(Longer, Tougher, and Harder)
We put together our team early in 2003 and decided to shoot for a top 5 overall finish. I was able to get Charlie Roberts, another North Carolinian, to agree to travel to Florida for the race, and Ron rounded up Jon Sherwin from FL. Jon, Ron, and my Dad had raced a sprint race in Augusta GA last year. We never were able to meet and train together as a foursome, and Charlie and I were only able to paddle together 3 or 4 times. Our spring schedules were so crazy we never had a common weekend where we could both get together! Ron and John were able to train and race together a few times. Ron and I had free entries from our last year finish place (1st 4 person male), and he was able to get Adventure Sports Magazine to cover the other half.
Kelly, Riley, and I took off Wednesday evening around 6 p.m. We met Charlie somewhere in SC as he had left an hour before us, and shared a hotel room. We left the next morning and got to the race start with plenty of time to spare. However, our crew, Ben and Chris, and Ron and John, would not arrive until just before 6 p.m. That left us just a little time to check in before the pre-race meeting. After that, we did some gear organization and spent a little time with Ben and Chris discussing what we expected for support, and the rest of the night going over all of the maps.
Just Before Race Start:
The race started at 6 a.m. on Friday, and in true coast-to-coast style, John Walker, one of the race directors, made everyone stand in the ocean. So much for dry shoes and socks to start the race! We had a short 7-mile run north up the coast from Ormand Beach, where we cut over to the intra-coastal to TA 1. As we were running down the road to the TA, my Dad, racing with team Are We There Yet, blew by us on the run, looking very strong. His team was just a bit behind — they had sent him ahead to ensure their crew was ready at the TA. We arrived at CP1 at 7:18 a.m. in 27th place.
Beach Run (not looking very together !!):
We jumped in the boats for a 12-mile paddle across the intra-coastal and up the Tomoka River. We quickly found that my canoe I had lugged from NC, a Jensen 18, was faster than Ron and John in their Equator sit-on-top kayak. Team Are We There Yet quickly passed us, along with several other teams, so Charlie and I hooked the Equator to a towline, and after that we started passing boats. In fact, once we had them on the towline, we only got passed once – by team NADS of Atlanta.
Just after we paddled under I-95, we had a short ½ mile portage through Florida muck. Many teams were having problems here with long heavy boats and getting stuck in the mud. I went down up to my knees several times, and actually lost my sandals. I was able to pull them out of the mud and throw them in the boat, but then I had to walk the rest of the way barefoot. Charlie went thigh deep once! After we passed the worst of the mud, and several teams, including Are We There Yet, we threw the canoe on our shoulders and walked out of the woods to TA2. Are We There Yet had two long, heavy boats, that were difficult to move through the woods/swamp/mud. We checked in to CP2 at 10:32 p.m. in 23rd place.
We cleaned up as best we could without any running water, got bike clothes on, and headed out. The first portion of this bike leg, until the 1st turn, was 9 miles according to our calculations. However, it was around mile 12 that we finally saw the correct turn. This was our 1st indication that the distances we had calculated were going to be way off — at least on this map. This little 30-mile bike turned into a 55-mile leg instead!
There were some major thunder/rain storms that hit us on the 1st portion of this leg, and we went from being hot to chilly to hot again. Rooster tails from the riders in front made it difficult to draft, though we still tried. About 30 miles in, we hit CP3 which had an ascent and rappel that just one team member had to complete. Charlie ran into the woods to do this, while the rest of us sat around, ate a bit, and waited. Unfortunately, several teams had come in right before us, so we had about a 30 to 40 minute wait. We left CP3 at 1:48 p.m. in 12th place. I’m not sure how we jumped so many spots, as we had only passed 2 teams on the road and we saw several riders go by while we were under a cover at a gas station changing maps and grabbing a snack. Just as we were pulling out, team Are We There Yet came in looking quite good.
