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Talk of the Town - The Odyssey July 01 2000

Solo adventure racer embarks on epic eco-challenge

There's nothing lonelier than a starting line — especially when it's the starting line of a 90-mile Appalachian adventure race. I was about to begin the Odyssey, a 24-hour eco-challenge that combines running, orienteering, canoeing, rock climbing and mountain biking through the tallest mountains in the East. Most of the other Odyssey competitors were running in teams of two or four. But like Odysseus, Homer's legendary Greek hero, I was going solo.

My hubris must have angered the gods. Moments before the 8 p.m. start, lightning ripped open the sky and diagonal sheets of rain lashed down. It wasn't a good omen. Two miles up the mountain slope, I was already soaked and sucking wind.

More bad signs. Somehow I had forgotten to pack my compass and my topo maps were beginning to dissolve in the rain. So I tried to follow other runners — whose headlamps made them look like giant one-eyed Cyclopes.

Since there were no crews or aid stations, I had to carry everything with me: climbing harness, ropes, lifejacket, bike helmet, flashlight, first aid kit and 24-hours worth of food — all in an old college backpack with a broken zipper. By midnight, my shoulders were blistered and rubbed raw.

I splashed across creeks and scrambled up switchbacks in the rain, desperately trying to keep up with the lead pack. Finally, around two in the morning, their headlamps disappeared behind the ridge and I found myself all alone in the woods. Animal eyes suddenly were glowing all around me. I heard a very, very large creature bolt through the underbrush and I just barely missed stepping on a snake stretched across the trail.

To pass the long, lonely hours in the dark, I began humming tunes out loud. The Muses must have been offended by my off-key offerings, because it started to rain even harder. My maps looked more like papier-mâché, but I was able to piece them together and bushwhack my way to the bike transition checkpoint.

For the next hour, I pedaled through a gauzy, gray fog to the top of Virginia's tallest mountain, then hydroplaned down the other side. The rest of the bike course was on rocky, muddy forest trails. Without a compass, I got lost several times, and at one point, wandered completely off the map. But the rain finally had stopped and stars were blushing through the clouds. I found the Little Dipper and used its North Star handle to orient me back on course.

I reached the James River at dawn and felt good about my chances of finishing the race. In the canoe, I began calculating the remaining mileage to the finish and figured I only had about four hours after the paddle.

Suddenly, a 40-knot wind began blowing over the water. Aeolus, keeper of the winds, had teamed up with the river gods to punish me for my presumption. Squalls of white-capped water pounded my canoe and eventually pinned it against a rock. The canoe tipped and dumptrucked me into the cold river.

Instinctively, I grabbed my pack before it floated away, then I doggy-paddled my overturned canoe to a rock in the middle of the river. Balanced on the rock, I righted the canoe and used a plastic bottle to scoop out the water.

I knew I was in bad shape. My whole body was shivering uncontrollably and I couldn't feel my feet. I had lost all of my food and my emergency radio in the spill. My clothes were drenched and beginning to freeze in the cold wind. My epic adventure had become a tragedy. I had to do something quick.

So I paddled ashore and started a smoldering fire to warm myself and dry my clothes. Like shipwrecked Odysseus, I felt helpless and homesick. For the first time, I thought about quitting. I could blame it on the wind and weather, of course. It was just bad luck. I rationalized it over and over in my head until quitting made perfect sense.

But during that long hour of drying out, I pictured myself standing again at the starting line, alone and unsheltered in the rain. I had come a long way, without any help from the gods. And it suddenly occurred to me that maybe I was more than fate's puppet. Maybe I could make my own luck.

I got back on my feet. My stomach had knotted up, my quads were quivering and my hands and feet were cramped, but even worse than pain was the thought of failure. I was going to finish. I owed it to that scared, shivering kid at the starting line.

Once I stopped whining about fate and started doing something about it, everything seemed to go my way. I glided downriver, climbed a steep granite wall and biked another 30 miles to the finish line.

Ultimately, the journey ended where it began — in a quiet mountain valley at dusk, all by myself. There was no hero's homecoming welcome, no maiden waiting for me at the finish. But it didn't matter. I felt divine.

The next Odyssey One-Day Adventure Race is June 24-25. For more information, visit Odyssey's website at www.beastoftheeast.com.??



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