Preamble: Whoa Nelly! This is a long one, but aren’t all of my post-expedition race ramblings? Before I dive in, thanks to all who put any effort into reading this account of the World Championship of Adventure Racing. When you get bored, just look at the pictures:)
And a special thank you up front to our amazing sponsors: Source Hydration for keeping us going in the parched Wyoming desert, Foot Kinetics and Thorlo Socks for keeping our feet healthy as we marched and mashed across mountains and the Continental Divide, Kanpas Compasses for keeping us found when others wandered or drifted, Astral PFDs for being light and cool when summer sun tried to beat us down, Lupine Lights for never running out of juice, Loksak for keeping our maps dry, and Autopilot for being the best map boards around. We can’t race half-as-well without the great gear and support from our terrific sponsors.
OK, now for the story…
Westward Bound: For over ten years, I have watched the Adventure Racing World Championship from afar. As a teacher, it is nearly impossible to take off the requisite time to compete in the biggest event in our sport, but I have lived vicariously through the power of GPS and the ever increasing and diverse reporting that is broadcast through social media. Obviously, this year was a different story with ARWC falling in the summer months, and additionally, the race was coming to the United States for the first time thanks to the hard work of the Adventure Enablers and their team, so sure enough, Abby and I would finally be going!
Unfortunately, the month leading up to the race did not go as planned. In short, our wonderful dog Lupine, whom I had found fourteen years ago on a road-trip out west, took a turn for the worse, and we made the hard decision to put him down not long before my scheduled departure for Wyoming and Cowboy Tough. It was a devastating period of time for me and derailed my final weeks of targeted training. Emotionally worn out, I loaded up our car with our gear and started driving out to the Rockies in the middle of July. The silver lining: our remaining ten-year old dog, Phin, would accompany me west.
We had a wonderful week of adventure as we headed west, highlighted by a crushed car door thanks to a late-night cow stampede in a National Grassland, a wonderful day hike with Legendary Randy in the Black Hills, and exploration of Cuyahoga and Badlands National Parks.
After dropping Phin off with good friend Denise Mast, picking Abby and Zoe up in Denver, and then spending the next week in Yellowstone and Jackson Hole with Abby’s family, we felt ready to race, somewhat acclimated, and eager to get to Casper to meet our teammates Andy Bacon and Mark Lattanzi.
Casper Calm: Usually, the days before an expedition race are a bit fraught and overflowing with tasks and chores. In this case, we had plenty of time, and we worked our way slowly through packing our gear bins, sorting food, going out for steak and pizza dinners with good friends, taking a short day hike on Casper Mountain, and soaking in the hotel hot tub. I know some felt a bit stir-crazy, but after a long month of emotional chaos and driving, I was glad for the few days of relative peace with little to focus on other than sorting gear.
The requisite ARWC parade started at the gear-staging yard and meandered along the Platte River, leading the field of nearly 60 teams from approximately 20 countries into the heart of Casper. There we were unleashed to visit a variety of downtown establishments, a brief tour of Casper that saw us dressing in western costumes, riding a mechanical bull, sampling local ice-cream and taking pictures with various local signs and symbols, including a poster of the looming eclipse, a sight that is apparently going to be best viewed in Casper Wyoming.
We finished the evening with some local BBQ, and then headed back for a final night of rest.
To the Line: Things took a turn back at the hotel. Denise had come up from Denver for the start of the race, and she had Phin in tow. Delighted to see him and wanting to relieve Denise for a night, we brought Phin into our room. Abby fell asleep rather quickly, but I was wired and unable to drift off. After some time, not only was I wide awake, but I was riveted by the sounds of a pacing dog. And then a vomiting dog.
After doing my best to clean up after him (thankfully this initial deposit was small), I turned to ear plugs and was finally able to knock off for a fitful three or four hours of sleep. Not the best way to start a six day race.
When Abby shook me awake, she revealed that we had swapped our sleep patterns, and now the room smelled rather nasty as Phin had been sick a fair bit more while my ear plugs blissfully blocked the sound of vomit, pacing, and diarrhea that had broken Abby’s sleep. We only had 30 minutes to get ourselves up and ready and to the bus.
Other than throwing on my clothes and grabbing my remaining gear, I spent the entire time running about, digging up cleaning supplies, sopping up the mess until the final second, and then running off to the bus where I collapsed with the stack of maps they handed out upon departure. That saying about getting to the starting line? Doesn’t usually include cleaning up after a sick dog. Thanks Phin.
The rest of the morning passed quickly. Six hours after boarding the bus in Casper, we jumped off at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, maps marked, bagged, and organized into groupings that we would deposit in gear bins as we would see them along the course.
It was a beautiful day, and we quickly found our old teammate and friend Ali Bronsdon who had agreed to come out to take photos of the team over the course of the race with the assistance of her brother Todd. The atmosphere was happy and upbeat with dozens of our AR friends from home and abroad all eager for the gun to go off following some words and wishes from the Governor of Wyoming. We staged our packs and walked to the line.
