In 1780, Francis Marion led the continental army in a victorious military offensive to drive the British out of South Carolina in the Battle of Camden. The 48-year-old officer took to the lowland swamps, waging what many consider to be the first modern guerrilla war against the Loyalists and earning himself the nickname, the Swamp Fox.
Last weekend, Brent and Chris and I headed for the Francis Marion National Forest in McClellanville, SC for a 12-hour adventure race that took us over, around, and through the very terrain that the legendary Swamp Fox himself traversed so many years ago.
The fifth annual Kando Adventure Palmetto Swamp Fox began promptly at 7:00 AM on Saturday, March 20, when 60+ teams were bussed to an undisclosed location for the start of the race. We knew that there were 22 checkpoints spread liberally throughout the course, and that we would roughly follow a figure-eight strategy, biking one loop in the northeastern quadrant of the map and another in the southwest, with a paddle and run section in the middle.
At 7:24 AM, we were let loose about two miles from where we’d dropped our bikes nearly three hours earlier. While some teams chose to run to the first checkpoint, about a mile away in the opposite direction of the bike drop, Brent and Chris and I headed straight for the transition, jumped in the saddle, and took off for the northeast quadrant.
In all of my adventure racing experience up to this point, I have begun each race with a relatively acute sense of anxiety, struggling to find a rhythm and regulate my breathing and trying not to let it get the better of me as I work to keep up with my teammates. On Saturday, though, I felt strong and steady from the outset, and was able to settle in to a brisk pace right away.
My one fear for this race was the swamps – and all of the creatures that might be awaiting our arrival. So imagine my surprise when we arrived at the first checkpoint, dropped our bikes, and ran to the edge of the water. “Really?” I said to Brent and Chris. “Already?”
Brent smiled and started to pick his way through the mud and muck, with Chris and me following right behind, dodging palmetto leaves and cyprus roots as we searched for the orange and white flag. Walking in, I worked hard to steady my breathing while I scanned the water for gators and snakes, but by the time I made it to the other side and we found the control, I began to feel more at ease.
We punched the checkpoint and ran back to our bikes for another quick trip to checkpoint two. I was riding hard and feeling strong, and for the first time (racing in the premiere division), I felt like I was a contributing member of the team.
When we arrived at our second point of the day, we had a decision to make. We could jump back on our bikes and ride several miles out of the way to a third control on the other side a wide creek, or we could trudge a kilometer through the swamps and back. From a strategic standpoint, the choice was obvious, so after a moment of weak protest, I jumped in line with the guys and took off for the creek. At first, all I could think about was the jaws of death waiting to pull me under, but as we made our way, the fear began to fade, and I actually started to enjoy the swamps. The trek provided a nice respite from the physical exertion on the bike, and though we were moving relatively quickly, I enjoyed the chance to look around and experience the amazing eco-system. We crossed logs, plowed through branches, and sank into thigh-deep mud (well, thigh-deep for me; knee-deep for Brent and shin-deep for Chris) as we made our way to the creek.
Along the way, I fell in love with my new bike shoes, the Pearl Izumi X-ALP Sleeks. Brent and I saw these on clearance at REI last year and both invested in a pair. In my old shoes, my feet would slide out every time we had to run for a checkpoint, but these fit just like regular running shoes, and stayed on firmly through the race, even as they got sucked into deep swamp gunk. I’m now an avowed Pearl Izumi convert.
We knew that there would be a creek crossing before the checkpoint, and I volunteered to take the plunge. Though this may have made sense from a speed perspective, in reality, as Brent pointed out, it was a silly suggestion, because I get cold so easily and we would be spending the next several hours biking and paddling before we would get to any real running to warm us up. I appreciated my husband’s clarity of mind, but made sure to point out that I had offered to take one for the team.
So, as the water came into view, Brent stripped down to his bike shorts and shoes and, handing off his gear to me and the map to Chris, he prepared for a quick swim across. “We’ll keep an eye out for gators,” Chris said as Brent looked back one last time. “I’ll blow my whistle if I see one,” I added.
