A seasoned adventure racer reenters the sport to compete in the 8-hour Teton Ogre Adventure Race, affirming a love that can never grow old.
The beast is a mess, feeling like a pretender, a has-been, a fraud — anything but a viable, aggressive adventure racer. He needs to snap out of it, and fast, if he intends to show up for the 8-hour Teton Ogre Adventure Race. The race starts at 8 a.m. sharp.
This beast within me, whom I’ve channeled to rival steely strong competitors in more than 20 adventure races, is in hiding. He loves this style of racing for how it requires multitasking skills to navigate demanding courses that resemble nothing of a typical dash from here to there, yet he’s not budging. He has shown the resolve to persevere over hours and even days through tough challenges, but today he’s withdrawn, refusing to cooperate.
Instead, he hides in full view of the challengers arriving at Targhee Athletics in Driggs, Idaho, where 51 racers in 27 teams are checking in and receiving maps, UTM coordinates and final instructions for tomorrow’s race.
The athletes report in looking fit, focused and confident. I’m fit, tense and humorless. Somehow this race is different from the others, and I know it has nothing to do with this energized crowd.
This is all about me.
Seven years after my last race, it’s clear that time has withered my mojo. I should be a more enlightened racer, one focused on race strategy … the beast! I enjoyed mostly top five finishes in my adventure-racing career and even garnered some wins, all of which, on reflection, probably makes me more of a winner than a loser.
Seven years later, now what?
I know what it takes to be an adventure racer; the unrusty kind. Adventure racers compete across vast landscapes, which requires stepped-up ability, fitness, outdoor skills, team play and navigation using only a topo map, a compass, UTM coordinates and an altimeter. There’s a lot to these races, including the requirement for racers to plot their own routes using a topo map and UTM coordinates.
The objective of each race is to efficiently travel from one coordinate — ascribed on a map as a checkpoint — to another. The challenge is one and the same, but dirty, painful and a wear on the mind and body. Each checkpoint, or CP, has a point value of 10 points. A team earns a win by combining a fast time with accrued points. Missing just one checkpoint or accruing just one penalty can cede a win, depending on final times and scores. A penalty of three points is deducted for every minute past 4 p.m.; 8 hours from the start. Savvy counts. Speed counts. Checkpoints count. Penalties count.
It’s time to race!
Splat! Not 20 minutes into the race my front wheel tanks hard in a rut filled with rainwater, sending me over the handlebars into muck. I shake it off, check my front wheel and remount to continue cranking up a brushy powerline road. I’m the only racer who left the pack to veer this way, or so I believe. Ahead, downed trees. I shoulder my bike to hike it across the timber, while close behind I hear, “follow that guy!”
Now we’re racing!
At the ridge top I spot racers, descending the road. How’d they pass me? I power the pedals and catch them where the road terminates at the base of powerline poles. The powerlines overhead stream on, drooping gracefully across the canyon before lifting to the next poles.
The first checkpoint is concealed below on the rocky, brushy slope. I grab the handlebars of my bike and scurry down by foot, guiding the bike while scrutinizing every tree — “Juniper on ridge” — for the checkpoint. It’s always exciting to nab the first CP, and this one was easily found dangling from a branch of a juniper tree, as expected. The four racers standing near it was a dead giveaway, I confess. I punch the prize in my passport — 10 points! — and waste no time leaving the bunch of racers futzing about to gather itself.
The map indicates that the route wends up the canyon on a “packer’s trail,” passing another checkpoint before the trail reaches a forest road in about 3 miles.
A packer’s trail describes a trail that may be either passable, a mere memory, or something between. I push to be the first to it. Getting stuck behind racers on a narrow, difficult trail is frustrating and no way to gain an advantage, especially in a race where trail etiquette is often ignored. Pass if you can, otherwise forget it!
Landing at the bottom I hike my bike across a bog and then a stream — and find the trail. It is not maintained and shows no obvious use, but it is passable. Within minutes I catch a glimpse of another team. We converge where we all stop to scour the slopes for the second checkpoint. They go that way, I go this way: I find the CP first. The boxy orange-and-white station is tucked in a rock outcropping i.e. “Rock pile”. I punch the victory in my passport — 20 points! — and holler, “over here!”
