Welcome to another edition of “Heather frolics through the Swamp!” This time, however, instead of an ultramarathon I’m adding in some mountain biking, kayaking, and orienteering, bringing you my official 2021 Palmetto Swamp Fox Adventure Race (12 hour) report.
Confession: when I first moved to South Carolina from the gorgeous Green Mountains of Vermont, I found the swampy areas and coastal forests to be pretty ugly. Drab, monochromatic, and uninviting. But over the years numerous endurance events have forced me to spend endless hours deep in these forests and swamps, and to really take a look at my surroundings. As such, over time, my opinion of this land has changed. I will now tell you that there isn’t much on this great earth more striking than the neon green of a fern growing through the charcoaled, scorched earth of a recent controlled burn. Or more beautiful than the Spanish Moss hanging off of an ancient oak, or the sunrise peeking through a sea of Loblolly pines. The swamp is beautiful, and I always look forward to any excuse to roam around in it.
Even if it’s local residents might want to eat you. (More on that soon)
But back to the adventure at hand. Last year, the Palmetto Swamp Fox Adventure Race was my second ever AR (you can read that recap HERE), and I was looking forward to doing it again. . This year, our two person team would become a trio, as we asked our friend and fellow Hart Strength and Endurance coach Brian to tag along.
(Not sure what an Adventure Race is? Don’t worry, I didn’t either for a long time. Take a peek at this post: Adventure Racing 101.)
Friday afternoon the three of us made the hour trek down to Santee Coastal Reserve to set up our tents. Buck Hall, where we had stayed last year, was already booked solid, but fortunately Brian found us this backup. Initially, I had some reservations that it was “so much further North” than where I wanted to be based on the race headquarters. But as it would turnout, this spot was actually CLOSER to where we would end up needing to drop and retrieve our kayaks later.
Plus, it was an absolutely gorgeous little campground.
Mandatory Packet Pickup / Boat Staging:
After setting up camp we headed to the McClellanville town hall to check in our team and get our our map. We were given our swag bags, and our first check point – the location where we would stage our boats.
Now, 2020 in the Hart household will forever be known as “the year we acquired a ridiculous number of boats”. Our flotilla is approaching “out of control” status. Needless to say, we thought it would be an advantage to bring our own boats – especially after last years debacle with the rental tandem kayak that constantly pulled to one side. So finding the location of the boat staging area was our first priority.
One glance at this year’s map reminded me of a very important lesson in adventure racing: never assume you have any idea what the race director has planned.
As I mentioned in last years recap, one of the advantages we had going into the race was that we are all too familiar with the Swamp Fox passage of the Palmetto Trail, and most of the surrounding roads, thanks to Chad Haffa and his Eagle Endurance Events. But the Francis Marion National Forest is huge. 252,368 acres, to be exact. And this year, the map we were given covered approximately 420 square kilometers Northeast of the area I am familiar with. We were headed into unknown territory.
Hell, getting to the boat staging area alone was an adventure. I’m not ashamed to admit we took a few wrong turns. Nevertheless, our little floatilla make it.
Our collective alarms go off at 4 am, and we find our way to the race start at 5 am. We check in, and our given the UTM’s to plot our check points. Being the navigator, I get right to work plotting our route. Brian assists by reading off the UTM eastings and northings, and we plot all of the initial CP’s with ease.
Last year, the map we were given was at least 20 years old, and therefore was completely missing newer roads. This year, the map we were given was more recent, and thus, not labeling -or completely missing – some older forest service roads that are no longer in use. Thankfully, the race director had hung up two older maps on the wall, so we could cross reference names of some of these roads as we came up with our plan.
Because there were so many more people this year (thanks in part to Amazon & Bear Gryls temporarily bringing back Primal Quest for the masses to see and learn about the sport of AR) race director Steve said that we were able to acquire CP’s in whatever order we wanted. The only catch was that we had to travel from TA1 (bike to run) to TA 2 (run to paddle) on foot, AND that we had to start the paddle by 3 pm.
Now, being that we are still relatively newbies to this sport, our strategy is still a work in progress. But, we are familiar with the terrain, and we know our strengths and weaknesses. So as a team we decided to work the checkpoints mostly backwards, heading almost immediately to TA1 to get the run over before it got TOO hot. Further, we didn’t want to stress about that 3 pm paddle cutoff, so we figured we’d get that all out of the way first, and then hit up the remaining check points on our bikes.
