Have Dental Floss, Will Travel

Mapping the world, one waxy strand at a time…

The Most Boring Team in Alaska

These guys lost a team member to an asthma attack.

This group lost three paddles and two packs on Day 2 of the race.

He had foot rot.

She had hypothermia.

He fell into a crevasse and had to be airlifted off the glacier.

At the awards banquet for the 2015 Expedition Alaska Adventure Race, RD Dave Adlard’s color commentary of the rankings read as a triage report of the trials and tribulations that each team suffered en route to the finish line at the base of Mount Marathon, in Seward.

“And in sixth place,” continued Dave, “GOALS AR.”

Silence. No maladies. No calamities. No near-misses. No sexy stories to share with the rest of the field.

We stood up and walked to the front of the pavilion to collect our medals.

We were officially the most boring team in Alaska.

****

Seven days earlier, we had lined up on the banks of Lake Eklutna alongside the nineteen other teams that had descended upon Anchorage from around the world, ready to take on the first running of Expedition Alaska.

For months, Adlard had been taking to facebook to warn the world about the dangers that this race would offer – the exposure, the glacial travel, the rushing whitewater, the animals. This would hearken back to the days of Eco-Challenge and the Raid Gauloises: a race the likes of which the AR community hadn’t seen in well over a decade.

And he had adventure racing icon Mike Kloser and packrafting guru Roman Dial to vouch for it.

Roman Dial

Dial leading a pre-race packraft training

Before the race, we spent four days sequestered at the Princess McKinley Lodge, just outside Denali National Park, going through crevasse rescue school, packraft training, and bear safety workshops.

So when we stepped off the buses at Lake Eklutna, we knew that there was the potential for catastrophe. But just how seriously should we be taking Adlard? Would this really be – as he put it – as “epic-er” as he claimed?

Following a quick countdown, we ran through the inflated arch on the banks of the lake and set off on the prologue of the seven-day race – a twelve-mile trail run to the foot of the Eklutna Glacier.

We settled into a steady pace through the valley alongside our friends from Team NYARA and took in the striking scenery. Though the trail was smooth and flat, we were surrounded by sharp snow-covered peaks with cascading waterfalls. Somewhere far off in the distance, we could hear the echoes of the rushing creek coming off the glacier.

Running along Lake Eklutna

Running along Lake Eklutna

We paused briefly for a photo at the first checkpoint – the beginning of what would become our pictorial passport for the event – and again to pick up our glacier gear a handful of miles later.

And then, just as Adlard had warned, the race suddenly turned from mundane to magnificent.

We rounded a corner, bushwhacked a short distance, and found ourselves on the edge of a violent glacial river. There was no way around it – we had to figure out how to get across in order to continue up the rocky mountainside to the ice.

We found a spot where the river was broken by a sandbar. Jon stepped in first, and then Brent, and Bruce and I followed in quick succession. The water was frigid. Not chilly. Not cold. Take-your-breath-away-toes-tingling-skin-reddening frigid. We were in it for all of a minute, but when we made it to the sandbar, I found myself doubled over, hands on thighs, trying to take in air.

Still, we’d made it halfway. The trip from the sandbar to the far bank couldn’t be any worse, right?

Once again, Jon and Brent scouted the area, and they quickly determined that the water was too deep, too fast, for us to make it over safely. We were stuck in the middle of the river, our only option to retrace our steps.

NYARA's first unsuccessful attempt

NYARA’s first unsuccessful attempt

We traveled up and down the bank, taking our time, looking for the route that best minimized our risk of injury. This tactic set the tone for the entire race. With a collective 40-ish years of adventure racing experience among us, Bruce, Jon, Brent, and I charted our way across Alaska carefully and steadily, doing our best to manage the course, rather than allowing the course to manage us.

Finally, after two more failed crossings, we joined forces with NYARA, who were also struggling to find a safe route. As a unit of eight, we slowly conga-lined our way to the far bank. We learned later that several teams were swept downriver, and two found themselves unable to get across at all, ultimately turning around and skipping the glacial trek entirely.

From there, we sidehilled up and across a steep boulder field to the waiting microphones of the impressive camera crew, charged with producing a four-part miniseries of the race for national television. There, at the mouth of the glacier, we pulled on our harnesses, laced up our crampons, tied into our rope, and set off.

Ascent to Glacier

The ascent to the glacier

We had just finished the prologue.

