TER Report: Days 1 & 2 – The Adventure
The Tantauco Exploration Race is a four day stage race in Northern Patagonia on the island of Chiloe just off the southern coast of Chile. The format of the multisport race would move in a point to point format in camps from Quellon to Chaiguata on the first and third days as we navigated our way ridding, paddling (occasionally swimming) and running to the Inio camp at the southern tip of the island. A true exploration. It was a rare treat to be inside the Tantauco Park and many times it felt like we were in a movie like Predator or Jurassic Park. This was an unreal environment to me. The air and water were so clear we would just scoop out water from the streams, waterfalls and rivers along the way and it was the best tasting water too. It was like going back in time and racing through the garden of eden…but we kept our clothes on. It was cold!
pictures complements of the amazing Pavel Paloncý
“Only 15 teams will be participating in this first version of the Tantauco Exploration Race, including 10 foreign teams and 5 Chileans. We reserve the right to select the applicant teams according to their experience in previous competitions. Pre-selected participating countries are Chile, Spain, USA, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina, Italy, Turkey, Russia and Finland. In some cases, teams are made up of people of different nationalities.”
The stage format allowed us to start with everyone each day and get some quality time with the support crews and other teams between stages on a couple of days when we finished early. As much as I thought the stage race component would give us enough rest between stages I quickly found that this format only encouraged a ridiculous pace for a four day event only to stop at the end of a long day and have your body want to stop all together and swell up.
Everyone at the race seemed to know each other and had competed in multiple big races around the world together. I was the only one who was lacking experience at this type of race and one of the few who could not understand the common language most of the time. It only took me minutes to realize we all had much much more in common and I soon felt like I was among family. I continue to find some of the coolest people on the planet at these island stage races.
When it was confirmed that Paul and I would be racing through the Tantauco Park I knew I would be in for a unique experience. My first big race outside of the US in an amazing place, my first adventure race over 24 hours and twice as long as I have ever raced before, and my first race with Team Sole. That was just the beginning. Although I knocked off at least three of my major goals for the year it was the lead up to this race and the way it unfolded that made me realize it was a lifetime experience come true.
I watched Paul race the Eco Challenges on VHS tapes back in the day and he has been a mentor to me since I got into sport. He even taught me to paddle years ago (and I was still getting instruction everyday of the race!). Just racing with my bro on an island through deep forests, remote beaches and bamboo jungles for days on end was this boys dream come true. Yet, a week before we left I had sent a text message to Paul along the lines of “I want to WIN”. I would have typed this out regardless of outcome. There were little guarantees and I had little experience to pull from. I wanted to learn “what_it_takes” and this was one of the few races I have gone into with my mind set on winning and it changed everything. I realized last year that there is a big difference between going to a race to complete vs. competing in it and a huge difference between going to compete and going into a race to win. That was my biggest lesson from this race. It takes being the champion at all times, with every step, when nobody is looking, when its looking like you may finish last and any advantage you have is long gone. If you have done all you can along the way, you are a champion. We all have that ability. It all sounds good now but I didn’t get that true mindset exposed until deep in the forest on day three when we were behind, out of food, exhausted and could not be anything other than myself. This was my dream. There was endless energy in that and lots of learning. I maybe a little more competitive than I thought. Only now almost two weeks later am I starting to realize the output that was required to get to the top of the podium and the way it unfolded . . . down to the very last few seconds was some kind of extreme dream crushing that was a once in a lifetime experience. There were no guarantees, plenty of risks, ups and downs and a lot to discover along the way but that is why they call it an exploration.
Day 1 –
We started the race in the town of Quellón where we had stayed in a hotel the two nights before for check-in and the race briefing. From here we would start on mountain bikes with a 2 kilometer escort out of town before riding about 60k into the Chaiguata camp within the Tantauco Park. Enter the wild! Our gear would be staged by the organization in the Chaiguata camp so that when we finished the ride we would transition to foot and finally a paddle before the day was over. Paul and I got in the back of the pack as we started the race and just rode steady in the group until we reached the 2K mark and the cars waved us around. From there we got on the front and got to work. We kept a very hard effort as we started out of town and into the rolling foothills and then what seamed to be endless climb after climb. I had taken more rest going into this race than I had all year and I was feeling pretty peppy on the bike. It felt GOOD to get moving after all the long travel.
We also knew that the bike would be a strength for both Paul and me so we made every effort to push for a lead early on. We rode with some teams for a while but soon found we were all alone out front. By the time we reached the first checkpoint we had separated from the pack enough to slip away without being seen. We were in the lead, feeling strong and finally out of the towns and starting to explore the wilderness while entering the Tantauco Park. This was exciting! We quickly passed through the first two checkpoints and I was handing out electrolytes on schedule with calories. It was like clockwork and now hours into the race we still had the hammer down. Shortly after that we realized Paul was not getting enough electrolytes and started to get cramps in his right quad. I was chomping at the bit but we had to remember that this was a four day race and the goal would be to not make mistakes. We slowed to make accurate navigational judgments and just then turned back to a trail for about 1K to get checkpoint three before heading back out on the main road. Don’t make mistakes! By the time we turned back onto the main road I caught one of the Brazil teams just finishing a climb before the road to checkpoint three. They were the only team we had seen for hours and they were right behind us within minutes after we made the turn back onto the main road. There is no way they got checkpoint three that fast right? They passed us and discovered about twenty minutes later that they had missed the turn for CP3.
