Team Around the Bend are competing in Expedition Oregon 2019 and freely admit to being novices in a very technical race. Unusually for an adventure racing team they are made up of three women and one man - Sandra Uesugi, captain Megi Morishita, youngest member Libby Hayden, celebrating her 30th birthday at the time of the race, and Matt Crawford. Team Around the Bend may be new to expedition-length races, but they bring a whole host of skills and considerable experience of the backwoods. And they’re funny, too.
As the name suggests, Expedition Oregon is an expedition-length adventure race staged in the US state of Oregon. Raced by mixed teams of four (with a couple of pairs and a trio), teams can expect to cover some 400km over a maximum 4 ½ days, including pack-rafting and paddling, single track mountain biking and trekking with demanding navigation. EO 2019 is the second edition, and it is a qualifying race in the Adventure Race World Series.
First a bit of Form
Megi Morishita: Bend born-and-raised, LIBBY is our youngest teammate. She will turn 30 just before the race and this is her celebration! She coaches Nordic and back-country/telemark skiing and she rock climbs. She runs for fitness, and, being 29, will kick my butt and be our mule.
We all have a weak leg, and Libby is the first to say white water scares her. I asked what she was going to do if we flipped the packraft and swam and she replied: “I will be terrified, and then it will be over. And I will move on.” So, we went to the white water park to practice. Libby psyched herself up - she’s usually the one reassuring me, when I’m half way up a mountain or not feeling solid on two slippery sticks – and we practiced bow draws and low braces, how to read water, swimming safely a rapid, and then caught eddies and peeled out into the current over and over… Eventually she turned to me and said, “You realize I’ve been down this easy channel in an inner tube, right? The reason I was psyched up was because I thought we were going down the expert channel…!”
Well, game on!!!! We walked the boats up to the top of the big run, looked at each other and the wave holes in the “expert-only” channel... Libby totally trusted me and was completely ready. We lined up to make the move around the first big hole… and flew through all the waves, flashing past a group of surfers playing in the second big hole. Next day, she hopped in an inflatable kayak and successfully ran Big Eddy – a large class III rapid outside of Bend.
SANDRA and I met kayaking 14 years ago. Although her main sport is really mountain biking, she is an avid rafter and has rowed the Grand Canyon three times. She is also a Masters swimmer, who has organized SwimTrek trips for us, where we swim from island to island in Greece, Croatia, Turkey, Baja, etc. She has helped guide mountain biking events in Oakridge and raced in the High Cascades 100. With her second love of healthy food and nutrition and her background as a nurse, she enjoys cooking for the entire event.
Her weak point? Sandra states that she would much prefer to walk around all the climbing and rappelling legs on EO. Concerned about her fear, we went to the climbing gym… where she scrambled straight up some 5.8 climbs, without even flinching. Definitely better to have teammates who under-sell rather than over-sell themselves!
MATT loves skiing. Despite working a full time job, he always finds time to backcountry ski and skate ski. He is an experienced climber, mountaineer, and alpinist. A paramedic by training, he has always been drawn to the rescue aspect of his technical skills and he volunteers with mountain rescue units across the state.
Matt would say that white water is his weak leg, though he is qualified (a while back, now) and he can paddle and read water quite well, on top of his swiftwater rescue technician training as a fireman, that is. We became friends when I posted that I wanted to put together a group for a Grand Canyon trip and he replied: “Yes please.” In less than a year of hanging out, he has rowed my raft down class IV rapids on the Lochsa, paddled an inflatable kayak down the class IV Canyon section of the SF Payette, and jumps at any chance to get on a river trip.
Like my two renaissance women friends above, Matt also seems to enjoy, and be talented at, every activity – alpine skiing, Nordic skiing, rafting, kayaking, mountain biking, road cycling, climbing, running… And adventure racing!
MEGI herself: which leaves me. I have gone from being the youngest member of a LaPine race team (a four-person team, November 2018), to the oldest member of Around the Bend for Expedition Oregon. My main sport is white water kayaking, though I didn’t start until I was about Libby’s age, and now haven’t really paddled much in the last few years. But I will always be a kayaker at heart. Bring on some white water! I have successfully recruited three amazing teammates, not just solid as outdoors athletes, but also in their mental strength and attitudes. All three are the type of friends who will be my mule when I’m feeling weak, make me laugh when I want to cry, and make me work harder when I’m ready to give up.