The end of the bike brought us to the next TA, where several support crew vehicles had gotten stuck in thick sand-mud due to the rain. We arrived at 2:50 p.m. in 13th place. We quickly jumped in the boats for a 23-mile paddle up the Oklawaha River to Rodman Dam. As we paddled north up Little Lake George and towards the river, we saw some major storms in the distance. We got rained on some, but not nearly as bad as what it appeared to be doing in the distance.
We had a decision to make when we left the lake. A team in front of us had gone in to a section that appeared to be too small for the river, but further up, where I thought it was, appeared to just be a wall of grass. We followed the leaders into the river and paddled up a small winding river. I remembered from last year that we had been passed by speeding power boats on this river, and where we were now seemed too small. After a while, we saw a cut over, and actually had to turn around at a slight blockage and use it. We came out on a wider stretch of the river, and the team that had entered in front of us soon came out to the side of the cutout, so it appeared we had saved some time by not pushing through the blockage.
We went back and forth between using a towline between the boats and not using it. The canoe proved difficult to turn quickly on the river, which had several nearly 180 degree twists. For a while, the kayak behind us kept messing us up, but we eventually learned to use the kayak to help the lead canoe make the sharp turns by giving us a slight pull right were we needed it! Charlie and I were also learning to lean into the turns, which made them easier as well. We continued paddling to the dam, pulled the boats out, and ran to the checkpoint. We arrived here at 7:03 p.m. in 13th place. Our crew had hot pasta ready for us, which we wolfed down as we got ready for the next bike leg.
We headed out, and had a bit of difficulty finding the right forest road that we had planed to use. We eventually found it, after pushing through some major sugar sand, and began the next long bike section. There were two unmanned checkpoints that we had to find in the woods at various places. The 1st one proved a bit difficult, as there were several roads that were not on the maps. We did have to make one turnaround at a dead end, but eventually did find the correct road and intersection, where I was able to take a bearing, head in to the thick woods, and find the UCP without any problems.
At this point, we took a bit of a risk. We had originally planned to back track out of the woods the same way we came back in, which was a couple of miles in thick sand. Instead, however, we took one of the roads in the direction we wanted to go, where it hit a T intersection that was not on the map. We again took a chance and followed the T in the proper direction, and after 2 miles or so, it brought us to the main road that we needed. There were no bike tire marks on this road, so it appears we were the only ones that took this chance and we likely saved a fair amount of time.
From the main road, we again had to peddle for quite a while, until we found another state forest road. We found it, and it was thick sugar sand. So we had some pushing to do, but we eventually made it to the next UCP. We were a bit lucky on this one, as we had plotted it out about ¼ to ½ mile ahead of where it actually was, but a team and a soloist that we were near us both stopped at the right place. The contours were obvious – high ridges in FL – but we likely would have gone a bit too far and spent some time looking for this UCP.
We had a few more forest roads to ride through until we reached the next CP – CP 6, which we reached at around 11:40 p.m. in 10th place. Almost 18 hours of racing down! Our next leg was a long trek – about 20 miles according to our original calculations, though the 1st half of that was on a winding foot path, so we knew we likely had further to go. We all put dry clothes on and got our trekking poles ready, and headed out. I’ve never used poles in FL, but it turns out they were very useful on this section because there were many downed trees we had to step over.
Charlie set a pretty fast pace – a fast walk, not a run – in the beginning. We soon settled into a good rhythm and pounded out the miles. We lost the trail at one point as we found ourselves in a camping area between two swamps, but we eventually got back on the right path. The trail seemed to go on and on, and we knew we had gone much further than we had originally estimated.
We finally came out on highway 40 around 4 a.m., and decided to take a 15-minute nap. We had passed a sleeping team, and had been passed by a soloist going at a blistering pace. We lay down inside a locked gate on a road. I tossed and turned in the grass and after 15 minutes, was startled awake as a truck came down the forest road! I yelled “car” and Charlie jumped from the road into the grass as quickly as he could! The truck was moving quite slowly, but your brain doesn’t really register that – it just says get out of the way! After we collected ourselves,we got up and headed down highway 40.
