Monday morning, 11:00 AM
I struggle to keep up as Teri Smith and Don Mann run faster. The sun shines through the trees and lights up the leaf-strewn West Virginia trail in brilliant autumn colors. We are setting the orienteering course for navigation class tomorrow and with every checkpoint the pace gets faster. “One thing you always want to do is make sure the students orient the map before taking a bearing,” Don tells me. Teri chips in, “And make sure to prompt them with questions rather than spelling everything out for them.” I stare at both of them. Are they serious? They can’t send me out to lead an orienteering group—not if they want everyone to come back. “Listen,” I say, “I know how to teach, but I can’t navigate my way out of a paper bag. We should pair me up with a more experienced instructor.”
Everybody laughs. I wonder if I made a mistake to think I had anything to offer these guys. Who wants a volunteer instructor who finishes races in last place, or doesn’t finish at all? But I loved attending this academy so much myself that I just had to come back, in whatever capacity I could. So here I am, after two years, as a volunteer and alumni.
The students have arrived and we’re doing introductions in the dining room of Camp Washington Carver’s main lodge. They are an interesting group, and overall much more experienced than my own class was. Sarah Boardman is here, of recent Eco-Challenge notoriety, and several other students who already have significant AR experience. The women seem to stand out the most for me. There is Sheri, a former bike shop owner from Long Island who has been racing for a couple of seasons; Avril, an Irish sound engineer who has done a number of sprint races; Melanie, from Toronto, who is new to the sport; and Chris, who tells us she often gets an “atta girl” for coming in last at Odyssey events. Mark and Steve Barry, brothers from Atlanta, look strong and fast and we can barely tell them apart; one of them, Mark, is a Navy Seal. Gary is also from the military, a Marine from Virginia, and tall, lanky Jim is an athletic trainer from Buffalo. John from Tampa has done the Beast of the East this year, along with about six other races, and Mike from Cincinnati has done several recent sprints. Peter says he has very little experience and just wants to finish his first big race, but we can tell right away that he will be competitive. The only real rookies we have appear to be Tommy, a restaurant owner from the Outer Banks; Brian from Indiana, who says he isn’t even sure what his goals are; and Michael, an IRS accountant from the Boston area who has never even been on a mountain bike until now. These are the folks I find most interesting; they have come here to explore an entirely unfamiliar world, and have refused to let lack of experience intimidate them. That’s the kind of brave adventurous spirit you can’t help but admire.
Later, we have a bike class with pro-cyclist Shannon Greenhill, and then the students run and bike a three-mile loop. This will help them sort out their paces early in the week and figure out what teams to form for the Endorphin Fix, which they will race in at the end of the week as part of their Academy experience.
There are some real fast ones here, I notice, as students fly by me on the trail. Jim is nearly keeping up with Joe Moerschbaecher, an elite racer who is here as an instructor and who recently did an Ironman in ten hours fifteen minutes. Peter, John, Sheri and the Barry brothers are moving fast too. When it seems that everyone has gone by, I go back to the trailhead where Teri is stationed. Jacket-less and shivering in the cold, she pulls three pebbles out of one pocket, and five out of the other. “This is how many students never passed me on the bike, and this is how many are missing on foot,” she says with concern. “I’m not leaving here until we account for everyone.” Teri has recently dropped out of the corporate world to race and teach AR on a full-time basis, and I’ve noticed that she exhibits a high level of professionalism about what we’re doing here. Following her orders, I bike back to the Camp to count heads.
The bell rings at 6:30 am. Shannon, my roommate, rolls over and groans. She was sent out on a night orienteering exercise last night and she didn’t get back until 2:00 am.
When I come down into the dining room, several students are sitting quietly with coffee, but many are still missing. Robyn Benicasa comes bounding down the stairs, takes a quick headcount, and goes back upstairs to the dormitory. I hear her shouting down the hall like a mean drill sergeant. Everybody gets up fast.
