Santa Barbara USARA Nationals Race
On November 1st, my husband Johnny and I traveled to Santa Barbara, California to compete in the USARA Nationals Adventure Race. This was an invitation-only race and Team Toccoa qualified for a slot at a cold race in February. Linda Sledge was our stalwart team captain, and her husband Webb (our #1 supporter) traveled with us. Also accompanying us was John Bonner, our original teammate who tore a muscle in his foot a week before the race and had to be replaced with Johnny. We were a merry band as we caught the airplane from Atlanta to LAX. The amount of gear was astounding and I wondered how teams traveled abroad to do this kind of thing. Upon our arrival in Los Angeles, we rented a 7 person van and headed up the road toward Santa Barbara. Traffic soon had us slowing to a crawl. It took almost 4 hours to drive to our hotel, so it was getting dark by the time we got to the ocean. We were a nervous bunch as we eyed the big waves and huge ships in the water. We checked into Fess Parker’s Doubletree Resort and dumped all our stuff in the most beautiful hotel rooms I’ve ever been in. It was a very posh place, and we wouldn’t have been there had it not been for the race discount. (This hotel was the host for the race.) We ate at the hotel restaurant and zonked out for the night. The next day, we walked a short distance to a beachfront breakfast place and had a delicious meal while watching all the bikers and runners go by. On the way, we ran into Robin Benincasa in the hotel. She had just gone out for a run. In the adventure racing scene, Robin is a celebrity. She races on Team Merrell with some strong teammates, and has been doing races for as long as they’ve been out there. She was just as nice and personable as depicted on TV doing Primal Quest. There were dozens of road riders participating in an 800 mile ride down the coast of California, and they stopped in Santa Barbara the night we arrived. Each person had to raise $10,000 for a charity, and they received a new jersey for each town they stayed at during the ride. The water felt cold and looked scary once again! We walked around town a bit, picked up our bikes from the bike shop and got Johnny’s rental bike. It took me a little time to put my bike together and get it set, then we went to the race check-in. At check-in, we ran into some familiar faces. Enduraventure was there, with Lisa Randall, Bryan Goble, and James Holmes. They were one of the top contenders for the win. Also, Mighty Dog, with Ardie Olsen, Patricia Williams-Smith, and Chip Whitworth, were one of the top teams as well. We also saw friends from Blazing Saddles (Ken, Shelley, and Kevin), Checkpoint Zero (Jon and Clare), and Snickers Marathon ( Ricky and Shannon). These athletes are some of the best in the sport, and are Georgians to boot. They are also some of the nicest people I know. We got lots of schwag from race sponsors like Merrell, Nightrider, Go-Lite, and Zanfel. We decided to switch categories from open to masters since with Johnny, all of us were over 40. We headed off to pack and get groceries before the 7pm race meeting. If you have never done a longer adventure race, you might not realize all the gear we have to have. There are several disciplines and you must carry most of this stuff the whole race, since this race was unsupported. That means that there is no one to meet you to give you anything. There were no transition areas to leave stuff. Think about how much food you would have to carry to last you up to 30 hours! We got some rule updates and logistical directions, then received the maps and UTM coordinates for the checkpoints at the race meeting. The race would begin with us having to tote all our paddling gear along with two inflatable Sevylor kayaks down to the beach across the street. We were to leave that gear, then take everything else by bike 5 miles down toward Carpenteria to Summerland, where we were to drop bikes and bike gear and prepare for the first section of the race – coasteering. Back to that in a minute. We received two topo maps, 3 feet by 4 feet. HUGE! There were 19 cps to plot, but we would be receiving more at the start and later in the race. When you plot these points, you also have to be deciding on your route and labeling the different disciplines and distances. Also important, is your elevation, and you have to figure that out and label it in various places on the map. To make it more difficult, since we had to carry all our water as well, some planning had to be done to make sure there would be water sources along the way that we could treat and drink. California is a pretty arid place up in the mountains. All of this plotting and planning is crucial if you’re to make good decisions out in the cold and dark in the middle of nowhere! After getting less than three hours sleep, we gathered our things and headed down to the darkened beach area to pick two nicely inflated boats. I had been sick at my stomach from around 3am until we got up at 4am, and I couldn’t keep anything down. I discovered this was just nerves, because after we started, I was fine. Weird. We pedaled excitedly down toward the race start. Linda said she felt like she was heading to her execution! By the time we got to the bike