Many years of camping as a Camp Thunderbird camper and, later, at Outward Bound helped prepare me for the first event of the Adventure TEAM Challenge: lighting a fire and boiling a can of water. All that was needed was some toilet paper, a storm-proof butane lighter, and a knife so sharp that it went through wood like butter.
Then we were off and literally running. Each team was made up of five participants, three able and two disabled, and we had to choose two team members to run the first leg. Because half of the trail was underwater, World TEAM Sports decided that those who weren’t ambulatory could not participate in this one segment of the challenge. Sue Weaver and I volunteered and we started at a fast clip. We soon found ourselves waist-deep in ice cold water, which actually felt good in the heat of the day. Sue, who has no short-term memory, is one of the most positive people I have ever met. She is a true delight and I felt so grateful to have her on our team. She is one terrific athlete, too. Each time I looked back to ensure she was doing well, she would say, “Gary, I was raised on the river. I love this stuff.”
My first challenge actually started two days earlier when the team met and Sue told me she would never remember my name. As is my nature, when someone says I can’t, I say, “We’ll see.” She didn’t have much short-term memory, so I considered ways to access her long-term memory, which she had in abundance. I tried to get her to associate me with the song “Gary, Indiana.” After one day, she was calling me “Gary Indiana” while starting to sing the song. Soon after it got shortened to Gary. One challenge down…now back to the race.
As Sue and I emerged from the wet trail, feet almost numb, the elevation quickly steepened. We had to climb approximately 550 vertical feet over a half-mile distance. Sue was prepared to run this dirt trail, but I was in no shape to do so even with the months of training I did prior to the challenge. Hearing my heart rate monitor (provided by our sponsor EKHO) signal that my heart elevated over 152 bpm (target rate), Sue said, “Gary, you’re doing great! Swing your arms; it will help you.” She could not have been more supportive. Every time I stopped swinging my arms, she would remind me to keep them swinging. My thoughts quickly went to who was the abled and who was the disabled. She was such a great spirit and encouragement to me. She never made me feel like I was slowing us down, although I knew I was and struggled with being ‘that person’.
As we reached the top, I assumed we would get a break, but Steve Biese, Susan Swanson, and Ryan Engelby were rigged up and ready to go with our bikes and the One-Off (a bike Ryan used to peddle with his arms). Two team members hooked webbing via carabiner to their backpacks so they could help pull Ryan in the One-Off up steeper hills. Thankfully, Susan and Steve took the first turn pulling to give Sue and me a rest, if you call biking uphill on a mountain bike restful. Because of Ryan’s disabilities he needed to use a very unique bike that we did not get until the day before the race. This entire leg we struggled with the One-Off and the towing system. Ryan’s level of frustration was palpable.
By the time we got to the Scorpion’s Tail, the most difficult challenge of the race, it was getting late in the day and the race director asked us to consider an alternate route. He felt that if we went for the climb on our bikes, we would lose a great deal of time and energy, given the struggles we were having. Sue, our team leader, made the call, redirecting our course to the next leg of the challenge. I could see Steve was struggling with this decision. I said, “This is the time to speak up. If you want to do this, I have no doubts you could shift the decision.” He and I both knew it was the right call, however, although it did not feel good to go along with it. Personally I knew physically I would struggle with that leg and in many ways felt relieved by the decision. We turned our bikes around and finished the leg on an all downhill ride–wind in the hair and feeling good! That was awesome.
For the next leg, Steve, Ryan, and I paddled through white water while Susan and Sue navigated an old mining trail that had been hidden for 30 years and was recently discovered when World TEAM Sports was setting up the course. It was steep and dark; they needed headlamps and had some pretty harrowing stretches, which we learned about later. We met the women down the river where they got into our raft and we headed towards the zip line. Oops! Due to our poor navigation, we zoomed right past that challenge. The river was at a 100-year high point and the flow was tenfold its normal rate, so if you missed your landing, there was no going back. Ryan was disappointed because he missed the chance to zip across the river, but we did reach the rock climbing challenge.
