by Maureen Moslow-Benway
As you are probably aware, the Booz-Allen & Hamilton Adventure Club has a team entered in the 2000 Eco Challenge which will be held in Borneo this August. The Eco Challenge is the premier multi-sport Expedition Race for the world's top adventurers and one of the most difficult athletic endeavors in the world. The race entails over 500 km (300+ miles) of jungle trekking, sailing in Perahu outrigger canoes, white and flat water paddling in Murut canoes, orienteering, canyoneering, rappelling, scuba diving, mountain biking and caving. Our team consists of Steve Riley, Kevin Miner, myself (all Booz-Allen employees) and my brother Bill, a former Eco Challenge competitor. Team Booz-Allen is racing on behalf of Special Olympics and as such, we have been busy raising funds for this worthwhile charity. We hope to raise over $12,000 when all is said and done.
Needless to say, we have been training extensively for the race. We each work out on our own 5 or 6 days each week. Additionally, on Wednesdays after work, we get together and either do a triathlon workout (swim ¾ mile, bike 20 miles and run 9 miles) or we hike non-stop for 18 miles. Additionally, at least once a month we get together for what we call our "endurothon" training weekends where we hike, bike, climb, navigate and paddle non-stop for 48 - 72 hours. One of our recent "endurothon" training weekends was spent competing in a 4 day, 250+ mile race called the Mega Dose. This race is probably the closest thing we'll do to the Eco Challenge before we get to Borneo, and I'd like to share our experiences with you.
We initially registered for the race as a four person team, but the week before, my brother's wife went into premature labor, so he was unable to participate. Instead, Steve Riley and I entered as a two person team and Kevin Miner entered as a soloist with the agreement that we would do the race together.
Our adventure began on May 25th, when we arrived in Natural Bridge, VA. Once there, it took about an hour and a half to get registered, get our gear examined and get our bikes checked in. Shortly thereafter, Don Mann, the Race Director, got up and gave a pre-race briefing. There were three things that he said during this briefing really stand out in my mind. First, he advised that he was eliminating the requirement to carry fleece and cold weather gear because it was going to be a beautiful weekend in the Blue Ridge Mountains (Yeah, right). Second, he advised that he was shooting for a 50% completion rate for the race (Yeah, right). Third, he spent 20 minutes introducing various competitors. Now those of you who know me, probably know that I'm not very easily intimated. But looking around the room, I never saw such fit people! Don introduced the guy who was 2nd in the World 24 Hour Mt Bike Championship as well as the winner of the Iditasport, the record holder for the Appalachian Trail Run (David Horton), Eco Challenge and Raid Gauloises Teams, Military Special Forces teams and the winner of the XTERRA off road triathlon. I have to admit, I was secretly thinking we might be in over our heads...
The race then began under the Natural Bridge at 12:30 am (Thursday night/Fri morning). It started with a 28 mile mountain marathon. Our team was one of the few who chose not run it. We figured that we would make up the two to three hours later in the race, when everyone else's legs were "fried." Instead, we hiked it at a brisk (15 minutes per mile) pace and it took us 7 hours. When we arrived at the canoe leg, we were in 47th place out of 55 teams. From there, we got into the canoes and paddled 40 miles down the James River. We decided it was fastest if the three of us were in one canoe, so we dragged the empty canoe behind us. It took us the better part of the day to paddle the 40 miles and overall, it was pretty enjoyable. There were a number of Class I and II rapids to keep things interesting and we wound up passing 5 teams. After we finished the canoe leg, we hopped on our mountain bike and began the first of MANY steep climbs.
Unfortunately, less than 2 miles into the mountain bike ride, Kevin's rear derailler disintegrated and he was out of the race--there was simply no way to ride the 140 mile mountain bike course without being able to change gears. The only positive thing was that Kevin was registered as a soloist, so Steve and I could go on without being disqualified. Steve and I then pedaled for hours, climbing steep jeep roads and rapidly descending bumpy logging trails. After a while, night fell and it was difficult at best to see. At one point, we realized we were 10 miles off course, so all told, we had a minor, 20 mile detour. Around midnight, I was getting extremely tired and was afraid that I would fall asleep while riding. It was around this time that I started hallucinating. Over the course of the next 3 days, I had to see and hear literally hundreds of things that didn't really exist. Worst of all, it was around this time that an (imaginary) radio begin to play in my head. For the next 48 hours, I heard three songs play over and over again--Afternoon Delight (can you think of a worse song to have playing non-stop in your head?), Fire and Rain, and We Come from Different Worlds. Eventually, around 3:00 am, we arrived at the checkpoint and found out we were in 27th place. Somehow, we had managed to jump 20 positions, yet we didn't pass any teams--go figure!
After 2 hours and 15 minutes of fitful sleep, we awoke damp and cold. We first hiked down and then back up a mountain to get some water. We then hopped back on our bikes and started more very steep climbs. Several of the climbs were simply too steep to ride, so we wound up hike-a-biking. We rode up and down mountains all day long and late in the afternoon, arrived at the Bike/Hike transition checkpoint. It felt great to finally get off the bike and to start walking. Unfortunately, it was about this time it began to pour and it continued to rain (pretty much non-stop) from then until the race ended several days later.
