Below is a recap of Expedition Ozark as told by Dusty Caseria, who came on to take Jason's place at the 9th hour. It is often said that getting to the start line of an Expedition Race is the hardest part and that has been our experience many times. However this one was perhaps the closest we have ever come to having it all fall apart. Huge thanks to Dusty and Emily for putting your life on hold for while to help the team race to a win!
Wow! What a whirlwind of a week. After getting called into action at the last-minute due to a Jason developing an 8mm kidney stone (OUCH!), frantically packing up all my gear, and flying to Arkansas 2 days later, our team (Bend Racing / Skin Doctor) crossed the finish line of the 360 mile Expedition Ozark in first place after over 85 hours of racing! I really had to lean on my teammates for this one. They packed most of my food for me while I was flying to the race, and to be honest, even at the start line, I really didn’t know much about the stages that were to come. This course was possibly the most logistically challenging one I’ve ever done, so I didn’t spend my limited time and energy before the race trying to wrap my head around all the complex details, and instead just trusted my team as they walked me through what I needed to pack and where.
The race started off fast with about an hour-long trek. Our team immediately charged to the front and led to the first couple CPs, but the trail became tough to follow and a couple teams made it to the first TA just ahead of us. Next up, we had a short ~2 hour bike with some route options. We didn’t have the right map in front of us for this section so we took a slower route than some teams and rolled into TA2 in 8th place. Our team stayed calm (we were only 3 hours into the race after all) and had a smooth transition before getting on the river for a packraft stage. We passed a few teams in transition and on the first part of the river…and paddled the second half mostly alone, with several teams very close behind. There was some tricky navigation getting from the river take-out up to the TA and upon arriving at the TA, were surprised to find out that we were in 2nd place. Only the Brazilian team (3rd at last year’s World Championships) was ahead of us. This news gave us a boost and we charged out of the TA and into the longest trek of the race (45 miles) running everything we could while trying not to overdo it.
It was very warm out, so we made sure to stay on top of hydration and food. We shifted weight around as needed to help whoever was feeling the heat the most at that moment. Darkness brought a welcome temperature drop and we kept our pace steady. Early in the night we caught the Brazilians, who appeared to be struggling a bit (chatting with them after the race we found out that all 4 of them were experiencing a low point at exactly the same time…brutal). We pushed on, trying to stay steady knowing that there were loads of good teams behind us and we were only on the first night of the race. We took a foot care stop about 2/3 of the way through the trek which entailed taking a few minutes to remove shoes, let our feet dry a little, and apply some Skin Doctor before moving again. Preventive foot care early in these races is critical and can have a HUGE impact on the team’s moving speed in the second half of the race. We rolled into the transition in first place, with several teams not far behind. I won’t go through all the remaining stages in detail, but the rest of the race had a repeating pattern. We found ourselves in a tight race with a powerhouse team from Estonia/Ecuador. They are good friends of ours, so it was kind of fun actually, but also stressful knowing how strong they are. We saw them in almost every single TA the rest of the race. We’d start each stage a little stressed having seen them roll into the TA as we were about to leave. The stress would start to fade away as we focused on racing our own race, pushing the pace, and (in general) nailing the navigation pretty well. By the end of each stage, we’d felt like we’d just hit a home run and MUST have put some time on them…only to have them roll into the TA again right as we were about to leave…no farther back than they were at the last TA. They were almost exactly 30 minutes behind us for most of the race. We also had no idea where the Brazilians were…or our friends on Spanish/American team Vidaraid, who are one of the top ranked teams in the world as well, and SUPER fast. There were a bunch of other fast teams somewhere behind us too from France, Denmark, Canada, and the USA, but we didn’t know how far. On the 4th and last full night of racing, still barely holding on to the lead, we made the decision to sleep despite being less than 24 hours from the finish line. There was no question really, we all knew that our pace would quickly fall off and we’d risk making nav mistakes if we pushed another 20 hours into sleep deprivation. We’d been sleeping for a little less than 2 hours when we woke up to Estonia/Ecuador passing us. We packed up quickly, had a short 30-second team pep talk, and headed off after them, but never saw them again the rest of the stage. At the TA we found out that we were still in the lead. Next up was what we’d expected to be a chill 2-hour canoe paddle. What we found instead was a strong headwind and large waves on the lake. We pushed through it, barely moving at times while paddling as hard as we could and trying not to capsize…which in open canoes would have likely meant our race was over. After a short portage, we were on more wind-sheltered waters and made quick time again, but our second portage brought us to the roughest water yet. We had about 3k to the TA, but Alex, who was the first to see the small beach where we’d get back on the lake, turned around and yelled back to let us know “Guys! This is REALLY going to suck!” Not what we wanted to hear, but oh well. We made it to the TA without flipping, and yet again, saw Estonia/Ecuador paddling into the TA just as we were about to leave.
The final few stages had some ups and downs. We were all at our limit, so we did more gear shuffling at a few points to help whoever was struggling at that moment. We made pretty good time to the final TA, but slowed down a little through the singletrack leading into the TA. All we had left was a short trek and a short bike to the finish, but early in the trek we heard loud cheering just behind us in the woods where we’d just come from. Could Estonia/Ecuador be catching us? We assumed that was the case, and somehow all 4 of us found another gear that I’m not sure we knew we had. We were running uphill fast. We found a CP at a dance floor deep in a cave, rappelled down a cliff, and then booked it back to the TA gathering one more CP on the way…running the fastest we had the entire race. Just before the TA, we saw Estonia/Ecuador just leaving the TA on the trek…meaning they weren’t right behind us. For me, this was the first moment that I finally thought we had the race won barring any sort of disaster on the last, short stage. We had 3 more CPs on the final bike to the finish. They were a bit tricky, but we knew we had about an hour lead, so we were able to move fast until we were near each CP, and then slow way down to make sure we didn’t make a huge error right at the end. We crossed the finish line about an hour after dark after 85 hours and 40 minutes of racing. The finish line felt as impressive as the finish of the World Championship itself. This first year race did a fantastic job of making the event feel like a BIG deal. We all agreed we felt like heroes in that moment. It was a pretty cool feeling. Thanks so much to my teammates Chelsey, Karine, and Alex for being amazing teammates, helping get me to the start line with everything I needed at the last-minute, and for racing hard start to finish despite all the lows along the way. I couldn’t ask for better teammates. Thanks to my amazing wife, Emily, for encouraging me to step up and race for Jason on 2 days notice and for spending hours packing much of my gear for me. I’m not sure I could have packed everything and still made my flight in time without you. Thanks to the entire Expedition Ozark team for a fantastic event. This was the most impressive first year race I’ve ever been to. Thank you to all our wonderful sponsors who are supporting us this season. We couldn't compete at this level without your support. Thanks to all my friends and family as well for your support. It’s been fun the past couple days reading through everything people were posting while the race was going on. Now, time to recover, finish unpacking, and start getting ready for Expedition Canada in just over a month!
If you want to watch a recap of the race head to:
For two podcasts that we recorded a day after the race head to: