Introduction and Race Prep
Andrea Anderson and Chip Dodd made up Team thisABILITY for MMAC. Both of us prefer to race solo but after joining forces on a 15 hour AR in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, we were looking for the next challenge. Upon much encouragement by Julia and Doug Crytzer, we decided to do the Maya Mountain Adventure Challenge as our first expedition race.
Having no clue how to race internationally, we cobbled our gear together, bought a packraft, built / bought way too small bike boxes and set off for Belize. The adventure begins…
FYI, we couldn’t decide on first, second or third person language, so we blended them together. English language perfectionists… Deal with it.
We marched through the town of San Ignacio to the riverfront. We should have had our gear already sorted, but we thought there would be time between the group photo and the race start. We should have been ready for the discipline (paddling). We had the yellow brick tracker mounted incorrectly in our bag so we fell to the back of the parade with Julia to adjust it. So, this puts us at the back of the group photo and on the top of the stairs. We did not realize the race would start right there and we were already at a disadvantage because the people in the front row took off running across the street and got their choice of boats first. When we got over there we couldn’t tell which boat we should use because all of the nice canoes had been taken and there were a group of different canoes to choose from 20 M down river. We finally got on the go and were last to start. We started with our packs on the middle seat which were too high and caused the boat to be top heavy and thus tippy. The packs needed to be lower in the boat. We re-arranged but that put us further behind the other teams. We figured the boat had a much different hull than we usually ride on because even with the packs low, it was much tippier than we were used to. We picked this boat because it looked like it was wide and long enough to fit our bikes securely but it may have been a bad idea.
Leg 1 - Canoe 22 Miles
It was a beautiful, sun filled day. There were unique trees and lots of birds along the way. The big white trees with blue background of the sky was visually amazing. It was fun to hear the local kids as we passed by yell ‘row row row’ in their native tongue. We should have hydrated more before the race started because neither of us pissed during the 4-hour paddle. Rookie mistake. We passed the Belize team first. It looks like JJ was having to teach them how to paddle properly. We then passed Team Commie Bar just prior to TA 1/2. I joked and said, “Are we there yet?” and one of their team members told us that was the name of the boat we were rowing. This phrase was stenciled on the side and we had no idea. We got a good laugh out of that one. So, arrived at TA1 feeling strong and having passed 2 teams. Life is good.
We arrived at TA 1. We had to take our canoe across the road at the bridge and assemble our bikes. It took us more time than other teams because we had more assembly to do. Next time we need to build larger bike boxes to minimize the assembly. In addition to the rims, we had to take on and off our handlebars, our pedals and our derailleurs. Our bike boxes were also clunky and slow. We realized assembling and disassembling our bikes to this degree was going to be a time sapping issue for the rest of the race.
Leg 2 – Bike 36 to 38 Miles
Since we felt pretty good and the sun was still up, we decided to do our route backward. We had hopes to see the rim of the sinkhole at CP 2 before the sun went down. It was also the furthest point away and we had been considering skipping some or all the three bike CPs on this leg. In hindsight it might have been a better decision because by skipping all 3 CP’s, the next paddle section would have been done in daylight, we would have been more than twice as fast and would have made the cut off instead of being short coursed later the next day. Hindsight is 20/20, right?
On the way to CP2 our tow cable broke on a dirt road just a few kilometers into the bike section. We should always have a spare and need to look into more durable options. Chip improvised a tow system using an elastic shoe lace (Lock laces) that worked pretty well. We started with one but added a second for a little bit more distance between the bikes. Adapt, improvise and overcome!
Along the way we rode past beautiful rolling farms. One of the farms had a large herd of all white/gray cows. As we came along a few started running with us and then the whole herd of 30+ cows started running with us. It was really neat to see.
We began to realize, everything in an expedition race seems much farther apart than sprint races. We were just learning this on the way to CP 2. It got dark before we found the main turn off to go to the sinkhole. We started down the wrong dirt lane and a local on a moped stopped and asked us where we were going. He told us that other teams were taking the next road which was the correct one for the sinkhole. He was excited to escort us to the correct road entrance, so we let him. Turning onto that road we saw one of the top teams checking their maps and had already been out and back from the point. Ugg. We took the road heading generally north and after just a short time, it turned into a mudfest. About half way up, Randy Erickson and his team were there to get some video of racers, so we embraced all the bright lights in our eyes. It made us a little disoriented because we weren’t sure if that meant our next turn was there or not. After talking with them for a bit, it was apparent that they were there because the main road became unpassable by vehicles and the trail turned to really sloppy ruts. This gave them great opportunities for footage of us trying to get through. This was our first taste of what was to come. MUD...
We saw two teams coming back down really fast on the rocky road from CP 2. There was one section of it that seemed covered in bowling ball size, white limestone rocks. Needless to say, there was a lot of hike-a-bike. We went a bit farther to where we needed to ditch our bikes and hike up to the sinkhole. We were a bit surprised at the difficulty of the hiking trail and how far we had to hike to get to it. We speculated that it was probably a rugged jungle dry reentrant instead of a trail. There were lots of rocks, mud and logs crossing the trail. Everything seemed further apart and more challenging than we had expected. The CP was right on the edge of the sinkhole with a what seemed like 70M sheer drop. We used our zoomable torches to look around a bit. On the way down, we saw the Belize team and Relentless. Since that CP took so long, we decided to skip CP 3 and headed back the way we came to CP 4. We stopped at a small store and they luckily had clear safety glasses for Chip to wear to block the bugs from getting in his eyes. They also had bobby pins to keep Andrea’s hair out of her face. Thankfully, they let us use their watering hose to wash the mud out of our bike drivetrains. Everyone was so nice! We had planned to eat along the way at some local restaurants, but everything had closed by the time we got back to the main road after CP2. This seemed to be a perpetual problem with us because the villages were extremely small and we seemed to always pass through after hours. How are we going to source real food?? We got to CP4 with no problem. Sad to see so much trash along the road to that point. We felt tired but felt good getting back to the TA.