I could tell Brent was a bit anxious as he jumped in, but he shoved away any thoughts of being eaten and barreled across to the other side, coming up just before the checkpoint. He punched the passport and swam back over, dressing as we ran back to our bikes. Though we spotted one lone bike when we reached the road, we hadn’t seen any other racers in the swamps, and were happy with our decision and the knowledge that most other teams would probably be taking the long way around.
The rest of the morning passed quickly as we biked along flat (very flat), dusty gravel roads, clearing the northeastern quadrant en route to the kayak put-in. I continued to feel strong and steady, and was rather entertained to note that on our mountain bikes, we were averaging about 17.5 miles per hour during that first section, faster than my pace in the Wisconsin Ironman.
We arrived at the boat launch to hear that nearly two dozen teams had already entered the water, but because of the layout of the course, we had no idea how many checkpoints they had gotten. We knew that we were moving well and making good decisions, but we weren’t quite sure where we were in the rankings.
Unlike any race I’ve ever done, we had been able to select our boats of choice for this one ahead of time, and opted to go with two sea kayaks – a double and a single, to be tethered together during the 10-ish mile trip down river. Chris and I manned the double and Brent commandeered the single, and we moved well with the current through checkpoints 16, 17, and 18.
It was at the beginning of the paddle that Brent decided to begin yelling out “Gator” at random intervals. He reasoned that if he said it enough, I would be unfazed if, in fact, we came upon one. The local fishermen fed his antics, telling us that they’d spotted one around the next bend or along the far shore. I’m not sure how sound his logic was, but the paddle passed quickly as the three of us scoured the riverbanks for bulging eyes. I began calling our phantom friend Godot, and told Chris and Brent that I would be perfectly content to wait for his arrival forever. But lo and behold, two thirds of the way through, Chris looked across the water and saw not only the eyes, but the entire body of a 4-5 foot gator. We all watched him lounge in the sun, and even I had to admit that it was a pretty exciting encounter. We renamed him Garp – certain that John Irving would have given his blessing – and I felt a wave of relief at the realization that we were basically done with the swamps for the rest of the day.
We passed three or four teams on the river and exited the water at 11:40 AM, just over four hours into the race. From there, we took off on a rather boring six-mile run (on more flat, gravel trails) back to our bikes, and then transitioned into a ride over to the southwest quadrant to complete the second circuit. We still had no idea how we were doing compared to the rest of the field, but we were pretty confident that we could clear the course before the 7 PM cut-off.
Though the riding was gentle, it offered little in the way of reprieve, and we pushed hard through the afternoon, maintaining pace lines from checkpoint to checkpoint and fanning out in the tall grasses to find the controls. I struggled at times to hold the line, but I was determined to keep up without the aid of a tow.
We punched the final checkpoint at 4:47 PM, and made a beeline for the finish. We had more than five miles to cover, and really wanted to make our self-imposed 5 PM cut-off. We stuck to each other intently and pedaled hard through town, pushing the pace back up to 18 miles per hour after a full day of racing. I’ve never been so focused on the tire in front of me.
We pulled into the finish at exactly 5:02 PM, and not seeing anyone there, cried out that we were done. A voice came from behind a wall, and we ran in to punch our final point.
In the end, we finished first in the premiere 3-person coed division by over an hour, and second overall by about a minute and a half to a solo racer. We all felt good about the day and happy with the end result. We covered close to 80 miles all told, 56 on the bike, 10 or more on the water, and about as much on foot. Chris was a beast, breaking the lion’s share of the wind throughout the day, and Brent was nearly spot-on with the navigation.
Since we’d rented a house just a couple miles from the finish line, we opted to go back and shower before the awards ceremony.
As for me, I learned a lot about myself during those nine and a half hours of racing. I pushed harder than I’ve ever pushed during a race, and I think because of that, I felt more engaged, more connected, and more confident. Though I had my down moments, like everyone, I dug deep, put my head down, and instead of falling too far off, I pushed through them. I’m still a newbie in the adventure racing world, and I still have a lot of work to do, but I felt like I reached a new level this weekend. Things began to come into focus. And I loved it.
And I managed to stay off tow the entire race.