America's Toughest Race: Expedition Oregon 2021 with 4 Regions Ecuador
This has been a strange past year for everyone. We tend to measure our years in races and events…and with everything cancelled, time has seemed to pass in a very unusual manner the past year. Emily has been in nursing school the past 2 years, which has made putting races on the calendar difficult, since the 2 of us tend to be the driving force between getting our team signed up for expedition-length races. As a result, we didn’t enter a team into Expedition Oregon, since we knew she’d be smack dab in the middle of her last quarter of school.
I had a few offers over the Winter months to race for teams looking for a 4th team member, but was unable to commit that far out due to my schedule being a bit of an unknown due to Covid. So, reluctantly, I had to let those opportunities pass. Lucky for me, about a month before the race, I received a message from Dani from team 4 Regions Ecuador, and was finally able to commit to a team. I had never met any of them, but heard they were strong, had race experience, but just needed a navigator. Their original navigator from Estonia was unable to travel due to Covid travel restrictions. Thankfully, the 3 of them were able to make it from Ecuador!
I binge-trained that final month. I had been training all Winter, but hadn’t done many long training sessions...especially biking and paddling. Our big races this year aren’t until September and October, so the Winter was just base-training with no real big efforts. My biggest days have been backcountry skiing, which luckily, involved a lot of climbing with weight. I did a few big rides to get my butt ready for the beating that was about to ensue, spent some long days in the packraft, and spent some time practicing my bike rafting and bike rappelling setup. I felt totally unprepared trying to cram all my race prep into the last month, especially knowing the team I was joining was strong and had been preparing for months, but somehow, I felt like it would all work out just fine if I could make it to the starting line with all my gear where it needed to be.
After meeting the rest of the team for the first time in Prineville, we spent a couple hours at the whitewater park in Bend so they could get used to the rafts we were going to race in. They’d never paddled a kneeling raft before. Then we did some bike rappelling practice off the side of a dumpster we found in the woods across the street from the hotel. The dumpster said “no climbing” on the side of it, but lucky for us, it said nothing about rappelling. That was the extent of our team training. I found out that none of them had ever raced together, but they had been training together quite a bit that past few months. They were all super fun and easy to get along with, so I wasn’t too worried about team dynamics. Packing was stressful as always, but we got everything where it needed to be and then hit the sack.
After a quick breakfast and 3 hour bus ride we were at the race start on the bank of the North Fork John Day River. The race began with a prologue loop to 3 CPs. Mandatory gear could be left at the river, so it was an all-out mad dash up a dirt road at the start. The prologue was uneventful except for a stream we tried to cross to reach easier travel on the other side. About a third of the way across, we almost lost Juanma downstream, and he was the tallest of my 3 teammates, so we decided to bail and stick to negotiating a bit trickier, cliffy terrain on the side of the stream we were on. After about an hour, we were done with the prologue and back at the river and inflating our rafts.
We had opted to send our backpacks to TA1 the night before, prepacked with stage 2 food, since we really didn’t need them for the river paddle or prologue. So all we had were 2 small drybags each with our mandatory gear and extra clothes that we stuffed into the dry storage in the seat of each raft, inflated them, donned drysuits, and hit the river. It was a beautiful stretch of river, and for the most part, was continuously fast flowing with many class II to III- rapids nearly the entire way. We passed through no significant towns and saw hardly anyone besides other racers and a couple groups on multi-day river trips who were camped along the river bank. It felt very wild and remote. We passed several teams during our 9 hours on the river and rolled into the TA in 4th place about 30 minutes before dark. I think our decision to wear spray skirts paid off as many of the teams we passed were bailing water out of their boats.
TA1 took a while since we had to pack up our rafts and paddle gear, and also build our bikes. Luckily our backpacks were pre-packed with food for stage 2, so that sped things up a little and we picked up a spot in transition and left the TA in 3rd. This was the “monster bike” stage. 80 miles with about 15,000 feet of elevation gain. It started with a long, but rideable climb up a gravel road. There was a tricky CP near the top that gave the team in front of us some trouble, so we actually moved into 2nd for a bit. A long gravel road descent led to another long gravel road climb that turned into off-trail hike-a-bike near the top. Somewhere in the hike-a-bike we got passed without knowing it at the time…back into 3rd.
Around this time, Dani was beginning to have trouble eating. Any time she’d try to eat even the smallest bit of food, her stomach said no, and she’d drop onto all fours and start throwing up or dry heaving. This is when I realized how tough she was. Almost immediately after each vomiting episode, she would spring back to her feet, yell “let’s go!” and take off. If it was just a dry heaving episode, she would call out “false alarm!” as well. This went on for roughly 8 hours…it was insane. We never stopped for more than probably 30 seconds, and then she’d insist we keep moving.