Stage 1-2 – Into Hell: Well, I have no doubt that my blown last month of training affected me for the start. Neither did the fact that the first two legs of the race were under hot sun at altitude with 1000 feet of elevation gain in the opening handful of miles help my cause. And I’m pretty sure it didn’t help that despite our discussion to take it easy, we pushed a faster pace than we needed to or maybe should have. Whatever the reason or excuse, I had a miserable start to the race and my mind was in a bad place when we finished the first two stages.
Those first two stages were really one relatively short and easy run: we first ran a loop on various trails under the ski lifts of the Mountain Resort, thankfully without our packs. Still, it was a relatively fast three miles with quite a bit of elevation gain and loss, and by the time we returned to our packs, my legs and lungs were gassed.
We then retrieved our packs and set off for a flat seven mile run on a sidewalk to the start of stage three where we would begin packrafting. We had specifically discussed running tennish-minute miles on this second stage, but we set off much faster than that, and I immediately fell behind. Before long, Andy was shouldering my pack, which helped a bit but didn’t fully relieve the strain on my body. Before long, my stomach felt off, and I was having to dig so much deeper than I would have expected for such a short stage. Considering that foot travel is usually my strength, I was a bit terrified that the race would turn disastrous for me in the day(s) ahead. What was wrong with me?!
Stage 3 – Riding the Snake: Had we gone into a big bike ride or a massive trek, I would be willing to bet that the first full day at least would have been a disaster, but thankfully Stage Three was a 20 mile packraft down the Snake River. I took a couple of minutes to gather myself in transition, finding a bathroom, eating and drinking, and helping Abby get one of our two packrafts ready. We hit the water ranked somewhere in the mid-high 30s, and we set off down the river.
The Snake turned out to be a savior for me, though I still noticed some bizarre and distressing signs: cramping in my arms and core, sensations I’ve never experienced, plagued me for the last hour of the paddle. Still, my legs were able to recover and relax, and we made good time thanks to our great Alpacka Gnu boats and our experience packrafting in New England, Alaska and around home. We passed a number of teams on our way downriver, and we also all agreed that the paddle was a blast as we floated through the various braided, glacial channels of the river. It wasn’t Alaska, but it was still a blast and a great way to ease into the real race to come.
After reaching the TA, we found we had moved up a few spots. I focused on more food, liquid and electrolytes, and thankfully we would be starting Stage Four as the sun began its final descent. I wasn’t quite right yet, but I knew that once we made it to dusk, I’d come alive. Heat has never been my friend, and the combination of heat, altitude, and the fast start had depleted me so much faster than I had expected. The Snake had allowed me to begin a restoration, and I was cautiously optimistic that the fall of night would finish the job.
Stage 4 – Death March: Being relatively local to the Adventure Enablers’ home-base, having competed in many of their shorter events, and having followed previous editions of Cowboy Tough, we knew this race wouldn’t be our cup of tea (at least not for Abby and me). Adventure Enablers races tend to privilege physical power, speed, and strength. If you want a race that has more challenging and interesting navigation and more off-trail opportunity, you’d be better off with Untamed New England.
As we expected, the first long trek was quite straight forward. Yes, there were a few general route choices, but for the most part one followed a trail out of the TA and more or less stayed on trails the entire 40 miles to the next TA. And with no checkpoints on the stage, it felt rather monotonous for long stretches.
Thankfully the trail shot us up into the mountains immediately, and for the first two-three hours we had spectacular views of the sun setting over looming ranges of peaks and valleys in all directions. Once darkness fell, it proved to be a long night as we slogged along the ridge. We considered dropping off it once or twice, but the trail was relatively clean, so we continued along, playing leapfrog with a number of teams as the hours ticked away.
For me, I was at my strongest. Sure enough, as the air turned cool, I came alive and the pain and poor performance under the afternoon sun gave way to strength and energy. And it couldn’t have been at a better time. Andy and Mark had shouldered more of the load coming out of the TA, and both found themselves struggling significantly with the altitude. While they had come out a few days early, we had been out for a week or so longer, and both Abby and I felt noticeably stronger and better as we traversed the ridge at elevations largely above 9000 feet. So it was that Abby and I took added weight and I was also able to help tow for portions of the night. We couldn’t move as fast as we wanted to, but we worked well as a team and still maintained a solid pace through the night.
As we neared dawn, we rolled the dice a bit and dropped off the ridge. We were out of water and had been for a while. Dropping down meant we would add some distance, but we hoped that finding water sooner and then having gentler terrain would be worth it. In retrospect, we probably should have just stayed along the ridge. Most of the teams we were with were still in TA when we finally did arrive at the end of the trek, but I suspect we lost an hour or so by dropping down.
Alas, the water was refreshing, and the trail in the valley was a fair bit kinder than that on the ridge. As we neared the end of the trek, the sun was beginning to climb, and we were excited to head out on bikes. A quick look at the map suggested 4-5 km to go, but the trail proved to be far longer than that, and what should have taken 30-40 minutes went on forever, a rather dispiriting end to a stage that had left us battered and bruised.
Stage 5 – A Nap and Move: We had stopped for ten minutes on the trail that morning, but we hadn’t slept yet. We built our bikes, transitioned and headed out on the first bike, an 80+ mile ride, largely on sealed roads that would culminate with some single track. We started off with a water stop and then motored out of the mountains. Before long, I felt myself dazed and heading toward sleep, a combination of simply being tired but also the effects of the afternoon heat and sun reasserting its grip on me.
