An Overnight Adventure at The Cauldron for Jake and His Bike Mom

Rachel Witkiewicz / 25.01.2021
Rachel Witkiewicz and son Jake at the start
Rachel Witkiewicz and son Jake at the start / © Randy Ericksen Films

Rachel Witkiewicz had competed in the The Cauldron before with her regular team, but this year she partnered with her son for his first overnight adventure race and this is their story of the race.

At 11, Jake has stronger mental toughness and resilience than most adults that I know. He and I have spent countless hours and miles in the North Georgia mountains bonding over our love for adventure. He’s been my training partner over the last few years as I prep for adventure races with my team, the 3 Bike Moms. 

He’d been asking to do an overnight race, but with COVID, the race options were limited. The 3 Bike Moms have done the Cauldron twice, but only finished once. One of my teammates swore she would never do the race again, so I saw the opportunity for Jake and I to race together. I knew from experience that the Cauldron was a tough race so we talked extensively about the fact that our goal would be to not worry too much about checkpoints and just focus on finishing. Jake was going to control the strategy (what CPs we go for, which ones we leave behind, when we rest, and when we throw in the towel…) Super stoked about the race, we headed to the start at the Suwanee 505 Ranch in Jasper, FL.

On Saturday morning, the gun went off at 10:00am and the race began with a prologue trek on the ranch. We made our way through the beautiful manure-covered pastures filled with longhorn steer and live oaks to find the first set of checkpoints. We hopped on our bikes and headed out for the first long bike to TA1.

This bike was long and tough due to sandy roads and an incredible headwind. We stopped often for rest, water, fuel and the occasional handful of jelly beans. I was really beginning to see Jake’s mental toughness through this section and I was getting more and more optimistic about finishing.

We found all of the remaining checkpoints on the first passport and arrived at TA1 with only a few hours until dark. Since we didn’t have bins there, we quickly began the lovely trek along country roads toward the paddle. We stopped to watch a fox hunt in a field and by the time we got to TA2, it was dusk and the temperature had already dropped significantly.

Onto the Water and Into the Night

This was by far, the toughest paddle I’ve ever done and the hardest part of the race for me as a parent. I knew that once we were on the river, we were committed. I couldn’t help but think of all the what-ifs. What if we flip? What if Jake starts showing signs of hypothermia? What if our feet get wet? I confirmed with Jake that he wanted to continue and pushed off the bank with a quick prayer to the river gods.

The temperature was plunging towards freezing and the water had an eerie, frosty fog over it. Our headlamps were reflecting off of the fog and we couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of us. We had to shut off our headlamps and try to navigate the bends in the river by watching the silhouettes of the tree lines. We didn’t get any checkpoints on the river because I couldn’t risk the boat flipping or Jake’s feet getting wet. We paddled as fast as we could for 17 miles and I may have shed a tear as we pulled into TA3 four hours later.

We jumped out of the boat and I raced to the bin to find dry, warm clothes for both of us. I was super thankful that our bin was packed like we were going skiing in Canada for a week, not spending 30 hours in Florida. At this point, many racers had dropped out due to the cold. I knew that if we stayed by the fire for too long, we probably wouldn’t finish the race, so I confirmed with Jake that he was ready to get moving and we hopped on our bikes towards TA4.

We picked up a couple of checkpoints on a fun, rolling singletrack trail and on the way out of the woods, we ran into two racers accompanied by deputies. We found out later that the team, while searching for a checkpoint, had discovered a dead body.

The ride to TA4 was brutal. The temperature was below 30 and when we peddled, the cold air moving across our bodies was unbearable. We had 2 hours until sunrise so we made the decision to alternate between walking our bikes and hunkering down on the side of the road huddling together for warmth. I asked Jake if he was ready to throw in the towel and he just said, “Nope”.

I asked him the same question multiple times over the next few hours (sometimes hoping for a different answer) and I always got the same response. We listened to a book on tape and watched the first light of morning begin to glow on the horizon. This is my favorite part of a race because the sun always brings a second wind and a renewed spirit. This one was particularly special because I knew it meant that Jake was going to finish the race.

Towards The Finish

We made our way to TA4 and pulled in with huge smiles on our faces. We picked up one checkpoint at a really cool Bald Cypress on the trek and then decided to head out and take our time on the bike to the finish.

The last leg was on the beautiful Florida Trail along the Suwanee River. The sun was out and it warmed up to about 55 degrees so we ate lunch on the banks of the river and cheered on the 10 hour teams coming down the river on their paddle. Jake led the last leg and took us through the ranch to cross the finish line around 28 hours.

Jake won the “Youngest Racer” award, which he is proudly displaying on our mantle and, as an added bonus, we picked up 2nd place in the Coed 2 division.

It was incredible to have the opportunity to spend 28 wonderful (and sometimes miserable) hours in the woods together. We talked, we laughed, we complained, we shivered together and we can’t wait to do it again.

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