TPK Endurance 2016: Part 1

“Compass? Check. How about a 200 piece puzzle? Check. Okay, I will need to see two Rubik’s Cubes, one of them solved. Perfect.”I continued unpacking the required gear items for the race staff; items ranging from practical to enigmatic. “Enough nutrition to last 18 or more hours? A small succulent? Six 8”spikes in a ziplock bag? A 5 gallon bucket? 56.667 grams of birdseed?”Perhaps worse than the cumulative weight of these miscellaneous items totaling nearly 60 pounds in my pack, was the unknown purpose for some of them. Much of this event was intentionally kept a secret, a fact that I question whether was a good or bad thing. Nonetheless, I presented these requested items over a blue tarp in the parking lot of the old Superior High School. It appeared to look more like an old abandoned court house than a school, in the ill-maintained, but charming historic mining town of Superior, AZ. It was a Saturday morning and the temperature was several degrees below comfortable. I unpacked my bundle of wood, which exceeded the required 23 pounds. That thing was a pain in the ass. I chose long pieces so that the weight was distributed out to my sides, instead of being a huge circumference of mass hanging off directly behind me. I was given the all clear and so I repacked my gear and took a seat while the remaining competitors finished their check-ins.

The first stage in this multi-stage event, was a running time-trial. With our packs being transported by truck to Stage 2, we were temporarily relieved of their burden. All that we were required to have on our person was a reflective safety vest and a Rubik’s Cube. As a group, we walked through a portion of the dusty town until we arrived at an old dirt road that seemed to wind between a grouping of mountains. The red-brown crags jutted upwards on either side of the road. We were not told how far this run would be, just that it would “feel like a half-marathon”. Once the clock started, the first task would be to solve the GREEN top layer of the cube, before starting your run. After holding our cubes up to verify that it was not pre-solved, the countdown signified the start of our event. 3, 2, 1… Go! Many struggled with the cube, but not I. For months, I practiced until I could easily solve the entire thing by memory, much less a single top layer. It was burned in good. Jeff Schifano was quick off the draw and started his run first. A moment later, I presented my matching green side and headed out after him.

Not knowing the distance, it was hard to decide what pace to keep for this run. I resorted to something that was just above comfortable. Soon, I found myself in the lead with nobody to follow. I’m not used to that. “Hmm…I’m winning TPK right now,” I thought to myself. I dared not to turn around and see who may or may not be encroaching. Occasionally I thought I would hear footsteps, but I kept my eyes ahead of me and focused on my run, over one bridge and under some others as the dirt road began a continuous long and steady climb. Sure enough, after some miles, Nik Rasmussen crept on past me. I think he may have let out a hearty howl as he did it. Was he trying to get in my head? If he was, it kinda worked... Like, maybe a smidge. In any case, I now had a bright orange carrot to chase after, but truthfully, I was much more comfortable without the pressure of leading.

Our dirt road led us higher and higher from the valley below, eventually joining up with a 3 lane highway. Nik was still well within sight as we straddled the side of the road between sparse traffic and a steep drop-off. Every few minutes I would switch the cube to my other hand to keep the grip free and loose. Up ahead I could see a pull-off on the side of the road for parking. There were volunteers there and so I knew this was probably the end of Stage 1. I couldn’t tell you the mileage, but it was no doubt much less than it felt. I checked in with Ashley Seeger who was working the event as staff. She marked my time and placed a sticker on the GREEN side of my cube.

From here, Stage 2 began. There was a pile of wood-stuffed backpacks sitting in the parking lot, eagerly waiting to rejoin their masters. I sorted through them and after locating mine, heaved it up on to my back and set out after Nik, who was further up the highway. I couldn’t help but wonder what the passers-by in the vehicles were thinking when they saw the lot of us trudging along the mountain highway with huge packs, safety vests, and orange buckets dangling off the back. After a while, we scaled down the right side of the road below a small bridge under the highway. I almost fell backward off the loose boulders while descending due to the pack being so top heavy. Odette (race director) was underneath the bridge and I “100% guaranteed” her that somebody was going to lose their shit and die trying to come down off the road. Update: I ended up being 100% wrong. And this, my friends, is why I’m not a betting man!

