Prologue (2.5 miles/1000’ gain), by Rea
“So, how fast are we going?”
“I don’t know, as fast as the fastest the slowest one can go?”
A few tears of happy anticipation, a speech that got us all rallied up, Jason’s countdown, and off we went into the first kilometer of the America’s Toughest Race. The first part of the race, or the prologue, was optional. Three orienteering check-points (CPs) up a hill completely off trail to spread out the teams before we all jumped on the water for a 100-kilometer paddle down the John Day river. Joseph Bellier, our navigator, asked us to not treat it like an hour-long race and let the teams that charge go. We promised to go easy but failed, ultimately finding ourselves at the front of the pack. Without a prescribed CP order, teams soon split into groups going different directions, and we saw most of the fast teams either close in front or behind us, or greeting us going the other way. Joseph had no trouble finding all three CPs and we discussed our transition strategy for the monster paddle while running down a very nice dirt road. We agreed to focus but not rush, and of course I forgot the most important part – knee pads for the packraft. Thing I learned #1: if your raft doesn’t have an inflatable floor and you’re kneeling on it in shallow water, forgetting those will come back to bite you. Or, more accurately, smash you in the kneecaps.
Stage 1: Monster paddle (60 miles/0’gain), by Rea
I’ve never paddled 100 kilometers. I’ve never paddled half of that, really (which is probably why, a month later, both of my shoulders still hurt). Whitewater looked exciting and I was grateful for the forward propulsion offered by anything other than my paddle. It was a hot day and we started off without drysuits, but it was only a few rapids later 75% of us decided that was a bad idea and suited up fully. I’m not sure if by the end of the paddle I was any less soaked though; it was just sweat instead of the river water.
The paddle was pretty uneventful and passed faster than we expected. We never stopped other than to empty the water from our rafts (we were using non self-bailers). I completely mismanaged calories (turns out you can’t just drink your calories for 9+ hours on water) but luckily sharing is caring and my teammates bailed me out with all sorts of yummy snacks I’ve never had before. Thing I learned #2: everyone else’s food will taste better than your own, even on day 1.
At some point Chelsey Magness and I asked Joseph, who was our navigator, how far we’ve come. He replied that we were about half the distance (yay!), but not yet half the time (huh?). This was confusing to both of us since normally that happens on treks or rides with lots of elevation gain, not something we’re used to on rivers that flow, for the most part, down a gentle, consistent grade. Turns out that the second half of the paddle was a lot more flat, and the assistance of the fast current faded along with our adrenaline-powered paddling speed.
We knew there were 7 bridges before we would reach the checkpoint, and we called them out with so much excitement every time we saw one, despite knowing they were anything but evenly spaced. BRIDGE #5! I said with excitement. Except it wasn’t, and I quickly learned giving your teammates false hope is not good for the overall morale. Chelsey repeated the same mistake at the next bend, so our boat was now collectively down one life.
BRIDGE NUMBER 7! After over 9 hours on water, we finally reached the transition in second place. I was really proud of our team; both Katie Ferrington and I aren’t very strong paddlers, but working together as a team, towing our boats a few times, and working our hardest, we managed to paddle pretty fast.
The day before the start of the race Katie and I drove over to McDonalds and ordered 11 hamburgers. She told us that they keep well and are such a treat a couple of days in. I listened to my experienced teammate and decided to get two for myself; feeling pretty disappointed with my bladder feeding tube on the paddle, they were both gone within seconds of arriving at the TA, and I wished I ordered at least a few more.
Our transition from paddling to bike wasn’t the fastest, but given we’ve never raced together we did pretty well. In just under an hour we deflated our boats, disassembled our paddles, exchanged drysuits for chamois, put our bikes together (they travel around the race course taken apart in boxes), triple checked we had enough headlamp battery power for the long night, and rode off into the sunset.
Stage 2: monster bike (80 miles/15,000’ gain), by Rea
Stage 2 was a monster bike. 80 miles with 15,000’ of gain, Jason (the race director) mentioned we’ll always be pedaling either uphill or downhill, for more than half of it on dirt roads, with 23 miles of heinous singletrack that might take us 6-8 hours. Starting the stage in the evening, we knew we would be out the entire night.