RACE START – CAPTAIN CHALLENGE
In order to break up the large group of teams, the race director started our day with a team captain challenge. The captain would be handed a hand drawn map, as well as some written instructions where we would find check points hidden around the town. The checkpoints contained clues, which would be used to decipher a code when you returned to your team. Only once you deciphered the code would you be given your passport, so you could start your race.
You may remember this as the “first place team HSEC royally messed up” from last years race recap.
Though Geoff was our team captain, you may also remember that he can’t see very well. So when the challenge was announced, Geoff came back over to Brian and me and asked if I’d do it instead. Sure, whatever, my caffeine hasn’t kicked in yet, I don’t care.
I grab a map and instructions from the race director, and head outside to wait with the other team captains for the official race start.
Have I mentioned yet that out of 89 teams, and close to 300 racers, maybe 10 of us are females? That doesn’t necessarily matter, but it’s definitely something I noticed. Where are you at, fellow female badasses? Come try adventure racing, it’s a ton of fun.
Anyway, the gun fires, and we all take off sprinting down the road. I love running – but boy do I hate road-5K-effort-running. Especially in trail shoes. Nevertheless, I find the four check points easily. It’s not terribly hard to do with this many people running around a very small downtown area (I think the population of this town is just over 500 people -it’s a teeny, tiny downtown). While I wouldn’t ever recommend following the crowd as a racing technique (trust your own navigation), it works well in situations like this. I haul ass back to the starting line, and throw the clues I’ve written down at my teammates. It doesn’t take us long to decipher the mystery word. We hand our answer to the race director, who gives us our official passport. We run to our bikes (just across the parking lot, and we’re off.
Bike Leg #1
We head out of downtown McClellanville and we’re off to a strong start. Turns out, a hard 5K effort warms up my legs quite nicely, therefore the transition to the bike wasn’t so rough. We’re passing other teams easily while still maintaining a “we have to do this all day” effort. We’re thrilled when we get to the intersection of highway 17 and see police officers there with traffic stopped. Definitely not something we were anticipating, but a welcome surprise nevertheless.
And then we have to pull over – because Geoff’s ALREADY having bike issues.
If you recall last year, he dropped his chain somewhere around 30 times, taking AT LEAST an hour of our race time, if not more. This year we were off to a rough bike start even before race day, as his brand new bicycle – literally less than a week old – was already broken. Fortunately, a local friend lent Geoff his bicycle for race day. But here we were, mere minutes and a few miles into the race, and we’re pulled over already, watching endless teams pass us as Geoff fiddles with the bike.
Yeah, I copped an attitude about the situation. Apparently I’m still holding a slight grudge over last year.
Turns out, the lamp on the handle bars of the bike was interfering with the odometer. (If you’re new to adventure racing, GPS units are not allowed. Old school, magnet/cable odometers on the bike are allowed). Must have been a magnet issue, I don’t know.
Onward. We ride about 5 or 6 km North(ish) before taking a turn onto our first forest service road. Note: the map grids are in kilometers, so it’s just easier to use the metric system when adventure racing. That doesn’t mean I don’t spend the majority of the race repeating to myself “1 kilometer is 0.62 miles” to try to give myself some sort of reference point. I have no idea why we don’t all transition to metric, but in the meantime, I’m a hopeless American who can’t wrap my mind around anything but the imperial system.
Fortunately I had plotted our first checkpoint (#6) right on the edge of a creek. At least this gave us SOMETHING to work with, as my navigation skills were probably a bit rusty. The three of us drop our bikes and dive into the woods. We all separate slightly and start looking. I take a few steps into the woods when all of a sudden I hear frantic and chaotic flapping of bird wings. I look over and much to my delight, see an American Woodcock scurrying away. “A TIMBERDOODLE!” I shout excitedly
“You found it?” I hear Geoff yell from 50 yards away.
“NO, A TIMBERDOODLE!” I yell back. I can almost feel the glare of his eyes piercing through the trees as he says – without actually saying it – “Heather. Focus. We’re racing, not birdwatching.”
“COPPERHEAD!” Brian yells, somwhere in the forest between Geoff and I.
“You found it?” I hear Geoff yell again.
“No, I almost stepped on a copperhead snake” Brian replies.
We’re off to a smashing start.
Onward. We’re having zero luck on our first CP. We meet back at the road three times to reevaluate. I even double check my UTM coordinates, and know we are in the right spot. On the third review, I notice the point I plotted is right on the edge of what should be swampy area, and that the forest to the left is MUCH drier than the swamp we’re currently stomping through. I suggest we look there. So we head about 200 yards into the woods and what do we find? The checkpoint. But what did we forget to bring?
