by R.W. Trask
How does one prepare for an ultra-endurance event that spans over a length of a traditional marathon by four times, through unforgiving canyons, utilizing kayaks, and helicopters for transportation and airdrops? Over a year ago, I had received a generic email from work asking if anybody would be interested in representing our organization in a race-like event that test members across aviation and Special Operations on evasion throughout the mountains, canyons, and deserts of Southern Utah.
The event was called the Evasion Corridor 88 and would ultimately take competitors on multiple start points that would eventually funnel them into one race-path. For example, the start points all had different locations of similar lengths, but once one got to the kayaking portions they were essentially now all on the same route. This ensured the distance that would divide the competitors would inevitably happen, and also to ensure that runners were not following similar paths that were testing navigation as well.
Like many of my brothers and sisters in my work environment, I have always enjoyed pushing my limits to extreme heights. That does not mean that I am a physical specimen by any means; on the contrary, since if I were, I would not be here but instead playing in the major leagues somewhere. However, how I find these events and why they speak to me is beyond me, but they bring out the best and worse in my own life and friendships.
Fortunately, I had one friend that immediately came to mind! My partner for this event was Ken and we competed in multiple events together, ranging from ultra swimming events, competitions against sister service components, and various other challenges. Most notably we had the privilege to swim, run and compete against Marines on their home turf at the Marine Raider Challenge, where we took a 3rd place standing. We were very similar in our physical makeup (him arguably in better strength and endurance), and for races that require partners or teams, he is a go-to representative. He is, among other things, an amazing athlete, and well-rounded individual, and a well-respected member of the communities he works in. When he says something it is usually well received and from a place of experience. Ken’s attitude is good for these events since when he says something is off or not right its better to take a penalty and talk to the graders about it later.
After speaking with commands ranging from the lowest level to the highest echelons, I was given access approval to go to Utah. This opportunity and fidelity from higher was a privilege to be allowed to represent my work family was an honor and still thankful too. Moreover, Ken and I had no idea where to begin training or access to how the makeup of the events would be. He had done plenty of events that spanned many miles, and at that moment, the hardest thing I could compare was the Best Ranger Competition. This competition, though, had an air of something completely different, and the director held plenty of the cards close to his chest and for good reasons.
We had spoken with each other throughout the year and trained however we could mostly biking, swimming, running, and paddle-boarding. Another hurdle was his geographical location and not being in the same state as me, so side by side preparation was out of the question. Even though we had done enough together, having that ability to train together and communication is critical for these events as we had experienced. That did not stop us from training to the best of our knowledge and ultimately just hoping that prior experiences and training would pay off. By training together partners gain a better understanding of strengths and weaknesses that may come about later and gives better validation if something comes up that was not present in training.
The Week of Preparation
A few days before the start of the event in Salt Lake City, we had shown up and began to finalize our strategy, slow and steady! I would be lead navigation, and my partner would be the ultimate pace setter so that we wouldn’t fall behind too much from my map reading. From there, we were congregated into a classroom where we saw and inevitably sized up our competition. We had met a few from work and other means, but there was ultimately one team we considered a sizable threat to our strategy. All, including us, were teammates from varying commands and would compete with good sportsmanship. This stiff competition would range from Aviators, and a mix of SOF that have all had extensive survival training that mimicked what we were trying to put to the test.
We had to test out on individual knots, repelling techniques, and assembly of specific work-style kayaks that only a few were decent at. We were instructed to take exams and sit with psychiatrists who would set a baseline as we went through the competition in case our mental capacity sunk beneath a particular line, then they had a metric to gauge us off of. Furthermore, this allowed my partner and me to refine every contingency we could think of, ranging from sock replacement, food and water consumption, rest plans, navigation, and so on.
The course was also instructed with a card outline of where individual caches would be in a formal packet that could not be taken with you. Instead, we had 30 minutes to read and take notes on all that you saw fit. Each packet was unique to every team so that one couldn’t ask for certain information from another in case something was missed.
The Basic Scheme of The Race
We would gather at the local staging area and would commence the race from varying modes (which is left vague for a specific reason, and for the benefit of others willing to compete at a later time) and “evade” on foot hitting up small caches until we made it to the “extraction” site, AKA, the finish line. We would use varying modes to transport ourselves from start to end that included our initial drop-off, kayaks, rappelling to get down certain canyons, and of course, our feet. It was something where your course direction was only limited to your mindset and possibly the best way it could’ve been set up.
The cache sites were plastic containers filled with water, small amounts of food, and cards to ensure that you made it there. The other stuff was irrelevant, but those cards were a mandatory item. Digging up these things also proved to be more difficult than anyone could imagine, especially after one’s legs were exhausted from running and hiking for ten plus miles (average distance between the points), and fingers were cold and numb.
Teams start and finish times would be individualized since everyone was issued tracking beacons for both fairness and safety. Also, we were issued a one-way emergency radio for an absolute emergency with other basic safety precautions (flare, signaling material, etc.). Now, most teams packs had just incurred more weight, which is never ideal before a race like this but more than expected.