We got a nice little warm-up for a couple of miles on the road, then turned right onto a gravel road that quickly started climbing up a steep grade. As promised, the hill was long and while my sense of time might be off, it felt like over an hour before we reached the top. Top of the climbs were always above 5000’, with the highest point at 6500’. Sweating on the climb, descents were cold and we were glad we packed some lightweight puffy jackets as our mid-layers. Private property at the top of the first climb detoured us into the bushes and we circumvented the fence ending in a creek where the first CP for that leg was located. We couldn’t quite tell if we were just below it, so we biked back up the road we found on the other side. We saw a team coming down it fast, and the cameraman following us up until this point stopped, turned around, and followed them downhill. Turns out we popped into the creek about 10 yard above the CP, and had we looked around harder we’d probably find it. Thing I learned #3: if a cameraman chooses not to climb back up a road, take a harder look around where you’re at. We got passed by two teams during our short detour, one of which we caught quickly again on the descent.
The rest of the night followed in a similar fashion. Long downhill, long climb, another long downhill, another long climb. At some point we had an obvious choice between two routes; left at the town, following a pretty gentle grade paved road for a while then climbing up steeply to a CP. Or, turning right, hitting the dirt road and starting the climb immediately, but on a less punishing grade. We chose right, which ended up being the right decision. By no means was that route any less challenging in terms of the climb; we still had to hike our bikes through some of the steepest and most loose sections, and the last mile gained over a thousand feet. But the other option was so unrideable we were told we gained 45 minutes on the team that chose to go left. Unknowingly, we also passed the other team that passed us earlier in the night, pedaling back into second place.
Shortly after, the singletrack began along with the first rays of the light. We’ve ridden through our first night together as a team. As we started the descent the singletrack was so fun, and I was getting excited at how much quicker we’ll get this done compared to Jason’s estimates. Until we hit the first downed tree a mile later. We spent the next few hours riding for a minute, lifting the bike over a big log, riding another minute, lifting the bike over another tree. We arrived at the last mandatory CP well into the daytime. At 6100’, this was the highest we’ve been so far on the course, and still had two higher points to climb. Most of the singletrack was unrideable; too many downed trees on descends, too steep and loose of ascents. We hiked a lot, and realizing we were only halfway done with the singletrack at that point, I chose to believe that my bike computer must be wildly inaccurate.
Chelsey was in her usual positive spirits, remarking that at least we’re not postholing in the snow. I tried to get her to knock on the wood (there was plenty available) to no avail, and 30 minutes later we were hiking our bikes, shins deep in snow. We were on our way to a pro point – optional, often hard, and more out of the way CP. This lead us to the top of the Spanish peak – after climbing up the last bit of snow with our bikes on our backs, kicking steps into a steep bank of snow in what I consider my first ever bike mountaineering ascent, the views opened up to an incredible landscape we spent the entire night navigating. It was breathtakingly beautiful. I forgot about every single bike-over-log lift, never ending climb, postholing mile. It was all worth it, and the 360 views were probably made better because of the effort it took us to get there.
“Where next, Joseph?” “Over there, to that saddle,” pointing straight ahead of us, straight down the mountain. There is something liberating about being able to point and go, unrestricted by trails. We rode off the mountain, along the ridgeline, over bushes and rocks, slowly but not so slowly we’d fall over the handlebars, eventually finding the trail we were aiming for. It was in that moment I felt so grateful for the skills of this team – when there are small fitness differences, you can distribute the weight, tow, and carry; when there are differing skills, there’s nothing you can do except wait. Our technical skills on the bike and trek were possibly our strongest suit – we were all matched on singletrack climbs and descents, never losing any time in situations where we couldn’t help each other move forward otherwise.