Under the shade of the bridge, I dropped my pack and was asked to solve the WHITE side of the cube. No problem! Nik was already moving on, so I had a sense of urgency. After a quick solve, I grabbed my climbing shoes and followed directions on how to approach the climbing walls. There was quite a scramble to even get up there. The climbing routes started up on the cliff-side, maybe a few hundred feet above the road. Somehow I arrived there first. I did not see Nik anywhere, so he must have gotten lost on the way up (he did). There were 3 route options to choose from. The easiest climb was rated a 5.6 and was for zero points. All participants were required to complete this as a bare minimum to even continue in the event. The other options were a 5.8 and a 5.10 which both had a time cap of 8 minutes. The 5.10 looked significantly harder than the other, but I figured this would be a good chance for me to earn some extra points, since this race did not have a finish line, but rather was points-based. I had been practicing in the rock gym for months leading up to this. I could climb 5.10 and 5.11 indoors with relative comfort. This, however, would be my first time climbing outdoors on real rock and without convenient colored holds to readily spot and utilize.It was amazing how flat this wall looked. It wasn’t until you got up close that you could sort of make out small holds. This route, named “Pocket Puzzle” was made up of mostly small pockets or divots in the rock where you could get a couple of fingertips in. It was intimidating. I strapped on a helmet and got harnessed in for the 100-foot climb. The guide set his timer for 8 minutes and I began navigating the wall.

I was having a hard time spotting the chalk marks from previous climbers. I guess I expected them to be more obvious, but to me they weren’t. I spent a lot of time searching for places to get my fingers secure and I don’t believe I had started the route in the optimum location as there is no indicator for that either. The guide seemed very tight-lipped, like he was instructed not to offer me any advice at all. I was making my way up, but taking longer than I hoped. Without a proper warm up, it did not take long for my forearms to get pumped out. My finger strength was fading. I yelled “Take!” down to the belayer to signify that I was going to need to rest on the rope. There went my chance at bonus point for flashing this route. I hung there and frantically shook out my hands. “Four minutes left!” he called up to me. I don’t think I was halfway up at that point, but still, I was not panicking. My rests were becoming more frequent and it was clear that my climbing endurance was not up to par. “Take!” I was maybe 10 feet from the top at this point when I heard him yell “30 seconds left!”Well, shit. “There is no way I can get up there in 30 seconds!” I hollered back down to him. My fingers were burned out and I could not control them. I made a last attempt to cover the distance, but my hands weren’t having any of it. I came off the wall again.“I need more time!”. He started lowering me down against my will. I was emotionally crushed. And pissed off – very pissed off.

“Nobody is going to climb that in 8 minutes!” I snapped at the guide as I touched back down. I felt that it should have been a longer time cap for the harder route. My fingers were aching, withered claws and I had to have the guide undo my harness for me. I sulked off to the side as other racers started showing up. Did I really just screw up my chances of winning? My forearms were so blown out. I would have to rest for a good while before even thinking of climbing another route. All that time, wasted. I felt like there would be no chance of completing the 5.10 after that exhausting effort. That left me with the 5.8 route, which most of my competition was doing, including Nik who had found his way to the climbing area. I sat there for a while, feeding on a bison bar and the stew of emotion and self-pity that I had cooked up. Not moments later, another competitor and avid climber, James, hooks up to the 5.10 route and flashes it. That rocked my world. That meant that it wasn’t the race that was unfair It was my skillset that was inadequate. Unfortunately, that revelation did not alleviate my sour mood. I waited in the line that was now formed at the 5.8 route to have my turn on a route that I knew was beneath my abilities. I flashed it and I moved on, well behind the clock (and points) from where I had hoped to be.