***

Brent has written an hour-by-hour account of our Expedition Alaska experience, so rather than reinventing the wheel, what I’ll offer here is a rundown of the highs and lows of each section of our seven days across the Kenai Peninsula, with a few choice stories for good measure.

LEG ONE

The High

Ice Climbing

Team NYARA, successfully negotiating the crevassed approach

The entire glacier leg was pretty spectacular. From the broken crevassed ice that we had to climb to get to the snow-covered traverse, to the experience of trekking across an expanse of white in the twilight of the Alaskan night, we couldn’t have asked for a more Alaskan start to Expedition Alaska.

Glacier - 2

A team tied together on the glacier

Given that, though, the first seventeen hours that we spent tethered together as a unit of four was without question one of the highlights of the event. More than anything else in my racing career, this experience epitomized what it means to adventure race. Being literally tied together, ten meters apart; pulling each other in as we climbed up and over jags of ice; letting out line so that each person could safely leap over deep crevasses; traveling together across an other-worldly expanse; feeling so completely in the moment that it was impossible to consider what the next seven days might hold. It was that magical moment when the team became better than the sum of its individual parts.

The Low

Glacier

Tethered

In reality, there were relatively few low moments during the first thirty hours of the race (really, during the entire seven days of the race), especially because there was no true darkness for me to worry about going deep inside my own head. I was spoiled every single night of this race.

But the lowest moment of the leg came during our final few hours on the glacier, as we slogged down, across, and up the seemingly endless snowfields, and we were just.so.tired of being tethered together. We each wanted to move at our own pace, without worrying about honing in on the person in front or tugging the one behind. The magic of the glacial floss had worn thin, and we were ready for some personal space.

By the time we all realized why we were getting crabby, though, we were off the glacier and scrambling down and sliding across steep pitches of scree and snow, the memories of the rope quickly falling away as we concentrated on not sliding down the vast mountainsides.

LEG TWO

The High

My favorite part of this leg, without question, was packrafting the Twenty Mile Creek to the Turnagain Arm, at the very end of the section. Before we made it there, though, we had to get through a lengthy trek along the Winner Creek Trail, a strainer-laden raft down one of the tributaries of the Twenty Mile, and a couple slow bushwhacks up, over, and along the steep ridges that separated the creek from two small glacial lakes to the east, where checkpoints 7 and 8 lay.

When we arrived at checkpoint 8, we had a decision to make. This second leg of the race had been nicknamed the Soul Crusher. We had been told in the pre-race briefing that travel to CP8 would be relatively benign, but from there to the TA, we would encounter some of the worst bushwhacking, the greatest exposure, and the most serious risk that Alaska had to offer.

Iceberg

CP7 – take a photo of at least one team member sitting on an iceberg in the middle of the glacial lake

Adlard offered a “bailout” option, which cut off the soul-crushing part of the Soul Crusher, the entire sea kayak that Leg 3 offered, and the first several miles of Leg 4. We were one of roughly half a dozen complete teams (teams that hadn’t yet lost a member) to make the time cutoff that allowed us even to consider continuing on. At that point, however, we’d been traveling for upwards of 20 hours. We were saturated, cold, and already running low on food.

Race staff and media folks greeted us at the checkpoint, listening to our conversation and adding their own commentary. Mike Kloser told us that we should expect at least 30-36 more hours if we elected to continue on. We’d likely encounter snow, white-out conditions, and dense vegetation that would slow us to a pace of less than a ½ kilometer an hour.

If you take the bailout, Kloser said, you’re probably looking at 8-10 more hours before the transition.

Famous last words.

Making a pro/con list in our heads, we went back and forth for several minutes (and several more, over the next five days) before ultimately electing to take the bailout. With that settled, we re-inflated our rafts and set off across Carmen Lake to the mouth of a swift, wide river.

Ten minutes later, we passed two beavers, thumping their tails in the glacial water. Not long after, an eagle swooped down and unsuccessfully tried to grab a fish the size of a small child in its talons. We had to pay attention to the creek – the strong crosscurrents, the occasional strainer or obstacle – but in general we were able to look around and take in the awesome wildlife, the shifting clouds, and the majestic Chugach Mountains that surrounded us.

Packrafting into the evening down a glacial creek in the heart of the Alaskan wilderness. This is what we’d come for.

