My rocky, muddy, super-competitive 24 hours with Olympic legend Lindsey Vonn

LINDSEY VONN IS racing downhill. It's September in Asheville, North Carolina. The most decorated ski racer in history has just spilled her coffee. Her white tennis shoes, which are white, are covered in mud. Vonn observes her jog along the rocky dirt road, still damp from last night’s rain. She notices my backpack, rain jacket, and waterproof hiking shoes.
"How did you know that they were there?" As we approach Hilaree Nelson, our third teammate Vonn questions. "No one said I should bring a backpack. I was not told to bring a raincoat. A pillow. Or that there would be running!"

Nelson, a well-known climber and ski mountaineer from Telluride (Colorado), arrives at the first checkpoint. A competition director gives her the GPS coordinates of our Land Rover Defender SUV. We all turn together and start speed-walking uphill.

But... We're heading in the wrong direction.

Nelson admits that we are on the wrong side. "That means that we are further from the car than initially thought," Nelson says as we turn around, jog downhill towards the checkpoint, and then head west -- in the right direction -- to our vehicle.

Vonn states, "I can still see other teams." "They're not too far ahead."

Although this is not a race, it doesn't mean speed doesn't matter. The first teams to get their cars on the course will be the ones who chart their own routes, without having to worry about being blocked by others. We must correct our mistakes quickly.

Vonn laughs, as she jogs more than a mile in overgrowth and mud. Her right knee has had four surgeries, while her left one is missing the lateral collateral ligament. Her pain is caused by her knees.

Vonn is why I'm here competing in Land Rover TreK. I hope my navigation skills and driving skills can help Team Rocky Road win. Vonn created our team name last night. It was a tribute to the course, mountain communities we all live in, and, of course ice cream. She announced our name to the group and said that it would be more satisfying when we reach the top, win, because we traveled a rough road.

Vonn, who is now two years into her retirement, is still an elite athlete. She is a hypercompetitive thinker and believes winning is everything. I do not want her to fail.

Vonn is the most decorated ski racer in history. What made her want to compete in TReK. What would her teammate look like? Diwang Valdez for ESPN

LAND Rover's TREK competition was created in the middle of the 1990s. It is a one-day contest that tests each team's offroad skills, driving, recovery, and physical fitness. Teams need to be able and able to work together, strategize, prioritize, solve problems, and plan. This course winds through the Biltmore Estate, an 8,000-acre estate in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It includes four-star hotels, working vineyards and a hotel. The company hosted its first TReK competition in 2019 for automotive journalists. It added an additional twist in 2021.

Vonn, 36, has been a long-standing partner of Jaguar Land Rover. She agreed to compete with the media. In August, Vonn invited me to join her team. Vonn, a fierce competitor in a competitive, isolated sport, was the main reason I said yes. How would she feel as a teammate What made her want to compete in TReK competition? Did she really know what she was getting herself into? Did she?

Vonn, Nelson, and I worked together for 24 hours to answer those questions. Vonn is learning to be herself in the next chapter of her life. TReK offers Vonn the chance to find start points, return to a beginner's mindset, and discover where she can excel. Vonn was a ski racer who meticulously planned her training, and could recall skiing the course many times. She is now accepting the unexpected and unprepared moments.

Vonn says, "I love driving and there aren't many opportunities to really offroad." She owns a Defender Defender and does some off-road driving around Park City. This is going to be rough and gnarly. These are learning opportunities that allow me to discover things I wouldn't otherwise have the chance to. It's also good for my mental health. I can conserve energy if I don't use my brain and body too much.

These opportunities require that you are able to accept not being the best and understand that your team may not be the favourite to win. Some of the other teams include experienced off-road drivers or automotive experts who have competed in this event before and know what to expect.

Vonn states, "Being the best at something is pretty amazing." It took me all my life to reach that point. No matter what I do, I will continue learning and it will be challenging. "I want to take on the challenge."

This includes determining how she will react to being a third of a team.

Vonn states, "I have never been a true friend." "I don't like relying on others. I feel that I am better doing it myself, as I don't want anyone to let me down. My challenge is letting go of control and allowing others to do the same.

Vonn is pictured here with Lucy, her dog, acknowledging the impact her sport had on her mental well-being. She has a new perspective after two years of retirement. "I'm happy," Vonn says. "I feel really at ease being me." Diwang Valdez for ESPN

THE NIGHT BEFORE, six contest designers, course directors, and Land Rover employees meet for dinner under a tent on a large field. An event director invites the competitors -- 16 journalists, Vonn, and Nelson -- to introduce themselves after a formal welcome.

Vonn states, "I used ski," when it is her turn. "Now, I enjoy driving fast so it's exciting to be here. Oh, and win. I love to win."

