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The Dagger Challenge:

The U.S. Army meets Adventure Racing

 By Major Marc Hoffmeister

“You have four main obstacles to overcome.” Colonel Joe Miller started his briefing to the 76 soldiers hanging on his every word.  Months of training, packing, physical and mental preparation were finally coming to fruition.  But this was not the drive for Basrah, or the move into Baghdad.  These soldiers were hours away from the start of the Dagger Challenge, a 24-36 hour adventure race conducted in the Rocky Mountains west of Fort Carson, Colorado by the 2nd Brigade, 91st Division.

The military and adventure racing have always shared a unique heritage and tradition.  In fact, the literal translation of what is widely considered the first true expedition adventure race, Gerard Fusil’s “Raid Gauloises”, is the “Challenge of the Warriors.” The roots of adventure racing can be easily related to the selection process of the most elite of military units.  The British S.A.S. and United States Special Forces, particularly Delta Force, use cross-country navigation as a primary means of selecting candidates.  Soldiers are often required to complete grueling solo navigation courses within established time standards while carrying a substantial load.  Demanding physical team challenges are also used to assess a candidate’s ability to work as part of a team during periods of extreme physical and mental duress.  Sounds like adventure racing, doesn’t it?

That was the thought process behind the 2003 Dagger Challenge, held May 31st to June 1st, 2003.  The Dagger Challenge took all the components of a high caliber adventure race, packed them into a 91 kilometer (in honor of the 91st Division), 24-36 hour course and threw them at the soldiers of the 2nd Brigade. Colonel Joe Miller, Commander of the Brigade, wanted to build the camaraderie and esprit de corps of his unit while simultaneously developing the leadership skills of his soldiers.  To his advantage, the 2nd Brigade is also the home of Team VVnW Adventure Racing, a veteran adventure racing team sponsored by the Veteran’s of the Vietnam War, Inc. With a race resume that includes such races as the Armed Forces ECO Challenge, ECO Challenge Fiji, the USARA National Championships and the Appalachian Extreme, the team had plenty of ideas on how to introduce 20 teams of all military rookie racers to the sport of adventure racing.  The Veteran’s of the Vietnam War, Inc. sponsored the event, enabling it to be a professional, high caliber event.

Each battalion in the brigade was required to field at least one team of four.  Several battalions fielded two or three teams.  The 1st Mobilization Brigade at Fort Carson also filled team slots for a total of 19 competing teams.  Many soldiers embraced the idea of adventure racing, others weren’t so sure.  For some, it was what the U.S. Army affectionately calls ‘mandatory fun’.  In other words, their commander made the decision for them…they would race.  

To prepare the teams, Team VVnW team captain and newly appointed ‘Dagger Challenge’ race director, Major Marc Hoffmeister, took full advantage of what was essentially a captive audience.  Team VVnW conducted a racer clinic, which instructed the neophyte teams in many of the tricks of the trade of adventure racing as well as how to train for this type of event.  All teams received rope certification training from the Adventure Programs and Education Team at the Fort Carson Outdoor Recreation Center, headed by Ted Brinegear.  Teams also participated in Orienteering meets held by the Rocky Mountain Orienteering Club in preparation for the navigational rigors of the course.

Because the teams were all military and assigned under the same command, it enabled the race to be run a little differently than commercial races.  First, soldiers were required to wear combat boots and BDU (battle dress uniform) bottoms, but all other clothing was at the soldier’s option, to include backpacks, headlamps, etc.  Second, the course was a complete mystery, to include the start and finish points because the military provided all transport and teams were unsupported.  Teams were informed of the basic events of orienteering, trekking, canoeing, ascending and rappelling but they were not informed of the significant mystery events contained within the course…some with wheels, some with legs, and some with triggers.

On the morning of 31 May, nineteen teams, full of bravado or nervous silence, boarded two buses bound for the start point nestled in the outer reaches of the Colorado Mountain Estates in Florissant, Colorado.  Teams had received map sets the night before and the realization of the length of the course was setting in.  In honor of the 91st Division, the 2nd Brigade’s higher headquarters, the course was designed to be 91 kilometers.  Ninety-one kilometers cross-country, in twenty-four hours…there was no question, this course was going to be a serious challenge.  But what kind of challenges still remained unknown.

At the start point, Major Hoffmeister met team captains. He quietly handed out instructions to section one and informed them the race would begin in ten minutes.  Teams reviewed the instructions and the realization suddenly hit them that the day would be full of surprises.  For the first leg, they would draw two mountain bikes per four-soldier team and navigate to the first transition area at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. None of these first time adventure racers had trained for mountain bikes!

