Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Expedition Alaska Update: Old School Adventure Racing on the Last Frontier

Greetings from the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska, where one of the best adventure races in recent memory is taking place as I write this. Expedition Alaska is unfolding like an old school race similar to the likes of Eco-Challenge or Primal Quest, which were events that squarely put the "adventure" into adventure racing. In a sport that has, by some estimations, become a bit predictable and safe, this is an event that is testing racers at every turn, and pushing them to their limits.

ExpedAK got underway this past Sunday when 20 coed teams of four took to the starting line at the alarmingly picturesque Eklutha Lake. When the starting gun went off, the teams set off on a 12 mile (19.3 km) trail run that did nothing to reveal the challenges that lay ahead. But at the end of that trail however the fun truly began.

The first obstacle in their way was a raging river crossing that punished more than a few competitors with its speed, ferocity, and temperature. Most of the teams made it across without a major incident, but more than a few of racers – as well as the support crew – came away with bumps and bruises.

The rushing waters proved daunting to cross, but they were nothing compared to what followed next. At the end of the trail sat the massive Eklutna Glacier, a giant slab of snow and ice that punished the teams – some of which spent upwards of 30 hours trekking across it.

The biggest casualty from this opening stage was Team Columbia Vidarade, who are arguably the best team in the entire world. While crossing the glacier at night – which isn't particularly dark this time of year – one of the members of the team slipped and fell into a crevasse, separating his shoulder in the process. He was eventually retrieved from the crevasse with the help of Team YogaSlackers, and was airlifted off the ice the following morning. But that put an end to the Vidarade's attempt to win this epic race, and blew the field wide open.

Following the loss of the Brazilian squad, Team Tecnu has picked up the mantle as race favorite, and has been tearing up the course. They have been moving quickly and efficiently, and are currently one of only four teams who are racing the entire length of the course, and with with a full compliment of athletes. The aforementioned YogaSlackers are in second place, but are a considerable distance back.

After the glacier crossing, the teams had more backcountry trekking before moving on to the first paddling stages. That included a considerable amount of pack rafting, and today the first teams started to arrive at the whitewater rafting section down Six Mile Creek, widely considered to be one of the best whitewater rivers in the entire world. Unfortunately, most of the racers won't get to experience it however, as the time cut-off for paddling the river will end before many of them arrive.

The days ahead should be interesting, with the first mountain biking stage yet to come. The fastest teams will probably reach that section tomorrow, but they'll also enjoy plenty more paddling too. As I write this, we are only about half-way through the race, and there is plenty of big challenges to come, some of which will take place in settings that are amongst the best ever seen by adventure racers.

As if racing 350+ miles (560+ km) wasn't enough, the teams will face one other challenge when they arrive in Seward along the Old Iditarod Trail this weekend. On Sunday morning they'll run their own heat for the Mount Marathon, a brutal mountain race that is only three miles in length, but provides plenty of carnage each year. If Expedition Alaska is close on the final day, Mount Marathon could decide the winner.

No matter who eventually wins, the race is destined to go down in history as one of the most challenging. The long, tough stages are testing the athletes constantly, and the epic landscapes of Alaska seem grand in scale as these racers travel through them. Throw in the threat of bear or moose encounters, and you start to see why this is an event that could earn legendary status.

For my part, I'm happy to be here and playing a small role in making this all happen. It is a cooperative effort put on by the entire staff, and while days are long and hectic it is also incredibly fun and rewarding.

A special tip of the hat should go out to race director Dave Adlard who had the vision and determination to create an event that is on par with some of the major adventure races of yesteryear. He set out to create a great race that took place in Alaska, and so far has succeeded swimmingly.

Stay tuned to for further race updates and to track the teams as they proceed. It should be an interesting couple of days leading up to the finish. Also, for a glimpse of what is happening, check out the video below.


eddy de wilde said...

I wonder if the program is too hard, that way you end up with very few finishers. 'Could be wrong but you don't want only 4 teams signing up for the next one?
Best wishes

Kraig Becker said...

That's a good point Eddy, and finding a balance is crucial. We will certainly take into account the lessons of this year's race as we move forward.

BTW, all of the teams will reach the finish line in some fashion. Many won't be doing the whole course, but they'll all get a great reception in Seward on Saturday for sure.

Unknown said...

As a racer of 4 patagonian expeditions, and the AK race - I am happy to find races this hard. Watching the old Eco-challenges is what brought me into the sport, but by the time I got into racing - those races were all gone. It was not until I found the PER, and now ExpAK that I finally felt I was getting what I was looking for. I applaud the few directors who are willing to make races that truly test the grittiest endurance adventurers on the planet - and leave me actually wondering if I'll finish the race.

And lets remember - that failure to finish is not failure. If you embark on the quest, and learn from all the obstacles each time you race - you will eventually make it to the finish line. Maybe not of this race, or the next....but the unknown is a great great teacher. Embrace it.