Last Updated on October 13, 2022 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
“My favorite part about adventure racing is that it’s never the same thing twice. You really have no idea what the hell you’re about to get yourself into until it happens.“
It was the night before the inaugural Palmetto Possum Adventure Biathlon* and Geoff and I had showed up to the Friday night optional pre-race meeting at Croft State Park in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
(*Note: according to the Google, a biathlon is winter sport that combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. What we did was a duathlon, which is a race that involves a running leg, followed by a cycling leg and then another running leg. But that’s what the race was called, so I’m including it in the blog post.
That said, if anyone ever combines biathlon and duathlon, to include running, biking, cross-country skiing and rifle shooting, let me know. I want to sign up for that. )
The meeting was available for first timers or those identifying as beginners to show up, ask questions, and get a feel for what they were about to attempt. Despite having been at this sport for 3.5 years (Geoff has been doing it even longer) I still feel like a beginner.
It’s hard not to feel that way, when the majority of my experience in this sport involves stomping around for 12 hours in a swamp that I was already all too familiar with thanks to ultrarunning (I’m talking about you, Francis Marion National Forest).
Meanwhile, our counterparts have spent literal DAYS navigating their way through the brutal and unforgiving terrain of places like the Fijian jungles and Patagonian mountains.
But I digress.
What is Adventure Racing? AR Explained
The pre-race meeting is an opportunity to see our friend Tracey (the race director) in person for the first time since last year, and is an opportunity to glean any new insight or knowledge into the sport. Except, as it would turn out, we are the most experienced team at the meeting, so we’re the ones giving advice instead.
And so when asked what it is I love about this crazy sport, I say it’s the unpredictability.
While 100 miles on foot may not be pretty, I know what to expect. Hell, even my years as an avid obstacle course racer became pretty monotonous and predictable: it was always the same set of obstacles, just in a different location.
But adventure racing? You really never know what’s going to happen.
What’s more, none of the type-2-suffering strategies I’ve perfected over the years work in AR. You see, I’ve spent decades learning how to mentally “check-out”, put my head down, and suffer.
But that approach doesn’t work in AR. Because the very nature of this sport means you have to pay attention. You have to find your way from check point to check point. You have to make mid race decisions, constantly. And, you’ve got a teammate (or multiple teammates) counting on you.
This sport is not a solo-pain-cave for one.
So all of that said, let’s see what unexpected adventures the 2022 Palmetto Possum Adventure “Biathlon” held for us.
Not prepared to read the novel below? You can read Geoff’s recap here. I assure you, it’s much shorter than mine.
2022 Palmetto Possum Adventure Biathlon: Race Recap
Race morning we show up to Croft State Park at 7:00 am. It’s a small group racing (just under 30 athletes I think), and so we all lay claim to various picnic table to spread out our gear. We’re told that the race would have a clover-leaf format, and we’d repeatedly return to the picnic tables before switching to another discipline.
This makes gear staging significantly easier: you can just dump everything out on the picnic table without too much rhyme or reason.
We check in, sign our lives away on the race waiver, and we’re given a t-shirt, three maps (with checkpoints pre-plotted), and a clue sheet.
Now, here’s where the first bit of unpredictability of Adventure Racing begins:
In almost all AR’s, bushwhacking from point to point (i.e. not following a trail or road) is an option. But there’s a catch at todays race…
You see, Croft State Park was formerly known as “Camp Croft”, and was a World War II infantry replacement training center from 1941 to 1946. As such, there are still live munitions, weapons, and explosives on the grounds. As recent as two years ago, these munitions were still being removed from the park.
So, as to not have your legs potentially blown off, and Tracy’s racing permits being pulled forever, bushwhacking was not allowed. All checkpoints had to be accessed via established trails or roads.
We’re also told that because of this, and the fact that Tracy wanted to design a beginner friendly course, all CP’s are relatively accessible from the trails. This would inadvertently come in super handy at later points in the race…
…when I inadvertently got us lost.
Races will often start with a short prologue, designed to split up the pack, so a ton of people aren’t bottlenecking the trailhead all at once.
More often than not, I’m assigned the prologue at various races, because it usually involves running and map reading. The rest of my team seems to think that I: a) love running more than they do, and b) can read a map better than they can.
But today’s prologue is a quick run to a nearby playground, 10 jumping jacks, 10 pushups, and a run back, before your team was given their punchcard.
I sent Geoff. I’m damn proud of my arms and the work I put in at the gym, but his pushups are faster (I think. Maybe we should race. But that’s for another blog post.)
