Adventure Racing World Championships
Report by Karl Webster (who may have seen the event very differently from the rest of the team!)
It doesn’t seem that long since the 2016 ARWC were held last November in Australia with this year’s coming round in August. The Cameco Cowboy Tough was to be this year’s chosen race from the AR world series to be used as the world championship so Peaklife Sport got their entry secured moments after online applications went live and even fewer moments before it was full.
The Cowboy Tough has been a regular on the AR calendar for five years and is held in the US state of Wyoming. Wyoming consists of an arbitrarily drawn rectangle in the Mountain States covering an area slightly larger than Britain, most of it is above 5000 feet and home to little over half a million people which is the lowest population of the Lower 48 states. Most of its mountains are over to its west and the remainder of the state is largely high plains with a semi arid climate. If you feel the need to get away from folk then this is the place to be!
The event is organised by Adventure Enablers led by Mark Harris – originally a Welshman – and based in Casper, an industrial town in central Wyoming which, after being there a day or two, reveals its very strong sense of community and charm. Casper grew up around the North Platte River where it afforded a crossing point for those on the Oregon, Mormon and California Trails and the Pony Express back in the 1800s and is dominated to the south by Casper Mountain, an 8,000 foot elongated beast which will be praised and cursed later in this report.
So it was off to cowboy country for Christine and me to meet up with our friends from Norway, Jo Inge and Wendy Fjellstad. Wendy’s a childhood friend of Chris, Jo Inge’s her husband and this is the fourth time in five years we’ve teamed up to take on the AR world championships.
It was to be a course of around 450 miles open for six days and consisting of trekking, cycling, packrafting and a couple of other novelty disciplines to look forward to. It was familiar stuff to us, and we’d all made it there intact with Chris’ broken arm from last year as good as it’s going to get, my broken shoulder from last year about 95% functional and Jo Inge’s recently badly infected ankle now clear and working again with some minor assistance from supportive tape. We are getting alarmingly close to a combined age of 200 after all.
With the benefit of spending a week in the mountains of Colorado beforehand, and in Wendy and Jo Inge’s case, even more time in Utah as well, we all met up in Casper for the couple of days of briefing and prepping which goes with these races. 59 teams declared they would be starting and our first proper get-together was the Tuesday evening opening ceremony which comprised a cowboy themed flag parade into town, the necessary, official welcomes from those people of influence who had made the event possible and a downtown light-hearted treasure hunt to get us into the spirit of things.
The movers and shakers for creating the whole event included, as well as those doing all the graft on the front line, people such as the Wyoming governor Matt Mead who was there to see us all off and close proceedings a week later and the main sponsors Cameco, a uranium production company.
All was looking good by the end of Wednesday 9th August when we left our packed boxes containing all we’d need for the next week in the hands of the logistics team which would ensure they got to where they needed to be.
5.30 next morning, and we were all boarding the buses to take us to the start with a bundle of maps having been given to each team. This was a few hours right across to the state’s western edge near its border with Idaho where the big open spaces and skies of the high plains give way to the lofty mountains of the Grand Tetons. Nestled at the foot of these most picturesque of jagged peaks lies the town of Jackson and just a few miles up the road was our start line at Teton Village. The weather was glorious and we gathered together to the sound of the Star Spangled Banner played to perfection on the trumpet by one of the competitors Jesse Tubb.
At 1.00pm the governor set us off on the first stage which was a brisk 3 mile orienteer around the mountainside ahead of us. It made for a good warm up and spread the field out a bit ready for leg 2 which a straightforward run of 7 miles down the road to join the river where the adventure would begin to unfold. Nothing to worry about to this point then, and all was going well.
This first proper transition was where we were to switch from running to paddling mode and cover the next 19 miles along the Snake River. Various tributaries tumble out from the Rocky Mountains to meet up and flow down this big valley, and the Snake then meanders over a thousand miles before reaching the Columbia River and emptying out into the Pacific. Here, at Jackson Hole, it cuts an erratic course along the valley floor, dividing and rejoining constantly as it negotiates the islands and rocks in its path. It was for us to do what we could to find the best route through, so with Jo Inge and Wendy in one packraft and Chris and me in another we raced our way downstream. It was all a bit cat-and-mouse with changing fortunes depending on which water flows were followed, but it was a nice feeling having the river doing much of the propulsion. So after little over three hours on the water we reached the end of leg 3.
