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Expedition Africa 2019 Rodrigues: Team thisABILITY Race Report


Team Members:

Chip Dodd, Team Captain

Jenni Soutar

Henk Van Aarde

Andrea Anderson


Race Dates: 9/1/19 - 9/6/19


“Attention! Attention!” yells our skipper in French just when we think we can relax for a second. Chip jumps up on the bow ready to lift the heavy, wooden mast out of the hole, but I can’t get the rope off the peg where it is secured. The boat is getting out of control and something needs to be done FAST before we capsize. Just before panic sets in, I see Henk hurl himself over the seat and slam his foot down hard on the rope in front of me. It worked! The rope is free. Chip lifts the mast long enough to push the sail underneath it to the other side. The mast is rotated and gets put back in the hole and Chip hoists the sail again with the rope. THIS is teamwork.

"C’est bon! C’est bon!” cheers our skipper. He wants to win, too! We’re sailing and in 6th place. I’m in disbelief that we had only practiced the move one time on land. Our skipper was MIA (and probably having another beer) when we were trying to find him earlier on this Sunday morning for some instruction. The wind is merciless and the near misses we have with other boats are way too close for comfort. Another tack and I imagine just how easy it would be for the mast or the bamboo sail support to strike one of us on the head. Another tack and we hear the crack of boats colliding and we see boats sinking. Another tack and we’re again trying to understand the skipper’s French.

Is this the place we jump out? Chaos. Yes! Glasses off, fins on, mask on, snorkel on. I’m sooooo glad I chose to wear my life jacket even though I’m the only one of my team to do so for this leg. (I hear after the fact that some were traumatized by the swim and needed rescue.) The 900 meter snorkel to shore is far from the relaxing, beautiful swim I envisioned. There are near misses as snorkelers and sailboats share the water that seems to have a mind of its own. Henk gets the underwater CPs without any problem and then time seems to slow down. With the swells and murky water, I loose sight of Henk and Jenni and focus on keeping Chip in sight. Swimming 90 degrees to the current, we land ashore not far from Henk and Jenni, but with a bit of a jog needed to get back to the transition area. I’m pumped and humbled all at the same time. We’re definitely a team now! There’s no hesitation and no awkward niceties even though we’ve just met 24 hours before the race start. There’s just the 4 of us against the rest, against the course, against the elements, against ourselves. We’re a team!

There comes a time in every adventure race when you’ve got to decide whether you should follow the "herd" or strike a new path. Me, I often like the herd. It’s fun talking to other teams. They give me a little boost of energy and remind me that we’re all out there essentially for the fun of the challenge! I also believe that there wasn’t one navigator in this race who didn’t know what they were doing. Chip, on the other hand, is reasonably leery about the herd. It’s easy to get complacent in a group and, as our team navigator, it often breaks his concentration to chit chat. So, the first time this dilemma came up for us in this race is between CP6 and CP7. We were warned to be careful here. It is a dry waterfall. Teams in front of us charge ahead without much of a second thought. A single file line of racers starts to back up as they climb the dry falls. One team decides to don their helmets (helmets were required on this leg for the zipline still to come). We do, too. As we’re putting on our helmets, we see someone lose their footing and catch themselves precariously on a small tree and nearly go over the edge. We’ve made the decision to find a way around just before a large boulder breaks loose and narrowly misses several people on its way down. We find out later it hits another team’s hiking stick and bends it beyond repair. Phew! Chip finds a small goat trail just to the left of the snake of people. We follow it easily to the top and find that we have gained a couple of places in the process. Good decision made! We’re out of breath from the steep incline, but confident in our team decision making skills. We are becoming acquainted with just how steep and demanding the elevation is going to be. The 40 meter topo lines on the map are deceiving and the 8 kilometer by 18 kilometer island seems to be getting bigger! On a side note, these goat trails were a great help much of the race. It’s amazing where goats decide to go and amazing how goats can be so agile including the two pregnant ones we see on this trail. They seemingly run free anywhere and everywhere. There must be some rhyme or reason that’s not obvious.


