Searing heat, rattlesnake danger, miles of dusty road and heavy rains with lightning dogged Abby Broughton and Jason Popilsky on their 275-mile Cowboy Tough adventure race across Wyoming.
But they took all those challenges in stride, and finished in third place in the coed, two-person division of the grueling endurance competition.
The team, sponsored by Dick Weinbrandt and Peaked Sports, finished the race Sunday morning, July 21, after 3.5 days of biking, trekking, canoeing, orienteering, rappelling, swimming and more, said Broughton.
“It was very hot,” said Popilsky. “Dealing with the heat slowed us down a little bit.”
“There were some moments out by some of the reservoirs where it was just barren,” said Broughton, “and the sun was just beating down on us. I heard it was around 100 at least.”
The challenge was not to get overheated and stay hydrated, she said, “and have enough electrolytes in you.”
Popilsky said the pair carried as much as four liters of water each, “and even then we felt like we were short. It was hard to keep up. We were evaporating sweat, and the sun was just pulling everything out of us.”
The best method, said Broughton, was anytime they were around water they hosed down completely and wore wet handkerchiefs. Popilsky said they’d dunk their heads in the river whenever possible.
The route started at Curt Gowdy State Park between Cheyenne and Laramie, from where they did some biking checkpoints, riding into Vedauwoo, which featured “great rock formations for climbing,” Broughton said.
Popilsky said that segment was relatively short, with biking, trekking and rappelling within 20 miles. The rest of the day featured 95 miles on the mountain bike.
“It rained on us, there was lightning, but we escaped the wind, which was really lucky,” said Broughton. “It could have been so windy out there.”
The couple traveled north from Laramie and ended up at a lake outside of Medicine Bow, including another 6-7 mile trek before they were done for the day.
“Even so, we still had time to sleep about three hours that night,” she said.
The competition is based on securing as many checkpoints, both on and off route, as possible in the shortest possible time.
“We were a little too conservative the first day, as far as finding optional checkpoints,” she said, although four teams did clear the course, which was unbelievable, said Popilsky.
Broughton said single-track biking is not her strongest point, “but in retrospect we wish we could have gone for all of them, because we would have been able to clear the course.”
“We were ahead in time, but behind on checkpoints,” Popilsky said.
There’s a lot of strategy involved, he said. They spent hours plotting optional checkpoints on ponderous scrolls of maps, planning routes, things to look for. It’s almost like the race begins when you check in, he said.
The day started at 6:30 a.m. with a 25-mile bike ride and a 12-mile run through barren, rattlesnake country. The strategy during the latter was to run four minutes at a time and walk one, and they actually caught up to a lot of teams at that point. That took them to the Seminoe Reservoir.
They had to canoe 18 miles across the reservoir and, once again, luck was on their side. They were warned to cross the reservoir early to avoid high wind, and encountered relatively little of it. They did have to battle the wind for the last half hour or so of the crossing, but made it in about four hours.
But other competitors weren’t as lucky.
“At least half the teams behind us were caught in this big wind,” said Popilsky. Some had to portage, or sleep overnight on the shore.
The canoe was shifty during the wind, and it’s hard to steer a proper course, keep hydrated and fed when paddling, they said. Momentum is lost, and it’s hard to get started again.
“The second day was really intimidating, because once we got off the canoe we had a 30-mile trek, to run through the mountains,” Popilsky said. “We were concerned about time, just moving forward. It was tortuous, and whenever it [is] I just want to keep going.”
When you have the motivation to get to the next checkpoint or the next day, staying ahead of certain teams, your mind takes over, they said.
The pair picked up 14 of the optional 20 checkpoints on that long trek, Broughton said. They got two hours’ sleep that night.
The day opened with another 20-25-mile bike ride to Pathfinder Reservoir, with another orienteering course on foot. The heat was almost unbearable.
“I think I got pretty close to heat exhaustion,” Broughton said. “I was having a hard time staying cool, and we had to hike to the top of a mountain to get a checkpoint.”
They had to watch for rattlesnakes the whole time.
But after that segment, they found heaven: a little general store, where they bought Gatorade, ice cream bars and cold water.
“That was a lifesaver,” she said.
“I hadn’t peed in 10 hours, and all of a sudden I could pee again,” Popilsky said.
Popilsky said that, unlike other adventure races, they were given little help from race organizers as far as water or other assistance at checkpoints or at the end of days. At one point they had to get water out of a cow pond.
“The water tasted disgusting,” he said.
They decided to skip the opportunity to ride out, and backtrack, 25 miles from their route to Independence Rock and Martins’ Cove, an historical Mormon landmark, where they would have had to push or pull a Mormon handcart for five miles to find additional checkpoints.
Broughton said she was overheated and knew that journey would be dry and hot.
“When it comes to safety and heat exhaustion, I think it was the right decision,” said Popilsky. At that point they just wanted to finish the race…and survive.
Even so, the decision to skip that was hard, and they wondered after if they could have done it.
Instead, they went directly to the next section. They had another 10 miles on the bikes followed by orienteering at Alcova Reservoir, with a checkpoint they had to swim to, “which felt really good,” Broughton said.
They slept four hours that night.
The last stretch
The morning of Day 4 included a 13-mile road bike to the North Platte River, then 22 miles canoeing the river into Casper. They finished with a mile-long kickboard section in a whitewater park, followed by a 1.5-mile run to the finish.
Describing the feelings of the adventure was difficult. Excitement and relief, for sure, but it’s such a whirlwind over three days you hardly remember where you’ve been and how long it took, Popilsky said.
You’re almost numb.
“It’s almost like your body doesn’t feel the effects until the end. Then you feel worked and tired,” he said. “We were on adrenaline rush the whole time.”
Even in camp you’re thinking about what the next day will bring, how much water to start with and other logistics that keep you on that high the whole time, he said.
“We have a lot to learn, but every race we learn a lot,” said Broughton.
They’ll learn more in September during a 36-hour adventure race in Bend, Ore.
Popilsky said the Wyoming races are part of a five-year circuit, and one race should be coming through the Tetons soon. He and Broughton hope they’ll be able to recruit teams from the valley. Contact Popilsky at (208) 413-8111 or Broughton at (206) 799-2460.
Those teams would do well to start practicing now.