Brian Hassan, one of BayPoint Benefits founders tells about his experience in the Central Coast Challenge.
The Real Adventures of Hass, Smalls, and Johnny Cocktails
Let me preface this by saying this was the most challenging race that I have ever attempted. It required a balance of mental and physical endurance, intelligent packing and rationing of food and water, and most importantly a very strong will to continue and persevere through pain and exhaustion. Oh, and the most important characteristic my teammates and I shared: being so damn stupid of even thinking about doing this race.
It was 1PM, Friday afternoon as I stood in my bedroom in San Francisco wondering if I packed the right gear. Extra socks: check. Leatherman utility tool: check. Compass: check. Sanity: umm…where did that go? Oh there it is: check.
Rob (Smalls) arrived home fresh from the construction site amped and ready to go. One thing you should know about this comical character is that he is a terrific endurance athlete, was president of his triathlon club at Cal Poly, and strangely loves dancing around the living room in a cowboy hat and Speedo after a dozen beers (for more information please visit: DoctorJekyllandMisterSmalls.com). “Hass, let’s make this happen! Let’s rock this – Team Fluid, baby, yeah!”
Team Fluid? Yeah, that was our team name. Originally we were the ‘Dirt Digglers,” inspired by Mark Wahlberg’s performance from Boogie Nights mixed in with a little racing humor. But Rob’s good buddy is the CEO of a Sports Drink company (yep, you guessed it: Fluid), so we morphed into that team name under their sponsorship.
We packed the gear up and wondered where our team captain, John McGuire was. ‘Johnny Cocktails’ as we so eloquently called him. The man is an animal – how he is an accountant perplexes the Dali Lama himself.
We hit the road and off we were: to embark upon an epic race.
We arrived San Luis Obispo around 7PM at night and immediately made our way to the Quality Inn & Suites. This was where we were to be getting the maps, coordinates, and free shwag. The parking lot was remarkably empty prompting me to wonder if we were at the right spot. I was imagining mountain bikes strewn across the parking lot and athletes zipped up straight out of an ‘Outside’ magazine photo shoot. We walked in, registered and found that there were only 13 teams competing and most were not local. Athletes came from the East Coast (heart of adventure racing), New Zealand, and Australia. Oh, how can I forget: the Dark Horses – those scrappy young guys from San Francisco! Surprisingly we were the youngest team competing where the average age was about 35.
It was time to load up on food, food, and more food. Oh and beer – we figured that it would be the most critical supply. It would be our equivalent to Vicodin after the race. I was very surprised that Bud Light or Jack Daniels were not included on the mandatory first aid kit/gear list. Needless to say it was added to our arsenal.
We showed up at Smalls’ place in San Luis Obispo and laid the 2-foot by 3-foot maps on the table (1:34,000). There were 2 maps – that was a lot of water and ground to cover. We were given 8 checkpoints (CPs) to map using a Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM). Fortunately, both Smalls and Cocktails went to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, so they had a pretty good idea of the area (generally speaking). So when Rob frequently commented, “holy shit, we need to go [insert a variety of locations]!” I knew we were in for the long haul.
Something that you should know about myself: I live for these challenges so that phrase fired me up even more. By looking over at Cocktails, I knew that he felt the same way, as his smile kept getting bigger and bigger. This was going to get serious. Fast.
We had to be up at 4:30AM. It was already 12:30AM. Time to get some rest since we were going to be moving for 24 to 36 hours non-stop.
The alarm clock rang its sweet voice a few hours into my sleep. It’s sound was reminiscent of the mythological Sirens who entice you with their serene voices only to lead you into the most perilous and treacherous life-defying scenarios. In our case, it was the Central Coast Adventure Challenge.
Of course, Smalls was already up muscling down a bowl of cereal and Cocktails was in the living room doing one-handed pushups. Well…almost.
Bikes locked and loaded, gear stowed, coffee and “business” taken care of, we hit the road. 45 minutes to Lake Santa Margarita. Although tired, we felt like this was one challenge that would not come close to taming our inner lust for adventure. I strongly proclaimed, “listen boys, I am not looking to complete this race. I am looking to win it. Let’s get focused and take this down!” Our team mantra changed from simple completion to standing on the podium. After we concluded our “adventure” Smalls reminded me of this phrase. We laughed hysterically.
You have to give us some credit for our ambitious team spirit. The ambiguity of the race clearly clouded our expectations of our performance, our competitors, and simply put: how damn hard this race was.
