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
“T.C., can you be ready in five minutes?” shouted the voice attached to the hand shaking my shoulder. I was only two hours into my “night” of sleep. “Team GearJunkie is about to leave!,” the voice continued, “We need you on the next truck.” I was on my feet in three minutes, camera in hand, stumbling through camp trying to figure out my situation. It turns out my ride was already gone, trying to carry fuel to the truck following Team Adidas.
Team GearJunkie was making final preparations to their bikes and were about to start the last leg of the race. In a little over eight hours, having biked 188 kilometers, their race would be over. The previous night Stephen Regenold had spoken to me in a pain-killer haze of apathy. Though he looked rough, having his feet tended to by a medic, he said he was fine. This morning, his eyes looked at me, not through me the way they did last night. He still wore an unintentional smile the way a simple-minded person often does. This race steals life from you physically, but gives it back in other ways.
Roughly 24 hours earlier, the whole race had been neutralized due to the dangerous weather conditions and huge amounts of rain falling on the course. Three teams and a journalist were trapped by a raging river, unable to make it to checkpoint 10. For the sake of safety and continuing the race, Race Director Stjepan Pavicic called for a halt to racing and the movement of all teams to checkpoint 13, eliminating the trek from checkpoint 11 to checkpoint 12.
With a large time gap between Team Adidas and GearJunkie, neither team was pushing too hard. Like the Tour de France’s ride into Paris, this final bike leg was more formality than racing. Go easy, don’t make any mistakes and try not to lose their current placing seemed to be the plan. So, over rolling hills on tracks and gravel roads, the teams pedaled in a line, utilizing tailwinds from the west that pushed them toward the finish line.
Sam Salwei, a videographer on the race and a North Dakota native, swore that this area looked like his homeland. Then we passed a small oil rig and he exclaimed “Now they are identical!”
Our truck caught up with Team Gearjunkie about 15 miles from the finish. The dust from their tires coated my lens and camera as I shot. Their faces no longer wore the fatigued looks of a body slowly deteriorating. They flashed smiles and chatted with us as we leapfrogged them getting different shot angles. “We reached 70k an hour without pedaling!” exclaimed GearJunkie’s Daniel Staudigal.
“We feel great!” GJ’s Chelsey Gribbon told me at the finish line. “That ride was awesome!” Stephen Regenold sat, legs outstretched, looking tired, but much better than the shell of a man that he was at the 2010 WPER finish line. “You know what, man? I feel way better than I did after last year,” he told me. (I didn’t have the heart to tell him he looked like he’d been beaten up.) I was just glad my friend could simply sit motionless, soaking in the satisfaction of not only surviving eight days of racing here, but also his second-place finish in one of the world’s toughest races.
Later before boarding a van for town, Regenold hugged me and thanked me for “doing such a great job out here.”
Each of us feels more connected after this event. Complete strangers speaking different languages somehow become fast friends when conditions demand that each of us help his fellow man. If one is freezing, the others huddle around him. The thirsty are given the last sips of water, the cold invited to share a sleeping bag. It will be tough to return to the jaded worlds we came from and to leave the society of goodwill and sacrifice we’ve built here. But to see family, friends, pets and our own beds will be amazing. More than a week of nomadic wilderness living has made us all stronger, more alive, more grateful, and ultimately, I believe, better people.