We were stoked to get back to the TA where we left our bike boxes and canoe. The next challenge was to put our bikes in our canoe in preparation for another 22 mile paddle down rapids in the foggy night. We took our time and Chip was very careful about securing our bikes with lashing. The goal was to have nothing stick out over the gunnels of the boat and the center of gravity as low possible. The guy that was manning the TA said that what we were doing was odd because most teams just set their bikes on top and went. No way!
Leg 3 – Canoe Paddle 22 miles
We already knew that the river was moving fairly fast and it would be difficult to see in the dark foggy night. This was the first time Chip thought we might be over our head. It was acutely obvious that it was up to us to keep ourselves safe knowing quick extraction wasn’t an option. Our main concern was tipping the boat and getting separated from our stuff and / or each other. Even worse, the boat may sink.
Upon reflection of the race, Chip recounted how odd it was to be perfectly fine at one moment and then just seconds later, pushing off into the rapids, putting everything at risk. No turning back now. Surreal.
At the time Andrea thought Chip might be over reacting, but as we will soon learn, his fears played out with the Swiss team Power Bar. We also learn later in the race that the Mexican team decided to wait to paddle this leg after first light because they didn’t feel like it was safe enough in the fog. Expedition racers are not for beginners or the faint of heart.
We started off and things seem to be move slowly but safely. We didn’t come across any other teams for a very long time and had maneuvered a couple of different rapids that needed to be scoped and handled carefully. The moon was high, so we decided to turn off our lights and use our natural night vision and hearing to navigate. Luckily the water was moving fast enough that most obstructions created turbulence in the water that helped us spot / hear them. There were lots of strainers and random stumps that seemed to pop out of the gloom with only seconds for us to react. There are even some class 2 sections that were wavy enough to splash water over the bow partially filling our boat. We came up to one rapid where a fallen tree surprised us. One tree turned into many and the river started to pull us toward them. The river was turning 90 degrees to our left and current was strongly pulling us towards the obstructions. We frantically back paddled and managed to get to a bank to the right just before the rapid. We realized this was an island which gave us the ability to take a break and assess the situation with our torch. We realized how close we had come to going the wrong way and went around the right side of the island which was fairly easy. We thought we saw lights ahead but weren’t sure if it was a team or not. Once we came around the downstream side of the island, we saw that Team Power Bar had gone through the rough side of the rapid and had capsized a boat. It was pinned under the water with two bikes and the pack that held their mandatory cell phone. They were stranded. We asked if they needed help and they eagerly said yes. We paddled over to them and realized two team members were in a boat and the others were sitting on a log. They had been there for at least 2.5 hours and although they tried, they were not able to retrieve their canoe, bikes or pack. They had used the yellow brick GPS to signal SOS, but had not gotten a response. They were quite concerned about the possibility of rescue so we used our cell phone on their behalf to call the race director. The reception was sketchy at best. It was difficult to convey that they needed rescue and their exact location. After making sure they had all the necessary supplies and confident the race staff were launching a rescue, we started back down the rest of the paddle even more cautiously than we had before. The “possible” had become the “probable”.
The fog worsened, and the moon was almost down limiting our night vision. We were also getting very sleepy at this time, around 3 am. Andrea started hallucinating a lighted bridge that didn’t seem to ever appear. We had a difficult time in this section because our light was reflecting off the fog and made spotting obstacles difficult. We planned for Chip’s bike helmet light to be our primary light, but it blinded him when it lit up Andrea’s back and white paddles. Andrea tried wearing the helmet, but it was too heavy for her head and it was also blinding her. So, we resorted to Andrea holding up the small zoomable hand torch which meant she couldn’t paddle. This was fine because we needed to move slowly and cautiously. The zoomable option in that flashlight was super helpful. Andrea moved the light back and forth from the 11 to 1 o-clock directions. Next time we should consider attaching a strong light to the bow.
We were extremely glad to get to TA3. As we began unloading our boat at the TA, Commie Bar and Belize Grisons came up shortly afterward. Our careful watch of what was in front of us probably gave them an advantage to follow us and row more quickly than we could since we were blazing the path.
TA3 – Transition from Canoe to Bike
At TA 3 we had a tough 50M uphill to drag the canoe. Once at the main TA area, the race staff asked Chip to draw out in detail where team Power Bar was stranded and his thoughts on an extraction strategy. We conveyed again that they needed food, reported being cold and they needed to be extracted ASAP. We re-assembled our bikes again and sat down on a canoe to dry out our feet and put our bike shoes on. The canoe seemed like it was full of gear, but someone eventually told us Team relentless was sleeping in the them in bivy sacks. Of all the canoes to pick, we chose to sit on the ones where people were sleeping. Oops. We need to remember that canoes are a good sleeping option. We saw the Grisons getting out of there canoes at this TA and JJ was cramping so badly that he fell getting out of the boat. He had been hungry for three hours and was frustrated that he hadn’t had enough water or food to eat. He eventually recovered and carried on.