Leg 1: Trek #1
Approximate distance covered: 9.5 ish miles
Geoff finishes the prologue, we get our punchcard, and the race officially begins. The first section of the race includes 7 checkpoints to be found on foot, one of which is a “photo checkpoint” – we must take a picture to prove we were there (there would be a handful of photo checkpoints during this race). Checkpoints can be collected in any order, so we decide to start with number 7.
We take off running towards CP # 7, which we decided would be our first of the day. Now, this wasn’t our first time on these trails…Geoff and I had both suffered here before.
In both 2015 & 2017 we had participated in the One Epic Run 24 hour ultramarathon at this park. In 2015 as a new and still naïve ultrarunner, I paced like a total asshole and blew my legs up (figuratively, not literally on live munitions) at 52 miles/14 hours and quit.
In 2017, it snowed, the trails were a mess, and if I’m being honest: I still paced myself like an asshole (but totally blamed Matt Hammersmith for that one at the time) and quit at mile 43.4.
Point being, we thought maybe we’d remember some of these trails, but turns out…the only thing that looked familiar was the beautiful bridge right below the campground.
Which happened to be where CP#7 was located, so that one was a gimme.
Clue: Nature Trail – side trail by creek
I always joke with my clients that the first few miles of any race or training run suck, as your body tries to remember what to do and agrees to doing it (it’s a good thing I coach ultrarunners and not 5K athletes).
The first few checkpoints of an adventure race are kind of the same for me.
I’m trying to remember how this whole “navigating” thing works, and fall back into the groove. I take the “no bushwhacking” instruction far too literal, to the point that I don’t even notice there is a well traveled trail following the northern shore of the stream from CP 7 to CP 3.
So instead, we backtrack on the first trail all the way back to the main road, and then hop in at the trail head to the “Nature Trail” further down the road that brings us back to the stream. Ultimately, we run another 0.6 ish miles instead of what was probably less than a tenth of a mile had I taken two seconds to look at my surroundings and realized there was a trail along the stream.
I realize my mistake when we get to CP 3, and see a dozen other racers running down the “not on the map” trail.
Clue: 2nd Bridge
Now it’s time to run. CP #4 is about a mile and a half away. We take off running East down a dirt road for just a few minutes before we come across an intersection that – to me – makes zero sense on the map.
We’re not even 15 minutes into the race yet and I’ve already got us lost.
There’s a State Park trailhead map kiosk, and a solo racer is studying it. I jump in next to her and just stare at the map. It stares back at me, and looks as the HTML & CSS coding that makes up this very website: I know what it is, I just don’t know what any of it means.
To give myself credit, I didn’t sleep at all the night before the race, purposefully didn’t take my Adderall that morning, and hadn’t had to navigate since the Palmetto Swamp Fox 12 hour in March. Nevertheless I’m running on adrenaline and an energy drink, and can’t bring myself to stand still long enough to actually think. So I do one of the things I’ve always told myself NOT to do during an adventure race:
I follow the other woman down the trail, instead of following my own damn map.
We quickly pass the woman, as she is power hiking and we are running, and now we’re on our own. Geoff asks me if I know where we are on the map and I reply something wildly unhelpful along the lines of “probably”. I don’t, but at the same time, I know we need to head South back towards the aforementioned stream, and that feels like the direction we are headed.
Yeah that’s right, I said “feels like”. Do you think I pulled out my compass to confirm? Of course not. This, my friends, is why I still categorize us as “beginners”.
Eventually we cross a bridge (we’re back on the trail now, not in the mall), which both lets me know we are indeed on the trail I thought we should be on. AND it fits along with the “2nd bridge” clue.
We keep going, again solely based upon my intuition (one day I’ll learn) and eventually come across a split in the trail that I was actually anticipating. We’re on the right track.
Before we know it, we find that second bridge but…there’s no O-flag to be found.
I look under the bridge. I scan creek and the surrounding area. But I’m not seeing anything. We were told that the flags would be pretty easy to find, both because this was a beginner friendly course, and that whole “not wandering too far off of trail and blowing your legs off on WWII munitions” detail.
But we can’t find a flag, and therefore assume it may have been stolen.
An unfortunate reality is that stolen check points happen from time to time in adventure racing. Sometimes it’s malicious, and sometimes it’s a concerned citizen who happened to wander across this random, neon orange flag with attached needle-looking-punch-tool in the woods, and felt they should bring it to the attention of a park ranger.
