As I trudged through the river I could see we were nearing the large cabin area, the same place where the race began, I knew the water was about to become deeper and swimming with our logs as opposed to walking with them would become my ultimate challenge. My panic began to rise again. Without the help of Justin Atteberry, whom I met over a year ago when I crewed and played photographer at the Ultimate Suck, I would have probably taken much longer to finish this section of the course, that is if I’d have finished at all. The other racers: Paul Kavanagh, Shannon Hulme, Christian Griffith, and Isaiah Vidal also offered encouragement, which helped me to overcome my newly developed fear. Until that moment, I had no idea how terrified of swimming in a river at night I was. After taking some deep breaths, and eventually calming myself down, I pushed forward. Justin stayed by my side and helped me through every freak out I had. Every time I felt the seaweed slowly wrap around my torso to weigh me down and hold me back, or I felt it entangling and intertwining itself around my legs – he was there. Every time I began to lose my cool, Justin was there to calm me. I’m very thankful for all he did.
What someone in this situation needs to understand is this seaweed was very thick and in many spots completely unavoidable and all there was to light the way were the headlamps of some incredibly skilled, talented, masochistic athletes. As you tread through the dark murky waters barely lit by the moonlight the seaweed would wrap itself around your legs, your waist, your feet and ankles. It felt like it would completely consume me, and yes, I feared it would pull me under and hold me there. Trapped and unable to escape. This was my fear. This was my demon. The density of all the seaweed combined with my fear added an additional element to the already muscle and confidence-sapping challenge of having to swim a mile and a half with a floating log. By time we had hit the first dam the sun began to rise. My fear faded away and we made up some serious time as Justin and I swam side by side, purposefully swimming longer distances just to avoid any patches of seaweed that we might encounter. We even passed a few racers in the process. It felt good to be back in a secure state of mind. It goes without saying that dark waters really did a number on me. I guess I have something to work on.
Continuing down the river we eventually reached the final dam, concluding our swimming adventure. After tossing both logs down together I climbed my way to the ground below, untied my log and carried it over to where the volunteers were waiting for us. Thankfully, there were a couple of metal folding chairs so I could sit down in and reattach my awesome DIY Luna Sandals to my feet feet again. Now that the fabric was wet I made sure to secure the lacing just a slightly tighter than I had earlier. I also took the time to make sure I wouldn’t have to screw around with it later, which was the last thing I wanted to have to do during a 100K race was stop more than I had to. Every time you stop it’s a chance for your body to seize up, so constant movement is key. I collected my bead for successfully completing that terrifying swim down the river and consumed a Clif Bar and a GU packet if I recall. Next, I began my climb up the trail and across the wobbly wooden suspension bridge and followed that same path Shannon and I went on for our “5K Warm-Up.” Again, I found myself running alongside Shannon and we joked about how it was a good thing we turned around when we did the night before, the terrain that started to come up right after that turnaround point was pretty gnarly. It involved some rock climbing, scaling and lots of bushwhacking.
After going up another one of what seemed like an infinite amount of Texan hills, we finally arrived at the next challenge where the volunteers awaited our arrival. My two concerns were: How far behind from the leader were we? And how long ago did Corinne leave this challenge? I wanted to know if I would be able to realistically catch up to her during the running sections after having so many issues early on. I learned that she wasn’t too far ahead, so I listened to what the challenge was, and without hesitation opened my custom-made ruck, pulled out and opened up the yellow compression sack. This sack exclusively held my random gear such as my SteriPEN, paracord, and the item I pulled out for this challenge, my orange sharpie that I kept with me for moments just like this where memory would be key.
Our challenge was to crawl through this very small hole in the ground into a cavern; a very tight and narrow cavern that I am told was littered with snakes, scorpions and who knows what other bugs and such. Fortunately, I was so focused on finding our objective, find six symbols placed throughout the cave, that I never really noticed any bugs or reptiles. I went straight down the cavern and to the left. I snaked my own way through the different levels of the cave until I found myself in the very back where I found the first two symbols. All they symbols were found in pairs. The first four I found within 30 seconds of each other. Each time I found them I would take my bib off my compression shorts, scribble the symbol onto the back of the bib with my sharpie and continue to hunt for the next ones. The last two were a little more difficult to find, but thanks to Shannon, I found them and made my way out. I ended up sharing my Sharpie with a few people and even left it for Paul to use since he was entering as I was leaving.