Getting the team together
Getting this far has been quite a challenge… If it had been down to just me, I would have bailed and forfeited my $1000 registration fee, but Libby jumped on board and was confident that we could do this no matter what happened. She didn’t care if our strategy was to skip every pro-point, though she would really like to do the lead climbing leg, even if we do nothing else. We met through work at the local Search And Rescue: when she heard me talking about the Adventure Race, she simply turned, pulled out a check, and handed it to me. Then we had to find the rest of a team…
I thought… I thought… considering our group of friends here in Bend, that we would have people literally falling at our feet WANTING to be on our team! As it turns out, people don’t really think being miserable for five days and nights sounds like fun! AND, they definitely don’t want to pay $1000 for the pleasure. LOL. And to think, Jason and Chelsea, the race directors and long-time professional adventure racers with Bend Racing, said they moved to Bend specifically because it was an entire town of people who could and would do adventure races!
We asked all our friends in Search and Rescue…. No go. I taught OB Emergencies to the Bend Fire Department and spent the week meeting 10-15 firemen/paramedics at each of six sessions. Surely one of must sign up... Several said it sounded great, but with such short notice and to spend five gruelling days/nights with people they didn’t know well… No thanks.
Lots of friends were interested and thought it sounded amazing, but… they couldn’t take the time off of work, or didn’t have the money, or didn’t feel like they could train. And some some just thought we were plain crazy. A couple even committed 100%, but then bailed later. At one point we thought we had a team of four and even a fifth alternate, but even as late as mid-March, with little more than a month before the race, we were back down to just two of us!
Libby and I had a heart-to-heart. It felt good to hear her say the two of us could just do it ourselves... But then we agreed that wasn’t optimal, and that there might be some raised eyebrows, if two women, both new to the sport, registered to do this very technical race as a team of two…
I went through my kayaking friends… but they’re in their forties, married with kids, busy with careers, moved far away, nobody actually kayaks anymore, half of us are injured... and then I remembered Sandra: she kayaks and bikes and swims and runs and would make a great teammate. I texted her, and she texted back really interested. She read the website, asked for one night to think about it, and sent me her registration money!
By now we were well past the time to fill out the team registration form and pay the balance, but at least we had three solid women, so I filled out the form. For our fourth team member, I literally entered first name: “Token”, last name: “Boy” and attached photos of all the guys who had expressed interest, hoping nobody would notice. I laughed that the guys always said it was hard for them to find a “token girl” to join their team. Now I needed to find our “token boy”. At this point, I would have taken a male or female teammate - it would have been sort of awesome to show up with four solid women - but with a fourth female teammate we wouldn’t have been co-ed. And we might have felt a lot of pressure to prove ourselves then…
Fortunately Matt, who actually did a short adventure race at Smith Rock a few years back, was prepared to join the team. He said ‘No’ multiple times (work schedule, cost, training…), but made the mistake of saying that IF someone bailed last minute AND my fifth alternate teammate couldn’t do it, THEN, and ONLY then, would he help us out. And here we were, just weeks before the race, without a fourth teammate. Matt finally acquiesced. Secretly he wanted to do the race the entire time, of course.
When I told him I wasn’t able to edit the registration form, he said he was fine with being called “Token”. Straight from South Park, and I didn’t even know it!
Why Expedition Oregon? Why now?
Together with Chris, my original partner-in-crime - who had to bail for family reasons – I had so much fun in our first adventure race in 2018 that we planned on doing all the shorter races last year. We looked up the 5-hour Brain Freeze in March and 6-hour Spring Sting in April, both hosted here locally, and we thought that we might even be ready to try a 24-hour race later in the year…
Then, that December, we learned that Bend was hosting the first-ever Adventure Racing World Series event. While I hadn’t planned on jumping from a 6-hour race to a 5-day race, it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. We could participate in a World Series race with a little home-field advantage, knowing the terrain and climate around here, not having to buy plane tickets or ship bikes or book hotel rooms, and we had an endless supply of local friends who would be great for the team. So Chris and I decided to register even though we didn’t have a team yet, and had come in last place on our one-and-only 6-hour adventure race!
Why now? Well, we’re not getting any younger! I spent decades working well over 100 hours a week but realized there was so much more I wanted to do during my lifetime. My father had a heart attack and stroke the year after he retired and wasn’t able to ski and play golf as he had planned and my department chair in residency also blew his knee before retiring so there was no more skiing for him. As a medical student I went to India to volunteer nearly 25 years ago, and I remember someone saying “Americans live to work. In India, we work to live.” Time for a change…
The physical side
We all work, and none of us really hung out together before becoming a team and anyway Sandra lives on the other side of the Cascade mountains in the Valley, but we have gotten together as much as we can - in various combinations of current teammates and past potential teammates - just generally making sure to get outside.
