When you take part in one of the hardest races in the world, you have to be certain you can endure the worst weather and take on the biggest challenge.
If you have not seen Patagonia, have not felt the harshness of its climate and experienced its changeable weather, you cannot imagine what challenges await the participants of the Patagonian Expedition Race. The race is considered one of the most difficult in the world. Competing teams know they have about 600 km to cover, but the exact route is revealed to them right before the start. Some parts of it require trekking, some kayaking or cycling. “When I say that we had to get through a very thick forest, most people probably have Polish scenery in their mind. But in Patagonia bushes and thickets are like a wall. After such walk some of the contestants’ Gore-Tex jackets and pants were torn by the powerful plants of Patagonia,” says Rafał Nowakowski, captain of the Spirit of Poland team, a former GROM soldier. It was his second Patagonian Expedition Race, this time with a completely new team, including Piotr – a special forces soldier, triathlete and participant of Ironman Races; Robert – a successful judo athlete, diver, marathon runner and parachutist; and Marta – a cross-country skiing instructor, international mountain guide, Polish amateur champion in cross-country skiing in 2015. “This is a physically and mentally strong team which is going there to win,” said Rafał right before the race. So what stopped them from finishing it?
Work on the Shortcomings
The competitors were to trek through a Patagonian native forest. The organizers transported them into dense thickets and left them there to manage on their own. Rafał, who was responsible for navigation, had to determine the direction of their march. “I made a small navigation mistake, due to which we found ourselves in such difficult terrain that getting through it cost us a lot of time and energy. Unfortunately, Patagonia does not forgive even the tiniest mistakes you make,” says the former GROM soldier. “We forced our way through thick bushes in pouring rain. There was water everywhere – falling from the sky, and also on every plant we passed,” he adds. When they finally managed to return to the proper route and reach the first mountain, they had to face very difficult weather conditions. At one point the temperature dropped to 0°C, and visibility was no more than 50 meters. “The wind was so strong that we wobbled with every step,” remember the team members. The organizer warned that two weeks before the race the route had still been covered in knee-deep snow. Rafał waded across a shallow stream, and as he said later: “I was in the water for a very short moment, but the consequences were terrible. The water was freezing cold, and the air temperature so low that my foot joints simply blocked across the whole metatarsus. I couldn’t move my feet. However, we somehow managed to reach the top of the first mountain and go down into a valley where we set up camp for the night.”
The setbacks they experienced on the first day would probably demotivate most people. In such difficult situations, even very tight-knit teams often tend to throw accusations. “We didn’t blame one another. The whole team showed only support,” says Rafał. Besides, as contestants remember, no one was giving up at that point. True, they had lost their chance for a podium, but it was still possible to finish the race. After all, the fact that Poles encountered difficulties did not mean that other teams did not. “Instead of focusing on placing the blame, we were rather thinking about the way to catch up the following day. None of us lost hope for success,” says Rafał.
Injury Finishes the Race
The following day, they set off again. They even managed to catch up with one of the other teams. Climbing up to the ridge took them much more time than anticipated, but they still refused to give up. When they were descending, they already had a plan to make up for lost hours and get through to the cycling segment, because this is the discipline in which they all feel strongest. There were plenty of fallen trees on the way. “Branches and trunks were extremely wet and slippery. Each of us could have gotten injured any second,” says Rafał. The one who actually did was Marta. “When we managed to get through the most difficult terrain, I slipped. I fell badly. The pain was excruciating, almost unbearable. I was afraid I had broken my collar bone,” remembers Marta. “When a moment later the guys started checking me, it turned out that it was only my shoulder. In our situation it was a blessing in disguise,” she adds.
The bad news was that the injury ended the race for the Polish team, because the regulations state all the members must reach the finish line. Marta was unable to continue the race and required medical assistance. “At that point her health was the only thing that mattered,” says the captain of the Polish team. It was necessary to call for help. About two hundred meters from the place where the accident had happened they saw a meadow where a rescue helicopter could land. Getting Marta down there was quite a challenge. “Despite the pain she was very brave,” they say. Calling for help was also hard. Rafał tried to get a connection several times, and when he finally managed to connect, he was informed the helicopter could not get there due to bad weather conditions. The team had to spend the night in the meadow, waiting for the rescue team that arrived the following day. Marta flew to hospital with Piotr. When Rafał and Robert joined them later, Marta’s shoulder had already been put back in place. “Everything went smoothly,” says Rafał. Later, Robert decided to go back to Poland, while Rafał and Piotr... returned to the race route.
The organizer let the two men reenter the race, but only its 100-km trekking segment and a part of the cycling route. Why did they do it? “I wanted to check my navigation skills, test our equipment and find out if my fitness level was good enough. I didn’t go to Patagonia to go sightseeing like a typical tourist,” laughs a former GROM soldier. They actually did very well in the race.
“We were pushing ourselves as hard as if we were still participants of the race. But the fact is our batteries were fully charged after a night in the hotel, so we can’t compare our results with other teams which were on the route all the time,” says Rafał. The following day was a surprise, though. “We had to get across a series of 60-meter-deep ravines. The route again ran across a terrain full of fallen trees and bushes,” he remembers. After that, they had to wade across swampland and ford a river.
The Spirit of Poland team had been preparing for the race for over a year. They exercised on their own, but also had a number of trainings together. They took part in competitions (i.a. marathons, triathlons) all over Poland to work up to reaching their goal: winning. Rafał announced already two years ago that he was going to Patagonia only to stand on the podium. When it turned out that the objective is unattainable, the team did not give up. “I am an athlete and I know that injuries just happen. In such circumstances there isn’t much you can do. Sure, I felt sad and disappointed. But the guys did not reproach me, and I didn’t blame myself for the situation,” says Marta. “We don’t focus on negative emotions, but on what needs to be done. In this case, when winning was out of the question, our objectives changed. Mine was to check out the route, so I went back to do it,” adds Rafał.
Will Spirit of Poland compete in the next edition of the race? “I wonder if I need it. I have lived through a lot in my life and I don’t have to prove anything to myself anymore. Such challenges are supposed to bring you pleasure and satisfaction, otherwise they don’t have any sense. I will have to seriously think about it,” admits Marta. Rafał, the team’s captain, wonders for a moment before he answers. He says it is an expensive undertaking, both money and time consuming. However, he states that “it was not our final word in Patagonia.”
autor zdjęć: Media Team Spirit of Poland