(Photographs courtesy of Meg Roberts)
John, Dave, and I went to Georgia last weekend to experience the Atomic Adventure Race, a 24-hour race that attracted almost 60 teams and a lot of good competition. The first Atomic race in 2009 was in the same area, so we figured we might be at a bit of an "away team" disadvantage. We hoped for some adventure in exploring a new place and seeing some cool sights.
Our biggest pre-race decision was boat choice. Dave wanted to try his kevlar canoe, even though the race director warned of rocks and possible putting holes in a boat like that. We brought the indestructible "Green Machine" as a backup in case the race course did indeed take us onto a gnarly river of class III rapids. When we learned that we would be paddling the Etowah (class I/II except for a portage around a class V), we decided to take a chance on our lighter, faster boat. And bring lots of duct tape. All the other boats at the boat drop were a lot more solid/heavy. We felt we were either being pretty smart or really stupid.
The biggest pre-race hassle was plotting the points for the first stage (day 1). None of the maps were in 24k:1 scale like the plotter we were required to bring. We ended up having to use a calculator to figure out the plots, and then the 70k:1 National Geographic map wasn't on the same datum. We mostly figured it out, but had to ask for clarification from the race director about a set of closed roads for part of the bike section. At least we had plenty of time (and daylight) to straighten this out.
The biggest route choice in stage 1 was an option to skip one of the bike rogaine points. None of the points seemed like an obvious skip, as we weighed elevation changes vs. distance vs. harder singletrack trails instead of roads. I liked the layout of that section, and would be interested to find out which points everyone else skipped.
There was a hard cutoff for the canoe put-in at 4:30 pm, with a removal from the race if you didn't make it. The race director gave a set of time estimates for teams to use at the checkpoints leading up that spot so we would know if we should start skipping points along the way. It was great information to have, and I believe most teams made it onto the water.
The race started at 7 a.m. with a prologue run for one team member. John graciously volunteered, as Dave and I hoped he would. He came back near the front of the pack, and soon we were hiking up the trails through the woods with several other teams. We found CP1 along the trail and John punched our passport but opted not to hold everyone else up by filling in the logbook (same as the other teams around us). We decided we better remember the rest of the logbooks so we didn't incur a penalty for "consistent negligence in entering info into logbooks."
A woman in front of us cut a switchback and received a verbal tongue lashing from nearby racers, as we were supposed to stay on the trails in Amicalola Falls park. If someone is willing to break the rules in front of other racers, it makes you wonder what they do when they're by themselves...
Soon we were hiking up stairs next to a beautiful waterfall. Very nice! We popped out at CP2 just behind several teams, jumped on our bikes while they were changing shoes, and got out of there in first place. It was fun while it lasted! I don't quite have the biking speed to keep up with the top teams, but we held our own going up the mountain. One intersection confused me because it pointed toward a church somewhere to the left, while the map suggested the church should be to the right, but we decided we were on the right track and continued on, following the two Checkpoint Zero teams up the hill.
The last bit toward the top was steep and rutted, so I walked most of it. We found CP3 at the top but never did see the "Lookout Tower" - better than the other way around. We started greeting teams going the other way, from the teams just ahead of us starting down to the gaggle of racers coming up behind. We never did get much of a response from many of the racers. It was always refreshing to get a smile and "you too!" to our "good job!" calls. I guess we're spoiled by the team-to-team congeniality in the Texas adventure racing scene.
We started down a long, long descent off the other side of the mountain, crossing the approach trail to the Appalachian Trail in the process. It was a fun descent, screaming down the hill while making sure our teammates were still within sight. When we saw a road to the left we (along with the team next to us) stopped hard to make the turn. Not far up the road we found a creek crossing and a "Hiking" trail sign. It didn't explicitly forbid bikes, but we decided that running was an OK choice.
