Friday, February 28, 2014

Maya Mountain Adventure Challenge: 4 Day Expedition Race

Maya Mountain Adventure Challenge
4 Days/170 miles
San Ignacio, Belize
Team Adventure Capitalists/BDAR Midwest
2 Person Coed
Racers: Eric Olsen, Heather Kluch, Mark Rouse (injured)

We went into this race not knowing what to expect. Not only was it our first expedition length race, it was also our first International race, and I was recovering from a sprained ankle (I sprained twice in two months). It was bothering me a day before the race, so even with all the great advice from other experienced expedition racers, we went into this race with the mindset of let’s just finish this and be happy with that! We started off as a 3 person coed team with 4-5 hour intense training days while wearing our packs that we would be racing with. One suggestion, if you think you’re training with a heavy pack, make it heavier!! I trained with 15 pounds, it definitely helped but was nothing compared to what I was carrying during the race. Since the weather in the Midwest during the winter is colder than Alaska, we ended up doing most of our training indoors so we didn’t get used to the arctic temps. Going from negative 30 to 88 degrees and a kajillion percent humidity is a shock to the body! Our workouts included something like walking at steep inclines on the treadmill (more brutal than you would think), steps and more steps up the boring stairmaster, walking with weights above our shoulders or down at our sides to simulate a canoe portage, and spin class with our packs on (yes we did get weird looks). We were definitely the “crazy” people at our gyms but all this training really did pay off! Not once did my legs feel like they would cash out. I give some of that credit to Vector450, an all natural egg protein supplement I’ve been taking for months now that aids in muscle recovery and immune system strength. A quote from my teammate after the race was “I don’t think I pushed myself hard enough” and my answer was “Egg pills!” The stuff works! Anyway, back to training….About a week before we left for Belize, I got a phone call from our teammate Mark Rouse’s wife that he was in the hospital. Mark being a joker with a great sense of humor, I actually thought she was kidding at first. I had just messaged him earlier that day and he said he felt strong and ready for this race, so this couldn’t be for real. It was real. He had an unexpected aortic dissection which could’ve taken his life. He made it to the hospital just in time and survived surgery with only a 50% chance of survival. He is on the road to a full recovery and although we really missed him and his quirky sense of humor out on the course, we are grateful this happened before we left for Belize, because if it happened out there, who knows if he would’ve received the care that he needed to save his life. So this race was dedicated to him, and also dedicated to Rich Wiet, a good friend of mine who lost his battle with brain cancer a day before the race. Both were in my thoughts throughout the race and I had little trinkets with me to remind me that both of them would tell me to shut up, quit my whining, and keep going!

We arrived in Belize a few days before the race just to get nice and settled in and get used to sweating with just standing motionless in one place. The humidity is no joke out there! We unpacked and put our bikes together to make sure nothing was broken or missing. My bike had some brake issues but thanks to Lars from Team Merrell Denmark and Derrick from Orange Lederhosen for getting it back into smooth rolling condition! We got our maps during the day before the race so we could plot and map out our route. The map was a 1:50,000 scale which we’re not used to. We’ve used 1:24,000 before which doesn’t have much detail so, you can imagine the 50,000 has even less detail. We knew this would be a challenge, but everyone had the same map, so we had to deal with it.
We had our pre race meeting along with an awesome pre race dinner (stew chicken is delicious) and found out that the race would be starting at 7am on Thursday rather than the original 12am start time, which meant more sleep for us before the race, and we would be starting with daylight. A few things we were worried about were botflys (google them, they’re nasty), the unknown of the jungle along with flesh eating snake bites, and getting our bodies through a 4 day beating.

We started off the race on our bikes. Teams lined up in alphabetical order by division, so we were about middle of the pack. A pace car lead us down a steep hill (brakes were squealing) at a slow pace through town. It was actually pretty cool to be riding as a huge group rather than us taking off right from the start. As soon as we hit the bridge it was every team for themselves and we were off!  As we crossed the bridge we saw our friend Jennifer Schoon from Cumberland Trail Connection struggling on her bike. Apparently her brakes decided to seize up and she could barely pedal. We passed her up and heard later that they got it fixed up pretty quick. The ride wasn’t too harsh, about 12 kilometers of dirt roads we had to take to CP1 which was at an intersection. We were surprised to see so many photographers and a camera crew doing interviews with the racers. The coverage was awesome! After we punched the CP and got our on screen debut, we headed southwest out of town which is the way we were told we had to go. This mandatory route wasn’t much fun. This nice dirt road we had been on was now mud. It was the most muddy mud that I’ve ever had to ride through.

