On the final day of the Cameco Cowboy Tough Adventure Race last year, Casper residents Joe McGinley, a veteran adventure racer, and his novice teammate Ryan Larsen wanted to keep pace with the lead teams. Regardless of standings from the previous few days — times and points were tabulated at the end — the teams all started together. McGinley and Larsen sprinted to keep up with the steady pace of the top competitors, yet they soon fell behind.
It was no wonder; they were going up against the world’s elite in adventure racing.
Since it started three years ago, race promoters and organizers promised Wyoming’s adventure race would rank among the top in the world. In its first two years it attracted several elite level and world-ranked teams. This year the race is officially one of eight world qualifier races — and one of two hosted in the United States, according to Mike Spiller, director of operations for the race.
These races are considered some of the most difficult in the world, and it’s no wonder the world’s elite adventure racers are attracted to Wyoming. Its geographic features, from intimidating mountains, to world class rock climbing, to phenomenal mountain biking, to raging whitewater, to long stretches of desert landscape where water is in short supply, makes the state prime terrain for a world-class race course.
“It’s Wyoming,” Spiller said. “It’s rough and tough. We should be one of the toughest races in the world.”
Adventure races are multi-day and multi-sport competitions where racers navigate the course to find checkpoints and complete challenges along the way. Teams are going for speed, but also trying to complete as many checkpoints as possible. Winners are determined by time and checkpoints completed. This year there are so many checkpoints Spiller doubts any team will get the maximum possible points.
Cowboy Tough courses span some 500 miles, allowing strong teams to push through with minimal sleep. The elite teams will rest on the trail, hiding from other competitors to keep a mental edge. The Swedish Armed Forces Adventure Team, one of the top teams in the world, will likely sleep only two or three hours starting on day two, Spiller said. At that level, sleep management is part of the racing strategy.
The course changes each year to highlight a different region in Wyoming. This year’s Cowboy Tough course starts in Buffalo on Thursday and puts teams in the Bighorn Mountains for the first two days. Racers will climb to an elevation of more than 11,000 feet several times, including on the first day. Much of the trekking will take place at about 9,000 feet. While the specifics of the course are secret until the race, Spiller said racers will trek 24 miles on the first day, over boulders and gaining elevation, after biking about 70 miles.
He also promised racers will take a shot of Wyoming Whiskey, continuing a tradition that started last year, this time at the Occidental Saloon. This is only race that includes a shot of alcohol, Spiller said. Elite teams have a tea option again, but last year several teams took multiple shots of the whiskey.
Other challenges will include finding objects racers have to carry with them, or getting a bow off the tail of a cow at the rodeo. The race is meant to be physically and mentally challenging, but also represent the state and the region.
While the race attracts top adventure race teams, such as the Swedes and those from Norway, Guatemala, Spain and Canada, there are six Wyoming teams in the almost 30-team field.
McGinley, an adventure race veteran who competed in Cowboy Tough the first two years, returns this year as captain of a four-person co-ed team from Casper. (There are categories for two and four person co-ed or male teams). One of McGinley’s teammates, Adam Johnson, is an adventure racing rookie. Unlike many elite adventure races, Cowboy Tough is well organized and allows for new racers to safely compete on the same course as veteran world-ranked racers, he said.
The biggest challenges are usually staying properly fueled and hydrated, especially in the heat and for the long mileage — which is more than many other races, McGinley said. Last year he filtered water from an irrigated field.
You can’t really prepare for a four-day race when you don’t know the course or what it will entail, McGinley said. But he knows that like every year, he’ll have a moment where he wonders why he signed up. Yet the unique courses bring him back.
“You get to see a lot of the landscape in a very unique way,” he said. “Last year I got to bike and kayak and trek some amazing areas that I didn’t even know existed or I couldn’t have found otherwise.”
Next year the race will cover Central Wyoming, Spiller said. It likely will include more than 200 miles of paddling — the only course hint he’ll give away.