Leg 4 – Bike 24 to 26 miles
Leaving the TA, we were aware of the dark zone at TA 4 enforced till 5 AM. Surprisingly, we were nowhere near fast enough for this to matter to us. The sun started rising on our way to the next CP. We passed Commie Bar who had a team member lying on the ground on his side. We asked if they needed help and he said no. He was probably just dealing with cramps. We rode up to the town and tried to re-provision at a convenience store but they had a very limited supply and nothing Chip could eat due to gluten intolerance. Luckily, we got fresh chicken burritos and tacos from a roadside vendor and Andrea got 10 minutes of sleep while waiting. We also got fresh frozen watermelon juice in bottles. After that, we took off on our bikes and rode through a farm of very tall straight white trunk trees that were perfectly aligned in rows. Chip took 360 VR video there. We got to the gate of a private orchard where there was a man to open it for us. In broken English, he said there were no other teams who had come through recently. That told us that Chip navigated perfectly to this CP and teams Commie Bar and Belize Grisons must have taken another route and fallen behind us.
The route took us through an orchard and eventually to a stream crossing just after CP 7. This was our first tough creek crossing and Chip carried Andrea’s bike across. The Mexican team and Commie Bar caught up to us and Chip carried the Mexican female’s bike across. He appreciated the additional water time to cool off. Little did we know how many more times we would have a river bike crossing in the race. Every single checkpoint was well earned by the challenges that were in between them. None of it was easy… ever.
Working our way toward CP 8 was tricky. We follow the road and there was a makeshift gate we had to go through that was made from barbed wire and it didn’t necessarily resemble a gate. The race director said we were allowed to be on this private property so effectively gave us permission to view the barbed wire gate as the correct way. We were there with Commie Bar and the Mexicans, but since we had been ahead and also helped at the river crossing, we left the gate open and took off. The landscape was changing and turning into what seemed like savannah. It had marshy grasses and pine trees that were much less dense than the jungle. We crossed that section quite fast and had to put our bikes through a barbed wire fence at the end to get to a gravel road. There was no gate so getting through the barbed wire was tricky. We hurried off so that the other teams may or may not realize that was the right way to go. It didn’t pay off though. We were cruising along pretty well at this point when the shoestring tow cable snapped at the knot. Crap, there went our advantage. We rode up and down a pass and another herd of cows ran along with us. Although CP 8 was hand drawn on the map and seemed right off the road on a stream crossing, we spend way too much time looking for it without luck. Other teams reported that it was much farther down the stream than the map indicated. Oh well. We were just trying to finish, right? Commie Bar caught us here, but we quickly passed them again due to them stopping to sort out a bike shoe issue.
We slogged along in the blazing heat towards TA 4. Along the way, Chip decided to stop at a small store in San Jacinto. Andrea was getting “hangry / tangry” and was irritated that Chip wanted to stop. Chip urgently needed chain oil to combat both squeaky bike drivetrains and to source a bungee cord as a makeshift tow device. Devouring a huge block of cheese, he oiled the bikes, set up the tow cable and seemed amused with himself. Andrea is not unfamiliar with Chip’s perceived piddling. Andrea = GRRRR!
TA 4 – Transition from Bike to Hike
Wow. Were we relieved to get to this TA around noon where we knew we would see our first oasis box. It was super-hot and we were soaking wet with sweat. We were planning to eat a lot and take a nap, but were told when we got there that we needed to leave for the next check point between 1:30 and 2:30 or we would have to wait till the next day. We felt a bit rushed and decided to skip sleep thinking that we could use the mandatory hammock later in the leg following the rappel and cave swim. We disassembled our bikes and organized our gear laid out as much stuff as we could to dry and ate a Mountain house meal. Randy interviewed us at this TA, Cave’s Branch Welcome Center and posted it on line. We were excited for the next leg especially since it included the cave swim, but we were concerned about sleep. Rehydrate, rehydrate, rehydrate. Our Oasis box situation was a bit different than the 4 person teams. Our oasis box A was also our oasis box C. We were only allowed 2 boxes total. When we packed our box A originally, we put our packraft in it since we would need it when the other teams got their oasis box C. After learning we could remove the packraft, we had space and weight for more food, but not enough time to get it into the box and we imagined purchasing food along the way would be easier than it was.
Leg 5 – Trek, Ropes and Cave Swim – 36 to 38 miles.
Before we knew it, were back to hiking down the road in the heat. Ugh. Lots of extra gear to lug including our climbing gear and life jackets. We mistakenly think we have extra time, so we pass the entrance to the rappel and head for town to re-provision food for the next leg. We weren’t sure how far it was going to be. As we approached yet another hill with yet another curve and still didn’t see signs of the town. Oops, it’s too far so we turn back to b-line it for the rappel. Wasted an hour! How the hell were we going to get enough food for this very long leg? We would potentially regret this decision. Impending doom lurks.
