In the distance I can hear the telltale rush of wind charging down the mountainside then thrashing through the vegetation a few hundred yards away from our tent. By now, in a nearly automated response at this wee hour in the morning I reach up quickly to grab the hoop as tightly as possible, locking my elbow and engaging my bicep to brace hard against what was coming. My eyes in their sleepless state struggled to focus in the dark to see how many of the other three hands would be awake enough this round to help keep our tent from flying up and away like a kite into the void of blackness, exposing us to the elements of the unforgiving landscape. All four of us, in our silent solidarity gripped that hoop like our lives depended on it, and, in fact, it did. The burst of wind and sheet of rain struck the tent with a violent blow. First it flattened the outer edges, plastering the flimsy material to the bodies on the outer positions of our lineup. Then, it sucked the tent upward ripping out three of only six tent stakes holding our floorless shelter onto the peat terrain. The thunderous onslaught lasted at most a minute or two but our hands remained in place for several minutes after, one hand at a time detaching, slinking back into a sleeping bag to get warm, as we individually adjusted to the new relative quiet of calmer wind and more civilized rhythmic rain on the tent.
Patagonian Expedition Race (PER) has been on my adventure racing (AR) bucket list since I first heard about it in 2006. Co-ed teams of four navigate using only map and compass for 10 days covering roughly 450 miles on the Southern tip of Chile in the month of February. For this year’s addition it would be trekking, mountain biking, and kayaking as the main disciplines. The race is widely known in the AR community as the toughest and wildest adventure race in the world. Only twenty teams of four are allowed to participate and just a tiny fraction of those who enter are able to finish the entire course. In fact, there have been years where no team was able to finish. There are no guarantees of finishing and failure almost always reigns, and even with these kind of odds, teams return again and again for another shot.
After the monstrous hurdle of arranging most of the childcare for our daughters (ages 7 & 3 years) for the 18 days I would be gone, Jeff and I agreed I would sign on to do the race. That week I booked my flight to Punta Arenas, Chile, and things started to feel real. In this process I started to pick away at and unearth the girl who used to race and thrive on no sleep and get excited about suffering with teammates in extreme weather in competition in the name of adventure. This part of me had been lying dormant for way too long.
The last race of this length that I participated in was in 2006 BC (before children) when the training and racing was easier in every way. I was able to go out for a run, ride or paddle for hours without worrying that I would be late to pick up my child, or have guilt that I should be home, etc. Before I had children I competed in a lot of adventure races including the two day Sea to Summit in Vancouver (which is the one that got me hooked), the 4 day Beast of the East, the 4 day Appalachian Extreme, the 6 day Raid Ukatak Winter race, the 9 day Four Winds USA Supreme, and the 10 day Primal Quest Expedition race, to name a few. Although I have always made fitness a priority since my children were born, it hadn’t been the primary focus. Like many of my outdoor loving girlfriends, I, too, was lost in kid world, somewhere between potty training and the PTA.
My training plan for PER which started in earnest at the beginning of the school year, consisted of getting up at 4:25 am each weekday to run/hike early in order to step right back into my busy day upon returning home to pack lunches for school, manage the family schedule, plan meals, clean, help with homework, shuttle kids to extracurriculars, schedule photo sessions and catch up with marketing work for my husband’s real estate business. When I first texted a small group of three close running friends to see if they would join me at 5am at the base of Mount Sentinel, my text remained unanswered for nearly two days until one of them finally responded “5 am is going to be rough for me, so I will pass. ” Shortly after receiving that text the other two chimed in echoing her sentiments. In desperation to get someone to join me (since I’m a scaredy cat in the dark) I posted a request for companions on my Facebook page. I got two women to agree to meet me and I was elated.
My daughters were my biggest motivators on the bike. Before the morning frost Campbell rode in an ergo on my back and Astrid pedaled a tagalong behind me. Once the weather shifted we commuted through all sorts of extreme winter conditions: in plummeting temperatures with the girls snuggled together in the trailer in one of my sleeping bags rated -20 with toe warmers in their boots, in the dark, in the wind, and in active snow. It was the norm to hop in the bike trailer, and on the extremely rare occasion I deemed it easier to drive there were tears streaming down hot cheeks and big protests about driving. One time Astrid said “I don’t like to drive. It’s just too “normal”, Mom.”
