The wait was over, the time for training was up, the time for sleeping was also up, and the maps revealed as we jumped on the bus to Jackson Hole and the start of the 2017 Adventure Racing World Champs, the Cameco Cowboy Tough. Being early in the morning, there wasn’t a lot of light about and the sun had not quite risen yet. So it was a bit hard to see where we were going on the maps until we jumped on the bus. Unfortunately for us we decided to sit outside of the bus for a bit before getting on and as a result we ended up down in the back seats. Not so good for me, as I get a bit of motion sickness.
As the bus pulled out of the parking lot we were into lock down and the race to the start line was underway. I did my best to figure out where we were going, sort of thinking how we might get there and managed a brief discussion with Stru before the motion sickness started to take hold. I took glances at the maps in between bouts of feeling ill, trying my best to figure out a route, but in the end gave in and thought that we should have enough time to sort it out in the hour of so we had before the start. One bonus of this tactic was that I was able to get some sleep.
As the bus climbed up into Grand Teton park, time started to run out and now Stru was busy plotting out some lines on the map where we might go. It was less than ideal when we arrived later than anticipated and it was an intense rush, almost to panic level right up until the start briefing. I did not feel ready to spend the next 5 days racing across Wyoming…. as I read somewhere once, you are never quite as planned as you could be for anything, so ready as you will ever be is a good motto to live by I guess.
Stage 1: Prologue, 5km, Travel by Foot
The National Anthem was played and before we knew it the race was underway. Teams sprinted off at the start, we settled into a good space after the chaos of the start quickly abated. Surrounded by teams for the prologue it was a pretty easy introduction to the race navigation wise. The heat and the altitude had a little effect on us all, there was certainly a lot of sweating and puffing going on!
Stage 2: Moose Wilson Road Trail, 12km, Travel by Foot
Completing the prologue was satisfying, and it felt like now the journey was underway. The irony of this first stage was that we were cruising along on a flat paved cycle/walkway with all this fantastic national park around us. However it probably worked quite nicely in our favour. Isla didn’t have a pack for this stage which meant that Stru and Mitch were picking up the extra gear… which in turn meant that Isla set a cracking pace and us three had to do a bit of a suffering with the extra pack weight to keep up! It was hot work racing along the road, it had been a while since I had done a road race and I was already quite worried about getting blisters.
Stage 3: Snake River, 30km, Travel by Packraft
When we entered transition we were still up with the leaders, they were just getting their boats in the water, and it was a very intense feeling area under the bridge. As practiced, we got our pack rafts inflated pretty efficiently and were on the water pretty quickly. The first rapid down and already a team had tipped out right in front of us, caught out by an eddy at the bottom of a relatively tame chute. They got their gear together relatively quickly but you could see how much time it had cost them already – lets not do that I thought. The river was wide and braided, with lots of willows, almost like being back home on the Waimak. It was pretty hot on the water and after the rush of the pavement pounding it was the perfect time to re-hydrate, with water from the river. A new thing for us to remember on this race was to the treat water before drinking, so we were a bit unsure about how long to wait before drinking it, so hopefully the treatment was pretty much instant!
We started out quite well on this stage I thought, we seemed to initially be gaining on the boats ahead and all was going well, well mostly. I was in a boat with Mitch and the floor seemed to be skewed to one side meaning that the boat kept drifting to the left, making the steering fairly challenging for Mitch. Stru and Isla’s boat seemed to be slightly stern heavy and plowing through the water a bit as the teams from behind started to catch us. It may have been due to the different type of rafts, or the fact that ours were self bailing and we were sitting in a lot of water, or it could have just been that we were not that paddling fit over the two hour mark. Whatever the case my bum was starting to get pretty sore so it was a welcome relief to get out of the boat and up onto dry land.
Stage 4, Wyoming Range, 62km, travel by foot.
