Race Report: Expedition Oregon Learnings
Quest Race Team- Dusty Caseria, Emily Caseria, Mari Chandler, Mitch Harter
Race Info: https://www.bendracing.com/expedition-oregon
A pack of 4 teams took the race out hard from the start including Leki/Merrell, Bend Racing Canada, Bones, and ourselves. Starting with Stage 2 and continuing for over 50 hours into the race, we led this tight pack by a narrow margin. But,in the end, we finished in a disappointing 3rd place in 61 hours and 5 minutes. While third place is a solid finish, and Quest’s best ARWS race placement yet, it was hard to swallow. Towards the end of the race, the first place finish had felt so close at hand, but we let it slip away.
For this post-race report I wanted to focus on what I learned. This was my first expedition race, and three times as long as any race I have down previously. There were plenty of learnings to be had, and I will touch on a couple, but first a quick recap...
Expedition Oregon was directed by Jason Magness of Bend Racing as an ARWS Demonstration race. The race started on the west side of the Cascades and covered 200+ miles, with 30,000 ft of elevation gain on our return to Bend, OR. Disciplines included trekking, mountain biking, packrafting the McKenzie and Deschutes Rivers, climbing, rappelling, and orienteering in the central Oregon Cascades.
We were racing as co-ed team of 2-men and 2-women: Dusty and Emily Caseria, myself and Mari Chandler. Mari had joined us through paths of bad luck (sickness) and good timing (we were both looking for teams/racers at the same time). Her Adventure Medical Kit team and our teammate Scarlett had to back out of the race, and since we all still really wanted to compete, were able to join forces. As you may or may not know, Mari is a professional adventure racer. She was a wealth of knowledge, jokes, the most delicious snacks, and pure grit.
Back to the race, as I said, a group of 4 tightly packed teams led the Expedition Oregon Race from the start. We pulled into the first place during the Stage 2 packraft where our Alpacka Gnu's with spraydecks enabled us to paddle continuously through the class II whitewater. Other teams with no spray decks had to pull off the river to bail out the icey Mckenzie River water that was filling their boats through the splashy water. Our lead was small though, and we all transitioned together into Stage 3, and would see each other again at the rock climbing section.
From what I can glean from tracking data, our lead averaged around 1 hour ahead of 2nd place until near the end of the Stage 7 Bike leg, when we would get passed by Leki/Merrell on their way to the win. Stage 7 was a long one, and I will keep coming back to it during this report. During Stage 7, we had to peddle 85 miles through the night and into the next day on our way back to Bend, OR for the final packraft stage and finish. We made it through the night fairly well with just 2 short sleep stops (more on that later). During the night, we got momentarily passed by Leki/Merrell, but then regained the lead when they accidentally blew past a checkpoint trying to put time on us. After that frenzied back and forth, we were able to put a reported 70 minutes on Leki and were in first place with the final big bike climb of the race around noon on day 3. It was very hot out and we had been low on water for a while. Dusty, our navigator, was still wearing his spandex from the night before and he suddenly became overwhelmed by the heat and having symptoms of heat exhaustion. He was hurting and realized he wasn’t able to follow the map any longer and turned the squiggly lined paper over to me.
Until this point, Dusty was up front leading the team and making 95% of the nav decisions on his own and doing brilliantly. Luckily I had been keeping an eye on the map for most of the race. It took me some time to get used to the scale of the map, but after a couple miles things were starting to feel good and I was gaining confidence with my navigation. We soon started on the long-awaited single track bike descent back to Bend, where we would grab our packrafts for a quick paddle down a short section of the Deschutes (Big Eddy), and then bike to the finish. We were still in first place and we knew it because we had passed Leki in the night, and could see our team’s first tracks in the dirt.
Unfortunately, the navigation started to get tricky for me as we got closer to Bend and more trails started to appear. It felt like there were trails all over the place and I soon lost where we were on the map. We ended up almost going in a circle before I realized what we had done (see screenshot of our track below). Dusty was still struggling with mental fatigue and heat exhaustion but his directional sense was aware of my mistakes! We hit the Wanoga Snopark Trailhead off Highway 372 (Cascades Lake Scenic Byway) where we had been almost 1km away from an hour or so previously. Here we stopped for a break in the shade, drank some water, and reoriented ourselves. Eventually, we found our way to a trail that would lead us down to the Deschutes River just outside of Bend, OR. We were assuming the worst and that we had been passed by many, many teams. I would guess we lost 1.5-2 hours by this navigation error.
But as we approached the packraft transition area, we saw Team Leki/Merrell running up the road with their packrafts ahead of us. We were now in second, and surprised they were not further ahead of us. After grabbing our boats and ditching our bikes we headed to the put-in for Big Eddy, a long class III+ rapid. We scouted the rapid for a very long time and ultimately decided to portage. I think it was the right choice given our team’s overall state at this point in the race, however it took us way way too long to make this decision.
Once we put our boats in the water downstream of Big Eddy we saw Team Bend Racing come around the corner after successfully running the rapid. This sighting caused us to turn the motors on again, and we quickly got to the takeout only to find out from Jason that Bend Racing had a 30 minute time bonus that would put them in front of us. At the time it seemed impossible that we could put 30 minutes on them in the last few miles to the finish, so we decided we should finish together knowing that Bend Racing would be 2nd, and Quest 3rd. Bend Racing was also struggling from sleep deprivation, heat, etc. and Dusty and I pretty much led them to the finish line on the final bike. Looking back, perhaps we should have kept racing to the bitter end, but we were just so bummed about losing our grasp on 1st place and wanted to be done so bad that we opted for the path of least resistance.
