Racing down a steep decline toward the Gauley River of West Virginia, she clasped her hands tightly around the handlebars of her mountain bike. In a mere two miles she would exchange two wheels for the paddles of a kayak.
Suddenly, the gravel and mud gave way underneath her front tire. As the tire spun wildly, she lost control and couldn’t stop the fall that followed.
“We were just charging down this hill really fast. I came down pretty hard, and the fall definitely shocked me,” said Capt. Melissa Day, the personnel flight commander with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. “There was no stand-by in our team; we relied on each other to make it through injury-free.”
Day’s teammate checked her injuries and made sure she was able to go on. Blood ran down her leg and mixed with the mud that was caking against her skin as she proceeded down the hill, despite the stinging pain. She knew she could not let her team down, so after a short pit stop, she continued the frantic race against the clock.
Day was one of more than 160 service members who gathered in the Appalachian Mountains near Oak Hill, W.Va., recently to accept the 12th annual Wilderness Challenge.
“These are the people who want to be out here and want to camp, hike and bike,” said Michael Bond, the director of Morale, Welfare and Recreation at the Naval Weapons Station in Norfolk, Va. “They want to smell the nature, and, when you throw in the other branches, they also have that competitive edge.”
Sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic Region MWR department, the event tested 40 four-person teams in adventure racing’s core disciplines of trail running, biking and paddling.
The first day began with an 8-kilometer run, followed by 14 miles of whitewater rafting on the Gauley River, which is considered the second most difficult river in the nation to raft.
“The water temperature was a little shocking,” Day said with a smile. “The anticipation of the cold was the worst, though.”
On the second day, competitors started at sunrise with a 12-mile bike ride to the New River, where teams quickly changed into wetsuits and life-vests to begin a 7-mile inflated kayak ride through class I and class III rapids. After a short rest, the participants faced their final challenge – a steep, uphill 14-mile hike that took them through mountainous terrain.
“While you were in the water it wasn’t that bad, but the minute the air hit you it was very cold,” Day recalled.
Meanwhile, the clock ticked on, and the team that logged the shortest time, while completing all events together, won the challenge. The event stages are designed to test the athletes physically and mentally, Bond said, and competition to be the fastest finisher is fierce.
“I’ve done marathons and half marathons and I swam in high school,” said Day, who was a member of one of three Air Force teams. “I love opportunities to jump into something extreme or go outside my comfort zone, so this was a great chance to take it to the next level.”
The all-military competition attracted a wild mix of serious athletes and a rowdy bunch of adventure seekers. Clad in various costumes ranging from superhero characters to ragged renegades in colorful wigs, they tried to intimidate, or amuse, their competitors on the trails.
Despite its humble beginning as a fun outing, the event has quickly moved to competitive territory, Bond said. The U.S. Adventure Racing Association recently endorsed the race, granting the winning team members automatic access to the USARA National Championship.
“A lot of people are very competitive and want to win,” Bond said. “But that’s not what it’s all about. A lot of teams have learned that it’s a personal challenge, and racing a total of 52 miles over two days is rough.“
There have only been two times when all teams in the competition completed the race, said Bond, who organized the first event 12 years ago. This year was not one of them. Among the injuries this year were a broken cheek needing stitches and a fractured wrist.
“They left a lot of blood and sweat, but no tears here on the trails of West Virginia,” Bond said. “There is no whining, crying or complaining. That’s how (service members) are. They are tough as nails.”
Although Air Force teams have won the Wilderness Challenge in the past, Day’s team finished 16th after 9 hours, 29 minutes and 18 seconds; followed about thirty minutes later by “Toughen Up Buttercup,” a team from the 70th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing at Fort George G. Meade, Md., placing 21st.
The winners of this year’s challenge was “Trample the Weak, Hurdle the Dead,” a Navy team from the East Coast, which completed all events in a record time of 7 hours, 11 minutes, 34 seconds.
But race results were secondary, said Day. What makes the Wilderness Challenge unique, separating it from more traditional adventure races, is the military family and the teamwork required to make it through.
“I’m really proud of our team,” she said. “They pushed me, stayed with me the entire time and no matter where we are in the standings, just the fact that we were there for each other matters most.”
As the teams arrived at the finish, arms lifted in triumph, exhaustion yielded smiles. With every arriving team, athletes turned into spectators and cheers roared over the hills until even the last finisher held a well-deserved challenge coin in his hand.
“What a lot of people don’t see is that all the branches help each other,” Bond said. “Even if there is inter-branch competition, when push comes to shove, there are no questions asked and everybody helps each other. They are one.”
This type of help also benefited Day at the crucial point between giving up and continuing the race. A Navy corpsman from a competing team quickly assured her that she was going to be OK, helping her to work through the pain.
“That’s all I needed,” Day said. “It wasn’t bad enough that I wanted to give up, and I’m glad we pushed through and made it.”
After fighting her way through the forest, over slick rocks and streams, Day said persevering paid off with a feeling of achievement.
“Finishing the race was intense, but we lived to tell about it, and I can’t wait to get home and tell our story.”