Heading to the lake we were slamming Cytomax, crushing through Clifbars, and imagining what we have to get through to reach the finish line. Locked and loaded we were ready for anything (almost) the Central Coast Adventure Challenge could send our way. We pulled the truck up to the lake and it was so cold that steam was rolling off of the water. At least we know that the water was warm and that if we tipped the kayak we were not in too bad of shape.
This is where we saw our field of competitors. Cocktails, Smalls, and I looked at each other and, as if we were communicating via ESP, gave each other a nod that signaled that this was a bit more serious than we thought. These were not the epitomized ‘weekend warriors’ – rather these were some of the best in the world (which we later found out) and this 24 – 36 race was the hardest in the United States. What made me draw this initial conclusion? Could it be that teams brought their own collapsable carbon-fiber paddles? Or that teams had their logo on their vans? I could keep going on and on. But we were armed with matching ‘Fluid’ t-shirts so we felt dangerous (yeah…right).
We boarded the bus and got focused. Let’s do this! Our first segment was ocean kayaking 7 miles in aggressive surf. Let start by revealing that I have only been in a kayak once in my life and paddled in a lake for about 400 meters. I was about to ocean kayak 7 miles. This was the first time that I realized that this was a bit more serious than what I expected it to be.
Smalls and I took the tandem kayak and Cocktails took the single and pushed our way through the surf out about 400 meters into the ocean. Saying that we were wet would be an understatement. I look over to Smalls and ask “how long have we been paddling?” in which he replied 20 minutes. Awesome! Another 6-plus miles to go! In term of positioning after breaking through the surf into the ocean, we were 11 of 13. The tip of our kayak was pointed towards Morro Rock which was 7 miles out and we put our heads down and pushed through. I forgot to mention that my seat broke (just a minor detail that just escaped me) so I was upright with no back rest for 2 hours and 30 minutes. Closing in on the marina we overtook another 3 boats and moved into a mid-position. We portaged the boat on the shore in an assimilation of excitement and disbelief. We moved into the transition area in position 7 of 13. I will take that any day, especially for some scrappy rookies like Team Fluid.
Getting out of the boat it was cold, but being happy to see the mountain bike transition point the temperature had no ill effect on the team. We slammed Cytomax and Clif blocks as we geared up and mounted our bikes en route towards the next stage. We shot off up the road psychologically primed to embark on the mountain biking section of the race. This was the most “physically challenging” part of the race, whereas the following trail section was the most “mentally challenging” section.
Smiles on our faces (these marginally diminished as we became further immersed into the race) we blazed off towards CP2. On the ride we road killed 2 more teams which put us in position 5, per our estimation. However due to our navigation skills we overshot the turn we were supposed to be making. We reached CP2 and started our ascent towards CP3. All 3 of us are very strong bikers so we felt that we could potentially move into position 3 by the close of this section since position 1 only has 30 minutes on us and we had 25+ miles to bike. Easy.
Well, not quite.
The ascent started to get aggressive and the rollers and decent proved to be more challenging. Soft dirt turned into small gravel and fire roads turned into 3-foot wide single-track trails. Brakes were marginally effective given the terrain and the gravel soon became my kryptonite as it induced a ‘superman’ spill over my handlebars and into the adjacent local flora (which is not the softest of vegetation). I was down – and down hard. I stood up, lower back injured (re-aggravating a pre-existing condition), I soon realized that only 6 hours into this race I still had another 18 to go. Knowing that if I dropped out, it would disqualify my entire team, I muscled back up on my bike and powered through back up to Smalls and Cocktails.
Where we may have lacked “elite adventure racing” stature, we made up for it in team chemistry and unity. Both Smalls and Cocktails, like the ‘Manimals’ that they are, took my pack and helped me work through the remaining 20 miles. Small pebble-like gravel turned into thousands of fist-sized rocks and our relentless pursuit of CP3 and CP4 seemed unfathomable. We were closing in, we saw, after re-examining the map. The fist-sized rocks turned into soft dirt and I felt that we were in the clear.
Of course, I spoke too soon! Battered physically and exuding the mental anguish associated with taking a dozen spills I took the pinnacle of them all: I approached an ‘L’ shaped bridge and my front tire caught an edge and shot my bike and I into a small 5 foot deep gully of rocks, sticks, and leaves. Remarkably, I got up within 30 seconds, got back on the bike, and finished the segment without a broken bone. I think it was that my body took such a beating over the past 7 hours that there really was not anything else that could have shocked it.
