The American revival of the famous endurance race from the 1980s and 1990s is packed with mud, sweat and gears.
It’s 0900 hours at Biltmore Estate, on a crisp and foggy fall morning, and I’m standing on a hilltop in North Carolina, surrounded by woods and vineyards once belonging to the Vanderbilts.
Two-dozen owners of the 2022 Defender Trophy Edition have come to compete for a spot in the Land Rover Trophy Competition in England––a revival of the famous endurance race from the 1980s and 1990s. The Land Rover Defenders of competitions past were known for their iconic yellow paint job, which the company re-created as a limited-edition Defender for 2022, and gave their owners a spot in this competition. I’m with a group of journalists and two Olympic Gold Medalist Land Rover brand ambassadors competing alongside these owners—Alpine skier Ted Ligety and volleyball player Gabby Reece.
No one seems to know quite how competitive to be today. There’s the father-daughter local Asheville team competing in honor of a Land Rover Experience trip they made here 30 years ago. And a husband and wife from Miami who have just become part of the Land Rover family and seem more interested in soaking up the subculture than taking the trophy. And then there are the two-man teams who are silent, speaking softly to protect their strategies, and shuffling like horses at the starting stall.
Ligety is my partner for the day––a dashing 37-year-old Utah native who recently retired from pro skiing to focus on his family and his business endeavors, including his sports optics brand, SHRED. He has the competitive undercurrent of a man who’s won gold on the world stage, but not without losing his sense of humor. Which we’ll both need to get through the first task of the day: finding our Defender in the first place.
A towering man in Land Rover work garb sounds an air horn and all of us run off in a mad sprint down a steep hill, past fields of wine grapes to another man in a blue Land Rover shirt who is passing out GPS coordinates of the mystery spot a couple miles away where we can find our cars. To accomplish this, we have compasses, a very basic and not-to-scale map, and a handheld GPS device steering us towardswoods crisscrossed with trails in every direction.
We have no idea which trails will get us where the GPS arrow is pointing. Normally, these woods are home to the Land Rover Experience, where owners can come spend the day finally getting to see what their daily commuters were actually built for. But right off the bat, it’s clear that we’re getting a lot more than the typical Land Rover Experience today.
Ligety puts the coordinates into our handheld GPS and we get a direction to run next––straight back up the hill we just sprinted down. I’m already sweating and my heart is pounding as we sprint back over the hill and down an overgrown farm road, past walkers who yell “see you on the podium,” in reference to our breakneck pace.
After a chummy group breakfast, the air horn had clearly outed our competitive natures. Soon we’re running through the woods and double-checking the GPS to make sure we’re going in the right direction, but we can’t traverse these woods as the crow flies––nor as the cattle roam, which we soon discover.
We had been prepared for two hazards: black bears and electric fences. And we’d been warned of the high likelihood of encountering both. As we come running out of the woods to a field we’d hoped to easily traverse to get to our Defender, we realize it has a wire fence that looks suspiciously Edisonian.
My partner touches it with the back of his hand. “It’s not electric,” he says, quickly climbing through. So I start crawling through the wires, and as soon as I get one leg planted on the other side, I feel a shock pulse through my arm.
“It’s fucking electric!” I yell, as I extricate myself sideways like a drunk clearing a limbo bar, while he reacts with a mix of surprise and concern.
So we start running parallel on either side of this fence––the Olympian on the side with the cows, and the journalist knee-deep in sopping wet stinging nettles on the other. We keep going like this until we come to a downed fence post. I throw my backpack over and crawl under the wire, just in time for a farmer to yell at us to get the hell out of his cow pasture.
We sprint across the field, dodging cow patties like land minds, on a mad dash to the metal gate on the other side. The moment we step through the gate onto the dirt farm road beyond, a German man pulls up in a pretty yellow Defender that he located without even breaking a sweat.
“The cahhs are a half-mile back that way, guys!” He says, as we inhale his dust.
We nod humbly and follow the road. Our sprint has become an exhausted walk, and up ahead, we see the father-daughter duo we’d flown past a half hour earlier. The tortoises had soundly beaten the hares. And then it happens: we finally glimpse (what’s left of) the row of yellow Defenders we’d been hunting for forty-five muddy, shocking, and grueling minutes.
We hadn’t even started, and I was already utterly spent.
