling team in just a few hours. On the way out, we zig-zagged all over the damn place, but on the way back in, even though we were physically and mentally exhausted, we paddled straight as an arrow – a huge improvement from when we started – to the shore as the volunteers cheered.
The Part Where We Hug it Out
We hit dry land where I crawled out of the canoe and dragged the boat up so Brian could get out. We’d done it. No, we didn’t get all the CP’s. In fact, we only got 1, but by George we effing earned it! But paddled through some of the roughest paddling I’ve been in during an Adventure Race, and we managed to not flip the canoe. And for the first time in Brian’s AR career, he never had to witness any PaDdLinG MaDNeSs (even though it would have been warranted this time).
With our feet on dry land again, we turned to each other. Our eyes met as we both let out a sigh of relief, and then we embraced. It was not a sexually charged embrace (this time), but it was more than just bro-hug. It was a special moment that only Brian and I shared… in front of all the volunteers.
(Side Rant: Yes, I purchased the above photo as a digital download. I did not steal it or use it without permission because I am not a douchebag – at least I try really hard to not be a douchebag. I like supporting good people who do good work, and John is definitely one helluva guy doing great work. Yes, it’s not much. I only threw a couple of bucks his way, but I feel a lot better about doing that than ripping him off. You should support him and other artists like him too. Rant over.)
Captain: That bro hug was real. What a cool and fantastic adventure in a sport where thick mildly handsome pseudo athletes can be admired around the world by tens of fans….ok, seriously, what a great life adventure with a man I’m glad to call a friend.
It would have been fun to share the misery with Kate and Chuck. But they wanted to be like good at the paddling thing or something. Whatever.
Luke: “Mildly handsome pseudo athlete.” I need to put that on my business card.
We had been on the water for 4 hours or so, and it was later than we had hoped to get Brian on the road. A couple phone calls later, and after another hug and a teary goodbye, Brian found himself shuttled first class back to Camp Benson.
I hated to see Brian go. Even with the shitty conditions out on the river, we were all having a blast racing together. We should have teamed up for a race a long time ago, and we’ll definitely do it again as soon as possible.
I’ll let Brian describe his ride back to Camp Benson and his subsequent drive to his dad’s birthday party:
Captain: I had a nice bumpy nap in the back of that bad boy.
The Part Where We Reunite
And then there was nothing for me to do but wait for Kate and Chuck. Well, I worried a little about them too. And I chatted with my friends volunteering at the TA. And I might have eaten a couple delicious cookies courtesy of Mrs. Tardy Rooster herself, Leisha Huntley. And perhaps, I managed to catch a quick catnap, but I’m not sure.
A few of the 12-hour teams came paddling in, and each time I hoped it was Kate and Chuck arriving safely. Several teams had swamped, and 3 or 4 teams called for a ride on the Iowa side of the river. None of those teams were Chuck and Kate, though.
I’ll let Kate describe the rest of their time on the river. Take it away, Kate!
Kate: After leaving the Elk River, Chuck and I had to canoe downriver towards our next CP. Just as Luke described, “downriver” felt like a difficult upstream paddle because we were heading almost directly into the ridiculous wind, chopping through whitecaps and paddling as hard as we could just to make any kind of forward progress. We, too, hugged the islands and marshy patches where possible; we still had to fight the wind, but the water was calmer there.
As we struggled against the wind and flopped down over whitecap after whitecap, my paddle strokes were powered mostly by the fervent hope that we’d reach the boat ramp where the next CP was located and see race volunteers there to tell us that due to unsafe conditions the remainder of the paddle was cancelled and they would drive us back to the bike drop. (Spoiler alert: Nope.)
The wind was so strong on the river that we both had to paddle constantly, so neither of us had eaten in the past couple of hours. We beached at the boat ramp, dumped the water that had splashed in during our voyage, ate some food, dispensed some helpful safety advice to the 5 year old wandering the river bank alone, and generally steeled ourselves to get back into the canoe. Oh, and sent Luke a text so he knew we were still alive.
