This past weekend, Brent, Chris, and I took to the swamps for the 2012 running of the Kando Adventures Palmetto Swamp Fox, a 12-hour adventure race in South Carolina’s Francis Marion National Forest.
It was the second time we had made our way to McClellanville; the three of us traveled south for the same race two years ago and were hooked on the great organization, the unique terrain, and the opportunity for an early season tune-up.
With my spring break and Brent’s coinciding for the first time in six years, we decided to take advantage of the overlap to plan a short road trip, bookending the week with the Swamp Fox on one end and another race in Tennessee on the other.
So, I drove down with our gear as soon as I finished teaching on Thursday evening, Brent followed by air the next afternoon, and Chris and his girlfriend, Debbie, made their way from Delaware on Friday morning. All four of us converged on a house that Chris had found, just a mile or two from the start of the event.
We had all wondered how different this year’s course would be from 2010, and when we received the checkpoint coordinates at 5:00 AM Saturday morning, we were excited to find a new adventure awaiting us.
The race kicked off promptly at 7:00 AM with a short sprint separator. In the spirit of St. Patrick’s Day, each team had to run to the local middle school to retrieve two riddles. We would not be allowed to start the first section until we returned to the start and solved the riddles.
GOALS is generally a pretty strong team, but we’re rarely out first when it comes to pure speed. On Saturday, though, Chris jetted to the front of the pack with me and Brent following close behind, and by the time we ran back to the start, we had solved the puzzles and were all surprised to find ourselves out in front as we shoved off for a 20+ kilometer paddle.
The early morning fog was burning off and the water was like glass as we kayaked through the Intracoastal Waterways. For a brief moment, we all paused to take in the scene – and then we remembered that there were 50-odd teams chasing us.
As we pushed for the first checkpoint, Brent was careful to match the contours of the channel with the route on the map to make sure that everything lined up. Everything, he said, seemed to be in sync. We were looking for two tributaries that jutted up to the north; our plan was to take the second right turn.
We approached what seemed like the correct spot, but there was only one river coming down. Since everything on the map had been accurate to that point, we assumed that meant we needed to push on ahead a bit further.
We would later discover that the maps dated back to the 1970s. Hurricane Hugo, in 1989, had decimated the waterways and changed the course of the channel for decades to come.
Half a mile past the first tributary, we paused to regroup. Several teams passed by as Brent and Chris studied the maps, and when we ultimately made the decision to turn back, several others opted to do the same. We pushed for the turn and paddled up toward the first flag, watching as boat after boat turned to join in the chase.
By the time we reached the checkpoint, our early lead had vanished. Now it was time to play catch-up.
We pulled the two kayaks up a mud-slicked bank and received plots for two additional checkpoints. Brent sat down to triangulate the coordinates (something new to me!) and we made the seamless transition to foot for a short orienteering course.
There were four flags in an area roughly 2-3 square kilometers, and we could retrieve them in any order. As we started off on a clockwise loop, we saw racers running in every direction. We had no sense of how many teams were in front of us.
The flat terrain and well-groomed trails allowed us to sprint from point-to-point. There was no such thing as AR pace during the Swamp Fox; we were pushing near-maximum speed for the entire day, our only respite coming as we slowed to search for and punch each of the flags.
We arrived at the first point on the o-course to see the flag hanging high in a tree. Brent dropped his map case, grabbed the passport from Chris, and ambled up to punch the card.
As he jumped down, I took a breath. My legs had felt heavy at the start of the run and I was preparing for a long slog to the next point. But minutes later, we were pulling up in front of an orange flag, hanging in the center of a swamp.
When we raced here in 2010, I was mildly panicked the first time I stepped into the swamps. This time, though, I had a pre-race heart-to-heart with the race director, who assured me that with three people running through the muck, any alligators would steer clear of our path. To my surprise, his easy logic stuck, and I felt reasonably calm as I prepared for our first trip in.
I got a temporary reprieve, though, when Chris jumped onto a log and ran out to punch the flag.
It would turn out to be the only trip into the swamps all day.
We pushed for the next two points and then returned to the TA for the second paddle leg. As we pushed off in our boats, a volunteer told us that there were four teams ahead of us, and seventeen that still hadn’t made it to the first checkpoint.
We had another hour of paddling, followed by a second short foot section and one last kayak to the bikes.
This was the first time Brent and I had been in a boat since Nationals, and Chris had only been out recreationally in recent months, so during that final paddle, we all began to fatigue. The winds grew stronger and the tides was pushing against us, and we were all starting to feel rather deflated.
“Where are all the ‘gators?” Brent said. “I want to see an alligator.”
“We’re still in the channel,” Chris or I replied. “The water’s too brackish.”
We debated the salinity of the water for a minute or two and then, off in the distance, we saw a fin pop out of the water. We watched as a lone dolphin glided through the channel not 50 meters from us.