I pace-counted up the trail, but didn't need to. We just followed it until we came to a big cascade in the creek next to us and decided that must be Bearden Falls. Other teams were just leaving that area as we climbed up to locate CP4. One team had brought their bikes most of the way with them, then other teams behind us decided to do the same. We were happy being on our feet for a little while - not much other chance at that today.
It seemed like the whole field was hot on our tail, so we ran on down and hastily got on our bikes to get out of there. More roads - dirt and then paved - and then we found the church and manned checkpoint 5. This is where the bike rogaine started, and we had to find 4 of the next 5 checkpoints. All of us were supposed to punch race wristbands at each of these points.
We opted for a clockwise loop, riding up a trail to CP6. Back to a dirt road where we saw a photographer.
The next bit was confusing because the roads didn't exactly match our maps, but it was a relatively quick little detour through a parking lot before we figured it out. We turned up the trail toward Bull Mountain. Given a "redo", I might lobby for skipping this next point. It was a long uphill slog, but we eventually came upon CP7.
Down the other side, we saw the first counter-clockwise team coming up the hill. After a couple of quick turns we started up the road toward CP8. Teams passed each other going both directions, and it looked like many people had decided that the extra distance to this checkpoint was an OK trade-off vs. other checkpoints.
We climbed up a short hill to the neatest little 3-pronged waterfall over a mossy rock. Very nice. Oh, and CP8 was there too. Back to the bikes, back down the road, we started a climb over toward CP9. I talked the guys into trying this one from the road that ran parallel to the bike trail up high. We parked the bikes, hiked up a steep hillside, popped out at a field, and ran right into CP9. Score!
Back down to the bikes, now we had only roads to ride back. We skipped CP10 because of the technical singletrack that seemed to be required to hit it. It would be fun to return to that area someday to see if that was the best choice vs. the climb up to CP7.
Coming down a dirt road, I veered just a bit too much to miss a clump of dirt and ended up sliding on my side. Ow. Luckily I looked down and saw my wedding ring sitting on the ground next to me. I had been thinking I needed to take it off, since my new bike gloves don't cover it or hold it on my finger. Time to take care of that! Also to walk off the sting of the road rash for a minute. My bike was OK, my arm was slightly bruised, and the side of my leg is now interesting colors. But at least I could still ride just fine, so we were able to keep going. What is this crazy sport we do?
Back at CP5 (now CP11), we were allowed into the church bathrooms by a really nice man working there. We refilled our camelbaks and mixed a Spiz for lunch. It was either that or stop at a Minimart later, but we had to have more water before the paddle section. Now we were good to go.
Paved and dirt roads took us directly to CP12. From there we spent some time following a powerline, first following directly under it (which meant going WAY up and then WAY down over and over) and finally on a trail right next to it (which was flat as a pancake). Dave and John worked the map to keep us in the right direction while I watched the odometer and tried to keep up. I was flagging through here, rather hot and with tired legs.
Finally we came to a paved road and Dave was right on track with his nav. Nice going. Several miles of paved road, one barking dog that chased us, a couple of turns, and a nice downhill on highway 9 later, and we found the canoe put-in and CP13. We got there with plenty of time before the cut-off, so we were pleased with that. We dropped off our bikes, secured our packs in the canoe, and pushed off.
The race director gave us a nice little river map that described the rapids and landmarks along the first half of the paddle. That worked great, and I was able to follow along and predict the dicier spots. Right away we dropped into a class II rapids and had a really good taste of what we were in for - lots of current, lots of rocks, and interesting river reading. The boat rode (mostly) smoothly down a set of drops, pleasantly surprising us all.
John started calling directions back to Dave, and I immediately decided Dave might not be able to hear him, so I yelled his words again. "Go left!" ("go left!") "Slightly right" ("slightly right") "Left - NO, RIGHT!" ("left - NO RIGHT!") - It was pretty funny, because even when I knew that John meant right instead of left, I still repeated exactly what he said. I couldn't help it. Dave appreciated the volume and repetition, so I kept it up all the way down the river. I'm pretty sure every other team should be happy they were nowhere near us.