 Actually there wasn’t any riding, this was straight up hike a bike and even that became “carry a bike”  because every time we’d push our bike, the mud would collect on our wheels and they would stop rolling. Apparently they had abnormal amounts of rain for this time of year and it showed! At one point Eric laid his bike down on the road and his tire just happened to land on a super sharp rock and the next thing we heard was Psssshhhhhh! That thing punctured right through the tire! Eric pushed and carried his bike with a flat for a while until we finally stopped to fix it since we were nearing the end of the mud zone. We got back on our bikes and actually got to ride them instead of push them to find CP2. We decided to turn down a trail and get off our bikes to follow a creek to the CP. The creek kept winding around and seemed to take forever so we got out of there and decided to attack it a different way. We came across another trail intersection that wasn’t on the map which lead us right to it! There was even a sign that said “Waterfall”. Dammit! Wish we knew that was there! Would’ve saved us some time! The waterfall was gorgeous though!
After our little trek back from the waterfall we got back on our bikes and ended up at a raging river, or creek, whatever they want to call it, but it was raging! We had to cross this with our bikes. I was so nervous that I would twist my ankle so early on in the race so I took my time while Eric helped me across.
Thankfully I crossed injury free, and we kept on going. The road eventually opened up to the Pine Ridge Mountains where it was much more enjoyable, and by enjoyable I mean rideable. We ended up taking a left on a road that wasn’t on the map and ended up on the wrong side of the creek. What they call creeks out there, are more like raging waterfall mile wide rapids. We tried to look for a place to cross, but with our bikes it was just too rocky and dangerous, so we had to back track through grass that was cutting up our legs to find the right road which lead to CP3/TA1 at San Miguel Camp.

TREK - San Miguel Camp
When we arrived to the camp, we saw Doug Crytzer the race director, and the first words out of his mouth were “Are you freaking kidding me?” That wasn’t a good thing! Because of our route mistake we had lost a lot of time, so much time that Doug thought we were stuck out in the jungle with a broken leg or something tragic like that. He said he was about to send out a rescue team to come find us. We sat down and started changing into clean and dry socks so our feet would feel fresh for this trekking section. At the beginning of the trek we were supposed to traverse across a waterfall which sounded awesome, but Doug informed us that he had them take the ropes down since he thought we weren’t coming. Uh oh. He told us we could cross the creek (there’s that misleading creek word again) on foot, so we hiked down to the waterfall to see what we were in for. Sure enough, roaring raging rapids all over again! There was no way we were going to cross this creek and stay dry. We scoped it out to try to find the best way to cross but everything looked dangerous. We filled up our water bladders with our filter as we pondered what the hell we were going to do. We ended up hiking down to a part of the creek that looked shallow, but when got closer, it was just uneven slippery rocks with a super strong current. We finally made the call to cross it, and I don’t get scared easily but I was actually shaking at this point. I was worried about my ankle and even more worried about slipping and having the current take me down the creek with my head ping ponging against rocks. Luckily we made it across without cracking our skulls open, and then took some stairs up to the main road. We thought the road we hit was Blancaneu Line, which if it was, we were supposed to turn left. We saw a sign with the road name which had an arrow pointing right. That didn’t make sense to us, so we ignored it and went left. BIG mistake! We hit a dead end where there was a resort with a couple locals sitting on the road. We asked them if we were on the right road and they said no, and pointed to a Nature Trail off to the side. They told us this would lead to the road. Lesson learned… some locals don’t know where they’re going either. The trail did take us to a road but it was a creepy, dark and dingy mudfest! We hit a creek which we thought was the right one for CP5, but it wasn’t. We had to back track all the way back to the waterfall where we saw that sign and turn right, just like the arrow told us! When were finally on the right road, well we still weren’t sure, so I decided to ask a local. This is how the conversation went…I said Hello? Him: “What?” Me: “Do you know what road we’re on?” Him: “Yes” Me:”What is it?” Him: “No Ingles.” Well that was helpful. Luckily we were on the right road, we hit the correct creek, and we had to go into waist deep water to get the CP…at night…it was creepy!
  After we got out of the water without anything attacking us, we headed down the road and found a trail that lead us to CP6 which was supposed to be a fire lookout tower. The trail didn’t seem to go the same direction as the trail on the map so we were unsure if we were on the right trail. Eric saw some eyeballs glowing in front of him which he thinks was an Ocelot, but maybe he was just hallucinating, we’ll never know. We kept climbing up this trail disregarding it’s weird direction and stumbled right upon the CP. If this was a fire lookout tower, things would be burning to the ground because all we saw were trees and more trees. There was no tower, we couldn’t see past anything.
We got out of there and headed down the trail. The moon was so bright we turned off our headlamps and trekked by moonlight. It was incredible! We took the trail going west looking for a junction that would take us to CP7 which was on a waterfall. We never found the junction but we could hear the waterfall so we headed down the hillside. We couldn’t see the CP but after climbing over a rock, we spotted it. We double backed out of there and took the road all the way around back to San Miguel Camp so we didn’t have to cross that raging creek again. At night it would’ve been even more unsafe.