20 or so miles into the ride, we stopped at a mapped store. I quickly assumed the position of the dead on the small shaded lawn outside the establishment and passed out. The others fussed, ate, dozed a bit, but generally waited patiently while I recharged somewhat.
When they woke me, it was 4:30 or so in the afternoon. I was able to stay awake thereafter, but the heat was still slowing me, and I was unable to do much other than draft along in the pace-line, and even then I was working harder than it seemed I should have to. At some point we met up with a man riding on the CDT, exploring and preparing for a possible run at the Ride the Divide next year. It was a welcome break, as was a brief encounter with James Thurlow at a CP in a town along the way.
As we neared the end of the road riding, we stopped for a few minutes so I could get more calories and electrolytes into me. It was a welcome and important respite, not quite on par with the Snake, but definitely useful in setting me up for the night. When we started again, we met up with Wedali, and we spent the next 45 minutes or so riding and chatting with them, a good distraction until sunset.
Soon thereafter, we turned off the pavement and onto a dirt road for a long moderate ascent into the foothills of the Continental Divide. We rode in with Wedali, finding a control along the way, hunkering down during a lightning storm that exploded a few hundred meters above us, and then losing each other as we neared the first single-track segment of the race. We rode ahead, and while we would be close throughout the race, we basically didn’t see them again until the race was over.
As it turned out, we had entered the first significant nav challenge of the race. On the map, a small trail network would bring us to CP 6. All looked rather straightforward. As it turned out, this wasn’t true at all, and after riding for some time, we were surrounded by wandering teams. We knew where we were (and realized that we too had missed the logical turn), and despite the fact that teams were largely heading back the way we had come, we elected to push on. We knew we had missed the intended trail, and rather than poking around for what was likely not as obvious as it seemed, we decided to move forward to use various other trails to cut up to our intended route.
While other teams clearly had looked into the general area we headed toward, most had abandoned the effort for whatever reason, but we slowly worked our way forward, finding trails that soon had us alone once again and moving in the right direction. It took a bit of time to lock-in on our location, and we ended up taking on a relatively short 20-30 minute bike-whack, but in the end we moved relatively efficiently to the control. I suspect there was an even better way to do it, but we made up hours (and for some, hours and hours) on a number of teams that were either ahead or just behind us.
We rolled into the TA in high spirits, knowing we had made up some time, and ready for our first real sleep of the race. We ate some race-provided cheeseburgers, piled into a tent, and shut our eyes for three hours. I didn’t get much sleep, and while the others slept more than I did, overall it wasn’t the best rest of our race careers. Still, it was a bit of dozy rest, and we felt more awake when we rose and filed out of TA in the pre-dawn light. Some of the teams we had been with at the end of the bike section had only recently come in.
Stage 6 – CDT Shenanigans: Next up: another 40 mile death march along the Continental Divide Trail. Thankfully, there were a few CPs on this trek to break it up mentally, and we knew the trail would not be as easy to follow as on the first trek. Still, the RDs had plotted the CDT on the map, and looking at it, anything other than following the orange line seemed foolish.
The trek started off well enough with an easy stroll up a road and access trail to a junction with the CDT and the first control. We left TA with Peak Life, and when we reached the first control we found we had caught up to the Italians from Freemind. From there we had a few hours of fun, following the orange blazed CDT. Sometimes it was quite easy to follow, but at other times it would disappear. At one point we tried to shortcut off the trail only to find our friends DART had done something similar. Things began to become a bit wonky, roads and trails not quite lining up, the CDT proving to be rather elusive for quite some time. But we managed to traverse the terrain well enough and sometime in the late morning we converged with DART and the Italians on the orange-blazed track once again.
For a while, we traveled together, and then we hit a crux point of the trek, one that seemed to really throw everyone for a loop. On the map, the orange-marked CDT shot off a road. We stopped at the right place and watched as Peak Life (missing for several hours at this point but now reappeared) headed off in what turned out to be the “right direction”. DART had stopped somewhere behind us, and Freemind was shortly behind.
Unconvinced we decided to stay on the road, and sure enough we soon saw more orange blazes. Ah hah! we cried, and we picked up our pace hoping to prevent Peak Life from seeing they had turned off too early. Freemind followed for a bit, but they soon peeled off, stopping to examine the maps further. For another 10-15 minutes we followed orange blazes, and then they vanished. By this point we knew we had gone too far, and we stopped to analyze our options.
Ultimately, Mark suggested the blazes we had followed were old ones, no longer valid thanks to the periodic reroutes that are famous on the CDT, a logical supposition. We discussed staying on the roads, longer but perhaps easier. But ultimately we decided to go back. We hadn’t gone that far past the split, and the trail would be much faster. So we turned back.
Long story short: the “trail” as mapped by the RDs was not a trail any longer, if it ever was. I know a lot of teams lost hours in what came next: a solid bushwhack along a mountainside, several kilometers in length, which passed through a forest of deadfall and across several wet, swampy reentrants. The scale was small, so there were plenty of potentially distracting spurs, reentrants and knolls to slow folks down. Once we got ourselves oriented and accepting that there was likely no defined trail to actually use, we set off at an efficient pace, and we made good time through the woods.