Hiking with a sense of urgency and nailing the CPs, gets us to the zipline just before dark and surprisingly in 12th place. Woohoo! We wait less than 10 minutes and I’m flying along side a huge, furry, fruit bat. Surreal and awesome! Not so awesome is the fact that I am having kidney pain at this point. Unfortunately, this is an all too familiar feeling for me. So much so that I convinced my doctor to prescribe me some hydrocodone just in case I’m stuck on a remote island and happen to need it. Remote island? Check. Need it? Not yet. If you’ve ever had a kidney stone, you know what being a ticking time bomb feels like. One minute the pain can be bearable and the next it can be inescapable and all consuming. I don’t remember too much of the rest of that trek, but I do remember the enormous relief when I passed the stone as soon as we arrived at TA1! One giant step for man, one giant leap for mankind... OR, better yet, one giant step for me, one small secret I chose to keep to myself until after the race.


The first bike leg is done overnight and like all other legs of the race, it takes a little longer than expected to do the distance given the inclines. The bike sections were pretty awesome though! We are all strong bikers and the CPs were just a bit easier to locate than the trek points. That being said, while searching for one of the bike points, we came across a team towards the end of the race that said they had been up and down the road searching for an hour and a half in the dark for the CP and they said it was missing. They took a photo of a rock with the number painted on it as we were instructed to do if the CP was not there. They pretty much escorted us to the rock and turned around to see CP within feet of the painted rock. Frustrated as they were, we all had a good chuckle. The mind is not as sharp on the last day of the race as it is on the first that's for sure!

There was an interesting mix of smooth pavement, dirt roads, single track and everything in between. Cement double track roads were new to me. They were just wide enough for a tire track, so each cement strip was about 30 inches wide with a gap of grass or dirt in between. They were rarely level with the ground, so staying centered on the cement was critical and not always easy. Jenni had a fall one night after slipping off the edge, but jumped up without injury. Close call! We came across another team that wasn’t as lucky. When we saw them, one of their team was sitting on the ground looking a little dazed and wearing a makeshift sling protecting his shoulder. He was clearly in pain, but the team said they would be able to make it to the nearby main road and did not need help. Sadly, his race was over.

The downhills were amazing!! Whether it was pavement or loose, rocky, single track, I was usually torn between slowing down to appreciate the view or bombing it for the thrill of it. We stopped for a couple photos a couple of times, but the team spirit was to bomb it while we could! After all, we earned every downhill!


Back on foot, we hit the witching hours, the time from 2 am to 5 am. Anything can happen during the witching hours and despite bracing for the phenomenon, it always sucks. (Note to self, consider sleeping during the witching hours if it’s warm enough or quiet enough and NO MATTER WHAT if you’re feeling stupid!) Damn that CP21. For 2 1/2 hours we search the area between the confluence, impenetrable waterfall at one end and an armed soldier at the other. In between is a stinking carcass of a dead dog and and a zig zag of caution tape. Several teams come and go to join the search. Some are as frustrated as we are. We approach the guard who attempts to try to show us on the map where we are. It doesn’t really help. Our last ditch effort is to go back up the way we came to attack the point from the top. Knowing we had all been in the same boat, a couple teams who had just found the CP, point us in the right direction. Was it misplotted? Was the scale of the map giving us a run for our money? Were the witching hours haunting us? Who knew? But, for Henk, this is probably the first time he thought this race was more than he had bargained for.

We moved on and I probably said my first ‘What are you going to do?’ - a rhetorical question that pretty much means there’s no sense in getting upset. We might as well just move on because the past is over and it’s not going help our progress to dwell on it. I didn’t actually realize how often I say that until Jenni pointed it out after the race. It probably sounds more like, “Whadda ya gonna do?” Speaking of accents, I was quite amused at Henk and Jenni’s South African accents. Apparently, they are slightly different from one another, but to me, they both sounded very civilized and proper no matter what they said. They could be saying the dumbest thing and it would come out sounding like the smartest thing ever. I kept thinking we should be having high tea together instead of tromping through thorny bushes, getting our hair caught in the branches and then dodging gigantic curtains of spider webs filled with 6 inch long spiders. That was certainly improper for someone sounding so civilized. I think the word that stuck with me the most is ‘path’. Countless times I had to ask what they were saying when they said ‘poth’... oh! You mean ‘paaaaath’! Got it! I see a path, too! Let’s take it!

We meet our first sunrise of the race as the trek leads us around the east side of the island. It is segmented by beautiful secluded beaches and unique dry forests. It is definitely a great way to ‘wake up’! During this trek I start to realize that Jenni would be the glue. She has a knack for filling the quiet times with just enough conversation. Chatting made the time go by quickly and it was nice not being the only person on the team looking after our mental state. We talk about our kids, our lives outside of racing and we talk about books. Books! As she asks about book suggestions, all I can think is how similar we are despite her being 10 years younger and a South African. The thought is so consuming that I have a hard to concentrating enough to answer her... I was tired.

Finally to our boat, we set off with no sleep towards TA3, a small island. Hard, but manageable sums up all but one or two of our boating legs. We quickly figured out a workable formation. Henk sits on the stern and used his paddle as a rudder as needed. Chip sits in front of him on whichever side needs the extra power and usually the left. Jenni and I share the front bench and trade places every 20 minutes or so. The pieces of foam padding we brought from our bike boxes save our bums. Overall, the paddling legs aren’t all that terrible. As warned though, we would have to work with the tides and the channels to get to where we needed to go. One section in particular feels like a minefield of rock and corral. We seem to always get to the deeper water channels just in time, but we are close to being beached on numerous occasions. One night a local man yells from shore to stop and motioned the way we should go. Phew! Again, a near miss. Another time a local boat driver points out the inner narrow channel to us that was beneficial. (Little did we know at the time that it was Joe Cool giving us advice. After the race, our Air BnB host coordinated his cousin to take us on a boat to Ile Les Aux and turns out Joe Cool is his cousin. Full circle moment. Surreal.)

Speaking of the locals, wow! Just, wow! The people of Rodrigues are extremely hospitable. They cheer us on at all times of day from their homes, from the streets, from their cars, from their mopeds, from their fields... Kids outstretch their hands for high fives when we come by and it didn’t stop. Every single day we have strangers cheering us on. Even walking through neighborhoods at night is no problem and with virtually no fences, all the land is accessible and open to us. One morning we came across a woman selling loaves of bread from her moped. We buy 3 loaves for less than $2. We chow down and eat about half the loaf and stash the other half in our packs for later. Do we luuuuuv Rodrigues? Kiss kiss kiss! YES!

So, using a sail is an option, but we had to devise a sail system prior to coming to the island. None of the supplies could be sourced locally and as we saw another team race pass us in their boat using a kitesurfing kite as a sail, we know we missed an opportunity. They were hauling! The kitesurfing team didn’t even need to paddle (except for the 2 legs towards the end of the race that went into the wind). We don’t have a sail, but we DO have a parafoil kite to experiment with that Chip brought. It is a square box design with a pretty rainbow chevron pattern on it. Launching it from the boat without the lines getting tangled and without it falling into the water is a bit of a challenge, but once launched, it actually works! Chip locks it off and secures it to one of the seats and for 2 different legs of the race, we are going in just the right direction for it to be helpful. There is even a short time that we don’t have to paddle. Winning! The kite is great, but it isn’t helpful enough to give us time to brew coffee as one team reportedly did while sailing. Good on them!