Wildlife note: a bald eagle flew by as we were paddling, alighted on a riverbank tree and watched us go by. I was hoping to see plenty of animals.
As we hauled our stuff up the steep river bank to the transition area (TA) it seemed somehow odd that we should be about to embark on the fourth leg of the race only a few hours into it. It only consisted of 12 so there were some lengthy ones ahead.
Leg 4 was to be a trek of 38 miles. It would have over 10,000 feet of climb across the Bridger and Teton National Forests and promised to take us well out of the way of any civilisation. As well as the mandatory kit items like a tent, suitable clothing, navigation equipment and sufficient food and water, bear repellent spray featured on the list. We’d bought a canister of this in Casper and the question was who was best placed to use it should that moment arise? Now, I’m no natural sprinter but I was confident that I had a sufficient turn of speed, given the appropriate stimulation, to outrun at least the ladies on our team. That would make me at least a bear’s third course if he had any room left after feasting on Chris and Wendy, so I figured my chances of survival were pretty favourable. That, though, would end up with us being disqualified if not all the team members finished, and I’d paid quite a lot to take part in the race. Standing and fighting, then, seemed to be only option and seeing as I carry something made from a very similar recipe on me every day at work - only to incapacitate villains rather than deter angry bears - I found myself as the natural choice. Anyway, I watched plenty of episodes of Yogi Bear in the 70s so I knew they were friendly enough really, and I had a pretty realistic looking one in bed with me most nights as a kid so I wasn’t particularly worried.
So, with the little red canister holstered to my hip, we left TA to get straight on with the business of gaining some elevation. As the last couple of hours of daylight signed off we were treated to some magnificent views of horizon after fading horizon as we followed a ridgeline into the night.
As a team, we’re strong on our feet and we kept up a good pace, picking off a few other teams early on in the stage. The conditions were good and, with a tangerine moonrise revealing itself to us we marched on through our first night. Chris and I have had a lot of experience of mountain walking in the USA over the years and the noticeable thing which differs from being on the mountains at home is that the Americans make great use of switchbacks. It’s as if anything steeper than 10% is to be avoided and seemingly many miles can be added to a route up a mountainside in the interests of comfort, safety, erosion control or whatever the reasoning behind it is. I was surprised, therefore, in the middle of the night to be clinging to a track down onto a saddle by the edges of my studs and barely being able to stay upright. Quite refreshing though.
Towards the end of the night it dropped cold. Down in the marshy valleys the difference was very marked but as the sky lightened and the sun began to rise and melt the frost, we had a lovely few miles to the end of the leg through meadows of flowers and scenery not unlike our own Peak District, although on a bigger scale.
No bears though. Disappointed? Yes, a bit.
The TA was our first checkpoint for 38 miles and came after 15 hours on our feet. We made sure of some food, tidied ourselves up a bit and did some foot care before unboxing our bikes ready for Leg 5 – 83 miles on paved and dirt roads with 10% of the route being described as single track.
Off we went away from the mountain forests and after a few miles we hit the tarmac. Miles and miles of it, straight, flat and, although welcome is one way, hard on the brain. We took advantage of passing a shop early on to get some pop as it was shaping up to be a hot morning, but the effects were temporary as the day ground on. In contrast to the previous foot stage where we’d seen nothing of civilisation whatsoever, this was very different. A ‘transit’ stage would perhaps describe it best, and into the letter part of the afternoon there came some relief from the tarmac as we turned off onto a gravel road. The pre-race briefing had included a warning about this area being inhabited by livestock – sheep mainly – which had their own feral guard dogs to protect them from predation. Apparently, these loyal canines wouldn’t hesitate to attack if their sheep appeared threatened so they were best avoided, but we didn’t see any anyway. This led us up into the hills and towards an area named on the map as Irish Canyon. What images this led to I will share with you: leprechauns dancing about maybe; people dancing with their arms held rigidly at their sides perhaps; even a nice pint of Guinness and fiddle music in the background. None of these, I’m sorry to say, but it took us up to a beautiful high valley and the map said we didn’t have much farther to go.
