by Abby Perkiss
For the past three years, I’ve found myself in a loop of expedition racing self-doubt. Each event I’ve done, I get in my head before I even hit the start line, questioning not just my ability to complete the race but my desire to put myself in that place. I find myself anticipating the inevitable exhaustion and discomfort. I feel overwhelmed by the idea of focused movement for days on end, defeated by the battle of wills before the need for will even kicks in.
Such was the case as we prepared for the 2023 Nordic Island Adventure Race in the Faroe Islands. We had signed up for the event more than a year ago; as soon as Brent saw the first announcement, he started conspiring to get to the start line. I found the teaser video to be equal parts intimidating and awe-inspiring: the technicality, the vastness, the weather. After Scotland in 2022, when Mark Lattanzi and I spent Day 2 writing a joint retirement statement, I began to think about finding a fill-in to round out our Faroe roster. But when my family surprised us by committing to watching the kids again, and then Mark doubled down on racing, I put my concerns aside and pledged to make it to the start. If this was my last expedition race, I knew that it would be a helluva goodbye. One more for the road.
Still, as we packed our gear, coordinated childcare, and sorted out travel logistics, I began to wonder whether we’d ever actually get out the door. First, Mark had a family emergency that almost precluded him from traveling. Then, the many viruses circulating through Philly this summer seemed to be closing in, and I was certain that one of our kids would get sick and we’d have to withdraw. When we finally made it onto the plane, I kept waiting for the text asking one of us to fly home.
After we arrived, our transition to race mode was mired by gear hiccups. First, one of our duffels got stuck in Copenhagen. We helplessly watched the AirTag, anchored in Terminal Three, as the airline kept telling us they were trying to locate it, and we wondered if we would see our packraft, PFDs, drysuits, and other assorted mandatory gear before the start. As we worked to source replacements from the teams we knew at the race, we joked that we would get to enjoy a six-day tour of Faroese pubs. Despite a certain appeal to that scenario, I couldn’t justify the familial resources not to line up at the start. Finally, on Saturday morning, 24 hours before the race began, Brent and I borrowed a car and drove to the airport to claim our bag.
Meanwhile, as we were riding down a sharp hill on a meander through town, I heard a loud pop and discovered that I had blown a spoke in my front wheel. We rode gingerly to a local bike shop, the wheel wobbling all the way, to learn that no one in Denmark carries Mavic parts. After fifteen minutes of frantic calls, the shop owner’s wife agreed to lend me her front wheel for the week.
By some constellation and luck and grit, we were ready to race. We had very little information about the course logistics; we would have to wait until Sunday at 6am to start our deep planning. So, Saturday night, we all went to bed early in preparation for the 4:30am wakeup – and proceeded to toss and turn into the early hours of the morning. It turned out that many of our North American friends had suffered a similarly restless pre-race night – a combination, no doubt, of jetlag and nerves at the unknown journey before us.
The race began promptly at 9am with a fast and fun orienteering course around Torshavn. Brent’s navigation was dialed and the points passed quickly; at some point, as we found ourselves racing ahead of Estonia, he joked that he should retire then and there. At the end of the prologue, we transitioned onto bike for the start of Stage 1, an 80km ride that would take us from the capitol east across the island of Vagar. The ride included almost 10,000 feet of climbing, made possible by the rugged trails we traversed up and over two mountain passes. The ride was spectacular. We transitioned from road to trail to overland hike-a-bike and then repeated the cycle two additional times. The sun was uncharacteristically bright, offering us our first views of the jutting peaks of the Faroes. It was a true journey of a stage – one of the most varied bike legs I can remember in an expedition race.
It also took us through our first of several tunnels that we would encounter throughout the week – extended stretches of travel under the ocean and through mountains to get us across the island chain. There was novelty in that first tunnel, which would gradually be replaced by a sort of sensory-overloaded terror as the fumes, jet propulsion exhaust fans, and heavy traffic weighed on our mounting fatigue.
As we pulled into TA and transitioned to Stage 2 – an 87km trek with an 8km paddle in the middle that was projected to take 24-36 hours – I said to Brent, this is the best I’ve ever felt on Day 1 of an expedition race, physically and mentally. Maybe the tides have turned…
Of course, as the Dark Zone’s Brian Gatens so often reminds us, no matter how you’re feeling in adventure racing, it’ll soon change.
The first twelve hours of Stage 2 passed quickly, as we negotiated the steep pitches, deep canyons, and water-logged plateaus of the long trek. Brent’s navigation continued to shine, even as the nightly fog rolled in, and he expertly led us from point to point. Fence. Summit. Lake. Cairn. Sometime in the early morning hours, we hit CP42, the Lighthouse. What a strange optical illusion to have its metronomic flash appear below us, as we traveled along a sloping spur above the ocean. We had set this as our decision point – we could either ascend up, along, and over a steep ridge down to the waypoint, or we could cover less distance and less elevation by coasteering the shoreline to our paddle gear. The latter would be physically kinder, but it wasn’t without risks; it would require us to traverse several mapped canyons and a short unmapped band, right at the headland.