The Low

Like Leg 1, this section was largely without drama, but anytime you’re bushwhacking through the woods at one kilometer an hour, you’re bound to get down, and in the hour or two before we hit the first lake and CP7, I think we were all feeling a bit fried.

We had spent the first 48 hours racing alongside NYARA, the irony not lost on us that we’d traveled across the country to hang out with our relative AR neighbors. After a slow and cautious packraft down Twenty Mile, the trek up and over the ridge was taking far longer than it felt like it should. It seemed that every time we stopped and looked at the maps, Brent or Rodney would tell the group that we had “another couple kilometers” to go.

It felt as though we were picking our way through the woods without making any progress, on what we had been told at the start was the “easy” part of the leg.

At some point, I began to wonder whether we shouldn’t take the bailout, even though we had technically made the cutoff to continue on. I voiced this to Brent, and then to Bruce and Jon. I’m sure all of them were considering the same thing, but when I brought it up, it was in a moment of self-doubt and worry.

I don’t regret our decision to skip the Soul Crusher, but I felt a nagging disappointment in myself over the rest of the race, wondering if I’d been too soft.

LEG FOUR

The Low

Since the bailout took us past Leg 3, we seamlessly shifted from Leg 2 to Leg 4 at the Turnagain Arm in the Gulf of Alaska. The Turnagain Arm has the second greatest tidal shift in the world, and when the tide is going out, deep quicksand forms in the thick mud that’s left behind.

Mudflats

Mudflats on the Turnagain Arm

We had been warned about this quicksand before the race. Rumor has it that people stuck in the mud have had their arms ripped off during attempted helicopter rescues.

But going into night three, when we were operating on three hours sleep over the previous 72, when we’d been saturated and cold since 9:30pm the previous night, I wasn’t really thinking about the dangers of the mudflats.

Until, that is, I found myself stuck.

We entered the Turnagain Arm from Twenty Mile Creek by packraft around 10pm, right as the tide was going out. Before our eyes, the deep water turned into narrow channels surrounded on either side by thick mud. We weren’t allowed to set foot on the island on the north side of the arm, because it was a protected buffalo reserve, and the large animals wouldn’t take kindly to stinky adventure racers.

Approach

A quicksand rescue in the Turnagain Arm (not me)

So, to get to CP17 at the Girdwood Bridge, we had no choice but to fight our way through the Arm itself.

We rafted as far as we could, and when the water had receded too much, we stepped out of the boats on the other side from the islands and set out on foot.

Or at least tried to.

I must have stood in place a beat too long, because when I tried to lift my foot, I found that it was cemented into the soggy ground. I struggled against it, and it only got worse.

I called out to my teammates, who at first thought I was being dramatic. But when Brent walked back out to help me – by which point I was stuck up to my ankle – he, too, got sucked in. And so did Bruce. And Jon.

I was beginning to panic by this point, my breath catching each time I thought about losing my arm in a helicopter evac.

Someone – I don’t recall who at this point – called out for everyone to try to crawl. We got down on all fours, shimmying and clawing our way out of the deep, thick mud and scrambling for firmer ground.

The quicksand debacle set the tone for the next several hours, and by the time we secured CP17 and picked our way back across the sound for our second bridge at CP18, it was 3:30 in the morning, and we knew we needed to regroup.

Conscious to avoid grizzlies as best we could, we set up our tent in a parking lot on the side of the highway, set our watches for 6:00AM, and shivered through a couple fitful hours of sleep.

But chilled sleep is still sleep, and when we awoke the “next day,” we were ready to move into the heart of Leg 4. 

The High

This was a long leg, and it wasn’t without its low moments, but the last several hours more than made up for them.

Bushwhack

One such low moment – bushwhacking through neck-high devil’s club about 50 meters from the Seward Highway, travel upon which was prohibited from racers.

It was 7:00 PM on Day 4. We had been rationing precious food for twelve hours – since midnight the night before, I had taken in roughly 700 calories. We were going on 48 hours of being totally saturated with that frigid glacial water. We had no dry clothes left. And we’d just realized that we had overshot checkpoint 20 by several kilometers.

We weren’t in great shape.

We came through a culvert under the Seward Highway and stumbled into a primitive campground. We sat down to decide whether to go back for the CP or continue on, aware that because of the idiosyncratic scoring system that Adlard uses, it may not benefit us to retrace our steps. After a few minutes, Jon and Brent got up to try to find a local who might be able to tell us what the bushwhack back might look like, since we were forbidden from setting foot on any roads.