At 0800 hrs, the racers were off.  No one ran.  Around a bend in the road, the bike issue point came into view and the fact that this was a race started to kick in.  Teams picked up the pace as each team grabbed two bikes and the race was on!  Team Irish Stew covered the six-mile run into Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument in 56 minutes, with rival teams close on their heels.  Race officials met the teams and issued them a 1:15000 scale US Orienteering Federation map of the Florissant Fossil Beds and directed them to transfer points from a master control map and then navigate to the points in any order.  Those who had attended the orienteering meet during the train up breathed a sigh of relief, as this was a familiar process.  A very unfamiliar map set and a new challenge faced those who hadn’t.  Teams took three to seven hours to complete the 8-point orienteering course and then left CP 11 and moved west to the Sanborn Western Camps.  Team Lost Boys won the Orienteering section with a time of 3:01 hrs.  At CP 13, vicinity of the Sanborn Western Camps, race officials awaited the lead team, Team Lost Boys, to meet them with yet another challenge.  The checkpoint was hung atop a 30 foot climbing wall.  Teams would have to climb the wall in groups of two…. tied together.  At 13:26 hrs, team Desk Jockeys emerged from the wood line.  Team Lost Boys were nowhere to be seen and the course had a new leader.  Unphased by the mystery event and spurred by Team Stallion, which was only 2 minutes behind them, Team Desk Jockeys conquered the wall and moved out for their next objective, CP 14, the Blue Mountain transition area.  It was a close battle to CP14, but the Desk Jockeys managed to gain on Team Stallion, adding 10 minutes to their lead.  At CP14, teams were given a new set of instructions for the next section.  They were reunited with their mountain bikes, only this time, the teams would split into two soldier elements.  They were issued the coordinates to eight new checkpoints, had to plot the points, and then determine the most efficient method to navigate to each of the points, by foot or by mountain bike.  CPs contained passwords that reflected the history of the 91st Division.  They would have to be consolidated into the passport before the team checked in to CP23.  As teams came and left from CP14, it was evident that every team had a different strategy.   Some teams rode east, some rode west, but all the trekking teams turned immediately north to gather the nearest CP which sat upon the upper reaches of Blue Mountain, 800 meters north and 800 meters higher than CP14.  CP14 also marked the first cutoff time of the race at 1700 hrs. Four teams missed the cutoff and where shuttled around the next section.  Teams missing cutoffs would be leapfrogged forward on the course and would be penalized the time of the slowest time of the teams that completed the missed section plus an additional hour.  They would, however, remain ranked.  

Teams continued to navigate through section 2, struggling up hills in the unanticipated mountain bike section, feeling the fine comforts of adventure racing as a cold, heavy rain drenched the racers.  Teams began to arrive at CP23 just after dark.  The first team in was Desk Jockeys, closely followed by Irish Stew.  The teams convened with race officials and both identified that CP16 was nowhere to be found.  More teams came in with the same story.  Race management, horrified by news of a missing CP, quickly took action to eliminate the point and adjusted later cutoffs to account for time lost by teams searching for CP16.

A cold Colorado rain was falling – HARD – when the first teams reached the ropes section.  Team Coyote and Coyote Ugly had missed the CP14 cutoff and been shuttle forward in the course.  The ropes were located at the southern section of Eleven Mile Canyon at a popular climbing area known as Pine Cone Dome.  Teams were required to conduct a 120-foot mechanical ascent, traverse the dome the conduct a 210-foot rappel into CP25.  The teams initiated the ascent, in fading daylight and in a heavy downpour.  The first climbers struggled in the face of an unfamiliar and very slick adversary.  The rain created a waterfall off the rocks onto the climbers, further challenging their efforts.  Displaying exceptional fortitude, they climbed on and completed the ascent.  With the rain showing no sign of let up and the increased difficulty of the climb due to the water, race management shifted to the alternate ascend point a more gradual but much longer ascent that was not as inhibited by the rain.  Team Coyote, Coyote Ugly, and Eight Something completed the ropes section and continued west towards Eleven Mile Reservoir on the most difficult trek section of the course.  Team Coyote Ugly was continuing on unranked, as they were the first team to lose a team member.  Full course teams arrived into CP24 well after dark.  Team Desk Jockeys now firmly held the lead but Team Spearhead and Team Wolfpack had emerged as close rivals for 2nd place, arriving only 30 minutes then 50 minutes behind the Desk Jockeys.  Team Stallion had dropped to 5th place, but proved they were still in the race by completing the ropes section with the fastest time of 1 hr 02 minutes.  At this CP, Team Lost Boys and Team Warhawg 2 lost team members but continued the course unranked.

