Summit locals tackle the pain, jungle rot and unknowns of adventure racing
October 16, 2016
The first night was bad for Whitney Hedberg. The second night was even worse.
In early September, Hedberg and her husband, Olof, were pedaling through the twilight desert outside of Taos, New Mexico with another Summit local, Thomas Konecny. The trio was more than halfway through a 72-hour, 180-mile expedition race with three major legs — trekking, mountain biking and whitewater rafting, all held on an unmarked route between 6,000 and 12,000 vertical feet in the ragged southern Rocky Mountains — and Whitney was suffering. She'd thrown up earlier in the race on night one and, when the sun dipped on day two, started feeling tired, wobbly and nearly delirious. She said that she's stronger on the mountain bike than her husband — he agreed — but that night, more than 100 miles and 14 hours since her last 90-minute nap, she fell asleep in the saddle.
"I was in this weird dream world and didn't really know what was going on," Whitney said from the comfort of Frisco Main Street on a beautiful October morning. "Instead of keeping track of distance, I was repeating the numbers that Olof was repeating to me. We got stuck in a loop that second night. I've done a lot of these races, but that can still happen."
Olof chuckled. In the past three years, the two head coaches with Summit Nordic Ski Club have traveled the world to finish more than six multi-day expedition races and just as many 24-hour adventure races. And they haven't just finished — they've dominated, with a third-place finish at Primal Quest 2015 in the Sierra Nevadas and a win at St. George, Utah in January 2016. There, they pedaled and trekked for 80 hours in freezing-cold temperatures, including 12 hours of porting their bikes through thick, gloppy, cement-like clay when a snowstorm blanketed the desert a day before the race.
"Sleep deprivation is huge," Olof said between pauses and asides in his wife's story. "You can start hallucinating around 40 hours, and everyone gets that. It's almost impossible to avoid that, and if you've never done that it's tricky to compete in that state. You have to be ready for it."
Whitney was ready, Olof was ready, but Konecny was caught off-guard by the sleeping cyclist act. Konecny, a former Olympian from the Czech Republic, was the only novice on the team, and when he saw Whitney collapse on the trail he didn't know what to expect. Was it normal? Was it a red flag? Was it the end of his team's race? Olof knew it was nearly inevitable, and so when his wife nodded off on her bike not once, but twice, he kept his cool. He was team captain, and as team captain, he didn't have the luxury to freak out.
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Olof also knew his trio was in the lead, a few hours ahead of the next-closest team, which gave them time to recoup without stressing about a second-place finish. Whitney rested for a stretch after her second collapse, and soon enough she was pedaling strong as the sun rose on the third and final day of racing.
"When I'm feeling dark — that happens for sure — and all you can think of are the million reasons why you want to quit, I have this thing I think about: 'What do I want my story to be?'" Whitney said. "Did I come to this race and quit, or did I persevere? And when you boil that down, you don't want to quit. It always works."
No pain, no gain
The Taos event was part of the well-named Happy Mutant Adventure Race Series, a collection of nine stateside adventure races made for mutants like the Hedbergs and Konecny. The format changes from series to series, but all mimic the global Adventure Racing World Series: trekking, mountaineering, mountain biking, kayaking or rafting, some kind of rope work like a Tyrolean traverse and, in a dastardly twist, navigating. Teams are in charge of plotting their own course, which means teams with the best combination of route finding, stamina and skill hobble home with the win.
"There are a lot of unknowns and I think that's why it has taken so long to catch on here," Olof said. Or maybe it's the final ingredient: loads of masochistic energy.
"Before the race I just know the amount of pain and suffering I'll go through," said Olof, talking about his least-favorite part of racing. "Between the start and the finish I will take care of whatever happens. But before the race I'm a disaster, and after the race I'm a disaster."
This time, Whitney chuckled.
"When he's on the course, he's super happy, super positive," she said and nudged her husband. "He loves it — he loves suffering and being out there. I look at him and think, 'What's wrong with you?'"
It's obvious the Hedbergs make a good pair on and off the field, and Whitney says that's key to any competitive expedition-racing team. She sees it as team dynamics: without a bit of humanity on the trail, a team will fall apart.
"Sometimes you're laughing, sometimes you're pissed, and it's this entire experience that's really hard to articulate. If that dynamic is off, it can destroy a race for you. That's a piece of the puzzle: finding people who are similarly fit and well-balanced."
For Olof, good team dynamics are more logistical. He's a "horse" when on foot — the name for a team member who carries more weight than the rest — but knows his bike skills aren't on par with his wife or even Konecny, who has finished top-10 at the Leadville 100 MTB. It's all about finding that happy equilibrium where everyone is suffering equally — but never too much.
"In a well-balanced team, the person who is suffering will change during time," Olof said. "If it's the same person every time, there are two reasons: A) they did not train hard enough, or B) the rest of the team isn't helping them enough."
The Hedbergs race under their old flag, New York Adventure Racing Association, but they agree that Summit County is one of the best places in the nation to train for the long, torturous races they've grown to love.
"So much of what we like to do counts as adventure race training," Whitney said. "Our favorite way to spend a Saturday is to be in the mountains, and whatever we're doing out there is helping us. Sometimes it's not fun, like uphill intervals, but we mix that with the rest."
Eye on Worlds
By the third night, it was Olof and Konecny's turn to suffer. The team had 8,000 vertical feet of climbing to complete in the last six or seven hours, and while Whitney charged ahead, her husband and Czech teammate bombed.
"He was completely delirious, talking Czech, and Tommy's a guy who knows many languages," Olof laughed. "When he started talking in English again, he was talking to an imaginary team behind us, and we were at least eight hours ahead of the closest team. No one was there."
When they crossed the finish line after 53 hours, the Summit team was nearly 20 hours ahead of the nearest competitor. They were bruised and battered, with puffy, blistered feet from 182 miles of travel, but they annihilated the field.
"During the race, you manage to sleep soundly on a gravel road," Whitney said. "When you're done, you think you can just sleep for days, but you get in the bed and realize just how much you beat yourself up."
Taos was just the beginning. This season, the Hedbergs set aside short-term goals like World Cup standings and focused solely on balancing out their skills — the team dynamic side of things. It's all in preparation for the biggest race yet: the 2017 ARWS Championships in Wyoming, home to the fabled Cowboy Tough expedition race.
"I think we're getting to where we want to be," Olof said. "We want to show up to Worlds and be competitive."
The Hedbergs race again with Konecny in Nevada this coming February, but chances are they'll pair up with one of Olof's friends from Sweden for the World Championships. Until then, the two are looking forward to Nordic ski season and a change in their preferred form of masochism.
"This is a real test of two years worth of training by the time we get there," Whitney said. "We try to use what's here in Summit to train — skimo races, backcountry tours, just the nature around us to get better. It's not traditional because it's winter, but it works."
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