It turned out to be a delightful section as we were off trail for the only real stretch of the race, and the woods and spurs of the mountains were beautiful, if dusty and hot. At one point, we found the bed of an old trail, indeed the one that had been mapped. It was littered and crisscrossed with dead trees, but for a kilometer or so, we were able to make out and follow the tunnel through the trees before we lost it and gave up on finding it again.
Eventually, we reached more defined trails, linking up once more with DART before losing them again on the way to the next checkpoint. Once we had found that point, we descended to a campground where we parked ourselves at a picnic table to feast and mentally gather ourselves for the second half of the trek.
As it would turn out, the fun of route-finding ended for the day. The lion’s share of the rest of the trek was along the ACTUAL CDT, a trail we had not seen until we hit the campground. The trail was easy to follow, blazed in an entirely different manner than what we had seen, and mindless. For an hour or so, we had the luxurious company of a couple who were thru-hiking the trail, and this was a welcome distraction for us as we weathered fatigue, heat and sore feet by conversing with them about our various parallel adventures. DART had fallen behind somewhere, and at some point, we let Freemind sneak ahead of us.
After night had fallen, we hit a control high up on the Continental Divide; our hiking friends had pitched their camp somewhere near the pass, and the Italians were curled up in space blankets nearby. We descended the backside of the range, navigating down a trail into a network of infuriating and poorly mapped trails and roads. Mark and Andy took lead on getting us through this series of trails, and despite the confusion on the map and on the ground, they kept us moving in the right direction. We finally reached the final CP, a road, and the welcome smile and headlamp of Ali who came out to greet us.
From there, we had a final hour or so trekking to the TA, located in the Ghost Town at South Pass City. We checked in, Mark and Andy took the requisite shot of Wyoming bourbon, and we curled up with a few other snoring teams in the warm bales of the small hay barn nestled in abandoned settlement. I had my wires crossed when packing so was without my sleeping bag, but I was able to get warm curled up under a few bales of hay. It was without question one of the best nights of sleep I’ve had in an expedition race, and four hours later we were up with the sun and heading out on the bike, clearly in better shape than most of the other teams in the middle of the pack and creeping our way up the rankings.
Stage 7 – All Cylinders: For, I believe, the only time in the entire race, all four members of Rootstock Racing felt right and good. The morning was cool, we were rested and over the altitude, and we were inspired by the fact that we had been moving up and had a great sleep under our belts whereas some fellow teams were clearly not as rested since they had slept out on the trek. We rode out of TA ten minutes or so behind DART who had come into TA while we slept, and we quickly passed them.
The first half of this bike ride was all on roads, and we motored along in fine spirits. After the first of three big climbs, we descended on dirt tracks into a deep valley, riding alongside a beautiful, red-rock canyon, and plummeting down to a river crossing and a control. There we found Peak Life. Like DART and the Italians, they too had slept out in the mountains, and they looked worn. We passed them by, and we wouldn’t see them again for the remainder of the race.
After the river crossings, we had a long steep climb. We had to push a bit here and there, but we rode almost the whole way to the next pass before another roaring descent. One more climb, the sun now beating down and Mark’s tire flatting, costing us 20 or so minutes. But we managed well, and before we knew it we were cresting into a final mountain pass, punching a CP and then zipping along for an hour of fun, rolling, single-track. Sadly, the trail was littered with dead mice, remnants of teams’ passage in the darkness the night before, and at one turn in the trail, we skipped around a cow leg, possibly the work of a mountain lion.
Dead animals aside, the hour long roller coaster ride down the mountain to Sinks Canyon was fantastic, and we were in great spirits as we ripped down the paved road on the valley floor to the TA, the Middle Popo Agie River cascading and crashing beside us. My mouth and eyes were open wide, grinning and beaming as we whipped along; we had heard that champion Seagate took six hours to knock out this ride. We’d roll in around 6 hours and 20 minutes, including Mark’s 20 or so minute bike mechanical.
We were blazing, and Sinks was absolutely stunning. The course might not play to our collective strengths, and while we were pleasantly surprised by the nav moments we had experienced, it still wasn’t anything to get all that excited about from a navigational standpoint. But what a beautiful journey we were on through the state of Wyoming. And now we were in one of the actual highlights of the course. We were ready to play.
Stage 8 – Over Hill and under Stone: First up was a quick rappel. We were allowed to go up sans packs, so we grabbed a bit of food and our harnesses, and we climbed up a flagged trail for a 200 foot or so rappel off a cliff opposite the TA. Ali kept us company, snapping pictures and asking questions as we worked our way up to the top. We joked a bit with the volunteers who remarked we seemed in far better spirits and condition than most, and we made quick work of the rappel. I descended last and took a brief moment to stop halfway down the face to take it all in. I should have taken longer.
Down at the bottom, we set off for the next challenge in the Sinks: a short caving section. By this point DART had rolled into TA. As we worked our way through the caves and back to TA, the Italians would appear as would another strong American team, Quest AR. For now, however, we were enjoying the canyon, and we made our way to the cave.
