It starts at midnight with a 108-kilometer mountain bike ride into the teeth of a biting Patagonian wind. And then, in the morning, there is the brutal realization that there is another 593 more kilometers of mountain biking, trekking and sea kayaking to be completed in no more than ten days. Here’s your map and compass. Now figure out how to survive in the remote, untrammeled wilds of Patagonia.
Two years ago, I covered the Race Across America (RAAM), an insane 3,000-mile bike race that challenges sleep-deprived cyclists to sprint across the country within a 12-day time limit. The winner that year was Christoph Strasser, an Austrian bike messenger who caught a total of just 7 and a half hours sleep while crossing the country in eight days.
Earlier this week, one of Christoph’s friends sent me a message about the Patagonian Expedition Race, and after talking to Pete Clayden, a Brit who moved to Chile in 2011 to help run the race, I no longer think that the RAAM participants are the world’s craziest endurance athletes.
“Some of the areas we go into, we may be the first people to have gone there,” says Pete Clayden, who went to work for the race after his post in the financial sector disappeared during the Great Recession, in a recent Skype interview. “There’s a lot of completely virgin ground here, so we never have a hard time finding a new route. We try to showcase the best of the region while creating a unique, very difficult adventure for the racers.”
This year, eleven teams from around the world set off from Puerto Natales, in Chile, at midnight on Monday, February 11, for the first leg of the race – the hellish, aforementioned 108-kilometer mountain bike ride. Two days into the race, six teams were still active, two were thought to be active but hadn’t checked in, and three teams had already dropped out. Last year, 11 of the 19 four-person, co-ed teams actually finished the race.
Clayden said that this year’s race, which concluded over the weekend, was one of the toughest ever, with fierce winds and a difficult course that only three teams were able to complete in the allotted time. Team Adidas TERREX Prunesco, made up of Mark Humphreys, Sally Ozanne, Nick Gracie and Chris Near, won for the fifth consecutive year, crossing the finish line in Punta Arenas, Chile on February 20. The Japanese EastWind team finished third, with GearJunkie Yogaslackers in third.
Each team has to have at least one woman; one team has two this year. But while the women may be outnumbered, some female racers from previous years proved to be some of the competition’s fiercest competitors. Last year, a Japanese woman named Kaori Waki broke one of her ribs on the second day of the race.
“But she kept quiet about it and carried on,” Clayden says. “Her team still managed to come in third place.”
Each team is required to bring their own cooking gear, tents and supplies and there are six resupply opportunities spread out over the course. Clayden says that most teams sleep for just an hour or two per night and some suffer from sleep-deprived hallucinations.
“But a lot of the racers tend to enjoy their hallucinations,” he says. “They call them the sleep monsters.”
Teams are required to stay together, leave no trace in the pristine wilderness, and assist other teams if they are in distress. (Time spent helping other teams is deducted from a team’s race time.) Each team gets a GPS and a satellite phone but they can only use them if they’re in deep trouble and are no longer vying to win the race. Weather conditions are often brutal; on a few occasions Patagonian winds of more than 100 mph actually knocked riders off their bikes (see footage below!) and temperatures can dip below freezing.
“But the thing that really gets the racers is the terrain,” Clayden says. “For the first third of the race, they’re trekking across a glacier, working their way alongside a long section of mountains and lakes, with many river crossings. And there’s one iceberg-filled lake they’ll be crossing on a kayak. It’s an adventure playground.”
It costs $1,000 per team to enter the race, which attracts an eclectic mix of adventurers from around the world who work 9-5 jobs as teachers, tradesman, entrepreneurs, guides and almost any other job you can think of. And what is the prize for enduring this brutal, self-guided race?
“There is zero prize money,” says Clayden, who had just started his own sports massage business when he got the phone call that lured him down to Patagonia to work for the race. “The race is run in the Olympic spirit, solely for the honor of winning it. But there is a trophy and those who finish get a medal. People make enormous sacrifices to compete.”
A British team called Adidas TERREX Prunesco has won what is often referred to as the “Last Wild Race” four years in a row but there’s a plucky quartet of Americans who has also been in the running for the last four years. Gear junky Yoga Slackers are a husband and wife led team comprised of yoga instructors from Bend, Oregon (see videos). In most cases, however, spouses refrain from competing on the same team.
“Generally speaking this is not something you want to do with your life partner,” Clayden says, with a laugh.
When the racers reach the finish line, their feet are sore, they haven’t had a shower in a week or more and they want beer – sometimes, several beers. But Clayden says that more often than not, they come back for more, year after year.
“For most people, it’s to have a great adventure and to have it here in Patagonia,” he says. “They love the wildness of the country, the savageness of it, the intense weather and the way they are immersed in nature. It’s the world’s greatest race, because you compete in mind-blowing scenery and with three of your best friends.”
[Photo credits: Alex Buisse, Chris Radcliffe, Ulrik Hasseman and Alex Karelli from the Patagonian Expedition Race]