Things became a bit tricky as we got up there. We left the open valley and cut through the patchy forest, coming across indistinct trails and losing the lie of the land. We encountered another team which had been lost for hours but we felt we were getting near the final checkpoint of the leg as we opened out into a big meadow amid the forest which is what we’d been looking for. We didn’t know, though, that there were a few of these meadows both on the map and on the ground and that they were all very similar. Cue our big navigational error. We spent the hours – maybe five or six - through dusk and into the darkness trying this and that, retracing our steps, gambling on trying routes which didn’t really exist and eventually, late into the night, stumbling across a ranch. Even though we still hadn’t found the checkpoint at least we could re-orientate and were able, from there, to trudge across some knee deep marshland to eventually find what we were looking for. And from there it was an easy ride downhill a few miles to the next TA.
We were ready for some food by then. Our earlier frustrated meanderings had at least taken my mind off the need to keep eating and drinking so out came the food from our equipment box which had been delivered there and an odd combination of foods was soon devoured.
There were a few tents set up here which we could use for some rest if we liked, so we opted to take advantage of it. It had been almost 36 hours since we’d started and, drawing on past experience, we figured some sleep might pay dividends later, so we found a vacant tent and the four of us bedded down in our bivvy bags and allowed ourselves three whole hours.
That all ended rather too soon. We got up, packed away and set off on Leg 6 while it was still dark which was to be a 40 mile trek following the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). For those unfamiliar with this, the CD is the theoretical line running longitudinally through the Americas which hydrologists have decided the water flows away from to the Pacific on the west and the Atlantic on the east. And the T is a hiking trail which roughly follows this. It’s well maintained and, as you’d expect, follows the high ground along the Rockies, meandering away from the CD now and then but offering some great views of lovely scenery.
Lodgepole pines, whose fallen branches are so useful for making tipis, are abundant in the forests. That left us with many a ready made obstacle course to negotiate at times but, we high stepped, jumped and balanced our way through them each time.
The whole day consisted of this wild country. We maintained a good pace seeing virtually no-one after the early morning. Jo Inge hadn’t slept a deal during our stop in the night and he was not looking very bright as the afternoon wore on. Somehow I transitioned into the navigator role and everything appeared to be fitting the map nicely until we reached a point where I expected to drop across the next checkpoint. Confused, I even took a photograph of a post where I thought it should have been then Jo Inge snapped out of his Zombie walk, took one look at the map and promptly told me where we were. I had seriously overestimated our pace and been a long way out of touch when I had started following (sort of) the map, despite it all looking to fit the ground.
Whether it was the shock of my error or genuine fatigue, I don’t know, but the rest of that afternoon had me at a bit of a low point. I was working hard to keep up with the others who seemed to be skipping along quite happily and was glad when nightfall came and a discussion about some more rest was in order. We had reached a point where we’d be dropping off the high ground and had about 10 miles remaining and my suggestion of a couple of hours sleep must have sounded pathetic enough that it became the agreed course of action. It was a cold night again, but a few minutes of preparation to nestle down in my survival bag had me maximising on the two hours we were going to allow for sleep. I could have stayed there hours, I reckon.
As we got up and set off I felt far more human again and we took the CDT until we reached the end of the leg at a ghost town named South Pass City. It was nearly 2.00am and the city jail was the checkpoint/TA. Something to look forward to had been the promise of a shot of whiskey here and it didn’t take long to ensure we had our fair share, mine being three shots. It had dropped very cold, after all.
A number of teams were sleeping here in a barn amongst the hay, which all looked very cosy, but our two hours on the mountain, the whiskey and some food and hot drinks from our box left us needing no more, or so we thought. We set up our bikes and headed off out of town on a 36 mile leg. Although it was only 36 miles, we knew the following leg was going to be a short 4 mile trekking, climbing and caving leg followed by a futher 163 miles on the bike, so we were basically looking at close to 200 miles in the saddle.
South Pass City, I have to say, was a bit of a disappointment. Although it was dark and unlit, what I did see was a pristinely restored collection of buildings with a modern toilet block and a shop. I’d rather see a ghost town which looks as if everyone packed up one Friday afternoon and never came back.
The early part of the ride was comfortable enough as we took the good dirt road for a few miles to somewhere called Atlantic City. Don’t be fooled by these names. City has a rather different meaning in the USA sometimes and this was no more than what we’d refer to as a village. We had a bizarre moment here of being misled by a road sign which showed Atlantic City as being what we initially read as 5 miles behind us. Had we spotted the decimal point sooner, we might have also spotted the checkpoint kite dangling limply from the bottom of it and Atlantic City only being a tenth of the distance away. One of those moments!
