Editors note: The inaugural Expedition Ozark Race took place last week (April 3-8) in Northwest Arkansas. Since ArkansasOutside.com started out as a place to park race reports from area adventure races back in the early 2000s, we thought it would be fun to have one of the racers share their experience in the race. We are lucky enough to count Rachel Furman of Team R&R as a friend and she agreed to share her race report. We will be posting her and Robert Orr’s story (Robert was her teammate, hence Team R&R, Rachel and Robert) in four chapters each Wednesday afternoon.
What is Adventure or Expedition Racing?
Adventure racing is a multi-disciplinary team sport that involves navigating through a challenging outdoor course using a variety of skills such as trekking, mountain biking, paddling, and climbing. Adventure racing can last anywhere from a few hours to several days, and often requires teams to navigate using maps and compasses, complete physical and mental challenges, and overcome obstacles in the natural environment.
The course of an adventure race can vary greatly and may take teams through diverse terrain such as forests, mountains, rivers, and caves. The challenges faced by adventure racers can also include orienteering, rock climbing, rappelling, zip-lining, and white water rafting, among others.
Adventure racing is a physically and mentally demanding sport that requires teamwork, endurance, and a willingness to embrace uncertainty and challenge. It has grown in popularity around the world, with races ranging from local events to international competitions. Expedition Ozark consisted of 172 miles of cycling, 108 miles of trekking, and 80 miles of paddling plus rope work and orienteering.
Here we present chapter one.
Preparing for an Expedition
When I found out that an expedition adventure race was being planned for Northwest Arkansas, I was not all that surprised but very, very excited. I have often thought Arkansas would be a great place for an expedition race, and to officially have one in my own backyard was amazing! Now just to find a team. After struggling with some health issues over the last couple of years (three surgeries in two years), I am just now coming back into any sort of form and had been out of touch with many of my old AR teammates. Most already either had their team formed or were not able to race, so I was a little worried I would not be able to race the one race I really wanted to do. Enter cycling friend Robert Orr! I had raced with Robert in a 24-hour race a few years ago, and then again this past fall at USARA Nationals, and he of course has extensive expedition race experience from his days with Arkansas Traveler. Robert was up for the challenge of Expedition Ozark and we got signed up. I had been racing as Natural State Adventures at the past few races I’ve done, including Nationals, but there was now a Team Natural State at Expedition Ozark (with an amazing and inspiring backstory if you haven’t already checked them out you should!). I didn’t want to cause any confusion, so we went with Team R&R.
One of the perks of having an expedition race so close to home was that we didn’t need to leave until Saturday, the same day as the opening ceremony. Due to work craziness, I didn’t even really get the bulk of my packing done until Friday, which happened to be the same day Little Rock was hit with a tornado. This was a scary and sad situation, and I tried to focus on the task at hand while simultaneously checking on friends and co-workers to make sure everyone was safe and unharmed. Thankfully everyone was safe, but many I know suffered property damage and loss, so this weighed heavy on my mind rolling up to Fayetteville for the race.
Note: The race directors were Danny Collins and Jason Bettis. Jason has raced for many years as Team Kuat, and I’ve raced with and against him many times. I’ve never raced with Danny but had met him a few times. What I didn’t know about either of them was how well they were going to do with the sort of challenge of putting on an expedition race. They really did an amazing job and I was truly impressed.
The host hotel for the race check-in, opening ceremony, and all the craziness of the day before the race started was the Graduate Hotel in Fayetteville, an eclectic place with décor including handwritten notes framed on the walls (presumably from students), room keys that looked like student ID’s (mine was Deena Kastor’s), and three achingly-slow elevators. The weighing of our gear bins turned into a bit of a cluster since the one large ballroom was closed for a volunteer meeting while the teams packed in with their bins and boxes outside in a small hallway like sharks waiting for unsuspecting prey. Otherwise, everything went as smoothly as can be expected. Gear bins, bike boxes, and paddle bags were all weighed and turned in. Robert and I drove up to Bentonville to the finish line hotel, 21C near the square, and caught the shuttle back to the Graduate. A beautiful sunset lit up the sky with reds and purples and I hoped it was a sign of good things to come!
