Summit County’s Olof Hedberg wins adventure race in Patagonia (podcast)
A single Snickers bar rested somewhere deep inside Olof Hedberg’s 1,600-calorie, eight-hour food bag during last week’s Raid Del Viento.
It was an Adventure Racing World Series Demonstration race that challenged 28 of the best quartets from across the world to paddle, climb and mountain bike a 300-kilometer course through Patagonia’s northern Neuquén province.
It was in the middle of the race’s first night when Hedberg, Team Adventure Medical Kits’ token navigator, began to tire. Knowing he and his three teammates were around 20 hours into a neck-and-neck competition versus an elite Spanish team, Hedberg handed off the navigating duties to his friend and teammate Erik Sanders of Golden.
And then he bit into that candy bar.
“Something to look forward to when you are miserable,” he said.
That bit of candy helped fuel Hedberg and his team through this specific portion of the multi-day adventure race, an approximate 100-mile mountain bike ride through the darkness of a frigid Patagonian night. This stretch was crucial for Team Adventure Medical Kits en route to their 45 hour and 45 minute first-place finish at the truly epic event where only a third of the teams who set out from the start line reached the finish.
LISTEN: Our unabridged conversation with Olof Hedberg, during which the Summit County local recounts the nitty-gritty details of the Patagonian adventure race as well as offering advice to anyone out there who is considering breaking into the sport.
Speaking about the race a week after it concluded, Hedberg said the sensation in his finger tips had just finally returned in the wake of the race. It was one where Patagonian snowstorms, choppy glacial lake waters and frigid river crossings left him and his teammates without much feeling in their digits.
“Everything froze,” Hedberg said. “It was a truly miserable night through all aspects. But the good thing was that us and the Spaniards moved faster than any other team and we put 40 to 50 minutes on the Scandanavians, and hours on everybody else. We pushed each other the entire time. We were trying to see who would break first. And that went on the entire night. The most lead anyone had was five minutes.”
For Hedberg, a multi-year veteran of adventure racing, the team he was apart of was a special one. There were the two High Country Coloradans in him and Sanders, a strong overall mountain athlete who Hedberg has much experience racing with in such exotic places as Belize and New Zealand.
Then there was Mari Chandler of Michigan, a woman Hedberg described as, without question, the best female adventure racing athlete in the U.S. Their fourth wheel this time was Martin Saenz of Ecuador, an adept mountain athlete who provided the crucial skill of understanding the Spanish language and the South American culture.
As for the location itself, Hedberg had fond preconceptions of the majestic landscape via the typical awe-inspiring photos and videos. Once his boots were on the ground, though, he realized this race would be daunting.
“Patagonia, I would say, is some of the more extreme conditions we’ve had to encounter,” the Sweden native said. “There was single-digit Fahrenheit temperatures during the night. … The fact that there were few trees and forests means you are constantly in a very windy terrain. There was a lot of people that had to quit due to hypothermia.”
On a course in the shadows of Patagonia’s highest peak, the 15,449-foot Domuyo stratovolcano, Hedberg and the other athletes only had two hours before the race-start, per race rules, to assess just where they would be going and what specific obstacles they’d have to overcome. After a 5-kilometer “prologue” run, the teams reached the first glacial lake and paddled through a snowstorm in early morning hours.
A 25-mile paddle over two high-alpine lakes, toward the Chilean border, followed. Hedberg’s team completed the section in third place despite the fact that Hedberg noticed his body was kicking into self-cooling “survival mode” much earlier than he’d prefer.
“To see all of these snow-covered glacier mountains all around us, it’s just, like, magical,” Hedberg said. “…It was so windy, water rescue is there telling us we have to hug the shoreline. … Hands at this point are not working, basically uncontrolling, shivering — it’s so, so cold.”
Trailing a pair of teams based in Spain and Scandinavia, Hedberg’s team was next tasked with executing “macro-navigation” route choices.
In one instance during the midnight bike ride, Hedberg opted for a safer route down a dirt road as opposed to taking a narrow trail through a canyon, as the Spanish team did.
“The small trails through the canyon petered out and they had to carry their bikes over the mesa,” Hedberg said. “So that saved us about 15 minutes on the overall scheme of things.”
But before the teams reached that miserable first-night bike ride, they had to get through a 15-kilometer above-tree-line run and hike.
With a five-minute lead, Hedberg and his teammates could look behind them, noticing their competitors like dots in the view that seemed to stretch forever behind them. This stretch, thanks to its beauty, was Hedberg’s favorite until the team crossed the finish line more than a day later.
“You see mountains all around you,” Hedberg said. “It’s like, if you Google ‘Patagonia,’ it’s sort of like Google Images.”
The through-the-night bike ride followed, taking about 16 consecutive hours to complete. Hedberg’s American team trailed the Spaniards by 10 minutes entering the ensuing five-consecutive mountaineering stages. Knowing this was his and Sanders’ specialty, the team motored through the first two summits, passing the Spaniards in short order. The gap stretched to 20 minutes by the time the team needed to use ascenders and ropes to traverse the fifth and final summit.
“It was a very technical stage in terms of mountain navigation, which is tremendously beneficial to us,” Hedberg said, “because we are used to it and we did it in daylight.”
Twenty minutes ahead at the end of these mountaineering stages, the team knew they were heavy favorites to win the race when they found out one of the Spanish team members cracked two ribs in the mountains. Then, after their 90-minute nap, the team found out the Spaniards had indeed dropped out of the race due to the injury. All that was between Hedberg’s team and the finish line was 40 miles and 8,000 feet of elevation loss.
In one of humanity’s most extreme athletic endeavors — multi-day races during which the clock never stops and the course is unmarked — Hedberg says it takes fortune, precise training and impeccable planning to come out on top. Finishing hours ahead of any other team, the Americans and their Ecuadorian partner proved it takes the proper mental and psychological decision-making to conquer one of the world’s most physically grueling races.
“It’s up to you,” Hedberg said, “to decide when you want to sleep, and how you want to optimize.”
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