The entrance to the cave was flagged and barely visible, a small squeeze down into a boulder field on a side-hill. Once inside, we descended through an old metal grate, and then we had to follow a lightly flagged path through a series of tunnels, drops and squeezes. At times, the passages were tight, sometimes open enough to stand. The walls were beautiful, rippling whitish-grey rock all around, polished and chiseled from the rise and fall of the river’s waters, and as we descended deeper into the labyrinth we could hear the faint sound of the rushing Popo Agie.
Eventually, we reached the checkpoint, and before we turned back we poked our heads into a hole in the ground down a side passage. Below us, the river was rushing down an underground passage, the noise of the water a steady thrum. Smiling, we talked to our friend Brian Leitten and another media persona from Sports Illustrated before heading back to the surface.
Back out in the warm air, we made our way back to our bikes with a brief pit stop at one of the amazing natural features of Sinks: a pool where the Popo Agie emerges from its underground journey, and one which was full of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of enormous trout, all swaying in the current.
It was a spectacular two hours: mountain biking in, rappelling off the canyon’s cliffs, and crawling beneath its rocky floor. Ahead of us loomed the monstrous 165 mile bike. I think we all had been either dreading it or perhaps to some degree ignoring it, but now it was time to begin the massive ride east. We TAed quickly and headed out for Lander, agreeing we would take a bit of time to stop in town for some real food while we got the rest of our gear and food in order for the next 24 hours. Oh, what a day it would be.
Stage 9 – The Nothingness: After some pizza, ice-water and a bit of quiet but active rest in Lander, we set off on our bikes for the beast. The first bit was relatively quick and on pavement, though we fought a headwind for the first hour or so. Eventually, we turned off the tarmac for a big loop out into the hinterlands. The next few hours were nice enough as we rode by remote ranches and further picturesque, Wyoming scenery, but as dusk fell, we found that enjoyment of the scenery had given way to the reality that we had a very long and relatively desolate ride to complete. Spots on the road offered up dispiriting and hidden layers of semi-dried mud, and the dramatic landscapes of the day had evolved into more featureless, endless, sweeping terrain.
Night fell, and we found ourselves, surprisingly, alongside the strong Kiwi team, Sneaky Weasel Gang. We jostled for a while before they seemed to escape, though somewhere along the way we would pass them again for good. Hours after dark, we found ourselves once more with our old friends DART at a rest-stop, again out on the tarmac. We took a quick ten minute nap in the warm bathroom before setting off into the night again, saying goodbye to DART as they huddled into the bathroom behind us.
And so began the nightmare of what I came to call “The Nothingness”. For hours, we biked into the night, up a seemingly never-ending but gentle incline, into a steady though lenient headwind. The road and terrain around it were void of any features save for the occasional jackrabbit and the rare flash of headlamps on the blackened horizon. Sleepiness settled in, our pace was dismal, and morale was flagging.
As we punched CP 24, it was clear we had to change the narrative. We needed sleep and our mental faculties were beginning to fray. A sign pointed down the road to some sort of old livestock station. We had already identified that stretch of road as potential sleeping ground, and the sign offered a glimmer of hopeful confirmation that maybe, just maybe, we would find a bit of shelter in what appeared to be a complete wasteland. We biked on.
And sure enough, emerging out of the depths of night, a structure of some sort caught our headlamps, our drooping eyes widening ever so slightly. We turned off the main road and found ourselves beside an old, sprawling barn structure. We gingerly rolled out of our saddles and walked inside, finding the barn a bit of a ruin with dead vultures and other animals littering the stalls. Dozens of old glass bottles of animal antibiotics littered the corners of the barn along with a fair bit of refuse and other unidentified shapes and messes huddled in the shadows. We carried on, hoping for something a bit better than what we were seeing.
I walked outside again and headed for the two small trailers we had seen. Poking my head inside I found animal excrement and garbage. I continued on.
And then, I found myself standing before what we came to call a modernized covered wagon. From a distance it appeared to be in the same mold as those rolling carriages that crept west centuries before behind oxen, cattle, and settlers, hell-bent on surviving the long journey across the Great Plains. Up close, it proved to be a sealed up trailer in disguise. I opened the door and found a bunk, complete with a thick mattress, and another foam pad on the floor. The trailer was complete with a small wood-burning stove, and while it might be tight, it would suffice. We piled in and quickly passed out for what may be the best sleep I have ever had in an expedition race (I know, right on the heels of another sleep I waxed on about…).
After waking once, maybe twice, and electing to go back to sleep, we rose just before dawn. Four hours of warm, comfortable, sheltered sleep had done us good, and we quickly dragged ourselves out into the surprisingly warm night air. We set off on our bikes, seeing a couple of teams within a few hundred meters. Sure that some teams had passed us while we slept, we knew we would have a good race before us, most likely with our friends from DART but also sure that teams like Quest, Wedali, and others that we had seen over the last two days would be either ahead of us or breathing down our necks.
While we rode better, it still felt like something was holding us back. I personally just didn’t seem to have much power as we continued to ride through the vast open desolation. Periodic Pronghorn sightings momentarily distracted me from the massive bike, but the end seemed too far away to grasp, even after 16 or so hours of riding (and sleeping).