We found the turn off to Big Scrub, the location of the next TA, and started down it. We were disappointed that a sign indicated we had 9 miles to go! We could see a couple of teams behind us and a couple in front. This was the most boring road you could imagine! Nine miles of straight-a-way dirt. At least there were some rolling hills to keep you interested. But it kept going and going! We finally arrived at the next CP, CP 7, 8:11 a.m. in 9th place.
This TA was right next to an “all terrain vehicle” camp ground, where there were many Florida red-necks were driving all over through thick sand, doing donuts, revving engines, yelling, etc.. Our crew informed us that they could barely sleep the night before, because the ATV’s would come flying by all night, with drunk drivers yelling out as loud as they could.
After some hot oatmeal and coffee, we headed out on the bikes again. A few teams had left just before us, but we still weren’t ready to speed up too much – we weren’t even half way into the race! We had about 15 or 20 miles of easy biking until the next CP, which we hit at 10:32 a.m. in 9th place, and then we had a bike bushwhack. I had warned the team how bad this was going to be – I had done it two years ago – but I don’t think they believed me. But after two hours in the swamp, pushing bikes through thick mud, lifting bikes up and over down trees and cypress knees, going chest deep through water, and fighting bugs – all in just 2 miles, I think they did.
Once we got out of the swamp, we all spent a few minutes cleaning the muck off the bikes. I put my bike in the river and cleaned it as best I could. We then had a short bike ride up and over the bridge, and down the other side, where the next CP was waiting. We arrived at 12:47 p.m in 9th place. From there, we had a 100 yard portage or so, and then a short 3 or 4 mile paddle back down the river we had just bushwhacked next to. We were able to see many teams in the swamp on the bike whack, and almost all of them looked exhausted and yelled to us asking how much further they had. One team was not even halfway through and told us they had already been in there for 90 minutes. I felt bad for them!
At the end of the river, we had to pull the boats up a steep bank to the road, and then portage them 1.5 miles to the next TA. Luckily we had wheels, so this was not too long of a section. We arrived at the CP at 2:34 p.m. in 9th place.
At the next TA, we quickly got on our bikes and headed out for about 15 miles of pavement. We had a bit of trouble finding one of the roads we wanted, and it wasn’t until a little later I recalled that the map showed the roads did not intersect, but that we’d have to jump across. Oh well, we eventually found our way to the Santos bike trailheads using a different route and started out on some single track. This was CP 11 which we hit at 4:14 p.m. in 9th place. We missed one turn, but quickly corrected that, and found the rock quarry.
From here, we were supposed to go the northwest side and find an abandoned car, and then find a cave 100 feet from that. John and I went on one set of NW trails, and Charlie and Ron another. John and I spend about 10 or 15 minutes in the woods looking for possible cars – and we kept thinking we saw them only to find out it was a strange twisted tree, or tree trunk, as we approached. We finally headed back to the quarry where Ron and Charlie were waiting – they had already gone into the cave to get the UCP.
We took off on the single-track bike trails after a few minutes spent finding the right one. I was riding these pretty hard – it was the 1st single track after many miles of pavement or dirt roads so I was excited. Charlie finally spoke up and reminded me that we still had a 15 mile trek, 55 mile bike, and another paddle leg before we finished, so I backed off. But by the end of this leg, I was feeling my over excitement and wished I had backed off sooner!
We got to the next CP at 5:37 p.m. in 9th place, grabbed a quick snack, and headed out for another 6 miles of single track – up over the FL land bridge over I-75, and then on to the “chunnel.” This was a new section of bike trail – at least I haven’t seen it in the past two races, with lots of tight turns. I was in the lead and came upon a 3 or 4 foot wood “bridge” over a downed log. I jumped off and yelled, “I want to see someone ride this!” Well, Charlie made it look quite easy, while the rest of us lifted our bikes up and over!
We finally made our way to the road, had to jump a fence, and rode up to the next CP/TA at 6:40 p.m. in 9th place. We saw team NADS leaving as we were pulling in, and we had a quick transition, as we wanted to catch them if at all possible. The 1st two sections of this trek on the Florida foot trail were relatively easy. The trail was obvious and well marked. As it started to get dark, I really picked up the pace hoping to cover as much ground as possible before we needed lights. Once we did need lights, we were on a section of trail that had silver reflectors as well as the orange blazes (which are not reflective), so it was still quick going.
