‘Let’s Tango’: New friends Gardner, Jacobson have taken different paths to adventure race; now, they’ll race it together

Jody Gardner and Melissa Jacobson are going to have some fun on Saturday.

They will start off running a 13.1-mile half-marathon, then bike 20 miles, swim 2.2 miles in open water at the Kinzua Dam, try to complete a 6+-mile orienteering course, run another 4.5-miles, and finish it off by canoeing eight miles to the finish line.

You may have heard of the Kinzua Country Tango Adventure Race being held Saturday, but Gardner and Jacobson are attempting to complete the entire thing, side-by-side.

Or have fun trying.

Hence their motto, “Fun-ative.”

It’ll be the first time for both, and both have come a long way.

Gardner says she didn’t play any sports in high school, and was painfully shy, until falling in love with fitness brought her to life.

“I absolutely hated running,” she says of her past. “In high school, to complete a mile was a struggle for me. Now I love running.”

It took a former co-worker, Terri Hoisington, to spur her on; in 2009 when Gardner was 29, Hoisington said, “Let’s start running.”

“I wanted to be active,” said Gardner, “and we took it a half-mile at a time.”

That same year, she completed her first 5k and then her first half-marathon.

Now an employee of the Warren County YMCA, Gardner says she has received more help and encouragement from friends and co-workers than she could have ever imagined.

Including from Jacobson, who also works at the ‘Y.’

“I got a note in my mailbox that said, ‘I hear you want to do the Tango,'” said Jacobson.

The note was from Gardner, who Jacobson did not know that well.

“I said, ‘Let’s Tango,'” said Jacobson, who doesn’t seem like one to shy away from anything.

But, come on, running 13.1 miles, biking 20 miles, swimming 2.2 miles in choppy, open waters, going on essentially a scavenger hunt for six or seven or eight miles, running another 4 1/2 miles, then canoeing eight miles?

It has taken some individuals over 14 hours to complete the outdoors adventure course.

Do you have to go to this extreme to come out of your shell, or prove something to yourself?


“Just the confidence you gain from what you’ve accomplished,” said Gardner. “Physical fitness has brought me to a whole other place in my life.”

The Tango will take her even further, and she and Jacobson want to get there together.

“When I have a weak moment and I am mentally drained, she’ll be right beside me to pick me up,” said Gardner, 33, who has come to be friends with her 26-year-old Tango teammate.

The Tango has come to mean different things to different people, and some choose to form relay teams and participate in one or two events. Others go it all alone, with last year’s winner finishing in just over nine hours.

Gardner and Jacobson are in the two-person category, in which they will both complete the entire race, only they’ll do it together, side-by-side.

“I’m thrilled that they are a feature story because one of my jobs as part of the Tango staff is to act as the ‘team finder’ – that is bringing people together who want to participate, but don’t know enough other people involved or don’t know where they can fit in. I get to change strangers into teammates so more people can experience the Tango. I think this team is my best work yet,” said YMCA Wellness Director Chris Dolan. “Jody and Melissa had seen each other around the ‘Y,’ where they both work, but had never actually met, so I introduced them thinking they were a pretty close match in ability and attitude. They immediately started comparing notes and training schedules and the planning began on how they were going to be a ‘Complete’ Tango team. The ‘Complete’ category means that they both racers do every event and they must stay together for the whole race. I think that the Complete category is a little tougher than doing the whole event solo. You not only have to be physically capable of completing all of the events, but you also have to be able to get along with your partner for long stretches of time, sometimes under great stress. If you are about to spend about 8-to-10 hours side-by-side with another athlete, you’d better find a way to get along.”

Jacobson is not a stranger to the Tango, as her sister, Kristen, has completed the entire race. Melissa, who has been a soccer player, was introduced by Kristen to distance running. Starting a little earlier in her life than Jody, Melissa ran 8 1/2 miles her first time out and completed a half-marathon a week later.

Neither has done anything like the Tango, which Jacobson says has literally given her nightmares. Well, the Orienteering part of it anyway.

“Getting lost,” might be the scariest part, says Gardner.

They’ve spent countless nights and countless hours training together, actually completing each portion of Saturday’s race, though one portion at a time, not altogether.

And, on race day, they’ll have each other.

“I’ve already had a lot of fun by getting to know Melissa through this,” said Gardner. “We’re both just fun.”

You don’t have to look any further than their team name,” Loud and Plowed.” It was supposed to be “Loud n’ Tango Proud,” but Jacobson slurred the words a little as she was coming out of the water during a training session. So that’s the name YMCA Executive Director and race creator Thad Turner has given them. They are definitely a positive pair.

“Anyone that knows these gals knows that if you present either of them with a challenge, you can consider it done and done well,” said Dolan. “They are strong, determined young women with a huge task and a common goal in front of them. Their eyes light up when they talk about the race, and they are motivated to succeed. They are also motivated to have tons of fun. Jody invented a new Tango category, the “Funative” division. Yes, they are competitive, but you can be sure they will be having fun. They have sacrificed and trained hard and they are both ready. The hardest part has been trying to convince them to stop training and to taper so they are fresh on race day.

“If you would have told them both a year ago that they would be part of a ‘Complete Tango’ next race, I don’t think either would have believed you,” said Dolan. “I guess I just saw in them what maybe they didn’t see in themselves. They see it now. I love my job.”