Adventure Nation EP104: The Dawn to Dusk 12-Hour Adventure Race

It was close to midnight and I found myself unable to sleep, with a 12-hour adventure race only 6 hours away. I kept shifting and moving in my sleeping bag. The fact that the tent was on an incline and I had failed to notice the big rock just below it when I pitched it earlier probably had something to do with it, but I knew that mostly it was nerves.

Richard and I had been running almost every Mud Run and obstacle race in the greater LA area in the past year. We had been documenting our adventures for our blogs and our TV project called Adventure Nation. The concept quickly evolved to cover more than just mud runs into a show that would take us to places we’ve never been and push our physical and mental limits.

We shot a pilot during an event called GORuck Challenge, a grueling 12-hour march through the streets of Hollywood, inspired by the military training the special forces candidates go through. It was the hardest most intense experience we had ever gone through. That is, until we did the Dawn to Dusk Adventure Race.

In early 2013 we were looking for that next challenge that would put our fitness level and grit to the test. While doing some research online I came across Dawn to Dusk 12 Hour Adventure Race produced by All Out Event out of San Luis Obispo, CA.

I went through the content on their website, read some reviews from past runners and saw a short video. I was instantly convinced that this had to be the next challenge for Adventure Nation.

I sent an email to request some information and got an immediate response from race producer Kristin Horowitz. She was open to my proposal of running the race and documenting our every move through out the 12-hour course with our cameras.

Kristin put me in contact with her husband and race director Yishai Horowitz and after a great conversation with him we were registered and all set to embark on our first adventure racing experience.

The Dawn to Dusk consists of different sections that involve trail running, mountain biking, kayaking and some rope challenges. This was exactly the description we got from the website and basically all we knew about the course.

A big part of Adventure Racing is navigation, being able to traverse the terrain ahead of you and reaching all race check points by using only a map and a compass.

We train hard every day and are in pretty good shape, so the actual physical challenges didn’t worry us, but the navigating part was new to us. So we spent more time researching and learning how to use a compass instead of concentrating on training for the mountain bike section, which is really not my strength. As it turned out, it wasn’t Richard’s either. That was our first mistake.

I actually did worry about my lack of experience in mountain biking for a minute. Richard gave me some tips and then I got in touch with my good friend Darwin who also had some suggestions and got me in touch with his friend Tony, the owner of Bicycle Ambulance in Santa Monica. Tony got me set up with a great bike and made sure I would survive the test ahead.

On the day before the race we packed our stuff and headed out to Santa Margarita Lake. The drive from Los Angeles took close to 5 hours, having to wait for my kids to get out of school we did not hit the road until 3pm that afternoon, which means one thing in LA: crazy traffic.

We finally entered the camp grounds close to 8 in the evening. Richard and his family were already there. The sun was fading away, so without a moment to rest I picked the first place I saw to pitch our tent.

Richard had gotten there a little earlier and had checked us in for the race, but we still had to pack our backpacks and set up our bikes, water and supplies at the first transition point (TP1).

We drove out to TP1 where other racers were also setting up their gear. We met a volunteer, Kobe (Cobi? Kobi? Cobe? Sorry dude wish we had gotten your last name as well), who was camping in the area to guard the bikes. We chatted with him for a moment, he gave us some tips and told us of his experiences running the race in previous years, including a 24-hour version. Clearly, this guy knew what he was talking about, except he told us that the bike part was easy. As it turned out, that was what almost did us in.

By the time we got back to camp, finished packing and double-checking all of our gear and our 6 cameras, it was close to midnight. We had a pop tart and a beer for dinner and called it a night. That was our second mistake.

My alarm failed to sound at 5 a.m. but somehow I woke up without it. We quickly changed into our racing gear, had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and with less than 5 hours of sleep we headed to the starting line.

At the check-in tent we met Kristin and Yishai in person for the first time, they handed us our map, passport and set of instructions and wished us good luck. By this time most teams were already plotting their routes and marking the checkpoints on the map.

Richard took over map duties while I tried to take care of another most important business. Unfortunately half of the participants needed to take care of that business as well. With one bathroom and the race start only minutes away I realized that we had made yet another mistake. This happens to every racer, but most of them plan accordingly.