BIKE – 1000ft Falls
At San Miguel Camp we transitioned back to our bikes and headed to CP9 which was Rio on the Pools. As we were riding, we noticed a black dog following us. We were in the middle of nowhere so we wondered where in the hell did this guy come from, but it was like he was leading the way. The trek down to the CP was slippery and rocky which had me a little nervous, so I went down slow. Anything rocky and slippery made me immediately be cautious of my ankle. So annoyed with my body part! When we got back out onto the road we decided to take a different route than we originally planned. We previously saw a sign pointing in the direction of 1000ft Falls (CP10), so we ended up taking that road instead we had no idea what kind of condition the other roads were in. At this point it was getting late, we were tired, and running out of water. It was very slow going on the muddy road since it had been misting and drizzling all night. We decided to make a stop at Hidden Valley Inn to refill our water and take a nap. We found some lounge chairs by the pool so we whipped out our Bivvy sacks and made those our beds. It was about 530am and we planned on getting an hour of sleep. We were told before the race to trick our bodies…if we go to sleep while it’s dark and wake up when it’s light out, our bodies will think they’ve been sleeping longer than they actually have. This actually works! We really didn’t get much sleep with the rain falling and the birds squawking pretty much the entire hour, but at least it was some kind of rest.  At 630am,
we got up, changed into some dry clothes and
got back on our bikes to head to 1000ft Falls. At this point we had been racing for 24 hours and it was the toughest 24 hours of my racing career! I seriously wondered how the hell was I going to get through three more days of this?

When we finally arrived at 1000ft falls, we dove into our food bags that they let us pack for this TA. We were running out of food so this was the perfect time to reload. We ended up running into Cumberland Trail Connection as they woke up from their nap, and we learned that they put some extra unnecessary miles on their bike. These are the things that happen in the jungle with unnamed roads and roads that aren’t on the map! We decided to join forces with Cumberland Trail Connection (Kevin Howser, Jennifer Schoon, & Tamara Falke). At this point since we both knew we’ve made some serious mistakes that cost us a lot of time, and with Kevin’s debilitating knee problem, we had the same goal in mind, to just finish this course.

TREK – Hidden Valley Inn
As we started off on our trek to Hidden Valley Inn (CP11, where Eric and I slept on lounge chairs), Jen was eating one of her Mountain House meals….a breakfast skillet. She generously let Eric and I have some and holy freakin crap it was amazeballs!!! Total happiness in my mouth! As we walked and ate this bagful of breakfast magic, we ended up at an intersection which we shouldn’t have ended up at. Apparently this amazing food made us wander like zombies, so we didn’t notice the gate that we passed all the way back down the road. We turned around, found the gate entrance,  and tried to follow the posted signs to the Inn, but they were confusing. One of the signs pointed both left and right….ummm so which way was it?? We ended up trekking down a service road which felt like forever. We felt demoralized and hungry so we sat down to take a break and as I looked up, I saw a sign for the Inn!! Break was over in a matter of seconds! It was like someone gave us a swift kick in the butt, we wanted to get to that Inn!
When we finally arrived at the Inn, we were told that the mandatory number of CPs changed for the O section, it was now 4 instead of 7. We thought about skipping this entire section altogether because we really wanted to make it down to the Caracol Mayan Ruins which had a cutoff time of 2pm the next day. This was one CP we didn’t want to miss, so after looking at the map for the Hidden Valley O section, we thought there was no way we would make it to the ruins even with having to get only 4 of the CPs. The volunteer got on the radio with Michael Sero to figure out what we should do. If we skipped the O section, then we would end up being unranked which we almost decided to go with until we heard that we were allowed to skip CP14 and 15 on the next bike section. After hearing that it was like someone poked a hot fire poker in all of our butts because we knew if we hauled during this section, we could now make it through the course, RANKED!! So we ran out of there like a pack of wild chickens flying around that O course. It was rogaine style so we were able to pick the 4 CPs we wanted to go for in any order. At CP3
we saw an amazing waterfall at Vulcan Falls, paddled a boat to CP1, and we ended up completing the course in 2.5 hours when it took most teams 4 hours. We were determined to spank that O course and we did! After we showed that O course who’s boss, we trekked back to 1000ft Falls, but this time we took a shorter route since we now knew a better way to go. The way to the Inn felt like hours and the way back felt like 20 minutes!