We had what I thought was a pretty good transition, and may have even passed a couple of teams here too. The biggest mistake early on this trek was that half of us did not all fill up with water from the river, so we had to make a side trip to a small stream a little way up the ridge. We didn’t spend too much time on the actual trail before it appeared to split and I made a call to take the right-hand split. This worked well for a time but quickly the trail went cold and we had to travel cross country. We opted to straight line it rather than go back, which I felt was a risk albeit calculated this early on in the game. It wasn’t looking like a great option for a while however and I got stung a couple of times by a wasp nest we passed very close too. We also spotted a deer, which I was terrified it was going to be a bear! never the less the track took us up onto the ridge and we were back with the majority of the field. We were not sure, but I think by cutting the corner we may have gained a few places.
For a long time along the ridge we could see only a few teams up in front and not many behind. The mistake of not filling up with water was now starting to take its toll on Mitch and I in particular who didn’t have a lot of water and as a result we had to back off the pace a small amount taking this into consideration. We eventually managed to find a trickle of water, but as we did we were caught by a couple of teams. The race was on for a while as we transitioned to darkness, got our lights on and were again by ourselves for a long lonely time on the ridge, following the trail which came and went without warning. Just as we caught one team in-front at the end of the long ridge we took a glance back to see a Christmas tree like precision behind us coming down the ridge, somewhat cool to be leading the way for a huge bunch of teams behind, but somewhat frustrating too.
Down the next ridge it felt like we had made a bit of a break, then as quickly as we made some gains they were lost when the trail we were following tricked us once again, and we were left out in the middle of a field that just didnt feel right. I somehow got ahead of myself on the map and got a bit confused so we followed some lights to almost exactly where we had lost the track and we were somehow back on line. Finally we reached a stream where we could do a proper fill up on water. Luckily Stru was onto things here as when we got going again, I got all confused once again. I fell in line behind Stru for a bit before we crept down into the next valley. It was starting to get really cold now, it was early in the morning, still an hour or two before daylight, and we were getting a fair chunk of this trek cleaned up. There was a small amount of tidying to do as we took the wrong split in a trail at one point, but soon enough we were on the ridge climbing out of another valley.
Here we slowed down a bit, Isla wasn’t feeling great and it was the time in the morning where the sleepiness really gets to you, never the less we made our way at a reasonable pace, with only one more wrong turn costing us only a couple of minutes – but it felt like a lot more. By the time we cruised into transition the warmth of the day was only just starting to heat things up, but we were now one trek down and hopefully by nightfall tonight we would be well into the next trek.
Stage 5, Pinedale, 133km, Travel by Bike
This ride started with a hiss and a roar. We made good pace along the sealed road, already at one checkpoint we knew we were well down the rankings, which didn’t really put us in a good place mentally. We cranked on through the heat of the day and then I started to fade a bit. I wasn’t feeling great as we cut off the road and onto the 4wd trail, which meant that I struggled a little to navigate cleanly while my team mates eagerly waited on me making decisions. I needed to eat and drink but didn’t quite get everything I needed. The change in map scale was difficult to comprehend and the hot afternoon sun was making me lethargic. The network of trails was a challenging puzzle to work out and then once on the right trail, it was quite rocky and technically challenging, too challenging for me at one point and I fell off my bike landing on my bad wrist and hurting myself a bit as well as some damaged pride.
Then we got to a crux point, the trail disappeared into the forest, somehow we became convinced the control was near by and we could just dump our bikes with the intention of going back and then linking back up to the other track. I still haven’t figured out entirely what was going on, but I don’t think we had gone far enough along the track. A symptom of switching scales at a moment where I wasn’t as switched on as I needed to be! Eventually after getting a bit flustered and heading back to the bikes we linked up with Columbia and worked together to follow a trail out of the trap we seemed to be stuck in. Then after a bit more confusion we figured it out and we were back on track albeit a little demoralised after loosing an hour or so. Having knocked that control off it was just a quick trip to the transition, which again we missed the short cut, well almost missed it… finally we got in, feeling like we were way down the leader-board we decided the next leg was where our race was going to turn around…
Stage 6, Wind River Range, 65km, Travel by Foot
Unfortunately the Mountain bike stage had taken up a good portion of the day and it was only going to be a few hours of light before we were going to be in darkness for most of the Trek. Determined, we made a new charge and covered a lot of ground early in the evening. There was some late evening thunderstorms that hit just as it was getting dark but that wasn’t holding us back too much as we made up some good ground and a break on three teams in front. As we were making good progress, talk of getting some sleep came to the fore, and we decided to go for our “sleep early, go all night” strategy before it got too cold.