At the bottom I see Smalls and Cocktails and we make for the transition area – I am ready to hike. Both Smalls and Cocktails agree – its time to change it up. And change it up now. The last 2 miles were a gift from heaven. A soft 2% downhill grade on a fire road. We all opened it up in top gear, lowered our bodies, and closed it out. The transition area was in site and we were all ecstatic.
We reloaded food, ate, drank Cytomax, ate, stretched our legs, and ate. Did I mention that we ate? We removed our cleats, threw on fresh socks and trail shoes, packed warm gear for the night’s hike, and rallied with our fully-loaded packs. It was going to be a long hike. We estimated about 25 to 30 miles in 13-15 hours. This was after we kayaked 7 miles already and biked about 25 miles. Let the games begin…I mean continue. This is no walk in the park – that is for certain! I grabbed my pack and was certainly ready to start moving on my feet.
The team one position in front of us followed the railroad tracks. But Smalls and Cocktails had something up their sleeves: traverse the Cal Poly campus and cut across a dry river bed that they know is now dry (since they went to school at Cal Poly). I was really picking up what they are putting down!
We successfully circumnavigate the dried river bed and start heading up Poly Canyon successfully passing the aforementioned team and cutting 20 minutes off of our hike. We ascend Poly Canyon at an amazing pace. I am convinced that our pace is attributed to the fact that we were all thankful that the biking section was a thing of the past. It was an amazing hike coupled with a few barbed wire fences and we pace was strong. We could not see CP5 but we had a general idea of where we were going. Since we were on top of Poly Canyon the route selection was critical. The last problem we wanted to have was to be faced with an aggressive drop (and judging by the topographic map we are going to have to be sniper-accurate to ensure a smooth route selection).
We selected the route, executed, and began the descent in search for the Calvert (tubes that run perpendicular under the US-101 highway that allows for water flow). We hit CP5 at the entrance of the Calvert.
Getting to this Calvert was a lot more complicated then the topographic map led us to believe. We had to hop a 5 foot tall barbed wire fence (which put us above the Calvert) and slide on our back down the foliage (an eclectic blend of spiny plants, sticks, rocks, and tall grass).
The sun is going down as we being to strategize on how we are going to get to CP6. It is at the top of this large mountain with no direct trails, roads, or even paths detailing the route. Topographic maps can be misleading, but not our eyes. There is truly no path to the top. The section has become the epitome of ‘bushwhacking’.
We donned our leggings (high grass is an indicator of a heavy deer tick population) and gloves and got to work. With no direct path, nor access to the summit, we pushed ourselves through dense brush, cactus-like plants, holly, poison oak, and made friends with a variety of local insects en route to the road that we would hopefully find at the summit.
We saw our path: cavernous and tumultuous dried up river bed. Each step was a challenge and we found ourselves breaking down limbs of trees and using our arms as a human machetes. We slowly inched forward – progress is good – but there was no way we were going to beat the sun and reach the top by sundown. Preparing for dusk, we armored up with our warm gear and headlamps and charged forward. It was decision time: keep going forward (but the terrain was getting rougher, rockier, and much more dense) or go vertical. We opted for the latter and I got down on my hands and feet and dug my fingers and toes into the soft dirt. Each step clawing into the ground with my hands and feet. It was an impressive climb: but we made it. Certainly if you would have proposed the strategy to me from the onset I would have been skeptical of the success. Needless to say, it was accomplished, and we sat atop to the ridge in awe of the paragon we had just reached. Our trophy: the sight of San Luis Obispo, some beef jerky, and nice warm bottle of chocolate Ensure.
CP6 was going to be an easy shot – a simple road past 3 communication towers – nice and easy. I mean, we deserved it after that last grueling section. Now that I reflect upon it all, what section wasn’t grueling? We checked our bearing, as navigation at night is a challenge and moved forward upon group consensus. There really is not much to say about this section. It was the most enjoyable hike, because it was flat, and because we could laugh about how ridiculous that last section was. Was that the right way even to go? It couldn’t be? Who would really even think of doing it the way we went about it? When we reached CP6 the Race Assistant confirmed that we, in fact, went the route that all of the teams in front of us did. Savages – the whole lot!
