TPK Endurance 2016: Part 2
It was the quickest hour of my life. Though I was resting my body by the warmth of the fire, my mind remained engaged as I spent most of the time trying to memorize lyrics to a song that may or may not be a part of the race. This was another thing that was kept secretive and hinted at. Mind games. I was not a fan. I would have preferred to spend the rest time taking in more calories and clearing my head. Our quick break came to an end and in exchange for ditching our 23 pounds of wood to feed this night-long fire, we were given a brick wrapped in paper. We had to carry it safely in our packs for the remainder of the event. We were not told why, but at this point I was used to being kept in the dark.
We all gathered around as Odette announced the details for the night portion of the race. There would be 4 zones to visit, RED, BLUE, ORANGE and YELLOW (the remaining colors on the Rubik’s Cube). Each of these areas had to be visited in that order and each required a trek to-and-from the Base Camp. Some basic night-orienteering skills were handy in following the map to these destinations, since there was literally no visibility from the moonless night sky. At each of the colored stations, there would be a series of tasks or challenges required to earn points and continue in the race.
RED was the first stop for this motley crew of endurance athletes. The trek to RED started up and over the familiar nasty hill that I had grown to hate. We branched off into different paced groups, all heading down a dark, winding, rocky road, trying to make sense off the maps we each had. I intentionally hung back from the front a bit so that I could just follow the lead pack and not deal with the map and compass. I had a foil blanket on and did not want to needlessly uncover my cold hands to do so. It felt like a long distance was being covered, but night miles in these conditions were not quickly earned. We could finally make out a flood light in the distance as we crested the final hill and learned what RED would be all about. The theme of this area would be “balance” and three separate challenges would test our skills in this arena.
First up for me, was a task of stacking a 4 foot high cairn. For those who aren’t familiar with the word, it is the man-made stack of little rocks that you sometimes see used as trail markers. Four feet high was a pretty hefty scale, but the surrounding area was scattered with various sized boulders for us to source. By headlamp, I scoured the landscape for my stones and began rolling some large ones down towards the flatter ground. It was a bit of a race between myself, Nik and Lyal who had all arrived about the same time. Both of these guys were in the top 5 and I wanted to try and maintain whatever points-lead I still had on them. As soon as I started stacking the massive rocks, I realized how important it was to twist, turn or otherwise fit them just right onto the previous stone to allow them to balance properly. This challenge was so simple, but yet so clever and I loved the whole idea of it. The three of us were learning quickly and for the last stone, we all balanced a wide one on its side to gain the extra vertical inches. When beckoned, the volunteers would come around and check the height with a tape measure. I got my stamp of approval and was instructed to deconstruct my cairn and disperse the stones so that the next racers would not have an easy time of gathering them.
There was a metal power line tower on the opposite side of the service road with a slack line stretching across two of its feet. I recognized the slack line. It was mine. I had lent it to them for the event and seeing it set up there gave me a sense that I had a secret edge up on everybody. As I approached the area, I could see that you had to pass a certain distance on the line without falling and once your foot entered a designated section, you were considered “on” and any fall would result in 10 somersaults before re-attempting. It was graded as a Pass or Fail. Points were only awarded for a completion, but every person was required to make 10 attempts before being allowed to move on. You guessed it right, that could mean 100 somersaults and still no points from it! I was not too worried, because I was fairly comfortable with balancing on the slack line, especially my own.
