Team GearJunkie biked, paddled, and trekked over 130 miles earlier this year to claim fourth place overall in the USARA Championship adventure race.
The canyon below is a dark void. It’s 3 a.m., and Team GearJunkie has been racing for hours on a wilderness course. Now, after sections of mountain biking, paddling, and a desert trek, we pause to look down, headlamps beaming into an abyss.
Below is the race’s most committing terrain: a 7-mile stretch of the precipitous Owens River Gorge. To complete the section, teams will spend hours moving downriver in the dark, maneuvering in swift water, hip-deep at times, and clambering over slick stone.
Stars cut a swath overhead. Cliff walls, hundreds of feet high, frame an elusive route beyond.
“Follow me!” my teammate shouts, stepping in. “Let’s get to the other side.”
Welcome to adventure racing. The sport, popularized after a ’90s reality TV show, is an elaborate, if under-the-radar, genre in the ultra-endurance world. Racers must be competent in a half-dozen sports, comfortable in deep wilderness, and also able to fight sleep deprivation on routes that stretch through the night.
I jumped back into the game of adventure racing to form Team GearJunkie a year ago, training and gearing up for a series of races around the country with friends Kyle Nossaman and Ryan Braski.
The USARA National Championship race, held September 16-17 in California and sponsored by Toyota Tundra, was our marquee moment. We’d spent a year preparing our bodies, and our mindsets, for the 30-hour endurance feat against 33 other teams.
It would take a physical push to complete the course, all cylinders firing. But beyond muscle, the bigger puzzle was race strategy, navigation, hydration, nutrition and, of course, the right gear.
Championship Adventure Race: Gearing Up
From head to toe, I wore most of the same apparel the whole race. We sprinted off from the start line at 8:30 a.m. on Friday morning for the first leg of the race, a 2,000-foot climb up Mammoth Mountain.
A GearJunkie ballcap, a shirt from Vollebak, and trekking pants served as our team uniform in the pack of 100-plus racers.
Our shoes came from La Sportiva, its mountain-running Kaptiva and Akasha II models. Socks and underwear were made from a Smartwool merino blend. For backpacks, Team GearJunkie shouldered Out There’s WC-15 model, designed for adventure racing. (See a full gear list at the end of the article.)
Food and hydration, critical components for the 30 hours ahead, included electrolyte mix from Gnarly, 4-Hour Fuel, and, waiting at a food drop, a loaf of dense, nut-and-fruit-filled “energy bread” from Erick Schat’s Bakkerÿ of Bishop, Calif. (Its flagship store was just two blocks from the finish line.)
We gorged on goodies from Schat’s before the race began.
Then, as the sun rose, teams loaded up in two buses from a Bishop city park. Both buses were headed north to the moonscape alpine start area at Mammoth.
The subsequent ridge climb to the peak through trees and bare scree was a preview to a course that leaned into the alien terrain of the region.
USARA’s Wild Course
Miles unfolded ahead, my finger on the map. We’d highlighted a route on the bumpy bus ride up to the start, my marker tracing forest roads and trails across a 1:24,000 grid.
Two dozen checkpoint flags lie hidden in those topo lines. Pieced together, the points built the frame for a choose-your-adventure traverse of the wilderness beyond.
We climbed the mountain, the fifth team to the top. Bikes had been staged the day before, and soon Team GearJunkie was rocketing downhill.
Mammoth’s singletrack is a tangle of double-diamond trails for which the race director had previously warned riders to take heed.
Indeed, an oath was requisite before the start of the race. Raising a right hand, director Yishai Horowitz at the pre-race meeting had shouted, “Repeat after me: If I get lost out there, or injured, or if I die, I will remember … it’s my own damn fault!”
Cheers rose up from the mass, a nod to self-reliance and, mostly, respect for the wilderness ahead.
Our waivers were signed. Teams would work together as a squad unable to separate more than 100 feet for the whole event, first-aid kits packed along, but each of us praying also that we wouldn’t crash.
