Friday, March 19, 2010

Patagonian Expedtion Race Part 3- The Infamous Wake Up Call- "This S*%@t is real!"

“Daniel - Wake up! I'm standing barefoot outside your tent in three inches of snow. It's a damn blizzard out here and the Finnish team just passed us! I need a needle, duct tape and hydropel stat! This S*%@t just got real"
It was six in the morning, we had slept through all three of our alarms and Jason was pissed. Even though it was hard to take Jason seriously, we tore down camp and were off into the blowing snow within 15 minutes of this rude awakening.

The blizzard was intense to say the least. The sharp snowflakes pierced our eyes, making it hard to see a foot in front of us. For 5 hours we walked in a row, inches from the person in front of us. The one breaking trail in the front was nearly blind in the angry whiteout. After trekking on turbal for 20 miles the day before, we thought we had paid our dues. Oh were we wrong. Not only were we trudging through swamp, but it had a fresh blanket of snow on it. Between the wet cold turbal and icy river crossings our feet were on the verge of getting frostbite. By keeping a fast pace we were able to keep it at bay.

The icy hell of the blizzard finally gave way, and in contrast, the next checkpoint felt like a temperate heaven - complete with a real angel. There, in the middle of the Patagonia Wilderness was a cabin - and a guy in it who made us hot coffee. It was our first warm substance in 5 days. His coffee along with the news that there was an actual rough trail to the end of the trek was like being reborn. After gulping down our coffee infused with as much sugar as we felt polite scooping into our mugs, we took off running! For the next 20 miles we ran. High off of caffeine and the promise of getting to camp by dusk - it felt like we had brand new legs. With only 5miles left - I hit my wall. Jason put me on tow, smiled and said,"Happy Valentines Day baby." It was the best Valentines Day gift ever. When we finally got to the end, we were exhausted, happy and dazed. I immediatly went upside down into headstand to let the lymph drain out of my feet. We had just completed one of the hardest, most brutally amazing treks out there. We were still feeling strong and complete as a team. Life was good. As the media crew converged on us with cameras, Jason and I posed for a Valentine's day kiss, and then did some acrobatics just to prove how strong we still were. As he flew me around in the air, he was unbelievably wobbly as my base. But by the "oohs and aahs" of the cameramen, I am pretty sure that I was the only to notice.

We slept well that night, knowing that only a two legs remained - a 49 km kayak through the rough Beagle Channel, and a final trek across the world famous beauty of Isla Navarino.

The next morning at 6 am, we were woken up by strong gusts of winds. A small part of me hoped to hear a voice saying, "go back to bed guys! the seas are too rough, there will be a ferry here in a few hours". However, that magical voice only spoke of a forced delay- we wouldn't be allowed to start the kayaking until 8 am. At 8:05 am the Chilean Naval vessel was in place to offer emergency support. The gun fired and we were off. I felt like I belonged in a fighter jet, clad in my "cold avenger mask" and black wool cap. Despite suffering the scoffing looks of a few nearby teams, I felt prepared for the cold and rough seas - almost invincible. Daniel was my co-pilot, and in the skill test we had rocked the double roll and escaped the giant sea lion in style. I was in my element. Jason and Stephen on the other hand were having a little bit of trouble. They hadn't ever paddled together, so staying synchronised and up to speed wasn't happening.

Jason yelled up to me, "Babe, you are not going to like this."

I hate it when that is his first line.

"I need to switch you paddles," he continued. "I'll be able to put more power into my stroke, if I can have the lighter paddle..."
"yes, you are correct, I do not like that" I said matter-of-factly, with a little pout in my lower lip and my best puppy dog eyes. He didn't react at all.

I handed over my super light paddle.

My shoulders struggled with the added weight, but Jason and Stephen were able to speed up significantly. By the end of the paddle we'd left most of the other teams behind.

On the beach we stumbled around, stretching legs that had been unmoving for 7 hours. According to Jason's calculations, all we had was a 10 mile trek to the finish. It was actually closer to 16 miles, and we couldn't remember if the race director had urged teams to stay on the trail or stay off the trail. The meeting had been 6 days ago - which was like 12 years in adventure racer time.

