The Coosa River Challenge is a triathlon-style adventure race held annually for the past 13 years in Wetumpka, Alabama. It involves trail running, mountain biking and canoeing, and includes several additional miscellaneous physical challenges along the way. I participated in the 2013 Coosa River Challenge this past weekend (we’ll call it the “CRC” from here on out), and I think the blog is a good place to memorialize my experience while it is still fresh in my mind.
First, a disclaimer. I am not a triathlete or a marathon runner, and certainly not an avid adventure racer. I will occasionally participate in local 5K races, but for the most part my physical fitness regimen is recreational in nature, not competitive. Therefore, this account is written from the perspective of a newcomer to the world of adventure racing. My goal was to finish without injury, which I accomplished. It was a good day.
About two-hundred racers participated in the 2013 CRC, with the majority competing as I did in teams of two. My race partner is a veteran of these kinds of races, as are two other friends from my church who also competed as a team. Therefore, they knew what to expect, while I was flying in the dark, which I will admit was a bit intimidating.
The night before the race, Coosa River Adventures held a pre-race event down on the river, where we had the opportunity to sign in and pick up our race packets, and meet some of the other competitors. Part of “signing in” for this kind of event involves signing a release and indemnity agreement, which I regularly draft as one of my job duties, but rarely sign as a participant in an event. We ate a good meal and received an instructional pep-talk from the race coordinator, and were dismissed to go rest up for the big race the next morning.
The next day all race competitors met at Goldstar Park and were transported via big yellow school bus about eight miles up-river to the Swayback Bridge Trail trailhead, where the race began. The weather was perfect – cool in the morning and warming up to a sunny 82 by early afternoon, with low humidity.
CRC began with a 3.36 run through the woods on the Swayback Bridge Trail. We maintained a swift pace throughout the entirety of the run, which was nice and flat to begin and increasingly hilly towards the end. The steepest hill was called “the Elevator,” which was intimidating and caused many people to stop and walk. We kept running throughout the course and passed several other runners. We were never passed. I am a good runner, so this was the easiest part of the race for me – no problem.
Challenge 1 – the Egg
Our first challenge occurred near the end of the run, where we carried a raw egg across a bridge and back for about ½ mile. If the egg broke, we would have been required to start from the beginning of the challenge with a new egg. Oh, and an along the way we had to crawl under and over rope obstacles, all while carefully carrying the egg. This challenge was probably more mentally challenging than physical, and we completed it successfully on the first try. The run continued for about a mile after the challenge, and ended back at the trailhead where we began.
The 8-mile mountain biking portion of the CRC began from the same location as the run, and it was horrible. I know that some people thoroughly enjoyed the bike portion, but not me. I hated every second of it, because I hate mountain biking. I hate that there are roots and rocks on the ground that knock you off course. I hate the sand that causes you to spin out. I hate the fact that I am elevated off the ground and rolling, with no sense of control. I hate the switchbacks and hills. I hate the feeling that at any second I might crash into a tree or over the handlebars. There was no joy to be found during the mountain bike section, other than the glorious moment when I came around the last bend and spotted the finish line. I am not an X-games-mountain-biking-daredevil, and never will be, so this section of the race was just something I had to endure, which I did.
Challenge 2 – Bike Carry
The second challenge was about 5 miles into the trail ride, and involved carrying your bike over a narrow wooden bridge across a creek. It was relatively easy, and was actually a welcome break during the unspeakably horrible 8-mile trail ride of terror described above. The trail ride ended back at the Swayback Bridge Trail trailhead.
Following the mountain bike leg, we ran about a half mile down the road to the orienteering leg of the race. We were given coordinates and had to use a compass to navigate through dense forest to locate three destinations marked by an American flag. It was a challenge to stay on course while climbing over logs and through briar patches, but we made it through each of the checkpoints without much trouble, other than acquiring a few scrapes and bruises.
Rock Scramble / Batman Climb / Rappel
This section of the race was actually pretty fun. The last orienteering checkpoint was close to the river, after which we entered the rock scramble portion, which required us to climb up and down over craggy rock formations along the riverbank. I took this section very carefully, as it would have been very easy to turn an ankle or slip and fall on the rocks – which do not give, by the way. Toward the end of the rock scramble we encountered something called the “Batman Climb,” which basically required us to ascend a slanted rock face using a rope to pull ourselves up – like Batman! I do not like heights, so this was somewhat intimidating, but I managed to turn my brain off long enough to get through it. After the climb we meandered through the woods along the riverbank to the rappel section. I had never repelled, but it was relatively easy. Once again, the 85-foot drop made me a little uneasy due to my issue with heights, but I actually felt very secure in the harness and made it through with no problem.