Bike Crash, Lost Off-Course
I survived the steep singletrack off Mammoth’s peak. But below that, my first dose of reality hit as I got into the woods. Coming into a corner, a pine bow hooked my bike. I’d cut too close, and I flew, twisting over my bars, thudding a few feet ahead in the dirt.
It was 2 hours into the race. Blood dripped off my arm, but I was all right. I dusted off, kept moving, rolling on — another look at the map.
And then we got lost.
It’s difficult to read topo lines as you bike. Racers mount mapboards over their handlebars to hold a folded section in view. But even so, you can get off course.
Thus was our error just minutes after my wreck.
We skidded to a stop at the sight of a paved road, a forbidden route on this section of the adventure race. Time to recalculate and reverse the route, pedaling up the hill we’d just rocketed down.
Luck was with us. Twenty minutes later, checkpoint 5 appeared around a bend. Teams were whirring up as we punched in. I checked the map a bit closer this time before we moved on.
Time to catch up.
I glanced at my watch, the Garmin Enduro 2, and then at my right wrist where a compass was mounted for quick direction checks. The section ahead was a straightforward route, eastbound 15 km toward a river put-in.
Team GearJunkie got in a line and paced back into the fray.
From Bikes to Boats
Shouts rose up as we came to the river. Volunteers and race staff were shuttling gear. At the transition area (TA), we ditched bikes for kayak paddles, grabbed our boats and PFDs, and trudged to the stream.
On the map, the waterway appears as a twisted mess, all horseshoes and hooks for miles leading to a lake. We dipped our blades and pushed off, a subtle current nudging boats from the river’s edge.
An hour of paddling and it’s impossible to know how far we’ve gone. Put the head down and keep rowing — that is the mode. The lake is ahead, but in the lowlands distance is obscured, invisible from the rut of the river channel, twisting on and on under the afternoon sun.
Clouds drift overhead. Wind and waves hit together once we slip out from the stream and finally onto flat water.
But then a wall. We paddle through algae so thick that it stops the boat, a bloom of slime acres wide.
“We gotta get out and push,” my teammate shouts, his shoes squishing in. The glamour of the sport is wearing away.
Into the Night
Adventure racing requires unwavering enthusiasm. Long distances and tough terrain can get you down. But teams that succeed stay positive, focused, and also supportive of each other as the day drags on.
You compete against other teams. But sometimes, more so, you are simply competing against the timeline of the race and the terrain on the course.
The National Championships, with its 100-plus-mile route, included multiple cutoffs in its 30-hour allotted span.
It was early evening by now, out of the boats and running up a gravel road. My map revealed mesas and a canyon in the off-trail area beyond.
A deadline loomed just past this desert stretch. At 9 p.m., the adventure race rules showed a cutoff; make that time and check in, or you cannot continue on the full course.
Team GearJunkie’s goal was to “clear the course.” This meant completing every section in full and also punching every checkpoint, 25 in all.
We jogged the last few hundred feet after the desert trek. The transition area, with tents and gear boxes by the side of the road, was set with our bikes again. And we were ready to ride.
Now 12 hours into the race, we realized the real competition was about to begin. The sun was setting, and with our map spread out on a bin, we plotted UTM points among topo lines thousands of feet in the mountains above.
Night came fast. Our bike lights flickered on. It was a grind up and up for more than an hour on a mountain road.
We pedaled past campgrounds and trailheads toward checkpoint 10. Now alone on the race, no teams around, we searched for a trail.
Ryan ran out of water. We rationed from bike bottles and moved into the woods.
Four more high-alpine checkpoints lay ahead, scattered along a river valley and then above 10,000 feet on a rise.
Halfway Point: Into the Canyon
It’s hour 15 by the time we complete the mountain CPs. A race to the bottom, screaming downhill on a road, and then a singletrack trail unfurling into the night. For hours we pedal, racing toward another cutoff at the Owen’s River Gorge.