Hyped by finding the second CP, thrilled to be on the move, and buoyed by the sheer mechanics of racing through wilderness, the beast is in the mood. Here I am among many enjoying the day, and feeling generous.
As a soloist I have nothing to lose in pointing out a CP to a two-person team. A final score is categorical, which means this two-person team is not competing against men’s solo. The strongest teams will eyeball the entire field for the overall title, achieved by combining the fastest time with the best score. The overall winner is out there right now, racing stronger, better and smarter than the rest of us. I’m not eyeballing anything but a finish, and preferably to finish well. And if I do, the bonus would be to finish ahead of any of the younger racers. Just because!
I churn the trail, hoisting my bike over downed timber and riding or wading the same stream over and over. I hydrate when I can and labor up the ever-steepening slope until I hit the road.
Two hours into the race, I’m inspired! The beast is awake, and hungry! The dirt road traverses a ridge before descending a windy route to a grassy parking area. This is the transition area, staffed with friendly volunteers who ask for my race number, 101, and write down my time (30 points!).
Racers “transition” from bikes to foot for the orienteering section (and back again) at this area, where volunteers can keep track of racers. I plop my bike down among a dozen bikes, an indication of nothing other than I’m either behind or ahead in a field of 27 race strategies. I’m certainly not detecting a tie.
I wash down an energy bar. I could refill with water here before embarking on the orienteering section, but decline, thinking the weight could help to wear me down. I’ll refill later.
Clipped into my pack and ready to go, I notice two racers striding in from a trail to the south. I am confused. According to my judgment, the orienteering course neither begins nor ends where the men appear.
Stepping to a north trailhead, I orient my compass and map to confirm my choice. The men whisk by, clearing things up: they are rectifying a navigational mistake.
Alternating between a slow jog and fast walk, I tuck my map and futz with shoulder straps to adjust my pack. This could be a challenging leg. I have seen the rigors of orienteering exasperate a team to the point of despondency. I’m already biting my lip. Driggs is located near the towering, impressive Teton Range, which to a newbie suggests a course set in the distinguished range. But no, this race is set in a subrange of the Tetons where the mountains are heavily timbered, rolling and absent of prominent features.
A spire, a towering snag on a ridgeline, a rocky ridgeline, a lake, a standout feature of any type can provide a reliable bearing. But orienteering here will be a map-and-compass affair, except for sporadic cross-canyon views of drainages. That’s something! A feature such as a side canyon or confluence is pure gold on a topo map if it can be kept in view from within deep timber.
The two men are speedy, which I like. I catch up with them and keep up. It’s a comfortable pace, so much so that I have the convenience of deciding whether consorting can lend an advantage.
It’s a gamble. Sharing information with a team outside my category, such as I did earlier, carries small risk to my position. However, a cozy relationship with any team can be perilous, especially in navigation.
In the nitty gritty of navigation, when all available tools are engaged to follow a bearing, each step can be a problem unto itself. Every step is coerced by a disorder of downed timber, streams, boulders, side slopes, steepness … Mother Nature. Traversing a straight line can quickly become the progress of unicorns, not of foot-weary bipeds. Enter any number of fatigued “chiefs” opting for easy routes can confuse and disorient, ultimately putting all in the alliance out of contention. It happens!
On the other hand, just one savvy racer can single-handedly steer a group smoothly through a course, connecting one checkpoint after another. A cadre of savvy racers working together, a triumph. This happens, too!
“Want to pass?” One of the men breaks the ice. “Not really,” I say, “this is about as fast as I care to go.” I begin the pleasantries, asking where home is. “Driggs!” Local boys, that’s a bonus. We get friendly, sharing names and racing history. They’re veterans of the Ogre, although they admit to no familiarity with the terrain we’re traversing. Last year’s course: set on the slopes of the Tetons. Go figure!
In time we split up to search independently for a checkpoint, with me heading up a knob and them dropping lower. We’re not allied. “Over here,” points one of the men. Now we’re allied. That’s 40 points for both teams. I learn we’ve been racing the same route from start to finish.
In passing numerous racers thus far it’s obvious I made a time-burning miscalculation early in the race, so at this point I can only wonder how many more racers are ahead of me!
