Expedition Oregon

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Team Work and Tactics in Oregon

Rob Howard / 22.06.2018

Team Merrell Leki (Denmark and Sweden) were the winners of the first Expedition Oregon race, a demonstration event in the AR World Series for 2018.  The team included sisters Lina and Sanna El Kott Helander and Mikael Nilsson, and was led by Lars Bukkehave who tells the story of their race here.

We flew to Bend, Oregon 5 days before the race to do some white water training and get a little feel of the American style of maps.  In the airport we were picked up and the first stop was at the home of Race Director Jason Magness to pick up some gear from Leki. Already we were feeling the great hospitality of Bend Racing.

Almost all of the racers stayed at Lodge Entrada, and a lot of familiar faces were showing up with stories from Belize, Alaska, Costa Rica and Ecuador. It is a small community, but there were also a lot of new faces looking forward to their first big Expedition Race. It’s a good atmosphere when all the racers are staying in the same place instead of individual locations.

The race day started with fresh brewed coffee from a local shop and a 3 hour bus drive with everyone taking the chance to get some last shut-eye before the race. It all started on a big parking lot at the entry to a national park. Everything was covered in mist with visibility of 15 meters, making it a true fairy tale forest.

We took very small backpacks on the first running stage, and then swapped bags in the next transition for the pack-rafting.  It seems we were the only team who had that idea. People were making jokes about our backpacks.

Our route choice to the first checkpoint took us straight on the road and then a turn uphill onto a very steep bushwhack to a new road. Everybody was running like crazy, looking at each other, with nobody wanting to take the first step in the steep uphill. Paleo Eats/Bend Racing Canada was the first to turn, and everybody else followed in a long snake.

On some very steep parts where we were scrambling, stones were falling down. Luckily we had gone up a little to the side, taking a slightly slower line, but at least we weren´t hit by any rocks. Our team was pushing to keep up but not extremely hard, checking in that everyone was eating and feeling well. We were always speaking and helping each other on the technical parts.

We hit the road with the leading pack and were so happy we could finally run. We had a quick chat about whether to stay with the group or try to run away. I asked Micke, “Are you ready to do some offensive orienteering?” Lina and Sanna quickly pushed up the pace, only to miss the turnoff for the first checkpoint. No harm was done as we just relocated and found it.

Micke has a background in elite orienteering from the Stockholm area but adventure racing maps were new to him, so we quickly changed the orienteering style slightly. Instead of him doing the whole first leg alone, we were chatting about everything on the move and changed some route choices to use more trails rather than go straight. Having plans is important but to follow them no matter what is unwise.

Surprise Leaders

After around 5 hours, we were welcomed into the first transition area. To our surprise we were the first team. We had a quick high-five, then focused on the transition to pack rafting down the McKenzie River. Everyone was doing their job in getting the packraft and gear ready, quickly pumping the raft and then putting it in to cool down in the cold water. The air in the tubes shrinks when it gets cold, so we blew in some more air before hitting the water. Also we had small light carabiners to click onto the dry bags because the buckle will break loose if you flip and swim in a rapid. We brought 4 flat paddles but broke one in the pre-training, so we borrowed Jason’s private wing paddle (again, true hospitality). But wing paddles are not the best for the type of white water we were doing, but it is a lot better than no paddle or hand paddles ;)

I had been on the national team in white water rafting, doing the World Champs in South Korea. So our boat with me and Lina was in front trying to take the best lines, shortly followed by Micke and Sanna. We were using the very small Alpacka Explorer 42, perfect for flat water and light for hiking.  But let me just make it clear, they are not made for white water! We had to stop in every eddy to empty our boats around 40-45 times during that stage while still sitting in waist deep cold water a lot of the time.