It was CP7 and then CP8 – Lake Lopez following. It was already 10:30PM at night. We have a projected 7 to 8 miles into wilderness (in which our SPOT trackers go dark – meaning our location cannot be tracked for safety and SOS purposes) and upon exiting the wilderness section another 8 miles to Lake Lopez. This is where things got really “interesting” to say the least.
Trudging down the back side of the ridge, we continue to propel forward. My motivation? Salami on a bagel. Yeah, sounds weird – I know. But for some reason I could not get it off my mind. I knew that if we made it to Lake Lopez the endless buffet of Clif Bars and Ensure so generously served by my pack will thankfully end. Don’t get me wrong, I love Clif bars. But the smorgasbord that my pack was offering was getting a little old. Trail Mix and Salami was going to taste like dining at Gary Danko and that was my modus operandi.
Along the path we made some great new friends: beetles, wood spiders, deer, and an awesome couple from Oceanside that had been lost for 2 hours. Jen and Michael from Team Rivets Cyclesport entered the wilderness at 8:30PM (2 hours prior) and were lost. They successfully “think” they found the exit but encountered some mountain lion cubs in the middle of the trail. Where mountain lion cubs are means mama lion is assuredly within their proximity. We had two options: (1) go back up that mountain that we just traversed down (1,500 foot climb) or (2) charge through where the lion cubs were sighted. Johnny Cocktails, the relentless woodsman whom was raised by a pack of indigenous CPA wolves (lupus luchettius & lupus dreyerus), led the embattled troop of fatigued racers through the wilderness.
Ankle deep in water and crossing stream after stream we start losing confidence. This was measured on the topographic map of being only 7 miles. We have been out there for almost 5 hours. Jen and Michael have been between CP6 and CP7 for 7 hours. Both Jen and Michael, seasoned 24 hour racers, assured us that this is the most difficult race that they have attempted. At 2:30AM, I could care less about the difficulty and the assurance – I just want my salami bagel!
We approach the section where the mountain lion was spotted. Johnny Cocktails, wielding his hockey-like stick, makes circles with his new weapon starts to grunt. To be honest, he did it a little too naturally. I really think he was raised by wolves, if you have to ask me. I am sure Smalls can attest to that. If we would lose Cocktails, I really could see him emerging 2 months later speaking in bobcat and wearing a wolverine pelt on this shoulders. We’ll have to write a book entitled “Lord of the Cocktails” to commemorate his exploits.
Needless to say, we survived and exited the woods at 3:30AM. The final hike was 8 miles to Lake Lopez. As we made our approach towards CP7 we saw the Race Assistant. After spending 5 hours in the woods searching for an exit, we made it, and it felt glorious. Camelback’s dry, food fully exhausted, we were excited (although our body language clearly did not exhibit any sort of excitement due to being so exhausted). After slapping the celebratory high-fives we were hit with the stark reality of the situation: no food and no water. The Race Assistant, whom was one of the most mellow individuals I have ever spoken with said, “I am happy to see you all. I literally passed out three or four times waiting for your teams. There is actually one more team still out there.” I was shocked. Not that he fell asleep a few times, but that there was another team trudging through the ravenous terrain that we had just overcame. He advised, “you can wait here for a few more hours and take your chances that they emerge, or you can trek it 8 miles to Lake Lopez.” We opted for the latter.
Now I use the word ‘trekking’ to Lake Lopez and ‘8 miles’ very loosely. It was more sleepwalking than trekking and it was more like 10 miles given the zig zag path we were walking. We plowed our way through ankle or higher creek water and pushed forward. Albeit we moved very slowly. Our socks were soaked, the trail shoes were tearing away at the back of my feet, and quite honestly this last leg felt like a perpetual dream. I was so tired that I started seeing images of motels (strange) and shadows lurked in front of us resembling running wild dogs. Jen from Team Cyclesport actually commented on seeing ‘Smokey the Bear drinking a cup of coffee’ in the trees. Now I felt better: there was someone with us seeing more obscure and ridiculous mirages than I was. Three hours went by and we were rounding the corner towards the Lake and that salami bagel was not even on my mind anymore – just rest. On a pile of rocks, tall grass, or a bed: it did not matter to either of our teams anymore.
Between sleep-deprived hallucinations, mirages, chaffed feet, and crooked sleepwalking we made it. 23 hours and 20 minutes later.
I can’t wait for next year.