We passed a set of recreational kayakers who quickly got out of our way (I guess they could hear us coming) - thank you! We made quick work of the portage around the class V waterfall (we weren't having anything to do with that one!). We passed one team that was pulling over for a pit stop. We found CP14 under a bridge. We ran into a few rocks, especially in the class I rapids that had a higher ratio of rocks to water, but the boat held together even though it protested quite a bit. I was glad for a foot brace, or I might have landed against John's back more than once.
As we closed in on the highlight of this section (the highlight of the whole race, actually), we prepped ourselves for a trip through a quarter-mile long tunnel. We had been briefed that it would be dark, so we snapped our glowsticks to activate them and John got his headlamp out. There was a detour available, and I was pretty scared about the whole thing, but I also didn't want to go home without trying this - it seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Volunteers at the entrance made sure we had our gear in order and verified that the tunnel was clear, and we were good to go. Boy, was it ever dark!! We floated down, listening to the rush of water that pushed us along, and Dave and John pushed off the walls to keep us pointed straight down toward the light at the far end. I held the crossbar in front of me and my paddle to my side.
There was a sliding drop, as promised, which went fine, then a shift to the right but the guys kept us from bumping the wall. Dave started singing like in a Disney pirates ride, which made us laugh. The water slowed a bit and then picked up toward the end where we could see the safety boats waiting in the sunlight.
A rock jutted out from the right side, as we were expecting, so we stayed to the left. The water at the exit was really turbulent, dropping us around to the left rather unexpectedly. We didn't balance correctly for it, ending up going overboard into the water. But we hung onto the boat and all of our paddles, and were pushed into an eddy to recover. We looked up to see the safety lady pulling a shoe out of the water, which made us wonder which of us had lost a shoe? It turned out that SHE had lost hers instead.
After dumping the water out of the boat, we jumped back in and continued downstream. The only item that didn't stay with us was the river map that had been attached to the map board in the boat. Oops. Hopefully we can't get a penalty a week later for admitting that we littered.
I knew there were only a couple of class I rapids left before crossing under the next highway. Then we were off the map anyway - we had no maps nor information about the second half of the paddle, only that we would take out at highway 9 (again) and the total paddle was 23 miles. We tried to figure out how much time that might take, given the fast-moving water, our normal flat-water speed, and the added time for the portage, a couple of pee breaks, a couple of slow-downs for getting over rocks, and a couple of times having to pull the boat over a downed tree. That still gave us a pretty wide window of when we might be done.
Oh well, nothing to be done but paddle on. The water got a lot flatter, giving John and Dave a break from having to focus on the obstacles all the time. It was odd to appreciate flat water instead of current, enjoying the chance to just paddle forward and move the boat like it likes to go. Then John would call out a rock ahead, and Dave was back to work with the steering.
We passed under highway 53, then later another bridge that was a lot quieter. I was hoping we were getting close but couldn't say for sure. Finally we turned a corner, found bridge pylons, and saw a lady sitting at the other side. Woo hoo! We were done. That was quite a paddle. It had been quite a day.
We pulled the boat up to the grass and resecured our paddles with zip ties and duct tape for transport. One more little jog to go. A firestation had put out coolers full of water, so we stopped to fill our camelbaks. It wasn't completely certain for some reason that there wouldn't be water available at the staging camp up ahead, but we had enough hints that we decided to take the time to get it now. On the way along the road we met Team Wedali walking back to get water - they took a different approach to save time to the finish of the leg, but I didn't envy their post-stage walk. We ran into the finish area after about 10.5 hours of racing
Three teams had finished about 45 minutes ahead of us, and we were in 4th place at the end of stage 1. This seemed pretty good to us, out of the number of teams that we were racing against and the speed of the other teams on the bike. We got our map for stage 2, plotted the rest of the points (thankfully all on a real 24k:1 scale this time), and set up the tent on some plush grass.
