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Driven by the Challenge

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Troy Mergen and Master Sgt. Eric Majeres
  • 114th Fighter Wing
An extra bottle of water, a helping hand to carry firewood, or the chance to briefly escape the elements in a warm vehicle were available if needed, but doing so meant instant dis-qualification. Tempting for some. Necessary for others. For those of us who chose to participate in the Missouri River Winter Survival Trek®, we knew what we were in for. Or so we thought.

The trek pits willing participants against nature, other trekkers, and themselves. Eagerness for the challenge was tested immediately as Old Man Winter punched us in the face with 35 mph wind gusts. Optimism dissolved into pure determination when temps plummeted past -30 degrees F. Being the first team to cross the finish line at the National Guard Beach in Chamberlain would be sweet relief.                                                                     

Our story starts 2 ½ days prior at zero dark thirty on Dock 44 near Platte, SD. The morning was overcast, dark, and frigid with a familiar northwest wind capable of working its way past our best efforts to keep the cold out.

Teams stepped-out along the northbound path for a 2 1/2 day test of physical and mental endurance. One of those teams, the Ammo Dawgs, comprised of two ammo troops from the SD Air National Guard. MSgt. Troy Mergen and MSgt. Eric Majeres were poised to make a run at the prize awaiting the winning team.

The trek was a 50-mile long confrontation between South Dakota's January winter weather and 2-person teams who carried with them everything they needed to compete (and survive) for the duration. Trekkers dressed in heavy clothing, donning backpacks (some pulling sleds), willing to traverse the icy, snow-drifted course. The winding Missouri River course was divided into two 20-mile legs and one 10-mile leg finishing at the National Guard Beach at Chamberlain.

Day one was a blustery challenge for all of the teams. Trekkers spent the entire first day not only battling the ice, snowdrifts, and cold but also a fierce headwind. By nightfall the winds subsided, the cold air settled in to -5 degrees F and we did our best to find some much needed sleep. It's amazing how wonderful a $0.99 package of hotdogs cooked over a campfire can taste! After camping for the night, only half of the daring teams decided to continue on the next morning and one-by-one we departed camp for another day on the frozen course.

Day two proved to be an extraordinary test of physical and mental toughness. Even the best thought-out plans have a way of backfiring when left in the hands of Mother Nature. A seemingly minor navigational error would later prove to be the difference between winning first place and receiving second. Physically drained but in good spirits, we drifted asleep to the popping sounds of our campfire accompanied by howling coyotes in the hills beyond camp.

Day three, the shortest leg of our journey, was one of pride. We entered this trek with expectations of winning, and even though that would take a miracle at this point, the desire to be the best was still burning inside. Excellence in all we do. Finishing the final 10 miles in under two hours required a serious gut-check. One the Ammo Dawgs were willing to accept.

Being the first team to cross the finish line had its rewards: Pride. Strength. Accomplishment. But being the first team across doesn't determine the overall winner. It comes down to the team that has the fastest overall (all three legs combined) time.

The Cowgirl Tuff Girls, who came in third the year before earned first place, the Ammo Dawgs team was second and The Donner Party Duo team came in third. All of the teams that started the trek on that dark, cold morning were made of a special kind of toughness. There are not many who would, driven by the challenge to themselves, endeavor to take on South
Dakota's frigid January weather outdoors for 2 1/2 days and two nights with only what they could carry on their back or pull behind them for shelter and supplies.

We left the icy beach at the final finish line and headed for bottled water, hot showers and the simple delights of pizza and beer. We completed the challenge.