The 3:15 a.m. alarm came soon enough, and we hustled down to the ballroom to presumably load onto buses at 4 a.m. However, with teams sitting around in wait, getting phones sealed, putting on last-minute sunscreen, eating breakfast or just going back to sleep, 4 a.m. came and went. Danny came out and announced that the buses would now leave at 5:15 to give us a chance to look at the maps in the hotel versus on the bus (THANK YOU). Maps in hand, we got our first look at the course. I had already figured out we were starting at Shores Lake from the video flyover of the course they showed the night before at the pre-race meeting but now got to see the first couple of legs of the race in full. We had a short trek around some trails at Shores Lake, then back to build bikes and ride to Byrd’s Adventure Center, where we would put in on the Mulberry River for 20+ miles paddling. Then trek back to Bryd’s through White Rock and using the Ozark Highlands Trail. Danny and Jason were adamant that we had to stay on roads and trails for the trek sections due to their permit limitations, and I was not surprised at all given the experience I had with Raid the Rock planning!
After an uneventful bus route where I may have even been able to nap a bit, we pulled into Shores Lake and offloaded. Racers scattered out to pee, adjust gear, warm up, who knows. The tension, nerves, and excitement are always palpable at the start of these races. Jason and Danny herded us all the way down to a narrow boardwalk by the lake behind the start banner and then soon enough we were off!
The first trek seemed like a fairly straightforward trail run, either clockwise or counterclockwise. I thought it looked like one of the CP’s could be done as an out and back, but as teams made their way onto the trail heading north, I never saw the connecting trail to the east I would have wanted so I followed suit. As we made our way back around to the third CP, the trail crossed a creek and then disappeared. Several teams were around us and we all ended up bushwhacking trying to find the trail. Finally, we found a semblance of one but it wasn’t much, and it was much too late for saving my poor exposed legs from the thorns. Didn’t take long to get bloody in this race!
After we fumbled our way back to the road we got to the TA to build bikes and be on our way. We rode south out of Shores Lake and then turned east around its southern end. After a CP at a scenic view on the other side, we got to an intersection to see one team coming back up from the wrong direction. I had highlighted on my map a route that took us to the right, but Robert said he had ridden this route before between Byrd’s and Shores Lake and that we needed to go straight. I was confused because the road went off my map and I wasn’t exactly sure where we’d end up, but he was confident and other teams were going the same way. We rode pretty much all the way to Turner Bend before I was back on my map, but the route was pretty fast and soon we were at Byrd’s. Local knowledge for the win!
Transitioning to packrafts, I quickly realized one of my first planning mistakes – not bringing an electric pump to blow our raft up with. Our paddle bags had a whopping 65-pound weight limit and we had plenty of room, so we absolutely should have. As with several of my other planning mistakes, I have become accustomed to races where you have little to no extra room in any of your bins for the nice-to-haves, so I didn’t bring or even think to bring many of them (other nice-to-haves that we should have brought in this race: a timer for sleeping at TA’s, sleeping bags in our gear bins, a fourth set of shoes for the paddle bags). Blowing the packraft up with the airbag doesn’t take overly long, but it does tie you up versus doing other things.
Either way, we got our raft and ourselves ready in our dry suits and set off down the Mulberry. I have never paddled it and was a little nervous at first, but Robert is super experienced with it and also a very good paddler, so I was in good hands. The water level was good – not too high and not too low, so we made it through all the rapids without any issues. The day was sunny and warm, so the turtles were out sunbathing. The red buds were blooming brightly and the blue-green water sparkled. All in all a very enjoyable experience, except for the part where I really, really, really had to pee. Wearing a dry suit is not conducive to this activity (at least for females). I had a She-Wee with me but when we finally pulled over so I could go, I couldn’t actually use it and froze up! I had to fully remove my dry suit so I could pee, just as another team rolled by, of course. On top of that, once we got to CP9 I had to deflate the packraft because I had left the passport in my pack, which was stuffed inside the packraft to keep it dry. Not ideal but I tried to re-inflate it as quickly as I could and think that was my fastest inflation time all race!