The night before, I first met Ted Ligety at a buffet dinner and off-road training session held under a tent near the starting line. Ligety is a Land Rover Ambassador, and as partners in the competition we were instructed to come up with a team name and to decorate a team flag. The other teams had months to make their flags, and used all sorts of painting and screen-printing services, while we had ten minutes and a few sharpies.
My wife had stalk-searched Ligety on Instagram the night before I left for Asheville, and she informed me that he and I had married our spouses and had each of our children on virtually identical schedules. So, he and I decided to call ourselves the Synchronized Swimmers––a name that even drew laughs from the stoic Land Rover techs assembled from far and wide to train us for the competition.
We were given a list of skills we’d need to learn by the end of the night. The Land Rover techs were stationed around the tent and out beside a pair of Trophy Edition Defenders, to show us how to switch them from low to high gear, how to navigate the terrain response system, how to handle a Hi-Lift Jack, how to operate an electronic winch, how to shoot an azimuth on a compass, how to navigate with a handheld GPS, and so on.
We each were given 8.5 x 11-inch laminated maps of the competition area; with only the roads we would be allowed to use highlighted. Dotted all over the map were numbers, each indicating the site of a “task” based around the skills we were learning.
The tasks had names that were vague clues as to what they were, and point values indicating degrees of difficulty, but you would never really know what you were getting into until you got there. Whoever had tallied the most points by 3pm would be crowned the winner for the day.
“The hardest task you do all day,” they said, “is the one you do first.”
That wasn’t exactly true for us. It was hard before we even started, and then on our first task, the guy waiting at the spot on the map marked #7 handed us a tulip chart (the kind rally drivers use) that took us out of the woods and into downtown Asheville. Still clad in our muddied and soaked clothes from sprinting in the woods, we found ourselves on a scenic tour on dry pavement. When you start in the terrain that a Defender is made for, it feels very strange to go back to doing what most drivers actually use them for.
The next task would be our favorite of the day, and the one that best showed off what a Defender can really do. It was called “Punch your ticket,” and the name referred to hole punches tied to trees along the course that you had to use to punch a card that was zip-tied to your front bumper. But you had to get within inches of each tree to punch the ticket, and the trees they chose were selected based on how many laws of physics the Defender would have to defy in order to reach them––some couldn’t be punched unless you went up on three wheels.
One descent was so steep, I thought I was going to flip over backwards, and the task finale involved a 200-foot-long trench filled with muddy water up to the hood.
I had really hoped I wouldn’t see the Hi-Lift Jack again after the first night’s tutorial, but we soon found ourselves at its mercy. The task was simply called “One Car Length,” and when we showed up, a Defender with a house team was already lining up for the task: the President & CEO of Jaguar Land Rover North America and the global Chief Commercial Officer of Jaguar Land Rover.
“Come on, guys…” said Ligety, like only a star brand ambassador could. And they gave us their spot since they weren’t officially competing.
We drove up a steep incline and set the parking brake. A tow chain was anchored to a tree at the top of the hill. The idea was to mimic a situation where you needed to pull the Defender out of a bad spot without a winch, using only a High-Lift Jack and every last ounce of your energy.
The task was to tow the 5,000-pound Defender the distance of one car length up the hill, which doesn’t sound too hard until you realize that this means resetting the jack multiple times, each time swapping out the chains to not lose your progress. It was backbreaking, and it was the first time I realized why the application to the event suggested getting a physical from your doctor beforehand.
It took six re-sets of the jack, taking turns pumping the steel bar and holding the jack steady between the Defender and the tree. When our front wheel finally nudged the finish line and we were sweaty and our legs and arms were throbbing, the man with the stopwatch told us that we missed the winning time by one second.
We started making the most of the treacherous trails between tasks. We’d been given a 35-mile-per-hour speed limit, so we had to keep an eye on the speedometer in the flats. But most of the time, the mud, ruts and switchbacks dictated their own speed limit. The general rule from the trainers was to cross tough terrain at the same speed you would walk across it.
As the day went on, we were tasked with finding clues in the woods using only a compass, and driving through a slalom pole course without touching the poles. The most hair-pulling-out task of the day was a mental torture exercise called “Rat Trap.”
It was an octagon about a foot wider than the Defender, and you had to pull in and do a 180-degree turn before pulling out of it. It was like getting blocked into the tightest parallel parking spot of your life, and then inching your way out, ten times in a row. And every time you bump, tap, or graze one of the foam poles surrounding you on all sides, there’s a guy with a clipboard there to deduct 25 seconds from your time.
