Big First Win For Strong Machine AR
With three Adventure Racing World Series races, an Eco-Challenge Fiji appearance, and finishes in five USARA National Championship races, Strong Machine Adventure Racing is not new to the U.S. adventure racing scene.
But this year, with a revamped roster and a more unified competitive approach, Strong Machine AR set it 2020 sights on racing harder and faster and hopefully climbing on – or even atop – a few podiums.
The 72-hour 2020 Florida Sea to Sea Expedition Race, taking place February 27 to March 1, would be our first test with our new team line-up. Enlisted for the race was Glen Lewis, an experienced navigator with numerous top finishes on the Pennsylvania-based GOALS AR team; Kit Vreeland, an up-and-coming racer from Vermont with a specialty in navigation and mountain biking; and myself, Cliff White, the team’s founder and captain. The three of us had never raced together before but we knew each other well enough from racing against each other across the Eastern U.S., and in communications before the race, we clarified roles, expectations, and our shared desire to go as hard as possible while still racing our own race. Looking at the field of 50 teams registered for the race, we figured if we did well, we had a decent shot of winning the race.
Race headquarters was at the Southern Oaks Inn in beautiful and historical St. Augustine; founded in 1565, it is the oldest continuously inhabited European-established settlement in the contiguous United States. Travel went smoothly and our bikes arrived (mostly) intact and on-time, and we were able to do a Walmart and lunch stop before race check-in began at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, February 26. Studying the race schematic, and knowing Florida is flat as a pancake, we planned on the 13 legs of the race to go very quickly, therefore making speedy transitions a key to the race. We decided to race light, going with small backpacks and just the minimum required gear, knowing if we were really struggling, our bins would never be that far off.
Setting Off From The Gulf of Mexico
The race briefing on Wednesday night gave us little additional information, as we were not set to receive our race maps until the next morning as we boarded the buses to head to the race start in the town of Cedar Key, on the Gulf of Mexico. We got a great sleep, a filling breakfast, and boarded the buses at 7 a.m. Kit and Glen worked on the maps, gaining a pretty thorough understanding of the course by the time we offloaded in Cedar Key at 10 a.m.
Greeted by race director Jeff Leininger and his team from the AR Georgia organization (as well as by the fuzzy mascot called Checkpoint), we were told the first leg, a 13-15 mile paddle and trek leg out to a remote island, had been canceled. That advanced us to Leg 2, where we were given plastic bottles and told to fill them halfway full with sand from the local beach as our first checkpoint. At a little after 10:30 a.m., Jeff started the race and we hit the beach and then the roads of Cedar Key at a run. We finished off the roughly 10 kilometers of road racing in around 50 minutes, putting us in the top bunch.
Temperatures were perfect and the sky was clear was we mounted our bikes and set off on what was advertised as a 40- to 60-mile MTB section, but what we discovered around 12 hours later was actually more like 95 to 100 miles. The pace at the front was fast and we raced unwisely at an unsustainable pace for the first six hours as we hopscotched around with the top teams. As day turned to night, however, temperatures plunged below freezing, and we rolled into TA#2 with light backpacks, as we were wearing all our spare clothes.
Lost and Confused
The race’s pace-setters, which included Untamed New England, TanZ Navigation, and AR Georgia, all navigated the 10-mile foot section at the Watermelon Pond Wildlife Area cleanly, while after a fast start, we had our biggest bobble of the race, getting entirely disoriented in the featureless landscape of cypress swamps and sandy unmarked trails. As happened several times in the race, however, luck was on our side, and we saw the lights of AR Georgia coming our way. We followed them into CP 22 and then resumed our running pace on to the remaining two checkpoints before returning to TA alongside the other three top teams.
We got back on our bikes for the 25-mile ride to the San Felasco foot-O/MTB section. At this point, Untamed New England and TanZ Navigation formed an alliance and were riding the flat roads of Florida in a seven-person pace-line. They whooshed past us and Kit wisely suggested we stick to our own pace so as not to burn out. About 30 minutes later, at around 4 a.m., we thought our sleepy eyes were deceiving us when we saw the super-team flying back to us at hyperdrive speed. As they roared by us going backwards on the course, we got very confused and stopped for a moment to check the maps. Unable to figure out what was going on other than perhaps they had missed a checkpoint, we continued on to the San Felasco TA, taking only a few moments to grab some snacks for the 14-mile foot section. We were told AR Georgia was about 20 minutes ahead of us. (Untamed and Tanz had missed a CP it turned out and had an extra 20 miles of riding to retrieve it. Ouch!)
We made smooth, methodical work of the San Felasco foot-O as dawn began to break. The grass we walked through went from frozen and crinkly to thawed and wet. But the sun also revealed how beautiful this area was – a beauty I had not previously given Florida credit for possessing. As we explored more of the trails, we began to get really excited to ride them in our next section, a 30-mile MTB-O. We arrived back at TA 3 at around 9 a.m. and quickly got to work on the San Felasco trails, which were top-notch but confusing. AR Georgia, with its intimate local knowledge of the park, put serious time into us here, and we got back to the TA more than an hour behind.
