The Army Special Operations Recruiting Battalion Team finished strong in the 378-mile Expedition Alaska Adventure Race, July 5.
The team crossed the finish in fourth place out of 20 teams in Seward, after seven days of ocean and flatwater kayaking, pack-rafting raging rivers, mountain biking and traversing multiple glaciers and high-mountain snowfields of the Kenai Peninsula – using just map and compass to guide them.
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Completing the race were Maj. JD Eskelson, training officer, 76th Operational Response Command, Salt Lake City; Capt. Amanda Rankin, group assistant intelligence officer, 7th Special Forces Group (A), Eglin Air Force Base, Florida; Sgt. 1st Class Josh Cowin, small-group leader for the Civil Affairs, Senior Leader Course, Fort Bragg, North Carolina; 1st Sgt. Ron Flick, first sergeant for the Special Forces Senior Leader Course at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, Fort Bragg.
“The most important goal of Expedition Alaska isn’t just winning. It’s finishing together as a team,” said Flick, the team organizer. The goal is to “go into it as teammates and come out of it still as friends. That’s what we have definitely done here.”
“So that’s a big win regardless of what the podium looks tomorrow afternoon,” said the self-described “avid adventure racer,” July 4, a day before the race ended.
Another important goal, he said, was to “show Expedition Alaska that Soldiers are mentally and physically tough and can endure it.”
Although it’s summer, the team experienced brutal cold and gale-force winds crossing glaciers and mountain ridgelines, Flick said. They had to press on in these conditions at night in total darkness to try and stay ahead of the other teams.
At times, Rankin said she felt she might die, particularly when climbing the glaciers and falling. “Josh has caught me. I’ve caught Josh. JD has grabbed onto me multiple times,” she said, describing how she and her teammates relied on each other not just to finish the race but to keep each other alive.
“Josh fell into a crevasse,” Flick said. “JD and Amanda stopped him from falling to his death with their rope.” That was in the middle of the night, after 20 hours of traversing the treacherous terrain of the Eklutna Glacier with no sleep.
“We still kept our wits about us, and that wasn’t the most harrowing moment either,” he added, not discussing the worst.
It’s the same way in Iraq and Afghanistan, Flick said. When you’re out in remote areas, there’s no one there to help you out except for your teammates. You have to have a really strong bond to do that.
When one person is suffering, it’s the other teammate’s job to “build that person up and get them to the finish,” Flick said.
Everyone has their own particular struggles and challenges, he continued. Some fear heights, others raging rivers, some may be weak on the biking portion. Then “you have physical highs and lows and you have mental highs and lows in this kind of race. You overcome all those through teamwork.”
Rankin said she realized she had a fear of heights when looking down a 60-degree slope she was free climbing without ropes and not seeing the bottom. She also admitted to never traversing a glacier and never scrambling across category five mountain ridgelines. Glaciers traversed were the Eagle, Milk and Eklutna.
“At times we were free-climbing and gripping rocks only with our fingertips,” she said. “There was no room for failure and that was stressful. You had to be willing to unconditionally trust your teammates to keep you safe.”
The Army team came to the race at a distinct disadvantage. Flick said that they only put together the final team roster a month before the race and a lot of their equipment was mailed to them just days prior.
“It’s rare for a rookie team to finish an expedition adventure race in this extreme environment because the odds of that happening are not very high and stacked against them right from the start,” Eskelson said. “However, to officially finish in fourth place is unheard of.”
Eskelson has been adventure racing for more than 13 years and said he is really proud of his new teammates and their “ability to persevere through all the highs and lows… all the way to the finish line.” He noted that expedition-length racing is considered any race taking longer than five days.
Flick summed up the personal challenge: “You learn a lot about yourself out there. When you hit your low points, you do a lot of self-reflecting.”
The pride of the team’s accomplishments in this race is the same type of pride they feel as being part of the Army team.
The team was proud to announce that at least one Soldier assigned to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, who also participated in the race on a different team, spoke with them about their experiences in special operations and said he is now committed to attending Special Forces Assessment and Selection.