Biking has been hard this year because of the crazy snowpack east of the Cascades, though Sandra has been riding all winter west of the mountains, where they don’t get snow. Libby, Matt, and I have been skiing: Libby and I did an overnight and skinned 9 hours into the mountains to practice putting up our shelters in the cold and dark, cooking a quick meal, lying down in zero degree temps for a couple of hours, and breaking camp in the dark before pushing forward for another 9 hours the next day. My feet still haven’t really recovered. I’ve always known that my feet and my difficulty sleeping were the two things I needed to be attentive to during the race, and that definitely was the case in our overnight training.
Libby made tracks for the entire 18 hours of skinning. On a separate ski trip when I was mentally and physically exhausted from tumbling down Tumalo bowl, Matt had me giggling all the way back up for a second easier lap down the other side. Sandra dragged me out on a mountain bike ride to trial our packs and helmets and to test when and how much to eat before a big uphill climb.
Planning and Strategies
As for roles, Libby is a silent performer. She is excited to lead climb and would also like to do some of the navigating. Matt has a lot of navigation experience – we believe that his being a calm and calculated person can help us go further than we would otherwise. I really love maps and learning navigation though I haven’t had to use it much - when kayaking a river we tend to just follow the flow!.
We know we will be moving slower than other teams, and at the same time, we think we will need more sleep. So, our strategy will be to skip points to keep up, and to carry sleeping gear we will need if we camp out. Which will weigh us down of course, so we’ll have to play it by ear once we learn the distances and get the maps. It’s very exciting!
Sandra will be feeding all of us. She loves this stuff, which is great, because if it were left to me we’d eat just jerky, dried mangoes, and Pringles! A friend of ours owns Food for the Sole, a new locally-made dehydrated meal brand, which can provide tasty meals with hot or cold water, so we’ll be having kale and quinoa and sweet potatoes with Asian slaw.
What will be the most challenging aspect event?
We all are athletic, outdoorsy, and have good mental endurance. We’ve all done long trips in the wilderness before… However, we’re not endurance athletes, so I think we all agree that fitness and training are a concern, not to mention five days of gruelling physical exertion without adequate sleep. Hey, you need more sleep as you get older! It’s also complicated coordinating a team when one person is exhausted and wants to sleep, while another isn’t tired at all and won’t be able to sleep at that moment anyway. I think we’re all good team players and good at looking out for others, but maintaining that when you’re exhausted and in pain is a different game. Feet, sleep, cold…
I hope none of us get an injury and have to quit, and that’s not that improbable considering our age and level of training. Just to mention my injuries - I have a sprained ankle from 2 years ago that nags in snowshoes, tendonitis from climbing, lower back injury from carrying a heavy pack up Misery Ridge at Smith Rock a year ago, foot pain from 18 hours in ski boots….
Pushing ourselves to our limit while being able to recognize our limits will be challenging, especially because it’s about your whole team not just yourself. But that’s what makes it amazing as well.
What are your general expectations?
I think you get the character of our team. We don’t want to take ourselves or the race too seriously, while, at the same time, we want to take it very seriously. This is a big physical and mental challenge for anyone and we have each had plenty of moments when we wonder if we should have committed, in fact whether we ought to be doing this sort of thing at all. That’s why my favorite expression has become “This will be more of an adventure than a race!”
As we mentioned above, we know that we are the runt in this race. When the race director suggested you interview Emily - captain of Quest AR, one of the most established teams and the near winner of EO last year – alongside us - the newest and greenest team on the roster - Matt said: “They want to interview the team that might win the race, and the team that probably won’t finish!” I think we all have a good attitude and realistic expectations.
We aren’t trying to win, and because we won’t be able to keep up with the professional teams we plan on skipping all the pro points, and strategically we will probably skip some mandatory points as well, what we need to do just for the joy of being able to continue racing until the end. We’re hoping this will be fun, though we also know that it will mostly be “Type III” fun. We think we will be winning if you catch us smiling after the race has ended.
What does success look like?
We would love to “finish”, though “finish” for us just means racing until the last day and, hopefully, crossing the finish line. Even if the race directors deem that we must skip a leg to keep up with the others, if we are still in the race until the end, and still friends, and talking to each other, and able to smile through the pain and cheer the other racers on, I think then we will all feel accomplished and proud of each other, and consider ourselves winners!
In fact I feel like registering a success already – I’ve trained more in the last four months than I would have otherwise, and I’m hanging out with similar-minded friends and enjoying life more because of the upcoming race. Even if something happened and the race didn’t happen, it has already been a success in my mind!