A minute later, Brent came back.

“Come with me,” he said urgently.

“What’s up?” I replied.

“Just come with me.”

Bruce and I got up slowly and followed Brent through the campground.

“There’s food,” he continued, handing me a pudding cup.

“Where did you get this?” I asked, tearing into the treat, using the lid as a spoon and scooping the gooey chocolate-y goodness into my mouth.

“There’s a packrafting group. They’re setting up camp, and they’re making us dinner.”

We turned the corner and came upon a group from the Alaskan Kayak Academy. There were ten people or more, milling around, drinking wine, and chopping fresh vegetables for the stir-fry they had planned.

One of the guides handed me a sandwich, piled high with cheese and coleslaw and deli meat. Not something in my usual repertoire, but at that moment, I’d never tasted anything so good.

We sat down and regrouped. After the caloric euphoria set in, we decided to leave our non-mandatory gear and follow the old Iditarod Trail, now an unimproved snowmobile track, back to the missing point. I don’t think my teammates enjoyed the trek back, but I was basking in my full stomach and would have been happy doing just about anything at that moment.

Three hours later, we returned to camp, greeted our trail angels, and geared up for the next stretch of the leg, a 12-ish kilometer packraft down Six Mile Creek. The group cheered us on as we shoved off, and once again, the four of us were alone, spending our second night in a row paddling through a swift valley, surrounded by majestic mountains.

“We’re in f-ing Alaska,” I said to Brent.

“We’re in f-ing Alaska, packrafting down a river in the middle of the night,” he replied. “How lucky are we?”

Brent negotiated the water smoothly, steering us around obstacles and through the ripples and rapids. Around midnight, twilight began to set in. We pulled off and grabbed our headlamps for the first time during the race, hanging them around our necks in case our rafts flipped and we found ourselves in need of rescue.

We shoved back off and traveled the last few kilometers without incident. We pulled off the river at a manned CP and timed out until morning, when we would transition to a guided whitewater leg along what is reputed to be the most technical and dangerous ten miles in all of Alaska.

Whitewater

One of the slot canyons on Six Mile

I had been dreading the whitewater section since the beginning of the race, and when I awoke on Day 5, my mouth was dry and my stomach was in knots (I’m sure this had nothing to do with the serious calorie depletion from the day before…). We pulled on the dry suits and helmets provided by the rafting company, set off for a 100 meter swim in the frigid glacial creek so the guides could test our proficiency in the water, and then got ready to go.

Whitewater Swim

Before the first swim. That was some COLD water.

Six Mile Creek runs through three slot canyons, with bigger and more technical water, the further down you go. Our guide, Popcorn, was a master at the stern. In between the rapids, he entertained us with stories of the river and his guiding adventures, but as we approached each obstacle, he became focused and professional, calling out detailed instructions and negotiating the water with hairpin precision.

Our raft made it through all three canyons without incident, including five successive Class 5 rapids to round out the trip.

And I loved it.

Once the water leveled out, we pulled off to the right bank for a photo and then were instructed to swim the last half-kilometer to the takeout, on the other side of the river.

We still hadn’t gotten used to the glacial bite of the water, but the swim was otherwise painless, and when we pulled into the TA, we were buoyed by the prospects of finally getting to our bikes, after five days of racing.

Group shot at the lone whitewater CP - we paddled with Tecnu and the Wandering Nannuts

Group shot at the lone whitewater CP – we paddled with Tecnu and the Wandering Nannuts

Sort of…

LEG FIVE

The Low

This leg promised 30+ miles of continuous single track up and over Resurrection Pass.

But first, we had to get to our bikes.

This required a sharp, technical bushwhack up and over a 4000-foot ridge. I’d never climbed or descended such a steep pitch before – there were places where I wondered whether my ice axe would have come in handy – and there were certainly moments when we were cursing Adlard for taunting us with the promise of bikes. But the trek also offered a spectacular alpine traverse that began in white-out conditions and opened up in places to still more mesmerizing views of the Alaskan canvass.

Before we made it to treeline, though, we had to pick our way up several hundred feet of a mess of alder, devil’s club, and deadfall.

Ascent to Bikes

The bushwhack up

About 1500 feet into the climb, Jon kicked up a ground nest of yellow jackets. I had been following his line through the vegetation, and so the bees trained their stingers on me and swarmed.