To get back down under the bridge, we were required to rappel off the side of the cliff because it was safer than down-climbing the sketchy path we took up. There was a bit of a line here, as it takes some time for people to harness in, overcome their fears, pull the helmets and gear back up, etc. I was standing there for a good while, internally tapping my foot. I was overlooking the highway down below and could see competitors with their packs on, advancing up the road. “I should be down there right now,” I thought to myself. I felt like I was pacing up there on the edge of the cliff. I asked if I we HAD to rappel down or if I could climb down the other way, which I could have done safely. The rules were the rules. I had to wait. Finally, my turn arrived and I could not get down quick enough. I had never rappelled before, but there was no time to analyze whether I should be afraid or not. I just backed off the edge and swiftly leap-frogged down the cliff face with pseudo-familiarity. Harness off. Helmet off. Time to catch up! No, wait!“ Next you have to fully submerge into this cold pond and retrieve a rubber ducky with your bib number on it”.

I sighed in annoyance. I stripped out of my shoes and shirt and timidly slithered into the frigid bath. I wasn’t allowed to touch the duckies until fully submerged, so I dunked in and got it out of the way.“Ok, 18… Where’s 18? Not this one. Not that one. Hmm, there is no number 18 here.” “Try checking that patch of reeds over there,” I was told. Seriously? I swam across the pond and sure enough there was number 18, alone in the reeds. Is somebody fucking with me or what? How does mine get over here when all the others are nicely placed at the pond entrance? Obviously, things were still not going my way. I pulled myself out of the water, handed over the duck, got dressed and left the scene without saying a word. I’m not sure if my face betrayed, but my spirit was scowling.

Back under the bridge, I gathered my 60 pounds of gear and set out with an area map that was handed to me. This was the start of Stage 3: a Rucking Time Trial. The map indicated that I follow the highway a bit longer before exiting down to the right to follow along a creek bed. The creek was not an easy path.In fact, there was no path. It was straight bushwhacking through thick brush, over huge boulders, and even getting your feet wet when there was no better way to proceed. It was here that I caught up to one of the teams, consisting of Patrick and Ella. In my haste, I would try to pass them by taking “shortcuts” which ended up diverting me up the bank of the creek and into a few tights spots between the boulders. I’d have to trudge through thorny bushes or shimmy in between two large boulders all while trying to keep the wood in my pack from getting me stuck, like a dog trying to carry a wide stick through a doggy-door. I’d find that through my “shortcuts” I would lose time and catch up to Patrick and Ella again… and again. “Umm, I should just stick with you guys,” I eventually said. And so I did, until we crawled up a steep rocky face and out from the creek.

Ashley was waiting at the top to check me in and she mentioned to drop off 3 pieces of wood by the fire pit. I continued on to what I thought was the fire pit, but I saw no volunteer or any wood there. I asked Odette about it, who had just pulled up to the spot in a vehicle. She said to continue down the road and follow the map. I assumed she meant that that fire pit was down that way, just around the corner or something. It was not. I met up with two other competitors, Ramon and Lyal, who were also following their map down the back road, all the while wondering if I was needlessly carrying a bunch of extra wood. The mere idea of that extra weight was a slow burning fuel to my already heated disposition. I stuck with these fellows for a good while. We made good attempts to follow the map, but turned off the road about 300m early, which took us on a back woods adventure through another section of creek and thick brush. It got to a point where it was almost impassible and we realized we were definitely off course. Stepping over downed barbed wire fencing should have been a dead giveaway. We pulled out the maps again and surveyed the topography. We surmised that if we climbed a large nearby hill that we would hopefully be able to see a landmark pond on the other side. Our proper course should have led us right by that pond. After treacherously scaling the overgrown hill, alas, there it was, glistening in the sun.

