Posted December 1st, 1999
It’s 4 a.m on day four of a 350-mile race. Four silhouettes are out-lined against a steely moon hanging low in the night sky. Their shapes appear lithe, but weary; heads lowered, feet pacing slowly, large backpacks weighing them down. They have mountain biked, run, hiked, and kayaked a total of nearly 250 miles. Still damp from their last foray into the water, they’re now trudging, struggling through the dark so they can find a place to bed down for a couple hours sleep.
The four silhouettes belong to the members of Team Knuckleheads and they are currently in the lead at the Four-Winds USA Supreme Adventure Race, an ultra-endurance race that began on August 7th in Pinedale, Wyoming and finished in the foothills of the Tetons, August 14th.
The quirkiness of their name—Team Knuckleheads—belies the intensity of adventure racing. The Four-Winds Adventure Race course has nine segments including 99 miles of kayaking, 141 miles of mountain biking, 79 miles of trekking, and, for good measure, 15 miles of navigation through varied terrain with a pair of horses in tow.
In adventure racing, a team is only as strong as its weakest link. The group must complete the entire course together. That means total trust in one another’s abilities, complete understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and cooperation on decision making. And when the team is attempting to navigate its way through dense forest in the wee hours of the morning, the importance of team cohesiveness cannot be overstated.
“The attrition rate is so high, because some teams just implode,” says Chris Axelson, co-owner of Peak Performance Sports in Portland, Maine and Team Knuckleheads’ captain. “They can’t figure out how to communicate with one another in a meaningful way. But our team was genuinely supportive of one another, and we were all willing to contribute more than our share.”
“I think we really formed a very cohesive team,” says Mark Yardley, co-owner of Fat City Cycles in Morrisville. “We all got along great, and we helped each other throughout the race. A lot of teams just start hating each other after a couple days, but we stayed strong.”
The other members of Team Knuckleheads are Kristin Gei-shecker, a high-end apparel designer for Burton Snowboards in Burlington, and Dave Lamb, an airline traffic controller in Exeter, NH. Axelson, Yardley, and Lamb had all completed adventure races in the past, while Four-Winds was Geishecker’s first.
Team Knuckleheads was the first team to finish Four-Winds, traversing the 350-mile course in six days, 14 hours, but they were disqualified from official ranking as a result of a technicality. After the team chose to not participate in a 1,000-foot rappel they perceived as an unsafe setup due to falling rocks (a segment that represented just 15 minutes of a seven-day race, Yardley noted), Four-Winds officials made the decision to unrank Team Knuckleheads, a ruling that ultimately stripped the team of the overall victory.
“We didn’t want to risk any unnecessary injury,” Yardley said. “It just wasn’t a safe situation. It was an unfortunate decision made by the race committee, but something we had to accept.”
In preparation for Four-Winds, Axelson, Yardley, Gei-shecker, and Lamb trained on their own and with each other. They focused on endurance-based activities, rather than speed, because strength and endurance are what get you to the finish of an adventure race. This meant lots of marathons, century rides, and long hikes. “You have to strengthen your weaknesses,” says Gei-shecker, who didn’t even own a bike before the summer. “For me, that meant hopping on a bike and doing lots of miles,” she noted.
Earlier in the summer, a 30-hour endurance weekend in Maine served as the coming-out party for Team Knuckleheads. “It was a good chance to really get to know each other,” Gei-shecker explains. “We wanted to get something under our belts as a team before we competed at Four-Winds.” The 24-hour race gave Geishecker confidence in her own abilities as well as the team’s, as she prepared for Four-Winds.
But even a team as cohesive as Team Knuckleheads can be undermined by the physical demands of the sport. Most maladies incurred during Four-Winds were fairly pedestrian—sprains, muscle pulls, and exhaustion. But there were also a few that seem inherent only to adventure racing. For example, one team was forced to bow out after a member suffered a severe blister underneath a toenail!