I ran blindly back down the hillside, leaping over logs as I swatted away persistent insects, all the while having visions of the final scene of My Girl on repeat in my head.

Eventually, they grew bored of me, and I sat down to collect myself. Somehow, I managed to stay sure-footed enough not to go careening down the pitch, but I had stings all along my jaw line and up my arm. I had never had an allergic reaction before, but this was way more bee stings than I’d ever had, and we were on a remote mountain with no bailout option in an emergency.

Which also meant, of course, that we had no real choice but to continue. I took an antihistamine and we plodded back up the mountain, careful to avoid the nest. I spent the next few hours paranoid about every twitch, and hearing a constant low buzz in my right ear.

Fortunately, aside from some swelling and itching, we made it to our bikes without issue – about six hours later.

The High

The actual ride along Resurrection Trail was great – far more fun than I was anticipating, save for my two broken pedals in the final miles of the leg – but the highlight of Leg Five was mostly definitely our trip to Hope.

Bike

Coming down the back side of the Resurrection Trail

Hope, Alaska is a tiny pinpoint of a town, a quirky outpost on the water with a handful of businesses, a local historical museum, and as far as I could tell, one restaurant.

That restaurant also happened to be the site of one of our checkpoints, and I had spent the previous two days willing it to be open when we arrived.

But every section of the course took longer than we had anticipated, and my plans for a hot breakfast gradually gave way to fantasies of a late dinner.

We rolled into Hope at 10:30 PM on day 5. We snapped a photo at the first CP – the museum – and pedaled over to the bar for the next point on the bike. We arrived at 10:40 PM and I almost started crying when I saw the OPEN sign flashing in the window.

Hope

Hope

We parked our bikes along the fence – next to at least a dozen other bikes – and walked inside. The restaurant looked like ExAK headquarters, with four teams and several media folks sitting down to eat. We grabbed the only available table and placed a giant order – 15 minutes before the kitchen closed.

LEG SIX

The Low

Leg six was a 30+ mile flat water paddle across Kenai Lake, and if I’m being honest, this section was one monotonous low for the first 25 of those miles.

First, my family had arrived in Anchorage with Zoe two days earlier. Though we had told them that they probably shouldn’t bring Zoe out on the race course – we worried that she wouldn’t do well, seeing us for a few minutes and then having us leave again – for the final few miles of the bike leg, I found myself hoping that they would be at the next transition. We had seen Jon’s family several times throughout the race to that point, and I knew his wife, Sue, had been in touch with my parents. Against my better judgment, I convinced myself that she had gotten them out on the course and that they’d be waiting on the banks of the lake.

They weren’t.

And when we rolled into transition, I burst into tears, not realizing until that very moment how much I wanted to see Zoe. Several of the media folks took notice of my crying, and Brent quickly ushered me across the road to find out what was wrong.

When I explained that I had hoped to see Zoe there, he laughed, relieved that it wasn’t a problem with the race. We commiserated about missing her and then returned to packing our bikes and gathering our paddle gear, but I went into the next section feeling rather subdued.

And from the moment we set off, we were battling fierce headwinds, and there was little relief even in the continuous coves along the lake’s jagged, rocky edge. Brent, who had been navigating with the best of them for six straight days, now found himself unable to keep his eyes open, without the benefit of maps and decisions to keep him awake.

I realized during this leg that when Brent’s struggling, I have a hard time treating him as I would another teammate. I worry about him in a way I wouldn’t with Bruce or Jon, and I become overly cautious as a result. I kept suggesting that we pause to let him sleep, even though I knew that it would only mean prolonging the inevitable slog.

Kenai Lake

And so we continued on, swapping seats in the boats (whichever kayak had Bruce in it somehow shot way ahead of the other) and burying our heads against the sharp winds.

There were two CPs on the water, each at a bend in the lake. When we arrived at the second one, five miles from the takeout, we were all depleted. We were low on calories, low on core temperature, and low on morale.

The High

We pulled out to find the point and collect ourselves, and when we shoved off half an hour later, we were in a different lake. The biting wind had moved out and the choppy water was now clear as glass.

Bruce and I took one boat, and we paddled effortlessly down the final arm of the lake. Twilight was setting in, and I turned around to see a perfect red sun setting behind the mountains.

Kenai Lake Sunset

My sunset. The picture doesn’t do it justice.

“I came to this race just for that sunset,” I told Bruce.

For the next hour, we glided toward the TA along the Seward Highway as Bruce regaled me with stories from his previous expedition adventures.