More dense bushwhacking, more post-holing in deep snow, more teetering across precarious (and impressive) beaver damns. We pushed so hard against the failing light. The next 12 hours were brutal, as we kept thinking that it was just over the next ridge, or around the next bend. When darkness did come, we were still in denial and didn't break out our headlamps until we were tripping all over the place. At 11:00 PM my headlamp died, minutes later Jason's did the same. We struggled in the dim shadow-light of our teammates lamps, doggedly refusing to stop to dig out new batteries or a spare light. We must be almost there.

At midnight, we came to the first road we'd seen in days. Our joy was immense, but only momentary. The finish line was on this road, but we had no idea which direction to head. The maps were nowhere near detailed enough for us to answer the simple question - "right or left?" Our intense pace of the last three days had taken us into the lead pack, and during the last trek we had passed the Germans, Swiss, and Spanish - putting us into contention for a spot on the podium. What followed was a classic adventure racing blunder.

Fighting the paralysis of indecision, we headed right - running on our hobbled feet at a breakneck pace of 10 minutes per mile. 15 minutes later we turned around, sure that we were wrong. As we returned to the point where we'd started, we met the Spanish team coming the other way. They'd also come out on the road, but headed left for a few minutes and not found anything. In broken English, they told us they were "positivo" that it was not to the left. For some reason we listened, turning around again.

We ran right again, this time for nearly 30 minutes. Nothing. I have never felt so defeated. Here we were, at the end of one of the wildest races in the world and we were lost on a road. On a road!

We turned back again. I could barely walk, but indefatiguable Jason wouldn't slow down. He attached a bungee cord from his backpack to my waist and started running again. 45 minutes later, and less than a mile from where we'd first found the road, we saw it - the magical white blinking light of the finish. It was so close that my broken body broke into a full run. It was only a quarter mile away, but it was the longest quarter mile ever. The road stopped at a slimy, rocky beach covered in razor sharp mussel shells. In our desperation for speed, that last hundred meters was the most difficult of the entire race.

During our blunder, the Swiss and Germans had finished. But as we crawled up that final embankment to the waiting lights we were happy, exhausted and speechless. We must have looked like we'd been stun-gunned or like a deer caught in headlights. The bright lights, cameras and champagne were a shock to the system. It was over in an instant - and suddenly after almost seven days of constantly going there was nowhere else to go.

Epilogue (beating post race depression)

For 6 plus days, our entire goal in life was to get to the next checkpoint. Our worries and cares had been reduced to food intake, energy out put, preventing blisters and skin chaffing. We subsisted off of Alpine Aire freeze dried meals, java juice coffee extract, bars, gels, and gummies.

For me, conditioning back into the “real world” is usually emotionally harder than the actual race. Things like bills, cars, computers, schedules, and shopping make no sense. After living so intensely in the wilderness, society seems pallid and grey. But not this time.

This time "society" was a cute little fishing village called Puerto Williams, where all the inhabitants seemed to understand what we'd just been through. It felt like going home to the tiny Alaskan towns of my youth, even though, geographically speaking, I couldn't have been further away. The next day we boarded a naval cargo ship. The ship was like a womb. For 36 hours, the 7 teams that had made it to the finish, along with a whole slew of cameramen, race support crew, journalists and photographers were all safely contained in its protective walls. Living together in the cargo hold, we whiled away the hours sleeping in the hanging bunks, scavaging food from the food bags of the teams that had not made it (all our food bags were empty!), or reliving the race through shared stories. Jason and I were even able to get a few yoga practices in and taught an impromtu AcroYoga and Slackline Yoga class on the deck of the boat.

The glaciers and beautiful mountains passed by. Jumping dolphins teased the ship's dog. All that was left to do was sit back and watch it all go by.

At the closing ceremony back in Punta Arenas, Jason gave me a fairy tale ending when he proposed to me. On the stage, accepting our medals for a 4th place finish, Jason quieted the room. He started out his speech by talking about how hard the trek was and how far we had come as a team, but before I knew it, he was down on one knee “Chelsey, if you could survive that trek, than maybe you can survive life with me. Will you marry me?”. My heart was pounding so hard, I thought it was going to leap out of my chest. I let out a teary muffled “YES!” and then we kissed in front of a roaring crowd. It was the most perfect moment.

I wonder what we will possibly do for our honeymoon?!?

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