When we reached the next road and crossed it for the final section, there was almost no trail to follow. There were some orange blazes, but they were widely spread apart, and there were no more reflective markers. And, it was now totally dark. What trail we could find was overgrown, and there were tons of spider webs. We started thinking that teams in front of us must not have come this way – no way could such large webs be spun in such a short time!
We kept heading west per the map and passport. The race director had drawn in four large, long mounds, and we found the 1st one and headed up. We were moving quite slowly, when Ulf, a soloist, came up with a very bright light making good time. We tried to hang with him as much as we could, but he was flying. He’d get ahead, and then get stuck trying to find the trail, and we’d catch up. This happened several times as we kept going over the long long mounds. These were likely the dirt that had been dug when the barge canal was started a long time ago.
After a while, the trail started heading across open fields. And each time, we’d have to try to find the blazes on the other side which was not always easy. We eventually hit a dirt road that the trail crossed, and we could not find the trail after about ¼ mile on the other side. We spent a lot of time here trying to find the trail, debating about going further on the road, etc. Team NADS came up behind us – we had passed them somewhere on the trail even though we hadn’t seen them. It turns out they had seen us cross the highway and head into the woods on this last section of the trek – they had been unable to find the trail. They had moved just as slowly through the woods as we had, but now we were all together again.
We finally were able to find the trail and took it to the next CP. The trail went through grass fields rather than the woods, and it was not easy to find the path near the beginning, though we were soon walking a path with grass taller than me on each side!
When we arrived at 12:21 a.m in 9th place, I was pretty beat – I hadn’t eaten properly for a while thinking we were almost at the CP where I could get hot food. We were greeted with an ascent. I should have taken time to get some food in me before attempting this, but instead I went right up after Charlie had breezed up and down. It took me a long time since I was so worn out. I finally made it up and back down, and slowly stumbled to our transition area.
Climbing shots (from left to right, John, Sean, Ron):
I ate some hot tuna helper and was ready for a nap. But the rest of the team came in ready to go, so I got ready for the long bike ahead of us – 55 miles according to our estimates. Sometime the night before, I had the same allergic reaction on my legs as last year, and this time seemed worse. They were puffy and burning. I had also been stung or bitten on the back of my right knee, so I wasn’t sure how this leg would hold up. But once we started, it seemed to loosen and I was ok. Then, my right knee started hurting under the patella. This would come and go the rest of the race for me.
We had several miles of pavement before we headed down a dirt/gravel road to an unmanned CP. Charlie and I were pretty beat, so we decided to get a quick nap in while John and Ron tried to find the UCP. After about 30 minutes, two members of team NADS came up asking if we had seen their other two team members – they had gotten separated in the foggy swamp trying to find the UCP.
A few minutes later, John and Ron came up and said they had not been able to find it. John really wanted to sleep at this point, but after a few minutes, we decided to all head out with NADs and Ulf to the next unmanned CP. This one was relatively easy to find, and we again decided to take a chance and keep going on a road that was not on the map. It was pretty swampy, so we had to stop a lot, and skirt monster puddles, or go right through them. At one point, Ron went off on his own while everyone else went a different direction. We could hear him yelling, but could not understand anything. He eventually came back on foot saying he had gone the right way, so after we tried yelling for team NADs and Ulf, we followed him.
We reached the highway and traveled south for a few miles, were we turned on to Cow Polonka road. This was an 8 or 9-mile road of fairly packed dirt. John and Ron eventually went ahead while Charlie and I took it easy and got some food in us. We caught them just as they were coming out of the woods from the 3rd unmanned CP.
We decided to head back to the 1st unmanned CP. We thought that we’d easily find it now that it was light and did not want to take the two-hour penalty, since it was only 6 extra miles of biking on pavement. We headed back down Cow Polonka, and Ron towed me as my knee was really starting to hurt. At the end of this hard packed road, we had pavement for a few miles, until we again reached the dirt road the unmanned CP was on.
