USARA National Championships - Tampa, FL - November 4-5, 2005

Flying down to Tampa, Florida, I pondered how my team arrived in the situation of sending not one but two teams to the USARA National Championship race. Six weeks prior, we raced and won the Wild 24-hour adventure race in MN, which was a Nationals qualifier. We wanted to race our whole team for Nationals (Justin, Scooter, Erl, and myself), however, Nationals is only 3 person teams. So a few weeks later, Justin, Scooter, and Molly raced and won the Thunder Rolls 2-day stage race, good for another spot at Nationals.

The 5 of us recruited Jason Neilsen from IowaActive, and together spent the next month preparing, training, and figuring out how we would race a team of 6. Would it be slower, trying to keep everyone together? What if we had to split up during the race? How was Jason going to fit in with our team? More importantly, would Jason’s wife deliver their third child mid-race? During the race, we would keep ourselves amused by coming up with creative names for the baby, with our favorite selection being WEDALI BIZO Neilsen.

With all of these questions on the forefront of everyone’s mind we arrived in Tampa, got the vans, loaded up the bikes, and found our host hotel, already overflowing with racers. Wednesday night was spent carbo-loading, assembling bikes, and starting the endless task of messing with gear. As I was putting my handlebars back on my bike, I noticed a sort of grinding noise when I turned them – it felt like they were filled with sand. Upon further inspection, Justin realized that my entire headset was broken, with tiny little ball bearings spilling out everywhere. Yikes! Not much to do at 11:30pm but hope that tomorrow would bring about a speedy fix.

Jason joined our crew, and the day was spent buying race food, test driving bikes, and trying to pack as much food and water into our systems as possible. I was able to get a new headset installed, and everything was looking great – gear check was no problem. Zanfel was there, giving away free samples (Scooter was infinitely grateful, as it is the only thing that works on his poison ivy). We spied a large group of racers congregated around the Zanfel booth – turns out that Robyn Benincasa (one of the most famous adventure racers in the world) was on site. Two flabbergasted WEDALI females approached Robyn, got pictures, and had a 5 minute conversation, the only part of which I recall was that she said Molly and I were cute!

Onto the pre-race meeting, where they tell us that racing with alligators and poisonous snakes is nothing to worry about. Ack! I hope I can muster enough strength to beat them off with my kayak paddle if it comes to that. We get our maps, plot points and go through instructions; afterwards we drive our bikes to the bike drop, mess with gear, and are in bed by 11:30pm.

Friday morning:
4:30am Sound the alarm!
5:15am In the vans, ready with gear, and munching on banana bread sent with love from MN (thanks Lynn!).
5:45am We congregate for a pre-race meeting, where every team is split up, and the navigators get the maps for the first orienteering section, while the rest of us are bussed to the start.
6:45am Finally reunited with Justin and Jason, who have plotted and reviewed the maps – the teams will be split up from the very beginning. They have figured out a place for us to meet up – at the river crossing after 4 cps in the swamp. This was a big risk – how long would the first team wait? What if we never caught back up?
6:55am Line up at the start, Robyn Benincasa gives a great motivational speech to get us even more fired up, a final group hug and ...

7:00am START! With nerves racing, we start the trail run with the other 66 teams – a straightforward fast run to the first CP where we split up. Robyn is actually running this first leg with us mortals, and gets caught up in our group. We entertain her with our usual antics, joking, laughing, jumping around and taking candid on-the-run photos, which elicits her comment “you guys are like a Saturday Night Live skit.”
Our teams split up, and we got our first taste of the Florida vegetation, running though groves of cypress trees, palmettos, and other jungle-like foliage with hanging vines and moss. Our feet were wet the entire race, running/walking through swamps, rivers, and marsh. Along the course, we would see huge poisonous spiders, armadillos, snakes, opossums, and miniature deer (seriously - they look like dogs), and evidence of wild boars.

About an hour later, we met back up at the river crossing – WEDALI #1 arrives in 2nd place overall, with WEDALI #2 just 5 minutes behind. At this point we choose to bypass the rope river crossing and canoe options, and instead run up the trail, for a river crossing swim with all of our gear. From here, it is more bushwhacking to trails, and a few hours of foot orienteering. We tromp through swamps, trying to make noise to scare away alligators. There are just a few other teams with us in this swamp section, and then it is a quick trail run to CP1 at a number of bridge crossings loaded with volunteers and spectators. Robyn Benincasa is there cheering us in, saying that we are “surprisingly” the first team in!

