Florida Sea to Sea 72 Hour Adventure Race Report
And just like that, I am no longer new at the 72-hour race distance.
I have now completed 2 of them in less than one calendar year (my first one was last May in Iowa) and I have learned a lot and dare I say, come a long way. I will be sharing some of my biggest learnings on what helped launch me from hanging on to being competitive in this ultra-endurance event on Friday, but today is all talk about the actual race experience itself at the Florida Sea to Sea 72 Hour. I will not go too terribly deep into the weeds as there were seven transitions, twelve segments and fifty maps but I will tackle some of the highlights of the race.
Last Wednesday morning, I flew out to Tampa, picked up our vehicle that our parents keep down there and drove an hour to Crystal River to meet up with Brad and Wayne Jennings. (I made a pit stop at ISM saddles, but that is for another day as well).
We went to the pre-race meeting and got our race packages and maps. The race director did an outstanding job of highlighting some of the places we would be visiting through the race and it was fun to meet the other teams from four different nations. Brad and I headed back to the hotel room to sort gear which needed to be loaded by 10 PM and worked on plotting our map courses, while eating pizza that Wayne had grabbed for us.
The next morning started at 4 am. We grabbed our racing packs and headed to the buses which shuttled us to the east coast. I made a terrible mistake and crushed a Starbucks energy drink right as we left and missed out on about 2 hours of precious sleep time on the ride to the start line.
We arrived at Ponce Inlet Preserve, had a last minute pee break and some pre-race interviews and at 9 AM, we were off! The first leg was a trek and had a photo scavenger hunt. It was a lot of fun and Brad and I made great time as our strength is the trek. We are both runners so keeping a steady pace with 45 pound packs on our back is getting more comfortable each race we do. One thing we were very cognizant of was that it was HOT and we were not heat adapted from our chilly winter training. We wore sunscreen, ran in the shade when we could and put Hammer electrolytes in our water to make sure we were absorbing fluids.
The first daylight portion consisted of the trek, a paddle, a mountain bike and another trek. Brad and I competed in an optional time trail at the start of the mountain bike to get an extra checkpoint but needed to make a strategic decision as we were getting close to the first cut off of the race – we chose to skip the only checkpoint we ended up missing on the entire course in favour of getting two points on the trek. This was the best navigational decision but not getting that point cost us second place OA in the end.
The locals were awesome and a little confused as to why a girl with a muddy face, a bike helmet and a 35 litre pack would crash into a bar on the course with a singular request for a coke. They would buy us the pop in exchange for the race explanation and shake their heads as we would shot gun the drink and hop back on our bikes.
(I raced with a new pack for this race by Fjalraven and it was perfect. Super high quality and fit to my body perfectly.)
As the first night fell, Brad and I were paddling on Snake Creek. This ended up being the most BEAUTIFUL paddle of the race. We were down this lovely little creek with water lilies and alligators peeking at us. I really like the paddle section of a race because you can fall into a rhythm and have long conversations with your team mates, snapping a bit out of race mode and just enjoy the water and the scenery. I always find it really hard to get enough fluid and calories on these portions though.
After the paddle, we did a 19 mile nighttime trek and Brad’s navigation was on fire. We were running through the forest, grabbing check points and he ended up leading us through a short cut along a hydrocut with an awesome trail. We ended up back at the bike transition as first team and we were floored. This is the first time this has ever happened to us in a big race and it was exciting to see us progressing as a team.
We headed out on the bike and the first 22 miles was the Ocala Paisley Woods Loop. This was a bit hellish for me. I was battling sleep monsters hard and energy was waning. I really slowed down and Brad noticed I was struggling a bit. I did have one of my favourite conversations of the race with Brad on this section, however. As I was riding, my light was catching sparkles on the ground and I exclaimed how beautiful the sparkly ground was!
Brad yelled out from ahead: “Jess, those are spider eyes.”
I picked up the pace.
As soon as the sun came up, I bounced back and we completed the 50 mile bike portion and a 15 mile orienteering section the next day.
The rogaine course at Sunnyhill had 9 check points and as the sun was setting, we came to a river that stood in our way to the next transition area. We established that it was either an extra 4 KM trek or a swim through a river that very well may have alligators. One of my character traits that serves me well in adventure racing is the ability to switch off my mind and just do the thing that needs to be done. This was a team moment; Brad was suffering a bit of sun stroke and I knew the river was a better option for him. So without saying another word, I ran into the grassy areas covering the water and started my way across. What I was not expecting was that the grasses would push over top of me and start pushing me under water. It was a bit terrifying with a heavy pack on my back. I started screaming and panicking, but grabbing at fistfuls of the grass until I reached the other side. Brad has learned to just let me have whatever outbursts I need to have on course and I shake it off and continue.
We arrived at the transition area just as the sun was setting for the second night and we were about to head out onto the paddle when we were greeted by fire trucks.
Someone’s SPOT tracker had malfunctioned and alerted the authorities of an emergency. All teams were held until we located the team that had sent the signal. This was a beautiful moment in the race where Brad and I quickly assembled our paddling gear and announced we were ready to leave. From that moment, the clock stopped on our race. We grabbed our emergency bivies and he curled up in the back of a Uhaul and I laid down by our paddling gear and we both got a beautiful cat nap.
Wayne woke me up 15 minutes later and Brad and I grabbed our gear and headed out on the water.
