Cal Eco Adventure Race #3, July 17th, 1999

What a grueling race...but what a fun race. Our team (myself, Paul, and Eduardo) left the bay area at 11am on Friday along with our most excellent crew (Dan and Kenny), and made the long drive up highway 80 to Auburn, and from there to Forest Hill, California. We got in at around 5pm due to extreme traffic, and gorged on the pasta feed the race organizers had set up for us. There were 50 teams in all competing, with many familiar faces around. After our pig-out, we took a look at the topo maps and checkpoints, received our UTM coordinates for 4 more checkpoints, and began plotting our route. There were 14 checkpoints in all, and the route looked pretty long. The first leg was to be a ~15 mile hike/run down through the forest to the American river; the route was obvious, but we'd be going downhill most of the way. The second leg was to be a kayak trip down the river for about 10 miles, including a mandatory portage half way through it. The third leg was another hike/run, but this time only 7 miles or so, and the final leg was about 30-35 miles of mountain biking on both roads and offroad trails.

After plotting our route and packing up our gear, it was about 10pm, and we decided to grab some sleep before the race began at 3am. Normally these races start at midnight, but the race organizers didn't want us to be on the river during the dark, especially since the river volume (and therefore height) were controlled by a dam, and the dam typically released some water during the early hours of the morning. We crammed into our room and I ended up sleeping on the floor for a couple of hours. We woke up, bounded downstairs, and milled around until the 3am start.

Somewhat amazingly, most of the field began to run at a good clip for the first leg of the race. Our team ran for about 45 minutes (probably covering 4 or 5 miles), and then we slowed down to a brisk hike pace for the rest of the first leg. Navigation wasn't an issue, since it was a main trail all the way past the first checkpoint to checkpoint #2 and the kayak leg. Unfortunately, the downhill nature of the trail took a big impact on my knees - I was hobbling for the last hour of what turned out to be a 4 or 5 hour leg. But, eventually we made it to the start of the kayak section, and our excellent crew met us there with food, water, our kayak gear handy, and lots of encouragement.

We began kayaking at about 7:30am. Our kayaks were the inflatable Sevylor variety; I don't like them as much as rigid plastic kayaks (with no keel or rudder the Sevylors tend to spin out a lot), but the river was moving at a good clip, so it didn't matter too too much. The river was a mix of very flat, slow moving sections, and somewhat steep rapids that were moving pretty fast and had a decent amount of whitewater. It was a blast coming down that river; the rapids were a rush. After 2 hours or so, we made it to the portage section (which was there to prevent us from accidently going down a very harsh stretch of the river that probably would have killed us all). The portage hurt - it was only a half mile or so, but up and over a rough trail with a steep rocky section coming back down to the river. After the portage, it was more of the same, until just before checkpoint 4.

Around the second to last bend before checkpoint 4, the current was quite strong, and unfortunately tended to push people close to a tree that was tipped over and partially submerged, meaning half the branches were above water and half below. As I was approaching this section, I noticed that there was a kayaker trapped in the tree, fighting for his life to stay above water. I foolishly decided to try and help him, and maneuvered close to the tree and grabbed a branch to stabilize myself. Unfortunately, the river picked up my kayak and flipped it, and I found myself suddenly underwater, pinned against my kayak (which was itself pinned against branches) by the current. I thrashed underwater for 10 seconds, and quickly realized that unless I calmed down, I'd probably drown right there and then. I reached back over the side of my kayak, and managed to grasp a branch above water, and using most of my strength, pulled myself out from under the kayak and was able to breathe. My kayak then broke free from the tree, and I had to choose to stay put and wait for help, or to risk extricating myself from the tree. I decided on the latter, and pushed myself back underwater to clear the remaining few branches. Luckily, I made it, and resurfaced a few feet down from the tree, and began swimming for my kayak. The other kayaker was still pinned in the tree, but I was being carried fast enough downstream that I couldn't help him. I later heard that he had eventually freed himself, and with help from race organizers, gotten his kayak out as well. It was a lucky day for both of us; in retrospect, as good as my intentions were, I didn't end up helping him and I jeopardized my own safety in the process. Live and learn.

A few minutes later, we paddled into checkpoint #4 and we were done with the kayak portion of the race. After a quick change of clothing and footwear, we began the third leg of the race (another hike/run). It was now about 1pm or so - just after lunch - and we had been going for 8 hours. We pulled out of the checkpoint at about 1:30pm to head into the third leg of the race, with the temperature started rising into the 90's. Unfortunately, we spent a lot of time looking for one of the checkpoints during this third segment. It was a UTM checkpoint (i.e. not marked on our map by the organizers, but rather the coordinates given to us and we had to plot it on our maps ourselves); we plotted it on the knoll of a hill just off of a trail, and we verified that other teams plotted it in the same place. Unfortunately, the checkpoint wasn't there when we got there, and we ended up searching for about 30 minutes to find it. It turned out to be 200 yards back at the trailhead, brightly marked with colored ribbons, but we had all missed it coming into the trail. D'argh. The last bit of this hike was disastrous for my knees, being about a 1500 foot drop back to the river down very steep, hard trails. My feet were severly blistered and legs tired, which meant my legs were gimping out in wierd ways, which didn't help my knees much. Finally we made it down by around 4pm or so, very tired, and partially dehydrated from the sun. But, we were very far into the race, and we were having a really good time.

The fourth and final leg of the race was a mountain bike section. It looked to be only 30 miles or so, so we figured on finishing it in 4 hours. It ended up taking more than 6, partially because I totally ran out of energy and bonked, needing a 15 minute rest stop to reenergize, and partially because of a few wrong turns we took that we had to back out of. At the 5 hour mark, darkness fell (we'd been racing for about 17 hours at this point), and we found ourselves on our bikes in the woods with no light. Bad situation. We had to walk the last few miles of the mountain bike leg, which put the icy finger of death on my knees. We stumbled into checkpoint 12 at 10:30pm or so, and called it a day. Looking back, I wish I just pushed through the last 2 checkpoints; apparently it was only a couple of miles to go to finish the race, but perhaps it was the right call, given how hard it was for me to even walk on those knees.

All in all, an excellent race - we pushed hard, found some of our limits, but stuck together as a team and accomplished something pretty significant. I'm looking forward to the next race.

Steve Gribble /
Last modified: Mon Jul 19 11:41:44 1999