Need more bikes, trails and rivers in your life? Try adventure racing

12:00 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 29, 2017 Lifestyle
American-Statesman Staff
Team Fit City, Pam LeBlanc and Ron Perry, head out at dusk on the first leg of the Howl at the Moon Adventure Race. Chris LeBlanc for American-Statesman

I hear it first, like a maraca, an instant before the beam of my headlamp catches a rope-like shape slithering across the trail where I’m running at Colorado Bend State Park.

I hop like someone is taking potshots at my feet; my racing partner Ron Perry stops to get a closer look.

Yep, a 3-foot rattler. But we have places to go, so we scamper on into the night.

Four hours into my first-ever adventure race, I’ve already belly crawled through a cave, ridden my mountain bike down miles of cactus and limestone-studded paths, and dodged a wary armadillo. Before sun rises, I’ll have paddled a stretch of the Colorado River by starlight, scrambled over boulders and punched a race passport at nine checkpoints around this state park 90 miles northwest of Austin.

It’s bliss at its knee-scraped, lung-busting, dirt-caked finest, and it fits right in with my Year of Adventure.

In case you haven’t been following, I’ve already jumped off a 10-meter platform, raced in a naked 5K run, rappelled down a 38-story building and launched myself off a water ski jump. October seemed like a fine time to try a night adventure race. Besides, Austin-based Too Cool Adventure Racing, which has staged gritty, no-frills races at parks and camps around Central Texas for 13 years, has been nudging me to participate for a decade.

While mass-produced events like the Tough Mudder and Spartan Race lure thousands of participants who run a marked course of man-made obstacles, Too Cool races draw between 50 and 200 hearty folks who’d rather run through the woods on their own. Their races feature trail running, mountain biking and paddling, plus assorted challenges. Another difference? There is no marked course — just a set of checkpoints it’s up to the racers to find.

“As tough as the Spartan and other races are, people always seem to think what we do is much tougher,” says Art Cook, who teamed with adventure racing partner Robyn Cantor to start Too Cool Adventure Racing. “A lot of people don’t know how to read a map, especially a topographic map.”

The 2017 season included the Big Chill near Bastrop, the Wild Wendigo at Stillhouse Lake, the April Fool near Killeen, the Spread Your Wings in Rocksprings and this one, the Howl at the Moon. Most of the races include options for a 2- to 4-hour “sport” distance or a 4- to 8-hour “adventure” distance, although the company has put on 24-hour races, too.

Perry and I signed up for the shorter distance of this one and mentally prepared for the 1 or 2 miles of paddling, 8 to 12 miles of biking and 4 to 6 miles of trail running noted on the website. On race day, we loaded up our gear and headed to the park, not exactly sure what we were in for.

We met all kinds of racers, from rookies to veterans. Ellen Gass, 36, and Gena McKinley, 36, both of Austin, signed up, on a lark, about a week before the race.

“We wanted to try something new and push ourselves,” Gass tells me while munching an apple before the race begins. “I feel like it might be addictive.”

While other racers have set up elaborate stations, with gear and snacks spread on tables beneath tents, she and McKinley are going low maintenance. She’s a little nervous about the mountain biking part, though, and points to the two slightly neglected bikes lying in the grass at her feet. “It’s such a different perspective when the world is your headlamp,” Gass says.

At the other end of the spectrum are Ryan Holloway, 35, and Casey Campbell, 37, both of Houston, who do adventure races as often as possible. They’re doing the longer version of today’s race and say they like the not-knowing-what-you’re-getting-into aspect of the sport.

“You’re kind of at the mercy of the race director,” Holloway says. “It’s something different, and it combines all the stuff I like — mountain biking, trail running and using your brain.”

At a pre-race meeting, Cantor reminds us to stay within 30 seconds of each other. “If you find yourself hanging from a cliff, something is amiss,” she says as vultures circle overhead.

The race begins with a dash to the base of a waterfall, where we do a quick art project (weaving a paper owl!) before picking up our first list of checkpoints. We find the points on a map, figure the best way to link them up and hop on our bikes as sunlight fades. Before the biking leg ends, Perry’s headlamp fails, we miss a checkpoint and wind up riding down — and back up — a steep hill. I also find myself tip-toeing down a narrow path along a 15-foot drop-off, clinging with one hand to a metal line attached to a rock ledge and my bike with the other.

I wonder if something is amiss, but it’s not.

More than three hours and some flickering lightning later, we’re gobbling food and preparing for the second leg, trail running. It takes more than an hour and a half to cover the rugged terrain in the dark. We cap off the race with some paddling and scrape over rocks in our search for the checkpoint, hidden beneath an overhang in a side draw.

In the end, the all-male team of Jonathan Davis, 40, and Bryan Cole, 30, finishes first, an hour and a half ahead of us. The race director clangs a cowbell and hands them a sticker. Later, they collect their award, a metal cup filled with candy. We come in second, at just under 6 hours. Two other teams are close behind us.

“This is not a sport for narcissists,” Davis tells me. “It really is what we love, as opposed to an Ironman triathlon, where people do it for the cheers.”

This race is about enjoying the outdoors. We took a break to look at stars. We marveled at wildlife. We breathed in the musky night air. The darkness made all of it better.

“I liked just experiencing the outdoors in a whole other way,” Perry says. “Everything we did seemed sharper.”

It’s taken us way longer than billed, but we’re happy we got to spend so much time in the woods. We’re riding an adrenalin high. And we can’t wait for our next adventure race.

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