As I got in line to wait my turn, it was clear that people were not having much luck with it. They would make it one or two steps and then get thrown off. I noticed the line was set up so that the walking surface was not facing up, but rather completely sideways. I had never set it up that way, so I didn’t know if it would pose a problem. My turn came and I took a few moments to practice my balance in the “safe zone” before crossing the marker. I remained calm, kept my knees soft, and stared at a fixed point across at the leg of the tower. “I got this.” Within a couple steps, the line started intensely vibrating like I’ve never felt before and flung me off. “What the??” I chalked it up to the surrounding area being so dark and not having a good sense of the horizon. Somersaults it was. Did I forget to mention that these somersaults were to be performed over a field littered with sharp rocks? Holy crap! Catching a rock on your spine when you come down is not pleasant! Okay, 10 done and now back in line to try again. “I should be able to get this within a few tries,” I reassured myself. In the mean time, nobody was coming remotely close to passing this challenge. My turn came again and as before, I did my due diligence in preparing. My foot entered the starting zone and I moved with intention across the – aww shit I fell off again. With great frustration I joined the mass of rolling, writhing and frequently colliding bodies, but not before Nik flopped his way across the slack line with the grace of a beached walrus and advanced to the next challenge. (Sorry Nik, I love you but that was all luck! Haha). This pattern repeated another 8 times. Yep, I did 100 somersaults and painfully landed on about 40 rocks, each of which I cursedly threw into the enveloping darkness. Beaten and empty handed, I finally received my pass to continue.
The last remaining balance challenge was to hold a yoga pose for a full minute. There was a harder and an easier option. I chose the harder option (for more points of course) which ended up being the Natarajasana pose or “Lord of the Dance”. Being that this area was not well lit, I could only use the headlamps of the two volunteers in front of me and my own dim light shining on to the ground for some kind of spatial awareness. Try simply balancing on one foot with your eyes shut and you’ll get the idea. I got into my pose, one legged stance with my other leg bowed behind me, foot in hand. At first it seemed easy enough, but as the volunteer kept moving around, turning her head, etc., my reference point of her headlamp kept shifting and really throwing me off balance. I was bouncing around on one foot for what felt like 30 seconds, trying to hold position. I wanted so badly to tell her to “stop moving!” but I kept it to myself. Come on, come on… “Time!” Whew!
There was an option for a bonus checkpoint, which was an unknown distance, but it was worth points. I figured I had no option but to go for it if I wanted a chance to stay up top, especially since I knew Nik probably did. I made the trek along dark dirt roads out to the check point and found a little station where I collected a red star sticker and placed in on the red side of my cube. Getting back to the RED Zone where I came from was a little bit trickier. There were less racers coming back and forth, so I could not rely on just following anyone else. I remembered seeing a green glowstick lying on the ground where I first made a right turn. I figured it was put there by the race staff as a marker. I was looking for it on the way back so I could turn left back on to that road, but it was apparently gone. Perhaps another competitor left it there as a bread crumb and picked it back up on the way out. I knew I had overshot the turn when I started noticing electrical towers that I did not recognize. I turned back and somehow got back on the correct trail. It was shocking to me just how quickly I got disoriented out there in the moonless night.
Back at the RED Zone, I checked in with race staff and grabbed my pack to begin heading back towards the Base Camp. I threw on my foil blanket as the night-time temperatures were slowly creeping towards the thirties. The hike back felt very long and I was mostly alone during this time. I had a decent pace going, but I was starting to feel like a lawn mower, sputtering on its last fumes of gas – especially on the uphill climbs. I passed a volunteer station and one of them took an interest in my condition. I must not have looked very good because he wouldn’t let me continue alone. He walked with me the remainder of the way, initiating conversation, though I really was not in the mindset to do so. I was in work-mode and just wanted to keep my head down and suffer in silence, but I politely reciprocated. Finally arriving back at Base Camp, I dropped the pack and sat down in front of the campfire to pour some gas into my container, in the form of a PB&J Sandwich and some other stuff that I can’t remember now. It immediately brought me out of the slow, dawdling lull that I was in.
Ashley Seeger was there at the campfire and after showing her my solved blue side of the cube, she instructed me on my next task. This would be the BLUE Zone and the theme was “grit”. It consisted of me finally utilizing the 5-gallon bucket that I had been mysteriously (and annoyingly) carrying around this whole time. The goal was to fetch 9 gallons of water from the nearby Dead Cow Pond and carry it up the “nasty hill” where it would be weighed and recorded. This would take multiple trips of course, but how many? Two trips, easily – right? I grabbed my bucket and headed towards the pond. Filling the damn thing was harder than expected. The bank of the pond was shallow and fringed with tall reed grass, making it hard to get your bucket into deep water without getting your feet wet. Because of the dropping temperature, I did not want to invite any extra wet coldness into my world. With some quick scooping motions, I was able to get it to what appeared to be half-way full and started towards the hill.
