“OK, before I head out—everyone has to say their favorite part of the race,” Mike said. Mark and I exchanged bemused glances. It was such a Mike thing to say. We were sitting in our room at the Holiday Inn Express Brevard, each of us itching to get on the road, but Mike wasn’t going to let us go until we’d had a group reverie.
“I’ll start,” Matt piped up. “My favorite part was during that long wait at checkpoint 9, where I met this kooky guy who was supporting his boss.” Matt was our support person, and he’d had a very long wait for us at CP9—36 hours. Considering we’d given him an estimate of 15 to 20 hours, it was pretty generous of him to tell us he’d had a good time there.
“This guy was so, you know, city, a stockbroker or some shit like that. And his boss made him come to the race, and he had a lot of interesting comments about people who do things like adventure racing.”
“Interesting comments…?” I prompted.
“You know, like he thought you guys were all crazy,” Matt said. “And he was hilarious about it.”
We were probably all thinking the same thing—good thing Matt enjoyed himself. It’s not easy to support a back-of-the-pack team during an expedition-length race, and this was Matt’s first time doing it. I’d found him by emailing an SOS to one of the race staff, who offered up his own brother. Matt, a dredlocked, laid-back environmental studies student, had done an awesome job of taking care of us for the past three days. He had dealt capably with some major mishaps, most notably a middle-of-the-night tire blowout on the SUV we rented as a support vehicle, but he was still smiling. I hoped he’d be up for supporting us again next season.
“OK Dave, how about you?” Mike asked. Dave was also new to the Beer Nuts team. I’d recruited him from Colorado, and he was much stronger and faster than us. But he was relatively inexperienced and had thought it might be a good idea to do his first expedition-length race with a slower team in order to pace himself. Frankly, he looked like a turd in a punchbowl with us. Or rather, we looked like three turds in a punchbowl with him. His body was so perfectly sculpted that Mike, the team joker, kept asking him how one went about getting calf implants.
“Well, I know you guys weren’t there,” Dave said, “but the jumar ascent was really incredible, mostly because of the views.”
“Didn’t you do that at 3:00 a.m.?” Mark asked. Dave had gone on for another 12 hours after the rest of us DNF’d the race last night.
“Yeah, but you could still see a lot by moonlight,” Dave said. I think we all felt a moment of silent regret. But with Mark’s feet as bad as they were, we’d never have made the finish line. We’d been hobbling along at perhaps a half mile an hour. And I had been really cold, too.
Mark was next. “Well, I wouldn’t say it was my favorite part of the course because I was miserable at the time—but I love when Anna got up from that muddy jungle we were lying in after bushwacking the wrong way on the Foothills trail, just as the thunderstorms were starting up again, and hollered, ‘Does anyone want to get up?’ It was so funny when no one answered her. I was so cold and tired and wet, I just wanted to shout, ‘hell no!’”
We all laughed. That had indeed been a low point on the course. We’d come to a seeming impasse on the trail we were following during the 36-hour hike that had come to be known as “the Death March”—a sign reading ‘private property’ and a gate. We turned back and found another blue-blazed trail, but it was really a bushwhack through wet, thick rhododendron with widely spaced blazes that we soon lost. We decided to sleep an hour until dawn, but when we woke up we still couldn’t find the trail. Finally, we realized the blazes were a different shade of blue and not the right route at all.
“My real favorite part,” Mark continued, “was Matt’s fahitas!” We hooted and cheered. Those chicken and veggies fajitas at the end of the Death March had been superb.
Mark wasn’t done. “I think the funniest part of the race, and I know you guys missed this, was at the top of the Falls, late Saturday night, when we were trying to sleep but we were all so cold. None of us knew the others had the same problem, so each of us thought we were in our own private hell. And I couldn’t sleep so I was trying to light a fire, scraping around in the mud for something that would burn—a leaf, a twig, anything—but it was all wet and nothing would light. And I thought about how funny I must look, lying on the wet cold ground, wrapped in a torn space blanket and desperately clinging to the notion that something would eventually light and I would have my own little campfire, and you guys would all wake up and see it and be jealous.”
We all laughed at the pathetic image Mark painted, but each of us was reminded of our own similarly hellacious moments of hypothermia during the race. It was obvious that we had all questioned our own sanity at some point during the last three days. It was a feeling I’d had frequently when I first started racing—that syndrome when you ask yourself what you’re doing and why, and it all seems meaningless, and you swear never to do it again, but then you forget the misery after the race. It had stopped happening to me for the last couple years, so I’d assumed it was a rookie thing, but now I knew better. It comes back with a vengeance whenever you step up the length and intensity of the race.