We had been given a 13-gallon trash bag to bring camping gear, so we had a Go-Lite teepee tent, 3 ultralight sleeping bags, and MRE's for supper. As soon as we were completely set up, droplets of rain started landing around us. We jumped into the tent to eat and get our packs ready for the next stage.
Soon it was pouring rain, with thunder and lightning making a huge show of it. We could not believe our timing. We crawled into the sleeping bags to rest, although we weren't really sleeping because of all the light and noise. We were so thankful not to be in the downpour (not all teams were so lucky) that there was not a single peep of complaint out of us.
The storm waned and raged, finally slowing and stopping sometime before our alarms went off at 11 pm. Again, amazing luck and timing. We put on wet shoes (but at least we had clean socks on!), got the tent down, and checked in with the race director Josh to let him know we were ready to keep racing. He had just come back from the hospital where his wife had a baby that day! How about THAT for timing? He did have an excellent co-director (his brother Jack) and crew that kept the race going, and I didn't notice anything lacking from his absence during stage 1.
We were given rerouting instructions because the Etowah River was now too high to ford at a roped crossing. The reroute required crossing on a bridge to the northeast of the camp. No problem, at midnight we all ran out to the road and crossed the bridge. However, here is where our race took a turn.
My brain was apparently on the fritz, because I had decided that I wanted to try the most direct route from there to the checkpoint. Never mind that it involved skirting the river along a cliff and following an up-and-down powerline for a while. My biggest mistake was not refolding the map to account for the reroute, so I didn't even really look for alternatives. Almost every other team decided to run around on a road, only a couple kilometers and a few ups and downs out of the way vs my route - IF my route had worked perfectly.
We actually had to backtrack to find the trail I wanted to take, which confused other teams heading in the other direction. Again, we were either being pretty smart or really stupid. I guess if I had to pick, I'd rather the "really stupid" part happened while trekking instead of while paddling...
So we were all alone when we started on a trail along the river. We found footprints from one team ahead of us, but they had found the turn without backtracking and we couldn't see their lights. We reached the "skirt the river along the cliffs" section and determined that it wasn't going to be possible. So we were stuck running around a big drainage on a trail. Sigh. We got going on the trail.
Back on track on the other side of the drainage system, we climbed up to find the powerline to turn onto. Less than a kilometer of that, and it was still a mistake to try it. It went sharply down and up over and over, similar to the bike portion in stage 1 but now covered in low vegetation that included prickly vines for some major leg-scratching. There was a trail higher up that would have certainly been faster. Sigh.
Finally we reached the bottom and heard fast-moving water. This was Shoal Creek, which we were told we would have to cross somewhere, but that normally it is only ankle deep. It might be "up to our knees" now from all the rain. Later we learned that the race directors had only ever crossed at the ford. So they probably could not have known that the creek in front of us was over our heads and extremely swift.
The problem was that it wasn't super wide - maybe 30 feet. So it seemed MAYBE doable, but then again, we were told not to swim the Etowah so we weren't sure we should be swimming this. John climbed down a steep bank to try to get a feel for how deep it was. That's when he fell in.
Dave and I were looking upstream for better crossing options, when he looked over and told me that John was swimming. WHAT??? I yelled! I didn't authorize that! John pulled hard for the opposite bank and found a way out, but it wasn't really clear of brush and the opposite bank was super steep, so he yelled that this wasn't a good spot to cross.
We started upstream on opposite banks, trying to find somewhere better. My next mistake was completely misreading the map and thinking that the trail to the north crossed the creek. We could just aim there, maybe it's a good spot. It took me way, way too long to realize that I was looking at a 180-degree bend in Shoal Creek with the trail going along the other side. In fact, Dave and I were about to be cliffed out on our side. And if I had followed Shoal Creek upstream on the map, I could have noticed that it drained a large part our of topo map terrain, which had recently gotten three solid hours of pouring rain dumped on it.