Chuck: Watching Kate switch from BA adventure racer to Mom mode was pretty funny considering we just survived one of our scariest paddles to date. “Where are your parents at?”, “Be careful by that water.”, “Oh, that is a nice frog!”.
Luke: Getting that text was a huge relief.
Once we’d stalled as long as possible, we set off on our return trip. Both the canoe take-out and our last CP were back across the river, which is like 25 miles wide at that point (OK, maybe not, but it felt that way) Chuck: (5K). Compounding the distance was the fact that we had to angle away from our destination in order to account for the way the wind was pushing us. Now instead of waves splashing over the nose of our canoe they were hitting us broadside, and we both worried about tipping. The one perk of the sub-optimal conditions was the near-total lack of other river traffic — we’ve spent plenty of paddles being buffeted by the wakes of pontoon boats and jet-skis — the downside of this being that no one was on the river to help us if we tipped.
Chuck: Self-rescue would have been a long-term affair maybe even bordering on impossible.
Eventually we made it to our final CP and all that remained was to paddle upriver (but with the wind at our backs) to the inlet we’d left several hours before. It was then that Chuck made a near-fatal error.
Chuck: “Suck it River! We beat you!”
“Shut up!” I told him, “Why are you talking like that before we’re safe on land?? He didn’t mean it, river.” Moments later we struck a submerged log; the canoe shuddered but then righted itself. Chuck held back any further smack talk, and the rest of our paddle was uneventful.
After paddling for roughly 7 hours, Chuck and Kate arrived to our cheers. They looked about as relieved as Brian and I did when we arrived. It was damn good to see them.
Chuck: I actually hate that this picture looks so calm and peaceful. As far as I know NOBODY got a picture out in the wind on the main channel. It was just to scary to stop paddling for the few seconds it would have taken.
Chuck and Kate didn’t take very long in the TA. They unloaded their paddling gear, grabbed some food, filled up with water, and we were ready to hop back on the bikes.
The Part Where We Bike to and Do the O-Section
After that un-Virtus-like quick transition, we were back on the bikes. The temperature had risen along with the humidity. Fortunately, the wind that was so brutal on the river was now at our backs.
This bike leg was uneventful as we nabbed all the CP’s pretty easily, and we soon found ourselves at that TA for the O-Section. There were a few very good teams on their way out of the woods when we arrived. They looked a little defeated, to be honest.
I slammed an ice-cold Red Bull as we looked over the maps quickly. We were running short on time since we needed to be off the O-course by 8:00 pm. We came up with a plan where we would grab one of the “easy” CPs and then reevaluate our situation to decide if we’d go for another CP or two.
Kate: Chuck briefly suggested we run on the road sections. I was not in favor of this plan.
We found the little shed in the woods we were looking for, and we shot a bearing to the CP.
Kate: Luke and I were very helpful, if by “helpful” you mean “busy taking selfies“.
Luke: It was so nice having Chuck do the navigating here. My selfie-skills are much improved.
It took us a little longer than we had anticipated, but Chuck did not lead us astray. Kate and I have faced a Thunder Rolls cutoff before, and it can be quite formidable. So we decided to err on the side of caution and head back to the TA with just one of the O-Section CPs.
We hiked back to the TA, making sure we stayed out of the cornfields per Gerry’s instructions. And apparently, adventure racing tends to make Kate’s hands grow abnormally long:
I drank another Red Bull back at the TA – what can I say, I was sleepy by this point. My nether regions were really chafed and sore, and I contemplated riding that final bike leg back to Camp Benson without my bike bibs. Kate was considering the same thing. I opted to put my bibs back on, but I’m not sure if it helped or made things worse.
After a mile or two, it didn’t matter since I didn’t do much sitting on the saddle anyway. I fell into a rhythm of standing and pedaling for 3 hard strokes followed by coasting as long as possible before pedaling again. I got pretty good at it, maintaining the same speed as Chuck and Kate without sitting on the saddle much to save my ass – literally. Despite the chafing and general fatigue, we made way better time than we had anticipated, dropped our bikes at the camp’s pavilion, and headed back down to the Wakarusa River for one last Coasteering leg.