I did not have a full understanding of how sleep could make you faster until this race. Why not just keep moving? How could sleeping 2 hours possibly be faster than keeping moving for 2 hours? With a race of this length (3 - 4 days) we were teetering on the edge of enough sleep or not enough sleep. We slept a total of 35 minutes during 61 hours of racing, via a 30 min and 5 min nap session on the Stage 7 Bike leg. It was clearly not enough. Had we slept more, we may have been mentally sharp enough to make decisions more efficiently (i.e. Portage the class III rapid because a member of the team is battling heat exhaustion.) and also have the ability to make a conscious effort to push ourselves harder physically (i.e. Keep racing hard to the end! Anything can happen!).
We didn’t really have a solid plan about sleep going into the race. We knew we would not intend sleep the first night, and then play it by ear on the second, perhaps forgoing sleeping entirely if we were moving really fast.
Not sleeping the first night is typical for most multi-day ARs. On the second night we realized that we would be racing well into day 3 and so Mari suggested we slept early before it got cold. She suggested we sleep either 30 minutes or 90 minutes based on known REM cycle lengths. We decided on 30 minutes. We had a feeling team Leki was close behind, and didn’t want to risk any more time than that. So we tucked off the side of a forest road, to be out of sight, threw on puffy jackets and snuggled up close to each other with our tarp over us. I fell asleep quickly and was out for the entire 30 minutes. I am pretty good at sleeping. Once the alarm went off I was quick to rise and start packing things away but I felt more groggy and out of it than I did before the nap.
Later that second night, it became very hard for me to keep my eyes open while riding my bike on the 85 mile bike section. Mari was tuned into my sleepiness, and opted to ride behind me where she could yell at me if my head bobbed side to side. I don’t remember how many times this happened, but I’m glad Mari was watching out!
Our next sleeping session was a super duper shorty. Shortly after the sun came up on day three we took a 5 minute nap in small shelter on the flanks of Mt Bachelor. Similar to the first sleep, we wanted to be warm-ish, quick and discrete. Once again I fell asleep immediately, and woke up craving more time under my eyelids.
Looking back, I don’t know how much the 35 minutes of sleep helped me during the race. Maybe it was too short to help at all and we should have just kept moving? The whole idea of sleep making you faster is that it gives your mind a chance to recover and then you continue to focus on willing your body to be faster and more efficient. And the thing that failed me during Expedition Oregon was my mind, not the body. I always felt as if my legs would keep going forever if I could just keep my eyes open and mind sharp. That feeling was simultaneously encouraging (go legs go!) and also so frustrating to teeter in and out of sleep and almost teeter off my bike.
In the end, it seems, the brain tells you what to do. It controls the limits to which you can push your body. Our next big race is Primal Quest, which has a 10-day cut-off time. We will have to sleep more during that race and have been talking about trying to sleep 1.5 hours each night, but that is always subject to change. I expect there are a couple dark zones during Primal Quest which could be good opportunities to sleep if our timing doesn’t allow us to get through them in the daylight. My big takeaway, in regards to sleep deprivation, is that you need to pay close attention to how you are processing things mentally and how fast you are moving as a team. If decision making is hard, and efficiency is lacking, it might be time for a little sleep.
Having taught outdoor education professionally as a NOLS Instructor for 10 years, I know the importance of self care in the backcountry. If you don’t take care of yourself and manage small health issues, then you risk larger issues and with that, risk not being able to help the team, or worse, slowing them down. I joke a little here, but through NOLS I learned to always look out for number 1 (yourself). I also learned that this philosophy isn’t really selfish in a backcountry setting, it’s for the benefit of the whole team.
On the other hand, you also need to be efficient and live with a little discomfort in the backcountry and in adventure racing. And balancing self care with racing speed is something I’ve been thinking about a lot since the race. During Expedition Oregon there were times I found myself leaning too much towards high efficiency (NOLS also taught me to be really efficient, carrying a pack for 200+ days a year will do that to you). For example, I would keep moving without getting water from the creek we were passing over even though I knew I should be drinking more. I would not eat because it was hard to do while riding the bike.
At other moments in the race, my NOLS self-care instincts kicked in though, with memorably good results. For example, during the third morning of the race, I was struggling hard even though we had just had our 5-min nap, and I knew needed to eat and drink a lot of water. So I just did it. With some hesitation I filled all my water vessels, and shoved as much food in my mouth as quickly as possible. My teammates were already filled up and ready to go and they watched and waited. It made me feel uncomfortable, but I needed it, and was much better off after refueling. Before the stop I was trailing off the back of the group, having a hard time keeping up. After the short stop, I was able to keep up and in the long run, those couple extra minutes not moving were probably erased within an hour of efficient travel. Thank you NOLS self-care instinct!
Overall I am proud of our effort during this race. We definitely pushed ourselves and learned a lot. We will use those learnings in our training this summer and in our next big race at Primal Quest in September 2018.
A big thank you to Jason Magness and Bend Racing for putting on an amazing ARWS Demonstration Race. I also wanted to thank our generous Quest Race Team sponsors: Dirtbags, Rocketpure, Terrain Gym, Heather’s Choice, Peak Energy Performance.
Also a big thank you to Scarlett Graham for helping us out on the front and back end of the race and volunteering for the entirety of the race. (and editing my race report ;)