What makes a cowboy?
Is it a pair of mud-caked boots, worn-out hat, rope in hand and a steady horse companion? Is the title only given out to those who finish a hard day with calloused hands and skin red from the sun?
For the local Cloud Peak Cowboys, a group of four men brave enough – or crazy enough – to tackle one of the most physically demanding races in the northern hemisphere, their cowboy quest is for an unrivaled adrenaline rush.
For team leader Ryan Fieldgrove, a fourth-generation rancher who was raised by the “code of the West” and taught by his father to embrace the “cowboy up” mindset, “cowboy tough” is more a way of life than a regurgitated cliché.
“Anyone from Wyoming is cowboy in spirit, and I think (the race will live up to its name),” Fieldgrove said. “It’s a lot of training. It’s a lot of time, and I guess not everyone would have the wherewithal to do that — right, wrong or indifferent.”
Fieldgrove, Zach Byram, Tom Holt and Parker Ruby make up the four-man team who will compete in the Cameco Cowboy Tough Adventure Race, a three-day trek from Buffalo to Casper that takes place July 16-19.
The race might include hiking, biking, kayaking, climbing and other physical obstacles based on previous races. But for the athletes competing in the race, all aspects of the adventure are kept secret until the night before.
The terrain, unknown, is designed to challenge athletes from start to finish, with little time to rest or rejuvenate over the more than 300-mile course.
Explaining the itch to do it was even harder.
“First thing was, ‘You’re crazy.’ But knowing us, it wasn’t too big of a surprise,” Byram said. “It was a little more to bite off than they’ve had to in the past. You think about that we’re covering a minimum of 300 miles and depending on the routes, it could be up to 500 miles. To try to make that make sense, it’s pretty difficult.”
Some 100 athletes are competing in the Cameco endurance race, which starts somewhere in the Buffalo area and finishes in Casper. Eight of the competing athletes are from Buffalo, the Cloud Peak Cowboys and two, two-member teams – Ed and Brenda von Holst and Mike Engling and Chris Jones.
The remaining 92 competitors include six athletes from Wyoming, 80 from other U.S. states and 12 from Canada, Norway and Sweden.
Fieldgrove, who owns Fieldgrove Ranch, first heard about the race three years ago from his cousin, who at the time worked as the director of tourism for Wyoming. Fieldgrove was immediately interested.
He competed in the sprint version, near Cheyenne, of the race last year but decided that if it ever came closer to home, he’d try the grand race.
“Since it’s in Buffalo, a group from here should have pretty good bearing, as far as lay of the land and some of the trails and what not,” Fieldgrove. “I know these guys, their competitive spirit and quest for fitness, so I knew we could get something together.
“I like a challenge, and it darn sure will be.”
The Cowboy Tough event will be the first adventure race for the four cowboys, who have competed in marathons, triathlons and other endurance tests. They’ve competed against and with each other in other capacities, but according to Holt, a banker in Buffalo, nothing compares to what they’re about to attempt.
“That’s part of the allure. We’ve all done
endurance-type races, but this is a completely different deal,” Holt said. “When we all kind of learned about it, it of course caught our attention.”
Team members have to stay within 50 feet of each teammate at all times and are required to break at transition areas every night, regardless of the time they get in. Each member is required to carry a certain amount of weight, which includes nutrition supplements and hydration packs, such as a CamelBak.
Teams are required to rest for a minimum of two hours between checkpoints and can resume action at 6 a.m. each morning, but they are allowed to wait longer to rest up.
Some teams leave immediately, while others stick around, depending on their muscle rejuvenation. Ultimately, as long as each team member reaches the checkpoint by the designated time, the next portion of the race continues.
The final cutoff is at noon on the last day.
“We’re all competitive; that’s why we are doing it,” Byram said. “We’ve been told there’s a high success rate of finishing, but truth be told, if we can just finish that race in a respectable time, we’ve accomplished our goal.
“There’s thousands of 10Ks and marathons around here, but really how many people can say they’ve accomplished something like this? To finish is a win in itself.”
A bigger obstacle is the mental hurdle each athlete will face. After three days of competition, with saddle sores, stomach pains from hunger and weak limbs, they already know some of the ways the race will test their cowboy toughness.
“The only two things that will make you stop are a mechanical failure or an injury of some sort; the other is if you quit because mentally you just can’t do it anymore,” Ruby said. “It’s pure exhaustion, and no matter what you do, there’s going to be dehydration to a point.
“We’ll be undernourished to a point and fighting the urge to quit. You’ll start thinking about how far you still have to go. I have no question that all of us can physically do it, but mentally is what it’s all going to boil down to.”
Each member has trained individually for months. They started their team training in early June with organized team rides in Crazy Woman Canyon and other trails along the expected route.
Individual workouts include cardiovascular work but also weight training and other strength-building exercises.
“It’s preparing your body mechanically to handle that much time and abuse in those certain spots,” Ruby said. “Aerobically, we’re fine. It’s not a sprint; we might slow down at times if we need to. We’ll find an all-day pace and slip into that.”
The commitment to the race doesn’t end after a multi-hour practice run through Crazy Woman Canyon, such as the team’s 12-hour workout in mid-June.
Time missed for dinners, putting kids to bed and general family life has to be made up once they’re back home.
“Pro teams are out there doing what they do. That’s their job, but we don’t have that luxury,” Fieldgrove said. “We have to fit into a work-life balance. We have kids at home and wives who work.
“My wife doesn’t understand anything I do like this, but she understands this is what I like to do; she supports that. To describe what we like to do to people who don’t like it, it’s pretty hard to digest.”
According to Holt, the commitment from his family is equal to if not greater than any physical toll his body will take.
“If our families didn’t buy into this, we wouldn’t be here doing this,” Holt said. “You’ve got to have support at home, or it wouldn’t be possible. Or you wouldn’t have a family when you got back.”
The endurance race is the final step of adventure week, which offers different physical challenges. Adventure week starts July 10 in Cheyenne with a Glow Run and 1-mile fun run. July 11 includes a sprint race, a condensed version of the longer adventure race.
The Anadarko Casper Strong race takes place July 12, and on July 14, a Bighorn Challenge and Outlaw Challenge will take place in Buffalo.
The Cameco Cowboy Tough Adventure Race will commence early July 16 in Buffalo. The race will begin at Crazy Woman Square.