Sometimes it’s maybe bears, I don’t know.
But what I DO know is that what’s even worse than a stolen checkpoint is reporting a stolen checkpoint to the RD, only to find out that the flag wasn’t actually stolen…you just weren’t good enough to find the flag.
So in order to avoid that sort of embarrassment, you’ve got to spend a good bit of time REALLY making sure that the check point was, in fact, gone. We start to look even further down the trail, even though it’s quite obvious by the clue that the CP should be here. Another racer catches us, and tells us that she passed one of the lead solo racers headed in the opposite direction who told her the flag was missing. So that’s four sets of eyes confirming the flag isn’t there.
We take a picture as photographic evidence that we visited the place where CP4 was supposed to be, and continue on.
Clue: Whitestone Spring
We have a very brief conversation with another athlete that went something along the lines of “are you going to bushwhack? If you guys bushwhack, I will too.” It’s so tempting to resist, because the trail we need to be on is literally a tenth of a mile exactly due west. But ultimately, the deciding factor for all of us is not the potential of losing life or limb, but rather, getting Tracy the RD in trouble by doing something we promised we wouldn’t do.
So instead, we backtrack about a half a mile down the trail we just came up until we reach the trail intersection, then head North. It’s about a 2 mile uphill climb, covering around 200 feet, which is more vertical gain than this Myrtle Beach team covers in a full month of training, but I digress.
It was beautiful, and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be on a Saturday than in the woods, even if headed uphill.
But we find CP#5, and the Whitestone Spring, without any issues.
Back down the mountain…errr, “hill” we go.
My Feet Hate Me. I’m Not Complaining, I’m Just Letting You Know
It wouldn’t be race day if there wasn’t some sort of snafu, and I couldn’t let Team HSEC down. I tend to adventure race in Altra Lone Peaks. I’m not typically a zero drop runner, but these work well for mountain biking (I’m too chicken to clip in on anything other than flat, dirt, gravel roads yet).
But, the night before the race I realized I had left my Superfeet inserts, which are the only thing that allow me to actually run in zero drop shoes and not totally piss off my posterior tibial tendons, at home.
Not only that, but the inserts help fill out what otherwise feel like clown shoes (I wear a size 10.5 but have narrow, flat feet) so they are actually snug, and I’m not stumbling around on the trail.
Geoff had sacrificed the sock liners of his backup sneakers to help with my situation, and while they helped prevent blisters, they did not stop me from floundering around, turning my ankles every quarter mile, or feeling like my feet had been pounded by a mallet not an hour into the race.
OK…maybe that last ailment was a symptom of my woeful under training when it comes to running this summer.
Don’t Be Mad, But …
We get to the first intersection we are looking for on the map as we head towards the last few CP’s of this leg. We take a minute to analyze which path to take, since the distances appear to be around the same. The trail to the right is a bit more windy, and according to the topo lines, climbs up another 200 feet then back down again. A mere bump in the trail to many, but again, might as well be a true summit to our sea level legs.
“Let’s take this route (to the left)” Geoff says to me “It might be a bit further, but it’s a solid line. It’s paved, it’ll be faster.” I agree, because, why not? We’ve been on the route to the left and we know what to expect. It’s a sound decision by the team captain, so we take off run/walking down the trail.
During a “walk” interval, I hold the map up to verify for what feels like the millionth time that we’re heading in the right direction. I still can’t seem to focus on a map to save my life, and I’m starting to feel grateful that we’re being forced to stay on the trails. It’s at this point that I realize another super newbie error that we’ve made.
“Uhhhh…honey?” I yell ahead to Geoff. “Don’t be mad, but that red, solid line that you said is paved road? I actually drew that. That’s not a road. That’s marker.”
I see the panic in his face as he turns around, so I quickly follow up with “BUT DON’T WORRY! We’re still on the fastest route. TRUST ME.”
(Ha. I probably wouldn’t trust me at this point)
(CP 2 & 6)
Clues: Cemetery (CP2) & Barn (CP6)
We make it out of the trail and back to the main road of the park, where there’s a giant horse barn. Croft State Park is full of horse trails, and being a beautiful autumn Saturday morning, it’s now also full of horses.
We stumble around this barn, because someone can’t read a map, before Geoff yells “I see it! There in the woods!” and points a few hundred yards North. So we run off towards the woods only to discover a wooden sign that is painted with the same orange and white markings of an orienteering flag.
But no sooner do we feel the sting of disappointment of the false-checkpoint, than I notice a cemetery just ahead on the left.