When we got back to 1000ft Falls, we transitioned back to our bikes. I dropped my hat and some other things on the ground not knowing that there was some poop like clay residue everywhere. My hat looked like someone pooped on it and I still can’t get it clean! Anyway, we took off on our bikes and back tracked the same route we rode in on. I swear for the entire route, that black “ghost” dog
was with us the whole time! It just seemed impossible that he could be everywhere! How could he be meeting us every single intersection when we’re flying on our bikes?? It was definitely strange but it gave me motivation. I kept thinking that this dog was like my friend who passed from cancer, and my teammate who just had heart surgery, both  who would be there pushing us to the finish just like this dog was. I smiled every time I saw this dog, but eventually he parted ways with us and let us push on without him. When we hit Rio on the Pools, it was about 10pm, and we were all feeling tired, so we decided to take a 15 minute nap. This was probably the best sleep I had throughout the entire race. For some reason sleeping on the top of a picnic table while hearing water crashing in the background was so relaxing, and my Opsrey Talon 33 pack made for a great pillow! Jen set her alarm and we all passed out, well all except for Eric. He downed a 5 Hour Energy right before we left the TA so he was bouncing off the walls. After 15 minutes, I heard Jen’s alarm go off, but no one woke up, so I thought she hit snooze. I welcomed this snooze! Then I heard someone say hey, it’s been 20 minutes, wake up! We overslept by 5 minutes. Oh nooooooo! It really wasn’t a big deal, but we all scattered like they were late for work! We kept riding on these bumpy dirt roads with land mines of potholes with me wishing I had a full suspension 29er (Niner Jet9 RDO is my dream bike in case you were wondering).  I took a couple spills along the way which really worried me. Both times I landed on my weak ankle and it hurt like hell. The second time I thought I was done, I really expected my ankle to blow up like a golf ball, but I kept pushing on and it turned out to be fine. It sounds weird but after all the abuse I put it through during this race, it’s actually better now than it was before I started the race. My body likes the abuse! When we finally reached Rio Frio Cave, we went exploring in the first cave we stumbled upon and found nothing. We walked further down the road and saw another cave hiding in the darkness, and there was CP16, that orange and white beauty waiting for us in this ginormous cave. We wish we saw this cave during the daylight, I’ve never seen anything like it! We punched the CP and would later find out that this is the CP that Team Merrell Denmark didn’t find. Because it was mandatory, it placed them behind us in the finishing ranks. So I have to give them credit where it’s due…Lars and Sanne raced their butts off, they were amazing, and if it weren’t for this mishap with CP16, they would’ve placed ahead of us. In adventure racing, sometimes the smallest mistake can bump you down in how you place, but you know that it wasn’t that you didn’t give it all you had, you just made a mistake and you learned from it.  We then made our way to CP17, which was an old abandoned British army base. Eric rode a bit down the road and waved for us to come over to him. We just stared at him like we didn’t understand what an arm wave meant, and even when he said to us that the CP is down this road, we still stared at him. It was like we were stuck! I finally headed over to him and then everyone else followed. Eric was right, the CP was there. There was a guy sitting in a little shack who gave us a new passport for the rest of the race. I stopped to pee in a weird bathroom which had a sign to throw all the poo paper in the garbage. Gross! Sometimes I’d just rather shit in the woods!