Refreshed from our sleep we were now alone in the wilderness as the teams we had all passed, passed us back again as we slept. Progress was again good, and we felt like everything was going smoothly. After a short stop we then suddenly lost the trail we were following. Probably better described as the trail suddenly ended! After going backwards and forwards we reluctantly entered the bush. We followed a trail that lead us too far up the valley, so we back tracked and made some ground up onto the bearing which we were after. We found no track here and after following good trails for such a long time we figured there might be better trails further down the valley we could link up to get moving fast again. The bearing option seemed the most sensible however we ran into heaps of wind fall and the idea of trying to hit a small stream and maybe a vague track 3-4km away was pretty daunting.
And so it was, here I made a call that seemed reasonable at the time, but now in hind-sight it was our first mistake. We followed the stream down and tried to link up to some tracks further down the valley. The travel was pretty shit to be honest, knee deep swampy ground in places and the sleepiness was setting in for the other guys. I drifted from our line and we ended up somewhere where the streams were running backwards and it was not making good sense. It was now only a half hour until dawn, we decided to sit tight and sleep for another 1/2 hour, then work it out in the light. For me this was difficult, I couldn’t sleep, I had to work it out, and I sort of did, but I was still confused. Our next strategy was to get to higher ground, a key move for relocation. We sorted it out, took a bearing and appeared to be back on track, things we looking up in the morning light!
Bingo, we hit the trail, and we were back on the path of the Continental divide trail, this was good, we were not far now since the description for the checkpoint was Continental Divide trail marker. Unfortunately at this stage we didn’t quite understand the route instructions, the trail was marked on our maps, it should be straight forward, but what I now know is the the trail does split in a few places and the marked route of the suggested trail does not match the one marked on the ground where we were. Somehow my compass was marking this all fit, it was a new compass, not one that I was used to and not that I like to blame my tools, but I just was not trusting it, and what it was saying. Never the less we persisted on the trail with no success. Eventually we became so insistent that we were right on the checkpoint that it must have gone missing. So much so that we mucked around for almost 2 hours convincing ourselves it all fitted perfectly.
So phase three of our mistake, we decided to continue on what we thought was the marked trail, the compass was now telling a different story and we covered a lot of ground. Things did not look good, nor did they feel entirely right. I had an uneasy feeling we were not where we should be until suddenly we crossed a ridge and spotted a ranch. Immediately the alarm bells started to ring. We sat for 45mins figuring it out, discussing our options, all the time aware that the leaders were making great progress to the finish, our fans back home were watching the GPS and wondering what was going on and we had no idea what we were doing. Our best option to take was to go back to were we last knew things were correct. So we did, as we wandered up the hills, tails between our legs, I figured it out, and knew what we had to do, solved with not too much time lost…well at least 5 hours I guess.
Unfortunately things did not end there… enter phase 4 of the mistake, a never ending nightmare! We got back to where I thought we should be, then with Stru in the lead and a split in the track we veered right. This did not feel right to me at the time, but I thought that maybe the trail should bend back to the left and we would be fine. I did mention it didn’t feel right but with an underlying reluctance to turn back yet again I persevered. I made things fit, where they didn’t and again we did not travel far enough before entering a valley where things started to look good. In the heat and the stress of the moment I was not in a great space for a bit, but determined we were almost there. and when we got to where we were, we jumped straight into the forest with no plan whatsoever, vainly bashing about trying to stumble across it. This technique did not work so well (it never does…), we went back to the valley, followed the trail up the side hoping to come across it on the way. Then interestingly enough we popped back out to the valley where we had been almost an hour earlier.
Under discussion with the others, Isla came up with the idea to go back to the track junction where we were last confident of where we were. There Mitch scouted it out, but it just didn’t quite go in the right direction, confused we sat on the track trying to figure out what to do next. As we did so another two teams turned up. We met with them, replicated the initial stages of our phase four mistake, then settled on going on the only track we hadn’t been up. I was starting to get a sense we just hadn’t gone far enough in the right direction and as it turned out the trail we took lead us into another valley system, exactly what we had been looking for.
