Surviving Survival Race (sorta’)

Survival Race: Hunter Gatherer race report and review

Sitting in a rooftop jacuzzi, at the plush Mokara Hotel in downtown San Antonio, with Survival Race winner Shane McKay, soothing my aching muscles, bruised feet, and lacerated body, felt strangely foreign to me.

Twenty-four hours previously, I was navigating my way through ridiculously rocky terrain, in the dark, with bleeding feet, oozing cuts, and an overwhelming feeling of fatigue. I was 17 hours and 30 miles into the race, and my footwear had become pretty much nonexistent. When I could run, I looked more like an extra for the Walking Dead, stumbling after warm blood, than I did an endurance athlete.

During these low points in races, I used to ask myself why I do these things.

Am I just trying to look tough, or perhaps trying to convince myself that I am tough? What draws me to self-induced suffering?

But now I’m pretty clear what’s going on. I make myself suffer because I learn more about me, the real me, and how I handle adverse conditions. I’m on a quest to be the strongest man that I can possibly be – physically, mentally, emotionally – and every episode of weakness is frustrating failure.

Survival Race: Hunter Gatherer was yet another test in this quest. This race was much more than I ever expected. The course was gnarlier than I could have ever imagined. The challenges were more dramatic, more physically demanding, and many times took every ounce of my strength and determination just to get through them.

I hope you enjoy learning about the experience as much as I am going to enjoy reliving it.

Unlike Any Packet Pickup You’ve Ever Seen

At 5:00 p.m., the night be fore the race, Race Director [RD] Josue Stephens began blurting out some basic rules and instructions for us, but I don’t think I heard any of it. I was way too concerned with what we were going to have to do for ‘packet pickup’.

“There are stacks of logs behind me,” and I woke up. “…if you are over 160 lbs, you will choose a log from the far stack.”

ok, ok, ok, I get this.

“Then, you will carry your log, to the top of that hill, off in the distance.” He continued, “then, at the top of mountain, you will drop the log, carve your number into it, and run down the other side, cross the river, and run back to camp.”

Oh shi…

I raced over to get a log, but chose the wrong way around the pavilion, and by the time I got to the stack there were only 3 logs left, and they all looked fat, covered in bark, and hella’ heavy. I power-cleaned a log to my right shoulder, and started out, leaving the camp with John Taylor and Tyler Tomasello, destined to just take it slow.

Christian Griffith carrying his log to packet pickup to get his race number at Survival Race

Carrying the 95 lb log just to get my number

This was merely a preliminary challenge to get my race number – not the actual race – and with no time limit, I tried to force myself to not get caught up with everyone else.

Yea, right. Like my ego can manage such responsibility. Of course, I went out waaay too fast and way too hard.

The “trail” was really just a punishing, steep climb on a giant bed of large, loose rocks. You could hear logs falling all over the place as athletes were dropping them in an effort to rest; but like CrossFit WODS, this can actually work against you because of the energy needed to again power-clean the log back up to your shoulders every time you set it down.

By the time I got to the top, I was trashed.

Race Director says my log was ~95 lbs, and that we carried them 2.3 miles up that “little mountain”. I’m glad I found that out afterwards, because had I known how heavy, and how far, I had to go with it when I picked it up, I may have just quit right then and there.

Of course, my race number was #5, which is probably one of the hardest numbers to carve into a fat, bark-covered log, especially fatigued, but I did a half-ass job, got my race number from the RD, and headed back down the mountain, crossed the river, and eventually ran back to the camp. {after getting lost because of beer-swilling John Sharp purposely ‘redirecting’ us}

Race number in hand, I sat around with the other runners cussing the log, John Sharp, and trying to figure out why we had to carve our numbers in it, and if that meant we’d be seeing that log again.

Naturally, we would.

Sleep is Overrated

I got zero sleep the night before.

I was in a ‘dorm’ with bunk beds, and the mattresses were plastic. We were supposed to bring our own bedding, but I missed that memo, so my sticky, sweaty body stuck to the mattress and made tons of noises as I flip-flopped to find some kind of comfort. Add in some snoring from peeps around me, and a race volunteer emergency rukus, and I heard alarms going off without getting a wink of sleep.

One runner noticed that everyone had that “1000 yard stare”, and we did. All of us anxious to get started, buzzing around checking our gear, sipping on water and coffee, and getting ready to make our running sandals and gear packs.

@4:30 a.m., the RD said go, and racers hurried to begin shoe construction.

