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The time Rob beat Arthur the Great

With the release of the new Hollywood movie based on Arthur the dog joining team Peak Performance at the 2014 AWC in Ecuador, its time to relive the race through Rob Preston's experience finishing 4th place with Team Tecnu (USA).

2014 Adventure Race World Championships – Ecuador

Race Report by Mari Chandler

Team Tecnu – Mari Chandler, Kyle Peter, Jason Popilsky & Rob Preston (of Australia)

On Sunday morning, November 9th, 51 teams representing 20 different countries began the 2014 Adventure Race World Championships. The race started at 4000m (13,123ft) in the eastern side of the Andes highlands with a 29km mountain trek. We knew the altitude was an important factor in this race and decided to take a bit of a ‘conservative’ approach on this section to make sure everyone could get through it without needing to stop or recover. The trek started with an accent to the highest point in the race of 4500m (14,763 ft). We crossed an amazingly diverse amount of terrain in this first trek which was a great indicator of what was to come. We also got our first taste of the thick wonderful Ecuadorian mud which we would see plenty more of later. We came into TA1 (which was packed with cheering spectators and an enormous amount of happy energy) within 15 minutes of the leaders and after a blazing fast transition; we were off on our bikes for a 67km MTB ride.

The first part of the ride was a huge 1800m fast descent mostly on paved roads down to the Amazon River. We also encountered our first afternoon ‘’shower” of steady rain which we would also be experiencing a lot more throughout the race. Once we were down near the river, it became more of a bike carry as we were in muddy flooded trails. Just over 3 hours later, we came into TA2, which was the town of El Chaco and also filled with cheering locals and great welcoming volunteers.

We quickly packed up our bikes into their boxes and were off for another trek. This 44km trek would start out with a gradual accent up a dirt road which we were able to run on but our pace quickly changed when we entered the Oyacachi Trail just as darkness set in. We were told this trail was used by indigenous people to travel from the highlands to access the Amazon. The trail was more of an animal track that occasionally completely disappeared from time to time. We ran into Teams: Adidas, Columbia, and Raidlight as we were all searching for the missing trail. It traveled alongside the Oyacachi River which we were only allowed to cross by using a “bridge”. The bridges were more like something out of an Indian Jones movie and we were required to wear our climbing harness and clip into a safety line as we crossed while stepping over large holes and rotting boards with the river roaring below. It was on this trek that we (along with 45 other teams) received a 4 hour penalty for eventually leaving the trail and using a road to travel to TA3. There was some discrepancy in the rule book and we did not interpret the rule as they had intended us to. At this point, the rain had returned and although we were quite hot and did not feel the need to put on our rain jackets, the temperature quickly plummeted and we found ourselves freezing cold and had to put on all of the clothing we were carrying. We arrived at the TA just before sunrise and decided to use 1 of our required 8 hours of ‘rest time’ to get warm and get ready for the next bike leg.

The next leg was a mountain bike ride of 144 km that started off with a ‘warm-up’ climb of 800m and had several more climbs after that as we crossed the Andes once again. The ride started off very cold despite the fact that we were climbing and of course got even colder on the descents. We crossed paths with Team Moviestar and rode alongside them for a bit until we chose a slightly different route and parted ways. Eventually we ran into them again in the middle of the ride and then one more time at the end of the ride and came into the TA just a few minutes behind them. On this ride we were required to take pictures of ourselves at 3 different checkpoints to prove we were there, including when we crossed the Equator!! We came into the TA just before 10 pm and decided to use 2 more hours of our required rest time and actually try and sleep as we were now entering night #2 and had not slept yet.

We popped up after our short rest and headed out for a 45 km trek around midnight. This trek seemed pretty straight forward: big climb, big descent. We were told we were in 3rd place when we reached the first checkpoint on this section. Once again the rain began to fall as we looked for a trail that would take us up an 1800 meter climb to the mountain top. Somehow we ended up on the wrong trail and climbed for quite a while before we realized our mistake and were actually heading back towards the TA!!! Oops. 5 ½ hours later…..we basically restarted the trek. But, this is adventure racing and mistakes happen and we still had a lot of race left so we buried our frustration and pushed on. We eventually ran into Team Raidlight and learned that we were now back in 7th place. It was a long push to the top and our views were obscured by the clouds that we were engulfed in but eventually we made it to the check point at the top and were eager to begin the long 1900 meter decent by way of an ancient smugglers route which was used long ago in the time of prohibition. It was a pretty fun descent at first as we essentially were bombing downhill through a muddy, narrow tunnel cut into the rock but eventually the novelty of it wore off and we just wanted to get down to the bottom which seemed to never come. Once again the rain and darkness began to fall as we pressed on to finish up the trek. We arrived at the TA which was an old church and a great place for us to ‘serve’ our 4 hour penalty from earlier. We prepared our bikes for the next leg, ate some hot soup, rice, and potatoes provided by a local woman and laid down for a 3 hour ‘nap’ with statues of Jesus watching over us.