Time continued to pass as we tried to figure out what to do. I didn't want to ask John to swim back across when perhaps I should be able to make it over there. On the other hand, I couldn't see far enough downstream to tell what I would find once I got there (because I didn't think I could swim fast enough to make it across right away). I waffled between trying it vs. turning around. If John hadn't been on the other side, we would have turned around much more quickly.
Finally I tried to get in but just couldn't do it. John found a place to cross, swam hard and made it without incident. He made it look easy, but I still wasn't convinced I should have tried it.
Now we had to work our way backwards to try the ford that almost everyone else had aimed for initially. We bushwhacked uphill, finally found a nice trail, ran along the ridge, and then cut downhill to the ford (following little reflector dots on trees, of all things to find in the middle of nowhere).
A really loud dog was barking at the team that crossed ahead of us. The team yelled back that we should stay to the right, so John and Dave supported my arms and we walked across the ford. It was much higher than knee-deep and still fast, but with help I got across by walking. Thanks teammates! The other team had also tried Shoal Creek in another spot and had to backtrack like we did.
We jogged up the road, grateful that at least we weren't last. We found another team as we all figured out a strange little side road, got back on track and ran ahead. Down a side road and down to a creek, we followed the creek down to a waterfall. John spotted the logbook below him and went down to punch CP17. Finally! Better late than never.
Climbing out of there, we headed north up a road/trail through some vegetation. It got muddy, but since we were actually moving in the right direction it didn't seem appropriate to complain. Finding a road at the top, we stopped to contemplate a route choice. A direct bushwhack through a drainage, or around on roads? We had had about enough of the direct routes for the moment, so we chose the road route.
This actually turned interesting once we started through a neighborhood. A man was sitting in his yard in front of a big bonfire, and when he saw us he told his dogs to "sic em!" At least the dogs were in a fenced yard, small favors. But the man wasn't done - although we called out a friendly hello, he wasn't taking kindly to this middle-of-the-night event going on in front of his house. He said next year he was going to bring his friends and put a stop to it. Then as we walked away, he called "come back here!" That was plenty motivation to get the heck out of Dodge! Scarier than a raging Shoal Creek and the mining tunnel put together.
We hit highway 53 and then found a dirt road going south. After one intersection, the road direction confused me so we tried a direct westerly bearing. That brought us to a road that might have been a trail? We continued west to another road that might be the next trail? So we headed north on it. And promptly popped out on highway 53 again. Talk about a comedy of errors. And forget this. We ran down the highway to the bridge and approached the checkpoint from the bottom instead. Sigh.
After finding CP18 along the real trail, we backtracked and located the parking lot where our bikes awaited at CP19. It was just getting light - at least I didn't have to bike at night for once, which was pretty odd considering the amount of biking in this race. We climbed back up highway 53 and looped around and down to a steel bridge for CP20. More climbing and we came to a church.
We decided we should try to fill up with water one more time to get to the end of the course. John and Dave found a water spigot so we accomplished our goal, although I hadn't realized how much I appreciated a nearly-empty backpack until I put a heavier one on. More road biking took us to the next topo map.
We wanted to cut over to the next highway as a slightly-more-direct route. The first road we tried went uphill until we ran into a "Private Property" sign. The race director had been clear that we were not to cross private property. He had NOT been clear that this route would lead us across it. We were a bit miffed that he didn't include a Point of Interest for this spot. Other bike tracks led to the sign and turned around, as a few other teams had obviously tried the same thing and lost time for it as well.
So we tried the next road across, and this one worked. Soon we were tooling down the pavement, just enjoying a cool morning bike ride with pretty scenery around us. All good things come to an end when you have to go uphill. A long, long uphill. We started up toward the final rogaine section (which would be trekking this time). Dave made it clear that we were in for a long climb, but a confirmation at every bend in the road didn't make us any more enthused about it.