Building sandals for Survival Race

Shoe cobbler, I am not. Clearly the worst sandals ever. Sorry Luna…

Clearly, as you will see, I am the self-proclaimed WORST shoe cobbler ever born. When I practiced this in Atlanta, I broke the shoes every time. Now, I was just trying to not break them, AND get finished relatively quickly so I could get started moving along. Nervously, I watched runner after runner finish their shoes, make their packs out of t-shirts, and head out towards the “little” mountain, all while I was still struggling with trying to poke holes and lace my silly sandals.

My finished Luna Sandal product

Can you imagine running huge miles in these? on rocks and cactus and in water?

This stressed me out, and instead of taking my time, I “rednecked” the process, making the most ridiculous looking running sandals known to man.

I finally got a version of sandal put together, and went straight to making my backpack. For my pack, I used an old, but quality, Across the Years long-sleeved technical shirt, tied off the bottom with paracord, put all of my supplies down the neck of the shirt, and tied the arms off with more paracord and used them as the shoulder straps. This actually worked out really well.

Lastly, I made a quick belt for my 6-inch SOG knife and sheath, out of plain old paracord, and then dashed out of the pavilion, headed back up to the top of the “little” mountain in the pitch black Texas night.

My race was on!

Slow Your Roll, Sparky

But, no more than 100 yards into my start, my sandal ties came undone, my shoes started flapping, and I realized I was in for a VERY long day. I stopped every 200 yards, all the way up the rocky mountain, just to fix and re-tie my ridiculous sandals.

At the top of the mountain we were told to find our log with our number on it, and carry it down the other side, eventually to the river.

This was an incredible challenge, much more so than the day before, because:

  • It’s only 4:45 a.m.
  • A pitch black sky (other than my headlamp)
  • With the log being 95 lbs, this made me 300 lbs of mass, going downhill
  • Add in the sandals, and poor ones at that, and my balance was awful
  • Plus, the nasty, round, rolling rocks that would slide out from underneath
  • And the lovely prickly pear cactus punishing you for miscalculated foot placement
  • And the shoulder skin is already sensitive from previously carrying them up

Other than all that, it wasn’t too bad {wink}.

A Swim in the High Grass?

At the bottom, near the river, volunteers were checking us in, and I was elated because I would finally be rid of this stupid log.

Nope.

Pointing to a stack of PFDs (personal flotation devices), the volunteers instructed us to wrap a PFD around our log, and get in the river, following the river until told to do otherwise.

Now remember, its still dark outside, and we really have no idea how far we have to go, or for how long. We are simply told to swim down the river with our log and whatever comes next is a complete mystery.

Swimming through the tall grass

The creepy swim. All 1.2 miles of it.

Some people really had a rough time with this and I applaud those athletes who conquered that fear. The water started out knee-deep, but after 100 yards or so, we were swimming, and not just swimming, but trudging through really thick, high grass. This is where people became really uncomfortable because the thick marsh grass would wrap around your legs, arms, and anything hanging off of you, and many times gave you the sensation that it might pull you underwater – all this while swimming with that damn log.

I ended up swimming 1.2 miles with that log, crossing two dams, and finally getting to the very end of it just as the sun was coming up.

First reward collected.

A Symphony of Shoelaces

Ok, so that subtitle is a stretch, but it makes me feel like a real writer, so just go with it, please.

Seriously, though, I spent the next ~3 miles stopping and re-tying my shoes over and over and over again. The swimming left me slipping and sliding around the footbed, on already loose and goofy sandals anyway, and I was getting really frustrated. I watched a lot of people run by – all with nicely cobbled sandals, I might add, and I felt dumb.

The Bat Caves

Somehow, I finagled a way to keep the sandals tighter on my feet, and although my heels were still hanging out the back, at least I was not flapping, and could kinda-sorta run.

I ran up on a really cool dude from Las Cruces, New Mexico, and together we rolled up on the next challenge – the cave crawl – which clearly demonstrated that the course designers did not expect any athletes over 200 lbs.

Volunteers pointed to 2-foot diameter hole in the rock, and told us to “drop into that hole.”

Survival Race caves

We have to go down THERE???

Once in the “cave”, if you went to the right, you were forced to squeeze between this very tight slit between two rock beds, and drop yet deeper into the caves; and once down that deep, I was forced to slither, like a snake, because many times the vertical space was as tight as 12 inches. This was really freaky and if you were claustrophobic, you would not have passed this challenge. You would not even have dropped into that hole.