By 11 pm we were out the door and off for a 159km mountain bike ride. We were only about 10km out of the TA when the rain once again began to fall and did not stop for several hours. At least this time, we were actually quite warm in the muggy jungle like landscape and found the rain more annoying than anything else. Kyle broke his chain which took several minutes to fix in the wet conditions but we were back on our bikes in no time singing songs about rain and hoping for it to eventually stop. The entire ride we were on dirt roads, passing through several small communities but the navigation was incredibly tricky and Rob did an amazing job getting us through the maze of unmapped roads. We arrived at the ropes course and were pleased to find out that we had passed Team Adidas at some point and were now in 5th place. We quickly put on our climbing gear and left our packs and bikes while we did a short loop ropes course. It began with a jump from a small cliff down into the river, a short swim to the opposite side (which I proved once again that my ‘swim’ skills are lacking and eventually made it across), then a zip line crossing the river once again followed by what they referred to as ‘Tarzan’ which was more like a high wire circus act across a cable with vertical ropes hanging down to help provide balance. After we completed the ropes course, we were back on our bikes and onto the muddy roads that would eventually lead us into TA6.

It was now 2:30 pm and the next section was a whitewater kayak which had a dark zone. A dark zone is a time period when we are not allowed to be on the river due to unsafe paddling conditions in the dark. We were not allowed to be on the river from 6:30 pm until 5:30 am. We had a 10k trek just to get to the river and knew that even if we quickly transitioned and ran down to the river, we would only be able to paddle for about 1 ½ hours before we would have to get off the river and camp for the night. We were told if we did camp along the river, it was highly recommended to sleep inside a tent due to the snakes. Yuck. Unfortunately both Seagate and Columbia were able to get on the river and complete the paddle before the dark zone which pretty much made it impossible to catch them. We knew Team France and Moviestar had started the paddle but it was unclear if they were going to make if off before the dark zone. We decided it made far more sense to use up 3 more hours of our mandatory rest time in the TA, get a good snake free sleep all night and then get up early and walk the 10k down to the river to be ready to paddle at 5:30 am and hopefully push hard to the end of the race after having so much rest time and maybe catch a few teams along the way. So after the world’s longest transition which involved taking a shower, eating warm food, washing our bikes, getting ourselves organized for the remaining sections of the race and eventually paying a local man $5 to sleep on the floor of the upstairs of an empty house we settled down for a big sleep. By 3 am we were heading down to the river feeling rested and recovered and ready to get back into the race. We would be joined by several teams who had come into the TA throughout the night.

At the start of the paddle we were required to listen to a 10 minute safety briefing, which was a first for us in a race. The water safety volunteer was very serious and put us a bit on edge as he started off with “It’s not a question of if you will swim, it’s a question of when”….. I even got scolded for brushing my teeth during his talk. “Brush your teeth later, you must listen now….” (Yes, Mr. Safety, sir) The 70 km paddle started off rather calm but quickly changed as we merged with another river. Then the excitement began. The first rapid was more of a waterfall and as we were all thrown from our boats the question of if vs when we would be swimming, was quickly answered. Rob and I managed to maneuver the remaining gigantic wave trains pretty well and only ended up out of our boat one other time. Kyle and Jason did not have the same kind of luck and ended up swimming 6 more rapids. 6 ½ hours later we were happy to be on the shore at the take out with 4 unbroken paddles and all of our gear. We quickly carried our boats to the TA and transitioned to our bikes. We knew several teams would be coming off the river and chasing us down including Adidas who entered the TA just minutes after us.