We eventually found out from another team that the UTMs for this UCP had been wrong, and teams were now getting corrected UTMs at the prior checkpoint. With this new info in hand, and daylight showing the way, we found the CP and headed out. We had about 20 miles of biking on pavement to the final CP!!!
We arrived and checked in at the CP 10:13 a.m. in 9th place. We asked if he wanted the UCP markers, and he said he didn’t have anything to do with it. This was our 1st indication we had made a mistake, but we didn’t fully figure it out until later. At the time, we just figured they would take them at the finish line.
Finish of long Bike Leg (Charlie, Ron, Sean):
We jumped in the boats. We were now on the west coast, so in theory we should have been done with the “coast to coast,” but the race director had us paddling up the Withalacootchie for another 12 miles to the finish! We found the river and paddled in. I remember thinking it would have been quite tough to find it in the dark, and later found that Will Murphy, of Are We There Yet, did have quite a tough time at this section in the dark the following morning. (Will had decided to persevere as a soloist after the rest of his team had dropped out Saturday night, though he had picked up with a female soloist at some point.)
Last Paddle Start
The beginning section of this river was quite tough for me. I was extremely tired and repeatedly had to stop paddling to do something – anything – to keep awake. I’d stop to drink, stop to eat, stop to wet my hat, etc. We finally took the towline off so Ron and John wouldn’t keep bumping us because of my condition.
I eventually pulled out of it, and we started making good time again. We reached the portion of the river that is blocked by a levy, and is feed by a spillway from the barge canal. I said I’d scout the area to see where we were supposed to portage, but I recalled this area from the year before, and decided it would be best if we portaged the boats along the spillway and then lower into the canal, before heading off to find the other side of the River. We put the canoe on top of the kayak, since we had wheels for the kayak but not the canoe.
But about half way along, Ron checked the compass and we realized we were not heading south like the passport indicated we should be. So I ran all the way back to where we had pulled out, scouted the levy, and found the canal on the other side, where you could see the river we needed to follow. So we portaged back down, put the boats in, and headed across the canal. We probably lost 30 to 40 minutes here. We hooked the towline back up and paddled hard, as we knew we were almost there.
We came around a bend and saw the finish line! Well, there was no finish banner this year, but we assumed it was the end and we were right, thankfully. It was 2:14 pm on Sunday, and we had finally finished after just over 56 hours.
Finishing in the boats (I have my feet up as they were very swollen from the allergic reaction. I’d dunk them in the water, which killed our momentum but felt good, and then elevate them on the gunnels.)
We had come in 8th overall (6th team), but we figured there were going to be some penalties, so we were hopeful we’d move up. It wasn’t until that night that we realized the mistake we had made. When we went back for the 1st UCP that we had missed on the long bike, we basically back tracked most of the route. Well, we inadvertently missed a manned CP because of this – so we had a 2-hour penalty. That’s what happens in a sleep-deprived state of mind sometimes.
In the final standings, we were the 1st 4 person male team, the 6th elite team, and 8th overall. Considering we beat Natures Call, last years elite-team winner, and that the top teams are all fairly competitive at the national level, we were quite happy with how we fared.
In the end, we had been on bikes for over 200 miles, trekked/ran for over 50, and paddled for over 50. We endured a swamp bike bushwhack, difficult navigation at night, etc. This was the longest and toughest coast to coast yet!
Ben and Chris did an outstanding job supporting us. We had great food at every TA, and they ensured our bikes were as clean as possible and operating smoothly for each bike leg. They spent a long holiday weekend carrying bikes, gear, and boats all across Florida. We can’t possibly thank them enough.
Finish Shots (Team, Crew):
Other Race reports:
Carolina Adventure team: http://www.carolinaat.com/articles/article19.html
Subaru Primal Quest Volunteer team: http://www.spqv.com/SPQV_Schedule.html#Coast
Team Relentless: http://www.teamrelentless.org/c2cstory.html