Some of the sections were so tight for me, that I had to wedge myself in between two rocks, with my arms out-stretched in front of me, expelling all of the air I had in my lungs and flattening my body as much as I could. I’d then reach for some rock, and pull myself through. I got stuck once, had to back-out of the crevice, re-evaluate, find some loose rock section, and dig a bigger hole for me to squeeze through.

cave entrance

It’s a tight fit for a lean dude, so you can imagine what it was like for a 205 lb chiller.

I gotta be the only runner who has belly-button scabs from Survival Race.

Inside the caves, we were expected to find six petroglyphs, memorize them, and point them out for the volunteers once we got out.

Naturally, it’s me, remember? So, I somehow misunderstood this, only found four of the petroglyphs, and upon failure in front of the volunteers once I finally crawled out, was told I’d have to go back down, find the other two, and come back repeating all six.

I cannot express to you how bummed I was, and there is probably only one person who really knows just how upset I was… that cool volunteer, who kept repeating, “I don’t know how you made it through there.”

But I did it. Sucked it up, put on my big boy panties, and dove back down in the hole.

I think some other athletes down there felt bad for me and started giving me hints where to find the other two so that I wasn’t stuck down there another long time, navigating multiple tight squeezes over and over and over again.

Thanks dudes.

I came back out, pointed out all six, and got my first amulet; but the mental damage had been done. I was freaked out, wobbling down the rocky terrain, headed to who in the Hell knows where… I just knew wherever it was, it was 4.8 miles away.

A New Definition of Bushwhacking

Bushwhacking in SW Texas

The Texas Hill Country terrain is gnarly. Period.

Bushwhacking on the Appalachian Trail, or even in the wildernesses of Washington, Tennessee or California, is one thing, but bushwhacking in Southwestern Texas is a whole ‘nother ballgame. The course was flagged right up the gut of a series of climbs that pretty much went like this:

  1. climb steeply up very rocky, cactus-filled terrain
  2. get about 3/4 of the way up, then traverse a ridge-less ridge
  3. go back down to the very bottom
  4. stumble a few hundred yards in a rocky, dried creek bed
  5. repeat #1

But what made this series of never-ending climbing and descending so maddening and slow was the millions of stabbings one must avoid throughout the process. If you looked down the whole time to avoid the loose rocks and cactus, you got stabbed in the face by hundreds of packed-in-tight dry branches, which by the way, were also so brittle, they’d break in your hand if used to catch yourself during one of the thousands of stumbles.

Yet, if you looked out for all the branches, trying to somehow navigate without getting lacerated, you’d lose sight of footing and end up with prickly pear cactus spikes in your heels.

This is no exaggeration. I’ve done a loop of Barkley, and I’ve crawled through the jungles of Nicaragua, both of which are known for being flat-out gnarly and bushwhacky – and aside from the briars in the “Rat Jaw” section of Barkley, SW Texas is by far the worst. And I’m 100% convinced my race brethren and sisters are nodding and laughing as they read this right now.

After two hours of this mess, I felt I was probably getting close, and knowing I needed a pad of prickly pear cactus for the next checkpoint, I cut one off in the woods, rubbed all the spears off of it with a rock, and stuck it in my pack.

By this point my shoes were floppin’ around again, and my bare feet were taking a beating, but I just didn’t care anymore.

Only 10 Miles In?

The next challenge was somewhere around the 10-mile mark and I had already been going for hours and hours. The early afternoon sun was overhead now, strong and bright, and the temps were pretty much what you’d expect in southwest Texas.

At the checkpoint, we had to pull out our prickly pear pad, do all the necessary things for making a cup out of it, fill it with water, and drink. Then, we had to take a short quiz on the some of the edible plants indigenous to the area, before finally throwing a spear at some targets. I found a decent stick, but I was too tired to carve the stick, or practice my throws. You were allowed 7 throws, having to hit the target 3 times. I hit it twice, so I didn’t get that reward …but I did get a bead for passing the quiz and creating a very sexy cactus cup.

Hanging my head in failure at the spear throw, I was told to carry my spear another 5 miles to the next checkpoint – Fire-making.

And off I went, again, through another ridiculous series of miles and miles of steep bushwacking and dried, rocky riverbed traversing.

I was so shot-out by this point, I just didn’t know how a finish was even possible.