Oh an also? Brian. We forgot Brian. He was still back at the road with our bikes.
(According to most adventure racing rules, you should always be within 100 yards of your teammates. This was definitely not practiced nor enforced at Palmetto Swamp Fox by all of the teams, as we saw many teams wait and rest at the side of the road while they sent one guy into the woods to hunt down the CP, definitely spreading them out by more than 100 yards. Nevertheless, our team wanted to practice sticking to the rules.)
SUCH rookie mistakes, but better to learn our lesson on the very first CP than later in the race when we are running out of time.
I get the passport, we get Brian, we get our punch, we’re on to the next CP. Which honestly, doesn’t have much of a story accompanying it. We arrive to where we anticipate finding the CP at the same time as another team. We all step off of our bikes and into the woods almost simultaneously, when IMMEDIATELY a guy on the other team yells “there it is!” Check point # 8 acquired.
TA 1 / Checkpoint 15: Bike to Run
Per our strategy, we decide to get the run to paddle section over ASAP, for two reasons:
- It’s supposed to get pretty hot out, pushing 80 degrees. None of us are heat adapted yet as it’s only March, so we’d rather run during the cooler part of the day. And
- We didn’t want to stress with that whole “3 pm paddle cutoff” .
So we make it to the bike to run transition area early. In fact, we’re one of the first teams there (as clearly most of the teams have taken a completely different route). And we’re so early that the challenge to earn CP #15 isn’t even set up yet, so we’re told we have to get it later in the day.
We take off on the run and relatively easily find CP’s 16, 17 (please watch entertaining video on that one below), 20, 21, and make our way to TA3 – the start of the paddle section. Grab yourself a coffee – or a strong drink – this is where shit gets crazy.
The Paddle (and the Gator)
We arrive to the run-to-paddle transition area, and a volunteer gives us a sheet of paper with three sets of clues. We have to triangulate two additional checkpoints along the paddle route, PLUS triangulate the location where we take our boats out of the water.
Do I, the navigator on the team, know how to triangulate? Of course not!
Fortunately Geoff does, AND he packed a pair of glasses so he could kind of read the map. He gets to work triangulating, and Brian and I are helping as much as we possibly can…while also stuffing our faces full of food. Geoff plots three points that don’t necessarily make any sense…especially the kayak take out spot that looks to be a good kilometer away from any body of water. No way am I hauling that friggin 100 lb beast of a tandem kayak that far, I already paid my chiropractor the equivalent of half the cost of a new (cheap) car to fix me from my last kayak debacle. But I digress.
Fortunately I’m a quick learner, so I ask if I can take a stab at this triangulating business to see if I can come up with anything different. I do… and my points make far more sense. One directly off the Santee river onto “Chicken Creek”, another on the Wambaw Creek, and yet another even further down the creek – which conveniently is also on a service road. A perfect place for a transition.
We hop in the boats and take off. Geoff and I in the tandem (Freyja) and Brian in the single Wilderness Systems Tsunami (Janet). Yes, we name our kayaks.
The first 4km of the paddle are a breeze, as we are going with the current. Nevertheless, Brian has a harder time keeping up with our battleship, so we clip him in with a towrope. Eventually, we find the opening to Chicken Creek that I’m looking for, and head in. I tell the guys we need to take a left at the fork in the creek, two right curves, and we should see the check point. Low and behold, it’s EXACTLY where I said it would be. I’m so thrilled with my navigational prowess, that I tell Geoff to push us “full steam ahead” to the opposite bank of the creek so I can grab the CP. In our excitement, we fail to notice how fast the current is moving on that side of the creek.
Next thing you know, the beast of a tandem is quickly being pushed into a downed tree and threatening to flip. Getting caught in a “strainer” is probably my biggest fear when it comes to paddle sports, and so I’m holding on to said tree for dear life trying to keep our boat right side up. We eventually somehow get ourselves out of the tree and out of the current – but without having grabbed the checkpoint.
Your turn Brian.
Thankfully he has far more success with a much smaller boat. CP #19 is acquired.
We’re cruising down Chicken Creek, marveling at how lovely the current is, and grateful that we’re paddling into it rather than against it. COMPLETELY oblivious to the fact that this soon will change. Chicken Creek spits us back out into the Santee, and eventually we find the opening to Wambaw Creek. We’re now, oh, about 8 or 9 km into our paddle and feeling good. Then out of the corner of my eye I see him (or her):
the biggest friggin alligator I’ve seen in my entire life.