Kate: Unless you really effed up that bike leg, the state park-mandated cutoff for the O section pretty much guaranteed that you were going to be back at Camp Benson and finished with the final coasteering leg well before the race ended at midnight.
Chuck: I would’ve loved to spend more time in that O-section. Sucks that the state park people wont let us race in there after dark.
Coasteering like this can be a lot of fun, and when the race started it was just that. However, 20+ hours into a race made it sub-awesome, to say the least. And Gerry, being the sadistic bastard he is, designed the last coasteering section in such a way to force you to trudge through the water much longer than you wanted to.
Kate: I think this year’s coasteering legs were the best (least unpleasant) of my four Thunder Rolls experiences. Whether because of the stretch of river or just dumb luck, we seemed to miss out on all of the big submerged rocks that seem to trip you up in the dark.
Luke: And for whatever reason, there was much less flesh-shredding sand and grit in my shoes this year.
I’m pretty sure we didn’t take any photos during this section because we just wanted to be done. We were all much quieter too – especially Kate who has been know to be a bit chatty from time to time.
There was a 2-person coed team who tagged along behind us for this section. I think they had had enough and just didn’t want to have to think anymore. This is something I totally understand.
Kate: I was mad for a long time that they were following us and didn’t trust myself to talk without saying something bitchy. Instead I stalked ahead, fueled by righteous anger. Chuck and Luke both talked to the other team a little, and once I realized where they were mentally I relaxed a little and finally started having fun again when, on my way back from punching our final CP, I ended up chest-deep in the river:
We finally got the last few CPs and humped it back up to the finish line. The team that tagged along with us fell back so we could finish ahead of them which was an honorable thing to do. As we reached the finish line, I peeled off to the side to let Chuck and Kate finish together. I was DQ’d anyway since my passport left with Brian.
I guess if I’d have turned in a passport, I wouldn’t be officially listed as a DNF in the final results. But Brian and I were supposed to be signed up as a 2-person team instead of solos anyway, and I came into the race expecting to DNF. If you’re familiar with us at all, though, you know we don’t put much stock in the final standings. We come for the experience – kicking ass is just a bonus.
Captain: Hey everybody! I missed talking to you. At this point in their race I had already eaten a ton of food at my dad’s party, explained the fantastic sport of adventure racing to my family while they looked at me like I was insane (especially the rappelling part) and was now asleep and drooling on myself on my parents couch….
I do regret not getting a finishing – or is it Did Not Finishing – photo with Gerry. We took a team photo before grabbing some delicious pizza and cold beer.
The only thing that would have made finishing better is if Brian could’ve been there with us.
Kate: Indeed. Such a great day.
BVW: You three are great. Let’s do this again?
Luke: We absolutely need to do this again!
He was with us in spirit, though, so we had John snap a quick photo of us with our entire team:
After eating, drinking, and chatting with fellow racers, we showered and went to bed. Sleep never feels as good as it does after a long, hard race.
One of us, who shall remain nameless, chatted deep into the wee hours of the morning. She stayed up so late that she slept through most of the goodbyes and had to be roused from her bunk so we could pack up and go home.
Kate: Whoever that was, she missed out on saying goodbye to everyone but Gerry, and since the socialization is pretty much her favorite part of races, she was disappointed about that (but well-rested).
Once the nameless sleepyhead was finally out of bed, she packed her things up and we left our beloved Camp Benson. Per tradition, we hit the Kountry Kettle for some gravified breakfast. Again, Brian was missed. In his honor, I ate twice as much as I normally would have (which is a lot).
Big thanks goes out to Gerry and all of his crew from High Profile Adventure Racing, and an equally large thank you must go to the amazing volunteers who made the race not only possible but a smashing success. And thanks to Brian for racing with us even though he knew he had to cut the race short. We seriously need to do it again as soon as possible.
Until next time, may your adventures be epic. And your breakfasts covered in gravy.