We left the base and headed to CP19, a ranger station, skipping the optional CP18 along the way since it would take too much time. This section of the ride felt like eternity. It was dark, we were surrounded by nothing but jungle, and I started hallucinating like mad! I saw villages and people waving to me on the side of the road, which I waved back at first but then realized it was just a tree. I started dodging what I thought were dirty baby diapers on the ground. I didn’t want to run over them and have poo splatter on me, even though I probably smelled worse than poo. When we arrived at the ranger station, we were greeted by Emma Gossett, who was volunteering while her boyfriend Derrick was racing as Orange Lederhosen. Emma was sleeping in a hammock, I so wanted that hammock! At least we had our gear bin at this TA so we busted that open and went through all of our goodies. First order of business was warming up our Mountain House Mac n’ Cheese meals! So delish! We saw the two guys from Ecuador putting diaper rash lotion on their feet, and their feet did look as smooth as a baby’s butt! We also saw Team Merrell Denmark getting ready to leave and they overheard me talking about how sore my feet were. I had my feet taped but I actually think that was causing more harm than good. It bunched up on my heel and was starting to cause a blister. Lars and Sanne gave me some kind of magical powder for my feet. They told me to wrap my feet, take a nap, and that by the time I woke up, my feet would feel better. They were right! Thanks to them for saving my feet! After we finished our gourmet meals, we searched for a place to sleep. Our friends from Cumberland Trail Connection were already sleeping, most likely in their hammocks (envious), so we found a small slab of concrete to cozy up on. There was nothing cozy about it. Some big rat like thing ran past Eric’s feet and that pretty much killed our sleep. After about an hour went by and I sprung out of my Bivvy sack! My stomach wasn’t happy with something I had put in it, and it wanted out immediately! Luckily I felt ok after that, I was worried that was going to be an unwelcomed reoccurring event. At about 630am, we got up,  ate some food, and geared up to head back out on our bikes with Cumberland Trail Connection.

DAY  3
It was daylight as we headed out, so I felt rested even with barely any sleep. I was no longer seeing dirty baby diapers so the universe was working in my favor. The road out of the ranger station was a steep uphill and it was muddy, so once again we had to hike a bike. I thought to myself, crap I hope the whole route isn’t like this. Just as I thought this, a racer riding back from the ruins yelled to us that the road turns into pavement. Kevin and I both thought, this guy is full of crap, but when we reached the top of the hill, there it was. Pavement! It was glorious! We were flying on our way to the ruins. There were some super steep hills but being on pavement made them more bearable. If this race didn’t make me a stronger biker, nothing will! When we arrived at the ruins, they had a camera crew there waiting for us. We felt like celebrities….stinky ones!  The ruins were absolutely breathtaking! We got to climb to the top for the CP!

I loved this, I’m so happy we got to experience this part of the race, definitely one of my favorite sections! I didn’t want to leave! After a climb up and down, and a quick look around to take in such awesomeness, we hopped back on our bikes to head back to the ranger station. As we were enjoying
our last ride of the race, Kevin’s tire went flat. Seriously, out of all the rocks and bumps and potholes we rode over, he gets a flat on pavement! Not only did Kevin’s tire decided to take a hike, we leap frogged NYARA twice because they had a flat and some bike troubles. On the easiest part of the bike sections, everyone’s bike fell apart! When we got back to the ranger station, we cooked up another Mountain House meal (spaghetti with meatballs…mmmm meaty!) and took the meals with us as we headed out on our jungle trek.

TREK – Jungle Trek to Chechem Ha Falls (Ugh!)
Ohhh the jungle trek, I will never forget this for as long as I live. This trekking leg almost broke me…almost. At first it started off as an overgrown trail which you could barely tell was a trail. We thought, wow if the whole trek was like this, this would suck, but to our surprise, it got worse! This trail opened up into a wide road that looked like it was used for farming. You could tell a few tractors came through there and tore up the entire trail, or road, or whatever it was, which was now slurpy mud. We were slipping and sliding all over the place, and at some points our shoes got sucked right off our feet. At this point my feet began to throb all over again. Where was that Team Merrell magic powder when I needed it? Oh yeah, I left the little bit I had left at the rangers station. Poop! I kept on pushing along and the pain was becoming unbearable. Tamara offered help to carry some of my things, but I just kept on going anyway. She was actually very good about offering help throughout the race, she’s a strong racer and a great helper. As we continued on, I was pretty much putting all my weight on my trekking poles and shuffling on my toes since my heels felt totally destroyed. I honestly wanted to cry, but I had so many emotions going through me that I couldn’t cry. So many thoughts went through my head at this point, and they all gave me motivation to get me through my nightmare.  During a previous race, my teammate Don Bart, kept saying the word “progress” as we were trying to get through a tough trekking leg. That word ran circles around my head and it kept me going. One foot in front of the other is progress. I thought of my teammate who was in the hospital recovering from his heart surgery, and about my friend who had just lost his battle with brain cancer. I thought about all the people who helped make this race possible for me, I thought of all my friends and family that were rooting for me back home, and with all this jumbled in my brain, it’s what kept me going. I couldn’t quit, my feet wanted to quit, but I didn’t want to quit, and I knew everyone at home was waiting for me to finish. I also told myself that my feet situation was nothing compared to what my teammate had just gone through with his heart surgery. I kept looking at the bracelet I wore in honor of him to remind me of this.