Swim Leg 1 / Canoe Leg 1
At the bottom of the rappel I jumped in the Coosa River and swam about 250 yards upstream – no easy feat against the current and while wearing a cumbersome life vest. At this point we climbed into a canoe and started paddling downstream. The canoe portion of the race totaled about 8 miles, but as you will see we made several stops along the way to complete physical challenges.
Challenge 3 – Cliff Jump
We paddled about a quarter mile downstream and pulled off river right to complete the next challenge – a 30-foot cliff jump into the river and swim back to the shore. This challenge was a bit more mental than physical, as evidenced by the several people I saw who made it to the cliff’s edge only to turn around and climb back down due to fear, but I made it with no problem. The jump was a lot of fun – something I would not hesitate to do again.
Canoe Leg 2 / Challenge 4 – Dead Beaver Island
We hopped back in the canoe and started our paddle down the river once again. After a mile or so we came upon our fourth challenge at Dead Beaver Island. The entrance to Dead Beaver Island is pretty spooky – a narrow passageway almost completely camouflaged by vegetation that leads to a shallow slough snaking its way to the center of the island. We had to get out of our boat and pull it behind us once in the slough, because the water was too shallow to ride and paddle. The dense canopy above creates dark, tunnel-like environment, and although I never saw a snake, I was keenly aware of their likely presence. About halfway through the slough, we pulled our canoes to shore and trekked about a quarter mile through the island’s woods to our next challenge: mud tunnels. The devious CRC race officials created two short tunnels to crawl through, all while getting mired in the mud and having to hold your breath. Fun! Once again, this challenge was more mental than physical, because your mind tells you “don’t go through that tunnel,” even though you know you must.
Canoe Leg 3 / Moccasin Gap Rapids / Challenge 5 – CrossFit
From Dead Beaver Island we paddled down river for a few miles to perhaps the most fun portion of the race: the class III Moccasin Gap Rapids. According to the International Scale of River Difficulty, a class III rapid is considered “difficult,” and is described as follows: “waves numerous, high, irregular; rocks; eddies; rapids with passages clear though narrow, requiring expertise in maneuvering; scouting usually needed; requires good operator and boat.” Had I known all of this prior to the race, I probably would have been terrified, but I rode the rapids in ignorance of their classification. Bear in mind, I was a white-water-canoeing novice before this race. Never had I done it before. We saw numerous canoes either stuck on the rocks or flipped over, but by some miraculous stroke of luck we shot through the rapids with perfect precision, as if we were experts on the professional white-water-canoeing circuit, if such a thing exists. People were looking at us in awe, but little did they know that our success was pure dumb luck. I could do Moccasin Gap ten more times, and would probably flip on all of them. Once we made it past the rapids, we had quite a long paddle to our next challenge. By this time, my arms were hurting, but I was able to stick it out. The next challenge required us to paddle to shore on river left, where we ran about a half mile up a gravel road to a CrossFit course. I have been doing CrossFit for several months now, so the events were familiar to me, but I usually don’t participate in a CrossFit class four hours in to an adventure race; needless to say, I was already tired, so it was hard. We carried big rocks and threw them over an eight-foot high rope, did a kettle-bell fireman’s carry around cones, pushed a weighted sled, flipped a big tire, and pulled a tire with a rope. I was very glad when it was all over.
Canoe Leg 4 / Shore Run / Swim Leg 2 / Finish
By this time I was very tired, my legs were hurting, and I was ready for the race to be over. We got into our canoes again for the final paddle leg, and luckily it was a relatively short distance (a mile or two) to our exit point at Coosa River Adventures landing. I’m not sure how much longer I could have paddled. We exited the river and ran along the shore for maybe a half mile, then were required to jump back into the river for our final river swim of about a quarter mile, luckily this time with the current. We climbed out of the river, soaking wet, deposited our life vests into a bin, and began our run to the finish line at Goldstar Park. Once I rounded the last bend and spotted the finish line about a hundred yards ahead, adrenaline took over and I sprinted the rest of the way. Finishing the race was a great feeling. My time was 5:23.
Other than a sunburn and some lingering right knee pain (self-diagnosed as minor tendonitis – an off and on issue I treat with ice and Aleve), I have no ill effects from the race. And, once my memory of the mountain bike leg horribleness starts to fade, I might even decide to do it again. The CRC bills itself as a challenge, and challenging it was, both mentally and physically.