drop, the sun was coming up. Down on the beach, teams gathered in the sand between two rows of huge Go-Lite flags. It was a little cloudy and cool, but not bad. They took a huge group picture, then we were off. We had to run east for a short section, then go around a flag and head west. (California’s coast runs from east to west in this section near Santa Barbara.) Shortly after starting, we were dead last, determined to set a modest pace and warm up slowly. After some tough running in the sand, we hopped up on a seawall then started climbing over rocks. There are lots of movie stars and famous people that live on the beach and we were instructed to stay below the high water mark. Can’t be trampling on the grass of the rich and famous! This section was approximately 6 miles long. We attempted to keep our feet dry but it was impossible, as waves kept crashing against the rocks and over our feet. We got to the boats last, (it was easy to find ours!), and loaded our gear. Linda and I were in one, and Johnny alone in the other. Robin was there encouraging us and lots of people were spectating and observing teams getting pummeled by the surf. Linda and I were lucky, and we timed it perfectly to get out before the next big wave came. We were jubilant as we made it safely. Johnny was not so lucky and had to make more than one attempt to escape the waves. He came out of it with wet gear and a boat load of water! Robin came whizzing by us in her outrigger canoe. I said, “hey, we’re racing with Robin” and she promptly bid us farewell and headed out to catch the top teams. We paddled down about 2 miles to a checkpoint. There were huge swells and chop out there. It was really scary. We got the first cp, and turned and headed back toward the race start, another 6 miles. We were pretty nervous having to fight the waves and current and huge boats with huge wakes. But there were pelicans and sea birds and sea lions along the way, and an awesome view of the coast. We were pretty far out to avoid being pulled toward shore. There were huge ships anchored out there. Linda and I had taken on water at the first cp and we had to constantly fight being turned by the waves and to keep ourselves heading down the coast. It seemed to last forever. We couldn’t reach our packs very well so didn’t eat or drink, and this section plus the coasteering took about 5 hours. We were putting ourselves in a hole that would come back to haunt us later. After what seemed like an eternity of paddling, Johnny swore he could see the flags up on the beach. Linda saw them too, but I wasn’t convinced until I saw them and we were very jubilant! We landed the boats and dragged our stiff, sore, weary bodies up the beach to the transition area. We had to carry both boats and all the gear up the hill to a park and load the boats in a pile. We gathered our wet, nasty paddling gear into a duffle and loaded it in a truck. Donning dry clothes and bike shoes, we loaded up and headed out. Linda had a very heavy pack, so we gave a lot of gear to Johnny, our “token” male. Having not eaten enough, he was starting to fade, and we still had 3000 feet of climbing to do to get to CP 3! This section led us up a canyon road with beautiful homes and avocado orchards and orange trees. As we climbed the view became gorgeous. The sea, with the Channel Islands, was enormous! So were the mountains, and we grunted and sweated our way along. Johnny accidently stepped off the trail and almost down into the canyon. Luckily unhurt, he climbed back up and on we went. The trail became harder to ride and we had to walk many sections. We finally crested the top and came down into Romero Saddle, where the next TA awaited. We were to drop our bikes here, and continue on foot for three more cps that could be attained in any order. We opted for 4, 5, and 6 and trotted down the FS road. We met many teams coming out at this point and high-fived Mighty Dog. We met another nice racer who pointed out where we would be going to get cp 4 and 5. It was a rocky mountain and a higher peak beyond. Way up there, we could see the tiny looking people. First we had to refill our water containers. As we got toward the start of the rocky climb, the sun set. Fortunately, the moon was full. We were going to just climb up, but Blazing Saddles suggested we go up to the ridgeline and approach it that way. That was actually our original plan. It was not a good one. After losing the trail several times and getting caught up in some nasty vegetation (that stuff has thorns!!), we backtracked and headed toward the rocks. This was a very interesting section in the dark. We had to rock climb, pretty much, but luckily the rocks were easy to ascend and not slippery at all. We were all having nervous flashbacks to the Primal Quest that occurred in Washington state a couple of years ago, where a racer died after getting hit by a boulder that another team accidently dislodged. The race director was the same one. Hmmmm. We got cp 4 and 5 fairly easily, and had to down climb the rocks to a trail that would take us to cp 6. There was talk among the racers we encountered about how 6 had been misplaced. All cps were manned, but somehow that cp was about 300 meters beyond where it was supposed to be. We followed the