Yishai and Kristin were giving the final instructions to the group and we were ready to go. Unfortunately just seconds before the start, it was Richard’s turn to take care of some unexpected business. So I waited, the racers sprinted towards the kayaks and I sat there eager to start.

We knew we weren’t going to come in the first positions, and we knew we would have to take our time changing cameras, stopping to video record and narrate each section, so starting last wasn’t a problem. But it was a problem for another team that had the same predicament. One of them screamed in panic from the lakeshore at his partner as he ran to the bathroom. It was funny at the moment, not so much when they passed us on the kayak leg of the race.

And we were off, paddling in unison on our kayak. We could see the racers ahead of us and we pushed. About a mile in I realized that I hadn’t been on a kayak in a long time. Shoulders started burning, legs started falling asleep, but we were in for an amazing day. The morning sun reflected on the surface of Lake Santa Margarita, the rolling hills surrounded us. It was the perfect shot. I turned on my Go Pro and took some shots of Richard behind me on the back of our tandem kayak, at which point he started doing crazy posses and nearly tipped us over.

The last few racers passed us and I realized that we should have maybe gone kayaking once before the race. We reached kayak beach and got ready for the trek towards TP1.

We ran for about three miles, meeting some interesting people on the way. We were feeling really good when we reached the bikes. We changed our gear, drank some water, had a snack and we were on our way.

This was exciting. I was looking forward to the bike part, although I must admit I was a bit worried about the single trail everyone kept mentioning. We hit the road and I felt great. We started on River Road then Pozo Road, both paved roads with very little incline.

After a few miles, we met with a large group of racers on the side of the road, most of them deciding whether or not to turn right at the intersection. This is where we met up with our GO Ruck buddy Mike. Earlier that morning we recognized Mike from our GR Class. He joined us for a brief section of the race. Along with most of the other racers we turned right at that intersection and into the first fire road that lead us deep into the mountains.

The first half mile was really fun. I started to get the hang of the bike as we passed a creek and went through a short downhill. At that moment I thought it was amazing and that I was pretty good at it. Little did I know that it was just child’s play compared to what laid ahead of us on the single trails.

We stopped for a moment to mount a GoPro on Richard’s bike before moving forward, expecting awesome downhill sections ahead that we just had to get on video. But no more than a mile into it the trail started getting steeper and steeper. It was all-uphill from there. I struggled but kept pushing, moving steadily. Good thing Tony got me a light bike.

Richard was having some trouble but nothing serious; his bike is made for downhill riding so it is a heavy one. Finally we reached a point where we had to get off our bikes and push them uphill. Some racers passed us; others had to resort to the same tactic. This was the first of many times that we told to each other “We should have trained more for the bike part.”

We kept moving until we went around a bend and noticed all the bikes stationed on the side of the road. We had reached the point where we had to hike to check point 1 and 2 (CP1 & CP2).

I was really looking forward to this part, we were told CP1 and CP2 were inside some caves. As we started moving towards a creek in the direction our map pointed, we started running into a few racers that had already done the checkpoints and were coming in the opposite direction.

Most of them were smiling and told us to keep moving. They also told us how fun it was to get those check points. We reached the creek and followed it until we reached a path of boulders.

We jumped from boulder to boulder making our way deeper into the mountain. This was by far my favorite part, looking for the right path to take, like a puzzle. I remember thinking how my 11-year-old son, Saul, would have loved to do this with us. I thought he was still too young to do these kind of races. Later I would change my mind when I met Griffin and Sam. Saul is definitely coming with us next year.

It was actually Sam, Griffin and his mom who showed us where CP1 was as they passed us in the opposite direction. In side a small cave we could see the flag holding the checkpoint stamp about 15 feet below.

Richard went in first as I shot him with my GoPro from above. As I was waiting for him to move so I could join him below, I hung from the edge of the cave entrance. I saw something move out of the corner of my eye and flinched. It was a small bat. It flew by me a couple of times. I really wish I would have reacted differently. Richard got a good laugh out of it.

I finally went into the cave, Richard stamped our passport and we proceeded to head out of the cave through a small opening on the opposite side.