We arrived at the camp in first place off the bike and it was a bit of a craze going into a camp we had never seen. We made a quick transition to foot and were off on the trails out of the camp. This would be the last time we would see a trail for a couple of days. Into the wild of bushwhacking . . . forestwhacking for hours on end. Twenty minutes into it we dove right into the bush and then swam across a river before going up and over the hills in the deep woods to get to a lake for the first checkpoint. Repeat that for several hours on end. The race directors told us that travel at 1Km per hour could be expected. We thought that they were being conservative…they were quite optimistic. We were busting our way right through the middle of this decaying forest with full body efforts in the pissing rain.
Unfortunately, all of the time advantage that we had gained on the bike became minimized as we started to find most teams in the bush with us as we were searching for the remaining trekking checkpoints. We teamed up where we could to tunnel through the foliage and managed to grab the last checkpoints just after dark. It never stopped raining. It was cold, wet, painfully slow at times, exhausting and awesome!
Loving life (on the inside)
We had another quick transition at the camp with an all out scramble to get to the boats first. We managed to get to the first paddle CP in the lead again in what looked to be about 25K of paddling. Again, we put in extra effort to finish the first day hoping to maintain a lead because we worked so hard on the bike and blasting through the forest. There was a lot of hard output in day one! To make a long story…and a long paddle feel shorter…we made a big mistake. After paddling North in search for the last checkpoint we ended up paddling an additional 3-4K before we turned around and paddled the same distance back to find it. Not what we were hoping for after over 14 hours of RACING. This is adventure racing. Its not just about how fast you can go. Everybody makes mistakes. How big they are, how well you minimize them and how quickly you can get them behind you is as important as navigation itself. We put in a big effort to try and paddle back and minimize as much damage as possible and discovered that we were now about 1 hour 30 minutes behind the leaders. Ouch. It was still raining and most of our stuff was wet but we had another big day ahead of us tomorrow so we ate something and were off to bed. By the time we got some food in us and to bed we got about 3hrs sleep. Just enough rest for our bodies to swell up!
Day 2 –
The next day we would start on the sit on top kayaks and paddle across some lakes while we trekked between various CP’s along the way. It was another day in the swamps, deep, deep forest bush crawls and lots of rain. Again, we had zero trails to use this day. Complete bush breaking, branch dodging, and forest smashing to each checkpoint. Our feet were either ankle to shin deep in water most of the time with the occasional knee and hip deep water crossings. Ice baths! The mud sections would feel as if they were trying to suck the energy right out of our legs. If we were lucky enough, we could pull our feet out in front of us fast enough before we were face first in the mud. I was not so lucky most of the time.
To be honest, I forget the distances now and it really does not matter. It is another unique feature about adventure racing. The distances alone would be daunting but mix in the terrain and it can quickly become overwhelming. You cannot measure the output in kilojoules and at some point you realize you just need to keep pushing until the next checkpoint and then repeat. With a focus like that, any distance over any terrain becomes possible. That is when the real exploration begins.
“What counts is not what you cover, but what you uncover” ~Walter Lewins
However, we were there to RACE and it was not just about getting to the checkpoints, but getting to them and the finish line first. Paul and I were hungry to make up the time we were behind from day one and we were putting in the extra effort needed to get back where we wanted to be. On this day, it was up to each team to decide what order and specific route would be taken to each checkpoint. With a big diversity in the terrain, headwinds on the lakes, a downriver section and some portages (carrying the boat across the wilderness between the lakes) the strategy behind the order was critical.
The sit on top kayaks were painfully slow but mostly just painful. They move at a steady pace with a good amount of effort but the return for the energy in trying to get them to go “fast” is . . . not so good. My technique had fallen apart the night before when we were paddling in the dark and I was suffering the consequences with my right wrist and shoulder exploding with pain. When was the last time I paddled anyway? Paul and I pulled past the teams into a headwind to get to the far side of the lake and then departed from the group. We knew we had to get away and go another route if we wanted to make up time.
Although we made no navigational errors and made quick work of the final checkpoints and portages, our route choices left us going by one checkpoint two times. The result was that we came up about another hour behind after a huge effort to get back to zero and our advantages looked like they were slipping away. The day was going to end with another 50K mountain bike ride (something that we were really looking forward to and would have helped us) but the call was made to cut the ride out and end the day early. We knew that we could have made up time on the bike and it would be the last bike section of the race. Felt like a kick in the nuts at the end of the day.
We were almost three hours behind the leaders now in 9th or 10th place and I felt like we were putting out extra efforts only to loose more time. I will be honest, it was hard on the mind. I realize how much harder it can be when you feel like you are out of “the race” and you are not even halfway through it. However, it is a choice to feel like you are out of the race and we did not pick that route.
“Never give up, Never Surrender”
There were plenty of reasons to focus on what went wrong (past) and worry about the potential problems (future) that were ahead but we continually took our attention to all we could do in the present moment. We put our focus on recovery, staying the course and believing that could still win. Easier said than done! Teamwork goes a long way. Paul was relentless in planning, encouraging and looking for every angle and opportunity where we could make up time. His experience was reminding us that everyone is making mistakes (some big!) and we were all just starting to get tired. The real race was yet to begin.
We did have a lot going for us and we focused on that continually. Besides, I was in one of the most amazing places I have ever been, racing alongside my hero through all types of adventure and having the time of my life. I love this!
On a good note, the day was only about 7-8 hours long without the bike section and it had actually stopped raining. Sunshine does wonders to boost the mood! We were able to finish the day in the light, get a shower, food and some much needed rest. We would need it. The next day would be the biggest day of the exploration and the turning point of the race for us.