TA1: 9:48am
A quick transition, and into the canoes with teams right behind us. We know we won’t hold this lead, seeing as how some other teams are really strong on the paddle, but it is an honor to be in this position even for a short time. We paddle on a wide river for awhile, and then get into a narrow, curvy section with tons of fallen logs and log jams, known as “17 Runs Swamp.” Apparently there are 17 different routes through this section; we hope we have chosen the right way. What follows is lots of portaging, canoe bushwhacking, and lifting the canoe over trees. What compounded the slowness of this section was the multitude of teams that were all trying to force thru at the same time - lots of crashing and cutting people off. It was ruthless! The competition was really heated, and other teams were already dissolving into bickering and shouting at their teammates. WEDALI #2 witnesses this, and made a point of saying “good job” to each other.

We finally make it through the 17 Runs, and out onto a larger river, somewhere in 10th or 12th place. By now it is heating up to about 83 degrees, with the sun directly overhead. This brings the alligators out in force, to sun themselves on the river banks. We paddle into the transition area.

TA2: 2:16pm
At this point, we realize that one of our sets of maps is complete junk – sloshing around in the water for 3 hours the “waterproof” paper fought a losing battle. Most of our real food (i.e. pizza, pizza rolls, sandwiches) was also lost in the soaking – we learned that when the instructions suggest using a dry bag in FL, they don’t mean ziplocks! We dump the canoes at the boat landing, grab some trail mix (which was a lifesaver since we were already worried about the amount of food left), and were off on a short run to the bikes.

We transition to the bikes, fill up water bottles, and are off mountain biking, passing some teams in the TA. The mountain biking is really fun, with flat trails, all off-road, and plenty of sand, roots, and mud. We do a bit of bushwhacking with our bikes, and took the long way around on one CP, and lost some time. Justin and Jason figured out where we were, and got us back on track; and at this point we were probably in about 20th place. The heat is really a factor now, and we make it a point to hydrate often. There are some great mud pits in the trail, and when I bombed through what I thought was a shallow puddle, my front tire disappeared and I went down in the “helpless turtle fall”, much to the amusement of my teammates since I was covered in mud thereafter.

TA3: 4:54pm
Finally we arrive at TA3, by the same river crossing we were at in the beginning of the race, and find the picnic area. ARFE (Adventure Racers for the Environment) was there, offering bags of chips and candy for each piece of trash turned in. Thankfully we had a bunch of trash, and loaded up on salt, sugar, and as much junk food as we could stomach. After dumping our bikes on trailers, we took off on a run – and chose the same route up the path to the river crossing swim (this turned out to be the fastest option, per race director post race). Our plan pre-race was to get through the mountain biking in the light, so we were pretty happy with our position and strategy at this time, although we had dropped to about 20th place.

We started another big foot orienteering section, and we were almost always surrounded by other teams, some of which were completely lost and followed us instead of figuring out the navigation. The checkpoint that threw most teams was CP 12, and the kicker was that there was a 12a, 12b, 12c, and finally 12d where the punch was located. We learned after the race that this CP took most teams over 4 hours, and was one of the first to be cut when teams were close to missing the cutoff time. We were running whenever there was dry land, and managed to pass up some teams in this section, due to Justin and Jason’s excellent navigation. Near the end of this section, we had to choose a few long river crossing swims, or coasteering along the Hillsborough river; we chose the latter. We were in anywhere from 3 inches to 3 feet of water. All of the submerged logs and trees had Molly wishing she was wearing her soccer shin guards, and our toes and legs had many scrapes and bruises by the end of this section. Out onto dry land, and a quick run into TA4.

TA 4: 9:14pm
The race organizers had a special challenge for us here - Individual Time Trials - teams had to split up, with each one taking a different time trial discipline. The 3 disciplines were mountain biking, trail running, and navigation. Justin and Jason took the navigation, Molly and Erl took the trail running, and Scooter and I took the mountain biking. A quick transition, and Scooter and I were off on the bikes. We had a map, and were supposed to get 2 CPs that were located along the trail at unknown points. The trail was fun – more of the same flat, twisty, sandy single-track with a few tricky roots thrown in. Scooter lead the way, and really helped me through the course. We finished up with a time of 1:06, good enough for a 2nd place individual time trial place for Scooter in the male division. (There were at least 4 women with faster times than this, so no podium finish for me).