The second course cutoff was located at the ropes section. All teams would complete the ropes, but were required to clear CP25 by 0200 hrs.  This proved to be the most demanding cutoff of the course.  Eight teams failed to meet the cutoff and where shuttled to CP23.  The mountain defeated three more teams, Team Coyote, Coyote Ugly, and Wolfpack. They returned back to CP 25 unable to find their way through the difficult night navigation section.  Team Wolfpack had two racers suffering from chronic injuries and withdrew from the course.  Team Coyote and Coyote Ugly were shuttled to CP28 where they continued the course unranked. 

Section 4 consisted of open water navigation on Eleven Mile Reservoir at Eleven Mile State Park.  Teams were required to navigate two canoes to 9 control points in any order they chose.  Due to low water on the reservoir, navigation yet again proved challenging.  Shuttled teams worked through the paddle section as race management awaited teams to complete the mountain trek before the 0530 hrs cutoff time. 

0500 hrs. Just a half hour until the cutoff for the mountain trek, and no teams in sight. Marc Hoffmeister was pacing, glancing at his watch, then at the trail leading from the east.  Finally, Team Desk Jockeys appeared in the distance, followed eleven minutes later by Team Spearhead.  Two more teams slipped in just before the cutoff. Team Desk Jockeys was holding on tenaciously to a slight lead over Team Spearhead, closely followed by Team Lost Boys and Team Eight Something.  Team Spearhead, however, was Desk Jockey’s only contender as they were the only other team to have made all course cutoffs up to this point. Spearhead had just won the mountain trek section with a time of 4 hours and 36 minutes.  They could see the Desk Jockeys entering the water as they arrived at CP28 and rushed to close the gap. 

As the remaining four teams emerged from the mountains and the first teams completed the paddle, they were surprised as Randy Myers from Mule Creek Outfitters greeted them with packhorses.  Teams were given two duffel bags of gear they had turned in at certification and then had to figure how to properly mount the equipment and then lead the horse or mule along an eleven mile trek to the final mystery event of the race.  Teams CDA and Team Buffaloes lost team members due to injuries and fatigue incurred during the long mountain trek, but they opted to continue on unranked.  Teams who were initially excited about the idea of a packhorse soon found that leading an animal is not always easy.  One mile into the course, Team Renegade proved to be the first victims as their mule suddenly bolted on its own route, dragging its unwitting guide with it.  As the racer held on for dear life, he found himself stomped and brush beaten before giving up and releasing the mule.  Randy’s handlers quickly rounded up the animal with no problems or injury.  Four other teams had similar challenges with their pack animals; some horse smelled the barn and led the teams in directions the teams didn’t want to go, several mules broke away and literally gave the teams a run for their money.  In the end, all teams completed the trek, with or without their pack animal, except Team Coyote Ugly who withdrew at CP 40.

The cutoff for the packhorse trek was 1000 hrs.  Team Desk Jockeys rapidly completed the paddle, winning the section with a time of 3 hrs and 5 minutes. In a sudden change of events, Team Spearhead was nowhere to be seen.  At 1000 hrs, two teams were still on the water and a storm was brewing on the horizon.  Team Spearhead had encountered some difficulties in navigation and, at one point, had capsized their boat.  As the storm rolled in, massive winds and substantial waves swept across the reservoir, beaching numerous fisherman and trapping Team Spearhead on the western side of the reservoir.  The team was recovered by Park Rangers and transported back to CP 38, but, despite finding all paddle CPs, they had missed the cutoff and had to be transported to CP42, enduring the time penalty for the shuttle which pushed them out of the running with Team Desk Jockeys. 

Team Desk Jockeys now stood as the only team to hit every course cutoff and they carried on through the packhorse section, tired, but solid in their standings if they could just make the finish line.  At 13:45 hrs, 29 hrs and 45 minutes after the start, the Desk Jockeys crossed the finish line at Mule Creek Outfitters in Lake George, CO, unscathed by cutoff penalties, the only team to complete the entire course.  But the race was not yet over.  Teams crossing the finish line were quickly moved onto a firing line.  Team members then rotated through 4 weapon systems: a lever action rifle, a 9mm pistol, a 45 cal revolver and an AR15.  Racers engaged a timed target of Osama Bin Laden with each weapon.  The total score of the team was then translated into a time bonus to reduce the overall team time.  Team Buffaloes won the marksmanship award and reduced their overall time by 1 hr and 58 minutes.

Team Desk Jockeys emerged the overall course winner.  Team Red Leg completed the course four hours behind in second place and Team Warhawg 1 earned 3rd place only 42 minutes behind Team Red Leg. 

The event proved an inspiring success.  Several teams are moving on to compete in local Colorado area sprint races, one team is now training for the 2004 Armed Force ECO Challenge, and one team navigator is leading a team at the ECO Challenge North American Championships.  The experience also taught racers priceless lessons in leadership, team dynamics, and their ability to endure; lessons that may prove invaluable to our soldiers wherever the mission may take them. 




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