Founded in 2013 by Kent Keirsey, Greg Hastings, and Mark Silver, the Endeavor Team Challenge takes place each September in the small village of Bear Valley in the Sierra Nevada mountains of central California. A modern adventure race, the ETC was modeled after the Best Ranger Competition in the Army – an event in which Kent competed. After several of his friends asked about his training and how they could do something like that elite military event, the idea for Endeavor was born.
The Endeavor Team Challenge pits 50 2-person teams against each other and against the unforgiving terrain in a 30h endurance event designed to push physical and mental boundaries and be the ultimate fitness test.
Last weekend, my Challenge partner, Le Roux Konig, and I made the journey up the mountain to compete. On our way, we passed through thick smoke coming off the Butte Fire burning nearby. This proved to be a concern and an issue throughout the race. Although the venue itself was never in danger, many of the race volunteers were in evacuation zones, and the air quality varied greatly, getting well into hazardous levels at times.
Registration Friday night was quick and painless; competitor T-shirts were given out, along with gloves, a rope and carabiner, a Spot tracker to let both staff and loved ones follow competitor progress in real time, a brick that was added to our gear, and a map for the first part of the race. By 5 AM on Saturday, the racing teams had gathered, and final instructions were issued, along with the admonition to race honorably. As dawn rose, we set off on the first part of the challenge – the Crucible March. This was a hike of unknown distance (~15-20 miles) during which the next stage map was handed out at each of 4 aid stations along the way. The hike lead straight up the nearby ski hill, crested it, and came back down to a surprise – the Battle Drill, about 1/4 of the way into the Crucible March.
For the Battle Drill, each team completed five timed stations – lifting a big rock onto a box (they had several to choose from – the heavier the Rock the more points awarded), throwing a medicine ball for distance, pulling a weighted sled a set distance and back, pushing a different sled around a short course, and running with a sandbag. Once these were completed, the March continued, back up around a shoulder of the mountain and down through some forest trails before climbing again to a ridge high above the previous ski hill (set at over 9000′ of elevation). Eventually, this wound back down the slopes to the shores of Alpine Lake before hitting one more shorter but steep hill and eventually making its way back to the starting point. Here, before finishing the Crucible, there was another surprise as racers were taught how to forward rappel (facing directly towards the ground) – first on a very short 10′ descent that we were welcome to practice on until we felt comfortable with the technique, then on a scarier ~40′ rock face.
While many competitors made use of the medical professionals at the aid stations to deal with developing blisters or chafing, for the first time in ETC history, all 43 teams that started the Crucible March successfully completed it.
Once the Crucible March was finished, teams went directly into the next portion of the race, the Competitor Field. This consisted of 5 different challenges – a short course obstacle race with some very tricky obstacles that promoted teamwork to successfully maneuver, a heavy objects carry up the gently sloping granite to a specified point and back down again, a fun “teamwork reaction course” that featured building Lego models from your partner’s descriptions alone, a mountaineering section that involved rock climbing (with three different skill levels to choose from), zip lining / tyrolean traverse across a gorge, and rappelling down a 60+’ rock face under expert supervision by safety officers, and an orienteering course in which teams had to find at least one mandatory orienteering point – others were worth bonus points.
All of this had to be accomplished before the “drop-dead” time of 7:00 PM. On the March, my partner and I were in the back half of the field; I had a couple of nagging knee-related injuries that slowed my pace considerably. During the obstacle portion, I initially had both calves seize solid as I jumped up onto a box that was part of an obstacle and later had a stumble while trying to use my partner to reach the top of the 10′ wall that more seriously re-injured my knee – an injury that would continue to send razor sharp pains into my leg for the next few hours. It also slowed us down even more, and coupled with a strategic error (each team need only complete 4 of 5 events in the Competitor Field to advance), we ended up at the check-in point at 7:09. Because we had found our mandatory orienteering point, we would be allowed to continue, but would be ranked as unofficial finishers from this point.
By then, I was in a lot of pain, and my knee was not doing well. I pulled the Race Director Greg aside, filled him in on what was going on, made sure that Le Roux would be allowed to continue without me (they added him to an experimental 3 person team that was debuting this year), and graciously dropped, accepting my first ever DNF.
Once checked in, the teams finally got a break of a couple of hours to rest, deal with foot issues, eat, and so on before setting out for the next part of the race. This was the night orienteering portion, and all teams had to get at least 2 mandatory points set quite far apart to continue and make it to the next check-in area by 4 AM. This portion added anywhere from 10-15 more miles to the already sore and tired racers. An additional challenge was very poor visibility from a late moonrise that was itself obscured by thick smoke from the fire. Most teams bagged their two points and headed to the check-in to get some rest; a few more ambitious ones went after 4 or more points along the way.
Before teams were allowed to rest, they had one more challenge – a mental one. We had been given a poem to memorize at the beginning of the race – Invictus by William Henley.
Out of the night that covers me
Black as the pit from pole to pole
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid
It matters not how strait the gate
How charged with punishments the scroll
I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul.
For the record, I wrote that from memory; it will forever reside within me.
At 6 AM, the final run began. Remaining teams were finally able to drop their packs but had to bring hydration and their bricks along the 10-12 mile run back to home base, which included an unexpected water crossing through Lake Alpine around the halfway point. Finally, after ~30h and 40+ miles of unforgiving terrain, racers crossed the finish line triumphant, including my partner Le Roux, now part of the first four-man team to ever finish and a proud member of Team Tengu. An after-party sponsored by Buffalo Trace Bourbon featured an open bar and a catered BBQ, and the awards for fastest female team, fastest mixed team, and fastest male team (which was also fastest overall) were awarded. Dean Pierson and Lee Walker put in a truly impressive performance and were repeat champions for the second year in a row.
The Endeavor Team Challenge is a true test of grit and athleticism taking place at a spectacular setting high in the mountains of central California. The race was characterized by an air of professionalism – from the race directors to the medics, volunteers and mountaineering experts. It also had a tremendous sense of community; local residents all greeted the racers warmly, many of them volunteered or swept the course or showed up as spectators at the water crossing or the finish line. Because the race is so small (limited to ~50 teams), many of the teams got to know each other quite well on the course and at the rest areas.
Overall, in spite of my own disappointing finish, it was a grand adventure and a fantastic event. I will be back next year for redemption and to earn my finisher’s coin.
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Chris, it was great to meet you. Really good summation of the event too. Your loss was our gain. Having La Roux on our team was a lot of fun and he powered through all of the heights and spiders. 🙂
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