We are still in the golden age of pack-rafting for adventure race, so experience levels in many teams are not that high, including our own. We were quickly overtaken by Team Quest paddling in the Alpacka Gnu with a spray deck, which was the best choice for that stage. Soon after Bones and Paleo Eats/Bend Racing Canada passed us, also in the Gnu, but without spray decks. We were super cold and shaking, just looking forward to moving our bodies. So when we finally hit the portage Lina and Sanna were super stocked to run. All the top 4 teams were together again in the transition.

On the following MTB leg there were 3 route choices, all with pros and cons. We picked a long, steady uphill on gravel ending with a smaller trail to the checkpoint. The gravel ended, and there was no trail. We caught up with Team Bones. They looked at the map then looked at us. We looked at them. We both looked at the very dense forest, and then looked at each other again. Everyone knew that the only way was push our bikes.  Let´s do this.!

It’s always hard when feel like you are making no progress and you are wondering if the other teams found a better way. But the only thing you can do is push as hard as possible without killing yourself. So we did. It was a super hard stage so during the whole push, the fastest made sure the slowest got some energy when catching up. Finally, we made it to the top and the checkpoint.

Sunrise and Sleepmonsters

Now came some great riding on a ridgeline in the rain. Navigation was easy, but we still had to make sure we didn´t take a turn down to the wrong valley. We made it to transition as the second team, just after Quest and just before Bones. There was a 2-hour stop to do 2 out of 3 climbing options. We took the shortest but most technical rock climbing to save more time for some sleep before leaving. We had brought climbing shoes and chalk. It’s great to have rock climbing as part of an adventure race.

On the last part of the bike ride we had a decent speed to be able to eat and be ready for the upcoming lava trek. We geared up with gaiters, orienteering shin guards and GripGrab soft shell gloves while making some freeze dried food. The first part was steep hiking ending in the sunrise with some grade 4 scrambling to the top. This was one of the great moments on the race running on a lava stone ridgeline. The first day had been mist and rain. Now it was clear with great views at sunrise. We felt we’d earned it.

Soon after we had to go steeply downhill in the dense forest, and we were spreading out to look for trails. The downhill trail running was fun with a high pace, and we weren´t paying attention to the map so we dropped 400 feet too much. Bummer. The only way was up again. We were moving along overgrown trails pushing hard just to make little progress. We also had to stop a lot of times to make sure the direction was right and there were some big trails that didn’t fit with the map. Sleepmonster struck and we started to talk to the trails. “Sorry trail, but you don’t deserve our attention; you are not on the map. See you.”

Again, to our surprise, we were 2nd in transition, seeing Team Quest just before they left. We had been on the move for more than 24 hours and were only halfway. My head was okay, but not knowing the coming weather, our only chance for a good warm sleep was during the day in the shade. My proposal was to stop and sleep 1 hour, but the quick reply was, “it’s a race, not your honeymoon.”  We ended up sleeping 15 minutes in the shade.

On the upcoming orienteering run we had a quick look at the map and all of the forest was white. On an orienteering map white means easily runnable. We set off in shorts, and tThis was the biggest mistake of our race. It was anything but runnable. It was the thickest, most overgrown Manzanita I have ever seen. Very quickly all of our legs were bleeding, and we were screaming when something just touched them. Micke was super keen to show his orienteering skills, so we started out like it was a 15 minutes sprint race, even though our estimate was 1.5 hours. We had a very, very hard time navigating in the dense Manzanita, making a lot of circles and having to relocate a lot.

We finally made the choice to run around instead of hike straight, making it a two-man job to navigate instead of just one. The 1.5 hours had long passe and we were not even halfway. Our legs were bleeding. I was out of food and low on energy. I had no water, and my mouth was like sandpaper. The stage we had aimed to win was long gone.

Out of the blue Sanna and Lina found some extra motivation. Sanna said, “Come on boys, let’s run this!”  I said, “I am out of energy and water.” Then Lina said, “Why didn´t you say so, we have so much candy that we can open a shop.”

“We are in pain so they must be crying ..”