We descended a long stretch of singletrack, only to cross a creek, grab a CP and then start climbing again. This time, much of the climb was too steep and loose to ride, so we pushed our bikes up much of it. Near the top, during another vomit episode, is when we realized Dani hadn’t been able to successfully eat anything for the past 8 hours. She jumped up and insisted we keep going so we could stay in the top 3. The rest of us knew that if we didn’t solve her stomach issues, there is no way we’d even finish. She had tried all types of different foods, but hadn’t tried liquid calories. Daniel had some Hammer mix that was a couple hundred calories, so he mixed that up for her, she drank it, and then although she didn’t want to, we made her take a 10 minute nap.
10 minutes later, we said “Dani” once, and she immediately jumped to her feet, yelled “let’s go!” and took off. Again…insane. We called out to her to wait up and asked if she felt any better, to which she replied…”Yes! It’s a miracle!” and continued to speed off pushing her bike up the final bit of the steep hill. She is a machine.
Highlights of the remainder of the stage included climbing 2 steep snow banks with our bikes, an amazing vantage point with views of most of the stage, and what would have been a sweet section of singletrack if it didn’t have hundreds of fallen trees across it. We rolled into TA2 late in the afternoon neck and neck with team Recharge/Bend Racing…which would become a theme for the rest of the race.
Stage 3 was the “monster trek” which consisted of a long trek to CP17 where we picked up our packrafts, then a “paddle” down a stretch of the Crooked River, then a trek (carrying rafts) to the next TA. We grabbed 2 CPs in the light, continued on about 30 minutes, and upon beginning a long, steep climb up a game-trail, we decided to sleep a couple hours in hopes that we’d move a little faster after waking up. We had a nice grassy flat spot to sleep and after waking up, we were moving much faster than we had been before…a good call to sleep early in the night. We made quick work of the climb, which had some snow near the top, then spent most of the night traversing flowery lava fields under a starry sky.
We rolled into the packraft pickup (CP17) shortly after it began to get light inflated rafts there, and got on the river. We were anticipating this stretch of river to take us about 2 hours. It took over 5. I think we were moving less than 2 miles per hour. The river level was so low that most of the river was too shallow to paddle. The river was lined on both sides by private property, so we had to stay in the river corridor. This meant walking on either slippery river rocks, or in thick mud/grass…for over 5 hours. There were short stretches that we could paddle, so we’d drop rafts in the river, paddle for a minute or 2, and then pick them back up when it got too shallow. There was a cool CP midway down the river that one team member had to traverse a fixed line out to. Juanma made quick work of it and then we suffered down the rest of the river carrying out rafts. Once we left the river, travel got a little better, but we were swarmed by mosquitos all the way to TA3 and they were pretty awful at the TA too.
We left the TA on bikes with Recharge/Bend Racing right on our heels. We held a solid pace up to the top of the climb up to where I took a wrong route by accident. The course notes on the map said to take a mandatory route along a road through private property from CP26 to CP27. There was a route on the map with “mandatory bike route” written on it, but I hadn’t noticed it during pre-race route planning, since the route was marked as a single dashed line…which on all other maps meant a trail, not a road. So, I had ignored that and didn’t even read the text, since I knew we were supposed to take a road, not a trail. There was indeed a road shown on the map that connected CP26 and CP27, so that is the route I marked for us to take. Upon reaching CP26, the road I had marked had a gate across it and was labeled as private property. Remembering that the course notes said to take a road through private property, we lifted our bikes over the fence and took this road. We didn’t realize we’d missed the mandatory route until 2 TA’s later…more on that to come. Looking back at the race tracking website, we weren’t the only team to miss the mandatory route.
The road took us down a long descent, into another long climb. We hammered pretty hard on the way up. Darkness fell as we climbed higher. We spent much of that night up high collecting several CPs, before a long descent to the TA that I was struggling to stay awake on. Luckily, we made it to the TA without any significant issues, where I informed the team that I would be faster transitioning after getting some sleep (I was really wiped out mentally) so we hit the sack for a 2 hour sleep. We woke up over 2.5 hours later at around first light to Recharge/Bend Racing coming into the TA. The rest of my team had apparently tried to wake me up after 2 hours of sleep, but I wouldn’t budge…I have no recollection of them trying to wake me...must have been sleeping well! So, they decided to let me sleep another 30 minutes. Thanks team!