There were two ways down to the next CP: following the heinous singletrack for a few more miles, or shortcutting straight down through the woods. We seemed to have forgotten the million downed trees by this point and figured singletrack would be faster. Turns out the trail maintenance crew (if there is one) has not yet visited that part of the trail either, and we kept lifting our bikes over trees. The last part of the trail was technical with high exposure, riding a roughly foot-wide ditch ridge with a small fall to the left, and a big tumble off the mountain to the right. In our very sleep deprived state of 35+ hours awake, I decided this was the hardest race I’ve ever done and felt grateful for my motor skills that seemed to be working well on the autopilot. We found the last CP, rode a few more miles, and finally exited the singletrack 8 hours after we started it. In my mind (and I think in my teammate’s as well), this was the end of the monster bike. Being at a pretty high elevation, I (wrongly) assumed we’d now just have to pedal downhill for a little bit longer before I could get off my bike. Turns out “a little farther” ended up being another 20 miles, and “downhill” ended up having a lot more climbing left up until the very last couple of miles for the stage. It’s incredible how much harder everything becomes when your brain decides it’s almost done. Those flat(ish), nice dirt road miles were probably the hardest, and feeling like we were almost there caused us all to fall behind on nutrition and hydration. We reached the TA 2 19 hours after we left the previous one, a little delusional, a little dehydrated, fairly hungry, very sleep deprived, and stoked to have kept our second place and can now finally turn something other than paddles and pedals to move along.
Stage 3: Monster trek, with some packraft (38 miles/4500’ gain), by Chelsey
As we left the second transition area on happy and slightly unused feet, I had a far away feeling that I had forgotten something but since I could not think of it, I decided not to worry about it. Instead I stumbled across behind my teammates, turning dilapidated logs into couches with my sleepy eyes, and giggling to myself as random thoughts came up. Within what seemed like a couple of minutes, we had hit our first trekking check point. I eagerly ran up to get it, but stopped short when I saw a snake eating a whole fish. “Am I seeing things, or is this really happening!?” Rea came up next to me. “WOW, I have never seen this before, this is crazy looking!” “Good” I replied “At least if I am seeing things, you are too.”
After getting nudged along by Joseph, we headed up the hill towards the next CP. On the way up, we decided that a rest would do all of us some good and help us go faster. Once we reached a good plateau towards the top of the climb that was out of the wind, we hunkered down for what would be our longest sleep of the race.
“Does anyone want to spoon for warmth” I asked. “Spoon, what is spoon?” Joseph replied (his first language is French). “Cuddle?” I said “You know, sleep close like spoons against spoons” Katie, Rea and I all started laughing (a very common occurrence) “Oh, yes let’s do that” he said matter of factly. While Rea, Joseph and I all slept like sardines or spoons, Katie took her space and fell asleep a few feet away.
Two and a half hours later, someone’s alarm went off and we all sat up and got to work putting all of our things on as fast as we could. At that moment I remembered what I forgot back in the TA, my headlamp. I felt extremely stupid, but luckily Joseph had a spare. As we got on our way, we all immediately agreed that it was a great idea to sleep. For the rest of the night, we made quick work of the trek, working together to help Joseph with whatever he needed to keep nailing all the checkpoints. By the time we got to the river where our boats were, it was just getting light. As we ran to the CP where hot food was supplied by the race staff (THANK YOU!) we all went over our duties to make our entrance and exit as smooth and fast as possible. Thirty minutes later, with full bellies and fully blown up boats we headed to the river. We had all been super excited for a little two hour break from hiking, but when I saw the river level, I had a sinking feeling it was going to take a lot longer than we had hoped.
After tempering the boat, Rea and I got in the boat and promptly got stuck on a rock. After bouncing and pulling ourselves off of many more rocks in a span of 30 meters, I kicked her out of the boat as nicely as I could. My forearm and wrist were super inflamed and trying to steer the boat with both of us in it was extremely painful. Once she left, I was able to kneel on the tubes more towards the middle and steer much more relaxed. Joseph and Katie soon followed suit with Rea and Katie hiking on the side of the river while Joseph and I steered the boats through the maze of rocks. In my sleep deprived state, this section became an awesome Nintendo game. If I hit a rock, I would lose a life, but if I picked up a fairy hitch hiker, I gained 5 lives. So every 200 meters or so, when I would see Rea or Katie wanting to be ferried across to the less steep side of the river, I gained some lives back. By the climb site, I was up a good twenty lives! In the middle of the river section, there was an optional highly exposed pro checkpoint that required a traverse. The night before the race, Rea, Katie and I all played a round of paper rock scissors to see which one of us would get it. I won this one, so as soon as I could, I scurried up and out to it as fast as I could while the rest took a nap. It was a little awkward with a wet prussic, but it was perhaps one of the most beautiful points on the whole race. Once back down, I continued my Nintendo game all the way to the take out. I don’t remember what my final score was, but I do know that I won so I was quite happy to both be done with the paddle and to have won my game!