The thing that I did not consider was the amount of sloshing around that would happen on the way up that son-of-a-bitch hill. I really didn’t want to lose even a DROP of precious liquid cargo, so I had to really keep my movements fluid and consistent. Setting the bucket down was a little nerve racking too. Because of the severity of the incline as well as all the loose scattered rock, there was no flat spot to rest it. I didn’t dare take a hand off the bucket while it was down. Nik crossed my path on the way down from what I assumed was his 2nd or 3rd trip. He mentioned that it would most likely be 3 trips to fulfill the 9 gallon requirement. I was a bit naïve for thinking I could get it in 2, (but I later found out that a couple of badasses did it). Anyhow, up the hill I continued until I finally reached the top where some volunteers were waiting with a luggage scale. They hooked it to the handle of my bucket and let the weight hang, indicating 28.3 pounds. “Wow, it felt a lot heavier than that”, I lamented to them. The total weight for 9 gallons (including bucket) would total 76 pounds. It appeared that I was in for 2 more trips. I tossed out the pond water and started back down the rocky slope from whence I came. At this point, I believe it was somewhere around midnight. The headlamps of other competitors were the only thing that could be seen, curving their way up the hill; a twinkling snake-like constellation coming up to greet me.
Back at the Dead Cow Pond, I was given a riddle, which if answered correctly, would allow me to use a lid on my bucket. That would have been a very useful tool, because it would allow you to get in more water and keep it from splashing out during the long climb. Too bad that it wasn’t offered earlier because at this point, I was already condemned to 3 trips and the lid didn’t mean much to me. The riddle was “Using ONLY the 5 gallon bucket and a 3 gallon jug, how can you fill the bucket with EXACTLY 4 gallons of water?”I stood there for a minute trying to figure it out. The wheels were spinning in my head and I felt like the answer was right there on the tip of my mind, but I could not catch it. Feeling frustrated at the passing of time, I just said “Screw it” and waived the chance at using a lid. I got a little deeper into the pond and filled my bucket up a bit more this time around. On the way up the nasty hill, I had nothing better to do with my idle mind, so I decided to distract myself by solving the riddle. The answer was a fly, buzzing and flitting around my head, and in the tranquility of silent suffering, I finally nabbed it. You fill the 3 gallon jug once and dump it into the 5 gallon bucket. You fill the 3 gallon jug again and pour until you fill the 5 gallon bucket. This leaves you with 1 gallon in the jug. Dump the bucket out and then add the 1 gallon you saved in the jug. Then, you fill the jug one last time and add the new 3 gallons to the bucket which totals exactly 4.
On the way up, nature started calling. I thought to myself, “Why don’t I just pee into this bucket right here, just around the corner from the top?”Nobody was nearby, so nobody would even know and it would have given me some extra weight in the bucket (liquid gold if you will). I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Temptation knocked on my door, but I chose not to answer. Instead, I pulled off to the side and watered some dusty rocks. Arriving at the volunteers once again, I presented my offering of pure, unadulterated pond sludge and they answered back with a weight of 37.2 pounds. That meant I had to bring at least 11 pounds on the final carry. Back down I went and after proudly answering the riddle at the pond, I was awarded a highly illustrious bucket lid, which was pretty much pointless with the 1.5 gallons that I brought with me the 3rd trip (plus a little extra for insurance). Needless to say, I grinded up the final climb and made the quota, allowing me to score the points and move on to the next stage.
Reporting back to Base Camp, I suited up with my pack again and was given instruction to now head out to the ORANGE Zone. This was a couple miles trek in a new direction and this stage would consist of all mental challenges. After a mile or so, before I even got to the location, I came upon a fork in the trail and couple of volunteers who directed me towards the right. A short hike led me to a small pond where some other racers were already trying to fish something out with a stick. I could see dozens of ziplock bags submerged in the cold dark water with an activated glowstick in each and the 6 huge nails that we had brought for the gear list. We had to find the bag with our name on it. I was able to locate mine fairly quickly and used the stick to nudge it closer to dry ground. I reached in and snatched the bag of nails, thankful that I did not have to get any wetter than that. The temps were getting lower and lower and my body had resorted to shivering. I returned to the two volunteers who then showed me a photo on one of their phones. She said I could only look at the photo once. It was a photo of 6 large nails being stacked in a particular formation, so as to be completely balanced upon another single nail that was sticking straight out of a wooden board. Sound confusing right? Well hopefully this photo will help to illustrate what they were showing me.