As we joined the paved road which was to take us the next few miles we, again, became confused. Before that, though, the dawn sleepmonsters were ganging up on Chris and her need for a stop led to us all having a few minutes at the roadside. I realised at this point that I seemed to be the only one who had been sleeping when we had had our ‘official’ stops and I was feeling much brighter than the other three looked. I didn’t have a mirror to confirm this was actually the case though!
A junction layout we came across didn’t seem to match anything the map was offering us and it was only the presence of some power lines also marked on the map which confirmed to us that the map predated some alterations which had not been updated.
After a short stretch on tarmac we turned off onto a gravel road again which ran alongside a feature called Limestone Mountain. It was here that my reservations about tubeless tyres was reinforced as Wendy suffered a sidewall puncture to her back tyre which the sealant refused to deal with. A good half hour was spent trying to encourage it to work but, in the interests of making progress, we ended up fitting a tube and got moving again. This led us onto a tremendous long descent into a beautiful valley system and the rest of the day until mid afternoon was spent crossing these.
A lot of pushing was involved along with river crossings and rough downhills which, unfortunately, exposed one of our team’s vulnerabilities. Chris, although a much better off-road rider than a few years ago, still has a genuine fear of ground which might unseat her, and progress was actually quite slow. Oddly though, as we reached the last few miles of the stage which dropped down some tricky singletrack, she appeared to have been possessed by the ghost of a downhill rider and put in an admirable performance to reach Sinks Canyon where the next TA was.
Sinks Canyon is a gorge a few miles outside the town of Lander where the Popo Agie River disappears underground for a short while before emerging in a pool where what must be some of the world’s biggest trout live. They were whoppers, but there was little time to admire them as we had to get on with Leg 8 which consisted of an abseil and a short excursion into a cave to reach another checkpoint. We took our time with our transition admin and food knowing we had 163 miles to do in the next stage, then climbed up the side of the gorge to abseil down again. It was, I’d say, about 200 feet down the cliff and we all accomplished it without drama. We then went off up to the cave to seek the checkpoint deep inside and found it to be quite an unusual experience surrounded by white foamy-looking rocks, dark strata above and water rushing menacingly below. Technically, it was easy and we returned to the TA, gathered our bikes and headed off to pass through Lander on the roads. Some vague discussion took place about stopping in Lander but it seemed far too early with there still being a couple of hours of daylight left, so we pushed on out the other side and into the Wyoming wilds again.
It was admitted later by Jo Inge that he had an idea in the back of his mind that we could have taken a sleep stop in Lander at some hotel or other, but I was glad that never happened. At least one other team did do that, but I think it goes against the spirit of the event really. Whilst we were not there to suffer unnecessarily, we weren’t in that bad a state.
As we neared the end of the day I thought it best to consider what we were going to do about stopping to rest. The map showed virtually no signs of civilization beyond where we were as the sky was going dark, and my best suggestion was that we stop at the next place we saw which appeared to offer some form of shelter, whatever it might be. We had no access to a weather forecast but I wasn’t confident it wouldn’t rain.
We passed a couple of ranches some miles distant from Lander and one of them looked worth an enquiry. We pulled up outside a caravan which was home to an old cowboy chap who seemed receptive to our suggestion of using one of his sheds to lay our bedding out in for a few hours. I explained what we were doing and that our race was taking us from Jackson to Casper and that we needed a short sleep. I didn’t go into much more detail initially and he then proceeded to tell us there was a far better way to Casper than the way we were going. As he did his very best to help us in this respect I found myself explaining we had a prescribed route and that it wasn’t just a simple bike ride! Further conversation revealed that his mother had been Norwegian and was from Jo Inge’s native town of Trondheim. A small world, as they say.
Old cowboy man showed us to one of his barns which looked ideal. It had riding tack everywhere, resident cats to catch the mice and bails of hay which we laid out to form some nice beds. Seeing as we had this level of luxury at our disposal we thought we’d best capitalise on as much sleep as we thought we could get away with and set the alarms five hours hence. We expected it to be the last proper sleep we’d be having for the remainder of the race.
Sleep, again, came easily to me, and I believe Jo Inge and Wendy didn’t do too badly either. Chris had less success, though, but we had to get moving again and saddled up to get on with the many miles ahead.