Like every other race I’ve done, long or short, ‘winning’ is relative. One minute you can be vying for top 10, while the next minute you think you may in fact be last. You don’t really know. It’s part of the fun and strategy. You must adjust to the given situation without getting too emotional. You must make hard decisions and hope they are for the best in the long run. As sunset is approaching (about 5:30 pm), we have an important decision to make. There is a swim to an island followed by a trek to another longer swim (500 meters or so) to another island and back, three swims in total. What are our options? Are we really going to give up 2 check points less than 48 hours into the race? How far behind are we? What will we give up later if we attempt this section in the dark and it takes too long? How dangerous is it? Does it mean we will no longer be considered full course? Does it matter? So many questions... We debate while trekking and listened as teams returning gave us their intel. All of those returning (now trusted friends just because we are all adventure racers) look spent and say it was hard and potentially not worth it. It is also quite cold, much colder than you’d think any tropical island could be... Still, we have to make the decision as a team for ourselves and we came to the conclusion that it is not worth the risk and time. In hindsight, I’m still not sure we made the right decision, but we learned later that one team swam for an hour and a half. They got to shore and were informed that because of the current, they swam in a circle and ended up where they started. They spent the rest of the night on the island and waited to complete that leg in daylight, a very time-consuming decision. Another team needed to be rescued when they got way too far off track.

Back at the TA, we heat up water for dehydrated meals, eat and then attempt to brake our rule of not sleeping at the TA. TAs are loud, hectic places and this one is cold and windy, too, but we all think falling asleep while biking is a distinct possibility if we don’t get some sleep... Sleep, glorious, elusive sleep. Wind-whipping, dogs-barking, space-blanket-sweating, sleep... we try... Sleep strategy is a REAL thing that we have not yet mastered. We intend to sleep an hour at dusk and an hour at dawn and cat nap when needed. This strategy is blown out the window by needing to make the most of the daylight. Every discipline is much slower for us in the dark, so we push on until we are desperate for sleep. We plop down just about anywhere and try yet another configuration. My favorite solution turns out to be lying on top of a space blanket, puffy coat on, hood on, rain coat over my legs, extra pair of socks under my hip and backpack for a pillow. Ahhh… One night we sleep in a freshly tilled garden that hasn’t been planted yet. One time we sleep along a rock wall trying to get protection from the wind. Another night in a small park, but perhaps the most unique is sleeping in a cave, a full-out stalactite, stalagmite filled cave in the pitch, still darkness.

Arriving at the tortoise reserve, we are thrilled that we get there just in time to order food at the restaurant. Teams that got there before us were able to order their food, complete the short trek and then pick up their food on the way out. That isn’t an option for us because we were on the late side and the restaurant is trying to close, so we order coffees and wait and wait and wait some more for the food to arrive. Maybe we should take this time to nap, but it is fun to let our guard down and everything seems too funny to consider sleeping. I’m not even sure what we are laughing about, but it is definitely fun. We're just friends hanging out and the stress of moving forward disappears in this familiar act of dining out. The food finally comes and it was great! Grilled fresh fish in a beautiful lemon cream sauce with fries! The bill comes, party is over and that is when we should realize we’re in trouble. None of us can manage to divide the bill 4 ways and we can’t figure out how to pay. I don’t think the waiter is amused, but we simply cannot do math and he bears with us. Despite the signs of sleep deprivation, we don’t think it could be all that hard to navigate a small tourist park. I take over the maps and we have fun admiring the huge tortoises and the caves while we enjoy the sleepmonsters. Every formation seems to look alive. One formation looks like a person, another a cityscape. It's quite a unique form of fun!


The second cave is tight and the choke point had us flat on our bellies shimmying through. I go first followed by Jenni, then Chip, then Henk. There is a CP at a squeeze point and it happens to be where Chip decides he can’t tolerate his jacket any longer. He gets it off, but in so doing, he forgets to punch his wristband and so does Henk. Agh! No problem, we’ll just go back to the entrance of this cave and do it again. How hard can it be? Well... We wander around the tortoises for another hour getting stupider by the minute. We even have time to watch a tortoise dig a hole and on the next time we passed, she is laying an egg and on the next pass, she is covering it up. No joke! I think we saw every tortoise at least 5 times! On another of these mindless loops, Chip hops up to a platform and accidentally surprises one tortoise that hisses back. Chip is so startled that he runs away from the turtle and with each step lets out one fart after another. Hahahaha! We all busted out laughing! Chip is skilled in that department. Needless to say, our situation eventually gets frustrating. As a last-ditch effort, Henk says he knows right where he is and we decide we need to go to entrance of the park to start fresh. He takes the map and heads off in the direction he is sure is the entrance. I ask if he was sure he wants to go left. He says he’s sure and... sure enough... we ended up at the entrance to the cave, NOT the entrance to the park. Agh! At least we are now SURE of where we are! Good stories are sometimes better than good results. Sometimes.


