It took 29.5 hours of straight, no-sleep racing. But after battling bugs, rain, swamps, thick woods, long bike legs, an injured knee, cuts, sleep deprivation, iffy USGS maps, singletrack mountain biking, and a winding river crisscrossed with blown-down trees, Team GearJunkie/YogaSlackers managed to stagger across the finish line this past weekend in central Wisconsin to claim first place overall in the annual Stubborn Mule Adventure Race!
The event, a regional marquee in the nationwide Checkpoint Tracker Adventure Racing series, drew 31 teams from several states. Challenges on the course included bike, trek, and paddle sections connected in an immense, 120-mile loop through the forests and bluffs of the central part of the state.
Racers lined up at 6am on Saturday, July 16, ready to go non-stop for either the 12- or the 30-hour version of the event. (Our team was in the 30hr. division.) We were ready to race until a cut-off time at noon on Sunday the 17th. There would be map-work and major strategy decisions as each team plotted a choose-your-own-adventure route to conquer the long and difficult open course ahead. “All checkpoints are optional,” race director Paula Waite had said at a pre-race meeting. “It’s up to each team to decide how many to get, and which checkpoints to skip.”
Off from the start, GearJunkie/YogaSlackers — comprised this race of myself, Tom Puzak, Kelly Brinkman, and Andrei Karpov — was determined to “clear the course” or get all available checkpoints and complete all the race legs. That challenge would entail running in the woods up to 30 miles on and off trail in multiple trek/orienteering sections, riding singletrack and roads on the bikes for 80+ miles, and paddling down-river for four hours to make a cut-off at a boat launch near the halfway point in the event.
But right away our team ran into trouble. “I don’t see this ridge.” Andrei, our navigator, was lost. We were just one hour into the race, but the details of the forest around us did not match up with what Andrei was seeing on the page. I suggested we run south until we hit a major hill. Our map, a 1:30,000-scale USGS topo, was difficult to interpret when looking for fine features in an immense woods.
We pushed through, completing the first section of the long race in 3rd or 4th place, and, a bit humbled, jumped on our bikes for section No. 2 to try and catch up.
The long day ahead, and the hours heading into the night, were a blur. But our team stayed strong, and for most of the event we traveled near or in front of the entire race pack. Our main competitor in the event, a team called “Blind Squirrels,” had at the last minute added a ringer to their lineup. Molly Moilanen of Team WEDALI, the reigning U.S. Adventure Racing National Champs, would help push the Squirrels squad to stay on our heals through every leg of the long race.
The race switched disciplines every three to four hours the first day. We had a time trial sprint up Rib Mountain, one of the biggest rises in the region. Then, on a bike leg, we wound through towns and backwoods tracks in search of flags. Low clouds and rain, and temps around 80, made for actually a perfect day to race.
By Saturday night, we were on a river dipping paddles for 16 miles in a canoe. The river twisted and shot over an old broken dam. Later, several downed trees caused each team to climb and pull canoes up and over the mess.
At sunset, we were again marking maps in anticipation of a 50+ mile bike leg. Tom sat on the ground tracing country roads with a highlighter, a headlamp shining on his forehead to illuminate small details. “Check all this,” he told me. “Make sure I didn’t miss any turns.”
Two hours later, as a blood-red moon rose through the woods, we were alone with our bike lights on. A checkpoint at a bridge. A long section of wet gravel, and the reprieve of pavement again. We were in first place, pedaling hard to build a lead.
Later, Andrei crashed, cutting open his leg. Tom was hurting, too, his knee shouting out in pain. “I might need a tow,” he said. He rode and bit his lip for a few more miles before we hooked up, a bungee cord from one bike to the next to provide some tow power as I pedaled in front and Tom drafted and cranked as much as he could behind.
The race all came to a head during a penultimate trek section at night in the thick woods and swamps of Nine Mile State Forest. After racing hard already for 18 hours straight, we left just after midnight for what we thought would be a three- to four-hour (about 10 miles) trek. The Squirrels were close behind, and as we headed into the woods with our headlamps blazing, we could see the lights from other teams approaching on the road as well.
Six hours later, as the sun rose and the bugs came out again in force, our team was lost and beaten down. We’d wandered and run around in circles all night long, grabbing five checkpoints, but still with a couple more to go. The map was tough, and we were mentally slower from racing for so long. I looked into Kelly’s eyes and saw a blank, physically-depleted look I know from multi-day races and ultra events I’ve done over the years. “Where are we Andrei,” I demanded, stressed and exhausted myself.
Again we were off the map, and this time it was worse than the first episode. We were bushwhacking and wandering in a stupor, just wanting to be done. But not giving up is a main theme in adventure racing, and so we kept moving. The sun peeked over the trees, and little birds started to sing. I was feeling better at least.
The three- to four-hour trek we’d envisioned turned into more than seven hard hours. But by about 8am we were finally done, and we jogged back to a final transition area for a mountain-bike leg, including almost another three hours of riding singletrack.
In the end, Team GearJunkie/YogaSlackers squeaked out a victory with 37 total checkpoints (out of 39). The Squirrels nabbed 34 points, and third-place Elk Bones came in with 30 CPs on the course.
The race ended just before noon for us, and we were hazy in the head as we signed in and stopped, finally, after 29.5 hours on the move. Outside was a hose, and the day was getting hot. “Who wants to squirt me down?” I asked my team. We headed outside to strip off muddy clothes, clean up, put our packs and our bikes away, and get back to the real world, finally away from the craziness of the race.
—Stephen Regenold is founder and editor of www.gearjunkie.com. Watch this week as Team GearJunkie/YogaSlackers heads to Canada to compete in Raid The North Extreme, a six-day expedition race through the mountains of British Columbia.