Fire For Hours

After what felt like nine years, I rolled into the fire checkpoint to see a whole handful of athletes that had been waaaay ahead of  me, and they were all struggling with making fire.

I gathered all the necessary materials, made my bow, my spindle, all out of soltol plant wood, and gathered my nest, hoping to get really lucky and nail my fire. I stayed there for close to an hour – no fire.

Some people stayed for as long as 3 or 4 hours, and some finally got it after such perseverance, but not me.

I realized by not getting fire, I was now putting myself in that lonely hole of “sure, you can finish, but you will still be a failure.” But, truth be told, I expected that coming into this race, so I was OK with it. To add insult to injury, we also had another spear throw challenge here and again I came up ONE short. Dammit!

I would keep fighting until I was told otherwise.

A Conference with the Race Directors

Sad and dejected and frustrated with yet another ridiculous, technical descent, I found myself just kinda standing on a grassy jeep road as a white Subaru approached. It was RDs Brad Quinn, and Josue & Paula Stephens, as well as an athlete or two who dropped at the fire checkpoint.

I tried to complain, but they didn’t show much mercy, and the vehicle was full, so all I got was a, “just get to prospector’s and you’ll be fine,” and away they drove. My first chance to easily give up, gone, in a puff of kicked-up Texas dirt.

I didn’t even know what “prospector’s” meant, but I had a really gnarly, steep climb ahead of me to find out.

Cool Dude in a Cabin

We actually got to do a small bit of easy rock climbing to actually get to the cabin, also referred to as “prospector’s”, and I really enjoyed that little tidbit of upper body and balance testing.

Sitting on the porch of the cabin was a funny, interesting guy who seemed to know everything about everything , and by the time I was getting to him, he had his script down:

“You are going to take a test on the local plants and their uses. Then, you will make some cordage out of wheat grass. And last, you will make a bow that you need to carry with you 6 miles to the next checkpoint.

By the way, nice shoes.” {smart ass}

This was all fine and dandy, but all I wanted to do was drink some water and sit down for a second, …or an hour; but, I took my test, and passed it proudly with a 9/10.

I, then, made some poor attempt at cordage which got a huge laugh from my new friend. He showed me how to first crush the plant, tear it into tiny fibers, and then braid it into cordage.

I did it. Kind of… but I got my bead anyway.

I then got busy on my bow. I could picture badasses like Shane McKay or John Taylor, sitting here for hours, whittling away on the perfect bow, but me? Oh hell no. I grabbed a stick, tied some cord to it, filled up my water bottles, and left the cabin humming weird show tunes. I actually found myself doing the Laverne and Shirley, up the hill, leading away from the cabin.

Yes, I’m that lame when I’m completely exhausted.

Really? A Trail?

Shockingly, two miles after leaving the cabin, and descending more terrain that had me cussing Josue’s name (and his mama’s name), we were actually dumped onto a real trail. Honest. No kidding. A real, honest-to-goodness, blazed trail.

I was so surprised that my first reaction was to NOT believe it.

“This is a trick, and I ain’t fallin’ for it”

The arrow pointed down the trail, and there weren’t any flags anywhere else, but I found myself asking myself, “self, why would Josue put us on this perfectly good trail when he could take us down this ravine and into another one of those gnarly dried creek beds?”

To make matters worse, I ran down the trail tentatively, and there were no markers. Up until now, the race was marked really well, but had to be because we were always bushwhacking.

I was tired, confused and cussing Josue again (but this time left Ms. Stephens out of it), and ran back to the arrow TWICE out of fear that I was going the wrong way.

I finally committed, kept on going down the trail, eventually found a marker, got passed by Gabi and Isiah, and after moving past the creepy cross, found myself at the “shooting range” just as it got dark.

I didn’t climb the tree and retrieve arrows for my bow.

I didn’t shoot my bow.

I didn’t make a travois.

Instead, I accepted that my bow was crap, and when they said we’d have to carry the travois 2.5 miles, mostly uphill, I collapsed internally. I barely had the strength left to complete the loop, let alone build a travois and pull it 2.5 miles.

This is a travois.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one.

As I made my way to the last checkpoint, it looked like a travois graveyard – everyone ditched their travois somewhere close to leaving the checkpoint, including the winner; BUT, as I shuffled down the trail with a cool dude named Paul, we rolled up Corinne Kohlen. If you are in the Obstacle Racing community, ’nuff said, but if not, Corinne is a true elite athlete in the sport and one I admire greatly. While the rest of us “studs” ditched the whole travois idea, Corinne was busy struggling with hers, having pulled it well over 1/2 mile.

