Big Adventure in (and above) the Basin

By Cory Hatch

It’s July 2015 and I’m hike-a-biking straight up a two track to the top of Garns, a 9,000-foot mountain in the Big Hole Range. The steep swath of dirt is crisscrossed with two-foot-deep ruts. It’s difficult to walk, much less ride a mountain bike.

Up the trail, my wife, Amy, is shouting helpful things like, “You’re doing great, honey!” and “You’ve got this!”

“Can we stop talking?” I ask her. Morale is low. Garns is the second mountain in a row up which I’ve had to carry my bike. The first time we got lost—no blame there. But this second hike-a-bike has an architect, a villain for my animus: Jason Popilsky.

Jason Popilsky and Abby Broughton’s adventure racing activities take them to wild places both close to home and far from Teton Valley. Photo by Amy Hatch.

This is the second summer Jason and his partner/teammate Abby Broughton have hosted the Teton Ogre Adventure Race. Adventure racing typically involves some combination of running, mountain biking, and paddling. Race directors provide a map and coordinates, and racers must plot checkpoints and find their way to the finish line.

After two years, I’ve learned that the normally mild-mannered Jason has a perverse intelligence when it comes to designing race courses. This Garns hike bears his fingerprints. There’s no question it was his idea. Two or three hours from now, Jason will hand me a cold beer and we’ll be friends again—but right now, he’s kind of a jerk.

If you saw this unassuming pair on the street, you wouldn’t know they rank among the best adventure racers in the country. But since their first race just five years ago, the couple has amassed an impressive collection of first place trophies.

Jason Popilsky (front right) and fellow Team Tecnu members (along with caiman in the foreground!) on the packrafting leg of the 2015 Adventure Racing World Championships in Brazil. Photo by Alexandre Socci/Green Pixel.

As part of Team Tecnu, Abby and Jason won the 2014 United States Adventure Racing Association (USARA) National Championship. Abby won again with the team in 2015, and Jason raced in the world championships with Tecnu in both 2014 and 2015. (It may tell you something about adventure racing that Tecnu is a specialized wash for poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac.)

But the 2015 world championship race—a poorly planned, poorly executed suffer-fest in Brazil—was a turning point. Now, as the couple prepares for the 2016 Ogre, Abby and Jason say it’s time to make adventure racing fun again.

Abby’s resume as an elite athlete is impressive. She raced as a member of the U.S. National Rowing Team in 2006, 2009, 2010, and 2011. Jason, on the other hand, hadn’t raced competitively since his early teens, until the two started dating in 2010.

Abby found a flyer for a 12-hour adventure race in Missoula, Montana, and asked Jason if he wanted to try it. They won first place overall. “That is still one of my favorite days ever,” Abby says.

Photo by Chris Radcliffe.

Despite their early success, adventure racing wasn’t always easy. That fall, they competed in their first 24-hour race in Bend, Oregon. “I ended up in tears,” Abby says. “We didn’t even finish. We got really, really cold and had to break out the space blankets. It was the classic situation of ‘That was awful, I’m never going to do it again,’ and then, a few months later, ‘When is the next one?’”

Part of the challenge was Abby’s inexperience on the bike. In 2014, Abby and Jason teamed up with Tecnu for a race in California. Two hours into the race, Abby flipped over the handlebars and broke her collar bone.

That’s when she decided to get coaching from pro mountain biker and Victor resident Amanda Carey. “Those kinds of people—very athletically talented people, but with no skills—they’re my favorite people to teach,” Amanda says of Abby.

Now, with some skills under her belt and her confidence restored, Abby is not only riding well, she’s winning mountain bike races. “It’s incredible because she never gives up,” Amanda says.

Photo by Chris Radcliffe

More recently, at the world championships in Brazil, Jason faced his own adventure racing demons. The race director seriously underestimated how long it would take people to finish the race. “We were having to ration to a quarter of what we would usually eat,” Jason says. “We basically starved.”

And that’s not all. The course sent them through swamps infested with ticks, mosquitos, and a species of reptile similar to an alligator. Temperatures soared to 105 degrees. “Everyone was constantly fighting heat exhaustion,” Jason says. “My whole system was down. Everything hurt, my muscles and organs, and I didn’t have any support. The whole flight home, I was worried about infections in my feet. I got off the plane and saw Abby and cried, I was so traumatized.”

A checkpoint marker lets 2014 Teton Ogre Adventure Racers know they’re heading in the right direction. Photo by Abby Broughton.

But rather than letting Brazil ruin his love for the sport, Jason says last year’s world championships motivated him to build a better Teton Ogre. “The race director really took a chance on that race, and it really failed for her,” he says. “I realized that, logistically, the planning has to be perfect. And there has to be an element of fun.”

That’s why Ogre racers keep coming back. Aaron Christensen and his team won first place honors in the 2014 and 2015 6.5-hour and 7-hour races. “It’s fun getting out and picking a course and getting to a point on the map,” he says.

Abby and Jason “come from a different mindset than most other extreme athletes,” Christensen continues. “They’re more invested in the process. They can break the big picture down to small chunks. I think that’s what makes them so good at what they do.”

Winners of the Teton Ogre Adventure Race received cups personally sandblasted by the event organizers. Photo by Abby Broughton.

The 2016 Teton Ogre Adventure Race takes place June 25 and 26 “somewhere in/near/around beautiful Teton Valley, Idaho.” The winning three-person co-ed team in the 24-hour race gets a $400 scholarship and qualifies for the USARA National Championships in Georgia. Visit www.tetonogrear.com for more details.