“Okay,” Brent said, “that makes up for it. That may be one of the coolest race experiences we’ll ever have.”
And then, it got cooler.
A few minutes later, we saw a second fin surface, just off the shore. While the first had been noticeably rounded, this one was more angular.
“Are you sure that’s a dolphin?” I asked.
“I’m pretty sure,” Chris replied, but he didn’t sound quite as confident as he had before.
We continued watching as the animal skimmed the water, not diving up and down as the first had but rather cutting through the surface.
And then the fin turned, and started heading right toward us.
“Um, guys,” I said, “are we really sure it’s a dolphin?”
“I’m not positive,” Brent – my SCUBA instructor of a husband – said, curious.
I didn’t want to wait to find out. We dug our paddles into the water and pulled hard. And then, ten feet to our right, the fin paused and a big, grey dolphin popped its head out of the water and smiled at us.
“Okay, I take it back,” Brent said, once we recovered. “THAT was one of the coolest things we’ll ever experience in a race.”
The dolphin sightings carried us through the next half hour, and just as we began to drag again, Chris spotted a small alligator sunning itself on the banks of our tributary.
“Finally!” Brent yelled.
Even I was excited.
It was enough to get us through that last sluggish kilometer on the water, and when we rounded the final corner and pulled in front of the boat dock, we found ourselves tied for the lead.
We were now 5 hours into the race, and there was one bike section and 15 checkpoints separating us from the finish. And I was ready to ride.
With Brent manning the maps and Chris and me following close behind, the three of us weaved our way along pebbled dirt roads and pine needled trails. Though the terrain was just as flat as it had been in 2010, the bike course this year brought a welcomed variety.
We pushed hard from point to point, Brent’s navigation close to perfect. Within the first handful of CP’s, we’d passed the one solo racer who was in front of us, but we felt a handful of other teams nipping at our bike shoes.
Each time we thought we’d begun to open up a lead, we’d see them pull in to search for a point within minutes of our departure. It was perhaps the first time for any of us that we’d ever been the rabbit in such a close field.
Four of the final five checkpoints formed a small loop at the far north end of the course, and when we’d mapped it earlier, we thought we would tackle them in a counter-clockwise circle, bushwhacking through the swamps for the final point. As we rode, though, we realized that we would need to move nearly 5 miles an hour – on foot, through swamps – in order to equal the time it would take us to bike around to the point.
When we did the math, it was an easy decision. The only problem? That meant that we’d chosen the wrong route for that last stretch, and with two coed teams close behind, we thought we’d lost our chance at the win.
We hit checkpoint 22 and then powered through to 23.
The night before the race, a small forest fire had broken out near CP 22. When we arrived there, the ground was still smoking.
As we turned back onto the main road for CP 21, we had a chance to gauge how close we were to the trailing teams. We hoped that we wouldn’t pass anyone until we were comfortably moving down the trail toward the flag. But sure enough, within a few minutes, two teams were coming toward us, on the back end of the loop that would take them to the finish.
I watched Brent’s whole body deflate as he calculated our chances. We thought it was over.
Still, we didn’t let up. We sprinted up the trail, dropped our bikes and ran for the flag. Then we jumped back on and retraced our steps to the trailhead. We turned back on the main road and, as with the trip out, found ourselves sliding through loose sand as we willed our bikes to move. Brent and Chris made steady progress but I struggled to power through.
Then, Brent turned back and looked behind me.
“They’re right there,” he urged. “And we’re so close.”
I gritted my teeth and continued on, and when I made it through the worst of the sand, I turned around to see the coed team turn right for checkpoint 22.
This was our chance. If we could hold on for the final 10k sprint, the race was ours.
We pulled back into a pace line and shot forward. We dropped our bikes for CP 24 and I ran into the woods to punch as Brent rearranged the maps. From there, we had 8 kilometers on smooth roads separating us from the win.
We stuck close and powered on. I was terrified that if I fell off Brent’s wheel, I’d never get back on – so terrified that I nicked his rear tire several times before Chris was able to convince me to ease up.
Finally, we crossed the last major intersection. We sprinted by our rental house and flew past the middle school where we’d retrieved the riddles earlier that morning.
At 4:20 PM, 9 hours and 20 minutes after we began, we dashed in and punched the final CP.
Seven minutes later, the second place Northern Lights powered in.
All six of us agreed that it was the hardest we’d ever pushed in a twelve-hour race. They were gunning to take us and we felt their presence every step of the way.
It was a hard fought one-two finish – and it sure made for an exciting race.
Brent, Chris, and I came out of the day with a comped slot in the East Coast Adventure Race Series Championship, to take place in September.
Then, as Chris and Debbie headed for home, Brent and I began our week-long trip from the lowlands of South Carolina to the hills of Tennessee, where we’ll team up with JP – one of my teammates from the 2010 Untamed New England – for Saturday’s 12-hour Natchez Trace Adventure Race.
But first – we’ve got some high points to climb.