We opted to take the risk. Reading the land well, and capitalizing on a little bit of luck, we made our way through the canyons with relative ease. All that was left was the unmapped headland. We were all tired by this point, a combination no doubt of the soporific fog and the lack of sleep the night before, so when we found a protected flat spot between two reentrants, we took advantage of it to set up our tent and enjoy a rare Night 1 sleep. Just ninety minutes, but it was enough to take the edge off and clear our heads – which turned out to be exactly what we needed for the next stretch.
We packed up and continued on, through the final canyon and around the point of land to the southeast. We picked our way carefully along the high-consequence cliffs – it was technical, but it generally felt manageable, even to my low-tolerance comfort. Then gradually, it became a little bit less comfortable. And a little bit less manageable. By the time we realized that we had reached an impasse, I was calculating and recalculating risk. At what point does it become too much? Had we gotten there yet?
It was one thing for me to have a hard time; it was entirely different for my nimble rock-hopping husband to lose his confidence. Too much – we had hit that point. Over about 45 seconds, I went through all the possible scenarios that would get us off this exposed cliff face – the best I could muster was a roped rescue, and the worst was, well, unrepeatable…
Eventually, Brent found the line through to the other side of the scramble, and with several deep breaths, I was able to follow his footsteps. We traveled to a higher elevation and continued to the waypoint without issue, but by the time we dropped to the road and our paddle gear, I was totally spent.
Of course, this is adventure racing, and what choice do you have but to keep moving with the recognition that this, too, will pass? As we inflated our MRS Barracuda Pros and set up our sprayskirts (such a game changer in the frigid North Atlantic waters), I looked out onto what we were told were the most dangerous currents in Faroe Islands, bracing for what was to come.
Ultimately, the crossing was completely benign, whether because the tides and winds were in our favor or because the ocean was less susceptible to RD hyperbole. We scanned for whales, saw our first puffin, hit the sea cave checkpoint, and made our way to the second waypoint to drop off our gear and continue onto the second half of the stage.
I recently listened to a trail running podcast, and the guest – a top-level competitor – noted that every time she runs an ultra, she spends the first ten kilometers questioning her decision to race. This was a terrible idea. I’d rather be doing anything but running up this hill. Why am I out here? Then she settles in and enjoys the ride – the inevitable peaks and valleys that take her to the finish.
It was in this proverbial first 10km that I found myself for the next 24 hours – in adventure racing, what I now call “The Long Day 2.” Our trek continued up and over a series of exposed ridges, and as my nerves continued to fray, I was utterly overwhelmed. Will every checkpoint be this high consequence? There’s no way I can keep doing this for five more days. Why am I here? Why am I asking so much of people to allow for me to take part if I’m not having fun? And how am I ever going to get to the finish line?
We awoke more than 24 hours into the stage, still with two more checkpoints to push through – one mandatory and one pro (an optional point that keeps you on the full course – in this race, once you skip one pro point, you’re no longer permitted to visit any additional pros, so diverging from the full course has the potential for substantial implications for the standings). I was fine physically, but still not quite reset mentally. It’s a hard feeling to put into words. I was totally willing to keep pushing, but I had absolutely no desire, no drive, to do so. In that moment, I would have been completely fine to end our race and head for the nearest hotel. So, when we reached CP 49 (mandatory) and had to decide whether to commit to CP 51 (pro) and the full course or take the conservative route down to the TA and preserve our cushion to make the upcoming time cutoff, I made myself completely absent from the conversation. Willing, but not driven.
Who are you writing letters to? Brent asked as we headed to the TA, familiar with my AR brain. What are you telling them? Until that point, my efforts to stay inside myself had held, but his question cracked me open. I sobbed on the side of the trail.
Why am I here? Why are we doing this? How am I ever going to make it to the finish? And why did you have to ask that damned question?
You’re too hard on yourself, he told me. You can do this if you want to do it. No one is judging you or questioning you. You just need to get out of your own way.
The pros and cons of racing with your partner…
In truth, it was exactly the release I needed. As we descended the last hill, crying gave way to breathing, and breathing gave way to a sense of calm – finally.
This probably won’t be the last time I cry this week, I told Andy.
That’s okay, he winked. I’ve already cried five times in my head.
What a gift this team was.
From there, the race entered its flow state.
The end of the paddle was noteworthy for its battering headwind and, at TA3, our introduction to the wonder that is the Faroese hot dog baguette – a grilled footlong hot dog nestled inside a warmed and hollowed out baguette, and filled with the sauce of your choosing (spicy mustard FTW). In the warmth of the Effo gas station, we refueled and gathered ourselves for the short ride to Stage 5, which included a cliff jump and dive for two underwater CPs, and then the challenge of navigating through three peaks, including the tallest mountain in the islands, on a wooden relief map (it was a beautiful piece of art – each team got one to take home as a memento). We had some sleepmonsters to contend with on this ride, but stuck to our strategy of getting through the water CPs and then crashing until daylight. After a few minutes of wandering through the quaint town of Gjogv, Andy and Mark set up the tent, and Brent and I slid into a shallow cement cavern with our ground pads and sleeping bags – what we discovered in the morning was a mercifully-unused septic tank – for a few restless hours off our feet.