We packed up as fast as we could while trying to dry everything out in order for it to be lighter on our backs. Twentyish minutes later we were on our way, happy to be back on our feet but not so happy about the insane amount of mosquitos that were swarming us. Luckily I had remembered to pack a few packets of insect repellent towelettes, but they didn’t seem to work all that well. All of us were getting pretty munched and I thought Rea was going to go insane. At one point, I looked up to her running uphill with a giant pack, screaming at the top of her lungs. She had thought she could outrun them. The second to last trek CP was one that was right in the middle of a very cold pond. Joseph jumped at the opportunity to get it, and while it did look refreshing, us girls didn’t fight him for it. After one more CP, we jogged into the TA, excited to see our bikes again!
Stage 4: bike (50 miles/6000’ gain), by Chelsey
This bike TA went much faster for us, as a team we helped each other as a few of us were hurting more than others. Rea’s shoulder and my forearm wrist were both hurting in a bad way, so we needed help lifting our bikes up and carrying our bike boxes over. After one of our quicker TA times (partly due to all the mosquitos!), we headed out on our bikes. I immediately started to wish that I was back on my feet after trying to hold my handlebars with my sausage of an arm and wrist. However, after my ibuprofen started to kick in, I started to enjoy myself again. Joseph and Katie had said this leg would mostly be on dirt roads with not that much navigation. With that information, and many hours of daylight we all worked together to get it done as fast as we could. Joseph, Rea and I took turns towing Katie (who is the most egoless and most consistent racer I have ever been around) up the hills. This was one of my most favorite legs, because it is where we all shined in our own ways while doing everything we could to get the team to go faster together. Katie joked that she was the kid saying “Thanks Mom (or Dad) for the ride!” whenever we switched off the tow.
At the highest point of the ride, we all took a few minutes to celebrate and share some oatmeal while we took in the epic sunset. An hour or so later, after a little hike- a- bike and a LONG downhill in the dark we skidded into the TA – a little loopy but excited to head out for another starry night hike.
Stage 5: Orienteering Trek (8 miles/3500’ gain), by Joseph
We jumped into the O-course at around 10pm, knowing that we would spend the whole night there. According to our timing estimates, this could eventually be our last full night on course, so we headed out of TA with the hope that we wouldn’t have to sleep until the finish (it turned out we had one more night on course, and not the least stressful!). But after not even 2 CPs in the O-course, we realized our pace was so slow that we would be better off to stop and sleep. We agreed on a 90-minute nap, put all of our layers on, got into our bivys (which, to be honest, are barely better than nothing), and “spooned” again for warmth. I didn’t even have time to close my zipper that Chelsey was already snoring. Damn, she is fast! After an hour dozing, I was too cold to have a quality sleep, so I woke the girls up and asked if we could move on. My pre-race week had been pretty tough, and I started the race already lagging in terms of sleep. Among the four of us I was the person who needed the most sleep, so stopping longer if I couldn’t sleep just didn’t make sense. Our stop still helped though, as our pace for the rest of the night was really good. The navigation was not particularly tricky, but required full focus. I soon forgot about the idea of using any trails for navigation (Jason, have any of those trails – manually added on the maps- ever existed?). Within dense brushes most of the time, the goal was to find paths of “least resistance” that wouldn’t deviate too much from the ideal route. Everything went pretty smoothly, and we were back at the TA at around 6am. Over the whole race, I think this has been my favorite stage. The atmosphere of trekking at night in the middle of nowhere is always so special!
