By Emily Caseria
What an adventure! The race took us 140hrs, which was one of our longest races yet! This was one of the most challenging races we have ever done physically, mentally, and emotionally. The projected winning time was 4.5 days, but the first place team finished in just over 5. The unexpected weather swings along with some poor water quality played a huge role in this year's race. From very hot and dry to very cold and wet conditions, every team was affected, some more severely than others. There were 10 total stages, a mix of trekking and biking with one paddle stage and one ropes section. The majority of the distance was covered on the bike, but the longest time-wise was trekking. A struggle from the start was that we had limited capacity for pre-packed food and gear, which made the colder, wetter parts of the race more challenging and it made food planning even more so. Each stage took slightly longer than planned which meant we would be lean on calories for part of it. Thankfully, there were options in some sections to purchase food in a transition area or along the route.
*Us packing our bin before the race...we had to take A LOT out to make weight
We had an exciting start to the race where we encountered 2 warthogs that dashed in front of Dusty and Dan! I think they were just as surprised as we were! There were so many awe-inspiring moments during this race, the first one being the starting line. There were so many people, from so many countries, standing together on the start line. We were all nervous, excited, and happy to be there with each about to start a new adventure.
The next moment that brought me to tears (there were more than two of these moments, I probably cried this race more than any other race!) was cresting the edge of the dunes on the first stage, looking down at the Indian Ocean ahead. What an absolutely amazing moment to be alive and experience with my team.
We had a great start to the race, maintaining a top 10 position. The race started with an 8 hour trek, and then straight to a 12 hour mountain bike stage.
Stage 5 was the whitewater paddle, which ended up being a bit more exciting than expected as a result of a large amount of recent precipitation. South Africa, especially the Kouga region, had been experiencing severe drought for the past 6 years. The rain was welcome and celebrated! There was a "dark zone" where no one could be on the river after 7pm or before 5am (for safety reasons due to whitewater), which meant that if your team was already on the river when 7pm rolled around, you had to exit the river and sleep on the shore until 5am the next morning. The entire first part of the race, our goal was to beat the dark zone. As we got closer and closer to this stage, we could see our window narrowing. It was close, but we ended up beating the dark zone by a mere 30minutes! This didn't mean we were off the water before dark, but it meant we were past the dangerous section by then. There was a nasty headwind the whole paddle which counteracted the current in the river and made it significantly more challenging. The river fed into a reservoir, which we ended up paddling across in complete darkness. By the time we reached the take-out, we were hypothermic and exhausted. Thankfully, the next transition had hot cocoa and a fire where we could dry out and warm up before we headed out on the next bike stage.
The longest bike stage was after the paddle. It was 140 miles and took roughly 16 hours. It was all rideable with just a few very muddy sections that required some hike-a-bike. This bike got us to another trek that we planned roughly 15 hours to complete, but unfortunately this is where we started to struggle with the heat/exhaustion and our pace slowed down significantly. From Dusty vomiting and hitting a total exhaustion point, my legs swelling to 1.5x their normal size (most likely due to electrolyte imbalance and stress), to really bad diarrhea for Dan, we had a rough go for the last 3 stages and ended up stopping and resting more than we had initially planned. Despite all of these setbacks, we were better off than so many others out there. A large number of teams had to drop a teammate due to uncontrollable diarrhea and vomiting (It turned out that the river we whitewater paddled on stage 5 may have been the culprit). There was even one team who had a bad crash on a bike stage that ended with a broken collarbone, and another who got a concussion and needed stitches mid-race. I guess you could say we were the lucky ones! Thankfully, after taking it slow and adding in some extra sleep, we were able to recover and build back up to our intended race pace. The final bike leg was one of the most beautiful sections of the race, taking us through the mountains back down towards the coast on rough jeep trails, through windmills and cattle farms, and a game reserve where we saw a giraffe!
Our setback caused us to change focus for the rest of the race. We figured we had lost too much time to other teams and were probably lucky to be in the top 20. Our new goal was just to finish the race, and to make sure we remained friends to the end. The final leg was a trek along the coast of Cape St. Francis and finished at the host resort.
As we exited the beach, a mere 400 meters from the finish line, we had no idea what place we were in and were just thrilled to have made it that far. When a race official told us we were 6th (our highest finish at the World Champs yet), we couldn't believe it.
Every race teaches us this same or similar lesson, and every race we seem to forget it when we are out there in the midst of our struggles. The simple fact is that it's not over until it's over, and every team is having to face the same challenges that we are facing. What matters is how we respond as a team. Managing what we CAN control. We have to continue to take care of each other, communicate with each other, and keep moving forward even if it feels like we are going nowhere. Communication breakdown within a team can be one of the biggest contributing factors to whether or not you make it across the finish line. This race tested our team's mental, emotional, and physical capacities more than ever before. We were so thankful to finish this race together, and to finish as friends.
Here's to another top ten finish! We were the top US team and 6th overall. The flame is fueled for the new year ahead! Be sure to track our team in Mexico at the ARWS La Ruta Madre expedition race starting November 17th!