We go outside for “Boot Camp with Robyn.” Robyn lines us up in front of her and shouts, “OK, you guys! All I know about this stuff is what I learned from my cheesy ex-boyfriends who were in the military, but we won’t talk about that!” For the next hour we run, sing, do push-ups and sit-ups, crawl on the ground, carry each other on our backs, and do plyometric exercises. Robyn shouts at us the entire time. Mike, who was having cramping problems yesterday, twists his ankle in a hole and has to wrap and ice it. Mercifully, at 9:00 am we come in for breakfast and watch race videos over fresh fruit and coffee cake, and then we settle in for Robyn’s morning class on teamwork called “The Ten Essential Elements of Synergy.” She has some great material about developing communication and mutual respect on a team, all punctuated by war stories from the Raid, the Eco Challenge, the Southern Traverse. We are glued to her every word.
Tuesday afternoon, 3:00 PM
After several hours in navigation class with Don, we are out in the field making our way through the orienteering course. My group is Sarah, Chris, Tommy, and an Academy alumnus named Wayne who has joined us for an orienteering refresher. We also have Terry, the camp manager, who knows the area well and give us great tips on the history of the area. He teaches how to tell a logging road from a coal mining road, how to identify a former railroad track, and what a strip mining area looks like.
Since Tommy is the only inexperienced person in the group, we are like five instructors eagerly tripping over each other to teach one student. Tommy is great; no ego, just wanting to learn. We do well until we get sloppy at the end; thinking that we are almost home and know where we are, we abandon map and compass and plunge into the woods going the wrong way. As we debate about our direction Tommy yells to me, “Don’t move!” I look down. A rattlesnake slithers between my legs, close enough to strike.
After wolfing down a hot dinner of chicken and mushroom casserole, we mix up the orienteering groups and go back out for a night exercise. I am with Avril, John and Peter this time, and they’re fast. Coached by Greg Vogel, a volunteer instructor, they run from checkpoint to checkpoint and finish the course two hours ahead of the other groups, at 10:30 pm. Don congratulates them when they arrive back at camp, and I crawl gratefully to bed, pleased that we will not be out after midnight like the other groups.
I wake up later when the other teams return. Teri and Shannon sit up a while in my room, talking about the BVI last spring, and I listen in awe, wondering what it must be like to be an elite racer. I’ve seen their race resumes, and both are impressive.
Wednesday morning, 11:00 am
I am up before the bell this morning and stop into the kitchen to mix my morning energy drink. Hugo Walker, another regular volunteer with Odyssey, is helping Beulah, Camp Washington Carver’s cook. They have whipped up a delicious egg/ham/bread scramble with a funny name that I can’t remember, and with a smile, Hugo tells us to eat well because we will need it today.
After debriefing the night navigation exercise, Don introduces Eric Autenwrith, our paddling instructor for the day. Like Joy Marr, who co-directs the Academy, Eric is a long-time local river guide and speaks with a slow, patient southern drawl. He starts the class by drawing a “survival graph” on which the top position is “will survive with effort” and the bottom position is “body search.” The class looks nervously at each other and giggles. “Been nice knowing you guys,” Chris whispers.
The Efix teams are starting to form at this point, and Don puts names up on a whiteboard to keep us updated. Avila, Chris and Sheri all have their own teams arriving on Friday, so they will not race on Academy teams. Brian and Mike are paired, the Barry brothers, and Peter and John. Tommy is not racing, and Jim, Melanie, Sarah, Gary and Michael are still team-less. Don asks that we try to firm up teams by tomorrow. “This is the 11th running of the Efix,” he tells us, “and so far it has rained for all of the previous ten races.”
“So what’s the forecast for this weekend?” someone asks. “Cold, wet, rainy,” Don sings, almost gleefully. Everyone laughs.
We carpool in six cars to the New River, a 30 minute drive. In the parking lot, I stop to chat with Sarah. She tells me that the other students have finished forming teams and only she and Michael are left. Brian, Mike, Melanie and Gary will race as Team Adventurous Souls, Jim will join Sheri’s non-Academy team, and Team No Choice will be formed from Mark & Steve Barry, John, and Peter. That leaves Sarah the choice of racing solo, or taking Michael under her wing. She is in a quandary—she has done this race solo before and prefers not to do it again, but Michael is very inexperienced. “He’s such a sweetheart, but his clothes are all cotton,” she laments. “If we were part of a team I’m sure it would be fine, but with just the two of us, I’m worried about his safety.” Sheri and I nod, but have no advice for her.