When we pulled into transition around 2 AM, I was downright euphoric. We changed our clothes, ate some hot-ish food from the volunteers, and sat down with Adlard to hear what the last day of the race would hold.

LEG SEVEN-ISH

The Low

Before the race, Adlard had told us that there were six “mandatory” sections of the race, and that once we finished the lake paddle, we would find out what options were available to us, depending on how much time we had left on the clock.

In TA, we learned that our placement for the race was relatively secure. There were some teams ahead of us that we couldn’t catch, and some teams behind us that couldn’t catch us.

Save for one team: NYARA.

We hadn’t seen our friends from New York since we came off the whitewater, but we kept waiting for them to come up on us. At that point in the race, we’d collected the same number of CPs, but we had a several-hour time credit on them, plus however much time we were ahead of them then. That meant that as long as we matched their checkpoints, we should be set.

The problem was, when we went to sleep on night 6, we didn’t know where they were.

When we awoke the following morning, Dave laid out the options:

  1. We would begin with a bike ride to the trailhead for the Exit Glacier.
  2. From there, we could:
    1. Do an out-and-back trek to a gold mining bridge
    2. Packraft to the final TA, where our bikes were being transported, and then ride to Mile Zero of the Iditarod Trail in Seward, the pseudo-finish line
    3. Bike back to the Kenai Lake TA on the Lost Trail, and
    4. Return by bike on the Iditarod Trail to the finish

We could do any or all of those legs, but as soon as we bypassed a section, it was off the table. He was clear that we wouldn’t have time to complete everything, so we had to pick and choose carefully.

At first, we decided that we would go for the trek, followed by the packraft.

We gathered our gear and readied ourselves to set off. As we were leaving, I asked Adlard about NYARA’s progress.

“Oh, you don’t have to worry about them anymore. They paddled several miles in the wrong direction last night. They had to be picked up down the Kenai River and transported back to the lake put-in. They’re still there now.”

“Wait, so does that mean we technically don’t have to do any of these final sections to maintain our position?”

“You have to get yourself to Mile Zero by 8pm tonight.”

I relayed this new information to my teammates as we were pedaling off to begin a 25-ish mile road ride, but no one was quite sure whether to trust it.

We decided that we would figure out what to do once we got to the Exit Glacier CP – but first we had to get ourselves there.

Sleep monsters were setting in once again, and what should have been a quick easy ride ended up getting bogged down in stop after stop, as we struggled to stay awake. We took off jackets. We paused to pee. We pulled out more food.

Finally, a handful of miles from our decision point, we stopped at a restaurant for a hot meal. Over eggs and coffee, we hashed out our options.

No one really wanted to trek, but no one wanted to lose control over our race either. We went back and forth and back again, and by the time we paid for our meal, got back on our bikes, and finally made it to the U-Haul at Exit Glacier, we were still unable to commit.

Ultimately, after wrangling for far too long, we opted to skip the trek and head out on the packraft. And as with the bailout option, it ended up being the right decision for us. NYARA was several hours behind, the rafting was a spectacular technical challenge, and unbeknownst to us at the time, because of the carnage taking place on the river, we were the last team that was offered the option to paddle.

Still, that same softness in decision-making kept coming back to me, and I wondered what it meant about me as a racer that I wanted to skip the trek.

The High

It took me a little while to warm up to the packraft, but once I did, I was treated to an adrenaline-churning ride through a twisty, strainer-filled, multi-channel tidal river that spilled off Exit Glacier and made its way to the ocean.

Brent and Jon sterned expertly, and other than one spill that Brent and I took when we slid into two competing currents, they guided our two boats smoothly down the same river that had flipped over and chewed up a number of other teams.

We got off the water at the bridge in Seward, wound our way through the woods with our rafts, and popped out onto the roads a few blocks from the TA. At that point, Sue pulled up alongside us and stuck her head out of the window.

“Abby and Brent, there may be a surprise waiting for you in the TA,” she sang.

That was all I needed to hear. After seven days of racing, in my drysuit and helmet, with paddle gear hanging off me, I took off in a run. Eric Nachtrieb, the executive producer of the race documentary, who’d spent several hours traveling with us over the course of the event, ran alongside me, asking what had prompted my sudden burst of energy.

I told him about how much I had wanted to see Zoe at the earlier TA, about her being at the finish line of the Itera in Wales last summer when Brent and his teammates crossed the line, about how grateful we were to have the support of our family to be able to undertake a race like this.