Then we saw a team ahead of us, walking their bikes. Dave got excited to pass them. My back got achy thinking about it. I tried to stretch it out. We rode past, exchanging hellos. Another team appeared ahead. More back muscle unhappiness. Dave came back to put me on tow so I could keep riding. Which I greatly appreciated - my legs were a bit tired. But mostly my back was tensing up. I tried micro-yoga, stretching this way and that way, trying to relax. Argh! Every time we passed a team, there was another one. Damn it! No relief. All the way to the top, Dave pulled, I grimaced and grunted, and John hung on behind us.
I knew why Dave was pushing - there was a ropes section at the top (CP22, next to CP21 as the start of the rogaine), and we didn't want to wait in line. Amazingly, we were the first ones there out of the group of teams around us. I collapsed while John went to get roped up (only one of us had to complete the tree ascent and rappel, happy me!). As I recovered I was able to mix up a Spiz and stare at the rogaine section on the map to try to make a plan. Dave belayed John, who made quick work of the ropes to ascend to the top of the tree and then rappel back down. Well done!
We gathered ourselves and started running down the road. CP25 was just off a trail at the top of a peak, no problem. John led us down the other side, along a road and to a stream confluence for CP24. We did the easy ones first to get ourselves settled on the map. The next checkpoint involved following a stream uphill for over a kilometer.
John was a master pathfinder through the vegetation, I counted paces, and Dave watched the contours. We were all in agreement when we reached a reentrant to the left, so we started up. No checkpoint. We tried too far before coming back to explore a side reentrant. Finally we went back down to the stream to regroup. We watched a team basically just walk through that area and leave. Huh.
The problem was that this point was plotted as such:
"Last night in a dream, brought on by radiation sickness, you found yourself at a CP, but could not remember how you got there or what CP you were at. You see the peak with CP23 on it at a bearing of 323 degrees (true north) and the peak with CP25 on it at a bearing of 181 degrees (true north). Calculate your position in the reentrant where you were standing in your dream (and where CP26 is now).
We actually had needed to borrow a compass with a baseplate the night before to plot this (thank you, team IMONPoint!) because our wrist compasses don't have the degrees marked. It would have been nice to have the baseplate specified as required gear. Anyway, my plot had us looking a short way up a big reentrant on the south side of the stream, and we had not been the only ones in there. The other option, I decided, must be on the other side of the stream. We walked north and ran right into CP26, sitting under a bush in the main stream (not in a reentrant). Sigh. I'm not sure you could actually see the peaks from there, but that's just a minor quibble - more that it would have been nice to actually verify your location once you were in the area.
From there we climbed up a steep hill to locate CP23 at the top. Just a bit more climbing and a short drop got us back to our bikes, CP27, and the end of the trekking rogaine. Sure would have been nice to nail the on-foot sections instead of messing them up so badly.
The biking downhill back in the direction we had climbed was awesome. Whee! It was only a short ride from there back to the state park where we had started the day before. We had been warned that CP28 might not be the actual race finish. Sure enough, we were told to drop our bikes and trek uphill, up the stairs past the waterfall (again) to the top where the finish line awaited. And then we would be shuttled back down. This seemed unnecessary. But whatever. John towed me up the stairs, we took a couple rest breaks to catch our breath, and finally we were greeted by Josh and Jack. It was great to be done.
Tough race! Souvenirs included scratches, scrapes, and bruises. We were happy with our performance in stage 1, wished we had made different decisions/fewer mistakes and had more complete information to work with in stage 2, and felt good about our physical abilities overall. The terrain is gorgeous (although you couldn't see past the next tree a lot of the time), and the water features were beautiful. Excellent competition, good concepts, and a real adventure. Huge props to my teammates Dave and John for sticking by me and making the race a lot of fun!
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