After a break at CP 25, a control manned by two kind and generous medics from NOLS, we set off once more, the sun creeping higher and higher, the endless washboard ruts continuing to jar our minds and bodies alike. DART and Quest, we determined, had indeed passed us overnight and were on their way toward the last segment of the bike leg. We rode on, hoping to catch a glimpse of them but unable to do so.
Finally, sometime in the mid-late morning, we emerged in a town, checked into another manned CP, and continued on to the small ghost settlement of Ferris. And it was somewhere around here that I began to bottom out.
It began at the manned CP on the tarmac road. The volunteers, knowing teams were in low spirits and exhausted, took the approach of trying to cheer us up. While I appreciated the effort intellectually, emotionally, I was ready to unload on them. All I wanted to do in that moment was embrace how miserable I was feeling, how hot it was getting, how long the ride had been, how uncomfortable the permanently embedded pebbles and grit in my ass really was, and how it was nowhere near over. I was done with the biking; I didn’t want smiles and good cheer.
And then we rode into a headwind that was perhaps the stiffest of the ride. Yes, we were on pavement for a bit, but it was painfully slow going, and by the time we turned out of the wind and onto the dirt road to Ferris, I was wiped physically.
And then we entered the oven.
And then I was done.
I think the rest of the team was feeling the heat too, but we rolled to a stop for a ten minute shade break so I wouldn’t roll up with a tumbleweed and call it quits. There was no shade to speak of, but we did manage to find some in the shadows of the small chemical plant partway to Ferris. And so we sat in the cooler shade of the plant, ignoring the signs warning of noxious gasses and fumes, trusting that the stiff wind and limited exposure would be enough safeguard. It was remarkable how much of a difference the shade made, and I felt restored enough to ride on ten or so minutes later.
We set off for the final stretch to Ferris. We took a small detour when I decided in my half-baked frustration to lead us on a “short cut” trail I was sure would cut-off a switchback in the road. Fifteen minutes of bushwhacking later, we pushed our bikes back onto the road, my teammates patient enough with me, Mark’s punctured tired not so much. On we rode.
Finally, we rolled into the final checkpoint of the leg in the ramshackle buildings of Ferris. Photographers and friends Legendary Randy and Chris Radcliffe were waiting, and we took a short break there to fix Mark’s tire, drink, and eat. The final ride in had become more interesting with great, rolling, white sand dunes all around, framed by mountains on three sides, and it was about then that I began to realize that we had been in a landscape eerily reminiscent of a Mad Max film: desolate beauty with unsettling, rough, toxic, industrial remnants of civilization. My spirits and energy, oddly enough, were returning.
From there, we took off. We made our way through a network of sandy roads and side trails, and the riding here proved to be the absolute best of the segment. We rolled and soared along toward the mountains and a canyon that would direct us to the TA. We made good time, spirits as high as they had been in 24 hours, and soon we were on the final long descent to the TA, marveling at East Wind as they came blowing by at one point an hour or so from transition. Once in TA we found DART and Quest both there in addition to the Japanese, and we hunkered down to pack up our bikes and load up for what was technically two packrafting legs, but what was really one long one that we expected would take the better part of a day.
Stages 10-11 – Toward Casper: As we rode into that penultimate TA, we all remarked how it felt like we had broken a barrier. We had knocked off two foot-mashing and mentally exhausting treks. We had quickly and easily conquered the 35 mile bike to Sinks Canyon that boasted 6000 feet of elevation and had people planning to spend a day hike-a-biking. We had outlasted the massive ride through the great Nothingness of Wyoming. And we had weathered the sometimes harsh climate and environment of Wyoming’s vast, windy, arid expanses. Admittedly, we had and would continue to luck out when it came to our timing with the explosive weather that other teams had to suffer through more so than we, but still.
Now, the end was in sight, and the rest seemed metaphorically downhill, if not literally so.
Of course, this meant that a nasty surprise was in store, beginning with the rapid onset of a Wyoming storm. Thankfully we were on our way to the water, unlike several teams who were sitting in their small floating bathtubs out on the reservoirs and in the canyons of the packraft stage when the storm broke. We were on our way down to the Pathfinder reservoir, so we hunkered down under our packrafts for twenty minutes or so before nervously continuing on, lightning flashing and striking in the near distance.
As we descended, we saw Quest and DART not far off. For a while we paralleled each other, all of us heading toward the first checkpoint of the stage. They were off-trailing, while we were on the correct trail, which theoretically would take us straight to the control. For the record, I have checked this on the tracking, and indeed, I had us traveling the right trail from the get-go, but alas, distraction, altered water levels and who knows what else would derail our steady progress and efforts to pass Quest and DART for the first time in a day or so.
As we traveled the trail, we noticed something odd: on the map, the control was clearly plotted along the trail, but it also was within a couple hundred meters of the reservoir’s shoreline (on two sides moreover). In addition, the control had an odd clue, “West side of Pathfinder”. Did this mean it was on the water? Or was it on the trail as plotted?
We asked these questions over and over again for the next several hours. One thing we knew early on: the trail we were on was clearly NOT heading toward the water as it did on the map; we could see this as the path traversed high ridges with clear views of the reservoir below. DART and Quest, still off-trail it seemed, seemed to be thinking something similar, and we came across another trail that headed off in a line toward them and the shore. Perfect, we thought.