The legs of the race run together a bit for me. 28 legs, 11 TAs are hard to keep straight. It seems like a miracle that we have all the gear we need with us when we need it especially considering how pathetic our transitions are. Chip and I decided we would share our 2 resupply bags. One would have food in it and one would have the rest of our gear. Bad idea. We don’t even share household, why did we think sharing a resupply bag would be a good idea? We manage sorting through our unorganized crap and keep our frustrations from exiting our mouths, but lesson learned. Also complicating transitions is need to go back and forth from boat to shore as few times as possible. I find myself frustrated whether I try to organize my gear on the boat or haul the crap to shore and organize it there. We knew this would not be our strong suit. We do, however, seem to improve as the race goes on. Jenni calculates that we spent an average of an hour and half at each transition. Ouch.


It is particularly cold and dark at one boat TA. Henk is nursing his feet that are close to blistering and the guys have already been the ones to anchor and situate the boat. The boat is chest deep and none of us is looking forward to returning our stuff back to the boat. Jenni volunteers and I followed suit, not being able to stomach the idea of everyone making a sacrifice except for me. We leave our outer clothes and space blankets on shore and make the trip to the boat shivering on our way back. It could’ve been worse, and it is one of our quicker transitions.

There are times when we were completely on our game. One of those times is when we come up to an island we called little Scotland. We make quick work of gearing up to swim to the island and we manage the high tide and strong current well. We run around the island to the checkpoints and finish the swim as the sun sets in nearly half the time it took a couple of other teams. It was fast and fun!

On one of the islands, Henk seems to have an epiphany. We could tell he was having a hard time dealing with lack of sleep and managing foot care, but on one swim leg as we are putting on our trekking shoes, he says with a smile and sense of awe, “This is kind of a big deal. I think I might frame my race bib.” This was the longest race Henk had done to date. He seems to waffle between quietly hating it (especially at night) and amazement and excitement (especially in the morning). Welcome to adventure racing! At the end, when he answers the question of describing the race in one word, he says, “Revealing.” I think I can relate. Every race shows me different sides of myself and others, good sides and bad. On one of Henk’s highs, he takes off in front on a bike leg. It’s not usually wise to get in front of the navigator, but he is feeling strong. This stretch of road is paved and not complicated and we are headed back to a TA we had been to before. What could go wrong? Well, as we approached the TA, Henk does not turn in. We wait. Wait some more and just little bit more for him to turn around and reappear. He eventually figures it out. He’s gone around the entire cove. When he gets back to us, he says, “I thought I was fast, but turns out I’m just stupid.” Hard not to like someone who owns up to the good and the bad and stays true to oneself. We laugh it off. Whadda ya gonna do?

Along with goats, cows are where you’d least expect them. Some are tethered to trees and some are just wandering with a rope around their neck that drags behind them. The handlers could grab the rope if needed. It’s no myth that bulls like bright colors. They seem to like our colorful red and yellow race bibs that have to be worn at all times. On the way to the Via Ferrata a bull took an interest in Chip. Jenni notices just in time and Chip turns around, hiking sticks in the air as he slowly backed up and bumped into me. Crisis averted; we move on. We had heard that another racer had a bout with a bull and ended up being checked out at the hospital. Jenni is our source for knowledge when it comes to the animals. She understands their motivation (usually to protect their young) and she redirects any encounters as if she has some secret super power.