After singing “YMCA” to our checkpoint person (there were checkpoints throughout the race), we got Ryan in his One-Off while the rest of us were on foot. We were thinking this is way too easy until we got to the downward slope of the hike. Because we were the last group of the day, there was a team of checkpoint folks, race director, and support staff able to help. It took nine of us to help Ryan down the side of the mountain in his One-Off. Many of us were slipping from the loose gravel under our feet. Once we completed the stage, we loaded back into the raft to paddle the last leg. We pulled into camp 10.5 hours after we had left.
We were spent, cold, and hungry. After a quick dinner, I thought we would have some time to recover, but Ryan does not have the ability to regulate his temperature, and it took three hours to help him get warm and set up for bed. At 10:30, Ryan was set up for sleep and we began to do a quick briefing of the next day’s course, which we learned was going to start at 7:30 am. I really wanted to quit at that very moment. I knew Ryan would need to start waking up at 4:30 to ready himself for the race and we had not had a chance to study the map of the course, or rig the equipment for the next day. We agreed to go to sleep and not get caught up in the start time of the race. Our goal, we reminder ourselves, was to finish the race, not to win.
At 6:33a.m., Steve’s wife Lynn tracked us down and woke us up. Steve and I reached into the air, eyes barely open, and gave each other a high five for being the last group to wake up–at least we could win at something! We packed up and got breakfast and readied ourselves for the start. Thank goodness it did not take us nearly as long to get going as the day before. We did start about thirty minutes late, but what was great is we began to catch up to the team we started behind. Many missed the first checkpoint so they needed to double back which gave us a chance to catch up and learn where to go. Unlike the day before, the start had a very small hill and then it was one long downhill ride until we got to this really challenging trail that ran fairly flat but had boulders and rocks everywhere. What was amazing was the speed in which Ryan navigated the boulders on the trail on his One-Off. He was in flow–you know that point in which your challenge and your skill are in perfect alignment. It was probably the high point for me seeing him in that moment and also knowing that we did not have to pull or push his one-off. You could see this huge smile on his face.
For the next stretch, we needed to drop the bikes and make it through this marsh-like terrain, where we were swarmed by mosquitoes as we carried Ryan and his One-Off. We arrived at the raft and climbed in, joining our guides, Antony and Luke. They were there to protect us from the elements but not assist on the Geo Navigation test of the river. Ryan, our most experienced navigator, led the way. While the team paddled, Ryan read the map and navigated us to our checkpoints along the river.
Some of the team members began to feel we could compete. This led to an uncomfortable tension that did not exist the day before. In general, a focus on winning became more important than the joy of participating. Because we did not pause to discuss and align the group’s goals, we wound up having small skirmishes that led to sarcasm and hurt feelings.
We missed only one checkpoint and fared very well given our late start. We paddled like I imagine the geologist, american explorer John Wesley Powell did in his river voyage. Three boats competed bow to bow to beat one another. The folks on shore cheered and the adrenaline in the boats soared. It was a great way to finish the Adventure TEAM Challenge!
As we pulled to shore, race officials put ribbons around our heads and offered a big congratulations!
I know that No Barriers learned a lot from this year’s challenge about the equipment that needed to be developed to make this kind of experience possible. Sadly, Ryan and our team gave them great insight into what challenges can be found with today’s technology. The race was indeed a challenge, living up to its name, but a very wonderful experience, too. This event was a magnificent Stretch for the 75 Participants. Thank to Jeff Prouty and The Prouty Project five teams came from Minneapolis and gave great awareness to the challenges those with disability face and what opportunities they can have if they too push past their perceived limits. Jeff and his team every year provide individuals the ability to stretch themselves further than they think possible. If you have not stretched yourself in a while check out next years event at Prouty Project Stretch.
Another Full Article that appeared in: Sports ‘N Spokes Magazine