Stage 6: Trek (16 miles/3500’gain), by Joseph
We continued on foot, although this stage was really different. From the shortly spaced CPs of the O-course, we switched to longer legs with multiple route choices. At this point we could start feeling our feet hurting more and more, and I got the strong recommendations from the girls that I should favor the “up-and-over” rather than contouring in steep slopes! Rea was desperately trying to cajole me, with: “Ohh, what a nice gravel road we are crossing, wouldn’t it be great to walk on it for a bit?” After a couple CPs in forested areas, we would access an almost flat, feature-less plateau, with a potentially tricky CP36, so having enough water sounded like a good idea. On the map, CP33 was conveniently located near a spring, and the clue was “near Stock tank”. Sounds like it’s an invitation to refill water there! But all we got was stagnant water in a concrete well which requires someone 6’2’’ to access it! Luckily, I’m tall enough, so we had water (of dubious quality!) for the next few hours. The CP we identified as tricky went actually quite smoothly, which made me relax a bit (good) but also focus less on the map (less good). This stage’s maps were a patchwork of maps made at
different times and with different colors and typography, which required the brain to continually adapt. The route to CP38 was not that easy, and I lost track of our position for about 15 minutes. First warning. Working as a team we relocated quite quickly, and made it to CP38 without losing too much time. We had spent the last few hours roasting in the sun, and because the navigation was not easy I was not drinking much. In addition to that we had no “real food” left but energy bars, so we were not eating much either. Second warning. We finally made it to the Crooked Reservoir, and after a short hip-deep river wading (well, chest-deep for the girls!), we reached the last TA of the race. TA6 is the most logistically demanding TA of the whole race, as we will basically need every gear we can think of in adventure racing. The kind of TA teams can spend hours in, if mentally too tired to be efficient! It’s 4pm, and we only have 1 stage left before Prineville. We all have enough experience in adventure racing to know that it’s never finished before you cross the finish line, however at this time we can’t not think about our podium finish, our objective before the race, that we imagine just a few hours ahead.
Stage 7: bike-raft (35 miles/1500’ gain), by Katie
As Joseph mentioned, the final TA was the most mentally taxing (in addition to us being the most sleep deprived) we had been the entire race. It was apparent sleep was needed, but at this point, the finish line was within reach and we could taste a second place finish. However, the fear of messing up, which included the TA, was flooding our minds. After retrieving our bike and paddle gear and making all other transition moves in what I’ll call the TA “first half” about 100m from the river’s edge, we finally carried everything to the TA “second half” at the river where we could load our bags inside the rafts, inflate rafts, and then attach our bikes to the rafts. We had practiced this multiple times and were pretty confident in our set up. But now sleep monsters are present and mistakes are many. To start, my straps to tie down my bike can’t be found. (Turns out they were in the paddle bag all along…but we never thought to look for paddle gear in the paddle bag, or at least the bottom of the bag…doh!) Second, I was too quick to get my backpack inside the raft so we could start inflating the boats and attaching bikes. We’re all close to being ready to launch when someone yells wisely, “who has the passport?” YOU GOT TO BE KIDDING ME…IT’S IN MY PACK (inside the boat). Take off the bikes, deflate the boat, get out the passport, inflate the boat, and now re-attach the bikes. We’re off…finally!!
At this point, we have 1-2 hours of daylight left and there’s urgency to get this paddle done before it gets dark and cold. Paddling at night can be extremely difficult due to navigation challenges (not being able to see land features at night), cold (keep in mind most of our gear is inside the boat and can’t be easily accessed), and sleepy time troubles. Our second challenge (the first being getting on the river), was to find the first paddle checkpoint. We knew it was a special point in that we would have to do something different to get it. Chelsey thought she had overheard conversation about a dive point, so we were wrapping our heads around that. But as we approached the checkpoint location, we noticed camera guys on top of a cliff overhang. Are we supposed to cliff jump for the point? Joseph thought we should keep paddling around, but the camera people were right there…maybe we should get out here?? I volunteered to do the cliff jump and was excited about that and so was Rea. I guess we can both jump then! Out of the boat we go and up to the cliff. The camera crew wasn’t saying anything, just filming us looking super sexy in our matching dry suits. Ummm…no checkpoint up there. Back down we go into the boats to spot the checkpoint 20ft around the corner part way up the cliff. Ahhh…a climbing point! Rea really wanted to do it, so she quickly jumped in the water to swim over. Turns out it was a little trickier to get, so after a couple different approach attempts, she got it and jumped back in the water. A cliff jump after all!
