You know you’ve committed in full to a race when you find yourself neck deep in a river with Japanese tourists on one bank taking pictures and American hikers on the other trying to convince you to grab their hands.
Such was the situation Sue and Denise and I found ourselves in as we scrambled to get the last couple checkpoints before picking up our canoes and paddling up river.
Today was the first GOALS adventure race of the season, a six-hour sprint that took us over ten miles of mountain biking, eight miles of trail running, and two miles of river paddling in the Brandywine Creek State Park in Wilmington, Delaware. Sue and Denise and I were reuniting after our first successful outing as GOALS Girls Gone Wild last fall. This time, though, the competition was stiff. With six teams in the female-three person division, a second victory was anything but certain.
Because the field was so large (more than 100 teams in total), the course designers (none other than my ever-talented husband, and fellow GOALS teammate Chris Bartges, making their inaugural appearances as co-directors) set up a short orienteering foot section at the beginning to spread out the racers. We each set off in different directions, and found our way to a pre-set meeting point with relative ease to find out what our route would be for the day.
We were a little bit disappointed by our bike-run-paddle order, wishing for a brief respite in the canoes between two intense leg workouts, but it ended up being a good draw, as we would discover as the day progressed.
By design, all of the checkpoints on the course were optional. Teams had six hours to get as many as they could, so racers had to strategize about what to go for, what to abandon, and how much time to spend in each section.
We finished the mountain biking section reasonably quickly, and thought we might be able to clear the foot section as well until we hit a navigational snag 20 minutes in. And when I say ‘snag,’ I mean that we spent 25 minutes looking for a relatively easy checkpoint, even getting use out of our whistles (mandatory gear for each racer to be carried for the duration of the course), when we tried a divide-and-conquer approach, only to have Denise and I lose sight of Sue, searching the woods with an increasing franticness and becoming ever more certain that she’d managed to fall down the cliff and splatter on the road below.
Of course, we did end up finding her, as well as the checkpoint, and then made our way to the other side of the river to tackle the second half of the foot section.
When we raced at this park last spring, Brent and Bruce and I decided to ford the river, rather than running the additional mile or two to cross at a bridge. We had the same option this year, and it seemed like an obvious decision to head back across again.
I didn’t think about the fact that it had been raining all week and much of the month, and that the water would be feet higher than this time last year.
We set off with another team and made it a few yards before finding ourselves thigh deep. We got to the middle of the river, and it was up to our midsection. Actually, it was only up to my midsection. Denise and Sue are both several inches taller than me, so they were crossing comfortably at thigh high.
In theory, a river’s depth peaks in the middle, so that as you make your way to the opposite side, the levels recede.
In practice, however, the farther we got, the deeper the waters became. A few feet from the shore, I was neck deep, laughing hysterically and turning back to see Brent, taking a break from his busy day of directing to take pictures of us in all our glory.
We got to the bank and attempted to scale the eight-foot mud wall that separated us from the trail above. After the first couple attempts, a pack of hikers, all sixty or over, stopped to try to lend a hand.
“Where’s your canoe?” one woman asked.
“Were you swimming?” a man said incredulously.
They stood around, concerned and confused, for another five minutes as we pulled ourselves up the bank.
“You’re doing this for fun?”
“Yep,” we told them. “A lot of people actually paid to do this today.”
As this was transpiring, I turned back to see a dozen Japanese tourists on the other side of the river. I think they were out for a hike as well, but when they saw the spectacle that we were fast becoming, they stopped, took out their cameras, and recorded our efforts for posterity. I yelled hello and they waved back enthusiastically. I half-expected them to applaud when we finally made it over the hump and continued on our way.
We had one more navigational misgiving during the run, but made it to the canoe put-in only down one checkpoint, a 10-pointer that we’d intentionally left behind as we saw our time beginning to dwindle.
We had an hour left to get to the finish line at that point. We nabbed all but one 20-point flag on the paddle section, hurried through the obligatory tire-change challenge, and biked back to the finish with eight minutes to spare.
As we pedaled up the final hill, my friends – who’d come out for the day to volunteer – whooped and hollered. It was like our own private cheering section!
Out of a possible 640 points, we managed to get 610 and took home first place in the female-three division.
“You know,” said Bess afterward, “you’re famous… at least among the elder hikers’ club. As I was checking teams in, a group of people came by and asked what was going on. ‘It’s an adventure race,’ I told them. ‘There’s biking and running and paddling.’
“‘No swimming?’ one man asked. “We saw three ladies crossing the river a little while ago. One of them – she was pretty small – was all the way up to her neck in water.'”
“‘Ah,’ Bess told them. ‘I think I know who you’re talking about.'”