It was not long before we left the tarmac and hit the gravel roads again. They were good enough for a comfortable ride and saw us through the night. It was properly dark out there with no ambient light so it wasn’t until daybreak that we saw the type of scenery we were amongst. Yorkshire Dales, I’d describe it as, although on a much larger scale and more remote. The rolling yellowy landscape was interspersed with the occasional hilltop and cut through by empty valleys, and under the sunrise it looked very peaceful.
It eventually led us to a road which gave us a few miles of tarmac relief and to the next checkpoint at a roadside rest area where the next checkpoint was. Some toilets here gave me the first glimpse of myself in a mirror for over 90 hours and the figure staring back at me did look a bit rough. Whiskers, big bags hanging from deep eye slits and a layer of grime to mask what was perhaps a pale complexion gave me some reassurance that I had been working hard the last few days.
We then set off on what was to become, to some, the most gruelling part of the whole race. The Bison Basin Road traverses the high landscape at elevations around 8000 feet for miles and miles. It passes no inhabited places, has no shelter from the sun or the rain and offers views over vast areas of central Wyoming.
Fortunately, to begin with at least, the gravel surface was good and we tracked its relentless course encountering one other team and the occasional wild horse, cow herd and antelopes springing around. It was a surreal experience when a low loader unexpectedly came up on my shoulder at one point, to be seen a couple of hours later returning with an excavator on board. We passed disused mineral sites and, as the day got hotter and hotter, we left the main track in favour of a more direct minor track to a remote checkpoint. This proved a tricky ride as it became very soft and sandy and tested one’s sense of humour a bit.
An hallucination of one of the other teams?
When we did eventually reach checkpoint 25 we were relieved that the promise of water held true. It was manned by a couple of volunteers whose services of first aid and bottled water were truly heroic and we lingered a while for the sake of our sanity as much as anything else. Another team we had passed earlier arrived to join us and seeing one of them pull out a cold Big Mac from him bag was an unexpected moment. He’d been resisting it all the way from Lander the previous evening and, even though it looked a bit cold and the lettuce was limp, I did feel slightly envious.
Rest over, we took up the track again which soon led us off the high ground and down a long and rutted downhill towards a mining town called Bairoil then on to somewhere labelled on the map as Lamont. It was an uncomfortable few miles on our tired bodies but when we eventually hit some tarmac after the mines it was a refreshing freewheel down to the main road where the next checkpoint was.
Lamont was a severe disappointment. What had once been a café and perhaps the only thing about which to rejoice on reaching the place was now a derelict building. However, this was soon eased by a couple of cheery checkpoint marshals, one being a lady who had weighed us in before the start and would be there to meet us at the finish. Politician’s wife, lawyer, pianist and board member of the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund, Susan engaged us in this odd conversation that she had two young sons and one had ambitions to find himself an English wife one day. As our daughter had travelled with us and was enjoying a week being spoiled by her auntie and uncle as we raced, we virtually offered her hand in the style of an arranged marriage for sometime in the future. It turned out that Susan was a big driving force behind the whole event.
Again, we hauled ourselves back onto our bikes to complete the last part of this long bike leg. It was a short ride along the main road which would take us to a gravel road and off into the sticks again and what an exciting few miles it turned out to be. I quite like experiencing extreme weather, as long as overall safety doesn’t appear compromised, and no sooner had we set off than the distant rumblings over the mountains to our right started. Then came the flashes and the sight of the huge clouds in the expansive sky. Then the wind began to pick up to blow it all in our direction and within minutes we were being buffeted by enormous raindrops travelling horizontally and being pushed out into the carriageway by a ferocious wind. Chris looked terrified so I had to do my best to conceal the excitement I was feeling and we all battled on, listing dramatically to starboard to counter the weather from the south. It was all over in a few minutes and we didn’t really benefit from it blowing behind us as we turned onto the dirt road as it all subsided.
After we’d made a few clothing adjustments to keep warm we pedalled on through some interesting scenery with colourful striated bluffs to our left. We were in oil country again and solitary derricks nodded to us as we passed until we eventually arrived at a proper ghost town called Ferris. This one was not for the tourists and was much the better for it. We found the checkpoint there and continued on to what turned out to be a lovely evening ride through a sandy canyon and, as darkness fell, up onto a high gravel road to our next TA.
This was leg 9 completed and it felt good. There were only three more to go: two mainly rafting legs and a final bike ride.
