The start “Pinch it off Lars!”
“Pinch it off Lars, the race has started!” yelled Dan from outside the bathroom. I stood outside the cafe (where we had just been planning our route on our two sets of maps for the entire race) in a state of total shock that we had even made it this far. Was this really happening?? A second whistle blew loudly. Yes, it certainly was! As we ran through the starting chute, I shouted out. “Well this is a first!”
And like all expedition races, many firsts were still yet to come.
Six days before hand, Dan and I were scrambling to come to a decision. Our fourth, Chris Paterson who we had been training with for three months prior had come down with CoVid. Who would even be available to drop everything for two weeks, travel across the world AND race in Adventure Race World Championships!? We put our heads together and came up with an extremely short list.
Enter Darren Steinbach. Our team media man, Eco Challenge TAC, racer himself and now team hero. On Sunday morning we asked him, and by evening time, we had new tickets set for Spain with a Tuesday morning departure time.
While Darren is an exceptional athlete, preparing and training for an expedition race, let alone the most competitive World Championships in history, is another story. Once we all landed and met up with Lars, we changed our team goal to “steady is smooth, smooth is fast and let’s keep Darren stoked.” This was to be his first time racing with us at this level. The last thing we wanted was to put any pressure on him and have him blow up or even worse not like us or the sport in the end. It would be a delicate balance, but we were certain we could all figure it out.
Leg 1: Trek 122 km “Cold and wet, and swollen puppies (aka feet)”
“Wow there are a lot of fit people here!” Darren said as we ran past some svelt looking teams in spandex carrying packs. “Yep” Daniel said laughing, “I believe this is the only sport where we would start out with a 75 mile run/trek carrying all of our mando gear plus 2 sets of maps, and we don’t even bat an eye!”
A few km into our run the boys started getting hot, after taking off everything but their underwear and jerseys, we were back at it- picking off teams slowly and steadily. Dan and I had been training together on Jason’s program for many months so we were feeling really good (shameless plug here, but it is so amazing). We took weight from Lars (who was still feeling fatigued from winning European Championships three weeks before) and Darren on the first steep climb and I alternated having Lars and Darren on tow for the rest of the climbs. As the sun set, the rain and wind started in and didn’t stop until well into the next morning. Lars and Dan nailed the navigation and picked great routes for our teams weaknesses and strengths. The trek was on trails and roads that meandered in and out of small villages and up and over high peaks. We knew that we still had a lot of trekking ahead of us in the race so we made two mandatory foot stops where we took off our shoes let them dry, re-taped and applied skin doctor. Towards the end of the trek on our last steep climb, I had an emotional moment and the tears started to flow. The guys kept asking what they could do and if I wanted to talk. I could not really describe all the feelings I was having so I just asked for space. As we crested the top, Lars looked back. “Look it’s Spirit B! He’s here Chelsey!” Lars was right, Spirit B was there in a beautiful rainbow. “Mama I am here, and will be for the entire time” I heard B say to me. Our team hugged, took a photo and I spread some of B’s ashes right there (Later Lars gave me the map so we can bring the boys back there).
We rolled into TA 1 well after our projected 25 hour time estimate, but we were in good spirits, and all of our feet were pretty well off considering we had just pounded them on hard pavement and trails for many, many miles.
Leg 2: Mountain bike 80 KM “Steady is smooth, smooth is fast” and “Ease off Chelsey!”
We had estimated 8 hours on this leg, but, after revamping our team goal, we realized that also meant adding on some hours to our previous estimates. After building our bikes, doing the downhill bike and the zipline, we bundled up in every layer we had and headed out into our second sunset of the race. At the first village we rode into, I asked an older man if he had any food we could buy (my elementary Spanish ended up paying off big time!) he immediately went down into his cellar and brought out 4 huge pieces of bread “Jamon, Queso y pan ok?” “Si, of course! I said in Spanish. To which he insisted that I come into his house and take a tour. While the guys managed the maps and did what they needed to to do, I was suddenly transported into their family kitchen watching three generations of family delicately slice ham off of a hung dried and cured piece of pig from their farm. The guys eyes when I came out with 4 heavy full size baguettes stuffed full of meat and cheese was priceless. We were NOT going to go hungry on this leg.
Biking is Dan and my favorite discipline, so we were quite excited to throw down some fast kilometers. Lars who was navigating however found himself stressed out by our fast pace. Going through the small towns with so many tiny roads was extremely hard to see on the map, so having us ahead was not the best. Also, Darren was still coming back after the trek, and was struggling a bit. After taking his weight and putting him on tow for the hills, we were still all finding it hard to hit our rhythm as a team. In fact, out of all the legs, this ended up being our hardest leg in terms of being consistent. We lost track of our team goal and was flirting with disaster for much of the ride. Darren had stopped eating, missed his dose of anti- inflammatories and had been slowly riding off a cliff with out the rest of us realizing it. Luckily before heading down a super steep and confusing descent that had us bushwhacking for some time, we caught him just before flying off the cliff (both literally and figuratively). On the ride into the TA, we decided that we all needed a nap in order to reset and remind ourselves of our team intention: “Steady is smooth, smooth is fast, keep Darren happy and healthy.”