Oh look, we’ve accidentally stumbled upon a CP.
Friends, I swear to you that in the past I have had a lot of success as the main navigator for our team. We’ve cleared courses with time to spare. We’ve podiumed – either overall or in our category – in every adventure race we’ve done as a two or three person team (except for The Bear…that race chewed us up and spit us out. Well, 2/3rds of us at least). But today, I cannot make heads or tails of this sport.
At least I still know my left from my right.
And, at least we find CP6, at another barn maybe three quarters of a mile away.
Clue: Fishing Pier
We saved CP #1 for last, as we knew exactly where the fishing pier was located, and it was arguably the closest to the start/finish/transition area. But now, coming at it from CP #6, we begin discussing whether or not bushwhacking and coasteering are the same thing.
Because if they’re not, following the shoreline of the lake would get us to the pier MUCH faster than following trails and roads.
But as we ran towards the shoreline, we saw a tell-tale sign that there is PROBABLY a trail around the edge of the lake: a casual fisherman in everyday clothes. You know, the type that probably isn’t going to bushwhack 20 yards into the bushes and weeds when there was plenty of good, clear, empty shoreline to fish from.
We run towards him, probably confuse him a bit, and sure enough, find a trail that takes us around the edge of the lake to the fishing pier.
CP#1 obtained, we head back to transition to hand in our first punchcard. We had no idea how long this would take us, but we’re pretty pleased to have covered this leg in about 2 hours and 15 minutes.
Leg 2: Mountain Bike
Approximate distance covered: 9.75 ish miles
Don’t worry, weary readers: I’m still too mad at this section (my fault, not the race directors) to write another novel. So let’s sum up leg 2 with the following highlights:
- PRO: It’s freaking gorgeous out here. The temperature is probably in the low 70’s, there’s barely any humidity (well, at least it feels that way to these swamp dwellers) and the fall colors are popping. I’m so happy to be outside.
- CON: There are approximately 47 (rough estimate) ADDITIONAL trails in this trail system that are not listed on the map.
- PRO: Fortunately, there are also a ton of map kiosks scattered around the trails that we refer to often.
- CON: I am a trail runner, not a mountain biker. This sport continues to elude me, and I let some of the more technical sections frustrate me.
- PRO: I didn’t cry OR crash. That’s always a good day of mountain biking for me.
- CON: I get irritated with Geoff, he gets irritated with me.
- PRO: this isn’t our first rodeo, and we both know that anything said while under the influence of endurance sports isn’t to be taken personally. We survived riding a tandem bicycle without getting a divorce, we’ll survive this.
- CON: Somehow, my navigating IS GETTING WORSE. We keep thinking we know where we are, only to stumble upon a check point that is NOT THE CHECKPOINT WE THOUGHT IT WAS.
- PRO: we stumble upon checkpoints. Hooray for beginner courses where the CP’s are literally on the trail.
- CON: We get really, really turned around trying to find CP14. We aren’t the only ones who end up backtracking more than once trying to figure out where we went wrong.
- PRO: Around 4 hours into the race I finally, FINALLY, decide that pulling out my compass and using it might be a good idea.
Around 2 hours and 20 minutes into the mountain biking leg, we’re back at the transition area where I declare loudly to Tracey and some others that I hate mountain biking, as I hand her punch card #2, and she hands me punch card #3.
I shovel a bunch of food into my mouth, because clearly I’m in a mood, and then we head out for the last section.
Leg 3: Trek #2
Approximate distance covered: another 9-10 ish miles, 4 CPs (for us)
We head out for the last leg of the race. As we run down the trail, I’m absolutely shocked to see a far more experienced team that had blown by us at least a half a dozen times before still on their bikes.
Maybe my nav wasn’t so bad after all?
But any lead we have isn’t going to last long, because holy cow do my feet hurt. Sure my fitness isn’t where I’d like it, but I’ve been running around in the woods for fun for the majority of my adult life, I can fake Zone 1 & 2 for a long time if I need to.
But the shoe/insert oversight is really getting the best of me, and all I can think about is how I better get my act together before the Rev3 50 hour Challenge in April or I will be eaten alive (by the race or a Shenandoah Valley bear, take your pick).
Someone superglue my inserts to my feet, and while you’re at it, a compass to my hand.
There are only 4 CP’s to collect on this trek, but they are all incredibly spaced out. So this trek becomes the type of slog I am ALL too familiar with as a once avid ultrarunner.