We headed off the main track, and soon we were in the marshy low-land that lined up perfectly with where the checkpoint ought to have been. Without replaying the entire two or three hours of frustration, we spent the rest of the afternoon and evening light searching fruitlessly for the control. All three teams. Everyone had good, logical ideas explaining why we weren’t finding it and where it ought to be. Finally, around dusk, we broke off from DART and Quest and headed back up onto the spurs to the west, convinced we had sorted it out.
Unfortunately, we hadn’t. But as darkness fell, we ran into NV Journey who had come in a couple hours behind us but who similarly seemed confused as to where to look. By this point, we determined that had we simply stayed on the original east-west trail we had been on at the beginning of this fiasco, we would have located the control and been across the reservoir by now. We settled on heading back the way, blaming altered water levels for the mix-up.
Fortunately, we were right to do so. In the process of crossing paths with NV Journey, I shared this thought process and our lost hours with them, and they followed behind. They very well may have come to the same conclusion at the same time, but considering the fact that they expressed confusion themselves, I was a bit disappointed to sort it all out with them alongside for it.
By this point, DART and Quest had figured it out themselves and they had disappeared, getting a jump on us for the next segment of the leg. We quietly inflated our now gritty packrafts, and we set off in pursuit. Normally, I’d struggle to stay awake at this point: we had a 2.5 hour paddle in the dark on night five of the race, but I was locked in and engaged. I knew the others were tired, but I also knew that if we nailed this relatively featureless paddle in the dark, we might make up some of the lost time on those ahead of us.
For the next two and half hours, we rafted in the dark, primarily lit up with glowsticks as a thick cloud cover blocked the moon and stars. Such paddling is some of my very favorite, and it always reminds me of my first time packrafting at night in Untamed New England, 2012. Every half hour or so, I’d stop us and check the shore, measuring distance through time. If we weren’t careful, we would drift and we could easily miss the proper cove where the dam and next control were located. As we progressed, we could see other teams scattered about, and as we narrowed in on the correct location, I guessed that we had made up the lost time.
Sure enough, we had. Fatigued and a bit mentally strained, we pulled out at the Pathfinder dam, and we sorted out what to do. The next segment was the rather mysterious Fremont Canyon. We knew there was whitewater. We knew there were obstacles. It was dark. We were collectively tired, and not all in agreement as to our comfort levels taking the thing on in the dark. Furthermore, Olof showed up having finished the race hours before in third place (awesome job AMK!!), and he suggested the canyon was a challenge even in the daylight. I THINK we also learned that Team Canada had torn TWO Gnus in there, also during the light.
BUT, we had passed DART and Quest, and we wanted to keep the pressure on. Ryan from DART suggested they were going to rest until daylight, but most of us felt that the canyon was being blown out of proportion a bit. It was a guess, but an educated one. We decided to continue.
Getting down to the water below the Pathfinder Dam was a bit of a tedious exercise, probably made slower by the fact that we were tired with some of the lowest team energy of the race due to the uncertainty of the canyon in the dark. As we finally put in, we saw Quest come down to the water, confirmation that we had moved back ahead of our cohort of teams.
The Fremont started off benignly enough, the biggest obstacle being shallow water. We splashed our way down the river, our minds steeling themselves when we finally entered the canyon proper. Objectively speaking, the next hour or so was beautiful and unique as we worked our way down the boulder-littered canyon. While I know many teams tried portaging the majority of it, we took the opposite approach, paddling as much as we could. We did elect to skip one or two spots, more because we couldn’t see anything. We also paddled some of the biggest rapids, including a solo run of the one class 3 rapid; Mark and I dropped Andy and Abby off, but we both wanted to run the narrow, twisting shoot of water complete with a drop of several feet. It was a blast.
But we also had some hairy and straining moments. Any time we did portage, we found the rocks and boulders to be slick, slippery and treacherous. Abby fell once or twice, one time taking a swim. Already tired, it was mentally taxing to say the least.
The biggest test, however, came during one bigger-rapid run in which we had to navigate a series of fast turns. Andy and Mark led, making it through safely, but unfortunately, Abby and I got hung up on a boulder and turned over. We were separated, me floating down and around the boulder, Abby getting caught with the one loose pack we had and the boat. The water was frigid, not Alaska, glacial frigid, but breath-taking nonetheless. I knew as I floated down the river, forcing myself to remain calm and taking in my surroundings, that if I was as cold and shocked as I felt, it must be tens of times worse for Abby. And I couldn’t see her yet.
When I found an eddy and shallow spot to settle, I turned back and saw her on the boulder.
“Let go of the boat!” I yelled. Nothing. She seemed frozen in place, or else she misheard me ( learned afterward it was the latter).
“Let go of the boat!” I yelled again. “You’re going to have to swim!”
She finally heard or registered what I was saying and let the boat go. I was able to catch the raft and stabilize it while she then swam down to me, Mark and Andy watching the entire thing from further down-canyon. We were able to get ourselves back in the raft and continue on, cold, but intact. From above us we could see Quest and perhaps one other team scouting the canyon on foot. This would be the last time we’d see Quest, and with the exception of one more encounter with NV Journey, the last time we would see any of the teams we had raced alongside for most of the race.