Once in the valley system, things still didn’t jump out at us, had it been earlier in the day or even earlier in the stage we would have just persevered through and attacked with some conviction but we were pretty tired from our extra wandering, and eventually we found the trail and then the checkpoint. Such a relief, life could start again.
It wasn’t long, before we then hit a pretty good trail, but given the exhaustion of what we had just been through I got really tired. The others we all moving fast through the terrain, and looked comfortable. Now was my time to struggle, I handed my map over to Mitch as it was no use me having it. The next few hours are a blur and as I said at the time my only real memory of this part of the race is Mitch, Stru and Isla’s heels as I followed them step for step. There was only so long I could keep this up, I was on autopilot, running somehow without knowing it. Eventually my breathing became short, sharp and shallow, I was not feeling good at all. It wasnt until we stopped briefly that Isla realised something was up, and I was sat down to try and control my breathing. Quickly I became very cold, incoherent and without my pack we walked for a bit. I really was struggling to calm my breathing down, and eventually the smart decision was made to sleep. We were not going to gain any ground at this rate, we were going to need to sleep before the night was out and I desperately need to stop.
After a cold two hour sleep in the woods, a weird interaction with some Mountain Bikers and we were off again. I was pretty much back to normal, whatever was stressing me out had passed. The cold morning had one more trap for us to negotiate however. With the last checkpoint nailed it was just an easy walk on some relatively straight trails to the transition, about 4kms. But given it was the witching hour, it was not as straight forward as we thought it should be. We crossed a trail without registering, later realising it was going in the wrong direction. We corrected, and entered a bit of a shallow canyon, “great, we are almost at the end” we followed it down a long way, things again we not feeling right, but I thought we could see the cars and tents at transition. As we got closer, the day started to get lighter. Then things went really wrong. the cars and tents were rocks. The sun was coming out and it was quite a spectacular morning to be out in the open, but not were we should have actually been. Completely lost for a brief moment I hit rock bottom, we were so close but yet so far. All wasn’t entirely bad as it turned out, we hadn’t wandered off too far, and quickly we were onto a gravel road and just over the hill was finality to this damned trek!
Stage 7, Shoshone National Forest, 58km, Travel by MTB.
Given our long leg, we opted to get a good rest at this transition, and there was shelter there to make things all that much better. Surprisingly there was a lot of teams in and around us, especially surprising since we hadn’t seen many lights after about 10pm that night. Once we were back in business, it felt like today was going to be a good day, and as it turned out it was. The mountain bike was steep in places but reasonably straightforward and really nice terrain. We made our lower pack charge, picking off teams left right and centre. The end of this bike was really cool, some awesome single track, and it really felt like we were racing again. Some admin held us back at the very end but at the transition we were happy to see a lot of bikes around us. This leg would have to have been my favorite stage in the whole race, we were back in the land of the living and back on track.
Stage 8, Sinks Canyon, 7km, Travel by foot
We chose to do the abseil first, and this was pretty straight forward but not as fast as I had hoped. As side from actually abseiling ourselves, we were essentially lowered and the lowering rope acted as a bit of a brake! We were quickly through that section, then onto the caving section pretty soon after. The walk there allowed us to get some good food in and set us up for later. The cave was pretty tight to get into, then actually pretty tricky to find our way back out of again too! The weather was starting to turn as we ended the cave and then had full on started raining by the time we were back, making for a speedy transition.
Stage 9, Beaver Divide, 264km, Travel by MTB
On to the big bike ride the short storm was clearing, and things were warming up again which was good. We had a good tail wind to start with and made good progress. Time flew by and so did the kilometres, it wasnt too long onto the gravel that we caught a team in front and then another just before darkness hit. The gravel roads were good going, and the navigation not too bad considering, as there was only really one road to follow through a vast a desolate section of Wyoming. We were treated to a pretty nice sunset, then things on the bike in the darkness started to get real. Stru came out of his navigational hollow and nailed the next couple of controls, which I was very impressed and excited about.