We had to pass over another barbed wire fence to make our way down the hill, towards the water. There was a dirt road that was the intended course and we rejoined it, but not before Ramon’s pack split open from the weight of the wood. There was no way to repair it, so he had to carry it by hand for the next several miles, and he did it without hardly a complaint. What a trooper. It sure made me question my own attitude. Nobody else was in sight as the three of us continued down the road. We wondered if we were still ahead of the main pack or well behind. Miles later, the evidence of our destination was coming into view. We had reached the Dead Cow Pond, which would be the base camp for the remainder of the event. It was named Dead Cow pond for good reason. Arriving at the group, I could see that many others were there already working on the next stage. “Welcome to Stage 4: WOD Town!” Odette beamed. I shot her two evil eyes and grumbled about the extra wood. My suspicions were confirmed. I was supposed to have offloaded it earlier, but apparently lots of folks missed that detail as well.

The buy-in for Stage 4 was to keep our packs on and climb this long, steep, gnarly hill, which was blanketed with loose ankle-rolling stones. The hill was a son-of-a-bitch, both up and down. I was inches from dropping out of the race, just out of disappointment and frustration with myself and how I was dealing with my situation. I could not pull myself out of the funk. I was being a big baby and I absolutely KNEW it. That is not who I am, but for some reason I just could not get the proverbial dog shit off my shoe. I grudgingly started towards the monster of a hill and grinded it out, one heavy step at a time. By the time I returned to the base camp, Ashley and others were trying to cheer me up. Boy, did they try, but I let their attempts fall off to the side. Johnny, one of the race directors tried to humor me with a funny article that he pulled up on his phone. The headline read, “Resourceful Man Able to Cobble Together Bad Mood From Handful of Minor Annoyances” He nailed that one on the head, but I didn’t have the frame of mind to give much more than a forced chuckle.

It was probably around 3:30pm and for the next several hours, I would be there at Stage 4, trying to crank out as many rounds of the mini-obstacle course that I could.I knew I was already at least 8 rounds behind some of the guys who had arrived much earlier. I FINALLY unloaded the wood, and set down my pack to begin what would be a nonstop effort until after the sun went down. The course was a 400m loop which featured a rock carry, mud pit, low crawl, 3 fence climbs and an exercise pen where we had to perform 10 Star Jumps, 10 Jumping Split Lunges (per leg), 10 Hand-Release Push-Ups and 10 Mountain Climbers. Every time I completed a loop, I’d get a rubberband on my wrist from one of the volunteers. After every 4 rounds, another buy-in was required up the nasty hill. I kept my head down and worked, not smiling, and hardly engaging others who were clearly having a much better time than I. Each time I entered the exercise pen, I would grumble to the volunteers. After many rounds of this, I figured they were probably tired of it… and so was I, to be honest. I began, apologizing for my sourness, though it did not immediately go away. It was more of a slow process that just got worked off over the hours, sweating off the icy layer.

Some of the racers were content with their 12, or 16 rounds and so they rested by the campfire.I knew I was behind the 8-ball, and so I was resolved to keep working until the clock struck 7:30pm which was the Stage 4 cutoff. My last few rounds were by headlamp, but I managed to tally up 19 rubberbands, one round shy of the highest count. I couldn’t help but think how many I would have finished had I arrived much earlier, as I had hoped to, but I was happy with what I accomplished in the time I did have. We were 9 and a half hours deep into the event, but for the next hour, there was a mandatory rest period, in which everybody huddled around the fire and took the time to eat a proper amount of calories for the long night ahead. The stars were brilliant in the night sky, with no city lights and no moon in sight. I pulled off my shoes and let my soggy, pruny feet dry out by the heat of the fire. During this time of rest, the points were tallied up and the top 5 males, females, and teams were announced, though point totals were not disclosed. By some miracle, I was actually sitting in 1st place. What the hell? I could hardly believe it...

To be continued in TPK Endurance 2016: Part 2...

Spartan Sprint: Arizona 2016
TPK Endurance 2016: Part 2