Once again we were back on our bikes for the final 42 km bike leg. It was 12:30pm now and the sun was HOT HOT HOT. For the first time I think I was actually hoping for some rain. We left the TA with a police escort on a motorbike. We found out later that it wasn’t for our safety it was purely because the local police wanted to escort us. Too bad they didn’t play us some music while they were noisily riding alongside us. It was this section that Jason finally felt the wrath of an expedition race. This was only his 2nd expedition race ever and you would never have known it as he was super strong both mentally and physically the entire race. His legs were not willing to work with him and Kyle and I took turns towing him up the never ending short steep rolling hills. It was amazing that he never asked to walk or take a break, he just pushed on and accepted the tow line as we all worked together to finish the ride and get him to the TA.

TA8 was a mandatory rest stop and we spent our remaining 2 hours of required rest here before heading out for one last push on our feet. We were happy to pack up our bikes for the last time and prepared for what would be a grueling trek throughout the night. When the timer clicked exactly 2 hours we were off for the 40 km trek and headed out only 20 minutes ahead of Adidas and 1 hour ahead of Raidlight. In this section we were required to actually use a GPS which is normally forbidden in adventure racing. In this case, it was required as the route we needed was not on any map and would be virtually impossible w/o the use of a GPS. The route began pretty much uneventful as we jogged along the dirt the roads and the sun set once again. But as always, all good things never last and eventually the road became a rutted muddy mess. We all took turns leading and following each other’s footsteps but somehow I did not step where Kyle had stepped and slipped backwards into what seemed to be a mud trap. I quickly sank up to my knees and both feet were locked in tight and I was unable to move. At first it was a bit comical as I told the guys I was stuck, but then it quickly became frustrating as I seriously could not move. Both Jason and Rob came over to my side and while standing on firm ground tried to pull me out. I did not even budge other than my shoulder slightly coming out of socket. I tossed my pack over to them to get rid of the extra weight and continued my battle with the mud. Nothing. To add to my annoyance, Team Adidas walked right on by us. They respectfully did not laugh at me as they trudged on by, but I’m sure they had a good snicker once they were out of earshot. I started to picture myself like the dinosaurs, stuck in the mud and left for dead. Years from now people would find me standing upright, dressed in Tecnu race kit, a dead headlamp on my head, and a look of frustration on my face with a half-eaten pop tart in my hand. Argh! The guys started finding me sticks and logs and threw them at me, careful to not get sucked into the pit of death as well. I was finally able to build a sort of bridge to get my weight on and got one foot out. I had to dig to find my other foot leaving my shoe behind as I finally freed myself. After I dug my shoe out, rinsed my hands off in a muddy puddle and put my shoe back on, we were finally once again moving with Raidlight’s headlamps growing closer and me covered in mud and still in disbelief about what had just happened.

As we went deeper and further into the jungle, the ‘trail’ got harder to follow and the GPS was difficult to use. We kept running into Raidlight as we picked our way through the mud and kept losing the correct trail. Eventually the sun rose as we hit our last high point of the race course and we began the decent down to the coast sticking with the theme of MUD. We had one last ‘treat’ to get through before reaching the final TA. An incredibly brown river with many ‘things’ floating in it stood between us and the TA. The tide had come in, so what would normally be most likely a waist to chest deep river cross was now a swim. It actually made me a bit angry. It’s not like it was a pristine river that you wanted to cross since you were covered in mud up to your ears. It was a disgusting river in which cows were literally standing on the opposite shoreline crapping into it. Awesome. But Kyle went for it and after watching him only need to swim for 20 meters or so before he could stand up and walk a bit before swimming the remaining 20 meters, it really wasn’t that terrible. Although I will say that I was happy it was the end of the trek as our water bottles and bladder hoses were in contact with that water and we luckily did not need to use them anymore. Into the Final TA!!

At 10 am we were back in our kayaks and onto the last and final leg, a 60 km paddle. This time Rob and Kyle paddled together and we hooked our 2nd boat onto the back with Jason and I paddling it. This worked great as it kept us in their draft and more importantly together. It was going to be a long monotonous paddle as we would have to stay focused and fight off the sleep monsters and fatigue. We knew Adidas was just over an hour in front of us and Raidlight was about 30 minutes. There was still enough race left that we could catch at least one of them but were hungry to catch them both. As we were approaching the first checkpoint on the water, we saw Adidas with Raidlight not far behind leaving the CP.

