How "Middle-Aged Warriors" are Forged at Woodloch
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~ shared by Martin Lessner
It seems that among a certain set of athletes, the traditional 100 mile bike ride or 26.2 mile run is (yawn) no longer a worthy goal. Hence the proliferation of "Ultra" sporting events, like triathlons, Ironmans, and events combining mental challenges with exhausting "feats of strength."
For example, consider the "Super Spartan" which "provides an 8-mile battlefield of insane mud running with 15+ obstacles to test your physical strength and mental resolve. This mud fest of a race will have many trials to push you to your full potential!" And then, of course, there is the granddaddy of all challenges, as written up in Outside Magazine, where few finish, and with a web site that says it all: YouMayDie.com
Now consider, if you will, a longstanding tradition, the Woodloch weekend. Woodloch is a family retreat facility, laid out on a lake surrounded by about 150 acres of woods, ten miles from the PA/NY border. For eight years, my family and Jeff W.'s family, along with three other college friends and their families (a/k/a the "Penn Pals") spend a winter weekend competing in various events against scores of other families from New York and Philadelphia. The ultimate prize is the gold Woodloch medal, to be worn proudly around one's neck while walking around the dining room.
This year's weekend was in cold and snowy mid-February. A Friday night arrival allows us to warm up in the "Cash Cab" event, modeled after the TV show. In a promising start, we win in a comeback in the final round of the 55 minute event, with a question right in my knowledge sweet spot: "What is the sum of (a) the year of the First Continental Congress plus (b) the year Disney World opened in Orlando?" A team gold medal is our reward for my overruling a certain history major and pop culture expert who pressed for dates a year off the correct answer (1774 + 1971 = 3745).
This is merely a warm-up for Saturday's main events. First up is the 7:00 a.m. father/son basketball game. On one side, five guys in their late 40's, in wildly varying physical shape. On the other side are 17, 16, 15, and two 13 year old boys. My son Zack had been talking smack the whole prior week, labeling me as "not good at basketball," another college pal as "not athletic enough," and accurately describing Jeff W. as "injury prone." The games were tough, with lots of sweat and elbows, and ended in a father/son split of 1 game apiece, and no serious injuries for the dads (for now).
Next up at 10:00 a.m. is the premier event, the Scavenger Hunt. Although the actual event is a strictly timed one hour affair, preparation begins months in advance. It starts with playing various online games on the Woodloch website. Attaining a certain success level at these online games yields a partial list of items that will be required if a team wants to have any chance of winning in February. Before we left for Woodloch, Dan K. was kind enough to loan me his "Born to Run" album on vinyl. Other clues resulted in our team pre-gathering the following:
- Return of the Jedi on VHS
- Count Chocula cereal
- a winning lottery ticket
- Tim Tebow rookie card
- Halle Berry perfume
- pretzel M&Ms
- autobiography of Mark Twain vol. 1
- Volkswagen key
- "Lost" season 6 on DVD
Other competitive teams of families show up with these items too. And most show up with laptops and iPads for easy access to the internet, all the better to answer the questions and mind benders to be handed out shortly. After the instructions and checklists are distributed (to all teams at the same time), the one hour clock starts. Our captain delegates to everybody their role, matching as many items on the lists as possible, whether it is the kids dressing up funny, composing a song, or the wives solving puzzles and finding other items (but not taking something from another team or the gift shop, because that is considered "stealing").
Jeff and I are assigned to go after the 150 point bonus. Out the door into the 10 degree morning, we run a half mile to the snow-covered nature trail. Along the trail some trees have small signs tacked on them, with a foreign word or phrase, some in German or looking like German (but really gibberish). We separate and run along different parts of the trail. Upon spotting a tree with a word nailed to it, we take out our blackberries and e-mail it back to a teammate sitting by a computer in the main lounge. In about half hour, with frozen hands and cold feet, we run back from the trail to the main lounge, where our teammate has run the words through a German/English translator. The few random words actually in German (head, comb, awake, rise) are part of a Beatles song, but which one? With a little help from my friends, it comes to me that these are words from "A Day in the Life", which I then have to sing from memory to Joey (the longtime Woodloch MC and judge). After an off-tune rendition of "Woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head", Joey gives me a code, which I then use to navigate through a web site, which eventually plays a short music clip, which I identify as "Lovely Rita." We get our bonus points, and in the end, win the silver medal.
The events keep coming. Next up is the father/son football game on a field covered with ice and snow. Again, injury potential is high, but the Dads escape unscathed. Jeff and I then run 5 hilly miles on a road leading down to the NY border on Delaware River, arriving back just in time for the "Name that Tune" competition. For the first time ever, our families beat the other 24 teams, mainly on the strength of our early teenage daughters, who fuel a last round comeback based on their knowledge of "songs" from the last three years. Class of 1985 members are clueless.
Sunday: on the court by 7:00 a.m. for father/son basketball, Part II. This time, the dads squeak by, two games to one. Then the 10:00 a.m. Winter Olympics, with six timed events involving tubing, sledding, running up and down snow covered hills, shooting a hockey puck, and the ten person team "running while bound together with a giant bungee cord" event. The last Olympic event involves running up an incline, touching a flag, then sliding down a steep slope to touch another flag. We do not win the Winter Olympics. In fact, we finish near the bottom of the 24 teams. And in a recent update, Jeff W. informs me that "the huge bruise from the Olympics Butt-Slide Event debacle is still there."
Two o’clock is the "Amazing Race." Among the many implausible events, Jeff and I are delegated by our captain to gather points by running a half mile to a snow bank. I then drag Jeff down the hill by his feet, and he struggles to do the same for me up the hill. For this we get a piece of paper, which allows us to run a half mile back for further instructions. These further instructions send Jeff and me back on another half mile run, where we must knock over water bottles with a pendulum, play "Bop-It" 25 times without error, run some more to a different location, eat a full large snow cone drenched with red-dye laden syrup (this was the hardest event, resulting in both brain freeze and stomach ache), and rotate a stack of 20 cups without dropping. Then a half mile run back to the lodge. Meanwhile, the rest of the team is playing charades, running around the campus taking pictures of certain things (the snowplow, the tree by the lake, etc.), and solving puzzles. Our streak continues, and we take the bronze medal. Meanwhile, my son Zack returns with the gold medal in the Texas Hold'em Tournament.
By four o'clock on Sunday, Jeff's non-"injury prone" streak comes to an end. The late afternoon football game on the snow and ice has Jeff trying to cover a teenager. For no good reason (age?), Jeff's hamstring goes south. Immobilized, we flag down a bus to take Jeff back to the lodge. Pretty much the end of the competitions, save for the wrap-up "Family Feud", where we go down in flames in the second round, unable to name all ten items on the board "that would fall out of your pocket if you were turned upside down."
In conclusion, when I read about the Ultra endurance "Super Spartan", "You May Die" competitions I could never do, I take solace in the fact that my almost 48 year old body and mind survived the trials of Woodloch, with many keepsake memories of family and friend teamwork in the face of stiff competition from those always tough New York and Philly families.
Martin Lessner is a long-time Woodloch guest and friend.