Expedition Ozark 2023 Race Report – Team R&R – Chapter Two

Expedition Ozark 2023 Race Report – Team R&R – Chapter Two

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A 24-hour trek, A Storm Halts the Race, Bike Issues, More Paddling, and a Cold Night

Editors note: This is the second installment in a four-part story from Rachel Furman of Team R&R documenting their experience in the 2023 Expedition Ozark Adventure Race. If you haven’t read the first installment, we recommend starting there. (Expedition Ozark 2023 Race Report – Team R&R – Chapter One). Photos courtesy of Expedition Ozark.

From the paddle takeout, we had to trek over 1k up a hill to the paddle bags. Trekking in our dry suits in the hot afternoon sun was perhaps one of the more miserable parts of the race, and thankfully it was short. After dropping off our paddle gear we continued on to TA3. Danny had given us some clarifications regarding the road to the TA based on some confusion the lead teams had run into so it was pretty straightforward, though I did try to mess it up a couple of times. The next TA to the big trek was probably one of our fastest, mainly because there wasn’t a lot to do. We left the TA and started our journey uphill. I had brought a tow rope for the trekking sections and I had been towing Robert, so I continued to do so on the climb. However, as we got onto a trail section that was rocky and had downhill parts, Robert started to get more nervous about his footing. The tow rope was a little shorter and had more tension than my old one, and we realized it wasn’t going to work long-term. My back was starting to hurt and he was blowing up his quads braking on the downhills. So, we put the tow away for the rest of the race and I did a little pushing here and there. I also took all the team gear and sometimes his clothing to help reduce the weight he was carrying on the trek (and I gave it back for the bike!). Adventure races are all about sharing the load and teamwork!

Team R&R coming in off the trek.
Team R&R coming in off the trek.

Anyway, back to the 24-hour trek, by far the longest section of the race for us. We got to hang out with other teams for a good portion of the mandatory points, hitting the final one with NYARA and then stopping for a quick 30-minute nap before sunrise. After that, we only saw one more team before setting off for all the Pro points on our own. The OHT was beautiful and we did not see a single person on it for the Pro points east of Highway 23. After a long time by ourselves, NYARA and my friend Jon Van Dis’s team Nebraska/unplugged adventures caught back up to us just as we were closing in on Byrd’s Adventure Center. Right around this time, my feet started to give me a little trouble. Being wet and walking on rocks for 24 hours seemed to not do them any favors. I started hobbling a bit as we picked our way through the last few trails and roads to find the last few CPs on Byrd’s property. We had a little trouble with them but sleep deprivation may have had more to do with that than anything.

Storms and Hard Decisions

Once finally back at Byrd’s, we both were moving slowly and were just happy to be done with that stage. The volunteers then told us that there was another line of severe storms coming through overnight and that the race directors had decided to make all teams shelter in place for the hours of 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. They also said that we could shelter there at the TA but that would mean we would get short coursed. Tough decision to make, especially since we had just lived through the tornado in Little Rock. We didn’t know what the right decision was, and our sleep-deprived and slow-moving brains didn’t help the cause. We ended up hemming and hawing, not really transitioning, not really doing much of anything, for way too long. I didn’t feel like staying at the TA was going to be any safer than going out on bikes but didn’t put my foot down enough to get us moving. Finally, we went with the decision to be short-coursed and then immediately reversed it because it didn’t feel right to me. Robert knew of a place (a pavilion in Oark) we could be assured shelter if it rained really hard, so we decided to go ahead and leave the TA so we could get there and have the shelter for the 11 p.m. shelter mandate. In the end, we’ve both discussed this as being one of the major mistakes of the race – we should have just gone ahead and moved out of the TA on bikes a lot quicker, but it’s hard to say for sure. I definitely navigated better with the sleep we got during the shelter period. Either way that TA was one of the biggest time sucks of the race for us.

The mandatory pause notice.
The mandatory pause notice.