We backtracked along the highway for a bit and then down through an orchard to get to the entrance of the Caves Branch trails to the rappel. Once we got to the trailhead, we were again reminded of how hard every section of this race was. The hike up to the repel was very steep and muddy and winding. There were a couple of turns that were not on the map and we had to go by compass the general right direction. Luckily, we came across the Mexican team as they were headed down. They told us we needed to take the other trail back up instead of the way we were going. Commie Bar also tried to give us a warning to take the left trail up instead of the more obvious way leading down to the sinkhole. We reached the top of the rappel and Relentless was already there, but we geared up first and had a 335 ft rappel to the bottom of the sink hole. Before getting started on the rappel the workers told us that we were supposed to go back to the lodge instead of continuing on in this leg of the race. We weren’t told why, but we knew this meant that we were going to be short coursed. It was really disappointing to us to miss the cave swim and jungle trek, but it also got us excited for a little bit of sleep and made us feel like we were suddenly “off the clock”. The rappel was a lot of fun, fantastically beautiful and a definite high for our day. Our packs were attached to our harnesses and we got to repel at the same time side-by-side. We took our time to enjoy the scenery.
At the bottom of the rappel we were told to follow the trail around to the cave entrance for CP 11. Once again, the trail was not obvious, and neither was the entrance to the cave. We felt like we had extra time though, so it was fun exploring the caves that would usually be off-limits to the public. Relentless was there also searching for the CP with us. At one point, Doug of relentless misplaced both of their team’s packs in the foliage. Eventually the climbing instructors encouraged us to move along and showed us where the checkpoint was and led us up the ladder to the trails. We had to be on belay for the 30 foot rickety ladder to the upper trail. Their workers were surprised we couldn’t find the CP and that we were taking so much time exploring. Duh... How often do you get to explore a huge cave on your own?? We didn’t realize we were actually still on the clock for the race. We assumed that by being short-coursed, we might even have enough time to get a hotel room for the night, so we felt like we had some leeway in what we were going to do.
We hiked down with the guides and they were fun to talk to. One instructor said they have a senior day where about 20 senior citizens do the hike and climb. He said the oldest one was a woman who was 84 and said she’d wanted to do it her whole life. He also pointed out a huge tarantula who lives in a known hole in the limestone. He made it come out of the hole with a stick. It was surprisingly big and probably about 7 inches in diameter. We came out of the cave hike and parted ways with Relentless and the workers offered us a ride in their bus which was very tempting, but we didn’t break race rules. Exhausted, Andrea sat down on the road for a few minutes while we decided what to do. This was the first time we picked a couple of oranges and ate them. After a lot of discussion, we decided it would be best to go back to the lodge instead of going up to the store. It was a really hard decision to make and our inexperienced assumptions about the race were not accurate. It was a good thing we went straight back to the lodge. At this point Andrea was really fatigued and walking was getting a little bit painful. Both of us needed some sleep. Instead of following the busy road, we took a different route through another orchard this time and went back to the lodge, but missed the turn and ended up walking about 500 m to a different lodge. Oops. 45 minutes wasted.
TA 4 - Again
Once we got to the real lodge (TA 4), we were told we would be shuttled with the other 4 teams who were all waiting on us to TA 5. Teams included Commie Bar, Relentless, Mexico and Belize Grisons. We were told that we were sent a message on the yellow brick, but upon inspection, this was not the case. This was the second time the yellow bricks were seemingly not working for communications which was concerning. We all piled into a 15-passenger van like sardines and were driven about 30 minutes away. Stinky to say the least! Someone open a window fast!!
At TA 5, the locals had hot food and of course, starving, Chip got seconds and considered thirds. Finally, a real meal! We lay down to sleep. Andrea used her bivy sack and mosquito head net. Chip set up his hammock mosquito net on the ground using a power line to hold it up. It rained a little, but otherwise we were comfortable. We slept for 2 1/2 hours and was awoken by what seemed like a stadium of chickens screaming Cockle-doodle-doo. Disrespectful bastards!
We were not allowed to leave TA5 until the full course teams started to come in after their cave swim and trek. Commie Bar was sorting out a bike tire issue and Chip let them borrow some tools to help out. All of the short coursed teams left on bikes within 30 minutes of each other around 3 am.
Leg 6 – Bike 75 to 77 miles
We rode through the dark on hilly paved mountainous trails. We took a bit too long looking for the trail to CP 18 in the wrong place. We hadn’t gone far enough and the trail (gravel road) we needed was larger than the dead end jungle trails we were attempting. The Belize Grison’s figured out the solution and passed us at this point. We eventually found the turn closer to the bridge and passed Commie Bar reviewing their maps and shortly after that, we passed Belize Grison’s again who were on the wrong side of the orchard fence. We caught up with and passed the Mexicans and leapfrogged them a bit.
Just after CP 18, we took the most logical route through the orchard that later we realized was the intended route designed by the race directors. Unfortunately, Chip determined it was unpassable for hike-a-bike so we backtracked to find a better way. Now running beside the Mexican team once again, we located a stream crossing. We crossed over and realized we were not where we thought we were. We were actually north of the confluence of North Stann Creek and Billy Barquedier Creek. When we attempted a trail on the opposite side, we quickly realized we were on the private property specifically forbidden by the RD. The Mexicans continued even though we warned them it was off limits. They encouraged us to go with them. There must have been a bit of translation difficulty here. We went back to where we had crossed and realized that the only way to make progress was to hike-a-bike down the rapids in the water. We were a bit frustrated and took a moment to have a break to regroup and cool off in the water. Shortly after we set off down the river, we saw Commie Bar spotting us from up river. We were virtually pointing them in the right direction. It’s sometimes frustrating to lead people in the right direction, but it’s also nice when someone else has led the way.
