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North Georgia Adventure Race
, Georgia
January 17-19, 2003
report by Aaron Luffman

I should have know it was going to be a difficult weekend when I woke up to 3 inches of snow - the first snow of the season. After work on Thursday Brandi, Mat and I packed way too much gear, including a canoe and 3 bikes, into Brandi's 4 Runner and began the trip the North Georgia for another Adventure Race. We drove about 6 hours and 1/2 way before stopping at a Courtyard by Marriott for the night. On Friday after a nice breakfast buffet we continued the trip to Suches, GA. The interstates were clear the whole way but there was lots of snow on the ground.... again, not a good sign.

Race check in was from 2:30 to 6 on Friday afternoon. We overestimated the quality of the roads and the snow clearing ability of the rural GA communities so Brandi and I tried to keep our eyes closed as Mat practiced his rally driving skills on the steep, slick, gardrailess mountain roads. We pulled into the snow packed parking lot at 5. Check in went smoothly though we did have to drag all our gear out of the truck and into the school gym. It was at that point that I realized I had a flat.

I had just bought new tires for my nice tubeless wheels and they are really tough to put on and take off. So, I decide I should try to air it up first to see if it will hold air and in the process I broke the stem on the wheel meaning there was no way the tire would hold air. Now I'm really stressed out! The prerace meeting was scheduled for 6:30. It's now 6:15 and I'm sitting in the middle of the gym (with 80 other teams sitting in the bleachers) trying to wrestle my tire off the rim. Finally I got it off and got the new tube on but then I had to get the tire back on the rim... by far the hardest part. I struggled with it up to the start of the meeting without success.

The meeting started right on time with a safety briefing from the medical coordinator. He was obviously concerned with the extreme cold predicted for the next morning and day, 5 degrees was now the predicted low for the nearby town. Just before I left work on Thursday I had checked the forecast, 17 degrees predicted low, up a few from the day before. Our team and everyone in the room was shocked, and a little nervous with the new forecast.

The rest of the meeting was the standard don't forget this and make sure you do that so I was able to fully focus on that cold predicted for the next day. Wow, single digits... I'd trained in the teens but that was miserable, what was single digits going to feel like?

After the meeting it took Mat and me 60 more minutes of wrestling, pinched then repached tubes and fineness to get my tire to hold air. It was now 8:00 PM and we had to be back at the school for a 5AM start. We spent the night in the home of a couple in the "nearby" town of Blue Ridge. It took us 80 minutes to get there. The house was a beautiful 3 story up on the top of a huge ridgeline. They told us they could see three states from their third story sunroom. We never did verify that due to the fact that we left at 3 AM, long before sunrise. It was obviously a very short night but I did get to calm down a bit as I packed and saw all the warm clothing I brought.

We got a later than anticipated start leaving the bed and breakfast and as a result we arrived at the starting line with just 15 minutes to spare. We quickly set up a canopy and laid a ground tarp over the snow so we would have a place to plot the checkpoint coordinates (in UTM format) and finalize gear. Promptly at 5 AM Brandi's uncle, and support extraordinaire, came running back to our area with the maps and instructions. Mat and I quickly began reading rules, plotting UTMs and planning our routes.

As the race course and format were kept secret until 5 AM we had taken a gamble and predicted that the first leg would be a trek. It turned out to be a bike so we had to quickly change up gear and prepare our bikes and lights. With the fabulous help of our skilled support crew (Brandi's mom, uncle and two 10 y/o cousins) we started the bike and the race at 6 AM. We were probably in about 20th place at this point.

The bike to the first CP went without incident but we did have to stop a number of times to verify our location on the map and pick a turn. It was bitterly cold, so cold that in the first 10 minutes of the race we passed a team on their way back to the start, already calling it quits. So cold that the hot water I put in my camelback had already frozen in the tube. So cold that even with the exertion of climbing the North Georgia hills we all were having a hard time keeping our extremities warm. My toes had been numb since 4:55.

When we hit the first CP we were in about 12th place and I was excited and ready to push on. Brandi wisely suggested that we take advantage of the fire and try to melt our drinking water. Ten minutes later we were back on our bikes with liquid to drink. We quickly learned that the only way to keep our tubes from refreezing was to blow air back into them after we drank and to put them down our shirts. If you forgot to do either just once, within a few short minutes everything would be frozen solid again.

The path to the next CP took us on a fire road that hadn't seen any vehicle traffic and as a result of the snow it was like riding on soft sand. It took us a few hours to climb up and over the 3400 ft pass that separated us from CP 2 (the starting line was at 1970 ft.). At the top of the pass the road ended and we had two options for bushwhacking down the other side, straight down the ravine between two small saddles or up further and down a gully. Both looked like decent options. We chose the second.

Since we chose not to pay the $50 for the GPS tracking unit we will never know if it was a good decision or not. It seemed slow but I think anything in those conditions would have seemed slow.

We had been passed by a number of team on the way up the pass and as a result there was a well worn path down the mountain. We didn't think it was entirely the best way but we followed it most of the way - that made navigation quite easy. We hit CP 2 at 12:15 or so and in 52nd place. That was discouraging to see. Everyone was cold and we knew that it was going to be a really long day since we had only made it 1/3 of the way through the bike leg in 6 hours. It was difficult to pull ourselves away from the warm fire and get back to climbing hills again.