Five minutes and a little bit of searching later, I dropped my paddle and pack on the ground and sprinted over to our wide-eyed fourteen-month-old, who looked back and forth between me, Brent, and my parents several times before she really believed that we were there.

Finish with Zoe

This picture was actually taken at Mile Zero (hence the pack still on my back), but you get the idea.

THE FINISH

The Low

When we signed up for Expedition Alaska, we were told that we could expect the best finish in the history of adventure racing.

As more details followed, we learned that this was a bit of an overstatement – yes, our race would be ending with the famed Mount Marathon – a 3-mile race up and back down a 3,000-foot peak in the city of Seward. But our “wave” of the race would come Sunday morning, 20 hours after the official Fourth of July event. And instead of the pancake breakfast and throngs of people lining the streets of Seward, we would be greeted by a handful of hearty race volunteers and the option of purchasing breakfast burritos from a cart at the finish.

Given that, the fact that the rankings had been set at the finish line at Mile Zero the previous day, and the fact that everyone was scrambling to pack their gear for our departure that afternoon, none of the racers seemed all that keen to climb the mountain.

But we had been told at the start that Mount Marathon was the one mandatory leg of the entire race – we couldn’t get our finishers medals unless we climbed up – and so we begrudgingly lined up with everyone else on Sunday morning, waiting for our “wave” to start.

The High

Though we were less than excited about Mount Marathon, we took it in stride, ran to the trailhead, and began the mile-long climb up 3000 feet of mudslick, rock, and loose scree. With nowhere to pass people and no reason to pass, we settled into a comfortable pace somewhere in the top quarter of the field, and I chatted with the racers around me about their experiences over the previous seven days.

And somewhere around the treeline, when the world opened up and we tread carefully up the steep pitch of scree, I realized that I was enjoying myself.

Up Marathon - Radcliffe

Brent on the ascent, with Seward in the background. Photo by Chris Radcliffe

Not only was I enjoying myself, I was having fun. A lot of fun.

It was a gorgeous day. The views were spectacular. I was hiking an iconic mountain with my teammates and one of my favorite groups of people in the world.

As we made our way to the summit, I thought back on our adventure over the past week, relishing in the moments – the treacherous ice, the thick bushwhacks, the immense exposure, the calorie deficits, the fierce headwinds, the packrafting spills, the bee stings, the broken pedals, the sleepmonsters, the quicksand.

We crested the top, took a picture, and then ran down the scree on the backside with more careless abandon than I’d ever allowed myself on a mountain descent.

We got to the base, dumped the gravel out of our shoes, and then ran through the streets of Seward to the finish.

Mt Marathon 2

Coming off the mountain

Over the previous seven days, we had trekked, bushwhacked, rafted, kayaked, and biked our way across some of the most magnificent and majestic terrain I had ever seen. We were cautious but controlled. We raced hard but steady. We held together as a team and, in profound ways, become better and stronger than the sum of our individual parts.

As we walked up to get our finishers medals a few hours later, we were pretty damn proud to be the most boring team in Alaska.

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6 responses to “The Most Boring Team in Alaska

  1. Kate July 20, 2015 at 2:49 pm

    Oh my gosh. I’m so looking forward now to reading Brent’s recap, but I LOVE this. What an adventure to share with each other!! And yes, you’re so lucky and so smart to realize how lucky you are to have such a supportive family. I teared up when you didn’t get to see Zoe and then again when you did. And the yellow jackets…ugh, your poor face. It was terrible enough on my legs, and I know that fear of waiting for the potentially impending allergic reaction. Congratulations on an amazing, happily boring and incredible accomplishment. You’re one of my heroes.

    • Abby July 20, 2015 at 7:24 pm

      Thanks, Kate 🙂 It was a truly epic experience, bee stings and all. I wouldn’t trade any of it – especially having my family and Zoe at the finish!

  2. Pingback: Tropical Storms and Wild Alaska | Team GOALS ARA

  3. Johann July 22, 2015 at 7:59 am

    Wow, this is just awesome! What a wonderful adventure and experience. I would love to visit Alaska. You did an incredible race. Well done and enjoy a good rest.

  4. Ken July 22, 2015 at 11:59 am

    That is a fantastic story and very well-written. As a weekend ARer I am very jealous but enjoyed living your adventure vicariously.

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