The going here was tough and Andrea had a steep learning curve along with a couple of bouts of short panicked crying. About halfway down the rapid, we see the Mexican team on the trail downstream and they were yelling directions for us to find the trail. We speculated that they thought we were lost when in fact, we knew exactly where we were and knew they had no clue they crossed the private property and likely used an off-limits road to get where they were. Oh well.
We went along whichever bank seemed shallower and crossed the river five or six times when we came across the trail. We followed the single-track trails over a spur. It was muddy and overgrown, but rideable. We came to the next crossing and managed that fine. We headed up the mountain and came to an impasse where there was a shack and several barking dogs. We tried several different trails that led us to a sheer drop off. We turned back around to retrace our steps and as we were headed back up, we met Bones (1st place winners) coming down. This was a brief high because we had caught them and they needed to look at our maps since they left them in the wrong oasis box. It was reliving that even the best teams make mistakes and sometimes have a hard time figuring out navigation. We went back on one of the trails we had tried previously and forcefully bushwhacked down to the water. We decided that the best option for moving forward was to stay in the water / rapids instead of trying to find the jungle trail. Other teams reported taking 20+ minutes to find the overgrown trail. Maybe we should have tried this in the first place. Because of her inexperience and short stature, this was much harder for Andrea than Chip. At the last river crossing, Relentless and Commie Bar passed us and we went up the mountain on the trail hiking their bikes up the muddy slope. Where do they get their energy?? At the top, both teams in front of us took a break to look at maps and we started to pass them. Commie Bar asked our plan at this time and we said we were going to skip CP 19 at the falls to save some time. The Belize mountain bike guide on their team encouraged us not to because of the beautiful scenery. Change of plans…
We rode through orchards on muddy rutty roads up to where the trail to Davis falls starts. There were some stream crossings and the orchard was very overgrown as we got closer to the hiking trail. The Mexicans and Bones passed by us on their way down. Geeze they are fast. Bones chuckled at the fact that we were hanging out in the stream when they had spotted a large boa constrictor around the corner and the pool at the bottom of the falls would offer a much better view. Luckily, we have no problem laughing at ourselves! Live and learn. We dropped our bikes and started off on the hiking trail. After about 25 minutes on this trail Chip felt uncomfortable with the NW compass direction that we were going and we were also rising in elevation to the base of the falls which didn’t make sense. It seemed we should have taken a trail that was lower and closer to the water. We turned around and hiked back about 10 minutes when we came across Commie Bar and Relentless. They explained that the river we were following was not run off from Davis Falls. The water we were hiking alongside was from another source which made much more sense than it had before. This was another lesson in reading 1:50,000 scale maps. The detail just isn’t there. It is soooo frustrating to move so fast but in the wrong direction!!
We turned around with them and continued to the base of the falls. The 500 ft falls were amazing, and the checkpoint was placed in a very picturesque spot. Hiking in biking shoes was killing our feet and our navigation mistake was fresh on our minds. After a refreshing dip / bath, we headed down before everybody else. Our route still didn’t add up. The Mexican’s and Bones were headed back down as we were going up and it seemed to take us more time than it did for them indicating that probably shouldn’t have taken Commie Bars advice to take the upper trail. After the race, Doug, Julia and the Mexican team verified that both trails go to the base of the falls, but the lower one was the more straightforward path. To get to the falls, there were four river crossings on the way up and on the way down with bikes on this section. Muddy the bikes, wash them off. Muddy the bikes, wash them off. Repeat! Dang I wish I had brought the chain oil. Squeak, squeak, squeak.
Coming out of the orchards we rode on fast dirt roads and got disoriented at a large ford. We crossed it without enough analysis of the direction of the river and went three or 4 km out of our way and ended t-boned with the road in Alta Vista that was off limits. Luckily, we arrived at a store just in time before it closed for the day. We asked for clarification on where we were and the owner knew about the race and told us he was not supposed to help us. He pointed us in the right direction anyway and we bought granola bars, a huge sausage, chips, a lighter, and more headlamp batteries. Even though we had gone out of our way, we were very fortunate to be able to purchase the things we needed. We headed back down the direction we needed to go and ran into Good Enough who had made the same mistake. When we got back to the ford we saw Commie Bar on the other side of it and as they saw us coming back towards them, they realized we had gone the wrong direction so they rode off avoiding making the same mistake that we did. Still licking our wounds from this nav error, Chip was much more hyper aware of exactly where we were on the map and got us back on track. This section was another low for Andrea. The narrow roads were muddy and rutted and hard to ride. Because a shoe clip had failed, she was riding with one clip in and one out and still falling over from time to time. The navigation was tough as well as the terrain and we were glad to finally come out of the private land onto a dirt road that was much more traveled. We made quick speed on the long straightaway and found CP 20 without issue.
Knowing we needed some sleep and still hopeful that we would find a town with open stores, we kept riding to the edge of the off-limit road. It was too late for anything to be open and no stores or restaurants in sight, so we snuck into a neighborhood and pitched our two-person hammock between two trees in a small grove. While setting up the hammock, Chip ate the whole huge pink disgusting sausage that was more like spam in a casing. Andrea tried it but spit it out. Smart. Yes, this is foreshadowing.
We put our gear and bikes as close as we could underneath us and climbed in with each other’s feet on opposite ends of the hammock. Stinky!! We slept surprisingly comfortably for about three hours. We were glad that even though the dogs in the neighborhood did a lot of barking, no one approached us.