And there are other situations that seem to come out of nowhere. At one point, Team Knuckleheads had to trek 15 miles over a narrow piece of terrain with a pair of horses. Somehow—nobody’s sure exactly how—one of the horses became ensnared in a harness.
“The horse falls to the ground and starts rolling back and forth, and I’m just looking at it, saying ‘that’s like 2000 pounds,’ so I’m not going anywhere near it,” Axelson says. “Hooves are flying everywhere, it’s the middle of the night, we’re all exhausted—it was crazy.”
Lamb managed to get close enough to the tangled mess to cut the straps off the horse, but it appeared that the horse’s breathing had been restricted for too long. The animal lay prostrate on the ground, seemingly lifeless.
The four debated whether to immediately report the incident to officials. “If you use the radio, you’re out of the race,” Axelson explains. “It was a helpless situation.”
But, if there’s one thing that can be counted on in adventure racing, it’s unpredictability. Yardley leaned down near the horse’s nostrils and exclaimed, “She’s breathing!” Eventually the horse stood up and gained back some strength. “Ultimately, we had to ride her back to the top of the ridge. That had to be the epic story of the race, but by no means the highlight,” concludes Axelson.
Such low points aside, team members believe the appeals of adventure racing are diverse. Certainly the physical challenges are prominent features of any race, but just as important—perhaps even more so—are the mental challenges participants face.
“I basically did it just to see if I could,” explains Yardley, an accomplished road cyclist. “It was less about the competition with other people, and more about whether you can break down your personal limitations that you thought existed. You find out that you actually get stronger as the race goes on,” he says. “You can compartmentalize all the pain—you just decide that you don’t want to feel this or that.”
“Sometimes it was like the zombie death-march at two or three in the morning,” Geishecker adds, explaining the effects of sleep depravation. “But there was never a time I thought we wouldn’t finish. It’s a mental challenge. If you’ve got that positive mindset you can get through it.” “It’s sort of ridiculous to be 20 miles from the nearest road at two in the morning and you’ve got your compass out and you’re trying to figure out where you’re going,” Axelson explains. But that’s what makes it so damn appealing—that you end up doing things that you would never be doing in your daily lives.”
Everyone on the team agreed it was a positive experience, despite the controversial unranking from the final standings. Perhaps the newly formed United States Adventure Racing Association (USARA) will alleviate similar problems in the future. Because adventure racing is a new sport, the USARA has adopted an increasing role in overseeing adventure races in both North and South America.
“I think the USARA should help,” Axelson said. “But whether they will remains to be seen. They should, and I hope it’s their intention. I also hope the USARA can play a role in popularizing the sport, because it’s an absolutely terrific event.”
Would they do it again? Time will tell. Yardley has begun contemplating another Knuckleheads expedition for next year. “There’s talk about a race being put on in Alaska,” he says. “We’d be racing all the top teams in the world.”
Geishecker, however, is slightly more reluctant to commit to anything in the near future just yet. “Well, I definitely wouldn’t rule it out,” Gei-shecker said. “Right after the Four-Winds race ended, I said, ‘Yeah, I would definitely do it again.’ You’re still on that high. But it takes an incredible toll on the body. Then again, it was such an amazing experience…”
Adventure Race—a broad category of races that have similar venues but different time spans. Some can be done in three hours, some take 10 days. Disciplines usually include mountain biking, horseback riding, mountaineering, whitewater rafting, kayaking or canoeing, and trail running. Often there is a discipline unique to the area where the race occurs.
Expedition Level Racing—Six to ten days of non-stop adventure racing.
Eco Challenge—a brand name for one type of expedition adventure race. Raid Gailouis, Southern Traverse, Four-Winds, and Odyssey 2000 are all expedition-level races.
Extreme Games—Typically non-olympic sports, such as BMX in a half-pipe. Usually an event lasts 20 minutes to an hour.
XTerra—A triathlon that involves cross-country running and mountain biking instead of a road run and road bike.