From there, we paddled downriver, rain spattering us, the sky beginning to lighten. Terrified we would miss the take-out, we slowed to make sure we didn’t, and thankfully we managed to find it. We trekked up and out of the canyon, warmed ourselves up, checked in with a medic who had been watching our progress, and then we continued on with what was at times a rather animated trek and at other times a stumbling, sleeping march of the dead. As the morning sun began to truly burn off the cold from the canyon, we found ourselves inflating our boats one last time for another reservoir crossing, this time on the much smaller Alcova.
At this point, NV Journey made a brief appearance, giving us a momentary jolt that banished thoughts of a quick sleep. We woke up, packed up and set off across the Alcova, knocking off a quick CP, effectively portaging a mandatory stretch around the Alcova dam and putting back in on the North Platte River. We peeked behind, but we saw no sign of NV Journey, and according to the splits, we put time on them and other teams on every segment of the race after we found that first checkpoint back on Pathfinder. Now it was on us to stay awake and move.
Off we went, paddling down the North Platte. It was a bit of a brutal four hours. At some point I stopped paying close attention to the map, so we didn’t know how far we had gone or how much farther we had to go. At one point, we gave into sleep, closing our eyes and drifting downriver, waking here and there as our boats would bump into the shore before spiraling back into the river’s current. We half-expected that DART, Quest, Wedali, or some other team would come blazing by, but no one came.
I struggled for much of the last hour or so of the paddle, drifting in and out of sleep but somehow managing to keep some power in my strokes. When we finally did reach the TA, it was a joyous relief, and our TA was blazing fast. Several short course teams were there and seemed to have been for a bit of time when we came out of the river. While we didn’t pass any of them in TA, we were hot on their heels when we left, and no other teams were in sight behind us.
Stage 12 – The Mountain: The final ride to the finish was rather straight forward. Ride up Casper Mountain. Find the control. Ride down the other side into town. Punch one final checkpoint, and head to the finish line. It was a long ride up, but we rode relatively well until the very end when I once again began to struggle to stay awake. Thankfully we didn’t need to stop, and just as we hit pavement it began to rain.
As I noted, we were fortunate with weather; a number of teams ahead of us, and several not far behind were caught on the ascent to Casper Mountain in steady rain that turned the roads into an unspeakably thick and I believe bike-damaging mud. Some teams elected to turn back, riding all the way down and around the mountain, only to ascend again from the other side on pavement. Some pushed their bikes for hours. One team decided, wisely I believe, to strap their bikes to their packs rather than accumulate more mud on their trusty steeds while pushing. We managed to ride right up.
The final CP was rather vague, and I know several teams lost some time searching for it. We were able to figure it out efficiently and we coasted down the mountain by ourselves, staying just ahead of the rain and true cold. Once in Casper, we quickly navigated to the final control before heading into the finish, the only hiccup coming when Mark tried to convince me we had missed a turn when we hadn’t.
Finished: And so it was, nearly 126 hours after starting with 10 hours and change in sleep, Rootstock Racing finished ARWC 2017 in 22nd place. Before the race we had said that anywhere in the 25-30 range would be a respectable and good finish in this deep field of teams, especially considering this race would not play well to our strengths. Anything above that would be gravy.
While I personally would have loved more nav and off-trail travel, there is no doubt that the course exceeded my expectations. It was an amazing journey across Wyoming, we took in some spectacular terrain and sights, and there was enough problem solving when it came to routes and maps that the course didn’t get nearly as monotonous as it could have. Sinks, the Snake, and the final packrafting adventure were exceptional legs in my mind, and while the trekking (normally my favorite part of AR) was more like slogging, the land we traversed was magical.
Throughout the event we crossed paths with terrific teams. Highlights and special shout outs to: Wedali who cruised along with us and lifted our spirits on the second day. Freemind Italy who we found ourselves alongside for much of the first half of the race and who we trekked with here and there on the elusive CDT. And DART Nuun. From the Snake River until Fremont Canyon, we crossed paths, shared stories, and felt each other’s fatigue and pain on countless occasions. All the way until finish, we expected to see them come whizzing by, and while they didn’t this time, it was wonderful sharing so much of the course with them.
Special, special thanks to Ali and Todd. Seeing smiling, familiar faces was always SUCH a huge lift. Ali took some amazing photos of the team, but the camaraderie was invaluable. Whether it was the middle of the night or after a good sleep, their presence always made us smile and was a welcome distraction from the endless hours and miles of plodding or spinning. Thank you guys for coming out to cheer us on and capture us at our dirty best!
Finally, this was one of the best XPD experiences I have had, and this is largely due to the great team we had. While Abby and I had only raced with Andy Bacon once, it was clear from before the race started that teammates don’t get better than Andy. Together with Mark, we were a well-balanced unit. It would have been nice to get everyone going physically more than the one time we did, but we more than made up for it with exceptional teamwork and experience. Thank you Andy, Abby, and Mark for helping me out in the warm days and helping me make it until dark day in and day out, and thanks for a tremendous week in Wyoming.