Expedicion Guarani returned to the Adventure Racing World Series last week, and despite the enforced break in 2020, it was like it had never been away. World class teams were welcomed to Paraguay by organisers who could not do enough for them, and presented with a course which was both beautiful and uncompromisingly challenging.
All of the teams had to observe strict Covid protocols, for travel, and during the event, and this was handled in a friendly and effective way as teams gathered at the Yacht Resort Hotel on the banks of the River Paraguay in the capital, Asuncion. The race is renowned for the friendly service it provides, and masks could not hide the smiles of hosts and racers delighted to be meeting and competing again.
There was a strong entry, with teams travelling from Uruguay, Russia and Brazil, and one racer from the UK. That was Nick Gracie, a former World Champion, who has competed in all the Expedicion Guarani races, won 4 of them, and says Paraguay is, “the best country for an adventure race in the world.” Given the number of amazing places he’s raced, that’s quite a compliment.
He was joining team BOA Brazil Multisport, once again racing with Camila Nicolau and Guilherme Pahl. The final team member was Pedro Lavinas, who was in his first expedition race, but has been part of the team for a couple of years now. They arrived at the race on winning form, having won the last two ARWS South America regional races (in Brazil and Paraguay), and their experience at Guarani and other international races made them favourites.
However, there was strong competition. Adventure racing is growing every year in Paraguay and the local teams are getting stronger and more experienced, so teams like ‘DQ Team’ and Ulala were hoping to be competitive. (The whole event included shorter adventure races and a trail race, allowing aspiring local teams to take part alongside world class teams.) There was also a combined Paraguayan/Brazilian team called Arroyo Ari, including Jonas Junckes, who has also competed in all previous races.
Then there were ‘Blizzard AR’ of Russia, who have won Expedition Africa and are currently ranked 19th in the world, and Uruguay Natural Ultra Sports, who are ranked 17th and had finished 3rd in the last race.
Teams had a punishingly early start, getting on buses to travel to the town of San Joaquin to the East of the capital at 3.30 am. The teams knew in advance there would be just 5 stages with 93 checkpoints, (a record for a World Series race) and before setting off had time to study their maps and plan for the race ahead.
It wasn’t long after the start that the difficult navigation on the maps and terrain of Paraguay came into play, as most teams struggled to find checkpoint 2. Through the first day it was Blizzard AR who lead the way, visiting checkpoints included high viewpoints and narrow caves. During the night just about every team lost their way among the steep hills, and the Russian team doubled back on themselves, losing the lead to BOA Brazil Multisport. They’d been lost too, just not for so long!
“It was difficult to get into the maps and find our flow, especially on such an intense first stage when were running all the time to make up ground,” said Nicolau. “We thought we were far behind Blizzard and it wasn’t until we were near the end of the stage we realised we were leading.”
She added, “The next bike stage was really hot and we made no mistakes. Nick and Gui were both navigating and it needed two people in this race, as there were so many checkpoints and turnings. You had to be 100% on it all the time. We rode without packs, which made a big difference in the heat I think.”
The second big trekking stage of the race followed and there was less difficulty with navigation, but the pace was slower, even for the leaders. For the slower teams finishing the stage, which included following several rivers and canyons and a big abseil at the end, was to be their main challenge. Several of the teams, including Ulala, could not move fast enough and later retired, and Uruguay Natural Ultra Sports pulled out with a team member dehydrated. The heat, the complexity of the terrain and the navigation, and the demands of the course were taking a toll.
“It was much hotter on that trek,” said Nicolau, “and our packs were heavy with food and water as it was longer. There was no running on this stage, it was all walking and we slept in a clearing where there was some wind to avoid mosquitoes.”
For Evgeny Pochaev of Blizzard AR the stage was one of the highlights. “Despite being brutal on the feet, the canyons and waterfalls were refreshing and fun. The swim after the abseil was refreshing too and you got all your concentration back being in the cold water, just what was needed in the middle of a long race.”
The final bike ride was a punishing 181km long and included a stop to take bikes through a narrow canyon, which some teams loved and others didn’t! BOA opened up a big lead, but felt the effects at the last transition to the final paddling stage on Lago Yguazú. “We were really tired and slept, then left without the tracker!” Said Nicolau. “It was only 5 minutes down the path before we realised and went back for it, but we had to serve a 2 hour penalty. We thought, great we can sleep some more!
“The last stage was really hard as the weather changed to a big storm, with waves, thunder and lightning,and heavy rain. It was so cold and wet we thought we’d have to stop, but if we did we’d freeze! We made it to the finish and the leading short course team was just ahead of us. They generously waited to let us finish first. The whole race was really well organised and professional and I really liked that the short course teams did some of the same checkpoints as us so we saw each other.
“It was so good to be racing, and to feel free after all that has happened. We had really good team work and it was Pedro’s first XPD race after waiting for 2 years. We want to take the next big step to get the Brazilian flag on the podium in the World Champs and we hope to be in Spain, if we have been given vaccines by then.”
Blizzard finished in second and Pochaev said, “We put some serious effort into the race and I’m proud of the team! Everyone has been racing on the edge of their physical abilities and mental concentration.” He wasn’t looking ahead as far as the 2022 World Champs, but the experience of the team in the race will be an advantage if they return next year, and he added, “There is always something to improve and the race you didn’t win gives you more homework and pushes you further.”
The only other team to finish the full course were Arroyo Ari, including two Paraguayan racers, Tania Sapoznik and Fernando Taboada, who invited Jonas Junckas to race with them and suggested he bring another racer he knew (Leandro Tonet), so he wouldn’t be alone in a totally new team. The team met for the first time just 4 weeks before the race and as Fernando was nervous in his first big race his team helped him prepare, as Junckas explained.
“We gave him all the support we could and told him what the sensations of the race would be like and what he needed to take care of, and it worked very well. He ran like an experienced adventure racer!” The team obviously prioritised looking after each other and it showed in their performance and result – a World Series podium in their first race.
Next year, Expedicion Guarani will host the World Championships it was supposed to hold in 2020, and the teams who raced this year will know better than most just how demanding and rewarding Paraguay is for adventure racing, and what a superb World Champs it will be.