Making sure to allow time for the highlights of the race was one of our goals for this race. In several races, we have missed out on some exciting sections because we lacked time management. It helps to set arbitrary cut off’s for ourselves. Making it to the Via Ferrata during the daylight was one such cut off we set for ourselves and, we made it! The racers are the first group to do this via Ferrata before it is opened to the public. We suit up quickly and enjoy the views. The cables are not much more than 40 feet from the ground, but most of it had us leaning back and needing to use upper body strength to make progress. The rock formations made it unique. Experiencing the moon rise while looking up at the magnificent hexagonal columns was again surreal. Usually via Ferrata doesn’t stress the system very much because a fall is rare. This one was new though and Chip gave it a good test. He grabbed a boulder by both hands and as he swung his body weight around it, the boulder let loose. Chip caught himself on a tree behind him as the boulder fell between his legs. Phew! There is a short zipline to finish it off and we must wait for Chip who, yep, you guessed it, forgot to punch the CP mid-way through the via Ferrata. Luckily there was no team behind us and he was last in our team, so working his way back was possible. From that point on, it was everybody’s job to make sure Chip punched the CP!


While we made it to the via ferrata in the daylight, we knew we’d be doing the abseil in the dark, so we decide to sleep in a park on the way. Like other sleeps, Henk is instantly snoring the second he hits the ground. We get up an hour later. I tap Henk on the shoulder and tell him it’s time to wake up. Minutes later he emerges from the park and we start walking towards the abseil. I turn around to check on him and I notice at about the same time he does that he is wearing an unstrapped helmet… and no headlamp. Somehow, he had walked in his sleep for about 500 meters and had left his headlamp back at the park. We trek back to the park to find his headlamp on the ground. We regroup, have a bit of a laugh and carry on retracing the 500 meters we had gone, and we remind each other that we need to take better care of each other. Why didn’t any of us notice? Again, good stories are sometimes better than good results. Sometimes. Despite the darkness, the abseil is fun! The ropes are set to rappel 2 at a time from the midpoint of a narrow suspension bridge.


There’s an interesting feeling that happens during a race. At some point it begins to take on a life of its own. And, inevitably, I usually find myself wanting the race not to end as strongly as I want it to be over. This race was no different. We head out for the last trek thinking we are almost done! We lighten our packs and tell ourselves it will be an easy finish. It’s the final stretch and we are going to maximize our points to get all the rest that are left out there. We are on par and are making our way down from CP108 to CP109. We’ve gotten some advice from other teams to look for a goat trail that leads out of the gully, but it eludes us. I seem to be the most tired and the thought of boulder hopping for at least another kilometer when was only mentally prepared for an easy finish doesn’t seem appealing. I’m out of food. I’m almost out of water. I slip on one rock and then another. I’m starting not to like myself. I’m needing a re-set. We all sleep for 10 minutes for my sake. 10 minutes does wonders and I’m again wanting it to be over and wishing it wasn’t all at the same time.


We make our way to the beach at CP 109, again thinking it’s almost over… but we mistakenly think this is where we are supposed to see stand up paddle boards in order to SUP into the finish. We sit in the sand thinking someone will arrive out of nowhere with the SUPs. We think that maybe we are the last team and we just need to be patient. It isn’t much longer that I thumb through the race booklet and take a look at the map. We are supposed to keep trekking to TA11! Duh! Let’s just say, your mind does not stay sharp after 128 hours of racing. We make the realization that we will be coasteering and doing even more rock-hopping to get to the TA.


It’s interesting that there are times when your body seems to have a mind of its own. Without any thought, my feet just go to the next rock and the next and the next. I feel like I can do this forever. My mind is in a peaceful state and the rest of the race simply happens. We get on the SUPs in the dark. The water is clear and our headlamps attract fish. One even jumps and bounces off my SUP. I see several gars. This is Jenni’s first time ever on a SUP and she has no issue. We see the finish line at least 200 meters away. Music is thumping and it’s lit up like Christmas. I can hardly believe it! This week of racing has seemed like one very long day that was over before it even began. The beauty, the camaraderie, the challenge... done, over, there is now only precious little time to celebrate our accomplishment, to celebrate our sport, to celebrate our new friends, to celebrate life. Our expectations were exceeded at least tenfold and I’m filled with gratefulness!


Cheers!

Andrea


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