The paddle was hypnotising and I was feeling really sleepy again. By the second night with no sleep, I start seeing shadows as things that don’t exist. As a side note, at this race, I saw turtles on the trail that I warned Brad about (they weren’t there) and on the third night, I exclaimed about the giraffe in the woods (it wasn’t there either). I drank a Starbucks double shot and felt much better. This was a long paddle (18 miles)but it ended up not being too bad. The moon was really bright and the water was still.
Following this, we did a trek as the sun came up and headed out on a 50 mile mountain bike portion that remains the best mountain biking I have ever done in an adventure race, full stop. It was on the Santos Epic Mountain Bike trails and Brad and I had so much fun that it felt like we were just out training on a summer day, rather than on our third day of straight racing.
A lot of the mountain biking in Florida consists of sandy sandy trails that feels more like a beach than a trail. The trail system we were riding was a refreshing change from this and had us tackling tight turns, going off jumps and riding berms. After we exited the trail system, we were flagging a bit from the hot sun. We stopped at a convenience store and bought cold drinks and ice cream. It was rocket fuel and we were flying on the 20 miles of rail trail back to the transition.
At Holder Mine Campground, we were given 4 optional orienteering courses with 8 checkpoints each. Each course only counted to one checkpoint, however, this is where the race was drastically different from anything I have ever seen before. Once a team completed the orienteering course, they checked in and their clock stopped until 5 AM the next morning; a mandatory Dark Zone which meant for the first time ever, I could sleep a night in an adventure race. Brad and I started orienteering around 3:30 PM and finished all four courses at around 9:30 PM. We stopped the clocks and ate some of the delicious hot food that the race had provided for us: burgers, chili and pasta.
Honestly, the race director and volunteers were outstanding – perhaps the best I have seen so far in my adventure racing career. They stayed up the entire time, feeding us warm food when they could, digging through our smelly gear to help us locate things our tired brains couldn’t find and cheered every single last team on, no matter their place. It was worth the race for that alone.
At 10 PM, I crawled into my emergency bivy inside a tent that Wayne had set up for Brad and I and I passed out after 62 hours of solid racing (well, except for that 15 minute reprieve). I woke up a couple times during the night because I was freezing. There was a hole in my bivy and moisture collected from the Florida dew meaning I was basically lying in cold water. I would violently shake from the cold but then I would fall back asleep for another sleep cycle. Thank goodness for exhaustion or that would have been a miserable night.
Brad and I were up at 4 AM and collected our gear, shook our stiff muscles and were on our bikes for the sandy trail ride back to the final canoe leg. Once we hit the highway, we were riding hard but I made a fatal error which I tend to make towards the end of an expedition length race. “Almost done” still means 6 hours or so of racing in events this long so if you get too focused on the end, you forget to keep fuelling and hydrating properly. I had been averaging about 200 calories an hour or 5,000 calories or so a day for the entire race. That morning, I had about a 400 calorie breakfast after a 6 hour sleep and barely ate on the bike. We hit a technical portion and I became a raging bitch. This is where I am so grateful to have a good team dynamic with Brad; he insisted I eat and take some caffeine. I told him I would but I turned the air blue and told him not to talk to me until we were off the bikes. (You need to understand that at this point, the back pain was excruciating from days with a heavy pack, my nether regions were sore from days on the saddle and the bumpy technical portions were amplifying this. I allowed myself to get low and this was the one time in the race where I didn’t have my mental side in full check.) It was not a proud race moment and I cannot say enough good about Brad’s sportsmanship when dealing with a team mate who was low.
I was feeling much happier when we headed out on the final paddle but I took in a big hit of calories just to make sure. I was very glad I did because the race to the finish line ended up being 9 miles of paddling straight into the wind, including a hairy section with severe cross winds. Brad and I worked so hard and it felt surreal to exit the water in Crystal River and know we were done.
Wayne had a hotel room for one more hour by the time we exited. Brad is an excellent paddler which means he is in the back of the canoe and is sprayed by my paddle. He was freezing so he got the first shower. We sorted gear in the sunshine until the 1 PM banquet where we celebrated our third place finish.
This race was by far my favourite 72 hour to date. The terrain was so unique – it was awesome to see palm trees, alligators, turtles, snakes and the fake forest giraffes. The support and organisation from the race team was absolutely amazing. It is always comforting to have Wayne, Brad’s dad, at our events, even if he can’t support us – he yells out our place, films us in our dark moments (I think he has a few shots of me where I wasn’t making sense but I was interviewing anyways) and he cheers us on every step of the way. And finally, it is always the very best to go out on an adventure with Brad. He has become like a brother to me over our years of racing and we are getting to a point in our racing where we don’t need to tell the other person what we need – we just know.When we first started racing, we would ask each other how we were doing on a scale of 1-10. Anymore, Brad will just look at me and say something like “what is the matter with your face? Eat something.” I am fortunate to have an awesome team mate and we have built an awesome dynamic.
Brad will be following up with a race video in a couple months; he is currently on a 2 month expedition in the south and will be compiling everything when he returns.
Race totals were 80 KM of paddling, 300 KM of mountain biking and 100 KM of trekking for a race total of 480 KM.
I will be following up on Friday to discuss some of the strategies I have learned to thrive during these ultra-endurance events because believe it or not, they do get easier or at least go more smoothly the more you do.