It was a bit of a panicked way to wake up, having the team you’ve been trying to get rid of catching back up once again. We packed up our bikes, grabbed food, and headed out on the orienteering course just ahead of Recharge/Bend Racing with hopes to lose them again. I quickly found the trail shown on the map across the road from the TA and we frantically headed up it to try and get out of sight before they could follow us. About 20-30 minutes up the trail, I began to notice that it wasn’t matching up with the map as well as it had initially. It wasn’t a very good trail to begin with, and I probably should have been paying closer attention to other features besides the trail. We pushed on a little further towards the CP, left the trail on a bearing to where the first CP should have been…and….it wasn’t there. Dang it! At this point, I knew we were close, but I had lost touch with the map. We ran around to a few local high points (that was the clue for the CP) that where nearby to see if we’d get lucky. I knew we must be within 100m or so of it, I just didn’t know which direction and I didn’t know how long it would take us to find it if we just started randomly searching. So, I made the tough decision to backtrack the TA and start over, this time, not trusting trails, and only paying attention to topographic features. It turns out, we had been so close to it, that the tracking website gave us credit for the CP, which caused some confusion for our fans watching us from home. (Since getting home, I’ve had multiple people tell me that when we turned around and went back to the TA, they thought to themselves, “Dusty’s a genius!”…I have no idea why they thought that, but I appreciate their over-confidence in my navigation, rather than just realizing I had made an error…haha).
Once back at the TA, we decided to grab water before heading back out. Turns out we would need it as the O-Course was pretty dry…so maybe backtracking wasn’t all bad. The 2nd time out, I decided to go the opposite direction…just because I didn’t want a repeat of what just happened. I think we lost at least an hour due to our backtrack, but attempt number 2 went very smooth…and guess what? We rolled into the TA within 30 seconds of Recharge/Bend Racing…so we’d made up all the time that we’d lost by having to backtrack.
This TA is where we learned that we’d taken an illegal route earlier on the bike, and were being charged with a 1 hour penalty to be served at the last CP of the race. So at this point, we had a 30 second lead on 4th place…a 30 second buffer from being knocked from the podium, and we have to stop for an hour at the last CP, and they don’t. To make matters worse, the next stage was a fairly runnable looking trek, and their team, while inexperienced in expedition ARs, is comprised of a group of world-class ultra runners. There was only 1 more stage to the finish after that. Things were not looking good.
It was go time. We transitioned as fast as we could and got out of the TA before them. I was as aggressive as I could be in my navigation…taking shortcuts wherever possible. We ran many of the dirt roads we encountered, pushing harder than we had the entire race, and doing everything we could to open up a gap. The terrain was fairly open, so we could see a ways behind us, and we couldn’t spot them. We thought we’d opened up at least a bit of a gap. We grabbed the last CP of the stage on top of a large rock outcrop…and just as we began to descend…we spotted them about 100 feet below us. Ugh! That took the wind out of our sails a bit. It was a waist to chest deep crossing of the inlet of the Prineville Reservoir to the TA. We reached the TA with a minute lead on our rivals.
The final stage of the race was a bikerafting stage with a bike rappel at the final CP. We were to serve our 1-hour penalty immediately after doing the bike rappel. The transition was a bit hectic, since Recharge/Bend Racing was right next to us. They began inflating rafts in the TA, we decided to build up our bikes, and then carry deflated rafts down the reservoir and inflate them there. This got us out of the TA a little bit quicker, but then we still had to inflate our rafts at the water’s edge. Still, we managed to get our rafts ready, strap bikes on, and be paddling off into the pitch black night ahead of them.
I knew we had to nail the nav on this stage, because any fumbling around in the wrong place would allow teams behind us to catch up, and once close enough, they’d be able to see exactly where we landed for each CP, and just paddle directly to it. The first CP on this stage was about 20 feet up the side of a cliff coming up out of the reservoir. We pulled up below it, and Juanma climbed out of the raft and onto the cliff face. It looked like there were some low 5th class moves required to get up to it, so it took a little time for him to figure out the moves to get up there in wet running shoes, a drysuit, and pfd. While he was climbing, I looked behind me and could see lights behind us on the reservoir…probably about a mile back. We needed to hurry.
Once Juanma was back in the raft, we paddled onward into the darkness. The next 3 CP’s were trickier. Each one was in a tiny inlet off the side of the reservoir. Also, they were a bit of hike up from the water’s edge, so you couldn’t see them from the water to know if you were in the correct inlet. Probably the easiest way to find them would have been to cross the reservoir early, and follow the shoreline to each one, but this would have added considerable distance. Instead I took us on a more direct route, following the shoreline from the cliff CP, to a prominent point on the inside of a bend in the reservoir. The inlet with the CP was on the outside of this bend, but the reservoir was too wide to see across in the dark, so we couldn’t see the inlet…just darkness. From the prominent point, I took a bearing from the map (tied to the back of Dani’s PFD so I could read it easily) then lined us up with the bearing I just took, and turned my headlamp off and looked to the stars. I picked a star that lined up best with the bearing, and we paddled off across the reservoir and straight into the inlet.