Now, I’ve lived in South Carolina on and off for nearly 14 years. I kayak, canoe, and stand up paddleboard in the local river that is full of gators. Hell, we have a good 10-12 foot male gator that is a well known resident of our neighborhood – we walk past him almost every day. I see them. I respect them and I give them their distance. But I’m usually not terribly fearful.
But this prehistoric beast was MASSIVE. His head alone had to be about two feet from his nostrils to his eyeballs. And the section of creek Geoff, Brian, the gator, and I were all sharing? Maybe 25 feet wide at best. There is NOT much room for us to pass this gator, who is currently swimming towards the middle of the creek, and we don’t know what to do.
So we stop.
Geoff starts banging his paddle on the kayak. Word on the street – and on the internet – is that alligators are afraid of humans and loud noises. But what does this giant alligator do when he hears the banging of the paddle? He turns around and starts slowly swimming towards us. I immediately tell Geoff to stop, that perhaps since we’re approaching mating season, Mr. Gator might view this noise as a threat to his territory. I start talking, loudly, like a lunatic. “I’M GOING TO KEEP TALKING, BECAUSE I’VE HEARD THAT ALLIGATORS DON’T LIKE HUMAN VOICES, OH MY GOSH THIS THING IS HUGE, WHAT THE HELL ARE WE GOING TO DO….” you get the idea.
This gator is eyeballing us something fierce. I figure the longer we stick around, the longer we are portraying ourselves as a threat to his or her space. So I tell the guys “as soon as I say go, you need to paddle like hell.” I wait until the gator turns a little bit towards the right shoreline, and I yell “GO!!!!”
We start paddling like our life depends on it (kinda felt like it did). As we pass the gator on the right side of our boats, not 5 feet away, he dips underwater. This reptile is SO LARGE that he leaves an audible wake in the water that hits our boats. We paddle as fast as we can for a solid 200 yards or so before I dare look behind us. I don’t know what I expected to see…I imagine if I was being stalked by a massive gator he/she would probably swim underwater undetected. But I find some relief that I don’t see any trace of him/her. Nevertheless, we keep going.
Eventually, our heart rates and adrenaline levels decrease. Just in time for us to notice that we are now paddling against the current. And that our not-so-professional tow line isn’t working very efficiently. AND that trying to figure out where you are in the creek on a map is actually harder than you might think. I know eventually that we will come to a bridge (that we ran over earlier), but that bridge never seems to come. I must say “just around this bend, we should see it” at least half a dozen times.
But eventually, it does show up.
We pull over to the concrete boat ramp at this bridge to get out and stretch our legs. I break the news to the guys that the seemingly never ending paddle from the alligator to the bridge? Yeah that was only like 2 km…and we still have another 2+ km to the next check point. AND ANOTHER 2+ km to the boat take out.
As we’re standing on the shoreline stretching our legs, two other teams catch up and pass us. This is the first time we’ve seen other people on the paddle, and we’re shocked at how quickly they caught up. We realize we must be woefully inefficient somehow, beyond simply the fact that Brian and I aren’t necessarily in the “best” paddling shape . So we readjust the tow line by shortening, and lo and behold, it’s significantly easier to tow Brian along. Thank goodness, because my elbows – of all things – are killing me.
I find these next two sections of the creek easier to navigate and read on the map. We find CP 14 right where I anticipate, and CP 10 / the transition area *almost* where I anticipate (I got a little ahead of myself, much to my teammates displeasure when I said “just around the corner” a little too soon).
I also see a belted kingfisher and a swallow tailed kite. My inner bird nerd is happy.
FINALLY we stumble out of our boats, probably about 23 ish km/ 14 ish miles later. Remember at the beginning of the post when I said “never assume you have any idea what the race director has planned”? I definitely didn’t anticipate a 14 mile paddle that took us nearly 4 hours. None of us did. As we pulled our boats out of the water I said to the guys “Remind me in two weeks, when I’m suffering attempting to run 150 miles at the Country Mile, that at least I’m not in this damn boat on the Wambaw Creek”.
(I really wasn’t that miserable. But I was kind of wishing there was a chiropractor available at that TA. But I digress).
Run Section #2
From here, we get to run about 7-8 km from the boat drop off back to TA 1 where our boats are located. At this point, the earlier predicted heat has most definitely arrived, and we are greeted with the version of the Francis Marion Forest that we’ve all come to love: open dirt roads with absolutely zero shade. It’s got to be well into 80 degrees if not warmer, the sun is beating down on us, and it hurts.
