Rhonda Off-Road: A Day in the Life of a Rally Racer

My journey of remembering to keep my eyes open.

By Rhonda Cahill

I lied to her. I totally lied to my teammate, Rachelle.

We were at the top of a 100 foot mountain of sand in the middle of the Shagaga Dunes of Morocco in our first endurance rally together. The nose of our race truck was pitched at such a downward angle, the only thing keeping us in our seats were our 5-point racing harnesses. My arms and legs were dangling down in front of me attempting to hold onto my map board.

Rhonda Cahill | Rachelle Croft | XElles Racing

Rachelle breathlessly asked me, “How am I doing?”

“You're doing great! Keep it up!”

I had no idea how she was doing.

I was so terrified I kept my eyes closed every time we descended one of those massive dunes. I only opened them at the top for about 3 seconds to check the direction of our truck and to correct our navigation.

She didn't need to know that in the middle of a dune. There are too many other obstacles.

Rhonda CahillLike waking up at 4 am. Confusion and rage were new morning emotions for me. When the alarm goes off, so do you.  There is no time to figure out your surroundings, adjust to what's ahead, or let your cortisol levels come up.

Get up. Get dressed. Pack your bag. Roll your sleeping bag. Close your tent. Ratchet your gear down into the truck. Eat breakfast. Get race day notes. Find starting line position. Wait for release.

It's 6 am. Rachelle and I get the clear to start. We pull a mere 50 to 100 feet beyond the race line and stop. This is where my journey as navigator begins. I hop out of the truck and take my first of 50-75 headings on my compass.

Rhonda Cahill

I find our heading and give Rachelle the hand signal to come line the truck directly behind me. She waits to pull up the truck until I have cleared her because the metal in our vehicle will distort the readings on my compass.

I see our goal. 
Rachelle sees me.
The circle of trust begins again.

I keep my eyes fixed on something as far off in the distance as possible. Rachelle graciously takes my constant instruction of where to keep our truck, all while calculating if she can even drive over the route I have chosen.

It's a beautiful marriage between where the navigator wants to go and what the driver is willing to take on. Many times, I have to calculate a new route because Rachelle knows the limits of our truck and what she is comfortable driving. She, in turn, often has to trust me when I promise her she is completely capable of taking us over a rock face.

Rhonda Cahill | Rachelle Croft

At one point in our first rally I yelled,
“Dammit Rachelle! We didn't come all the way to Morocco to drive around things. We came here to drive over them!!”

She later told me that my confidence in her driving gave her confidence she needed.

“Left. No, more left. Good. Wait, a little right. More right. Yes, keep that line. You're fading right again. Pull left. Stop, I need to take another heading.”

By noon, it's 100 degrees outside. Air conditioning isn't allowed. Our bodies have been jostled. Our necks are sore from helmets. Our arms are fatigued from digging our truck out of camel grass and sandy dunes. Our minds are exhausted. We haven't eaten due to adrenaline. Dehydration is always a problem. We have found less than half of our checkpoints.

They say that the rally isn't timed.
I have found that to be a lie. I am always racing the sun.

The sun heats the sand enough to burn you.  One day the temp reaches 110 degrees. It is very normal for sand storms to hit  the dunes. The sun, the heat of the sand, physical exhaustion and the wind storms make a dangerous cocktail for a stuck truck.

Once we are unstuck, we notice three dunes over, another team needs assistance. Everyone helps everyone in these rallies. It feels good to help another team out, but I am very aware that we are sharing 25 precious minutes.

We discover three more checkpoints. Every single one feels like winning a gold medal, but the victory never lasts because there is always another checkpoint to find.

Rhonda Cahill

The sun casts long shadows over the landscape. I hold up my hand over the western fading sun. 30 minutes before complete darkness. There is still one more checkpoint to find.

We have driven 11.2 km and still cannot find our last red flag. The day's light fades quickly and we  squint to try to make out our surroundings. To miss even one feels like failure.

Tears of frustration fall because I feel I have done everything right. My heart rate spikes. In complete frustration I tell Rachelle, “It should be right here! It has to be right here!”

We back up, then pull forward. As if simply moving the truck will help.

A little red peeks out from behind a tree.  
Are my eyes tricking me?
No, we find our flag.

Darkness covers the land. Every evening, as we wait to check in at the finish line, we go over the day's adventures. I ask myself, “Why am I doing this? This is crazy.”

I was told by a fellow navigator that when the rallies end you will tell yourself that you will never do another one again. Then, three weeks after you have returned home, you will miss the competition more than anything.

That was true for me.

I returned to race with Rachelle again. Both of us had grown in our skills and our confidence.

The second time we raced, and found ourselves pitched at the top of a 100 foot dune, I made sure to have my eyes wide open looking for the next adventure.

Rhonda Cahill | Rachelle Croft

 

Rhonda Cahill, along with her husband Scott, and good friends, Clay and Rachelle Croft, run Expedition Overland. Catch the episodes on Youtube at xoverland.com  Rhonda and Rachelle compete in the Rebelle Rally on October 15th-21st, 2016. Rhonda is a mother of three, a self-determined adventurer, and the lover of a great cup of coffee. Visit thexelles.com to connect with her.


Mandy Stephenson
Mandy Stephenson

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