After our mandatory shelter time, we got on the road for real. My feet stopped hurting after a little while in bike shoes, and thankfully never felt as bad as they had for the rest of the race. We rode at a decent pace, grinding up the first giant climb that seemed to go on forever. As we got to the top of the ridge, I was thankful for the climbing to be over, but now we had a different issue – the storms were actually starting to come in. We were treated to a fantastic but slightly terrifying lighting show, mostly to the north of us. As we made our way through the Buffalo Headwaters route area (we turned up a hill that I immediately recognized as the first big climb of BHWC), the sky opened up with a heavy downpour. Great for gravel roads and our bikes! We got to the trailhead for Hawksbill Crag and didn’t see a flag, so kept going in case there was a second kiosk. After hitting a church that was too far, we turned around and checked again – the flag was missing. By this time the rain had just let up enough so I could take out our digital camera and take a picture, which they never checked. Either way, I was a bit surprised they didn’t lock that flag in place, considering the popularity of the spot. We then finished the ride with an incredibly long downhill down into Boxley. My brakes were starting to protest with some contamination they’d picked up during the downpour, but then Robert’s bike made a very loud noise that sounded suspiciously like a broken spoke. Once we made it to the TA, confirmation was made. We weren’t boxing up our bikes at this TA but just giving them over to be transported by trailer, but Robert came up with a way to help “fix” the spoke next time we saw our bike using zip ties and duct tape I had in my pack.

The First National River

The next section was a much shorter paddle on the Buffalo River to Steel Creek. I was excited as I’d never paddled the Buffalo, and neither had Robert. He was under the impression it would be more like the lower Buffalo, float-trip style, but I knew we’d be seeing some rapids. We did, but our main concern was keeping away from the shallow water, as the water level was a little low. The bluffs were incredible, of course, and we would call out the faces and images we could see in them. Even though I knew we were behind schedule, I was very happy that we got to do this part during the day.

A team makes it's way on the Buffalo National River.
A team makes it’s way on the Buffalo National River.

After the paddle, we made our way on the Buffalo River Trail back to Ponca. We were required to stay on the trail and my brain was happy for the rest. At Ponca, we immediately turned up the mountain bike trails to get the Pro points there. We had a little trouble with one because I attacked it from the bottom without seeing all the contour lines between the creek and its placement (some of the CP’s were very hard to see on the map due to the text overlaying important details, but just an excuse I guess). Aside from that, we just did mostly trail hiking. Made our way up past the zip line, which I knew existed but had not seen. Trekking on these trails was nice but a little boring so I sang to keep us entertained – some old rock, Black Keys, Beatles, and Elton John Tiny Dancer by request. Hiking up a black downhill trail while singing is its own challenge!

After we descended all the way back down to the Buffalo Outdoor Center cabin for the TA, Robert worked on fixing his spoke while I worked on finishing the maps – I never did finish marking them up at Byrd’s since we made such a late decision to keep moving and there were over 30 of them. I still didn’t get them all the way finished, but enough for the moment. After refilling our water we were on our way.

Fleet Feet Little Rock

A Cold Night on the River

The bike route took us up another long hard climb at the beginning and then rollers on the ridgeline afterward. The climb was not as bad as I was thinking it would be, but once we were up on the ridge, there was a cold, hard wind coming from the north. Robert started to get chilled, and I could tell he badly needed sleep. When we rolled into the next TA our priority was to get sleep. Unfortunately, there weren’t a lot of good options for sleep locations, and I knew the timing was bad – it was around midnight which meant we’d be waking up during the coldest part of the night. Our paddle bag had frost on it already, so it was definitely cold. We discussed sleeping in our dry suits, using the bothy, and other options, but ended up sleeping on a cabin porch (we got kicked off one porch by a very unhappy woman so moved to a second one) individually in our bivies, which was not the right move. We both woke up freezing multiple times and didn’t get the best sleep. We overslept my alarm by 30 minutes too, so at 4 a.m. I was in a panic to start moving. Robert, on the other hand, didn’t want to move! He was freezing and thought it was too cold to paddle. While I agreed with that sentiment, I didn’t see any alternative, so I told him we needed to move! He finally did and I got my dry suit on as quickly as I could. Once on the river, we found that there was a large amount of fog that would reflect back in the headlamp light, making it nearly impossible to see very far ahead of us. Combined with the narrow river that had both shallow shoals and trees/debris on the sides, it made for a stressful start to the paddle until the morning light gave us enough to go by and we could turn off the headlamps. My gloves became somewhat useless once the liners got wet and I could no longer put my hands inside them. Robert ended up taking off his gloves so he could actually paddle, so we were in the cold hand zone for a good portion of that paddle. Thankfully it started to warm up slightly, and then we finally got to the location where we would drop the packraft and do a long trek in the McIlroy Wilderness Area.

A team on the Kings River.
A team on the Kings River.

Chapter 3 is available now at https://www.arkansasoutside.com/expedition-ozark-2023-race-report-team-rr-chapter-three/

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