The mountains do not relent. A final climb on the bikes and we roll into the transition area just in time, 2:50 a.m., with a cutoff at 3:00 a.m. We jump off our bikes and take a momentary pause to celebrate in the middle of the night.
More maps, more gear prep. Get some food down. Figure out water and prepare for the challenge ahead.
We run north, headlamp beams bouncing off desert rock above the abyss. A climber’s trail leads off the edge, a winding path down talus to a checkpoint at the river.
For hours we trudge downstream. Half-swimming, jumping rock to rock, clinging onto roots and vegetation at the water’s edge — technique is out the window as we move relentlessly down and down through the dark.
It goes on and on. It’s a canyon that seems to never end, and we are all alone.
Adventure Race: Final Sections
By dawn, we can see the canyon’s end. The rock walls slope down, and a dam appears in the distance — checkpoint 20 is in sight.
By now, the end of the race is imaginable. We’ve been on the move for 24 hours straight, trekking, biking, paddling, and navigating all day and all night. It’s the second sunrise I’ve seen since my last sleep.
So, I welcome a highlighted line on my map leading to the finish line.
But it’s not over yet, and we jump again on the bikes. Desert roads open up on a landscape confusing and bleak. Trails and jeep roads twist into each other, a mess of tire tracks in the sand.
Three more checkpoints and a final paddle to go. We skid into the TA just north of Bishop and hop a final time into kayak seats. Dip the paddles and move downriver again, a familiar ache setting in with the rhythm of those first strokes.
An hour more and we are to the final TA. Stack the boats. Shoulder the packs. A quick glance at the map and we are running the last stretch toward home.
It’s about 3 miles to the end. So we jog uphill and then due west on roads to Bishop. Twist through the city blocks, turn into the park — a big, beaming inflatable arch serving as the finish line on this massive course.
Some cheers and handshakes. It took 28 hours and 12 minutes. But Team GearJunkie cleared the race course and came in fourth out of 34 teams.
Adventure Racing Gear
Adventure racing is among the most gear-intensive sports. Below are a few of the standout items we leaned on for the USARA adventure race and 10-plus additional events during our 2022 race season.
- Bike: Cannondale Scalpel HT Hi-MOD 1
A light and fast hardtail 29er, perfect for the sport of AR
- Backpack: Out There WC-15
A longtime standard race pack, developed by top AR athlete Mike Kloser
- Headlamp: Petzl BINDI
Ultra-compact headlamp with 200 lumens for illuminating the trail
- Watch: Garmin Enduro 2
Best-in-class GPS sport watch; includes special ‘Adventure Race’ mode
- Shirt: Vollebak Carbon Fibre T Shirt
Exotic athletic shirt made with fabric that includes carbon fiber for strength
- Pants: Eddie Bauer Guide Pro Pants
Multifunctional “trekking” pants with athletic fit & multiple pockets
- Undies: Smartwool Merino Sport Boxer Brief
Non-chafing, thin merino is perfect to wear all day and night
- Socks: Smartwool Athlete Edition Run Print Crew Socks
Thin merino socks stay in place all day but never bunch up
- Compass: Moscow Model 3
Wrist-mounted compass with super quick needle for quick direction checks
- Glasses: Tifosi Swick
Tough Grilamid-frame prescription glasses (clear lens)
- Shoes: La Sportiva Kaptiva
Fast footwear for trails as well as off-trail (wilderness) terrain
- Shoes: Dynafit Alpine DNA
More cushioning in the heel, but still light and fast mountain shoes
- Bike shoes: Pearl Izumi X-Alp Elevate
Clipless shoes built to excel on and off the bike
- Food: 4-Hour Fuel
Just mix with water for a drinkable, 800-calorie (per bottle) energy dose
- Food: Gnarly Fuel₂O
Easy-to-digest (and great-tasting) energy and instant carbs