As my mind kept my feet going,  we eventually stopped at a farm where a bunch of teams stocked up on water. We sat for a bit with some other teams to rest our feet and fuel up on food. This farm was nothing like farming back home. It was so awesome to see how different a culture could be other than our own. After our break we pressed on, and for a while we were hanging on the tails of Team Fortitude and Gung Ho.
 At some point we split up, and the trail opened up into a beautiful field accompanied by the sounds of howler monkeys in the distance. I really wanted to see one up close and personal, but just the noise alone made me smile. Eric was very good at impersonating their howl so it was like I had my own howler monkey with me for the rest of the race. I was also lucky that my howler monkey carried my pack for me a while during this trek to lighten up the load so my sore feet didn’t have as much impact.  We kept going and going on this trail, it felt like we were lost, or missed a turn somewhere. We stopped to get our bearings but still questioned our whereabouts especially when we saw NYARA and Gung Ho coming back towards us. That made us think we were going the wrong way so we stopped, took a seat on the jungle path, and tried to figure out what just happened. We noticed we passed a farm house down the trail so we trekked back there to see if we could talk to someone that lived there. The first guy that came up to us didn’t speak a word of English, but then his son, sporting an Abercombie shirt (do they even have Abercombie out there?), was very fluent. He gave us directions to our next CP which was Chechem Ha Falls. We were actually going in the right direction in the first place, so we kept on going, as I kept on falling apart. My feet felt like someone was taking a hammer to them, and I had to stop a few times because on top of feet problems, butt problems were now added to my list. When we finally reached Chechem Ha Falls, I could barely walk. I sat down and took off my shoes and tape, and let my feet air out. This place felt like luxury to us! This would be our dark zone, which was a mandatory holding point until morning. The woman who owned the home cooked us stew chicken and rice for dinner, we drank Coke, and they even offered beer. Was this really happening? Yes!!! After I gorged myself with delicious eats, I hobbled over to the gazebo as a camera man followed me to record my misery. At this point we learned that the guys from Ecuador also had foot problems but they had to drop due to an infection one of the teammate’s contracted during the race. I saw his foot, it was huge! They were awesomely fast, and had 3rd place overall locked in before all that happened. At least they pushed it as far as they possibly could! As it got later, we got sleepy, so Eric and I tried sleeping on a chair which felt awful, so we ended up on the concrete again, cold and in pain, but hey at least I was off my mangled feet! Kevin, Jen, and Tamara were all snuggled up in their cozy little hammocks near the falls. Lucky bastards!

DAY  4
All the racers in the dark zone woke up around 4am to eat breakfast that this amazing woman offered to us. I’ve never been so excited to drink coffee and eat Cocoa Puffs!!! Just typing that made me want Cocoa Puffs again! We finished our meals and waited around for our tour guide to take us to CP24, which was in a cave. We hiked up a nice little jungle trail to the cave, split up into two groups to take the tour, and headed in. We didn’t go very deep into the cave, but we got to climb a ladder to check out some Mayan pottery which was super cool! After our short tour, we hiked back down the trail and continued onward to the next CP at Vaca Falls. We passed some random loitering cows along the way, which Tamara wasn’t too excited
about since she’s not a big fan of livestock. They seemed sketchy to her, but they didn’t bother us.