However, we decided to carry less and suffer at night than bring more and realize later that certain items were obsolete. This ideal weight was only accomplished through experience and knowledge that more times than not, we never needed stuff dictated by higher. Furthermore, we regarded that everything we brought after the race that we used, and nothing in our bags were packed in vain.
Get Ready, Set, Begin (Day 1)
Now I hope that all of that back story can help explain how the coming days played out. My partner and I were at a staging point getting ready to begin when we were told to gather all we had and prepare to start. By then it was just around dinner time when we commenced the evasion and began to traverse on foot through the orange and pink territory that makes up the Southern Utah desert lands. Moreover, my partner took off first and setting the light pace to our first cache site.
It was a unique experience watching the sunset leaving an orange hue over the desert floor and my partner and I climbing under and over varying natural obstacles for the first section. We had a 12-mile movement to the first point, and this is where our wheels could be seen as coming to a brief wobble, but not off.
Ken can joke around when applicable, but in times like these, he is all business, especially after a leg of the race that is the distance for certain military schools to assess an individual’s aerobic and leg strength. We hunted and searched for our first point and came up empty-handed when we knew our land navigation was spot on! Not the best start, after all, we had just put in over the past few months, and our bosses released us a week to compete. Moreover, is this how the rest of our time was going to be?
We checked the notes to the packet we received and verified we were not off what was told. Ultimately, we decided to cut our loss on that site, continue the movement to our second cache for the kayaks, and change into our civilian clothes. A decision that had he not brought it up, I would have more thoroughly searched for, but this was nearing midnight, and his judgment was sound. On we went!
We had done events together that didn’t check out on both his judgment and my navigation, but that made no sense that nothing was there. An agreement had been made that we had between there and our next point to feel sorry for ourselves, and boy did we feel sorry. It was a defeat in both of our minds, and nothing short of not accomplishing a mission. Our second point was a little more defined since there was an above-ground cache with disassembles kayaks and a river as a definitive orienteering back-stop. We had moved just shy of a marathon and did not want to go too hard and too fast off the bat, so we took a quick rest before setting up kayaks, and initiating the water leg. By this point, it was after midnight and early morning with an hour lost on just walking in circles at point one.
Kayaks, Rappelling, and Canyons (Day 2)
The next morning we saw as a new day and experience with new opportunities to make up time. The kayak took the first splash right as the sun began to crest the horizon so we could make up time. We threw our bags on the front top portion, dumped as many water bottles and loose military meals on the floor, so we could just grab something off the ground and eat or drink. We had not discussed the strategy for this portion, but we did nothing shy of excellent communication. We had confirmed and plotted the night before, so we knew the rough route, but we decided the “ship” would move forward at all means possible. If I was eating or doing a map check, he was paddling and steering, and visa versa. At no point would we stop, and we would continue forward momentum to gain a lead on our fellow competitors even if it was a slow pace forward.
We could not have asked for a better blue sky that day since we had great weather so far with the only downside being the November cold, and coldest on record that year. Eventually, we had passed by a few non-competitors that were out enjoying their weekend canoeing down the river that for them probably were having a better experience than everyone else just paddling by. There were a few Bald Eagles that we had passed by on our 40 mile trip through the waters. This eventually came to an end as we saw on the map that the end was coming to an end, and our feet were going to be put back to work.
We found our small canyon and pulled our kayak ashore to be cached and received by the volunteers who took time out of their weekend to cheer and support us along the way. There was already one kayak there, so this meant two things, we were not to bad off, but also that we were not in first.
The canyons of Utah should never be underestimated! One wrong turn in these things and you will assume you’re doing well until you realize that this is not what you believed. This was when my partner and I had come across the team that we had foreseen as our biggest threat, and they were living up to our speculation. Fortunately for my partner and I, we were able to get out of this section by ensuring we stay on the right course and what we believed was the right path. The others did not.
After our kayaking and brief canyoneering section, we figured we would be able to get ahead of the other team by picking up the pace a bit more. Also, we were instructed the rappelling portion will not be available after a particular hour due to manning and medical concerns, so we decided to go all out and complete that and ensure a better lead. We had a few cached points we still had to accomplish, and we considerably picked up the pace and checked in at the sites required. With the sun slowly creeping towards the horizon, we made it to a canyon that dwarfed many others I had seen in the past.
There was the safety crew and rappelling equipment all set up and prepared to receive the competitors, and we were the first to show up there. There they informed us that a mistake had been made and that the cache from the first night was not prepared properly and that the points would be added to our overall score. That, along with our standing, did give us the sanity check, and confidence boost that our pace, route selection, and teamwork had been paying off.
We snapped in and peered over the edge of the canyon floor, which was more ominous when looking at the apparatus we were tethered too but trust your training. I kicked off and began to ascend down the canyon wall and to spin around slowly. From there looking out over parts of Utah and the thick dark floor we were heading into, I could not help but be thankful for this opportunity. I was in a moment of time and literal space where I was fortunate to be with a true friend and testing myself against some of the county’s best and brightest. That moment of clarity ended on our touch down, and we began to navigate through the nightmare that nobody told me about.