The hike started out with a 14 mile climb up to the top of a mountain on an old, rocky, eroded jeep trail. Once we were at the top, we had to bushwack our way down the backside of the mountain, using only a map and a compass. I did the navigating by sending Steve ahead 100 yards or so. I'd align him to the compass using his headlamp. It worked well and eventually we hit a rocky, intermittent stream bed that was full of water due to the torrential rains. We used this stream bed as a handrail and followed it down the mountain. It was brutal going. Everything was wet and slippery, so we were sliding all over the place. To make matters worse, the stream bed was in a deep ravine that got deeper the farther down we got. Eventually, we were walking at a 45 degree angle, trying to keep our feet and ankles from twisting. Finally, after 4 or 5 hours, we came out on a trail and were able to hike on that till the next checkpoint.
Teams had to be at this checkpoint NLT than 6:00 am, or they couldn't finish the race. We arrived around 4:00 am and I think we were in 15th place. There were a number of teams still there who had decided to drop out due to the cold and exhaustion and it was obvious, that more than half the teams were going to get eliminated at this checkpoint. Steve and I tried to sleep for an hour or so, but we were cold and wet and it was difficult to do.
By this time, we were ready to get back on our bikes, since our feet took a major beating the night before, and fortunately, that's what we did. Guess what? We immediately started another steep climb and hiked our bikes. This day we continued to spend hours climbing long, steep jeep roads and then minutes rapidly descending them. However, the highlight was that we knew we were going to be passing through Buena Vista, VA--a small town that had a Subway restaurant in it. Talk about obssessing over food--I couldn't get the vision of a Subway Super Club out of my mind. It definitely kept me going--after all, there's nothing like a little "afternoon delight!"
Shortly thereafter, we dropped our bikes off at a checkpoint and started another 14 mile hike up to the top of Bluff Mountain. It was steep and as usual, it began to pour again. Once we got to the top, we had to bushwack our way 8 miles down the back side of the mountain. I think this was the most difficult part of the entire race. There was no trail and we were following a very rocky, wet, slippery ravine. I can't even begin to remember how many times I fell. Suffice it to say, that afterwards I had approximately 100 bruises on my butt and legs from this section. It took us eight LONG hours to get down the mountain to the climbing site. We got there at 2:00 am in the pouring rain. We sat down for about an hour trying to recover and warm up before we started the climbing section. First, we had an 80 foot ascent using jumars. Once on top, we were hooked up to a Tyrolean Traverse that was strung 250 feet across the ravine. I had never done a Tyrolean Traverse before, and I have to admit, the first half is easy (gravity rules!) and the second half, (pulling your weight back up), is exhausting. I remember being quasi-stuck, about 50 feet from the end thinking this is nuts. It's 3:00 in the morning, I'm exhausted, cold, tired and I'm hanging 80 feet in the air above a zillion rocks. I eventually made my way across and then rappelled 80 feet back down to the ground. From here, we had to bushwack our way 8 miles back up the ravine. This was definitely the low point of the race for me, because I knew exactly what we were in for.
Hours later, we made our way back up to the top of a ridge and then had to follow a nicely groomed hiking trail down to the next checkpoint. By this time, I was hallucinating quite frequently. I heard an army drill sergeant calling out cadence and was seeing wild animals and french chateaus. It's amazing what your brain does to compensate for lack of sleep. The only good thing was that around this point, the radio in my head stopped playing "Afternoon Delight!" We walked down the hill, both of us exhausted, cold and wet with throbbing feet. You could tell we were starting to lose it mentally. I literally fell asleep while walking and didn't wake up until I crashed into the ground. Eventually, we arrived at Checkpoint 14 and found out that we were the 6th place team--just about everyone else had dropped out. Needless to say, we were pretty psyched! The race officially was supposed to end in an hour, and it looked like nobody was going to finish it within the time limit. (Note: Later, we found out one team did officially finish the race with 13 minutes to spare--that's 1 team out of 55! Not exactly a 50% completion rate). The people working this checkpoint were very positive and convinced us to keep on going. We decided to try to finish the race, even if it would be after the cut off time.
So, we hopped back on our bikes and started yet another climb up a mountain. Unfortunately, we made it half way up before we realized we were on the wrong mountain. We came on down and climbed 2000 feet up the adjacent hill. When we reached this checkpoint, we were both freezing (we were wearing wet clothes and Hefty garbage bags and we realized that we weren't going to finish for at least another 6 or 7 hours. Reluctantly, we collectively decided to declare victory and hold a parade. We broke out the radio and called and asked for a ride.
All in all, it was a great experience. The Mega Dose was the toughest athletic competition that Steve or I had ever done. It was nice because I think we worked extremely well together as a team--we never had any real conflicts. If we were lost, we just dealt with it and got back on track. Also, it was a wonderful learning opportunity for the Eco Challenge and in many ways, it was a good confidence booster. I would have been happy to just finish the race and would have been thrilled to finish in the top half. I never would have imagined that Steve and I would have been in 6th place--by the cut off time at the end. I only wish the course would have been more realistic in length so that more than one team could have officially finished.
With all this training and experience under our belt, we're heading to Borneo hopeful that we will successfully complete the Eco Challenge. For the past several years, the race has been showcased in a Discovery Channel mini-series and broadcasted to 144 countries worldwide. This year, the Eco Challenge will have even more press coverage. It will be sponsored by the USA Network, Discovery Channel Canada and TriStar/Columbia pictures and will be viewed by literally tens of millions of people world-wide. If you are interested in following our progress, check out www.ecochallenge.com. The website will be providing daily updates starting August 21st. Team Booz-Allen will try its "Absolute Best" to represent the Firm well. Wish us well.
(This article also appeared in the Booz-Allen & Hamilton corporate newsletter.)