Back to paddling with the sun quickly setting…go go go. Around now is when it became more apparent that Joseph was, what I like to call, losing his mind due to sleep deprivation. He hadn’t slept much (if at all) during the previous sleep attempts on nights 2 and 3. And to back up, he had been doing lead navigation near perfect
for 3 days straight which is mentally super draining! He was a rockstar on zero sleep to this point in the race. Now, however, he was becoming less responsive to questions, making little sense with his words, and taking longer than normal to read the map and make nav decisions. This is the point we had talked about a few times before the race as a team…how do we know when the back up navigator (me) needs to take over from the lead nav? Since we had never raced together, that moment hadn’t been experienced or tested before and none of us knew 1. When Joseph would need the back up and 2. Would he give over his role voluntarily or would we need to take it. I asked to see the map more and started being a little more assertive with my opinion on what we needed to do. Luckily, him and I were in agreement that we needed to portage a short distance to save a lot of time paddling around what showed on the map as an island but now an isthmus. We made the crossing, put the boats back in the water, and were close to the next point. Still a little light out…go go go.
The next checkpoint was relatively uneventful other than it was further up a reentrant than what we thought, so after scoping out the scene, I yelled back to the team to join me so we wouldn’t be too separated. I got the point, punched in the wrong spot (oops…blame it on sleep deprivation), and back to the boats. The daylight was about gone, so we decided we needed a good bearing to the paddle finish point to keep us on track. Across the lake we go…in the dark.
Paddling at night…oh what fun (sarcasm). But we’re almost done!! It’s getting cold, we’re trying to talk to stay awake and focused, and we keep staring at the stupid lights across the way that never seem to get any closer. Some of the lights seem to be flashing on and off and waiving us in. Some don’t seem to care about us. I have nothing else to do but to imagine they’re our runway. The lights also match our bearing, so I’m pretty convinced that must be the take out. As we finally get closer, we notice some of the lights are from people fishing. NOOOO!!! Well, maybe we should ask them if there’s a boat ramp around the corner since it appears on the map the take out is in a little inlet or cove. Joseph disagrees and wants to keep paddling to another cove. But, but, the light people are right there…ok, command decision (luckily Rea and Chelsey agreed), we’re going back to the lights and asking. It’ll take us less than 5 minutes to confirm. And thank goodness we did. The cove we needed to go to was indeed back there, and we pulled our boats out as quickly as possible. We were frozen.
We checked in with the race volunteer who directed us where to put our rafts and paddle gear when we finished. We all got out of our wet gear and donned puffies and hats as quickly as possible before putting our bikes together. Paddle stuff in bags, bikes ready…check. But wait, there’s a warm vault toilet right there…maybe a few minutes of sleep for Joseph would help. We got him in there while Rea and I looked for the checkpoint. (Turns out it was on the main sign/info board…doh. At least Joseph gets to sleep…right?) We go back to the toilet to see how the sleep is going when Joseph says he can’t sleep. Oh no, not again. Well, let’s get going…WE’RE ALMOST DONE!
Onto the bike to the bike rappel with me on navigation. There’s only 1-ish road on the map to get there, so nav should be pretty straight forward, right? Wrong. The area must be used as an OHV playground because there was every shape and size of alternate routes at each intersection. Rea – you keep distance. Chelsey – you keep direction. Let’s just keep moving….except, Joseph is officially out of it. Now is when all forms of keeping our teammate awake begin to be implemented. I offer the method of screaming, waiving arms, running around like a chicken without a head. He didn’t like that one. However, Rea has a much better tactic of asking math problems…he seems to respond well to that!! Chelsey also has better luck with question asking. We keep moving to find the rappel site.
I’m not sure what time it is at this point…probably midnight or so. We hadn’t seen lights or any evidence of a team behind us which indicated we had at least a couple hours on the team behind us. However, we were
moving slow. I had just taken over navigation for the first time all race, and the issues that accompany that were becoming evident. My confidence wasn’t there nor was my teammates’ confidence in me. I made the route choice to follow the canyon rim to the rappel site, so we proceeded to leave the trail and roll over large rocks or hike our bikes in the direction we needed to go. Except, here comes someone from the camera crew from the right…why did he come from over there?? Dang, I thought I had an attack plan, but now I’m all confused. And my confusion showed, so quickly there became doubt as to where we were and where we were headed. We wandered the canyon rim for awhile with me trying to keep direction. Occasionally we’d see a light or what appeared to be reflections which threw me off even more. Ok, let’s regroup team!! Here’s where we left the trail – I promise you we were here (pointing to map). Here’s where I think we are, but to be safe, let’s go back to the road to ensure our location. So we did. (We found out later we were within 20ft of the rappel site…dang!)