I felt lame.

But, I was stoked for her, and amazed at her tenacity and grit. I’m a fan for life.

An Evil RD, or The Finish That Never Comes

True to character, the race director ran us right up close to camp, but still with 3 miles to go. You could hear and smell the finish, but all you could do was catch a glimpse of lights through the trees before the arrows pointed you back uphill again, away from camp, and seemingly back into the dark, nighttime wilderness.

And not once, but again, and again, and again …until I found myself telling anyone who’d listen (I think is was Scott from Luna Sandals who was now the lucky victim of my whining) that Josue was a mean, evil, RD who wanted nothing more than to make things so hard that no one could really ever finish.

Either Scott got sick of listening to me, or he smelled the barn, or both, but before I could finish my whine-fest, he took off down a rocky hill at full speed.

I followed, …minus the whole “take-off” part.

More of a controlled stumble.

And like that, I heard the cheering of friends, crossed the finish line, stopped and pointed at my shoes, and endured 15 minutes of laughing, jokes, photographs, and the constant, “you ran all the way in those?”

I still don't know how I was able to go this far in these monsters.

Yup, I did.

And while none of us completed the race exactly as Josue had designed it, Shane McKay, a rancher from Canada, nailed all the challenges, and was considered the much-deserved victor.

The rest of us were just glad we “survived”.

You have to be a special kind of knucklehead to want to train and race this kind of stuff. It’s designed for you to fail. Josue is not in this to coddle runners. He doesn’t care if anyone finishes his race. He is a race director who wants to challenge athletes beyond anything they have ever experienced, or could even imagine experiencing.

Lastly, one cannot express the joy and satisfaction from these kind of events without a nod to the other athletes, and volunteers. Whether it was your day or not. Whether you dropped at 10 miles or 5 miles from the finish line, it doesn’t matter, because there’s a brotherhood that develops, between all of us, male and female, that lasts long, long after the event is over.

I feel part of an extended family that knows me. Knows how I think. Knows what drives me, excites me, and challenges me.

I live a fantastic life and I’m thankful beyond words.

That’s all. Thank you for reading.

sr-amulet

 

Comments

  1. WOW! Great read! This sounded awesome/horrible/amazing/painful!

  2. Holy intensity. Reads like a mix from maximum Scouting and military Ranger Course running. just more painful. Love the sandals tho. True Mad Max styling.

  3. Alec Blenis says:

    As I read this, my thoughts alternated between, “oh, I could totally handle that. Sign me up”, and, “…not a chance I’m doing THAT”. Just goes to show how Josue designed the course so that everyone would seriously struggle with at least one aspect of the race. Tough stuff. Awesome job!

  4. Congratulations! I will admit that I just don’t get it, BUT I do understand that it makes you feel alive. You’re good at living bro. Props to ya and don’t ever stop!

    • Christian Griffith says:

      @Sully: back at ya, brocamp. Its ok, not many people understand why I choose to punish myself for fun. Perhaps I was once a very bad boy.

  5. Amazing. Inspiring. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this! You are totally hilarious by the way.
    Congrats to you for finishing it out!

  6. Loved it! Great report and a fun read.
    I’m so glad decided NOT to do this event!! lol
    I hope you learned a lot about yourself that weekend =)

  7. I have no words…

  8. I really enjoyed reading this and throughly enjoyed living vicariously through you! (Which is safest for everyone, lol.) Congratulations.

  9. Richard Cunningham says:

    Sounds awesome except for the shoe deal. It’s crazy to risk destroying your feet and suffering a life long injury and problem. Congratulations on your finishing!

    • Christian Griffith says:

      @richard: thank you. Although on the surface it sounds insane, I learned a lot about managing my footfalls and feeling the ground beneath me even better than I do in minimalist shoes. Plus, the sandals are much easier on the tops of the feet with less blisters and toe issues usually experienced during long distance events in shoes. It’s not my go-to style yet, but I will continue to experiment in sandals.

  10. Brilliant write up of an extraordinary race! The entire challenge sounds incredulous but the river, in the dark? For all that way? The cave? Twice?! Much admiration friend.

  11. lori enlow says:

    Uhhhhh……

  12. Christian, that was the funniest race report ever read. What was it really like? Seriously, you are one ultra tough dude. Awesome job.

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