In January as my training amped up so did the amount of training partners! I had a tribe of women (all mothers with young children) each taking a day of the week to join me early morning. At times I would meet one woman at 5 am and another one would meet me at the base at 6:15 am for a second trip up the mountain. We fed off each other’s motivation and almost never cancelled. My Sentinel Soul Sisters, as I call them, helped me to be stronger and more prepared physically then I have ever been in my whole life for a race, even before kids. I was exhausted every night by the time we put the girls to bed, and at the end of the week I was so ready for my rest day with family.
In early February, after prepping gear and food for the race and coordinating my home base logistical “machine” of friends and babysitters that would kick in in my absence along with notes and phone numbers and schedules for Jeff, I left for Chile. I met up with teammates in Punta Arenas, two of which I had only phone conferenced with, brothers, Andy and Adam. We had a few days before the race for some rides and runs together and our team was an instant cohesive success. About 24 hours before the race we got the maps and logistics of where we would have gear drops and we began the task of organizing ten days’ worth of food and gear with all we could assume about the conditions we would face.
The race started at Faro Punta Dúngeness, which is a lighthouse located on the easternmost point of Chile, and the entrance of the Strait of Magellan. It is the only place where the Atlantic Ocean touches the mainland of Chile. We trekked 34 km on a rocky beach facing a colossal headwind, so much so, that the four of us traveled in an echelon pattern in an effort to take turns blocking wind for each other and resting between. The additional crosswinds exhausted our efforts to maneuver and one of our teammates fought and fought to stay attached to back the group with the speeds the other three of us were traveling, even with the wind block. He slipped farther and farther back.
A few miles down the beach my heart slowly began to dip. I could barely think with the deafening sound of the unrelenting wind but it was time to process and deal with a very real aspect of adventure racing. At the very core of expedition AR there is an unspoken pact you make with your team and in turn you make with yourself: You help each other and encourage each other or you all fail. In other races if a teammate has to dropout for a medical issue or a personality conflict the rest of the team can continue “unranked”, but at least the rest of the team could see a finish line. Not at PER. If one teammate drops out, you all forfeit the race. These are high stakes for a race at the end of the world knowing all the elements it took to get there. During the beach trek I had to forget all the training, all the money I’d spent, all the time I had been away from my family and all the friends who had rallied to support me. The old adage that “There is no I in TEAM” applies as wholeheartedly in AR, as it does in other team sports. The competitor in me was wrenching at the sight of 6 or 7 teams ahead of us becoming smaller and smaller on the horizon line of the beach in the sprawl in front of us. I wanted to run. All the training allowed me to feel like it was just a lean into the wind. I wanted it to be epic. I wanted to finish and it seemed like too much to lose so soon after the start.
After a long fight against the wind we arrived at PC1 where we transitioned to a 272 k bike section which would take us to the foothills of the mountains in western Chile. The course was a combination of long monotonous dirt roads across the interior. We used cyclocross bikes and strapped our backpacks to our bikes in order to help shave off some time. We passed four teams within the first few hours on the road, but we progressed slower than we’d hoped due to the ever present headwind from the west and our struggling teammate bonked that night. The next day we continued on endless roads covering huge mileage and through expansive estancias. As night set in we rode to the top of a fire road. On the way up I was deliriously tired and started to get lost in the tunnel of light my headlamp created in front of me. I saw army men crouched behind sandbags in my periphery in the dark, silhouetted against the glowing moon. They seemed so real to me but I was so tired I didn’t care what they were going to do. At the top of the climb after pushing my bike with an extra 48 hours of food we were required to carry from the previous pc it took all the energy I had so I just threw down my sleeping pad and collapsed on it. We were there resting for an hour or so and when the light started to seep in we had a new lease on the situation, but we got lost immediately. The layout of the open turba (peat terrain) and tree stands all around were tricky. We had to know precisely where we were on the map in order to go to the correct tree outcropping, where the pc was. We were wrong about where we were for a long time and after hours of pushing and carrying our bikes around on turba (a spongelike vegetation that you sink into up to your ankles or your knees or higher depending on which color you step on) we finally made it to pc6, transitioning back to trekking.
