What It Takes to Win It All—Twice
When they trudged across the finish line late on the morning of October 13, the exhausted members of Team GearJunkie/WEDALI hugged in celebration. Not just because they'd survived 27 hours of punishment running, mountain biking, paddling, rapelling and navigating over 100-plus miles of Catskills Mountain terrain through inclement weather, but because they'd edged out more than 50 other teams to win the United States Adventure Racing Association's (USARA) championship. They were adventure racing's national champions—for the second time in 2012.
(credit: Chris Radcliffe)
You see, just two weeks earlier, they'd competed in and won the other national championship hosted in West Virginia's New River Gorge by Checkpoint Tracker, the other domestic adventure racing league. It, too, involved a nearly 30-hour effort over more than 100 miles of complex terrain in piss-poor weather. To win one such race is impressive. To win both is unprecedented.
Team GearJunkie/WEDALI is a Minnesota-based team comprised of 10 athletes who rotate into three- or four-person teams to compete in races ranging from sprints to 24-plus hours. Team captain Justin Bakken raced in both championships; he was joined in the Checkpoint Tracker race by Stephen Regenold (founder/editor of GearJunkie.com), Kelly Brinkman and Thomas Puzak; and in the USARA race by Scott Erlandson and Molly Moilanen. We caught up with Bakken, a 10-year veteran of adventure racing, to find out what it takes to double up on national championships in his crazy, multidisciplinary sport.
How similar were the two championship races?
One of the fantastic parts of adventure racing is that there really aren’t two races that are alike; every race is different. That’s one of the things that keeps me interested in the sport. I think both of them definitely had pretty challenging navigation, plenty of elevation going up and down and we kept moving at those races for 27 hours and 29 hours. So, in terms of length and difficulty, they’re very similar, but in terms of how they’re laid out and everything like that, each one is different. It’s hard to compare two races in that respect.
Can you put your finger on the hardest element of each race?
For the Checkpoint Tracker race, I know that we definitely dealt with a lot of elevation, a lot of up-and-down there. One of the things that was interesting about that race and how they organized it was that it was a Rogaine section, where you can get the checkpoints in different orders, and it’s hard to know who’s ahead of you and who’s behind you, so you’re just pushing yourself against the clock and trying to get all the checkpoints before the 30-hour cutoff. We only made that cutoff by half an hour, which isn’t a lot of buffer. If we had a flat tire or took a wrong turn, it could’ve been a big problem.
For the race in New York, I’d say that the cold was definitely a deciding factor out there. The night of the race, it got below freezing. They race in all conditions, and they don’t really cancel them or delay them at all, so you can be out there in some pretty nasty stuff. In New York, we were biking up this gravel two-track when it started sleeting. That’s a moment when you say to yourself, “Wow, the weather can’t get much worse than this—30º and sleeting.” That night it cleared up and got really cold—puddles were freezing over—and our bike shoes were totally frozen when we arrived at a transition area around midnight. We couldn’t get our feet into our bike shoes, so we had to warm them up next to a fire before we could put them on. That was one of the most challenging aspects of that race, to be sure.
(credit: Vladimir Bukalo)
You raced both just two weeks apart. How was your recovery?
Two weeks isn’t too bad. It’s almost ideal, because you get fitness from one and two weeks is a decent amount of time to recover for the next one if you just have muscle soreness and fatigue (no real injuries). If you do races back-to-back, you can start to have some of those issues where your body begins to break down a bit and you get nagging overuse injuries.
Your team won the 2011 Checkpoint Tracker championship, correct?
Yeah, along with Scott Erlandson and a couple from Iowa, Jason and Andrea Nielsen. We ended up third in the 2011 USARA championship, behind SOG and Tecnu. Those two teams were second [Tecnu] and third [SOG] behind us at USARA this year.
Pretty tight race, then?
Yeah, there are five to seven teams in the U.S. that are competitive and really know what they’re doing, so you tend to get the same teams finishing in the top spots. It’s kind of hard to know who’s going to come out on top. Every team has strengths and weaknesses, and it depends on the course and what it brings out in each team. So it’s hard to gauge who’s going to come out on top. The fact that we won both of them in one year, it’s pretty awesome, but a lot of times you think it’s a little bit lucky. Some of the other teams are pretty decent, too, and a couple of wrong turns, and they could’ve come away with it, also.
(credit: Chris Radcliffe)
What’s the single most important quality of a good adventure racer?
It requires a good balance of physicality, but you definitely have to have mental fortitude to compete in an event like this. You really have to be on your game the whole race, and if you want to be competitive in this sort of sport, you really have to have your cylinders firing all race long. There are definitely times when your team is down or moving a little bit slower, but as a team you’ve got to try and work through those. Trying conditions, like the sleet in New York, can separate the teams that are mentally tough from those that aren’t.
Single most important piece of gear for adventure racing?
You mean besides your brain (laughs)? That’s what I would say: Your smarts are #1. What comes at you and how you deal with it is 95% of what adventure racing is about. It’s not like a triathlon where you can pre-run the course and know what’s coming up ahead. In adventure racing, most of the course is going to be unknown until you’re out on it, competing. And race directors, if they want to be tricky, will put in any sort of non-motorized transportation they can think of—horseback riding, rollerblading, scooters, ropes challenges (ascending, rapelling, traversing) riverboarding (like boogie boarding down a river through whitewater rapids). It's a good way to break things up from the standard paddle, bike and run, but it also means you have to be prepared for anything. So it’s about encountering challenges, and how you as a person and as a team overcome them. Being resourceful is what will you get you through a race and put you in the top spot.
(credit: Chris Radcliffe)
For an inside look at the grueling USARA National Championship race, check out this video from runners-up, Tecnu Extreme Adventure Racing.