Grueling adventure race criss-crosses the Three Lakes
August 9, 2016
A little over 24-hours after leaving Grand Lake's town square park on a roughly 112 mile adventure through the three lakes and a wide swath of Arapahoe National Forest, Olof Hedberg sat slumped against a column on the steps up to the gazebo serving as the finish line of the first-ever Never Summer Adventure Race singed from sun, shoes soggy and caked with mud, eyes half closed, still mulling the failed gamble that may have cost his team the victory.. The race started at 9 a.m. on Aug. 6 and teams fought to get back to the park by 9 a.m. the next day.
Adventure racing is a unique endurance discipline that requires careful strategy. The winner is the team that reaches the most "control points", locations set by the race director throughout the course area, and returns to the finish line under the 24-hour time cutoff. If multiple teams "clear the course," or reach every possible control point, then the race comes down to who crosses the finish line first. Hedberg and his Team Knifesquirrel teammates, Whitney Hedberg (Olof's wife) and Erik Sanders, had taken an early lead in the race, which involved running, paddling, mountain-biking, open water swimming and backcountry navigation. They lost the lead when, late in the night, they decided to pursue a control point at the top of 12,296 foot Parkview Mountain.
Knifesquirrel had ambitions of clearing the course, expecting that several of the teams would attempt to reach the control point on the peak. None did.
"That was a strategically poor choice, but it was cool because we were the only ones that did it," Olof Hedberg said.
The eventual winners were Abby Broughton, Jason Poilsky and Amy Hatch of Fitzgerald's Bicycles out of Idaho, who elected to skip the peak control point and focus on finishing under the time cut off. In the end, they were the only team to make it back to Grand Lake in less than 24 hours. Team Knifesquirrel would arrive less than an hour outside of the time cutoff. Of the 15 teams that started the race, only seven teams reached all of the mandatory control points and only four reached the finish line.
But this isn't a hyper-competitive atmosphere. Adventure racing is specialized enough that most of the teams know each other from past races all over the country. Whitney Hedberg said each race was like a reunion with the other teams.
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"I think that's the cool thing about [adventure racing], the community, and while you're competitive, everyone's really nice out on the course and you cheer each other on and give each other high fives. Maybe it will get really competitive because you're really racing for a place but mostly everyone's friends," she said.
The most daunting task may be that of the race director, gathering permits and coordinating logistics for a race that covers such vast distances in a wide range of modes of transportation.
"You need someone crazy enough to put it on. It's so much work, and it's thankless work," Whitney Hedberg said, adding that by the end a lot of racers inevitably harbor some bitterness toward the race director for designing a course responsible for so much misery.
For the Never Summer race, that position was held by Katie Ferrington, who has over 10 years of experience as an adventure racer. She took partial responsibility for Knifesquirrel's failed gamble, having told teams at the pre-race meeting that she expected two to three teams to clear the course, based on her own test runs on each section. By all accounts, the course was brutal.
"I've never been so wiped out at the end of a race," said Erik Martinez of team Rib Mountain Racing based in Wisconsin. One bike section that Martinez' team expected to take five to six hours ended up taking closer to nine, all in the middle of the night.
"We got very cold," he said.
Rib Mountain was second across the line, just 17 minutes outside of the 24-hour time cut off.
The race started with a run from the town park in Grand Lake to canoes staged at the East Inlet boat ramp. From there, teams paddled across Grand Lake and Shadow Mountain, portaged to Lake Granby, paddled to a control point on an island in Lake Granby. Then it was a combination of trekking and mountain biking around the north end of the county, including a short swim across Meadow Creek reservoir.
Different teams covered slightly different distances depending on the route they chose and the control points they pursued, but finishers hit between 110 and 120 miles, with around 12,000 feet of vertical gain. For team Knifesquirrel, the ascent of Parkview pushed their total closer to 24,000 feet. Excluding the 5 hours of paddling, that's 24,000 feet of climbing in 19 hours.
"All we did was climb, it felt like," Whitney Hedberg said.
Most racers remained awake for the entire 24 hours of racing. Sanders said he fell asleep for maybe two minutes.
"It's teamwork, it's strategy, it's navigation, it's being proficient at each individual sport," Whitney Hedberg said. Most of all though, this particular discipline seems to be about figuring out how to maintain team morale through hours of exhaustion and frustration.
For Knifesquirrel, one strategy involved belting out Taylor Swift songs as they paddled across Lake Granby.
All of the official finishing teams will earn points toward qualifying for the US Adventure Racing Asssociation National Championship October 4-15 in Columbia County, Georgia.
Andrew Wise is a summer intern at the Sky-Hi News. He is studying journalism and environmental policy at Western Washington University. He covers environmental issues and the outdoors in Grand Lake. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.