When we got to Vaca Falls, we saw the CP was actually out on the rocks. We were allowed to let one of our teammates fetch it, so seeing that my feet were on the fritz, Eric ventured out with Kevin.
It looked amazing, if my feet were in better condition, I would’ve went with them. After we snagged that CP, we kept on going down this jungle trail which was like a for real jungle trail, not like the muddy jungle trek from hell we were previously on. This trail was gorgeous! We could see the sunrise over the mountains, the trees were beautiful, this section was definitely another favorite of mine. I actually started to tear up during this trek because I felt so grateful to experience such beauty. I don’t
know how or why but my feet suddenly became less painful. It didn’t make sense but I was ok with that! Our amazing trek came to a close as we approached the paddle put in. Finally after 3 days, we were going to be able to sit in a boat. We were excited to get off our feet for the next 20 miles!

We grabbed a canoe and we’re told that there were some small rapids on this river but nothing too crazy since the water was so high. Eric and I know how to paddle but we are used to kayak paddles, not oars, so this was going to be a whole new experience. Cumberland Trail were right behind us as we approached the first rapid, which wasn’t what I would call small! We hit a rock and got stuck on top of it and almost tipped! It’s a good thing neither of us freak out when this happens , we can immediately compensate our balance so we don’t go overboard. We finally managed to get our boat off the rock as Cumberland passed us and floated smoothly down the rapids. The current was strong and we couldn’t get our boat turned around so we had no choice, we were going down those rapids backwards!
My stomach pretty much jumped in my throat but it was so much fun! We actually made it without tipping again so I was proud of us! After a couple smaller rapids, the river became totally calm. It was a gorgeous, calming paddle for the rest of the way. At one point we reached a bridge and saw Jen’s boyfriend standing off to the side taking video of us. That meant we were nearing civilization, we had to be almost done! No, not really, it was just a tease, we still had a ways to go, but it was an enjoyable ride. When we finally reached the take out, Eric went to assist Kevin by pulling his boat onto shore, while Kevin was still in it. Right when Eric pulled the boat, Kevin fell backwards and got his PFD and himself
wedged in the seat. He looked like a helpless turtle stuck on his back waving his arms trying to get free. It was hilarious! Kevin escaped his turtle trap and we moved on to the last leg of the race, the final trek home.

Our trek back to the resort wasn’t far at all, and it was on major roads. It definitely felt weird to be back in civilization after roaming the jungle for 4 days. It was sunny, hot, but we all felt strong at this point and we’re in good spirits! Jen’s boyfriend was right there with us, trekking the whole way back, taking pictures, video and motivating us. When we reached the top of the insanely steep hill that our resort resided on, we all decided to link arms as we approached the finish line. We started as two separate teams, but we finished as one. Tears welled up in my eyes and I almost lost it, so much emotion of completing the toughest race of my life so far, imagining all the people that are going to be so proud of me, and just being proud of myself for pushing through the most incredible pain I’ve ever experienced, being proud and grateful for my teammate for helping me through my foot struggle, and being able to experience this race with another team that were amazing throughout the entire race. I choked back my tears even though I should’ve let them loose. We crossed that finish line with huge smiles and hugs! It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life! I dedicate this race to our teammate Mark Rouse, and my friend Rich Wiet and his family. Both of them were in my thoughts throughout this entire race and they have everything to do with me finishing! We ended up placing first in the 2 person coed division because of a small mistake made the other team, but we were just happy to finish this race. I love adventure racing for the experiences, adventures, life lessons learned, and the incredible bond between fellow racers. I can’t wait for my next expedition race, but I don’t know if anything will be able to top this one! I’m so grateful for this whole experience; it was definitely an eye opener and changed my life for the better! Congrats to all the racers who made it through one tough race, and thanks to the race directors and volunteers for putting on an awesome event! Also, a huge thank you to everyone who made this race possible for me, words can't even describe how grateful I am!


  1. Very cool. Sounds like such an amazing experience. Congratulations!!

    1. Thanks Kate! It was awesome! I suggest you do it when they put it on again in 2016! ;o)

  2. Heather, you guy's (and the others) became a part of my life that will stay with me for years to come. It was a distressing pleasure documenting your misery at Che Chem Ha...It's a dirty job - but someone's got to do it. Congrats on the finish!

    Brant, Camera op. and "document-er of misery" @ Che Chem Ha

    1. Hahaha well thanks for being there to capture our misery! No words can really paint an exact picture of what we experience so you and your camera will be the true story tellers! :o)

  3. Awesome job and nice report. Can't wait to see AR back on television! it's nice to hear that veteran teams make navigational wrong turns. I thought we were the only ones that do that! See you guys Sunday!