And I, for one, am LOVING IT.
Probably obnoxiously so. But I do wait all winter long for these days, as I’m one of those rare people who thrives in the miserable swamp heat. Yeah, yeah, I know that the “ideal” temperature for running performance is around 55 degrees. But I still find that too cold, and will take > 70 degrees any day of the week.
I recognize that my teammates don’t quite agree, so I ask them to humor me and run for 50 paces, then walk for 50 paces. I keep count, and do feel a little guilty each time I say “OK, it’s time to run again, 50 paces, let’s go.”
But eventually, we make it back to our bikes. Now the aforementioned ax throwing challenge is available, and so Geoff and Brian take turns throwing axes at stumps until one of them finally sticks it. We also have access to our drop bags here, so we refill our hydration bladders with water and packs full of food.
I’m still feeling just great, and itching to get out of transition. But again, I realize that my teammates might not feel the same, so instead of running my mouth about the clock, I stuff it full of a Clif bar instead.
Bike leg #2
We’re now about 8.5 hours into a 12 hour race, and we still have 13 check points out of 22 to go. For a moment, I second guess our strategy, and wonder if we should have frontloaded our race with the 10 or so check points that are all clumped together in the South East corner of our map. I also wonder if we should have hit the CP’s we collected on foot, by bicycle. But I also realize that might have meant we’d be out on that long ass paddle well later into the day (or night) than we had planned. At least on the bike, we have much more control of our speed and location, and could bail out and head back to headquarters whenever we needed to.
So, on we go.
Our first CP on this second bike leg is supposed to be #18. But, perhaps the heat and the day has gotten to me, because I’m not paying attention, and we completely blow by where we SHOULD have been. I can even match up the bend in the road where we are to a bend in the road on the map that shows me we are nearly a half a kilometer away from where we should be. We make a half assed attempt to backtrack and find the CP, but to no avail. This one has zero identifying markers on the map anyway (no streams, no swamps, no contour lines, no roads to shoot a bearing from). So we bail on that one and move on. Suddenly, time is a concern.
Oh, and suddenly, I completely broke my bicycle map board. So navigating became a bit more difficult. But, compared to our endless technical difficulties of the 2020 event, if a broken map board 9+ hours into the race was the worst that happened, we were doing alright.
Over the next few check points – 12, 11, 12, 9, 7, & 5 – we fall into a small pack of a few other teams and a solo racer. At this point in the race, it’s obvious that none of us are “winning”, and the competition vibe kind of fizzles out. Rather, “teamwork” is the positive energy in the air, and we all help each other out, whether it’s comparing maps, holding rope ladders for other teams so we can actually reach the CP’s, or simply pointing out where the flag is located. One guy even took three different team passports up a rope ladder to punch the CP’s so we could all save time.
Eventually though, these groups head in a different direction, as they’ve collected all of their checkpoints for the day. We’re still missing 3,2, 1…and of course #18, that we missed earlier. But we’ve just about run out of time, and if I’m being honest, energy.
I had spent the last few hours hanging on to Geoff’s tail as I tried like hell to draft as best as I could. Cycling is NOT my strongest discipline, and I cannot keep up with his monster legs. But I hung in there, until the very end.
Nevertheless, checkpoint #1 was on our way home, and fortunately, we found it easily.
We finish our race with about 18 minutes to spare. 11 hours and 42 minutes, 18 out of 22 checkpoints, on a course that we found to be much more difficult than the previous year. This was good enough to earn us 2nd place in our category (3 person co-ed team), and some sweet prize (pint glasses, map cases for Brian and I, and a new bike lock for Geoffrey!)
As I finish up this (painfully long) post, I turned to Geoff and said “I don’t know what else to say. Normally I finish race reports with some sort of motivational or emotional conclusion. I’ve got nothing.
Because for me, this year, there was nothing “emotional” tied to this race. I wasn’t overly competitive (we got our butts whooped by the pros from NCARS, and knew it was gonna happen going into the race). My training for Country Mile 48 hour has certainly paid off, as other than paddling (hello, specificity) I felt strong. I just went out there, and had a ton of fun.
Like a ridiculous amount of fun.
And I didn’t get eaten by an alligator.
So in the end? The 2021 Palmetto Swamp Fox Adventure Race was a swampy, dirty, pollen filled, gator infested, fun time. I can’t wait to go back next year.