Feeling revived, we packed up and took off again. We took a bit of time to find the right road but eventually found the rather wide well packed rocky dirt road called “Coastal Highway”. WTF? What started out smooth became sections of really loose gravel with large rocks and after the sun rose it became extremely hot. We began riding as long as we could and stopping at shade which was about every 500 m. This was useful because Chips stomach started revolting from the sausage. Where are the baby wipes??? Eww. We stopped at a creek to fill our empty camel baks at just the right time. Water became less accessible and shade was extremely limited. It rained on us during this leg for about 10 or 15 minutes. It was just long enough to make the road feel gummy. We were only going 9 or 10 KM per hour. During this leg, team Adeo passed us with the woman with blond dreadlocks in front and the three male teammates behind her, the front male towing the two males behind him. This was another one of our low points. Chip was overheating and could not put Andrea on tow, so we had to go quite slowly to maintain our progress without killing ourselves. With boring navigation, blazing sun and lack of energy, this was a brutal leg.
We were glad to see CP 21 on the Manatee River bridge. This bridge was a high wooden bridge without railings but patches of shade. Beautiful. We continued to TA 6 without any navigational difficulty, but continued heat and energy limitations.
Being at an extreme calorie deficit and tired of living off of energy bars, we once again we dreamed of eating in a restaurant. Wakeup!!
TA 6 – Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary
It was clear we needed to move on quickly. We washed our bikes off and disassembled them back in the bike box. Chip oiled the chains before closing the boxes. Great decision! We took showers and ate Mountain house meals which are virtually inedible when it is hot outside. Chip was having more tummy problems.
We saw at least a handful of teams at this TA, but we were second to last to leave. Damn these small bike boxes! The Mexicans had left TA 6 much earlier than we did and tried to find the original CP 23 and CP 24 checkpoints. Without luck they went back to the TA and by that time, the RD altered the course. Without enough time to get CP 23 and 24, remaining teams were told to trek 14 miles directly to the boat crossing at TA 7 using the off-limits highway and the powerline Road. The Mexicans caught up with us and we chatted for a long while which was nice to have the company. We learned that their team captain had done several Eco-challenges. He was a strange mix of arrogance and kindness. He really wanted the best for us. He was also quite vocal about his frustrations with the course. They took a break and we moved on past them. More tummy problems. Ugh.
Along the powerline Road, we passed Adeo. One of their male teammates looked like he was walking barefoot across glass. He was limping and walking kind of bowlegged. They kept delicately trenching forward though. We were passed by a fast moving truck with Randy Erickson leaning out of the window taking photos. We could see how far we had to go because relentless was about 500 m in front of us on a straight dirt road moving fast. Three more baby wipe opportunities and we started realizing that Chip’s need to go to the bathroom was becoming more frequent. At this point he had gone MANY times since we had woken up. No more cheap sausage for him.
The boat crossing to TA 7 was fun. We were greeted by a local canoe guide named Tony that we had met before the race started. He was shuttling racers across the river in the same canoe that we paddled for the first two legs of the race called “Are we There Yet”. Small world. There were a lot of locals at this spot and it was fun seeing people cheering us on.
TA7 – Transition from trek to bike
Ugh. Reassemble our bikes again and NO BATHROOM! Pucker up butter-cup. We left on bikes and picked up a couple of cold Cokes at the small store at the top of the hill. Ahh, sugar. Two local kids took our bikes for a spin around the parking lot. Surreal.
Leg 8 – Bike 35 to 40 miles
We took off revived and optimistic until Chip’s ass exploded within five minutes of getting on our way. Needless to say, he missed the turn to the west and we headed way too many clicks north… off the map. He needed to go to the bathroom two more times before we got off of the corn factory property. We thought that the traffic leaving the factory would lead us in the right direction and lost track of where we were because we were too far north off the map. We turned left at the top of a limestone mine and we went down a huge downhill that was a total blast, but it was so long and steep that the last thing we wanted to do was backtrack. This was the only time during the race that we pulled out the big compass. Chip laid 3 of the maps on the ground and oriented them to north. Between bouts of pooping, we used the factory lights and the city lights to determine where we were. Knowing we were at high risk for getting lost, we continued on in generally the right direction and arrived at a gate at the entrance of the mine / corn factory. The guards gave us directions to a side road that were vague, but enough to go on to get to the town of Valley of Peace. “Go Fast, Take Chances,” right Randy? It seemed like a very long time to be traversing orchards and the mountainous terrain seemed further north than what was represented on our maps. We knew that if we kept going west and south we would eventually hit our guard rail which was a main road to the town of Valley of Peace. Being off the map is uncomfortable at best. The sun had gone down an hour earlier, so when we finally saw a row of three or four street light we were relieved. We heard people singing Auld Lang Sine from a church building and several people were milling about the very small village. It was so small that we didn’t realize we were already in the Valley of Peace. We talked to a young woman who verified where we were. After watching the dots post-race, we learned many other teams made this same mistake and traversed north off the map.