After another brief stretch on the road we were back with a couple of teams. Very soon once we turned off the main road we lost them and didn’t see them for a very long time after that. It was a long straight road in the dark that was pretty featureless, the anticipation was keeping Stru and I awake but Isla and Mitch now started to struggle. It was a relief to hear them still talking behind us and a huge relief to finally nail the control. Not long into the next stretch across the desert, talk diverted to the subject of sleep again. The unfortunate reality of this section was there was really nowhere to sleep….well almost nowhere, Isla spotted a shed and some abandoned cars and was really keen to sleep under them. Stru and I were not so keen, especially worried that it was someone’s property and that we might get shot or something.
We persevered for a while until we found a spot where it was a question of now or never. The cold of the dirt in the desert in the night time chilled us pretty good. I’m not sure that the hours sleep we had huddled in our survival blankets/bag did anyone other than me any good! I had a great sleep! Back on track we were following a good sized road, in the general direction but I was become less convinced we actually were where we though we were. We just had to hit an intersection and we would be alright. When we did, it wasnt quite right. Not sure what to do, I reached for the supplementary maps and from there we were bang on the money, not completely lost. A short 4kms on another stretch of substantial gravel road and what can only be described as one of the greatest moments of the race for me as we reached the checkpoint.
The adrenaline was not pumping as high for the rest of the team which had partly turned to zombies. The Medic at the checkpoint had an interesting conversation with us about the animal we had seen before we kept moving through the darkness and the desert. The pace from this point on really started to slow. It got so slow that we decided to stop for 10 minutes sleep. No one set an alarm, I didn’t sleep but took the time to eat, so was keeping an eye on things. Both Mitch and Isla, as well as Stru managed to bank so good sleep so I let them sleep a bit longer. Once underway, Isla was clearly still pretty much asleep and I was feeling strong so I took up the tow. This really helped me warm up, Isla was feeling pretty heavy behind me and the tow rope was swinging wildly, so I’m not sure that she was actually awake for much of that 20 minutes before we all warmed up again!
Next up was a quick trip to Bairol, not much there but a support town for an oil field. We saw a couple of workers heading out for their days work on the oil field and finally we got onto some nice sealed road again. Through ghost town after ghost town we made good progress. The end was getting close now, and we could feel it. Just a quick blast down the road with a bit of a tailwind to help us out. Transition just appeared on us, earlier than expected but a welcome surprise to see that we had progressed up the standings a bit and we now on page 1 of the sign in sheet.
Stage 10, Pathfinder, 23km, Travel by packraft/foot
We made another couple of mistakes here. One, we felt like we were now on the home straight, in reality that was not the case. Another was that it was just a short walk to the water, and I didn’t need to take it seriously. After about 1hr 15 of walking I started to panic. We covered a lot of ground and yet were no closer to the water and not near any tracks. We again had a bit of a misunderstanding and I didn’t realise I hadn’t gone far enough, so wasted a little bit of time wandering around not quite at the checkpoint. Once sorted we were back on track again. It was now almost 3 hours into our trek and wadding through some grass Stru disturbed a snake just as we were getting to the water edge.
The race had almost gone out of us at this point. The wind had increased and it had increased the anxiety levels a little bit too. It appeared to have passed but once finally on the water, Stru and Isla’s boat began to deflate a bit. We rushed them to shore making about 200m of forward progress…. as soon as we hit shore the next Thunderstorm hit. It hit us hard. We sheltered in tight to the rafts, with rain wind and lightening around us it wasn’t safe for us to do much but sit and wait it out. A cold hour and a half later we sorted the packraft out, and decided we were back in bussiness and went for it… about 6 hours after we started out…
Darkness hit as we were on the water. Its tricky navigating boats on a lake in the dark especially when the light we were aiming for disappeared. I had a moment of panic where we got very close to a cliff, the boat spun and to my mind it looked like we were moving and fast. I was terrified we had paddled into some sort of dam outlet! I panic paddled until Mitch got me to stop, and it was only then that I realised we were not moving!