For some who have done a form of canyoneering may have an understanding, and I can assure a better grasp of how to do it better than me, but I was a novice at best when doing this portion. I took my partner down wrong turns, and we were at times caught in the worse “wait a minute” vines either of us had ever encountered. We navigated on our hands and knees, pulling our bags behind us through just thick, unforgiving vegetation and nothing but the canyon walls to our sides to help to guide us along the way.
Even a year later, I still get YouTube recommendations on how to better navigate through canyons, since I have inevitably cursed verbally and in my mind that I believe my phone has heard how inadequate I felt that night. Still, I can assure unless a family member is caught in one, that was my first and last time canyoneering. That portion of the course was only three-plus miles, and yet took us longer than the first 12-mile portion by over an hour and pushed us well into the next day. I found out later that a team did have to navigate and sleep in that nightmare. I have since used the bag that I used that night as well and will occasionally come across a piece of vegetation, or sand from that canyon as if it’s trying to rub salt in my already healed wounds.
Air Drops And A Walk (Day 3)
We got to our cache point after the canyon and were instructed to conduct a cognitive test. Also, we got a bit of rest but left as soon as the sun came back up, and we saw we had just a short movement of eight-ish miles with a mandatory resupply from a helicopter. We moved as far as we could and conducted the resupply while we waited for the aircraft we caught up and had a moment of popping our feet on our bags and just enjoy the moment again. These expeditions where one can during the moment and after the fact enjoy the little things is what makes all of the hardships worth it. The same can be said in life both as a civilian and in the military.
Nobody looks back in a leadership academy or at an easy school and says, “Wow, that sucked” as they laugh about it with friends. Instead, it is the camaraderie built-in courses or deployments where you look back and realize who had your back, or what you were able to muster up in yourself during those times. It is there in those moments that when you are old and gray, and you tell your grandkids what you did overseas that one can be proud of their past and how they handled themselves.
We got to the final cache and realized that we had only our exfiltration (finish line) to go, and we figured that we were in a decent lead. Ultimately we just had to stay on course and have my partner set the pace relentlessly, which he did in spades. There we confirmed the last leg and it appeared as if it should be mostly downhill according to the contour lines, and yet the map did not illustrate the rolling hills that we encountered as we went “downhill.” The orchestrator of this event monopolized off of every terrain feature to keep the competitors humble as we went up and down these mild slopes.
We eventually passed by a group of people, clearly not apart of the course, camping outside, and we joked how stupid we looked. Running around an open space with our bags, maps, and dirty clothes, and the occasional helicopter flying overhead. At those moments, I also wondered what I must be looking like, especially as a car sped by giving us the thumbs up to ensure we were ok, and my partner and I returning the thumbs up with a look of exhaustion on our face.
Eventually, we could see the final point, which was weird since it was a mile or so of what the map showed. There the race manager told us this was just a spot to ensure we were god for the actual extraction, and in our case, it was a hoist from a Blackhawk inside another canyon, just not as bad as the other one from the night before. This guy led us through another maze of canyons to the final spot as we began to hear the rotors of a helicopter approaching through the canyon walls. He gave us a congrats on the placing and took off to receive other competitors as they came in later. Ken and I began to get pelted by sand as the Flight Medic was being lowered on a cabled line to retrieve the first guy, which just so happened to be the leader of the pace count. I waited for my turn when in no time, the cable came back down, and thankfully I got back in the bird with the crew and belted myself in.
We flew back over the route we had taken throughout less than a two-day process. In under 48-hours, we managed to have run, climbed, kayaked, rappelled, canyoneered, and got hoisted out from a helicopter, all while covering over 101 miles in a defined course evasion corridor. All of this gave a clear perspective of how fortunate both of us were to be able to compete in such an event.
We watched as colleagues came in from the helipad, and everyone swapped stories of their best and worse parts. All of us sat around a fire and feasted on some of the best meals we had in a while, and thanked all of the volunteers as they came by to ask what we thought of it out there. Ultimately, the consensus was that the canyon was the worse (or best depending on who you ask), but that each partner was the best part, and that they brought out the best in each other. It was because of the partner-style race teams could gather and muster the strength to move forward and not let each other down.
After the bus ride back to the base, we could relax and get some good rest and more food. However, most of us had work the next day, myself included, so my partner had to deal with all of the next day stuff and any equipment turn-in. That is something I do regret, which was leaving Ken for the equipment accountability and turn in, but he understood the machine keeps moving forward regardless and my work expected my return. The biggest thing I gained from this is seeing how many like-minded individuals there are out there that put themselves through something like this. If I was ever faced with an evasion situation for whatever reason, I hope that I will at least have someone with me… and that there are no canyons on my path.
R.W. Trask was born in the Pacific Northwest, but due to his father’s profession in the military, he lived in many different places around the world as a kid. Following his father’s footsteps, he has served in a broad array of jobs in the military, most notably in the Special Operations realm. Besides being a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner, he also enjoys competitions ranging from ultras, shooting, and his lifelong goal of competing in the Best Ranger Competition. He currently holds a Bachelor’s from Norwich University with plans to pursue higher education in the future.
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