I don't know what time it was when we got to CP 3 but it was at the top of another 3200 ft. pass and unfortunately was unmanned. At this point we where running out of water and food (only brought enough for 9 hours and some of that was liquid and much to frozen to even think about drinking) and Brandi was questioning weather we should continue on... Mat and I didn't really give her much of an option and encouraged her on with noting that CP 3 to CP 4 was mostly downhill.

The ride to 4 was uneventful but as the afternoon wore on we could feel the temperature dropping significantly again (we hear it got up to 20 in the sun). The shadows were becoming longer and colder and I was now completely out of water. Luckily soon after we ran across some trickling water running down a rock face that I could treat with iodine. The route to CP 4 took us through our first single track of the day. It was nice but slow with all the downed trees and precariously steep drops off the side of the trail. At one point Brandi was leading and I was second with Mat brining up the rear. I got a little ahead of Mat and decided to stop and wait. I waited for a few minutes and decided to backtrack thinking about how I was glad I had the emergency radio and whether or not they could land a helicopter anywhere around here.

It turns out Mat had caught a bar end on a tree and taken a header over the edge. He was alright but had a sore knee and he was riding a little more cautiously now. By the time we caught back up with Brandi she was also backtracking and thinking about emergency medicine. Funny how our minds work.

We punched CP 4 another unmanned control just as dusk was setting in. Never in our wildest dreams did we think we would still be biking after dark. We knew we were in bad shape for finishing the race but no one talked about it. It was all we could do to keep moving and try to stay warm.

We had slippery log crossing on the way to CP 5. Had anyone fallen in the icy water at that point we would have had to break out our emergency equipment for sure. No need to worry though, we all made it across without incident.

The rest of the way to CP 5 was mostly a blur. We were talked out of our original route choice by a local who said the map was wrong so we ended up taking paved roads for about 5 miles. That was a nice change. All I could think about was getting to that nice warm fire that I knew was blazing away at CP 5.

We arrived at about 8:00 completely out of food now and in a serious calorie deficit. I personally had about 1900 calories - enough for 6 hours. We had now been on our bikes for over 13! The plan was to sit at CP 5 until we were warm again but when we pulled in the volunteers staffing the CP told us if we made it to CP 6 and the transition area by 10:00 and out by 11:00 we could continue on with the full race course since the canoe had been canceled due to ice. That was a complete shock to us. We had all been expecting a race vehicle to drive up at any time and tell us we were too late and we needed to drop out. Now we had a chance to finish the entire course! 6 miles in 2 hours... no problem!

Mat and Brandi had taken some nasty falls on the icy roads to CP 5 and Mat was seriously bonking so it took some persuasion by Brandi and I to get us moving again but by 8:15 were were back on the road with renewed spirits and energy.

Minutes later our high spirits were dashed by a missed turn (my fault) and now we really had to push hard to make the cutoff. Mat finally relented and gave me his pack since I was responsible for our extra effort. I was also able to help push his bike up a hill or two but by the time we hit the last major climb before the 1 mi decent into the TA I was completely spent. It was all I could do to push my own bike up the steep, icy, mile long hill.

Mat reached down deep and found a little more energy than the rest so he lead us into the TA at 9:52 PM. We found our support crew and stumbled off our bikes, out of our packs and into the much needed warmth of the 4 Runner. The plan was to refuel and warm up then head out again by the 11:00 deadline for leaving the TA. We were all famished so we started throwing down anything our support could find for us to eat. The lukewarm warm chicken noodle soup and stew especially hit the spot. Already we were feeling better, though my feet were still numb - I hadn't felt the ends of my toes since early this morning.

While we were still throwing down food (nothing like inhaling a whole can of Pringles) a race official came up to the window and told us they had changed the cutoff. The new time to leave the TA was now 10:00 not 11:00 as the river we had to cross was freezing solid. We could still leave at 11 to do a modified, shorter course though. That completely took the wind out of our sails. It was one thing to know we could push through the night as other teams dropped out and still place rather high but entirely another to be racing against ourselves. We took a quick poll and our support crew encouraged us to call it quits. Mat wasn't feeling good enough to go on but I think Brandi and I could have talked him into it. The decision was basically made by me who said, "I think it needs to be a unanimous decision". That ended our race.

Defeated, we crammed 7 people and way too much gear into the 4 Runner for the 1 hr long drive back to the start and race HQ. Mat, Brandi and I slept most of the way back but I was crammed in such a way that by the time we pulled into the parking lot I didn't think I could take another second. I decided to see if the school had any showers we could use to clean up before heading home. Once inside I realized that my toes were still numb. "Strange, I better take a look" I thought.

My heart dropped as I saw dark gray and white skin on the end of my toes on my right foot. I didn't even bother looking at the left one until I had made it out into the gym and asked the race officials to get a paramedic to come look at me. After what seemed like forever and visions of learning how to balance again with only 4 toes on each foot, the paramedics arrived. They informed me that it wasn't all that bad but I did need to go to the ER. About that time Mat came out of the shower and took off his shoe to reveal a whole foot of light gray toes. We would both need to be seen by the ER doctor.

After soaking our feet in the sink of the ER exam room and fining out that it was bad but not all that bad, Mat, Brandi, Old Mom and I retreated to the Super 8 for some much needed sleep. Thus ended our NGAR experience.

It's now Wednesday, 4 days after the race and Mat and I still don't have any feeling in our toes. We where told it might take as long as 6 months to fully regain feeling. I'm going to loose the skin/tissue off the end of the big toe on my right foot and I might loose the nail too. Mat looks like he is going to loose a nail. Was it worth it? Heck ya! I just wish we would have finished.

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