“OK, Anna?” Mike asked, moving us along.
“I also have two favorites,” I said. “The best part of the course for me was the Hospital Rock trail, because it was beautiful and rugged and because we played that game on it.”
That answer was about the team, Beer Nuts—me, Mark and Mike. We’d been racing together for four seasons now, and we had great team dynamics, but we also still had a lot to learn about each other. At the beginning of the Death March I’d had a bad case of the sleep monster. I hate that. It’s probably the worst part of racing for me, besides when I get cold. Usually when someone is battling the sleep monster on our team, we start talking to stay awake. It doesn’t matter what we talk about—anything will do. In this case, we’d fallen into a game without even agreeing on or verbalizing the rules. Someone would ask a question or pose a hypothetical for each of us to answer, and the question was always about hopes and dreams. The perfect world. If you could have any job you wanted, what would it be? If you could spend a day as another person, who would it be? If you could go back in time to one historical period, when would it be? If you could write a book, what would it be? With each answer, we learned more about each other, and sometimes we were surprised at the answers we got. For me, it was one of those magical times that had made us come back to racing together a couple times a year, despite the fact that Mark had moved to Europe and Mike had gotten married and become a family man. Some teams take years to develop the kind of rapport that the three of us started out with.
“So what’s the second thing?” Mike asked.
“Oh,” I laughed, “it was when I banged my head on that tree.” That got an appreciative chuckle from everyone. I’d been shuffling along in a stupor and hit my head on a tree that had fallen across the trail. It had seemed so absurd to me at the time that I couldn’t stop laughing.
“Alright, I guess I’m last,” Mike said. We waited. Mike usually came up with something good.
“I loved all the crazy people who kept coming out of the woods. Remember that guy on the first trek, who had that wide-eyed, glassy stare, and was babbling about the map? And he’d been exactly where we’d just been, but he was coming from the other direction. He must have been going in circles.” We roared with laughter at the memory, and at Mike’s attempts to imitate the racer’s facial expressions.
“And then there was that other guy, at the end of the Death March, same look on his face, talking so fast you could barely understand him, telling us we were going the wrong way. ‘I’ve been up here for hours!’ he said, remember that? And he told us the trail went on forever and we had to turn back. And he was totally wrong, we were on the right trail the whole time.” We laughed even harder. Somehow, we always seemed to run into the strangest of teams. Probably a consequence of being at the back of the pack.
“I had another favorite too,” Mike said. I smiled, thinking about how we all had so many memorable moments that no one could limit themselves to just one favorite part of the race. There were so many more I could mention—the lightening strike that scattered us all in a panic, trekking poles flying through the air; the magnificent 500-foot rappel off Looking Glass Rock that had scared the bejesus out of all four of us; running to CP4 to make a cut-off, and then realizing we were nowhere near CP4 yet; and making bets with each other on what time the rain would start every day. It was all good stuff, especially in retrospect.
“Near the end of the Foothills Trail,” Mike said, “when we were traveling with Team Heavily Medicated, we found an old campsite and sat around telling stories. That was another of those cool moments for me, like when we were playing the game on the Hospital Rock trail. You can always learn more about your teammates, you know?” I had missed that moment, but I knew what he meant.
Two hours later, Mark and I sat at the awards luncheon and banquet at the Connestee Falls Country Club, wolfing down a meal of pasta and Italian sausage. Mike and Dave had left for home, but Mark and I had time to spare and wanted to see the race awards.
Mark was still limping badly, despite the full night of sleep we’d had. He had one of the worst cases of trench foot I’d ever seen—chunks of flesh were hanging off both little toes. In fact, I reflected, he had certainly won the award for taking the biggest beating during this race. He had endo’d during the first bike leg and landed on his face, scraping it badly and bloodying his nose. A horrific case of chafing had forced him to shed his shorts and go “commando-style,” with a jacket tied around his waist like a loincloth. Despite all this, he seemed to have more energy and enthusiasm about the race than the rest of us put together.
“Did you have one of those moments where you swore never to race again?” he asked me with a mouth full of sausage.
I nodded. “I had the worst case of ‘what the hell am I doing’ I’ve ever had,” I told him.
“Me too. I was even thinking about how the Beast would be a good race to call it quits with, a fitting end to my little AR career.”
We were quiet for a moment. Then Mark said, “So about that expedition-length race you mentioned in Croatia next year. It’s not far from where I live. When is it?