It was clear at this point that we were getting cold. To carry on down the gorge in this condition was likely a recipe for hypothermia so we set about camping. We already were down to the bear essential warm items and it became very obvious now how close we were to the safety margins. We pulled into near the checkpoint, or as best we could guess in the darkness and it turned out to be a campsite. As we came ashore we caused a bit of interest from the near by campers who suggested we could camp under a tree near by. I’m not sure how above board this all was but after finding out we had no tent or sleeping bags and were planning on sleeping in our survival bags they offered up a tarp and some blankets for our brief sleep through the night and the storms that rolled through.
Stage 11, Fremont Canyon, Alcova and Platte River, 47km, Travel by Foot and Packraft
After first light we had a lazy start, only just on the water at 7am. We quickly got down the upper part of the gorge and then met another team mid way through the gorge. The water was fresh and unfortunately we both had swims, so it reinforced our decision not to paddle down at night. Another trekking section was awaiting us half way down, the longest most boring walk of the whole race I think. By the time we got back to the next section of water we were dying for water and finally warming up again.
The next section of water was quick and so was the traverse around the dam. We were making good forward progress again. The flat river section fooled us a little, taking us much longer than it felt like it should. The next challenge to prevent us getting to the finish was a headwind for the final 2-3kms which extended us, also made us quite cold as the sun had now gone and it was Thunderstorm time of the afternoon.
Stage 12, Casper Mountain, 54km, Travel by MTB
Finally we felt like we were going to finish this race, and it was just a short ride over the mountain to do so. We had been strong biking so we felt like it was only going to be a short few hours to get there. As we departed transition, we had a roaring headwind to bike into, then a roaring cross wind when we were off the main road. Then just when I felt I was getting too hot the Thunderstorm hit us with the most intense rain I have ever endured. This contributed a bit to our next mistake too. I was unaware how much navigating Stru was doing as he had Isla under tow and was going like the clappers, we hesitated then I second guessed the intersection we should have taken, then called a turn around after the next intersection. I thought that the road would have had a bigger sign, and instead I kind of guessed we had taken the right intersection. Things were not feeling right, and eventually we had to turn around again and back track. This time I was devastated, again I had screwed us up, right where we needed to be on the ball…
When we did get back to the correct road we could see a few teams stopped then before we knew it, we also were stopped dead in our tracks. The rain had been so heavy it had turned the road surface into a thick paste that stuck to our bikes like a cement slurry. The race that just didn’t want us to finish struck us down once again. We would not give in though, even if it meant riding, then pushing, then cleaning the bikes making 100-200m progress at a time. We continued now into our 6th night, and we were all getting low on batteries. For what felt like an extra three hours we made super slow progress up the hill. Slowly but surely the road surface got better and better until all of a sudden it turned to seal.
Almost dumbfounded by this we slowly gathered momentum, climbed to last control and finally it truly felt like we were going to make it. Stru, first had to negotiate the descent down the mountain without a light, but that was a small challenge compared to what we had been through so far. The mud came flying off our bikes as we speed down into town. It was a warm but eerie feeling biking through relative civilisation for the first time in 5 days, almost like a calmness had descended on us. Then right as we entered the cycleway to go to the last control I spotted another team ahead. The race was back on, the horses were bolting but I didn’t think it was quite enough time or distance for us to sneak a place…. Isla managed to get herself in the other teams finish line photo in all the confusion but finally we were at the finish line and we could stop!
It was great to be finally finished, we had been through a lot and had a massive adventure, it didn’t turn out quite how we had hoped, the navigational mistakes just costing us way too much time. I feel wholly responsible for those mistakes too, I guess the biggest thing we can take away from them is a couple of huge learning experiences. Even though we had a rough time out there we continued to work well as a team the whole way. I am super proud of us all that we stuck at it and made it to the finish line, even when it would have been so easy to pull the pin… and I really have to thank Mitch, Stru and Isla for that!
Huge thanks to our Supporters back home and our Sponsors:
Talleys Group, Southern Approach, Osprey Packs, Black Diamond, Sea to Summit, Kathmandu
Personal thanks to Bivouac Outdoor and Cycleways in Christchurch!