Words by Marissa Krawczak
Photos by Jerry Galmez, Jason Cornell, and Iona

“Hey, I heard you liked sufferfests…” was the phrase that came out of my neighbors’ mouth when I picked up the phone last summer. I laughed, it was Austin Smith, pro snowboarder, and multi-sport dabbler. He continued, explaining he needed a teammate, specifically a female teammate, to be the fourth person on an Adventure Race team alongside his brother Lebn Schuyler and long-time friend Alex Pashley. It was explained to me as an adult scavenger hunt, where you would get to see parts of Oregon you do not normally get to see…and it was 500 plus kilometers (310miles). I am not sure if I do like sufferfests, but I am a yes-girl, so I bought some new Gore-Tex shoes and joined the team.

The race we entered was called “America’s Toughest Race – Expedition Oregon” and took place in May 2021 around and through the Ochoco National Forest. The race was split up into Stages and the route was set with Checkpoints that we had to navigate using a paper map and compass. Cell phones and GPS watches were left at home bringing a new, but old, level of navigation to the forefront.

The first stage was packrafting the John Day River…for 100 kilometers. After this day-long paddle, we arrived at the first Transition Area (TA) where our bike boxes were waiting. Each of us had a bike box that Austin thoughtfully decorated with our team logo, Blue Jays, that were transported for us to the next TA when we were not riding them.

We assembled our bikes, loaded calories, and took off on the pavement at sunset before turning uphill onto gravel roads into the night. After navigating these roads, we had a choice to make, go the long way on a sustained pitch; or the shorter route that followed topographic lines that were much closer together. Of course, we took the shorter way. All night we pushed our bikes uphill, through juniper cow grazing hills and into high ponderosa forests. The four-by-four road we followed was dusty and loose. My nose started bleeding in the dry dark night, the blood droplets disappearing into the dust at my feet. The hill steepened and the narrow road turned to slippery pinecone littered single cow-path.

At some point in the night, we reached the top of something and rode down, navigating and pedaling more forest roads before getting to a trail at sunrise. This was the portion the race director Jason Magnus coined ‘The best single track in the Ochocos.’ The description became laughable after about the fiftieth tree I lifted my bike over. There was no flowy riding here, this was an adventure race. We clambered up to our high checkpoint, finding patches of snow, and successfully navigated the difficult route down to the roads that would lead us to the next TA. Austin’s overinflated tire punctured, but was thankfully remedied quickly with a Dynaplug, avoiding the need for extra air. The day was hot, and it was on the seemingly never-ending, slightly uphill gravel road that I got my first real taste of sleep deprivation. We frequently stopped in sparse shade to keep from passing out mid-pedal, allowing us to suffer on up the road.

Somehow, we reached the end of the 100km plus of what was called the “Monster Bike”, packed up our bikes and moved onto trekking. This led us to more ‘paddling’ on the Middle Fork of the Crooked River – that proved to be un-floatable because of the rocks, forcing us to walk and pull the boats. Then we did more trekking in swarms of mosquitos before making it back to a TA in the cold dark desert night as well as our bike boxes.

After a frigid hour of sleep at the TA we got on our bikes again in the pitch dark. This leg was mostly grinding gravel roads for about 70 kms. Our sunrise was a beautiful cruise on freshly grated gravel along open fields in the rolling hills of the Ochoco mountains. We stopped at a bridge, snacked, and admired the stream below us before hopping back on to more uphill gravel road riding into the ponderosa forests. My Revel Ranger enduro bike proved to be the wrong choice for an adventure race and my hips seized up pedaling the never-ending hill. Luckily, our team captain, Lebn, came prepared with a retractable dog leash attached to his seat post that I could bungee around my handlebar stem and be towed behind. During an adventure race, team members can be no further than 100 meters away from each other at any time, so this was crucial to keep us rolling until I recovered. The hill eventually topped out in the afternoon, and we had a fun no-brake cruise down the forest roads and through a recent forest fire scar.

Our second flat tire happened here, with Pashley acquiring a sizable tear in his tread. Maybe it was from metal in the road as there was heavy equipment working the recent burn, but thankfully we were prepared. It is crazy to think that if we were to have a major mechanical, like a broken rim, we would be forced to walk and carry the bikes to the next TA or pull out of the race completely.

Our next stage of trekking proved to be the hottest and most challenging for us. The boys forgot food and we ran out of water, not to mention Austin’s knee that had been operated on about ten times more than a normal human was feeling the step count. We found a tiny trickle of stream in a cow pasture and slowly filled our life straw water bottles. This was a quiet moment where we really felt like we were out there. After collecting ourselves, we trekked onward, soon returning to the usual banter and storytelling, unknowingly writing our own tale of persistence.

Getting to the next TA required scaling large cliffs followed by wading across the river in complete dark. Sleep deprivation heightened to the point of full on feeling like tripping on hard drugs at this point. We were greeted on the other side of the river by a large fire the volunteers made and two of the boys’ girlfriends and dogs. It was nice to see friendly faces and it motivated us to keep on going.

It was so dark, and I was so sleep deprived, that I did not even put my chain on when I put my bike together, as I found out quickly when we got on our bikes to ride the beach for a few thousand yards so we would not have to paddle it. From there we configured our four bikes on two inflatable rafts and began paddling the length of the Prineville Reservoir. Losing the sleep battle in the black of night, we stopped shortly after we began to take a nap on the beach. It was freezing and Pashley, not putting the top of his dry suit on, toyed with the borderline of hypothermia. One of the boats started leaking and frosted over. This was all in a matter of 30 or 40 minutes. After we started moving again, the sun came up and we collected the last shoreline checkpoints.

When we reached the boat dock we assembled our bikes, which had survived the water crossing just fine, and started pedaling up steep and dusty Jeep roads in attempt to find our last checkpoint. We did get a little lost here, with all the juniper and sage land looking the same, but we eventually got it together and made it to the bike rappel.

Yes, I said bike rappel! This was a 300-foot rappel down sheer cliffs with the bike attached to our backs. I had only learned to rappel the week before with Austin and Lebn giving me a crash course on a 15-foot cliff at Meadow Camp in Bend, where I was totally scared and took 5 or so attempts to even get over the edge. Because of the exposure we were given a math challenge before roping up to test our cognitive functions. We passed so it was down the cliff we went. Mentally, I prepared for this, and I found it really fun, sliding down the blind over-vert edge, my feet kicking loose rocks down and occasionally finding a small ledge to take a breath and readjust my bike.

We were down and out with one more loose hillside ride down and we were on our last 18 mile stretch of highway back to Prineville and the finish line. This is where I almost died, at least from my entire life perspective. This scenic bike byway has no shoulder and for some reason a large truck that obviously does not like road bikers blared his horn and did not move over at all, causing me in the back of the pack to ride off the road, scared and pissed off. I cried and just wanted to get off the highway, but there was no alternative. I got back on, and we drafted each other for this final stretch. Along the way we got another flat, but mercifully made it to the finish line at the courthouse steps of Prineville, Oregon.

People cheered. We drank whiskey, ate burritos, and slept in the grass with our friends and family. I am sure we were quite entertaining to talk to, as we had only slept about 7 hours in the 101 it took us to finish the course. I never doubted us finishing, but it did feel pretty good since it was the first time that any of us had done anything like this. It was a race yes, but it was also an experience shared with some awesome people that feel now more like family than just familiar faces in the neighborhood.

For more information or to enter yourself into the next one check out