We kept moving forward until we reached the second cave where CP2 was located in. This was a larger cave. We went in and moved for a few yards. At sections the space was reduced.

We reached the end of the cave, found the stamp for CP2, and headed back. We had some hiking to do to get back to the bikes and it was already close to noon. The heat was rising and we still had a long way to go.

We took a moment to hydrate, we had some energy bars but our break was cut even shorter by the swarm of mosquitoes that would not stop biting us. The best thing was to keep moving and so we were off in to the trail once again.

Our progress, however, was slow. The trail yet again started to get steeper and steeper. We pushed our bikes for miles, pedaling at times but forced to stop by the incline.

And this is when we hit our first wall. Cramps. Richard got them first. Moments later I got some mild ones when trying to pedal. I had a similar experience with leg cramps a few months back during a Tough Mudder race. An unpleasant experience to say the least. My calf muscle was on fire and I was moving like something out of a Sci-Fi movie. I was not going through that again, so I started drinking water like a mad man.

But Richard’s cramps got worse. His quads were tightening up. He kept moving forward until he had to stop. I looked back and saw him kneeling on the middle of the road. A few racers had stopped to help. One couple stopped and offered to share their ‘cramp spray’. They offered some tips and urged us to just keep moving forward and eventually make some choices and miss some checkpoints.

The cramp spray seemed to work for a while, but I could tell that Richard wasn’t one hundred percent. Regardless, we kept moving as the incline got steeper and the heat reached 95 degrees. Every time we went around a bend we prayed for a downhill or the summit. Finally, after miles of pushing our bikes we made it to the checkpoint, the race crew signed our passport and we filled our camelbaks with water and electrolytes.

From there we could finally see the summit and the start of the downhill trail. While recharging we saw other teams reach the checkpoint. A team of four was also having issues with cramps; one of their members seemed unable to go on. We continued.

Standing on top of the mountain the view was breathtaking. We did our thing for the video, narrating and discussing our journey so far. And then we were off.

This was Richard’s forte, downhill mountain biking. He started moving and I followed. I was nervous; this was my first time doing this. He simply reminded me, “Go easy on the breaks. Just go.”

It was a fire road, wide but with lots of rocks and turns. Little by little I started feeling more comfortable. Easing off the brakes, I somewhat caught up.

We moved downhill for a couple of miles, and then we hit a fork on the road. The fire road was the more obvious choice, to the right was a small single trail going up hill. We debated for a moment, not wanting to go back to uphill riding. That’s when I suggested that maybe we can use the map and compass to help us make our choice.

Richard took over and showed me his way of using a map and compass to find our bearings. The map told us to go right on the fork and up the hill. We weren’t completely sure of our choice, but we stuck with it and started moving.

After a short hike I spotted a few racers coming down a peak in the distance. We were relieved. As we approached the peak we ran into more racers, one of which asked, “Where did you guys turn? All of us kept going down the trail and had to hike carrying our bikes to get here.” Clearly we had made the right choice.

On top of that peak laid CP3. We had to hike up the hill then climb up a wall of rocks about 50 feet high where the flag and stamp were. At this point Richard’s cramps were getting worse. He wouldn’t say it, but I knew he was struggling, so I volunteered to go up and get the stamp.

We were over 6 hours in the race and had barely gotten three checkpoints, but even with the physical issues we were having fun. Richard got his second wind as soon as we sat on top of the single mountain bike trail ready to head down.

I must admit I was a little scared, this was my first time riding on a single trail, and by no means was this a beginner level trail. Once again Richard reminded me, “Easy on the breaks, just let go”.

And he was off. I knew I wouldn’t be able to catch up to him; my goal was to make it down this trail without crashing. I had a few close calls, missed a few switchbacks, but once I got the feel for it I was really enjoying the ride.

We reached the bottom of the trail, where Yishai and a race volunteer were signing the passports for CP4 and EMS assisted our new friend Aracely, who took a pretty nasty fall down the trail. She is a tough one though. Her face, arms and legs were banged up pretty good. She had to withdraw from the race but did so with a smile and in good spirits.