I say once, because I’m fairly certain it was somewhere around this point of the race where I mention to Geoff that mindlessly wandering down long stretches of roads while my glutes cramp isn’t as appealing as it once was.
Clue: On trail, eastern branch of trail (closer to park road)
There’s only one trail that CP#18 could be on, and we’re on it. In fact, we’re almost to the end of it, and we can’t find the checkpoint. We catch up to another racer, Jason, who is also looking for 18. We take turns looking at the map, noting that we SHOULD have come across it by now.
And, the past 17 check points have all been fairly easy to see from the trail, not hidden in the bushes or off trail (thanks WWII training camp!), so our logical assumption is that this one wouldn’t be hidden either.
We finally decide, as a group, that perhaps this CP was stolen too. So we decide to take a selfie to prove to Tracey that we were there. I hold up my phone and tell the guys to make a frowny “no checkpoint here” face, but they both grin instead:
…and then we head down the trail.
Not thirty seconds later I bump into the CP behind a tree.
Clue: Lee Cemetery – MUST TAKE PIC OF LARGER MARKER not just sign.
Despite temporarily being bored with long, monotonous treks on feet, these are still my strength. I knew exactly where CP #19 would be, as I had seen the sign for the Lee Cemetery on our drive into the park the night before.
And it was exactly a two mile trek up (literally, uphill) the paved access road. So we put our heads down, and did what we do best: relentless forward
Clue: Deadfall, west side of trail
We slog another mile on pavement, out of the park and down another paved road, to access a trailhead where we should find CP #21. Around this point, Geoff is determining when we run and when we walk, which makes me feel better about my own fitness. This guy has been training, so to know he was hurting, made me feel a little less guilty about my own hurting.
We find the trailhead, and dive in. (Dive on in!)
Now, looking at the map, theCP is very clearly at – or near – a sharp switchback maybe a tenth of a mile down the trail.
I find the sharp switchback about a tenth of a mile down the trail, but there’s no CP. Eventually three other women – a two person team and a solo – are also looking for the CP with us. We spend TWENTY MINUTES on this one, even wandering off trail and deep into the potential-landmine-woods to try and find this flag.
Eventually we hear the “I’M ON IT” from the solo racer, who has found what we are looking for:
It’s the CP, at the trailhead, behind a huge rootstock. We were not even CLOSE to that one. But to give the RD credit, this was the only one not exactly where the map said it would be.
Sorry CP 22, it’s not you, it’s us.
We’re not about 6 hours and 20 minutes into the 8 hour race. From where we are standing, I figure that CP 22 is at least 3.5 miles away, up and over two climbs accessible only by trail. And from CP22, it’s another 3.5-4 miles to the finish line.
We’ve got an hour and 40 minutes to get back to the finish line. Previous-mountain-goat-legs-Heather-and-Geoffrey could have made that happen.
Current “we spend too much time in the weight room, and not enough doing cardio” Heather & Geoffrey scoffed at the mere thought of going for it. We were done.
It takes us nearly an hour to make our way the 4+ miles to the finish line ON PAVEMENT, confirming that we made the right decision in calling our day early. But we made the best of it, listening to some music, and holding hands (aww) as we made our way down the road.
(I made sure to emphasize that I wasn’t trying to get Geoff to pull me up the hills, I was just being affectionate for once. I’m usually a hangry-beast at this point in the race).
As it would turn out, only one team actually went for – and collected – CP 22. And somehow, despite my not being able to read a map on this particular day, we took first place 2-person co-ed team.
Post Race Thoughts
Final thoughts, in no particular order:
- Tracey / Possum Jump Adventures put on a hell of a fun race. It was absolutely beginner friendly in the sense that while you still had to read a map and navigate to check points, the check points themselves weren’t hidden 20 yards off trail in nearly impermeable, overgrown swamp bushes or 20 feet up an oak tree.
While the “stay on trails or risk death” portion was a bit of a bummer for those of us who have legs covered in tears and scratches from pricker thorns 365 days a year, it also added to the “beginner friendly” nature.
But, even for those of us with more experience, I felt like Tracey covered pretty much most of the highlights of the park. We got to “see it all” so to speak, which is half of the fun of adventure racing.
- I have a hell of a lot of training to do between now and Sea to Sea, and ESPECIALLY between now and the Rev 3 50 hour challenge.
- Don’t use red marker on a map when the trails are also marked in red.
We will definitely be back to tackle this race again next year. Thank you Tracey/Possum Jump, the volunteers, and Croft State Park for an incredible time!