A short while after grabbing the CP and paddling off for the next, we noticed that Juanma and Daniel were beginning to move REALLY slowly. We thought they were maybe falling asleep, but when we asked how they were doing, they sounded just fine. They continued to paddle super slowly…so I offered some paddling advice…”shorter strokes, faster cadence, paddle together!” Still, they continued to move at a snail’s pace. Finally we got up right next to them, and saw that the bike on the back of their raft had shifted significantly and half of it was dragging in the water! We paddled to the closest shore, a steep, rocky slope. I jumped out, and readjusted the bike so it wouldn’t drag anymore. We were moving much faster after that!
The water level in the reservoir was low, so we had to portage a section that is normally underwater. That was tough work with 2 bikes on each boat, but it was only 100-200 meters of easy, gravel walking, so the terrain wasn’t bad at least. From the portage, I took another compass bearing, lined us up with the stars, and we paddled into another inlet and another CP. From there, the final bearing to the last paddling CP lined up perfectly with the Big Dipper! So, we followed that to the last CP where we ditched our paddling gear and rafts. I felt like I was on the underground railroad or something…follow the drinking gourd!
We were almost done, and hadn’t seen any lights behind us since the cliff CP. We built up our bikes and rode up a short, steep climb to the rappel site. While gearing up for the rappel, Daniel started saying “No! Oh no!” over and over again. Turns out he’d lost his belay device somewhere…perhaps in the water…we didn’t know. We asked the race staff what our options were, and they said we still all had to do the rappel to get credit, but we’d have to share a device, which consumed more precious time, and didn’t count toward the 1 hour penalty we still had to serve…so the stress level was pretty high for our team at the rappel. Dani and I went first (there were 2 ropes), and then Juanma started as I sent my belay device back up to Daniel who was still waiting at the top. Once everyone was down and we were off to the side and no longer below the cliffs, we yelled up to Adrian, the ARWS referee, and our 1 hour penalty started.
It was just about sunrise, we hadn’t slept in about 30 hours, but none of us could sleep. We chatted about the race memories we’d just formed, but more importantly, we watched the top of the cliff to see if Recharge/Bend Racing would show up. 1 hour passed, we hadn’t seen them, and we were off to the finish. A steep, loose descent that was part rideable, part hike-a-bike brought us to a nice paved road along the Crooked River. From there, it was about 20 miles following the road back to Prineville and the finish. It was a beautiful way to end a race. A fast, early morning ride along a winding road, with almost no cars, perfect temperature, and although I glanced over my shoulder several times, we were pretty sure we had secured 3rd place. Sure enough, we didn’t see any other teams on our way to the finish, and rolled into Prineville in 3rd, achieving our goal of getting on the podium!
Emily was waiting for me at the finish line. Even though I was pretty nasty, smelly, and still had blood on my face from a bloody nose the day before, she didn’t hesitate to give me a big hug and kiss. The first thing she said was that she was proud of us, and the 2nd thing she said was that I had to take her with me next time. It was hard for her to not be out there racing. She had been doing social media posts for Bend Racing during the race, so was very aware of what was happening out there, but had been stuck in a hotel conference room pretty much the whole time.
It had been hard for me to be out there racing without her as well. Every expedition length race I’ve ever done has been with her, so this was a new experience for both of us. That said, I had a great time racing with Dani, Daniel, and Juanma. They are some of the best teammates I’ve ever raced with. Don’t let their size fool you (I look like a giant next to them in some of the photos and I’m not that tall). They are incredibly strong, both physically and mentally, and their teamwork and race mindset is top-notch. No matter how difficult things got (and this course was brutal at times) they stayed positive and kept pushing. They were constantly looking out for each other and for ways to help the team…and were never too proud to accept help if they needed to share the load a little. It was a great experience racing with them, and I’m happy to call them friends now. Hopefully our paths cross again. Emily and I just might have to make a trip down to Ecuador to race one of these years!
Thanks to Jason and the rest of the Bend Racing crew and volunteers for yet another fantastic race. The course was amazing, all our gear was where it needed to be before we got there, and as always, it was a great event all around. Congrats to all the other racers out there who pushed through a pretty brutal course. I’ve really enjoyed hearing stories from the other teams out there. It was fun being in the race environment again after a strange and difficult year. I’m looking forward to the next one!
Jason Cornell - @jason_cornell_
Darren Steinbach - @travelingdarren
Tim Cowley - @timcowleypdx
Iona - email@example.com
Chip Fiegberg - https://www.facebook.com/hearightnow
Erik Sanders - @easand17