Finally, we had visual contact and it woke us up. But the waves started to pick up and it wasn’t long before we couldn’t see either team anymore. It’s hard to tell if they were hugging the shoreline or if the small waves hid the boats which sit very low in the water. It wasn’t till we were approaching the last 15k of the paddle when we saw Raidlight!!!! We dug deep and paddled hard and slowly closed the gap as we both entered the mangrove canal. As we passed them we saw that one of their teammates was using a broken paddle (probably a casualty from the whitewater section) which was actually quite impressive that he was paddling as well as he was. We pushed on and saw Adidas just up ahead. We could taste 5th place and were not about to give up now. The tide was low and every once in a while we had to jump out and drag the boats over sandbars. Kyle and Rob were so quick getting in and out of the boat I’m almost positive Jason and I could have remained in the boat and they would have just dragged us over the sandbar. We had been warned earlier by the race director that there were stingrays in the shallow water, but we had no time to worry about them. As we rounded the last corner, we did not see Adidas anymore. Hmmmmm. We hit the boat ramp and I noticed that the ground was dry = Adidas had not come in yet.

When we dropped our boats and checked in, we were told we were in 5th!! Adidas must have taken a wrong turn in the maze of canals or gotten stuck in the low tide. It was time to finish this. We were allowed to leave the boats but we had to carry all of our paddle gear the remaining 4k to the end. So we quickly gathered up seats, paddles, pfds, water bottles and backpacks and took off at a full throttle. It felt great to actually be running. Aside from all of the crap we had to carry, we were putting the hammer down. There would be no walking to the finish line. We had finally secured 5th place after battling back and forth for 5 ½ days and we were not about to lose it again. As we ran onto the beach just outside of Mompiche we could see people everywhere. Music was cranking from a nearby bar and I’m not even sure if the people standing around were race related or just locals hanging out on a Friday night. As we got closer we noticed a group of 4 racers just ahead of us. WHAT???? How in the hell did Adidas do that??? We dug even deeper , yelling at each other to pick it up and we did. Now we were a full on freight train closing the gap and it wasn’t till we were blowing by the team in front of us when we recognized Mimi from Team France. It was NOT Adidas.

We were now in 4th! We had no idea where we were going as there were people everywhere. Some guy with a Go Pro camera yelled at us to follow him and we did. We were winding down small side streets and I was starting to wonder if this guy was totally screwing with us when I saw the ‘Explorer’ race banners. We were there. We did it. We crossed the line in 4th place and a bit in disbelief. It’s not that I doubted the capability of our team, it was the fact that no expedition races EVER end in an all out sprint battle to the finish. We crossed the line, Team France crossed 2 minutes later, Adidas – 7 minutes after that, and Raidlight – 6 minutes after that. Amazing.

A HUGE thanks go out to:

Our friends and family who were online and tracking us from start to finish, sending us shout outs, prayers, and good mojo. I think some of you slept about as much as we did.

Our sponsors: Tecnu, Adventure Medical Kits, and SOL for supporting us with product and funding to get us to Ecuador. Champion Systems race kit and Headsweats – Even when we were wet, muddy, and smelled disgusting, we still looked good. Leki trekking poles were bomber and helped us survive heavy packs, long uphills, and lots of mud. Julbo Sunglasses kept the mud out of our eyes and when it wasn’t raining…..the sun out of our eyes. Darn Tough Socks – no foot problems despite having wet feet for literally 5 ½ days. Skins Compression Wear – Calf sleeves and tights kept up going strong during the race and recovery socks for after. Out There packs – kept all of our essentials handy and all of our gear safely stowed. Light and Motion headlamps – lit up the jungle while trekking and lit up the roads while riding.

Team Adidas of the UK and Team Raidlight of France for being fierce competitors, having great attitudes, and battling it out with us until the end!

My teammates: Kyle, Rob, and Jason – always pushing hard , never giving up, and still smiling, singing, laughing and having a great time no matter what %^#@ we were in.

Bernardo Rampon – our Ecuadorian friend who was an amazing tour guide before and after the race. And helped us post race when all we wanted to do was sleep and eat.

Doug Judson – our Team Manager who got us to the starting line with everything we could possibly need to be ready to go and kept our fans up to date with everything happening during the race despite being miles away.

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