We stick together for six more checkpoints, over ridges, up a tree, through numerous stream crossings, across slopes and along a canyon bottom. The time together was easy, friendly and productive — just racers having fun racing. It was apparent that I traveled fastest, waiting frequently, but we stuck together anyway because, well, it was that fun.
And beneficial! They corrected a 200-degree math error of mine and I advocated successfully to reach checkpoints they may have either missed or taken longer to find. The alliance rallied for a total score each of 100 points!
Arriving back at the transition area I check in with the volunteers (110 points!) and hurry my stuff together while refueling and rehydrating. “Good luck guys, and thanks!” I wave to my new friends, seated near the bikes. Shoes off, they are in no apparent hurry. But I am — the beast is back!
Returning uphill, my goal is to ride 2 miles toward the start of the race to a junction where I will turn east for the second mountain bike leg. The final three checkpoints are located on this 7-mile loop. I check the time: 2:08 p.m., it appears I have nearly 2 hours before the eight-hour cutoff of 4 p.m.
Teams of racers descend toward the transition area, looking wiped but happy. I smile, saying, “good work!” They say thanks. But, are they ahead of me, or behind?
By the time I begin the final mountain bike leg, I’m bushed. I’m opting more and more to walk my bike. My legs are wooden, asking for relief — walking is all I got. My map indicates a long descent in about 3 miles, and I’m gunning for it and the promise of a respite for my body. All the while I am careful to gauge distances and topo clues in searching for two of the final three checkpoints, and it works: “Juniper on rock pile,” check! “Tree N edge of ridge,” check! That’s 130 points! One to go!
I launch into the long descent aching for a fast and easy ride. Wrong! The descent is horrendously rocky in patches, requiring exhaustive riding skills. I encounter ATVs and motorcycles, surprising their young riders!
I miss my turn, which would have been disastrous had I kept going, which I had a notion to do. But something didn’t feel right, so I recalculated, turned around and within minutes found my direction. Back on track, I sense the end is near. And a dread — I’m running out of time. The two miles before me will be long, punctuated by two significantly deep canyons. Pull off these 2 miles and I’ll be on the road, less than a mile from the finish.
I’m pooped. Tick, tock!
Between the canyons, in a place described by the clue that reads “Downed tree across reentrant,” hides the final checkpoint. Reentrant? Walking my bike with arms akimbo across the handlebars, I trudge on, grinding.
Bleary but inspired from surmounting the first canyon, my focus is fixed on the “Downed tree across reentrant.” I have indicated the checkpoint as a low spot on the topo map, where I find trickling a small stream. I scour its channel above and below the road, and search the nearby slopes. No luck. It must be further on, I am convinced, and begin my ride to comb the sides of the road for a “reentrant.” Old, overgrown side grades break toward the forest edge, so I consider whether a reentrant could be part of one of these terminals. I check this one and that one, walking a bit of each, until the road begins to drop. I’m facing the descent into the final canyon. The final checkpoint is behind me!
Should I let it go, accepting all but one as the best I can do? I’m tired — too tired — to race like a hero. I can just call it a day and reach the finish before it’s too late.
I may not be a hero, but today I am a beast!
I turn around, thinking the stream remains the best bet. Reaching it, I let my bike drop in the middle of the road and look downstream. A stagger into the woods, deja vu. Still, nothing! Ten steps more, and there it is, the checkpoint hanging from a log over the stream. Reentrant, where a stream reenters its natural channel from a culvert. In this case, 50 feet from where it reenters. Details!
140 points, that’s a wrap! Go!
With little to do but finish, I cross the far side of the second canyon wishing for nothing more than, simply, to finish — the “just stop moving” kind of finish. It’s been a good, long, challenging day, and I’m satisfied, feeling good. My goal was to finish this race, preferably well, and any bonus would come from finishing ahead of any of the younger racers.
Now, let’s go see!
Turning the final bend to the finish, ahead I spy my family. They’re yelling for me, cheering me in. As if on cue (it was), they turn their backs on me. Written in pink tape across the backs of their jackets are the letters: “GO” “DAD” DY!”
A small crowd joins the applause. My family rushes in for hugs that don’t quit. So good.
A race organizer asks for my passport. I oblige, calling it a “thing of beauty.” It is beautiful, all 140 points of it!
I ask, how many others have finished before me.
She says, “none — you won it all!”
Jan Nesset is the editor of Adventure Pro Magazine.