This photo was taken at roughly 8:00 AM, en route to checkpoint #1 during last Saturday’s Start2Finish Natchez Trace Adventure Race, a 12-hour event set in the rolling hills of western Tennessee. At the time, I was thinking, “well, it can only go up from here.”
If only that were true…
Brent and I had arrived at the park’s Pin Oak Lodge the previous afternoon. We connected with our teammate, JP Bordeleau, who had driven down from Chicago that morning, filled out paperwork, stationed our TA, ate dinner, packed our gear, and climbed into bed at 8:30 PM.
I had had the opportunity to race with JP two summers ago at Untamed New England and was looking forward to the chance to team up again. The three of us fell into an easy rhythm, swapping race stories and watching college basketball before turning off the lights around 9:30 for what has to be a record-setting pre-adventure race night’s sleep.
We awoke at 5:30 the next morning and made our way out to the start, eager to get a look at the maps. While most of the teams there were regulars at Natchez, familiar with the terrain and the organization, this was new territory for us in every way, and we were unsure of what the day would hold.
At 6:55 on the dot, the race director handed each team a large topographical map and coordinates for the first three sections of the day.
We quickly plotted the checkpoints and jumped on our bikes for the first leg. There was just one problem. The map offered no trails whatsoever, and the clue for CP #1 was George Trail.
We pulled out of the TA as we discussed our options. The CP looked to be on the edge of the lake, presumably at the bottom of the trail. We could ride several kilometers around on roads and assume we’d come across the access trail eventually, or we could take the first possible turn and bushwhack the kilometer or so to the flag. We opted for the latter and made a quick right toward the water, and when the trail ended, we lifted our bikes onto our shoulders and entered the dense woods.
For what felt like hours but was probably only about 30 minutes, we pushed, pulled, coaxed, and dragged our bikes through the Tennessee thicket.
This is the only other photo we took during the race.
Finally, we reached the flag and rode back out the infamous George Trail toward checkpoint 2. As we negotiated our way through this early section, we began to get a feel for the organization of the trail system. Each major trail, it seemed, bisected the main road in alphabetical order. We’d end up relying on this pattern later on in the day.
We pulled into the first TA and learned that we were in fourth place.
“How’s it going so far?” asked a chatty volunteer as we changed into running shoes and Brent set about plotting three new checkpoints.
“Not bad,” Brent replied. “We’re flying pretty blind out there and we made the mistake of bushwhacking for the first point, but we’re starting to get a feel for things now.”
“Yeah,” the volunteer responded, “you guys are definitely at a disadvantage here. Not to worry, though, the next section doesn’t rely on trails at all, so it levels the playing field. Just be careful – the navigation is tricky.”
We thanked him for the advice and took off for the woods, eager to make up time in what’s normally a strong discipline for us.
With Brent manning the maps, the three of us moved well through the first two points, picking our way through the dense, thorn-riddled terrain.
“I nearly lost an eye back there,” Brent said as we broke through to the road en route to the third flag.
“Me too,” I replied. “These woods are thick!”
We ran down the road as Brent and JP matched the contours of the map with the terrain. Awhile later, we turned back into the woods in search of one of the many spurs flanked by two of the many re-entrants and even more creek crossings.
I have no idea what happened in here. What I can tell you is that we spent well over an hour wandering amongst the brambles, searching spur after spur for the third point. We passed by CP 10 and then 9 and then 10 again. Brent looked at the maps. JP looked at the maps. Even I looked at the maps. None of us could get oriented.
We criss-crossed the woods, and the woods criss-crossed us. By the time we finally found the flag – and again, I have no idea how we did – our arms and legs were riddled with thorns, and I had taken a nasty whack to the face. My right eye was red and puffy, and so blurry I could barely keep it open. A trip to the doc a couple days later would reveal a corneal abrasion. I’d walk out with a prescription for two weeks of antibiotics and the instructions to steer clear of thorns.
But I digress…
Once we finally found the elusive point, we nabbed the final flag on the o-course and ran back to the TA to retrieve our bikes.
We were in seventh place and the lead team had pulled out of the transition nearly two hours earlier. My eye was a mess. JP’s rear tire was flat.
The boys changed the tube as I packed up the gear, and we set off on a 15-point bike-o. We were all sure that we’d blown the race.
I don’t remember much of the next 2+ hours. I know that Brent made a great comeback navigationally and led us smoothly from point to point. I know that we moved relatively well through the network of trails and roads. And I know that with one eye squeezed shut, I had absolutely no depth perception as I attempted to keep myself upright on the narrow single track.
As we flew down the main road toward checkpoint 19, two away from the next transition, we heard a rustling in the woods. We pulled to a stop at the flag and saw one of the coed teams riding down a narrow trail.
When they saw us, they paused, surprised. “You guys must have taken a different route than we did. Have you cleared the course so far?”
“We did,” I replied. “But not particularly well.”
We shoved off down a trail for the final CP, crossing paths with one more team en route. When we returned to the road, we saw another group of three.
By the time we made it back to transition, in the midst of a heavy downpour, we’d managed to pull ourselves into second place. We reached the TA and retrieved the coordinates for the rest of the course, and when we set off for the paddle, we learned that we’d made up more than half an hour on the lead team.
At that point, it was 2:30 PM. We’d been racing for 7.5 hours and had 4.5 to go. There were five points on the water and an additional 20-ish on the bike. Since all CPs were optional and we were pretty sure we wouldn’t be able to clear the course, we decided to drop the two furthest points on the water and focus on the final leg.
After a quick trip around the top half of the lake, we pulled out of the TA for the last stretch of the race, a large o-loop that would have us riding on everything from smooth roads and gravel paths, to muddy single-track and red-clay power lines. One more navigational blunder cost us an additional 40 minutes, but otherwise we moved well here from point to point.
Somewhere around checkpoint 39, I realized that my back brake was no longer working. Awhile later, JP discovered that his rear tire was soft.
With time running short and our bike woes slowing us down, we opted to drop the final two points. Instead of using up precious seconds to change JP’s tube or work on my brake, we shoved off for the TA, confident that as long as we made it in by 7 PM, we had done enough to secure a second place finish.
We pushed through the final several kilometers and turned down the long driveway with 13 minutes to go. We contemplated dropping our bikes and swimming the 200 meters across the lake for the final CP, but ultimately decided it wasn’t worth the risk.
We reached the finish at 6:51 PM, with nine minutes to spare, good for second place overall. A few minutes later, Team Los Locos crossed the line for the win.
Despite the thorny navigation (pun intended), it was a great day in the woods. We could have easily fallen apart amidst the early bumps and technical frustrations, but instead, we pulled it together and were thrilled with our comeback. It was an early-season reminder of what makes adventure racing so special – on days like this, the team really is bigger and better than the sum of its individual parts.
We parted ways later that night, JP for the 8-hour drive back to Chicago and me and Brent for the 15 hours to Philly and, after a week of roadtripping, a swift reorientation to the real world.
After three races in the past four weeks – a nap.