A little before 3pm, all the Defenders rolled back into the campground where we’d started the day. No one missed the deadline, as there was a massive point dock for every minute after 3pm.
Everyone was tired, muddy, and no one really knew quite where they stood in the competition. No team had completed all the tasks, but I pitied anyone who had missed the glory of “Punch Your Ticket.” Thankfully, no one had been disqualified for hiding the course markers to sabotage other teams, which were told had happened with another group.
The award ceremony was held that night over dinner. I sat at a press table next to the editor of Rovers Magazine, Jeff Aronson, who looks like Ralph Lauren’s long-lost brother and speaks with a thick Maine accent.
“I’ve been covering the Land Rover world a long time,” he said, ”and I can count on one hand the people I don’t want to see again.” Which he delivered as high praise for the Land Rover tribe.
I got the clear sense that the heart and soul of the brand doesn’t lie with those who splash out the most cash for a new top-of-the-line Range Rover, but with the ride-or-die Land Rover owners like Aronson, who have a project car or two in their driveway, and who wouldn’t consider driving anything else. Without the die-hard owner base, Land Rover might risk becoming just another luxury car brand. But based on the executive heavyweights dining with us, nurturing the brand culture seems to be a high priority.
I occurred to me, for the first time all day, that I was part of this Land Rover family once. My father bought a Discovery in Seattle in the mid-90’s. I drove it to my senior prom, and a few months later, my dad and I took it cross-country to New York to drop me off for college. We had to sleep in it one night in Montana because every hotel was booked. I’ve never enjoyed any car more than that green Discovery. Even though we had to sell it when a check-engine light came on and we got an eye-watering repair quote. But if I could own a Land Rover again––under warranty––I don’t think there’s a vehicle I’d want more.
When the trophies were handed out after dinner, a duo of friends from Utah, aptly named Team Utah, took the top prize. The husband-and-wife team from Miami won a gag prize for taking the longest to find their car that morning. When they drove up to the Rat Trap challenge that I cussed my way through, they simply said, “nah,” and moved on. Their Defender was a Covid purchase. They’ve already driven it from Miami to Mount Rushmore and back with their kids—a far better use case than Rat Trap, anyway.
But there was a parallel contest for all of us in the press and ambassador pool. Third place was announced, then second, and then, to our surprise, Ligety and I were called up for the first-place trophy.
“Synchronized Swimmers!” cheered Ligety, pumping a fist into the air.
None of the teams competing alongside us won the spot in the finals in England. Of the 81 owner teams that competed in the U.S. Trophy Competition over a multi-day period, a Charlotte, NC-based duo named “Team Cody” was the one that punched their ticket to England.
My walnut and brass trophy is sitting in front of me as I write this. But neither it nor the thrill of putting the Defender on three wheels could match the memory the day dragged up of my Land Rover road trip with my dad in the summer of ‘96: chasing daylight across Montana, with the 10-disk changer loaded with Creedence, Guy Clark, and John Prine. It was our last adventure before I started college, and one of the best we ever had.
I went to the mountains to find out what a Land Rover can do. And it turns out they really can take you anywhere.
Even to your past.
Suunto MC-2 Compass – one was issued to each team, and it got me to my clues in the woods. Light, pocketable, and the last compass you’ll ever need to buy.
Orvis Cold Weather Hunting Gloves – The trigger fingers are not lined, which makes these fantastic for the delicate business of resetting a High-Lift Jack, while protecting your hands while you’re using it.
Norrona Falketind 35 pack was easy to sprint in, it has side zippers for quick access, Velcro attach points I lashed my GoPro to, and enough room to hold all my backup gear, like the Falketind Gore-Tex jacket I brought for working outside the Defender in the rain.
Garmin eTrex10 Worldwide GPS may not help you avoid cow patties and electric fences, but it will keep you going in the right direction, and was carried by every team.
My Leatherman Multi-Tool was on hand for anything. We carried one, and so did all of the Land Rover guys.
Ombraz Armless Sunglasses stayed on during all the sprints and Hi-Lift jacking madness.
Livsn Flex Canvas Pant – the tough canvas resisted the stinging nettles and the double seam that makes them perfect for running in the woods and jumping behind the wheel without splitting it.