We stowed our bikes, got a bit to eat and assessed what best to do next. There was shelter in the form of a logistics truck if we wanted it and the next stage began with a 6 mile portage before we hit the water. As we’d be navigating across a large reservoir we thought it best to try and time it when we’d have half a chance of seeing where we were going, but time was getting on and we only had the next day and a half to complete the course. We took a two hour sleep on the cold floor of the back of the truck then set off laden with our rafts and tackle to trudge on down to the reservoir. It was heavy going after nearly 3 hours when we reached the shore. We inflated the rafts, secured the bags to it and set off on a bearing with no light to guide us.
It was a serene paddle to begin with. Previous experience told me it might be difficult staying awake across an expanse of open water with nothing to focus on, but the short sleep at the TA must have been enough for me as I felt quite alert. It was named Pathfinder Reservoir and is a fair size – big enough to be shown and named, I later saw, on my old Times Atlas of the World. The fact that there’s very little in the way of nameworthy places around it might have something to do with it.
As we got into the open onto what we were expecting to be about an 8 mile paddle we did see some lights. These lights were not what we particularly wanted, though, as they were sent from above and accompanied with deep rumbling sounds. There was little to be done about it, out there in the middle of a big lake, so we paddled on as the wind picked up and the rain began, all the time the flashes and rumblings getting closer. As it intensified, the mixture of excitement and concern was a strange one but I consoled myself with the thought that as long as I kept seeing and hearing the storm, it hadn’t killed me. We were soon bouncing around on white waves and the little rafts were being precariously tipped towards their points of balance both left and right. We had to turn then perpendicular to the waves to make sure we stayed upright but even this started getting a bit uncomfortable and it was only a matter of minutes before we could do nothing other than be blown ashore.
It was actually quite a relief by then, but we were chilled to the core and had to do some emergency stripping off and redressing in dry clothes. It helped that it was getting light too, which often brings with it a change in weather. It was then that we saw some lights a short way off. Jo Inge went off to investigate and shouted us over to where a team of Italians, which we’d seen a few times earlier on in the race, were stranded and sheltering under their rafts having been blown ashore some hours earlier. It seemed that the reservoir hosted a number of different climates and this was the windy end. They had a punctured raft, which was actually a failed previous repair, and they looked startled and unsure about what to do.
I had a repair kit on board so I set to with it on their raft and, as if by some miracle, the weather settled and it became light to reveal a scene of tranquillity with the deep blue water and the sandy shores all around. I did my best with their raft but a repair on top of a repair is never going to hold for long so I didn’t fancy its chances of holding out until the end of the race.
We could now see where we were and portaged across the headland we’d been blown onto and set off paddling again at the other side towards the dam where we would have to get out and portage again.
This done, we put the rafts back in the water and paddled off down Fremont Canyon. The river was not as deep as we’d have liked and a lot of time was spent dragging the rafts over rocks, and then we reached a part where the fun factor rose. The canyon narrowed, the water deepened and quickened and rushed between big boulders. It made for some great entertainment even if much of it involved throwing the rafts over rocks and joining them further downstream…. and it was pretty too.
We reached the take out after a couple of hours and dragged everything up to the road which made for our next portage. The day was now hot and the road was steep and we laboured up it and over the other side of the hill towards the next reservoir along the river. It was a good 8 or 9 miles and we were glad to reach the water again at Alcova Reservoir. The paddle across this was unremarkable and we bypassed this dam by portaging down to the North Platte River where its flow was now smooth and predictable. Our Italian friends were with us again but their leak was still proving troublesome.
Once in the river, we cracked on with the business of paddling hard. We didn’t have much choice really as the afternoon thunderstorms started again and the temperature dropped considerably. It wasn’t very pleasant being drenched, but the storm kept breaking up and giving us the chance to warm up a bit again before starting again and we were glad to reach the end of this 29 mile leg. The raft was going into its bag for the last time and I cursed the muddy river bank and gravelly car park being used as the TA which left our raft in a filthy state.
Before packing the raft away, the first job was to rush off to the toilet block and get something dry on to stop the shivers. The first aid man at this point ordered some hot water to be provided for us which went a long way towards making me feel much better. We all seemed to recover pretty quickly and prepared for the 12th and final stage which was a mere 33 miles on the bike. It sounded a doddle even though we knew it involved and ascent and descent of Casper Mountain of about 3-and-a-half thousand feet. It was late evening but we had until 1 o’clock the following afternoon before the course closed.