At the river, Joy and Eric split the students into groups to rotate through four stations: sea kayaking with Robyn, canoeing with Joy and Teri, water safety and rescue techniques with Eric and Shannon, and inflatable kayaks with Joe. Joe and Eric’s groups will actually work in a class three rapid, which looks like a lot of fun. I sit and watch the classes with Don and his wife Dawn—D1 and D2 to their friends. Don and Greg throw rocks at me and blame each other, then throw rocks at Joe’s class and blame me. Don is like a little kid, always goofing off. He likes to watch the students and make comments about them: Tommy is such a trooper, Chris is so funny, Sheri is really strong. To be with him is to feel that you can be yourself and he will notice and appreciate your best qualities. He loves this Academy, loves to mold the students into new racers. Whether they grow up to be Robyn Benicasa, or captain of team Perpetual DNF like me, he seems to care about them equally.
I chat with Top, another loyal, long-term Odyssey volunteer. Top is recently retired from the Marines and Don jokes that he hasn’t really left yet. When I ask Top how he is every morning, he straightens up and replies, “Excellent, sir!” I ask him what his job is like. “I just do whatever they need me to,” he says. “I have a little cubicle in a spare room at D1 and D2’s house in Virginia Beach, and then I get a ride to the events with both of them. They normally pay a stipend to their race staff to cover stuff like travel expenses, but I just told them, ‘hey, come pick me up at my house and then you don’t need to give me the stipend.’” He tells me about how he hoped to use Odyssey as a stepping stone to bigger and better things when he first got out of the Marines, but now he believes Odyssey is as big and better as anyone would want to get. I can’t help but agree with him.
Wednesday evening, 7:30 PM
It is getting dark, and the students are just beginning to wrap up their paddling lessons. I am walking down the road that links two launching areas on the river when I hear someone shouting. I ignore it at first, thinking it’s just someone fooling around. Then I hear it again, and realize that it’s Robyn. “Hey guys, I need some help over here!” she shouts. There is alarm in her voice, and it’s coming from the direction of the class three rapid that some stations have been working in. I see Gary and Don running toward the water, then running back, shouting orders, their military backgrounds taking over. “Get a car and take it down to the bottom of the rapid!” Don shouts. Don running and barking orders means business. I start running too.
When I reach the ramp at the bottom of the rapid it only takes a minute to piece the story together. Robyn was working with Tommy on wet exits from a sea kayak, and in the semi-darkness, they didn’t realize how close they’d gotten to the rapid. The current grabbed first the boat and then Tommy, sweeping them away. By the time I reach the bottom, Tommy is out of the water, visibly shaken, but already joking about his experience. Students surround him, patting him on the back. We are relieved, but Don wants to be absolutely sure that we are all OK, and he gathers the group for a headcount. The sea kayak is nowhere to be found, and after looking for an hour, we agree to send out a reconnaissance team in the morning.
Robyn talks to us about gear and how to pack for a race, and suddenly, I feel the need to go shopping. Damn. And I truly thought I was all set on gear for this race. She’s got some great suggestions, like using a dry bag as a pack-liner that you can later pull out and strap on a bike rack, or buying an all-purpose pair of gloves that you can wear throughout the race for biking, rappelling, paddling, and trekking through brambles. The other instructors scribble notes as furiously as the students while she talks about her favorite gear.
Then Don is talking to us about the race, which is now less than 48 hours away. He talks about the finishing ratio for the Effix, which we all know is extremely low. Many of the folks in the room, myself included, have attempted the Effix before and have not yet finished.
“There’s no reason you all can’t finish this race,” Don says. “If you’re in too much pain, you’ll pass out, and that’s great—it’s the body’s own built-in safety system. But otherwise, why can’t you keep going, keep putting one foot in front of the other? Think about the Apache Indians, the Nazis, people who didn’t train and weren’t athletes and were forced to do this without having a nice cushy life to go back to afterwards. After all, it’s only 40 hours.”
