BY CHRIS SCHOTZ
We’d been out over seven hours and time was running out. Halfway through our sixth and final map I was checking my watch and doing the math. We needed to find five more points and get back to headquarters before the eight-hour mark or face disastrous penalties. After paddling a canoe and running through the brush all day, I was then reading a map on a mountain bike and feeling like a football coach managing the clock with no timeouts remaining.
Those are just some of the charms of adventure racing, a sport that sends explorers orienteering by foot, bike and boat over a wilderness course that is full of surprises. All we knew going into the Rib Mountain Adventure Challenge was where to leave our bikes and where to drop our paddles. The route itself would not be revealed until an hour before they loaded all 46 teams on a bus and dropped us off in the woods with 47 points to find in numerical order before time ran out.
As if that wasn’t already the perfect recipe for drama, adventure racing is a team sport that puts a premium on co-ed teams, and I had a new teammate, Rebecca, who I’d met at group rides and gatherings. All I knew is that we were both competitive and had the same goal in mind, but how would that play out when things went haywire in the 90-degree heat? The rules assured that for the next eight hours we could be no more than 100 feet apart so we had better get along. The prologue of the race put our teamwork to the test right away when one of us had to run down the trail to retrieve a puzzle that we would have to solve correctly or run back to do pushups. We systematically eliminated wrong answers on the math portion, but there was this picture of a cube we had to orient in our heads so that some fruits would line up correctly. We were stumped on that one until we realized that it mattered which way the banana was pointing at the orange. No pushups for us.
We were off and running down a gravel road and even passed a few teams that were quicker at math. I’m a biker who only runs to get to his bike so I felt reassured when I could hang in there on foot. Rebecca is a solid biker in training for a marathon so she could hold a steady pace with the map, and direct my fresh legs to the checkpoints where I inserted an electronic stick into a box to record our location. All was well until check-point (CP) 4, where we were supposed to find a “subtle spur.” It was a lot more subtle than expected so we totally overshot the turn, and found ourselves bleeding in the brush as teams moved ahead. Unsure if they were heading for CP4 or CP5, we almost gave up and skipped ahead to save time. The race had barely started and we were already headed in the wrong direction. That detour burned five minutes, but we were unperturbed and found two whole checkpoints in a row before getting lost again. This time I charged down a path that looked right on the map and we spent 20 minutes wandering through a boulder field with a whole herd of lost souls. If only I had pulled out the compass in the first place, the path would have been revealed immediately. From that moment on we would always trust the compass and never get lost again.
That initial 6-mile trek brought us to our bikes and a new set of challenges. I’d seen elite adventure teams tether their bikes together so that a stronger biker can tow a teammate and increase their overall speed. It seemed worth trying on the road sections so I bought some surgical tubing at Home Depot, and tied it to my seat post. Rebecca borrowed a bike joring rig for her bike so I would be her dog. It was all solid in theory and for the five minutes we practiced. We cruised past several teams and learned to take the corners a little easy so as not to crack the whip and send Rebecca flying into the ditch. We survived and didn’t give up on our contraption. It saved us the handful of minutes that we might need later.
The bikes brought us to a fleet of canoes on the Big Eau Pleine Reservoir where we would orienteer on the water in pursuit of small peninsulas and lone trees in cattail swamps. We dug our paddles in hard, neither of us wanting to let the other down after our earlier trials. We glided past a few teams that had skipped points and found ourselves hanging with a team that we called the “three dudes.” All was calm on the water as we approached CP17 which was a cove that led inland. As I held the drippy map, I began to wonder what would happen if we paddled into the cove, and then carried the canoe half a kilometer over the hill and through the swamp to the other side of the peninsula that is Big Eau Pleine County Park. Rebecca thought I was crazy to want to trek a boat through the woods, but she trusted me. I was hoping the absurd scheme wouldn’t end in a quagmire as we watched every other canoe enter and exit the cove. As Rebecca reached for the electronic box to tally CP17 we saw the three dudes land their canoe as well. At least we weren’t the only ones who were ready to go all in and hope for the best. Awkward as it was, that portage may have saved us 2 kilometers on the water so that we were back in the game with all checkpoints cleared and time to spare.
We would need every second after we totally failed at the special challenge set up at CP20. One of us had to stand on one side of the bay and use two semaphore flags to relay a message across the water like two ships lost in the fog. We could hardly tell our left from our right and took a five-minute penalty, but that was the least of our problems. Something about running and then biking, and then sitting in a canoe had done something evil to my legs. From that point on the running got really painful, and I often had to rely on Rebecca to trot into the brush to register points. Three miles of running, stretching and walking finally brought us back to the landing where the bikes were waiting. We made good time over wet single-track, and I was able to keep half an eye on the map clipped to my bars as we bounced over a whole lot of roots.
The fifth map sent us trekking by compass down the shore and over the hill. For a moment we crossed paths with the same three dudes, but couldn’t keep pace for long … even though one of the dudes had to run the whole 4 miles with one bike shoe and one running shoe. The compass brought us out to the point, past the stump and through the frog pond. We made steady forward progress, but our aching legs were taking way too long. We began the final mad dash on the bike with only 45 minutes left, and we would lose a point for every single minute we came home late! Navigating on the fly as fast as we could travel, it still took half an hour to snag the first four points. We had less than 15 minutes to find the final three points and get back to the finish! I told Rebecca that we might have to skip the last two points and head down the road, but she convinced me that it was all downhill and we had to go for it.
With no margin for error, I punched us in at CP46 and hoped I hadn’t counted anything wrong in our haste. The final point was on a spur off the trail which we’d have to find immediately with no poking around. Still, on the bike, I caught a glimpse of the orange flag and dashed into the brush while urging Rebecca on to the finish. My watch still said it was going to be tight as we started down the last hill to headquarters. Weaving through traffic we made it to the line exhausted with 10 seconds to spare according to my watch. It turned out that those same three dudes without a shoe were the only other team to find all 47 points. That final effort had left us totally spent. One beer, two waters, four Cokes and a big milkshake barely hydrated me, and Rebecca would need IV fluids to recover.
If that kind of unpredictable race is your game there are plenty of chances to adventure across the Midwest. There were plenty in June and July, but the September Code Blue Challenge is a 10-hour event that will throw high rope elements into the mix, and the Milwaukee area even has an 8-hour event in November. Wait until next year to head to the Lower Peninsula for the 8 and 18-hour Michigan Adventure Race or the 24-hour adventure in the Illinois bluff lands of the Shawnee National Forest.
Of course, for every insane adventure, there is always another to push a body even farther toward the fringe of human endurance. The Rib Mountain Adventure Team who hosted my adventure are on their way to the Untamed New England Expedition where the bus shuttle alone will take them 10 hours across three states before leaving them to a sleep-deprived four-day trek through the mountains.
Whether you call it a race, a game or just pure adventure, these events are devised to give you a compelling test of body and brain.