Look, I'll admit it - I was a fantasy geek growing up. I loved Tolkien. I played Dungeons and Dragons. I dreamed of epic quests across imposing landscapes. When I race, I think of my team as my "adventuring party", and look over my shoulder in fear of marauding orcs.
The first stage of Expedition Oregon 2019 took teams deep into the winter landscape to the top of Maiden Peak. The sun was bright, the sky clear and the view nearly endless. The lakes, mountains, stretched before them. At the edge of sight, the rock spires of Smith Rock floated above the horizon, waiting to help make AR history with the first real climbing stage. And in the foreground, the foreboding lava fields, seemingly impossible to cross.
And yet - every single athlete that started this adventure made it to the finish line. Every team in tact. Every personal quest completed. That is legendary. And I am honored to have been there to see it happen.
This year's Expedition Oregon drew some of the best teams from around country, and a few elite from around the world - and the overall result was hotly contested by 5 teams from the very start.
BendRacing/Leki (Canada), Quest AR (USA), Bones (USA), Alpha Dental (France) and NaturKompaniet Pioneers (Sweden) took control of the race pretty early on the during the first day, and there were many lead changes. Often in expedition races, one team dominates so much that the race is a bit of a foregone conclusion after the first day. Not so in this race.
Top teams expected to beat the Day 2 Darkzone after their blistering pace up the Maiden - a looming shield volcano covered in snow. They took only 7 hours for that first stage that race organizers suggested would take 10-14 hours. But the second stage trekking across the barren lava landscape showed teams the more brutal side of Central Oregon's volcanic heritage. Dusk was harsher still, as temperatures dropped with the setting sun. Icicles formed on their eyelashes as they paddled, and many racers were colder than they could ever remember being.
Still - they pressed hard, adjusting their goals as they looked forward to some sleep in the same dark zone they'd been planning on beating earlier. But even that slipped away for most of them, with only Quest and Alpha Dental getting more than an hour of sleep.
In the next two days, the extra bit of sleep that Quest and Alpha Dental got started to pay off in little ways. They held a tiny fraction of a higher pace on the water. They transitioned a few minutes faster than the others.
BendRacing/Leki was more addled than most. Their strong pace couldn't make up for their consistent errors. Twice on the class III whitewater packraft (after they'd only had 45 min of sleep in 48 hours) they took out of the river to early. Once for a portage, and once in the middle of the canyon when they mistook a small bend for the large one that signified the take-out. The deflated boats, took of drysuits, and hiked up out of the canyon - only to realize they were miles short. They had to descend back to the river and inflate everything again.
All the teams made mistakes. The navigation was difficult, and all the teams struggled with sleep deprivation. No team's navigation was even close to flawless, but in this second half of the race, Quest just realized those mistakes sooner.
On the slopes of Grey Butte the final technical test awaited - a 300' climb to the top of a jagged rock spire. 14 teams completed this point, climbing in true multi-pitch fashion (lead and follow) until the reached the single most isolated checkpoint in AR history. Some teams climbed it in the middle of the night, perhaps never even realizing the true exposure of the position until they saw photos at the awards ceremony.
The final 3 stages were fast, but some of the terrain demanded a different sort of navigational awareness than they'd gotten used to. With micro-nav on the stage 7 o-course, giving way to the vast expanse of desert criss crossed 4x4 roads - and area that can be best described as a "redneck wonderland". Teams that did these stages at night all fell prey to sleep-monsters along the way, often losing hours as they drifted back and forth in that no-mans-land where everything looked the same. Dawn brought with it a hint of hope, and the first rays of sun carried with them beams of sanity. It just enough, and every lost team found there way.
By this stage, Quest AR had taken a decisive lead, leaving the remaining four teams from the lead pack to battle it out for the final podium spots. And it was a battle - with excitement all the way to the finish line. In the end it was the French and Canadians that would stand to either side of the Americans of Team Quest on the podium.
Outside of the top 5, the battle for top 10 was just as fierce, with placement changes happening all the way up to the bitter end.
Expedition Oregon 2019 ARWS placement
Bend Racing / Leki
Mountain Race Company
Untamed New England
Zona 3 / Assist Card
Around the Bend
But as exciting as the competition is, what we are really left with at then end of an event like this is our personal experience. The stories that we weave to ourselves when we are at our lowest (lava trek anyone?). The willpower we dip out of a seemingly dry well to take one more step forward or to stay awake for one more hour. It is the fact that we stood with our team, facing the unknown, and that it excited us.
I was reminded during the awards ceremony about an interview that our team did in the wild's of Patagonia during the Patagonian Expedition Race. I was the lowest I've ever been in my life. We were shattered beyond recognition. Interviewer asked the quintessential question - "why do you do this?". I was silent. And then my wife, tears streaming down her face for my pain, answered simply.
"Because it is necessary."
And so I say to all of the racers and staff of Expedition Oregon "you are legendary". The places that you touched with your feet and your hands are truly fantastical. And I tell you now that the necklace you carried home with you is magical - a testament to your perseverance and a true piece of your journey. It might seem a simple trinket, (like what Bilbo first thought of the ring), but it has power. Let it remind you that the mundane is a choice, and adventure is your legacy.
The lava is waiting...