Leg 3: Kayak 90 km “Hufflepuffing Hilarity”
After a 2 hour reset, we woke up with just an hour till daylight. It was perfect timing for us, as we could get on the water with out doing the first big portage. If we had gone with out sleep, we would have had to do a long portage around the rapids. At 830am, we put on the water, and settled into a nice pace where we could chat, eat and re- gel as a team. After 20 km or so we entered the famous and gorgeous Sil Canyon, which was easily all of our most favorite part of the entire course. We conversed about all sorts of silly things ranging from Lars’s many crazy stories, to reminiscing about our own past races and escapades. We hit our first portage at 4pm and were half way through the kayak. After grabbing a coffee at the cafe above the dam, we started on the 10km portage. Since it was on pavement, it went relatively smoothly and fast. This is where we decided that there was going to be no “hufflepuffing” (formally known as the dead man shuffle) allowed. We have no idea where Lars got this name from, but it was too good not to stick. Rather we would move at a fast pace walk.
We got to the river just as it was getting dark. On the water, we settled back in and listened to Lars’s techno and very foreign playlist. It still kept us awake though, mostly because we rode the excitement and highs that it was giving Lars. On the second portage, the trail was very thin and bumpy. Lars and I hit a bump and our boat flipped into the bushes. We thought we had gotten everything back in the boat, but well into the next river section we realized that we had lost a helmet and it was probably at that flip. Our hearts sank a bit and there were a few curse words said. But then we realized there was nothing we could do.
The next section was the huge mountain bike, so we knew we had to either ask a team who was not continuing or find one in the town where we were leaving from. “We are where we are right now, let’s not waste any energy freaking out and deal with it when we get to the TA.” was the team decision.
Minnie Mouse and Spirit B intermission
At the TA, there was a hotel where we could sleep for a few hours and grab a hot meal. This was the first time in my 13 years of racing that I have ever slept in such an amazing bed and in a robe no less! Before bedding down for a few hours we got everything ready and asked the race staff and referees about a spare helmet. They said they would do their best but it was highly unlikely since all the teams from this point on were almost certainly going to go on. Sure enough, after waking up and asking there were no helmets available. Our only option was to head into the small town and ask.
On the way to the town I called in Spirit B for his help. Once in the town, it was still dark and early in the morning, but we still went from door to door hollering “Buenas Dias!” A few people opened up their doors, but the answer one after the other was “15 kilometers down this road yes, but not here.” I started getting really upset and kicked a stone wall. To which I heard Spirit say “keep looking”. We went up to the next street and there was a women on the balcony asking what we needed. “Una Bosca” I said. To which she went inside and shut the door. I thought that was it, if she does not have it, this may be the end of our race. I heard a “Wait Mama” come into my head and told the team to wait. A few seconds later, the bottom light came on and the door swung open. The women handed me a kids lazer helmet (Lazer helmets are our sponsor!) that had a giant minnie mouse face on it. I handed my small sized helmet over for Lars to wear laughing and then someone thankfully said “Lets take a picture.”
Back at the hotel we had taken Darren’s pack and divided up the contents between Lars, Dan and I. In our haste, we had forgotten the camera- which was mandatory gear and VERY important for the section coming up so we rode back to the TA as quickly as possible, got the camera and restarted the leg. We had lost 90 minutes, but we were back in the race and super relieved about how well it worked out for us.
Leg 4: Monster Mountain bike – 210 Km “The Spanish Villa apartment shopping ride”
Our idea of having Darren not take a pack paid off big time. We were able to keep a good pace the entire time, stay up on our hydration and nutrition and stay in good spirits. While it was a huge bike with a lot of navigation, Darren and I hardly noticed. Dan and Lars’s navigation made it seem like we were following the yellow brick road. It was seamless! Another favorite moment of the whole race took place during this ride- where we rode through beautiful villages and picked fruit off of the trees while we ped In the middle of the night, just before hitting the city orienteering section, a cafe appeared at the perfect time. We stopped, poured coffees into our water bottles and cleaned her out of all of her donuts. When we got to Lugo, the town where we were to do an hour long O course on foot through the old town, it was 3 in the morning. I quickly ditched my shoes and did the whole thing in my socks, taking every opportunity to give them some air to breath and different contact points. When we came back from our journey, we took a 30 minute shiver nap and headed out into the fog with what felt like numb everything.
The rest of the bike saw us battling sleep monsters and fluctuating temperatures. A few hours later, after another steep descent we arrived in the TA, sleepy and ready to be off our bikes after 30 hours of riding and Orienteering.
Leg 5: Trek – 65 Km: “If you have two extra ibuprofens, lets make sure Darren has them”
At the TA we quickly (but probably not as quick as we felt) put away our bikes, and re packed our backpacks, taking care to go as light as possible. We loved not having 4 backpacks so much for the bike, that we decided to carry that plan to the very end. Before heading into the trek, we had to do a mandatory SUP. Since it was suddenly extremely hot, we decided to nap for an hour in the grass next to the SUPs before heading out on the trek. Only two of us had to SUP, which ended up being quite a joke as we could have walked to the CP faster.
The trek started out super fun with a sweet little trail into a river crossing (perhaps the only adventurous part of the whole race!?). Most of the trek was on roads, where all of us were really wishing we had our bikes but not as much as Darren. After another trail section half way through the trek, Darren started slowing way down. He said he had been eating and drinking but had excruciating pain coming from his shin. We immediately stopped, and kicked it into fix-it mode. We gave him some stronger pain pills (Codeine), and rigged up a bungee from his laces to his jersey to reduce the amount he needed to use his shins – the bungee would lift his feet so his muscles didn’t. We continued rolling to see how things would feel, and things weren’t getting better. We struggled through some hills, and started to get worried. When we arrived at the beginning of a flat(fish) trail, Dan stopped the train for a pep talk. We needed Darren to tell himself a new story. If he stayed with the “I’m injured, this is awful” story, his shin splints would get worse, he’d be in horrific pain, and we’d likely drop out. It wouldn’t be the first time shin splints would do this. The story we needed was something like “I am an athlete, I’m going to work with my body to get through this”. Switching these stories is tough – Ibuprofen isn’t enough, but it does help. When the switch happens, though, it’s magical – once you get that brain/body connection back into harmony, everything just starts working again, as if by magic. We talked about relaxing the shin muscles, changing gait during a race, but mostly changing the story. Making the choice is easy – it’s finding the choice that’s hard.
Find it Darren did, basically immediately after the pep talk, there he was, right with us, working through it and moving right along! We were so excited! To which Lars continued his never ending Jason Magness joke (that NEVER got old) – “If you have two extra ibuprofens, lets make sure Darren has them.”
Sometime in the night, we found an amazing hay barn that was calling to us for a quick nap and foot stop. It was so warm in there, that we didn’t have to put on any extra layers. And to make it even more magical, we each had our very own foot rest. With in seconds of laying down, we were all out. Next to the hotel, it was all of our most memorable sleep. And while it was only 40 minutes, we all woke up refreshed and excited to push on.
As we got closer to the town where the TA was, Lars handed me the map “Take us to the TA Chelsey.” I had taken the map and navigated on some very very simple stuff during the night, so I was super excited to look at a map and take us in. With Lars’ guidance, I got us there with very earned ice creams in hand.
Leg 6+7: Short Kayak (11 km) and Trek (32 Km) “Pass the mouth wash”
In the TA, we grabbed more food, water and our kayak gear and headed down to the put in. We didn’t notice that the tide was coming in, until we actually started paddling. After a few minutes of paddling against the incoming tide, we stopped at a small island and passed out in the boats until we woke up to water underneath us. We then paddled to the bridge to take a look and made a plan for the crossing. After 30 or so minutes of paddling in the chop and wind, we were at the next TA and town. At the town we dropped our kayak stuff, ran into a super market to get a ton of coffees, olives and mouth wash. Our plan was to not stop till the finish and give our mouths a nice washing! We set out at a slower pace and then ramped it up as everyone got more comfortable. The up and down nature of the trek along the cliffs was rough on the knees but luckily we held it together and Lars found our way to every check point with out skipping a beat. Darren held strong with his screaming shins, Lars and I held it together with our painful feet and Dan held it together after feeling things he’s never felt before in his legs. By the time we hit the last 15 km, where we had to walk on pavement through the city to the finish we were all soooooo much over pavement. We were wishing for anything other than pavement at that point. Kayak finish? scooters? skate boards? We tried to keep our spirits high as we were only a few miles from the finish, and we did our best- reminiscing about the past couple of days, padding ourselves on the back for an amazing race and over coming so much and telling Darren, our off the couch media man what a stud and hero he was for the millionth time.
We ended at 4 something am, the finish was very uneventful with only a photographer and a few volunteers who handed us a few apples and a banana. At the time, we were a little disappointed to not have that finishing high. But now, looking back, we had that high going for us the entire time. Yes we had our low points, inter personal challenges, injuries and times where we thought our race was over, but I guarantee you that there was not one minute that went by where one of us wasn’t 100 percent grateful that we out there racing and having another life altering journey together!