The first part of the 74 K trek took us through so many diverse Lenga Forests I lost count. We would step over a log and all of a sudden we had entered another “room” in the forest with a completely different set of décor; blowdown, areas of forest fire, live trees growing far enough apart for lush green vegetation, and the worst kind of room - the one with that was thick with live Lenga trees. We saw that "room" often. It was difficult to maneuver through with our 30-35 lb packs. I felt like I was doing the limbo to get under one branch and my next move might be the army crawl to get under the next one. Through the thickest sections we opted to crawl on top of these trees. For two days we fought the trees and then the valley opened to a huge expansive bog as far as the eye could see. Our feet were already wet and instead of trying to avoid the ponds, streams, and rivers we trudged directly through them in hopes of avoiding the trees. On the morning of the 5th day of our race we were greeted by a full double rainbows, but what was behind them was ominous. A thick black mass of weather blew in and with it came higher winds and hail, followed by heavy rain. When it started hailing we decided to pitch the tent and see if we could get a hold of the race organizers for a weather report. I was so cold and wet I didn’t dare take anything off since the thought of putting it back on wet and cold didn’t sound appealing. I put the last layer of clothing that I had on and hoped that I would be warm enough. We couldn’t get a hold of anyone on the emergency line, so Jean called his girlfriend Jen in hopes she could find out something about the weather in the area. We took the tent down in record time when we decided to get moving again.
There was a small break in the weather and a tiny bit of sun came through. During this time we started to dry out a bit since the wind was whipping at a pretty good clip, but it didn’t last. We got soaked and my rainjacket and rainpants started to fail when we were forced to travel through the trees. The leaves constantly dumped water into my sleeves and down the neck of my jacket as I lifted and pushed branches out of the way. We waded through knee deep water around the perimeter of a lake that was glacial fed. We had to get out of the water to stop a few times to warm our feet up, and after this we crossed 30-40 little streams hidden under trees. We couldn’t travel fast enough as a team. Our teammate who had been struggling to keep up the pace the entire race was going as fast as he could and it wasn’t even close to fast enough for the rest of us to stay warm. About 50 k into the trek we were headed up into the higher elevations when I literally got blown off my feet. The other three teammates were ducking for cover against the powerful blasts and again we were forced to find cover. The only option we had was to pitch our tent again and try calling on the Sat phone. We holed up in our tent that was more in the category of “emergency shelter” than tent. Floorless and staked precariously to the peat bog floor we rolled out our pads and sleeping bags in record time even with nearly frozen fingers and got down to our base layers and shivered for a while. Each of us lost in our own world of realizing the bind we were in.
We couldn’t reach the race organizers on the emergency line so Jean called Jen back to find out if she’d been able to find out anything on weather and how long it would be a factor. She said that she had talked to the race staff and they were organizing a helicopter evacuation for us. I was mortified by the surreal situation we found ourselves in. Jean, a former Marine, thought the best action for the team was to be evacuated, the brothers were pretty quiet and I heavily resisted saying there was no way in hell I was going to get helicoptered out! I heard the words leaving my mouth and at that moment I could hear how selfish they sounded! We had roughly 29 more kilometers to go and we were progressing at only 1/2 kilometer an hour. We were in a brittle situation although we were stable in the confines of our tent. When I did the math about how many hours it would take with the amount of calories we had left and the dire condition of one of the teammate’s feet it didn’t look promising. We decided to wait until morning to see if the weather would break. We feared our race was wrapping up and we silently mourned the loss.
After a sleepless night of reaching up to grab the aluminum tent ring each time we heard the wind rushing toward us, we stuck with the plan to be evacuated and our race was over. We were airlifted to pc7.
I can sleep almost anywhere, and I feel I shine brightest with very little comfort and few material things. I'm certain I was born to exist outside with all that I need in a backpack. It's truly where I'm happiest. I almost always say "Yes!" to fun, no matter how wild the adventure, and especially if it gets me out of making dinner.