The first part was along the paved roads for about 14 miles which we completed with little trouble, apart from when Wendy rode off the road during a moment of sleepiness. We then took a left turn onto a gravel road to start the ascent up the back of the mountain. It was only a couple of minutes before we began to struggle on the soft ground, made so by the afternoon storms we’d been in on the river. And then it suddenly changed from soft ground to something which stopped us in our tracks. Now, I’ve done plenty of cyclocross over the years and experienced many types of mud, but this was something else. It was like potter’s clay and instantly stuck to everything in came into contact with and we couldn’t do more than a single turn of the wheels without it clogging up between the wheels and frame to the point of acting as a very effective brake. And it was heavy too. We tried carrying for a few yards but the bikes were twice their weight. Time to have a rethink.
We calculated that another uphill 11 or 12 miles of this would take us at least 8 hours, and it would have been a very miserable 8 hours – or more - at that. The alternative was to ride back along the road almost to the start of the leg, take the road to Casper then take on the mountain from the town which, although long and steep, was at least on tarmac. We reckoned 4 or 5 hours might see us to the top so the decision was an easy one really. We got off the mud, scraped what we could the bikes and retraced our route.
The ride round to Casper felt long but there was a certain relief that there would be no more low-ballers. We reached the bright lights after an hour or two, allowing for a roadside nap at Wendy’s request just outside town. We kept it short – too short as it turned out – and Wendy looked positively ill from tiredness. We passed a petrol station having its floors cleaned where no coffee was available, a closed McDonald’s again without coffee and eventually hit upon a 24-hour Walmart and its fridge full of Starbucks iced coffees. Quite what the staff thought of four hobo-looking cyclists covered in mud, I can only imagine, but it was all or nothing now to get to the last checkpoint atop Casper Mountain.
I loved that climb, in the dark, feeling the air getting cold the higher we rose, and wished so much to push on as hard as I could. But it wasn’t about that. We needed to stay as a team and get there together and then get to the finish in one piece. As it flattened out towards the top there was the chance for a moment to look out across Casper and all its lights and imagine what awaited us once we’d accomplished this final task. The greeting at the top was from an official photographer who, at half past three in the morning, had us posing for a memento.
That done, we set off back down. Knowing it would be a long and cold journey we dressed for the occasion and spent the best part of the next hour freewheeling. Not tempting fate we took it carefully and reached the outskirts of town in one piece. I did have a fright when I looked across at Wendy to see her rolling along with her eyes closed for more than a second or two, but she somehow stayed on the road and I told myself not to worry. Someone else must have been looking after her.
We had to navigate through town but finally reached the path alongside the river which was to lead us back to the race HQ and the finish line.
There were going to be no big crowds. Most sensible people are fast asleep at 4.30, but we were greeted by Mark the organiser and the ever-smiling Susan who congratulated us and provided us with a most welcome beer. We’d made it yet again finishing 29th and in 135 hours and 51 minutes. 36 teams eventually completed the course out of the 59 which started.
Note Wendy’s impression of a badly dressed fairy!
We were weighed again. I’d dropped 2.5kg but the others had maintained their starting weights. Perhaps I ought to slim down a bit beforehand!
The hosting hotel – the Ramkota – was only across the road, so off we toddled to find our showers and beds for a bit of sleep before waking up feeling like we’d been thrown down the side of Casper Mountain.
The day merged into evening where the do served to consolidate the event, and the thanks were extended to everyone – staff, volunteers and competitors alike – for creating a truly memorable few days. Seagate from New Zealand took the world title yet again and demonstrated what top quality athletes they really are.
We spent the next week out there taking some much needed R&R and left behind a state which we had grown very fond of.
My thanks go first of all to Chris, Wendy and Jo Inge. It was a great time and an experience which will always remain strong in my memory. Also to Chris’ sister and brother-in-law who travelled from California to see us and, as well as offer their support, looked after out daughter and team mascot while we raced.
The people involved in the event in so many ways all deserve tremendous credit for their selfless work over the course of not just race week, but the many months beforehand. Thank you so much and I hope the event enjoys many more years of success.
Photo credits shown on images (the good ones) or Wendy and Jo Inge (the not-too-bad ones) and me (the dodgy ones!).