MedWAR takes on Tahoe: Physical challenges, medical scenarios play out in inaugural event
South Shore trails, waters and backcountry served as the setting for a unique competition that combined physical and medical challenges in the outdoors Saturday, Sept. 17. Lake Tahoe MedWAR played out on Tahoe terrain, the first event of its kind to take place in the area.
“We had high expectations, and it was everything we imagined — and even better,” said Khristy Gavigan, event coordinator and nurse at Barton Health. “The location of South Lake Tahoe and what we have to offer as far as trails, water and accessibility to public lands is unmatched.”
MedWAR — short for Medical Wilderness Adventure Race — was an idea created at Medical College of Georgia in 2000. A team from Barton competed at a MedWAR race in Arizona last winter, and ultimately decided that it wanted to host an event in its neck of the woods.
“The commitment of Barton Health and its physicians and staff made this happen, and because we live in this world class environment it provided the perfect venue,” Gavigan said.
Ten teams of four competed in the inaugural Lake Tahoe MedWAR — three from Barton, three from hospitals in Carson City and Reno, two from Arizona, one from the Bay Area and one from Travis Air Force Base. The race started and ended at Taylor Creek Sno-Park on a course that spanned 20 miles and included paddling, biking and hiking — along with medical scenarios and trivia.
“There was that competitive drive to win, but the mission is more about making sure people are prepared when they go out into the wilderness,” said Jeff Koeck, a member of the victorious Team EPI. “That they have the education and the tools they need to be able to deal with issues and problems that they’re not necessarily expecting.
“It was absolutely a blast.”
Team EPI completed the course — which featured 2.5 miles in a canoe, 14 miles of biking and 3.5 miles of trekking — in five and a half hours and scored well on the challenges and questions to win the event. The team featured Jeff Koeck, Greg Koeck, Jeff Meagher and T.J. Middlemis-Clark, competitors from a variety of backgrounds.
“We had an engineer, someone with a search-and-rescue background that works construction, a paramedic and a pharmacist. We had a good mixture of medical and other things that worked really well together,” said Koeck, a pharmacist at Barton. “That allowed us to approach a problem, look at it in a quick way and come up with a solution.”
In addition to the physical and mental challenges, Team EPI handled an unexpected problem with relative ease Saturday. While biking near Tahoe Mountain, Middlemis-Clark’s chain snapped at the top of a hill — but the engineer and former bike technician quickly fixed it to keep the team rolling.
“We thought we were done, and our engineer was totally prepared, had the tools to be able to fix it, knew what to do — and we were back on the road in 10 minutes,” Koeck said. “He was the perfect guy for the job.”
The medical challenges included an unconscious patient on the shore of Fallen Leaf Lake, anaphylaxis from a bee sting, a rock climbing accident with a lung injury, an avalanche burial that involved the use of beacons, and orienteering to find the way out of a remote location. The last scenario on the course involved an interaction with bears — played by volunteers — gone wrong.
“There was a couple that had tried to take a selfie with a mama bear and her cub, and it didn’t turn out so hot — they had been mauled by the bear,” Koeck said. “You had to deal with the two bears standing between you and the patient, and then go assess the patients.
“It was challenging, but cool and fun at the same time. To have these people chasing you around as bears — and yet you had two fairly critical patients that you had to triage on the spot. You had to be able to react immediately.”
Barton personnel designed and ran Lake Tahoe MedWAR, which required a special use permit from the U.S. Forest Service. Dr. Terrence Orr was the race director, Dr. Stephen Bannar designed the course, Dr. Clay Josephy created the medical scenarios, and Gavigan served as the event coordinator.
“When you saw the teams coming in and their smiles — they were so excited,” Gavigan said. “Later on in the day, they were filthy and exhausted and still had the same energy level. They were absolutely physically pushed to their limit, and then there was the mental component of addressing the medical scenarios and tough questions.”
Lake Tahoe MedWAR also ran smoothly thanks to an army of 70 volunteers. Organizers estimated that nearly 800 volunteer hours went into the event, including nearly 500 on race day.
“There were so many people out there making it an awesome event,” Koeck said. “When you rolled into a med station where they had the challenges, there were anywhere from five to 20 volunteers acting things out with all kinds of props — a lot of heart and soul went into it.”
Lake Tahoe provided the ideal setting for MedWAR, and Saturday’s race simply confirmed that. The hope — and plan — is that the inaugural event will be the first of many in the area.
“I really hope it’s something that becomes an annual event — I think it would be really cool,” Koeck said. “It’s perfect for our area. We have so many great wilderness activities that we can do.”
For more information on MedWAR, visit http://www.medwar.org.