Upon exiting the cave I removed a couple safety pins and peeled back my bib off to reveal all my drawings and asked the volunteers, “Do you want me to draw them, point to them, or will this suffice?” They looked over the symbols and let me carry on my way. In hindsight, it was pretty funny because you could tell they considered having me point them out but decided not to bother since I had all the correct symbols. The seemed very amused by my tactic for conquering this challenge. I was awarded my FAIL amulet and I was directed to collect a prickly pear cactus pad before the next challenge and went on my way. I was on a mission to catch up with my race partner, Corinne. A lot of the trails followed along a fence line that surely kept us separated from the exotic animals that were hunted on the other side. It was kind of creepy to think about. With every step I had to constantly make sure not to roll my ankles, step on a prickly pear cactus, or stub my toes. It was a constant battle and basically limited me to a cautious jog as opposed to anything that could actually resemble a “run.” When I was not running along the fence line I found myself navigating ravines, climbing over trees and dodging branches searching constantly for the little trail markers to make sure I wasn’t going off path or missing a sneaky turn. I found some of the markers to be extra tricky to spot sometimes. After climbing through a rather heavily covered area eventually I emerged only to find myrself climbing through a bed of prickly pears only to see a Windmill in the clearing at the peak of this hill. There, my next series of challenges awaited me.
As I walked up to the challenge I could see this was going to reveal another weakness, throwing. Growing up I played a little tee ball and threw around footballs like all kids do, but it became very apparent that my left arm was nothing special, it wasn’t meant to throw, my aim (when it comes to throwing) is just not there. That’s why I strayed further and further away from most American sports and stuck to what I was best at, climbing, swinging, jumping, and flipping. When I saw that we would have to hit one of these three skinny hanging log targets with a requirement of hitting at least one of those targets 3 times out of 7 chances. Immediately, I knew I was probably going to miss out on earning this bead.
All positivity escaped me but I found humor in knowing that I wouldn’t succeed. The Volunteers presented me with my first quiz when I arrived. There were three questions asking us about the qualities of a prickly pear cactus and of course now we were also to take out our prickly pear pad which I had already de-needled and we had to turn it into a canteen and prove that we could drink from it. I missed one question on the quiz – no bead. I got out my KaBar and started to clean up my throwing stick just a bit to avoid splinters. When I went to make my first few practice throws at the metal legs of the windmill I was dead on, so I figured after two throws it was time to try my luck. First throw, way off. Second throw a little closer. Third and fourth throws were perfectly aimed just came in a bit low. Finally, I hit one on my fifth throw and it wasn’t even a direct hit, I basically just clipped the edge of the hanging log with my throwing stick. To leave this challenge successful I would have to hit the next two throws dead on. Knowing my abilities and lack of consistency, I had little faith that I would succeed and expressed it very vocally. I know I wasn’t being positive but there is a reason why I got myself into sports such as gymnastics, cheerleading, and now obstacle racing. I suck at throwing sports. Period. So with my awesomely negative mindset I took my last throws. Two more misses and that was it. I only hit the throwing stick target once – no bead. All I succeeded at here was making my canteen.
At this challenge checkpoint we were also given the opportunity to refill our water from this giant water collection tank that was filled with mosquitos and who knows what else. Between the quiz and throwing challenge I took the opportunity to rehydrate and fill up. Thankfully, I had my SteriPEN Freedom with me and I was able to make that water clean and purified in just a short 48 seconds (for each liter that I filled). After filling my steel canteen and my foldable hydration pack, I ate some of the Saquito Chia mix the volunteers offered us and took off with my throwing stick that we were told to keep with us. I also grabbed an Epic Bar to try later. We were also told we were welcome to find another throwing stick later if we would like so I ditched mine and took off. I was now only 10-15 minutes behind Corinne, and I knew I could catch up to her at the next challenge so I took off.
The next few sections of the course had me cursing Josue and the course markings constantly. No matter how hard I looked or how hard I tried to get some sort of pace going I couldn’t, the course marking were sometimes too high to see. It didn’t help I had my eyes glued to the ground in front of me for fear of wrecking my feet and or ankles in these oh-so-protective barefoot sandals of mine. All of this slowed me down quite a bit, I had to constantly stop to scan the area and make sure I wasn’t missing a trail marker. It’s not that the course was poorly marked, it was very well marked in terms of frequency but too often the markers were either too high to easily see or from the angle I was searching they were just hidden behind a branch or a leaf. I was just not seeing them as easily as I’d have liked. The distance from the Windmill to our next challenge was 4.8 miles and around half way through all the treacherous climbs, rocky descents, and ridge-less ridge traversing, I looked down at the knife sheath that I had fixed to my left calf with paracord and to my absolute horror I discovered that my KaBar was no longer there, the button that holds it in place was undone. Had I left it at the last challenge? Did I lose it along the way? What was I going to do at the next challenge? At that moment all the frustration that had been building up came out and I screamed…”F*********CK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
To be continued…