When Scooter and I returned to the TA, Molly and Erl had already rocked the trail running course (total time of 55 mins), and we regrouped, ate, hydrated, and got the bikes ready to go for when Justin and Jason finished with the navigation course (by far the most difficult of the 3 disciplines). Molly and I started to get cold standing around outside, so we searched out some heat – in the women’s restroom where there was already a conflagration of tired, dirty, beat-up adventure racers trying to get a few minutes respite from the race. Molly shared her crackers with me, and we dozed off, sitting on the muddy bathroom floor, until Scooter’s yell woke us up “Molly, Ellen, let’s go!”

Jason was in, with Justin not far behind, and now we had to plot points, read new instructions, and get back on bikes for a long mountain bike section. Once we saw the rest of the course, we realized that there was still a lot of race left to go – would our food and water hold out? The first bike CP (BCP1) proved to be pretty elusive, as we spent about an hour searching. We finally got it, and were all eager to make up some time and speed to the next checkpoint. POP - Ssssssssssss! Erl completely blew out his rear tire – big hole in the tire itself. We stopped and replaced the tube, patched the tire, and were off. About a mile later, the tire went flat again. Oh no – were we going to struggle with this tire the rest of the race? We still had a lot of biking to do. Another patch job, and we were on our way, and luckily were not plagued with any more problems with the tire. This whole mountain bike section was in the woods, mostly on trails, with some fun twisty single-track and a little bit of bushwhacking.

After a long mountain bike section, we drop bikes, and try to find BCP16, which caused some confusion since there was CP16 as well. As it turns out, BCP16 didn’t have a punch anywhere – the volunteer at the bike drop, which was actually BCP16, said “drop your bikes and proceed onto the checkpoint.” So we assumed that we were supposed to find the flag and punch for BCP16. After running around for 30 minutes, with a bunch of other teams that were all doing the same thing, we asked the volunteer again. He said that there was no punch, and to go onto the TA. Telling us to go onto the CP, and then onto the TA were two completely different things. Once we realized this, we hustled over to the TA.

TA5: 5:16am
Back into our canoes, and we were off on a fast paddle, trying to make up the time lost on the nonexistent BCP16. We were alone on the paddle in the dark – seeing alligators, trying to navigate the underwater logs, and keep the canoe afloat. The alligators gave us lots of incentive to stay in the canoe. Molly was freaked out by the thought of them, so Scooter kept it to himself that the “orange glowing bugs” she saw on the water surface were actually alligator eyes.

We were alone on this whole section, and after about 3 miles of paddling, we grabbed CP 17, paddled 3 more miles, and then beached the canoes at CP18 at 7:01am. There were special instructions for this mini-orienteering section; we could break the 100 yard rule, and there were 5 CPs to get. The CPs weren’t punches, but actually had buckets with tokens in them, so we split up in the same twosomes as before – Molly and Erl took the canoe to one CP, Justin and Jason took the 2 most remote ones, and Scooter and I took the ones along the boardwalk. We took off at a good pace, and ran to the tower for the first CP, and then to the end of the boardwalk to get the second, where we saw a team, all 3 in the canoe, getting the CP from the water. We high-tailed it back to CP18, joined the rest of our team, and hopped back into the canoes, managing to pass a team somewhere along the way.

We had a fast 3 mile paddle back to CP19 (which was also CP17 and CP20), and about ¼ mile before the CP, we spied another team just slightly ahead of us. We motored our canoes as quickly as we could, and arrived at the boat launch just minutes after them. We hustled our canoes out of the water, and received instructions from the volunteer that there was no punch for CP19 – just to drop our paddling stuff and run to the end! We crossed the finish line hand in hand, all 6 of us. 7:50am on the clock, for a total race time of 24:50:53.

It is amazing that one could be cold in sunny Florida, with a daytime high of 83 degrees. However, messing with gear and loading up the vans after the finish found us all shivering and looking forward to hot showers. Molly and I had accumulated a few hundred sticker burrs in our hair throughout the course of the race, and felt a bit like primates picking them out post-shower. Sleep was in order, as well as eating anything that wasn’t nailed down. The Saturday night race banquet was a great way to celebrate an incredible race, and we were honored with 8th place amongst some fierce competition. This would be the last race of the year for all of us, and in the calm after the race we had time to reflect on the past year. The hard work, dedication, and perseverance by the team, coupled with the support and encouragement from friends and family allowed us to compete in our best season ever.

Jason’s wife held out until two weeks after our race to deliver their third child, Kenai Ely Nielsen. In the Dena’ina language, "Ken’ey" means two big flats and river cut-back, and the word "ken’e" represents trees and brush grown in a swampy marsh. Either of these may be the root or origin for the name Kenai.

(C) 2004-2007 WEDALI adventure racing