Diary of an Adventure Race
by Lisa Jhung
DAY 1 / Monday, September 3
9:00 a.m. I am crammed inside a gondola just outside of St. Moritz, Switzerland with 15 other teams, on the way to the starting line of the Discovery Channel World Championship Adventure Race. I look out the window and try to scout out a trail. Everyone else is doing the same, while surreptitiously eyeing each other. Everyone knows everyone - or something about everyone - in this sport. Whispers rise with tensions. I try to keep these political musings to a minimum and focus on what lies ahead.
9:55 a.m. Mountains extend in every direction from the starting line atop the 10,000-foot Piz Corvatsch glacier. My teammates and I are standing anxiously among 41 international teams vying for the $100,000 cash purse, the biggest in adventure racing history. My strategy is to go hard, but be smart. Keep egos at bay and move forward at a steady pace.
10 a.m. The starting gun sounds. Teams tear down the mountainside toward the valley floor, thousands of feet below.
5:30 a.m. Climbing our third peak over 9,000 feet, we're close to completing the 33-mile mountain trek and first leg of the race. But now we're wandering back and forth across the side of a mountain range. Not lost...just uncertain of where to go next. We decide to bivvy - to lie down on the frozen ground huddled next to each other - and try to sleep for 20 minutes until dawn breaks and we can find our way.
12 noon Finally, we're about to get off our feet! First we'll rappel off a 70-meter bridge into a 42-foot river, then swim downstream through rapids for two miles. It sounds refreshing, until we hear the news. "The rappel and canyoneering is closed," the official tells us. "There's been an accident." We're instructed to hike along the river instead. I feel a surge of worry. Accidents on many levels are bound to happen at these races, but this one sounds more serious than most.
1 p.m. At the Transition Area (TA), our assistance crew tells us that a woman from the UK was pinned underwater for 15 minutes. When rescued, she was unconscious; they flew her to the nearest hospital. I wouldn't stop thinking about her throughout the rest of the race.
1:30 a.m. We are around the middle of the pack, but this is a race of attrition. After a slog through a blizzard where we mostly pushed our bikes uphill and into what looked like Siberia, we are heading downhill through a bone-chilling snowstorm. My light batteries are low. We take brief refuge inside an abandoned barn that houses the checkpoint, and I'm trying to shove trail mix into my mouth with frozen fingers. Two of us are shaking uncontrollably, fighting off hypothermia. I want so badly to sleep, but I know we can't afford to stop moving.
3:30 a.m. I've learned to fully embrace hallucinations brought on by sleep deprivation and extreme physical exertion. I enjoy them, in fact. We're riding down a paved road and I see all seven dwarves - Sleepy, Dopey, Sneezy and friends, followed by the dancing broom from Disney's Fantasia, then a pair of shoes running by themselves. I am having a grand old time, and know we'll be to the TA soon.
4 p.m. After sleeping a couple hours, whitewater rafting, and mountain biking through a series of gorgeous Swiss towns, we're heading into the mountains on foot again, now in 22nd place. A light drizzle turns to snow as we gain elevation. Black ice covers the steep, rocky trail. "If you fall here, you'll die," says one of my teammates. I think about smacking him upside the head with my trekking pole, but he is too far away and I am too scared to look up. I do my fair share of swearing. My poor mother would be ashamed.
2 p.m. The sun is shining, and I'm enjoying the 1,000-foot, ice-and-snow-covered "waterslide" I created by riding down the treacherous trail on my butt. "Glissading is my favorite sport," I think to myself. I'm humming, then singing, and am in a remarkably good mood for having raced 76 hours non-stop.
5 p.m. My mouth and tongue are covered with canker sores from eating too much sugar and salt - bars, GU, nuts, candy, jerky, etc. I am ecstatic at reaching the checkpoint. We are greeted by a friendly race official who gives us very disheartening news. "You have a mountain bike section, a hike, and another mountain bike to do by 8 a.m. tomorrow in order to make the cut-off," he says. These are not short sections, so he's basically telling us that we won't finish this race. The reality of this information sends us into a lengthy group discussion. One teammate doesn't want to go on. The rest of us do. We have a democratic meeting, and our fourth agrees to continue. We ride off into the night, unsure how far we'll get by 8 a.m.
2 a.m. After a long climb through eerie darkness, surrounded by the grayish-white silhouettes of monstrous peaks, we reach the top of the 7,874-foot Susstenpass. It's been raining and snowing for hours. I find shelter on the side of a deserted hotel, take off my wet clothes and put on a dry down jacket I had packed away in a garbage bag. Then I put on the garbage bag, poking my head and arms through the seams. I complete this get-up with my rain shell, and we take off down a slick and windy road.
7 a.m. We are lucky. At the transition area, our assistants tell us that the cut-off has been changed to 4 p.m. It's raining and extremely windy and we're now alone in 17th place. The 24 teams behind us have dropped out due to sickness, injury or fear of missing the cut-off. We head off on another hike.
3 p.m. We see them below - the checkpoint flag, our assistance vehicle and our crew. We continue hiking briskly down a spectacularly green valley, occasionally hopping over small waterfalls. We don't know if this is the end of our race, or if the cut-off time has been extended again. I am desperately hoping for the latter, but when we arrive, we're told that our race is over. We are done. I am left with an odd and empty feeling, unsure how to return to "non-race" mode after spending 101 hours completely focused on reaching checkpoints with my teammates. I realize that we were too conservative in our race plan. Despite extreme disappointment, I tell myself that, like any adversity in a race - or in life, for that matter - all you can do is learn from it and move forward wiser.