After 4 hours and 50 minutes we returned to transition with low morale and sure we had been overtaken by many teams, but we were still in second place with Quest just leaving. It must have been very hard for every team. With the motto “we are in pain so they must be crying”, we left the transition.

We still had to complete the last big mountain bike leg, a rappel with bikes, and a packraft trip down Big Eddy, but that was still an estimate of 16 hours. With a lot of sleep deprivation, we knew it was all about staying awake and not making any big mistakes on the navigation. Using our big lights from Moonlight Mountain Gear, our lights made the night look like day.

We made a turn too early and it was a dead end. The only way out was to push our bikes. I was not 100% sure about our location but finally a little hilltop made our location clear giving me a boost as navigator. The rest of the team didn’t have that boost, so they were not in the best mood. Out on the trail, we took a 5-minute nap in a clear, starry night to get the good mood back.

Later we again ended on a trail with a lot of fallen trees, so we decided to make a bigger loop on gravel. It paid off and at the next checkpoint we spotted Team Quest, sped up, and got in the lead.

Sadly, Micke had forgotten that he was supposed to start navigating at the last checkpoint so he went right by the checkpoint. On the top of the next hill, I asked “How long until the checkpoint?” I will never forget this face when he replied: “Am I navigating?”Yes, you’ve got the Nordenmark Mapboard on your bike!!” I said. There were no hard feelings when going down again of the long hill, passing Team Quest who had a hard time hiding their laughs.

Night turned into the hottest day of the race and before we knew it, it was time to rappel 100 meters with our bikes. We had practiced one set-up with a sling over your neck to the harness, but we had to put slings around our shoulders, which made it hard especially for the twins. It was a super beautiful and cool task with a great view over the whole valley, but it was not the most comfortable and enjoyable task. We all went down safely, but sadly we made some big pendulum swings cutting the sock and some of the rope. Sorry about that!  The climbing crew was super fast to put up some new ropes so the following teams could make the trip down safely.

Hold Tight to the Finish

The last part of the mountain bike was like a maze of trails. We were out of water with mouths like sandpaper. It ended being a lot of stop-and-go to make sure we were on the right path. We were super trashed hitting the last transition, using the first 2 minutes just to drink, eat, and take a fast cool down in the cold water. We could not believe we were in first place. Still we made a good transition making sure we had all the gear we needed, dropping the rest, and hitting the road.

I had been navigating for 12 hours straight so my brain started to have some blackouts and I wasn’t speaking clearly.  Micke quickly spotted that, so he took the map without any conversation, bringing us straight to the packraft put in. Without seeing them, we felt the breath from Team Quest down our necks.

With 58 hours of non-stop racing with only 35 minutes of sleep, we were like zombies approaching Big Eddy, but suddenly we felt fresh, pumped, and full of energy. The noise from the water was getting bigger and bigger as we were approaching. Let’s do this. We made a clear pass through Big Eddy and soon after the zombie-mode hit us again, only waking us up to make the hard navigation for the last checkpoint on the way to the finish line.  It’s all about finding that extra energy when needed.

We crossed the finish line in 58 hours and 11 minutes, and were crowned as the first winners of Expedition Oregon. We made it with good speed, safe navigation, but most of all a great team work.

Did we have an error free race?  No

Did we go fast all the time?  Not really

Was the navigating good? Yes, but we still made some big mistakes.

But all in all we made the fewest mistakes and had a good average speed and some very good team work throughout the whole race. That made for a winning team.

Expedition Oregon was a great event with a lot of great moments. Bend, Oregon is the perfect place to have an adventure race. Big forest, great mountains, steep climbing, fun MTB treks, crazy whitewater, good maps and navigation that kept us busy during the whole race. The crew at Bend Racing has many years of experience and you feel very welcome. I can only recommend it.

We’ll be back next year, but our next race as a team will be ARWS Raid Del Viento in Patagonia, Argentina.

You can find out more about Expedition Oregon at https://www.bendracing.com/ 

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