Robyn covers her face and shakes her head when Don talks about passing out, and the class laughs. But Don is sincere. Indeed, if you’re still conscious, why can’t you keep going? AR is about mental strength, and we all know that. Don quotes Dave Horton, one of the few racers to ever finish Odyssey’s MegaDose, who said, “20 miles tests your body; 50 miles tests your mind; 100 miles tests your soul.” I think about how easy it is to resolve to keep going when I’m sitting in a warm seat in a comfortable lodge with my hands wrapped around a steaming cup of hot chocolate. Like Robyn says, it all comes down to who suffers well.
As we line up vehicles to caravan to the climbing site for that day’s field activities the kayak reconnaissance team comes back triumphant, and we honk our horns and congratulate them. It has taken several hours to find it, but the boat is OK.
The climbing location is a world class site called the Endless Wall, which rises 1500 feet above the New River Gorge and boasts fabulous scenery, even on this fogged, rainy day. Climbing professionals from the local Blue Ridge Outfitters meet us on the cliff to explain today’s drills. There are four stations; two rappelling stations, one jumar ascent, and one assisted scramble which they call the Lobster Claw. The students are to rotate through all stations, with emphasis on rappelling, since the Efix will have a rappel.
I sit in a dry spot under an overhang at the jumar station for a while, listening to Robyn joking with the students. “Don’t you wish it was raining harder?” she asks them as she rigs up their ascenders. “Don’t you wish it was a little colder and more miserable?” Back up on top, I get a moment with Tommy, who is spooked after yesterday’s incident and is not sure he wants to rappel. Although the rappel is only about 150 feet, it looks more like 1000 feet, since you can see clear to the bottom of the gorge from the top of the station. Don and Teri take Tommy aside, showing him how safe the rope set-up is, explaining the back-up systems. The next time I see him he’s running jubilantly from the bottom of the cliff, hugging me, shouting, “That was a blast!”
We leave the climb site in mid-afternoon and go into the town of Fayettesville to pick up food and extra gear for the race. It seems I am not the only one who got lots of ideas from Robyn and the other instructors. At Wal-mart, Teri finds a cow costume and prances hilariously up and down the aisles in it, brainstorming practical jokes to pull on Don.
Back at camp, we eat burritos and listen to Don, Robyn and Teri talk about foot care. “Some racers have their toenails removed and then stitched up so they can’t grow back,” Don tells us, deadpan. Robyn covers her face and shakes her head, a frequent gesture when Don is talking.
“Sorry, but any time a sport requires the removal of body parts, it’s time to find a new sport,” she tells us.
I wake up at 3:30 am, fretting about my race gear. I have been focused on the Academy all week and have not been thinking about the upcoming race, and my teammates are flying in later today. The race, as always, starts at midnight. I start making a mental list of more things I need.
For the first time this week I hear students up before Hugo rings the bell. After breakfast, we have a bike maintenance class with Chris Caul, who designed the off-road Ironman Triathlon for Odyssey. Then those of us who are volunteering and are planning to race are kicked out of the room while Don reviews the race passport with the students. This is the only break they will get as Academy students; otherwise, they will be treated just like the other racers.
For the rest of the day, students and Academy volunteers are free to prepare for the race, whether that be shopping, organizing gear, or just resting. The lodge at Camp Washington Carver slowly transforms from a quiet classroom to a hectic race headquarters, as racers arrive and registration and gear check stations are set up. After considerable debate, the problem of which team Sarah and Michael will race with has been solved. One of my teammates has dropped out at the last minute, and I will replace him with Sarah, and then take on Michael as an official solo who will stay with us throughout the course. We are Team Beer Nuts, and Team Beer Nuts Too.
In the afternoon, before race registration begins, we hold graduation. Each student says a few words to us all before walking through the receiving line. Handshakes quickly change to hugs, and one student, Michael, cries as he thanks us all for the experience. I look around and see that some of the instructors look a little choked up too. Robyn hugs Michael and bursts out, “You’re so cute!”
Five hours later, we are at the starting line, listening to the traditional playing of Jimmy Hendrick’s Star Spangled Banner. As the previous week settles into another precious store of great memories, I turn my thoughts to the race and hope that we finish this time.