Military personnel compete in day one of the Wilderness Challenge, October 6, 2006, near Fayetteville, WV. (M. Scott Mahaskey / Staff)
Military personnel compete in the biking leg of day two of the Wilderness Challenge, October 7, 2006, near Fayetteville, WV. (M. Scott Mahaskey / Staff)
FAYETTEVILLE, W.Va. — The road to glory begins at a scuffed-out starting line on a hard-packed dirt road high above the roar of the rushing Gauley River, so far back in the woods you almost expect to run headlong into a gingerbread house or the big, bad wolf.
Dozens of four-person military teams, each with at least one woman, prepare for the first steps of what will be a very long — yet very speedy, all things considered — journey through hell. The cold October air clouds breath and stiffens muscles. The next hour will not be easy.
"They'll be tired soon," says Mike Bond, the evil genius who brought them all here. "This trail is no joke."
But then, if it were easy, it wouldn't be the Wilderness Challenge, an annual back-country battle pitting service against service and humans against nature. More than a marathon, more than a triathlon, the event — this year held Oct. 5-7 — covers 53 miles in two days across hiking trails, biking trails and whitewater rapids in some of the wildest terrain the rugged mountains of West Virginia can provide.
Bond and his cohorts from the Navy's Mid-Atlantic Region Morale, Welfare and Recreation Department create the course each year, refining and tweaking it to keep the event fresh. Some things never change, like the inflatable kayak and whitewater rafting races down the Gauley, because there's no need to mess with a river consistently ranked as one of the toughest in the world.
But the distances and trails for the other events — mountain run, mountain bike course, mountain hike, mountain, mountain, mountain — change each year.
"We try to give them a fun event," said Bond, who produced the first challenge in 2000 and has been packing teams in since. "Some of them come to win. A lot of them just come to compete."
Petty Officer 3rd Class John Knight came to win. A Coast Guard rescue swimmer from Air Station Atlantic City, N.J., the 26-year-old hit a snag early on the mountain bike course and was forced to ride for 13 of 14 miles with no seat.
"It kinda came undone," he said, in what may have been the understatement of the day, pulling the busted remains from his backpack just moments after he and his team finished the 14-mile ride with a time of 1:46, only 20 minutes slower than the day's fastest team. "I tightened it, then it just fell off."
Duckie Fuzz dominates
Such calamities can spell the difference between winning and losing the Wilderness Challenge. In the end, this year's contest came down to just 15 precious minutes.
"Team Duckie Fuzz and The Masters of Rubber," a Coast Guard squad from Maritime Safety and Security Team Seattle, kept a tight grip on its first day lead, posting a first-place finish time of 7 hours, 46 minutes, 20 seconds for the 53-mile course. That was only 15 minutes faster than "Team NMITC," a group of three Marines and a sailor from the Navy-Marine Corps Intelligence Training Center in Virginia Beach, Va., which finished in 8:01:24.
Coming in third was "Trample the Weak, Hurdle the Dead," a Navy team from Fort Meade, Md., which finished more than 16 minutes behind the winners with a time of 8:02:33.
It was the first win in three attempts for this Coast Guard team, accustomed to being overlooked and underestimated as a military asset due to their small size and association with the Department of Homeland Security instead of the Defense Department.
"We're military, we're just not DoD," said Coast Guard Lt. Kim Anderson, 38, team captain for Duckie Fuzz. "But the significant part is, every year we come here and the Marines win it or the Air Force win it. And we said, ‘You know what, third time's the charm for us.'"
The Marines seemed on track to win it again after the first event, a monster 8K mountain run that was more up than down. Team NMITC set a lightning pace, finishing the five-mile course in just more than 35 minutes, putting in seven-minute miles across seriously uneven terrain. Trample the Weak lived up to its name, finishing the first event in second place at 37:34.
But the raging rapids of the Gauley and New rivers were challenges the Coast Guard team navigated with ease, beating all comers on the open-river swim, whitewater rafting and inflatable kayak races. Duckie Fuzz stretched its lead out further by blazing through the treacherous, 14-mile mountain bike race in less than 72 minutes, again besting the other 50 teams.
Though five teams outpaced them on the course's final — and most demanding — event, a 14-mile endurance hike across the New River Gorge, Duckie Fuzz was one of only 10 teams to finish it in less than three hours, a pace more than fast enough to hold on to the top spot.
For pride only
One Air Force team, "Birds of Prey," turned in an impressive performance despite being disqualified after team member Staff Sgt. Tabitha Mohr, 25, injured a quadriceps muscle during the 8K mountain run. The team refused to give up, and the men carried the 100-pound meteorologist from Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., on their backs for 3½ miles and still logged a blazing time of just under 42 minutes.
"I'd already kind of strained my quad during training, because I had a month to train," said Mohr, who filled in at the last minute after the team's original female member couldn't compete. "When we started going uphill, I pretty much tore my quad completely on the first event."
Mohr tried to stick it out, finishing the first day and helping her team to a seventh-place spot going into day two. She even gutted through the cycling event, hoping to make it through.
"I'm stubborn," she said. "I'm very stubborn. I don't quit very easily. I talked to my team and I'm like, ‘Guys, I'm going to do the bike.'"
Her leg was in no shape for the exhausting hike, though, so the team had to grudgingly accept the disqualification. The men proved they came to compete, however, tackling the hike for pride only and finishing the course in a swift 2:42:51.
And, ultimately, just finishing is saying something.
"This is an incredible race and it's a hard race, and [it's good] that you finish," said Anderson, the Duckie Fuzz captain. "You don't need to win. You don't need to come in first, second or third. You need to finish.
"Because, if you finish, that's something to be proud of. That's 53 miles in two days, and it's grueling."