trail through the canyon with difficulty. Sometimes the trail would disappear completely in the brush, and we had to poke about to find it again. At a trail intersection, I told our team to start pacing and we added about 200 meters to our distance to account for the error, and headed out. Pacing 1500 meters takes some concentration. At about 1400 meters, we came across a glowstick hanging on a tree. We cut down through the bushes to the water, and there was the cp. Easy! Other teams in front had a much harder time. This was before they realized the mistake. So Enduraventure wasted 2 hours looking for it in the wrong place. By the time we got there, they had hung the glowstick and we were golden! Back to a steep, steep climb out of the canyon – another 2000 feet up. We got to the TA at around 10:30pm and transitioned to bikes. By this time, we had on all the warm gear we had. It was very windy and cold up on that ridge. Another team left the TA around the same time and we found the trailhead together. They led out, and we decided to walk the first section, which was supposed to be technical and washed out. Whoa. What a horrible trail. We rode only very short sections and had to walk through the worst trail I have ever been on. Life was getting tough as we were in the witching hours – the early a.m. hours where energy wanes and sleep tries to take over. The trail continued to be horrible and we dragged our sorry selves along. There were many hairy spots where the trail was washed away, and we had to carefully pick our way along. The fog set in as we approached a lake we couldn’t see, and still we forged ahead. We knew we were in the right place because of all the bike tire tracks. We leapfrogged another team for a bit. Soon, my head light faded out and I was left with a small bar light. Then Linda’s light faded out. On we went. It was so foggy and dark we couldn’t see a thing. Finally, we decided to stop and wait until the sun came up. I curled into the fetal position and closed my eyes and slept for 15 minutes. When we got up, the sun was rising and we found ourselves in the most surreal location I’ve ever been in. Rocky canyons surrounded us. We got to a paved road that wound down the canyon. There were picnic areas and campgrounds that were totally deserted. It looked and felt like some horrible catastrophe had occurred, and we were the only survivors. As the sun rose, so did our spirits and our energy. While during the night we had thoughts of calling Webb to come rescue us, in the daylight we were ready to do what we had to do to finish. We got cp 8 and refilled our water and decided to skip 9, 10, and 11. Another 2000 ft. climb awaited us as we went up the Arroyo Burro trail to the ridgeline. I had some serious chaffing going on and it killed me to get on that saddle. We rode and walked and rode and walked all the way up the long, winding FS road to the top. At the top, there was more climbing on the paved road to Painted Cave road, our way down. This paved section dropped from 3500 feet to sea level in about 5 miles. There were tons of road riders coming up and down. We were getting nervous about making the time cut-off, so decided to try to find our way through town, skipping the next cps. This was very difficult since the topo maps didn’t have many steet names listed and there were a couple of forbidden routes. It was hot and we forgot to eat and drink. Finally, we made it to the hotel, where we had to drop our bikes and run about 200 yds to the finish line. I don’t know what came over me as I saw that finish line and thought about all we had been through during the night. I was overcome, and teary-eyed as we crossed the line and hugged each other and Webb and John. It was quite an experience. I was so glad to have finished and stayed positive. I was so proud of us at what we had done. Especially after talking to Bryan and some of the other top teams and hearing that they thought it was hard, too. Enduraventure suffered a heartache at losing the top spot due to the cp misplacement. They got an awesome third place in the end, but knew they had a shot at first if the race director had placed the cp in the right location. Many teams had dropped out during the night. We also discovered that race management had extended the cutoff time to 3pm. Had we known, we could have tried for more cps. We managed to get third in the master’s division, a totally unexpected placement. At the awards ceremony, we were the first team called out and got to go up and receive armloads of prizes. We enjoyed talking with the other teams and hearing their stories. Blazing Saddles did awesome. So did Mighty Dog and Checkpoint Zero and Snickers Marathon. We slept like rocks until morning. The weather that last day was beautiful and we ate again and strolled the Arts and Crafts Festival along the beach. The flight back was uneventful and we arrived safely home. I hope my bike makes it as well! All in all it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’m indebted to Linda and Webb for making it possible for me to go. We feel honored to have gotten to compete and have learned tons about ourselves and our ability to persevere through the toughest race of our lives.
Congratulations Norma, Johnny, and Linda!!