However, the next 30-mile ride – an urban adventure through the traffic of suburban Gainesville – saw us claw back almost half of AR Georgia’s lead, as we found out entering TA 3. This next section would be the crux of the race, as it involved four separate sections – two team sections involving paddles to the north and south of Newmans Lake for treks, and two individual sections where only one team member had to do a foot-O and a single paddle point. We saw AR Georgia had opted for the individual O to start, but our strategy was to knock out the team sections while it was still light out, maximizing our sleep at night.
We headed to the north end of the lake with a stiff breeze coming at us from a 45-degree angle. Making it across the lake, we struggled to find CP 48, supposedly a bridge over a boat launch. The entire area was a swamp, and we were surprised that a bridge could exist in it. But after we decided to ditch the boat and travel by foot, we found the CP over an improbable footbridge in a remote area of swamp. Knowing we had an advantage, we pressed hard to nab the four remaining CPs in the section before dark. Running hard, we clipped the last of the four CPs and headed back to the boat, spying AR Georgia on the way.
We traveled across the lake through a starlight night to arrive at the south end O-course, where we encountered Untamed New England and TanZ Navigation. We traveled for a bit, exchanging some jokes and some candy, then split off as they hit CP 53 perfectly while we stumbled around a bit on a parallel feature. We lost around an hour here, so we tried to make it up on the paddle back to the TA, where we arrived at 2:30 a.m. Glen and I then tackled the “easy” O-course – it was anything but easy– while Kit slept, then I did both paddle legs while Glen slept. I bedded down at 5:45 a.m. and set my alarm for 6:45.
At 6:44, I woke up to Kit jumping up and down yelling, “No one is back yet! The door is open! Let’s go!” Kit didn’t realize we still had to do the final O-course, but her yelling galvanized Glen and I to get out of our bivvies and head back onto the course. We navved the last O-course cleanly and got out of TA around 40 minutes behind AR Georgia, but with a rested Kit leading the charge, we made good time on the roads for the 40-mile Leg 9. A couple hours later, we flew by a team resting in the woods that Kit was positive AR Georgia. She was right. We saw them a few minutes behind us on the out-and-back CP 57, and didn’t wait around to see how far behind us they were once we got to the last trekking stage.
It was the heat of the day, but the temperature felt just right as we settled into 9-minute miles around the six-point O-course at the Rick Creek Conservation Area. We ran an extra mile on the way back, and then just missed our attack on CP 60 and had to circle back, costing around 20 minutes, but we got into the TA without AR Georgia in sight, and we had seen Untamed and TanZ on the way out, so we knew they were at least two hours behind. Knowing we had just two bike legs and a canoe to a likely podium and potential first place, we burned rubber out of the TA at dusk.
Within sight of the final paddle put-in at Deep Creek, I ran over some construction debris. I immediately felt something lodged in my tire, but after a quick inspection, we decided I should ride it into the TA. That was a mistake, as we found out later – the bolt that had entered my tire scratched up my rim badly. We jumped into a canoe with the busted tire and Kit attempted triage while Glen and I steered through a mossy morass of twists and turns seeking out five water CPs. We slowed down in this section as we tried to problem-solve the tire, but the rim was destroying all the tubes we tried to put in it. We grew seriously concerned, but after the turnaround at the mouth of the St. John River, when we saw AR Georgia try to slide past us incognito – around 20 minutes behind – we had bigger worries. We had been bleeding time on the paddle.
A Borrowed Bike To The Finish
We slammed on the accelerator and finished the 14-mile paddle with a hard glide up the boat ramp to the TA. We knew now our only hope to win was to pawn a bike off a fellow racer – a move allowed within the race rules. Accepting a bike from a non-racer would have been a 2-CP penalty, so even though there were several generous volunteers willing to pony up their bikes, we had to decline. Increasingly desperate after a series of rejections, our good friends from Team 4050 AARP pulled into TA, and in less than a moment, we had convinced them of the righteousness of our cause and we were off on the final 18-mile ride to the finish, though I was stuck on a bike with a small-sized frame (I am a size large).
We dug deep into what was left of our reserves, knowing every minute mattered. An hour later, at another out and back to retrieve the final checkpoint of the race, and to top off our vial of sand with some Atlantic gold, we held our breath until we passed our entry point. We had at least a 15-minute lead, with just eight kilometers left. We knew only then that we were going to win.
We crossed the finish line back at the Southern Oaks Inn at 1:40 a.m. The video from the scene shows how beyond exhausted the three of us were. But we weren’t too tired to smile. For each of us, it was our first major victory in an adventure race.
A week later, those smiles are still stuck on our faces.