There are some endeavors that are really defined by the size of the group participating in them.
Take dancing for instance. One person doing it in a public place? Weird, maybe a little crazy. Two people? Aww, they must really like each other. Forty people? Now you feel a little awkward not dancing.
Adventure racing feels similar. One person blundering around in the woods, choosing questionable routes, desperately checking the map, moving with undue haste and tripping over downed trees? That’s what my hunter ed teacher would call a recipe for disaster, a rescue helicopter or worse.
Two people with the same game plan, the same questionable bushwhacking? Sounds like a good way to strain a relationship. It’s more sane than solo wandering, possibly more fun, a little more acceptable to talk about in polite society.
More than 40 people doing that for eight hours? That’s called the Teton Ogre, which happened last weekend and might be the best justification possible for the ridiculous number of logs I’ve lifted my bike over, bushes I’ve struggled through, patches of snow I’ve tried to trail run on, unexpected creeks I’ve crossed and just general backcountry silliness I’ve volunteered for this spring.
For those unfamiliar with adventure racing (like I was, standing on the starting line at 8 a.m. Saturday), it’s sort of a race with no course. There aren’t very many rules, either, or instructions or even directions to the waypoints you’re supposed to be collecting. They did have a couple of those big jugs of water that soccer moms lug around, but that was just about the only thing the Ogre had in common with high school cross-country (the last time I pinned a number card to my back).
But while the Ogre was drastically different from any other sort of race I’ve participated in or watched, it all felt very familiar. At the pre-race meeting, when the location was announced and racers received maps, I couldn’t help remembering every evening (and lunch break and slow afternoon) that I had spent poring over topo lines, trying to figure out what would make the best loop, which direction we should travel to have the easiest climbs and the most fun descents, how to connect this logging road to that double track in a manner that sees the most beautiful mountains and the fewest private property signs.
Instead of the mad stampede you’d usually see at a starting line, teams took off in several directions as everyone developed their own strategy and route to find as many of the maddeningly small checkpoints as possible. After a few seconds of breathless, adrenaline-fueled pedaling I remembered that we were going to be out here for eight hours, this wasn’t the 75-meter hurdles I ran in my youth. The excitement off the blocks felt the same, but there was no need for frenetic pushes, desperate kicks to gain the lead out of the gate. Instead we settled into a rhythm that has become increasingly familiar this spring, swapping leads on climbs and descents, lifting our bikes over downed trees, fording streams, pushing up washed out trail. As the pack separated I almost forgot we were racing, forgot we were competing with anyone, forgot that this wasn’t just another product of a week of talking and planning and looking at unfamiliar maps, forgot that this wasn’t just another weekend spent aimlessly wandering around on new trails.
All that urgency came flooding back when we accidentally headed down a drainage and back up another ascent, directly away from any checkpoint, instead of just running the easy ridge trail to the next stop. When we realized how far off our planned track we were, I remembered the clock ticking, remembered our competition out there probably far ahead of us now, punching checkpoints and pushing us out of podium contention as we squished around in a swamp and found deer skeletons instead of orange flags.
Back on course I had a more focused mindset, not the gritty anger of chasing down a competitor in cross-country, but something more akin to the urgency you feel when you’re on an unfamiliar trail and you really, really want to get back to the car before the thunderheads on the horizon finally spill.
As I rattled too fast and out of control back into the finish and collapsed in the parking lot I was already thinking about how we could use the new trails we’d ridden in the race to make a new loop or two, about what else we should explore out here. I was less concerned with our podium place and more worried about how these trails would ride when they were a little drier. As we congregated after the race it became clear that other competitors had been thinking the same way, reveling in the excuse the race provided to explore new terrain.
Maybe that’s part of the point. One person wandering alone in the woods with only a vague idea of a plan? Not the best idea for most of us. Two people trying to connect a logging road and a pack trail via a long bushwhack? Character building. Forty people sloshing through creeks, and nettles, ferns and brush? That sounds like the sort of event that merits a keg and burritos afterwards, and a lot of high-fives throughout.