It was time to move, next stop was the starting line where we had to drop our bikes and get our climbing gear and harnesses. The rest of the way was a paved road, and mostly downhill or flat, but Richard was getting worse. The leg cramps kept getting worse and he started to feel discomfort on his kidneys—a sign of dehydration and overexertion. I’ve known Richard for a while, and we always do extreme workouts and races. This was the first time I saw him like this. He asked me if we could take 5.

As he lay by the side of the road below the shade of a tree, I seriously considered withdrawing from the race. The cramps were one thing, but renal failure is no joke. A moment later he stood up and started moving. We were only a few miles from the starting line. The plan was to get there and then reevaluate our situation once there.

We got to the starting point and saw the bikes from all the other racers lying on the ground. A few teams seemed to be taking a breather. Others started plotting the next checkpoints on their maps, and one team sat in silence as they too had issues with cramping and had to exit the race. This was Team Tecnu, an elite adventure racing team and one of the best in the world. They usually take first place at the Dawn to Dusk. Not this year.

Richard took a break while I checked in and got the list of coordinates for the next set of checkpoints. It was close to 7 p.m. and we had three more major challenges, the waterfall, the zipline and one at kayak beach, where we would get our kayak and head back to the finish line.

I asked Richard how he was feeling. He wasn’t sure if he was going to continue at that point. I checked the map and decided that the waterfall was going to require a lot of hiking and would most likely aggravate his cramps. So that CP was out.

There was a trail along the lake shoreline that would take us straight to the zipline. Once there, we could cross and simply hike to kayak beach. The terrain seemed flat so Richard was on board.

We took our harnesses and headed out. We hit the shoreline trail and he was struggling, but the flat ground made it bearable for him to walk. Up a head we could see a search and rescue team. They offered some water and goo to relieve the pain and pointed us in the right direction.

Just as they were driving away, we decided to cross a dry section of the lakebed to get to the zipline. As I was heading down the incline, I could hear Richard struggling. I turned around and he was on the ground, the pain went from really bad to insane in a matter of seconds. His screams and the look on his face confirmed the inevitable: he couldn’t go on.

I waved the search and rescue truck down and asked if they could give us a lift back to camp. Richard looked in pain and disappointed. His body simply shut down. I was unsure of what to do for a second, until Richard asked me to go on and cross the finish line for him. So I did. He was on his way back to camp and I wandered into the hills.

I was tired, sore and slightly disoriented, losing my teammate was a big hit, and the stories of mountain lions in the area I had heard back at camp started resonating in my head. It was close to dusk and I did not want to be alone in these woods in the dark.

I pushed forward and finally saw the zipline and a group of racers. I got my passport signed, strapped up and headed down the zipline. A fun moment after all the craziness.

As I rested for a second I recognized a team I had seen earlier, two 12-year-old kids and their mother. Along with them was another racer, Randy. I introduced myself and asked if I could join their team. They welcomed me for the last leg of the race. Simply having someone to finish with and seeing the energy both kids displayed gave me that last boost to head to the finish line.

Once we got to kayak beach Randy offered to help me with my tandem kayak, he helped me paddle back while we towed his single man kayak. We made our way to the finish line as the sunset showed us the way. We made it to shore and as we pulled the kayaks in a volunteer told us, “Hurry. You guys have less than a minute to make it before the cutoff”.

We sprinted towards the finish line. The lights of the campgrounds showed the silhouettes of the racers that had finished and we could hear their cheers. As I got closer I spotted Richard with his family and my kids. My son Saul started running next to me for the last 100 yards until I crossed the finish line.

It was over. It was amazing. It was insane.

I had little time to socialize with other racers or the organizers; I just wanted to lay down, grab a beer and pass out.

And this is how our first attempt at adventure racing ends. Bittersweet. Not being able to finish together. I know it was hard for Richard and a week later he is still upset about it. Of course I remind him every chance I get. That’s just how we motivate each other.

But this is just the beginning, Adventure Nation will be back. We will train hard, and get our minds and bodies ready for the next one.

We are extremely thankful to All Out Events and Yishai and Kristin Horowitz for allowing us to be part of this amazing experience and letting us document our journey. You have created a monster. We are hooked on adventure racing.

Team Tecnu, you better watch your back.