So there are cougars out in North Dakota... that was all I cared about for days prior to our flight. So I read about how to fight them, I drew eyes on the back of my hat and helmet to prevent sneak attacks, and looked up pictures of cougar mauling's to prepare myself for how I would look when I got home to NJ... I'm an idiot.
All off that unfounded nervousness evaporated the second we stepped off of the bus in the badlands of North Dakota. It was 7 am Mountain Time and everyone was busy taking photos. We were all about to begin a massive point to point journey where we would mountain bike, run, trek, paddle, slog, fall, and suffer our way through the single most amazing course I've ever been on in my career as an adventure racer.
Our journey started on the Maah Daah Hey Trail. A phrase meaning "Grandfather" in native Mandan. This was indeed the grandfather of all trails. We wound our way north through steep sided ravines that looked like giant sandy layer cakes, over huge grassy plateaus reminiscent of the South African savannah, and through rutted cattle trail that seemed to never end. 35 miles of trail brought the top 3 teams to our first TA, a short but drastic foot orienteering course that redefined topography for many of us. Ridgelines... skinny ones; steep sided; vertigo inducing. Silt; quick sand; crumble-under-your-feet sandstone hillsides. The definition of an uncontrolled environment... the reason we do what we do. NYARA, Journey, and REV3 all entered the TA within about 10 minutes of each other. We made our first navigation mistake right off the bat. We misunderstood the explanation of where the misplotted TA was on our map and we unknowingly began a blind search for checkpoints in completely the wrong area... by the way, our team number was 13... of course. While searching for CP1 in an area that looked completely wrong on the map we somehow stumbled upon the CP on the opposite side of the orienteering loop. We got our bearings and proceeded to do the course in reverse. Once on the move we could actually see from CP to CP. After punching one we could look in the distance and see the next flag. This didn't make it any easier. we had to climb steep sandy hillsides, we had to traverse balance beam sized ridgelines with sheer cliffs on either side, and we had to down climb some flat out nonsense pseudo-cliffs to get from point to point. No easy task. About 1/3 the way through the course we passed Journey and NYARA on each other's heels going the way we had hoped to go when we set out.... Bummer. We cleared the section and lost 45 minutes in the process but no one died and all points were reached so we moved on eager to shake of the mistake and determined to hunt down the leaders.
We were back on our bikes. The Maah Daah Hey trail was finished and were onto a network of double track hunting access trails, gravel drilling roads, cattle pastures, and large dirt highways. We had to cover about 25 miles of road to get to our next foot section. We rode through the sunset and into the night, the landscape lit by well fires across a dark flat plane. It was us, the mule deer, an ocean of cattle, and an army of big rigs. We made our way through the course every few miles finding ourselves on increasingly better and better roads, until we hit route 20 where the danger of getting hit by a trucker far outweighed that of being mauled by a cougar. A friendly cop ended up firing up his roof and guiding us into the next TA at little Missouri State Park.
Our time deficit had grown from 45 minutes to 2 ¼ hours thanks to some bike issues, and wrong turns. We made a fairly speedy transition into warm clothes and loaded up on calories as we were in for a long night. Our plan was to attack the southern portion of the park and work our way north, looping back around in somewhat of a figure 8. CP12, first on our list and the lynchpin for the entirety of the O course, ended up being a thorn in the side of most teams. It sat on a hilltop directly off of a trail that seemed to simply not exist. For 2 ½ hours we worked our way methodically to where we thought it would be and simply kept coming up short. In the end we had to drop the southern section and work our way north prematurely. The waste of time and energy early on certainly took its toll for the remainder of the evening. As we moved through midnight and onto 2 and 3 in the morning we found ourselves back in a groove of getting cps and moving forward. By this point I found myself in the depths of a pretty bad bonk and thanks to my steadfast teammates we pushed on. We pushed on over giant skinny ridges, through muddy cattle ruts, up hilly climbs, and through dense thorny vegetation. We had cleared the north side and morning was coming. The sun broke on us as we scaled a massively steep hillside to reach a team punch. With the morning came a wash of warmth and renewed fervor. We were ready and determined to clear the course before us and with the sun soaking the landscape we saddled up and went back after the elusive south side of the O course. Within two hours we had cleared the O course and were on our way back to the TA. In the sunlight we looked at CP12 and realized that we had moved within 100 meters of the hilltop over and over again the night before, only from an attack point that was too high and steep sided to move forward or even see where we were going in the dark.
We were on the move. We were in third. We were on course to clear the massive course. We rode our bikes two miles screaming downhill to the paddle put in. 18 miles of misery. The first half was a shallow river paddle with sand bars and current. Half way through the small river began to open up into a choppy never ending lake. We had to stop at about half way and of course climb another hill for our final CP. The water was so low at this point that the map became incredibly hard to read. Lots of teams had beached their canoes at a muddy inlet thinking it was land. Most teams took 10 steps and decided to move down stream in hopes of finding a better place to land instead of mucking their way through 250 meters of boot sucking mud and head high reeds. Some intrepid voyagers however pressed directly through the mire, the view of their boot prints from the hill top above made indelible in my memory; attached to the phrase "that must have sucked." Finally the lake. It went on forever. You could see the glint of car windshields off in the distance... never getting any closer. It took two hours, it felt like a month.
At last we made it to the final TA. In front of us was a 20 mile bike ride. We chose the route with the least amount of turns given that turns had not been our strong suit for the duration of the race. The road was straight, flat, and featureless. We made a friend on the way. A guy who was riding his bike down a gravel highway to work. He was so psyched to see other people on bikes so it was kind of sad when we told him that we didn't live in the area and would not be flying back in anytime soon. 33 hours later we reached the finish line. Mind and body intact, course cleared, and in third place. NYARA crushed it. Journey Crushed it. It's safe to say though that no one had more fun than us. Go to North Dakota, see the badlands, Ride the Maah Daah Hey trail and have a beer in Killdeer, you won't regret a moment of it.