When we arrived at the TA, we found that Stage 7, the packraft/trek, had been shortened due to deteriorating conditions in the mountains, and that Stage 11 had been canceled altogether. The two cutoffs on the course had been pushed as a result, so our decision to skip CP 51 was for naught, and we were now entirely on our own course. Every other team had either gotten 51; skipped the first pro point (47), putting them on the short course earlier; dropped mandatory points; or lost a team member. For the next 48 hours, it would just be us against the course as we made our way to the finish.
For as daunting as this stage was in anticipation, it ended up being among our favorites of the race. It was wild and rugged, remote and expansive. It included five transitions, from sea to land and back again, and required us to go up and over three towering ridges with some seriously technical terrain to navigate through. In the boats, we paddled past endless salmon fisheries, watching the schools of fish leap into the air, a well-practiced dance. We saw puffins skim along the water, flapping their pointed wings ferociously against the wind, and we watched seals pop up playfully, urging us to follow them. In the mountains, we trudged up steep pitches of rock and grass as the tops gradually came into focus. We traversed windswept ridges, finding checkpoints just as darkness descended and fog rolled in. We hopped boulders, slid down scree, and picked lines through heather-covered cliffs. It required deep focus and a commitment to staying in the present, not forecasting ahead to the horizon. We all did it together.
On our descent from the first peak, we found ourselves edging along cliffs that, like that headland on the morning of Day 2, gradually became impossibly steep. Deep into Night 4, we had no choice but to stop on the bit of level ground we could find and climb into our tent until sunrise. At first light, we sidehilled left and were able to pick our way down to the coast, where we came across East Wind. They told us that they had overshot the CP and were climbing back up to reattack. I teared up after hearing about their plan, inspired by their dogmatic pursuit of an official finish. We gave them a few tips from our trip down, and then took note of a big red blot on their map.
I feel validated in how technical that descent seemed, I joked with the guys as we got back on the water.
As we came to the final crossing of the stage, we started to plan for the last stretch of the race. Our few hours in the septic tank were only marginally better than our pre-dawn dozing on the cliff’s edge, and we were all getting a little bit stupid-tired as we completed the final kilometers into the TA. When we arrived, Mark ran off to order food, and Andy, Brent, and I found consensus around a brief hotel stay in town before setting off for stages 8-9-10-12 (essentially one long bike with a short embedded trek). The timing wasn’t ideal – we’d be sleeping through the final hours of daylight and then biking and trekking through the night – but it was guaranteed to be warm and dry, and especially after Olof, Whitney, and Erik extolled the virtues of their long hotel sleep the previous night, we were sold.
We transitioned quickly, ate the most delicious burgers, and then rode up the hill to the one hotel in town, where we booked two rooms (at a generously discounted rate, when we told them we’d be out by midnight) and slept luxuriously for a few hours, interrupted briefly by the arrival of Strong Machine – great minds!
There, as he laid down for a brief nap, Brent requested a smorgasbord of hot dogs, gummies, Skyr, and coke to be waiting when he woke up. Several minutes later, woken by his bike crashing onto his head, he came into the gas station to find Mark, Andy, and me all in various stages of unconsciousness. He went back out for the camera to document the carnage before rousing us.
At that point, there were 60km of roads between us and the finish line, and if we were going to get there before dinner, we knew we had to regroup. That, combined with a punishing headwind – at one point we were pedaling downhill at 8km per hour – gave us the nudge we needed; we spent the last few hours in a paceline, swapping pulls every half kilometer. Aside from a few bus stop shelters to flip maps, and one brief pause when Mark and Andy decided to help a farmer load hay bales into his truck, we maintained our rhythm all the way into Torshavn, navigating the final kilometers into Faroe’s biggest city as residents offered cheers, thumbs up, and horn honks of encouragement. It seemed the whole country had followed the race that week. We turned onto the road for the finish and were greeted by pounding dance music and a couple dozen friends and race personnel, cheering us over the line. As we crossed, my eyes brimmed over with a few more tears – this time, of gratitude and wonderment.
Day Two is the worst. Every single time. I just have to remind myself that if I can push through that, I’ll find what I need on the other side.
That’s why I do it. Because getting to the finish opens me up to possibilities. There are great things along the way, but really, it’s what I gain at the end that keeps me coming back.
It’s hard to feel okay taking the time away from family, to ask for so much when you know you’re going to be suffering through a lot of it. I’m so grateful for the support they give me to pursue these silly things.
My belief is that your kids and my kids will be enriched in their own lives as they pattern some of this wild dream chasing and balanced thoughtfulness of their parents. A life philosophy of "moderation in all things, including moderation" leaves room for experiences like this once in a while.
I’m retiring! After the next one…
Five years ago, I knew exactly what I was getting myself into when I stepped onto a start line, and I had the resources to pull myself through it to the finish. Since then, so many things have happened to chip away at those reserves. In the Faroe Islands, I found why again, and I reclaimed a bit of myself again, too. It may sound silly, hyperbolic even, but in the context of our sport – and probably a little bit in life, too – there are few things that will test you more than the depths of the Long Day 2, and few things more affirming than finding your way back out.