After completely digesting the image in front of me, I set off down the other fork in the trail towards ORANGE. After a while I could start to make out the light of a fire. I knew they were going to make us do the puzzle here. Part of me was really looking forward to sitting down and not moving, but the other part was worried that the lack of movement would only make me colder.
I approached the volunteers at this station and one of them whispered to me in a quiet voice “We need to keep it down, there are campers nearby”. The whole group of people already working on their tasks was doing so in silence. All that could be heard was a crackling fire. He handed me a wooden board with a nail sticking up from the center and I knew to begin constructing the balancing act with my 6 nails. I remembered the way everything interlocked from the photo, but putting it into action was a little trickier, especially with numbing hands. After a couple of minutes, I was able to display my completed challenge. Next, I had to solve the orange side of the cube, which granted me access to my 200 piece puzzle. Yep, that’s mine with the unicorn and rainbow on it, the same one that nearly everyone else coincidentally picked out for themselves. I hurried over to the only empty spot near the warm fire and by its light and that of my headlamp, began building the puzzle on the ground over a sheet of paper. I had 45 minutes to get as far as I could. Starting with the border, I began framing it out. I had such a focus and tunnel vision that I didn’t notice I was working right next to my buddy and coach, Chris Rutz, also in the process of piecing together his unicorn. Forty-five minutes wasn’t nearly enough time to finish a 200 piece puzzle, but once my time was up, I was given points on my progress and clearance to move on.
There was a bonus challenge there in the ORANGE Zone that I wanted to capitalize on. At the top of a very large, nearby boulder there was a configuration of Legos, probably in the neighborhood of 8-10 pieces of varying color and size. We could only view this composition while at the top of the boulder and were required to replicate the pattern exactly using Lego pieces from a separate location down at the bottom. The kicker was that the loose pieces had to be retrieved from a cooler full of ice. After scaling the boulder, I spent a good amount of time studying the position and size of the colored pieces. I didn’t want to have to make a return trip, so I did my best to commit it all to short-term memory. Down at the ice chest, I sifted through the cold cubes, searching for the pieces I needed and calculatedly building the picture that was etched in my brain. When ready, I motioned for a volunteer to check my Lego sculpture and he gave me the green light. Woohoo! Bonus points! I could only hope that by some fat chance Nik skipped that portion, but I had no idea how far ahead he was in points or even physically in the event. Was I still in 1st place? Had Nik or any others been able to pull ahead at some point? Ramon, who was in 2nd place right behind me at the halfway point, was nowhere to be found. I hadn’t seen him for hours and the last time I did, he was heading out to one of the zones ahead of me. Did he get lost somewhere out in the night? (yes he did, lol). All I could do was keep going for any and all points that were still available to me.
Nearing 4AM, my trek back to base camp was a frigid one. Too dark and weighed down to run, I was not able to generate the body heat I need. I just clung to my foil blanket and kept moving forward at all costs. Arriving at the camp, I was told to head out towards the YELLOW Zone, which would be based on "strength". I couldn’t imagine what strength-based challenges they had in store for us this late in the game. All of us were 15-16 hours deep at this point. I knew that our time was winding down and that completing the tasks at YELLOW could potentially be cut short. It was a long, switch-backing ascent over a massive hill and then back down the other side to even reach the destination. I had met up with another racer, Nick Cann and we kept each other company along the grueling march. There was a campfire to signal that we had reached our destination. As ordered, I solved the yellow layer of my cube and displayed it for the staff. *knuckles crack* It was now time to muster up what strength I had left in the reserve tank.
