Jess Evans At Athena Adventures Is Bringing Adventure Racing Back To The Rockies

Cliff White (ARC) / 07.07.2020
Jess Evans and team at Cowboy Tough / © Athena Adventures

Jess Evans found her way into adventure racing by accident, but has since fallen for it hard.

In 2007, an adventure race arrived at the Kentucky park where Evans was working as a park ranger.

“As I watched the teams navigate through the course on bike, on foot, in canoes, and through ropes and rappel sections, I found myself salivating,” Evans said.

The next year, the race came back through the same park, and Evans worked it as a volunteer.

“That began my volunteering period, where I got to know the sport a little more,” Evans said. “By the end of 2009, I was signed up for the Fig as a solo female, a 12-hour adventure race located in Red River Gorge, Kentucky,” Evans said. “I have been racing ever since.”

Jess Evans of Athena Adventures
Jess Evans of Athena Adventures

As Evans dove into racing, her athletic background served her well. In high school, she was competitive in track and cross country, and in her early 20s, she competed in triathlons and mountain biking. Besides the diversity of sports and the pull of spending time in the outdoors, it was the friendly and fun-loving adventure racers in the Southeast U.S. that kept Evans hooked on AR.

She estimates she’s now done around 50 adventure races, including five USARA National Championships and four expedition races.

“I got to know other adventure racers, and they helped to pull me into the sport,” she said.

In 2017, Evans made the move to Colorado, which is home to epic terrain but at the time had just lost one of its primary AR promoters, AXS, after a 15-year run of putting on races in the Rocky Mountain region. Recognizing the need, Evans decided to launch her own race company, Athena Adventures, and within just a few months, she had created the 12-hour Bears Ears Adventure Race, with the inaugural edition taking place north of Steamboat Springs.

“I decided to get into race directing after getting to know [361 Adventures’] Shawn LeMaster better through racing with him.  He and [361 Adventures’] Dallas [LeMaster] do an amazing job putting on races in Kentucky,” Evans said. “I love the sport and wanted to bring it to more people. When I moved to Colorado, I knew there were not a lot of races here, and I thought I could contribute to its success in the state.  Because of 361 Adventures’ guidance and support, they have made transitioning to a race director very doable and fun.”

Stepping up to directing races was at times daunting, Evans said.

“The biggest hurdle for me was getting over my own fear that I could not do it and that I would fail miserably,” she said.

“One of my lowest points was putting on the NOMAD 48-Hour Adventure Race last year, because I felt like I bit off way more than I could chew. I felt as though I barely kept that race together.  It was very hard for me being a one-person show, except for my dad’s help and two volunteers.  Luckily, I had hired a bunch of EMTs that were super-helpful too. That fear of failing was very present during that race.  But we managed to muddle through it without any real issues.  I realized taking on a multi-day race requires a lot more help than I was able to muster up, so I will stick with [races of] 12 hours or less for a while.”

Through the beginners’ struggles, the local AR community was welcoming and supportive, which has encouraged Evans to continue putting on races.

“The people who do adventure races have been one of the high points of being a race director.  I have met some wonderful people who are energetic, thoughtful, and positive.  I have friends all over the state now,” she said. “Also, I love working with maps and exploring new places, so designing a race is heaven."

After going without any races for several years, the Colorado AR community essentially had to be entirely rebuilt, Evans said. Fortunately, a dedicated group of local racers, led by Journey Racing, also began putting on races in the state, and together, along with race directors in Wyoming and Idaho, they created the Rocky Mountain Adventure Series in 2019.

Paddling with Athena Adventures
Paddling with Athena Adventures

For 2020, the RMAS had a 10-race line-up scheduled running from May to October, but most have been canceled due to complications arising from the coronavirus pandemic. Those include Athena Adventures’ Bears Ears 12-Hour Adventure Race, the 6-Hour Quarry Mountain Quest Adventure Race – a fundraiser for a local search and rescue group – and The Grand AR, an 8-hour race in western Colorado, where there are no other adventure races.

Permitting and travel issues, and closed campgrounds and public restrooms, have made the process of putting on an adventure race in the United States exceptionally difficult this year. But that hasn’t discouraged the RMAS group, Evans said.

“All the race directors with the Rocky Mountain Adventure Series love the sport and are eager to grow the sport in the Rocky Mountain region. We have monthly meetings to keep us all informed on the latest happenings in the sport, what is going on with our races, and to give each other support,” Evans said. “While COVID-19 does make it hard for people to plan, once everyone feels comfortable to get out, we want to have the races in place for them to get out to.”

In the meantime, trying to find a solution that will allow AR junkies to race in some form this year, Evans has set up an "Adventure On Your Own Time" race in Mesa County, Colorado, and is planning a second in Routt County, Colorado.  Racers can register for free, receive a map and instructions, "and go out to do the course when they have time," Evans said.  There is a 60-day window to complete the course from when it is opened. 

"I hope this helps racers remain engaged while they see race after race being canceled," she said.

Evans said attendance has risen at the RMAS races but, with around 30 to 40 racers signing up for the average Athena Adventures race, that still “might seem low” compared to races on the U.S. East Coast United States.

“But for Colorado, and starting new races, these were great numbers,” she said.

Evans said the RMAS race directors are hopeful about seeing a bump in registrations as they continue to build up excitement around adventure racing, with a potential assist from the August premiere of the reboot of Eco-Challenge and what will likely be a pent-up demand of people eager to participate in organized races after a lengthy forced hiatus. But no matter who shows up, there’s agreement – adventure racing in the Rocky Mountain region is back.

“This is not only our hobby, but our passion,” Evans said. "No matter what happens with this year’s season, we all are dedicated to have more races in years to come."

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