We continued on our way on fairly fast, groomed gravel roads. 20K south, we took a break to... take a guess. A local guy on a bike stopped to see if we need help. He was a small older Belizean. He did not speak good English but he wanted to make sure we were OK and he offered to fix our tires if they were flat. It took us some pantomiming to prove to him that our tires were not flat and we did not need help. He was very friendly though and wanted to chat. He told us he owned a 25-acre farm that we were riding up to and he indicated that we could come to his house. We told him we were racing and needed to get going. We took a couple of pictures with him that he wanted us to email to him. He pulled out his Social Security card so that we could see the spelling of his name and Chip wrote down his name and email address for him. It was hard to tell if we were of the same understanding, but it would be really cool if we were able to get in touch with him again. He wanted to ride along with us, but we said we were racing and we had already spent a bit too much time chatting and going to the bathroom x2. We became familiar with where we were because the route had us go back through the Iguana Creek Bridge and passed CP 4, TA1/2.
Shortly after crossing the main road, we ducked behind a rock factory with 10M rock piles. We dug ourselves little cupped sleeping holes and planned on a 20 minute nap. No bugs and beautiful stars. It was so comfortable and cool and safe that it was perfect. Snooze was hit a few times. That was the last time Chip slept for the remainder of the race. An Amish horse and cart passed and so did Adeo and NatureX. Dang those French are noisy and fast on gravel roads. So, woken up, we got going again. After a few more poop stops, we came up to a fork in the road and met up with Power Bar. We followed them through a rugged single-track section that was overgrown with large wet rocks and a forest canopy overhead. It was dark and eerie but really neat. We had a final River Crossing with our bikes to get to CP 26.
CP 26 – Quazi Transition Area – Oasis box.
We arrived at CP 26 and went to the canoe put in to get the checkpoint inside the cave. It was amazing and we took a lot of time exploring and enjoying the atmosphere thinking that we had plenty of time to rest and eat before the final leg. Once again, we were wrong about that. We had not realized that we would need to leave by 3 AM in order to start the packraft section. It was 2:15 and we only had 45 minutes to get going again. We mistakenly thought we had to get to the TA by 5 AM in order to be allowed to move forward to the packraft section. If it weren’t for Chip saying that we at least had to try, we wouldn’t have gone ahead. It was probably Andrea’s weakest moment of the race, but it didn’t last very long. She didn’t think we could make the time cut off because we were too tired. Chip knowing that she was on the brink, let her sit down and sleep while he prepared our bags. She got about 15 minutes sleep while cuddling with her piping hot Mountain house biscuits and gravy meal that she couldn’t seem to finish. After getting gear sorted and too many bathroom breaks, we reluctantly set off on bikes at 3 AM just seconds before the RD cut off the option. All but 3 official teams chose to bike back to the finish and skip the packraft section. Commie Bar had dropped out due to a bike issue, but the remaining 3 team mates rode to TA8 as well with hopes to packraft.
Taking off from CP 26 might have been our most steep hike-a-bike sections. We went as fast as we could go which was a snails pace. Chip towed Andrea’s bike even while hike-a-biking uphill and we would take about 20 steps before catching our breath again. We did that until we were able to finally ride. Once we got on our bikes the riding was super-fast with a lot of ups and downs. This is where NatureX passed us flying ahead. Leading them was their petite female teammate who didn’t appear to be tired at all. We kept up with them for a short time, pushing our speed past our limits. At one point we saw their maps littered on the ground and they had to stop to sort them out. The maps must have flown off of the lead riders map board. They gathered them quickly and passed us again. We got to TA8 at exactly 5:02. Once there, we realized the volunteers had not heard about any 5am cutoff. Oh well. There seems to be little rush to get on our way again. We disassembled our bikes for the last time in the race and we prepped our bags for pack rafting. We dumped any excess gear that we had into our bike boxes which lightened our loads, but we still needed all the paddle gear as well as food for another 12 hours. Chips tummy was finally settling down. Relief!
Leg 9 – Trek / Canyoner / Packraft 20 to 22 miles
Leaving TA 8, we took the RD’s recommendation to use the Pineridge Chito line to cut off CP 28 and save some time. From a dot watching standpoint we look like we were ahead, and it was a good decision because NatureX and Bones had a difficult time finding CP 28. When we came to the option to take the road to skip CP 29, we chose the trail and gave it a shot. On the hunt we had been approached by a park ranger who was concerned for us and wanted us to know that other teams went another direction and that “we could get lost in the jungle”. No shit! We appreciated his concern and forged ahead. The trail was fairly clear and we went to where we thought the CP29 should be, but did not have luck in finding it. We spent about 15 minutes looking for it and gave up knowing we couldn’t afford any more time. Fail…
We didn’t have any trouble getting to CP 30. Most of the way was on a muddy truck road. This was really exciting for us and it was absolutely beautiful. There is a large waterfall and then a secondary smaller waterfall and lots of rapids and rocks below. We had been advised that this section would be difficult and we may not want to inflate until further down the river, but we were excited to get on the water. Once again though, Chip let Andrea take a nap while he got things ready to go including inflating the pack craft and studying the maps. Andrea slept for about 30 minutes and as we were getting ready to take off, we saw NatureX on the other side of the river inflating their raft. Chip ran up and took video of them launching. They put in and got in their boats and got ready to go when they asked Chip if the next rapid was OK. Chip motioned and yelled NO! They stopped in time, but one of their boats just about got swept down class 3 rapids going backwards. They rock hopped down to the next section, got in their boats and took off and we never saw them again. It was exciting to cheer them on though and it was amazing to see their confidence and speed. No wonder they are ranked 4th in the world.
