tampabay.com

A multisport adventure

By SHERYL KAY
Published March 9, 2007


Grab a canoe, a mountain bike and a pair of athletic shoes. It's time for the third annual Squiggy Classic.

Hundreds will converge on Wilderness Park this weekend to compete in a variety of outdoor challenges, including Sunday's high energy adventure race, an off-road running, cycling, and paddling competition.

Using maps and compasses only, adventure racing teams and some solo entries will navigate their way through the woods, palm scrubs, and the Hillsborough River, all vying to be first across the finish line.

Along the way they will encounter preset challenges to navigate, and they will pass check points where each team member will mark a "passport" with a unique hole-punch to prove they passed that way.

"It sounds a little out there, a little nutty, but for me it's playing outside together with friends, and playing in the woods," said Jessica Koelsch, 37, co-founder and director of the West Central Florida Adventure Racing Club, which designed the race's course. "I can't think of anything better to do."

The Squiggy adventure race, named after the Friends of the County Parks mascot squirrel, is broken up into three challenges. The Classic is a four- to six- hour race and poses the most challenging course for the most experienced in adventure racing.

Families and newcomers are encouraged to enter the Dash, an abbreviated two- to three-hour "sprint." This race also is conducted separately for geocaching, where participants may use a GPS device not permitted in adventure racing.

And for racers younger than 15, there will be a special Squiggy Junior competition involving a 20-30 minute intense adventure course.

West Central Florida provides an especially vast and challenging terrain, said Koelsch, a marine biologist from St. Petersburg. Participants cross through saw grass marshes, oak hammocks, palmetto prairies, and cypress swamps.

Fauna is impressive as well. Koelsch has seen deer, wild turkeys, owls, snakes and alligators. Contestants and animals generally avoid each other, she said.

While the Squiggy races are under six hours, other adventure races can go two or more days. Expedition races can last up to 10 days, and while racers take cat naps, they rarely sleep for long.

"You only need to know where you are, and where you're going, and that's it," Koelsch said.

Tell that to someone in a swamp in the middle of the night.

Carrie Smith experienced just that during one race. Under normal conditions, the course would not have been so wet. But torrential rains the day before had her team in waist-deep water, wading through a marsh hours after sunset.

Smith, who is 5 feet 2 and weighs about 115 pounds, said they carried their bikes over their shoulders, and on their heads.

"You go way outside of your normal stuff," said Smith, 43, an engineer from Temple Terrace. "But you manage to succeed, especially when you're working together with your teammates."

Smith, who will compete in the Classic, stressed the enormous importance of teamwork in the sport.

That said, she remembers her very first race, eight years ago. She and two female teammates encountered a 15-foot wall, with no viable way to get over it. Moments later another team came by, and before scaling the wall themselves, helped her entire team get over the wall.

"It was a real different moment for me in organized athletics," Smith said. "It's a team sport, so you already have that mentality of working together."

Contact Sheryl Kay at (813) 230-8788, or skreporter@hotmail.com.

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If you go

Although the full Squiggy Classic is closed for new registrations, spots were available last week for the Dash and Junior events. Prizes include sponsors' items such as CWX tights and shirts, Montrail running shoes, Smartwool jersey's and Wingnut backpacks.

Race fees for the Dash and Junior events run from $15 to $80 for two-person teams. Races begin as early as 8 a.m. at Morris Bridge Park, about 3 miles north of Interstate 75 on Morris Bridge Road. More information is available on the West Central Florida Adventure Racing Club's Web site at www.wecefar.com, or call (727) 424-9957.