My first challenge was to run a double 300m loop through sand for time, one of them while carrying a sandbag. Exhausting, but I was still on my feet after that one. My time was recorded and I was escorted to the following station. Next up was a 400m wheelbarrow out-and-back for time, again over sand and with 3 sandbags thrown into the bin. This was incredibly tough at night not being able to see the rocks and such in the way. After rushing back to the start I let go of the wheelbarrow and collapsed in the sand, gasping for breath. My headlamp lit up the spent O2 escaping my lips with every exhale. The volunteer marked down my time. Next was a 600m tractor pull, you guessed it, through sand! I could not see the turnaround point from the start so I went out really hard and ended up gassing out well before the tree that served as our roundabout. Getting back to the start, I knew I probably fell short of the fastest times. There was yet another station involving tire flips that I was not able to complete due to time constraints. We were supposed to repeat all of these challenges 3 times and then take the average time for each as our score. I wasn’t sure who or how many were able to get further than I did and how significantly it would affect the standings, but let me just say I was glad to not have to repeat any of those!
Everybody was told to gather by the fire in the YELLOW Zone until everybody had arrived. From there we all made the lengthy hike back to the finisher location. No doubt we were all salivating over the proposition of breakfast burritos that would be there for us. Along the way, the sky began getting lighter. The sun was far from shining, but that sense of the long, dark night was beginning to evaporate. My hip flexors were screaming with every step, but miles later, we arrived at our final location which thankfully had a generous bonfire. As we checked in, we were told that a final optional task could be completed for points. Solve your Rubik’s Cube entirely. The thing that I had practiced for MONTHS finally came in handy. *cough*
With one final task of planting our small succulent that we’d been carrying with us the whole time, our race officially ended. We huddled around the large fire as the early morning nipped at us from behind with its coldest pre-dawn temps. We relived the memories of our journey with one another and the group as a whole. It was an incredible experience for all, admittedly life-changing for many. It was the longest event that most of us had ever endured and we came out on the other side alive, and actually smiling. Despite my bad attitude during the first half of the race, it turned out to be one of my all time favorite experiences. Some races are forgettable – definitely not this one. Nearly 6AM, we awaited the final tallying of points and the award ceremony. We were asked to line up facing a canyon where a large rock served as a makeshift stage. The race directors began with some formalities but among them, Brandon and Odette, the race creators, were noticeably absent.
After a moment there was some commotion from behind the group. We turned to see Brandon approaching in a dress shirt and tie and Odette in her beautiful wedding dress, smiling beyond ear-to-ear if such a thing is possible. The group was totally caught off guard at the unfolding of events but it seemed that we were about to be witness to an epic wedding! It turns out that this entire TPK event originated as a ruse to get a group of badass friends together for this surprise union. They had planned the whole thing a year ago, keeping it under wraps. In the mean time, the event blossomed into something way more legitimate than expected and so they just ran with it. Brandon and Odette delivered their vows just as the sun began casting its light upon them. (So that’s what the 56.667 grams of birdseed was for – to ceremoniously throw at the bride and groom!)
Shortly after, they called up the podium winners for each group, Male, Female and Team. Nik edged me out for 1st place, but I was happy to be on the podium at all for the first time in my life as an individual. Second place is alright by me! After the award ceremony, we were all told to unwrap the paper off the brick we had been carrying. Inside, we each found a BRICK, as expected, but it was outfitted with an engraved TPK Finisher placard and served as each competitors finish award. Congrats to all the other podium finishers as well as the rest of the competitors. We all share a certain bond with one another now, don’t we? Quick thanks to my sponsors for supporting me over the years: Core Power, Athletics8, BeetElite, Born2Run and Reel Creations, Inc. Thanks to Brandon and Odette for putting on such a stellar event. I have no idea how they are going to top something of this utter brilliance, but I have complete faith that they will and TPK2 is on its way. For those who were there for this event, I expect to see you again. For those who missed out, I would suggest you don’t make that mistake twice! Registration for TPK2 is open now. Follow this link to learn more about the next event (Teams ONLY for this one) with a cap at 50 teams. Don’t wait too long as I suspect it will sell out. Thanks for reading and I hope to see you at the next one!
Now gimmie that burrito!