We put in shortly after we saw them and paddled a very short section before we analyzed the next rapid. Upon assessment of the areas we hadn’t seen before we got in the raft, we decided it was too dangerous for us and we needed to try to find the trail as a workaround. We pulled back out and tried to find the trail while caring our inflated packraft. Bad idea. We awkwardly made it back up the hill and couldn’t find it. We realized we needed a better way to carry the packraft on a trail, so we deflated it and Chip carried it. We spent a lot of time here seemingly going in circles looking for a trail that just wasn’t there. And, it was not an option to bushwhack 2+ clicks of raw steep jungle carrying a packraft without a trail. 5 hours wasted. We finally inflated again back at CP 30 and set off to maneuver through the falls as best we could. We had the mindset that we would eventually get to a section that we could remain in the pack raft. This never happened though. The rapids continued to get more rugged with each turn in the river. Class 2 rapids quickly became 3 and maybe some 4. We realize we are getting way over our heads. We did what we could to raft several of the rapids and then get out to portage across the rocks. Over and over. The current also increased as we went down and it became more dangerous to float down to get to the next portage. Chip carried the pack raft and Andrea carried the paddles. It got more and more difficult as we got increasingly tired. Our packs were waterlogged and easily added 10-15 pounds to our already heavy packs. Slip, ouch, slip, ouch… Repeat 1000X.
It was disappointing to realize we would not finish the race, but the need to extract safely left no room for feeling sorry for ourselves. The focus went from finishing the race to finishing that section without getting hurt or needing rescue. We realized that if we didn’t make faster progress we may need to sleep there. It was about 4 o’clock and the sun was already starting to go down behind the mountainous terrain. Andrea was getting cold and there was no way for either of us to stay dry. We came to an especially difficult place to figure out what to do and considered our options for quite a long time. Our decision was between really bad and terrible. Upon Andrea’s suggestions, we finally decided to paddle back up a little bit and make it to the center of the river. That was a bit of a turning point in our plan. After that we stuck to the middle portages and slowly but surely got to the final rapid before a calm bend in the river. As we made the turn we saw a Belizean defense force soldier waving to us to make sure we did not go over the 10M falls ahead. Despite knowing we couldn’t finish the race, it felt very rewarding to punch CP 31 right at the stroke of 5 pm. Only 3 teams made the 3 am cut off for this leg and we were one of them!
We deflated and packed up the raft and we were led along another steep, muddy, but short trail around to the base of the bottom falls. We were given the option of paddling into San Ignacio, but given the state we were in, the race being officially over and dark approaching, we tapped out and accepted transport. On the pontoon, we reveled at the beauty and wildness of the scenery. It took about 20 minutes to get to the dam. We got out and our pontoon driver welcomed us into his brother’s two story, no wall, basically no furniture, house. They served up OJ and rum in broken coffee cups and we chatted as we waited for a ride and enjoyed the first buzz in 4 days. A truck couldn’t be called earlier because there was no cell service until the dam. A jalopy 4x4 eventually pulled up. We got in the back of a double cab. All the gear and Belize soldiers hopped in the back. It took 45 minutes to drive to Cahal Pech resort. The roads were enormously steep and 4-wheel drive needed to be engaged a few times. We slept on the ride as the sun went down.
The Finish Line
We arrived at the hotel and the awards dinner was already under way. Upon entering, the room erupted with applause. Chip did a victory loop and Andrea followed shortly thereafter and pushed him out of the way for her applause. Doug congratulated us and put our MMAC medals on us. There were photos taken and we felt like celebrities for half a second. In hindsight, because most teams trickled across the finish line without fanfare, we agreed it was healthy for the whole group to share in the excitement of the last racers crossing the finish line signifying the end of MMAC 2018and all teams safely accounted for. What an accomplishment for everyone!
We quickly showered and got to the ceremony just in time for presentations. Little did we know there would be a Lionheart award given for best spirit in the race. We won! Apparently, no matter where we were on the course we always had a smile and friendly attitude which can be rare in long challenging races. We were given a tandem Kokopelli Packraft as reward! Chip and Andrea offered the raft to the Belize team since they have tons of trouble sourcing rafts in Belize.
Attempting this race was a huge undertaking for us. Having only raced together in one 15 hour local race, taking our team to 4+ days in a foreign jungle significantly pushed our mental and physical limits. Funny thing is, during the race, we found ourselves perplexed that we were “really doing this”. Exp. AR is not like bungee jumping or skydiving where you only have seconds to enjoy and process. After 4+ days of full AR emersion, our brains had time to really indulge in the experience. I just can’t describe how satisfying it is and super fun even when being faced with challenges.
We owe a big thanks to Julia and Doug Crytzer for encouraging us to give it a shot. The other volunteers also deserve a huge shout out for taking time to make this race possible. We also really enjoyed getting to know the other teams. The comradery between racers was one of the best parts of our experience. The caliber of individual that participates in Expedition AR is impressive. Regardless where the racers were from, each was intriguing, smart, friendly, inspiring and encouraging. We can’t wait for our next race.
Days later in Placencia, we had an opportunity to have breakfast with Randy Erikson to do a podcast. It was awesome that he took time from his vacation to get this done. It was important to us to capture our raw emotion, excitement and awe from this once in a lifetime experience. We encourage racers of all levels to consider putting an expedition race on the calendar and give it a shot. You will find that it is a completely different sport than your back-yard sprint races. Go for it!
Andrea and Chip