The Chiwaupee is one of those races, like the Barkley Marathons, that is impossibly tough and is by invitation only, so only a few people know the true essence of the ordeal. After last year's win, my teammate Dave (the race is done army ranger-style; two men in tandem) tried to convince me that I'd be returning, but I'd have none of it. It was painful, humiliating and just plain bad for the psyche.
Friday, I got a call.
"Hey, Quick! The Chiwaupee's tomorrow! You're in, right?"
- No. I have another race planned.
"That's why it's tomorrow. Everyone's got other plans they have to cancel. C'mon! It's the Chiwaupee! We're defending champs! We gotta do it."
- I don't have to do anything I hate. I hate that thing.
"But there's a new guy in charge. He's letting foreigners run it, for chrissakes. And women! Skirts could win this thing, if we don't keep 'em in their place!"
- Um, Dave... grow up. Have a nice time out there.
"See you in the morning."
5AM and he's banging on the door, telling me to hurry up. And, against all reason, I ended up in his pickup, headed back to the hellhole along the Minnesota River. I tried to sleep on the way, partly because I knew I'd need all my energy for the race, partly to forget that I was really going to do this again. A few hours later, we were clambering into the boats that would lead us up river, me channeling Apocalypse Now (if not Joseph Conrad): the horror. The horror.
There were only six teams this year, no one I had ever seen before. Chatting, I found out that some had trained all year for this race, rock climbing at altitude, outrunning the tide at Mont St. Michel, training on the Barkley course in the winter. There were indeed two women, one an alternate for the Canadian Olympic team, though I never found out for which sport. Dave and I had the advantage, though, as we'd already done the course last year.
Bob, the race director gathered us. "There's a new course this year," - well, so much for the advantage - "and I think it's a little tougher, though it's only about 3 miles this time. Should only take about seven hours to finish. Remember, there's no aid and, if... make that when... you get injured, there's no way to get you out of here, except the boats we came in on. The course is marked with blaze orange ribbons and you can just barely see each one from the previous one."
With that abrupt start, we were all headed for the first marker, across a field of loose pointed rock. I'd just run as technical a course as I could imagine last week, but this was preposterous. Each step caused one to slide and that meant barking one's shins against another rock. Twenty yards in, I was already walking, carefully, like a tightrope walker. Four people were being helped back to their feet by their partners, so Dave and I were doing well. "Let's go back," Dave said and I was stunned, because nothing ever stopped him; then I saw him wink. We went back the way we came and Dave turned to me and said, "We don't have to go straight. Let's go back through the river instead." It was a brilliant tactic, adding half a mile to a 200 yard run, not including the backtracking, but going the easiest route. We hit the first marker long before anyone else.
The next marker was at the top of a ridge, which was about an 80% slope, until the top, where it looked like an outcropping would require us to rock climb. Upside down, without equipment. I don't climb and I've got a hand with poor grip, but this is Dave's speciality and I was sure he'd get me through it. When we got to the ledge, he just shrugged. I followed as best I could, but there was no way I could do it; there was less than two feet between where I was and the top, but I couldn't get my body to get over the ledge. "Hell, I can lift you from there," Dave growled. I had to laugh. It hadn't occurred to me: he was only an arm's reach away. He pulled me up and we started down the other side of the ridge.
At the bottom was the next obstacle, the remains of a trestle bridge. The center had washed away, leaving about half of one board spanning the gap, maybe two inches across. If it was strong enough to bear our weight, we'd have to walk it like a balance beam. The stream underneath had a ferocious current due to recent rains, but I thought we should swim rather than test the bridge. "I can't swim," Dave said. Looking at the bridge, I said, "The fall will probably kill you." Dave caught the reference, but neither of us could figure out which of us was Butch and which Sundance. The other teams had caught us and were crossing the bridge. We watched as that one tiny board bent under the weight of the women as they crossed; it'd never hold Dave, who was more than twice their size. We had to swim. I pulled a rope out of his pack (he had prepared; I, remember, just jumped into the race), tied it around my waist and told him to hold on as I swam. The water was freezing and sapped my strength faster than pulling Dave's dead weight did. I couldn't make it, I knew, so I stopped after just a few strokes and went back. I was out of breath and had to rest on shore, as we saw the other teams run out of sight. We were now in last place. I finally got the idea of going from one supporting post of the bridge to the next and we went back into the water, me pulling Dave a few feet at a time, one wooden pillar at a time to hold onto as I paused to regain strength. It took forever, but we made it.
We made it to the next marker and saw the one following it. All the other teams were standing underneath it. We didn't know why, but we knew this was our chance to get back in the race. When we arrived, we looked for the next marker and saw the problem. There was no next marker. It must've got moved, someone said. I remembered Bob saying that you could see each marker from the previous one and was sure that this was just a test. I suggested that all the teams go separate directions and holler if they see anything and, as there was no better idea, the teams started out. I grabbed Dave, told him to be quiet and pointed straight up. There, it was, at the top of a pine, 90 feet above the one we'd all seen. We discussed whether or not we should tell the others. "They'll figure it out eventually," Dave reasoned. I climbed the tree, which started swaying a bit toward the top, and when I reached the marker, started looking around. I had a moment of vertigo, then saw something orange; it was one of Bob's boats back at the starting line. I climbed down, told Dave, and we had to decide between bushwhacking a straight course or going back the way we came. The problem was the stream; we barely made it with the trestle bridge to help us, but that was the only way we'd make it.
We headed back, slowly, as if we were giving up, so that no one would follow us. When we got back to the trestle bridge, I looked at Dave and told him I didn't think I could drag him again. "Hell, how hard can it be to learn how to swim?" he said and jumped in. The current dragged him downstream faster than he was moving from one side to the other. I made it across, then went downstream through brambles, hoping to spot Dave wherever he made land - if he did. It was a long way and a long, worried wait, but he did make it and we did find each other.
The rest of the course was uneventful. We finished in 5 hours something, two hours ahead of the next team (the "skirts") and seven before the last guy, who came in telling us where he had to leave his teammate, who we spent the next 12 hours rescuing.
I hope Dave finds a new teammate next year.
[Last year's race]
Aid Station: Eugene Curnow
2 days ago