Attempt number 2 at finding the rappel site: I kept track of every turn in the canyon which was super slow but conservative. Chelsey and Rea also kept track of distance and direction all while working with Joseph to keep him moving. At one point, Joseph sat down and expressed safety concerns. He said he couldn’t do the rappel. He was probably right…it isn’t safe. So should we let him sleep?? But he isn’t able to sleep, so what do we do? I remember Rea’s words to him pretty clearly which were awesome: “Joseph, you have trained to do this bike rappel. It’s muscle memory. You can do it in your sleep. And we’ll check your gear so you are safe.” Great job Rea! We kept moving and FINALLY found the rappel site. Phew! Still no evidence of a team behind us, but surely they are gaining. We check in with the race volunteers and find out we have a math problem to complete as a team before proceeding to ensure we’re alert enough to climb. Shit! Is my brain working enough…is Joseph’s?! Oh yeah, he’s been doing math problems successfully for the last few hours to stay awake, so woohoo! We did it!
Since Rea had been motivating Joseph successfully, we decided to have the 2 of them go first and Chelsey (most experienced climber of us all) check Joseph’s climbing gear and set up. All biners locked? Check. “You got this Joseph” we yelled from the top and prayed he’d be safe. They made it and the ropes were cleared. Now, a quick timeout to go down memory lane for me. I had done a bike rappel once at Primal Quest in 2016. I think it was about 1000ft down Lover’s Leap in northern CA and one of the scariest adventure racing moments I’ve ever had. I like climbing. I like repelling. I do not like repelling with a bike on my back! The stress on my core and the anxiety that no one can help you or save you if you stop working kinda floods my system and I freak out. I get set up (with a moment of panic when my system didn’t check out with the volunteer…I didn’t have a good chest strap which ended up being ok to proceed although not ideal). I step off the ledge and try my best not to slam into any rocks on the way down. Unlike Lover’s Leap, there were ledges and foot work involved which also meant I had little breaks. At one point I yelled to my team asking if I was almost done because the anxiety was setting in. I’m ok, I’m almost there…and done! We all made it safely. Or so we thought. To get down to the road still involved a hike a bike down a steep scree field, and I couldn’t tell from the map which way to go…so straight down we went. Turns out it was all cliffs, so we had to hike back up the scree field to get over to a ridge line where we found a trail. Take it easy team down the trail…let’s not get injured now!! We’re almost finished!
Pavement!! Oh the sweet feel of pavement. All we have is 20 miles of road to the finish. We can taste it. However, Joseph, now that the adrenaline rush of the rappel was over, went back to a dark and quiet place in his mind. He wasn’t mentally present, so we moved at a snail’s pace down the road. At one point, we tried to let him sleep again, but he wasn’t able and we continued. And this is where Rea and Chelsey’s persistence paid off. I chimed in occasionally, but the 2 of them were brilliant at yelling, singing, question asking, and just never stopping trying to keep him awake. We reminded him many times that his girlfriend, Gabi (who he hadn’t seen in a month) would be at the finish line. That, in addition to Rea and Chelsey’s noise, in addition to the sun
rising ultimately were the key in getting us to the finish that morning. We pulled into Prineville and found the courthouse steps we needed to run up to finish. We dropped our bikes and walked up side by side to the glorious end of the race. Jason and other volunteers greeted us with a shot of whiskey, and Gabi was there with open arms to welcome a collapsing (in happiness) Joseph.
Team Journey/Bend Racing finished Expedition Oregon/America’s Toughest Race in 2nd place in 3 days 20 hours. We did it as a reverse coed team who had never raced together before but displayed amazing teamwork, strength, and heart. We’re proud of our accomplishment and thank Jason and Bend Racing for putting on such an amazing event!