This post is part of a series of live race updates from southern Chile, the location for the 2011 Wenger Patagonian Expedition Race.
By T.C. WORLEY
As I walked between the dozens of bikes scattered across the lawn in varying stages of assembly, I questioned racers about their feelings on the pending start. “Let’s go, let’s go!” Marcello Catalan of Brazil exclaimed. Similarly, Paulette Kirby of the U.S. pleaded, “Let’s roll! We’ve been up for four hours!” Unforeseen obstacles had caused a delay in the bikes arriving to the start line. What was to be a 7:00am start became more like a 10:00am start. But eventually, the riders were saddled up and led through the starting chute by the same team of horse-riding Chilean gauchos that greeted them the previous night.
In a dust cloud of whirring, rattling, clacking bikes, the riders began the 2011 Wenger Patagonian Expedition race. Their whistles and whoops soon quieted as they hit the first few washboard climbs and the reality of a week of dirty, fatigued suffering began to set in. Within minutes there were sizable gaps as the stronger teams surged through Torres Del Paine Park toward Checkpoint No. 1.
If they could peer out of their pain long enough to look around, the riders would be greeted to stunning, sweeping views as they ascended the rolling terrain. Around them were snow-capped peaks, Caribbean-blue lakes of glacial melt, and guanaco (similar to alpacas) feeding on every other hillside.
Team GearJunkie set a cruel pace on the bike leg. The tiniest member of the team, and in fact the whole race, 5’ 2” Chelsey Gribbon proved that power can come in small packages. She led her team for much of the bike course. “It’s rad so far!” she told me, “Our team is incredible!”
After about four hours of hard riding, Team GearJunkie was in first place into Checkpoint No. 1 by several minutes, leaving the bike leg to begin the first paddle section on a river heading south.
But if faster teams and long climbs were not enough to demoralize the racers, the wind, the foe that has no ally, was doing its best to crush the spirit of the teams. Ungodly gusts of over 50mph knocked riders over, and in one case completely flipped a rider and her bike over backwards. Our support vehicle, a truck, was forced to stop as rocks, not just sand, were lifted from the road and flung at the riders. Members of Team Dancing Pandas dropped their bikes in the middle of the road and dove into the bushes to escape the assault. None of us had ever experienced such a violent, stone-hurling squall — it was frightening.
Upon reaching Checkpoint No. 1, the first transition area of the race, the winds were too strong for kayaks to be launched. A couple hours of delay allowed many teams a chance to rest and regroup. “I feel great and really glad to be off the bike,” Stephen Regenold of GearJunkie.com told me. Most teams were just happy to be out of the wind. “It’s properly windy!” Team Adidas captain, Bruce Duncan, of the U.K. exclaimed.
On the shores of the glacial Lago Gray, under blue skies and sunshine, teams readied themselves for several hours of paddling. “It looks to me like we’re on the Squamish River,” Masha Glanville of Team Dancing Pandas told me, referring to a mountain river in North America that bore resemblance.
The wind still blew strongly, but the course snaked down river with a steady current for most of the paddle. Coursing through Torres Del Paine Park, the river ushered racers past more amazing scenery. Behind them, towering granite peaks with ice fields. Ahead, massive blue glaciers melting into a milky-blue river. Team Adidas was the fastest on the water, leaving the Rio Serrano and Checkpoint No. 2, the transition to a trek, about 10 minutes ahead of Team GearJunkie. But with the time allowance from the bike leg, the two teams were about even going into the trek.
Noel Duffy of New Zealand and member of Team Dancing Pandas said of the paddle: “Really good! I enjoyed it. Now we’re ready to trek through the night.” But our chat was interrupted by teammate Mark Lattanzi yelling, “Noel, I need you — get everything in this bag right now!”
The coming darkness does not mean rest for racers as it will for me — it means navigational frustration in deep woods and either time gained or lost to opponents. I ran with several teams for the first few hundred yards to photograph them, bidding good luck as I dropped back. Most were too focused to respond. Life in the wilderness has become primal already and formalities were left behind with civilization.