After introductions, the director reviews the emergency procedures, clarifies the rules and explains that each team will be given a map with 12 challenges. However, not everyone will have the time or energy to complete them all. He jokes that "you'd need to be an Olympic-caliber runner to do that."

"Perfect!" Vonn responds.

He reminds all competitors to respect the property's speed limit: 20 mph anywhere on the property and 5 mph in the vicinity of the vineyards. He says, "They're trying keep dust off of the grapes."

"Twenty?" "Twenty?" Vonn yells, leaping to her feet and pretending fury. Later, she told me that she is as fast on four wheels as she was on two planks. On a snowy afternoon last winter, she made doughnuts in her car rental on New York City's West Side Highway. She tells the group, "If I'm moving under 80, it feels as if I'm crawling." "I don't do slow."

Someone says, "It's intense driving." It will feel fast.

Vonn said to me, "Nothing feels quick at 20."

Contest director explains that time management and strategy are key factors in maximizing points. Maximum points will be awarded to the team that completes the challenge fastest and accurately. He says that winning is as simple as completing more challenges than your competitors.

"But what's your prize for winning?" Vonn questions the group.

"Bragging rights."

Vonn said, "Oh!" "And I will brag,"

Vonn and Roenigk discussed strategy in the rain the night before the competition -- even though Vonn didn't get the memo and arrived to the event without a raincoat. Diwang Valdez for ESPN

We woke up on Thursday morning to the sound a gong. It is 6:15 a.m., an hour after start time, and the rain from last night has stopped. We get dressed in our tents in matching long-sleeved shirts and hiking trousers, and pack our sleeping bags to meet under the tent.

"Did you feel the rain keep your spirits up?" Nelson says that she didn't hear anything when I asked her.

She says, "I had earplugs on." "Didn’t you?"

She's a pro at this whole sleeping-under-the-stars thing. A night spent at sea level in a warm tent felt like glamping to the first woman ever to climb Mount Everest, and Lhotse neighbor, in 24 hours.

"How did you sleep?" Vonn tells me that it has been many years since she slept in a tent with her family. Last night was the first time she had ever inflated a mattress pad.

"You remember how they said not to get our sleeping bags wet?" Vonn says and then turns her head to stare at Lucy, her Cavalier King Charles spaniel. "I slept with my wet dog in mine. My sweatshirt was used as a pillow. It's okay. Minnesota is where I was born. We can be rugged and we can eat at five-star restaurants. I love having variety."

She describes her night and I am struck by how many other athletes with Vonn's fame would be as adaptable and light-hearted. How would I react if someone had sent me the event overview? I still was worried when I got the document. Did I have enough to study? What would the value of the few off-road navigation rallies that I had competed in keep me from being the weakest link on Vonn? Would I be able to remember how to use a hi-lift when under pressure? Please help!

Nelson had also read the document. She was prepared for her trip: her North Face waterproof suitcase contained a bike shorts, swimsuit, and two rain jackets. You can control everything in her world. But she was also anxious. She says, "This is way out of my comfort zone." "I have never done anything like it."

But Vonn isn't nervous. She is confident and calm, despite her inexperience and lack of knowledge about what she was doing. Her smile is infectious.

I was stunned.

"Sorry!" After reaching across the breakfast table and slapping my hand, she yells. "I got it!"

I glance at my back and see a black spot. Then, I laugh.

Vonn states, "I didn’t want you getting a mosquito bite on my hand." "This could jeopardize our entire plan."

Then she pauses and adds: "Hey, that is teamwork right there." That was a good first step to show that I can work in a team. Alyssa and I at breakfast. "I'm a team player."

The first challenge required teams to transport long, heavy planks in the frame of a bridge and complete a puzzle on the wood. Vonn states, "This is much more physically than I thought." "I thought that we would be driving off-road around the villa." Diwang Valdez for ESPN

I'M RUNNING Ahead of the Defender, with my arms extended overhead like an NFL referee. I am tracing the route I think Vonn will drive the most smoothly. At this distance she can't hear me so I stop to map a course and point out where Vonn should place her tires. She maneuvers her SUV up a steep bank off-camber and raises two of the wheels from the ground. Then she turns sharply right and points her nose at the tree.

"Closer!" Keep going!" I shout and move with my hands.

We are halfway through the most difficult driving challenge of the day. The contest director has attached a small paper ticket to the nose of each car with nine images, star, moon and flower, that corresponds to the small hole punches that are tied to trees along the route. Each team must navigate the narrow course by placing the Defender's nose close to every tree so that the hole punch can punch a ticket.

Vonn is blind and unable to see the obstacles ahead of her in the driver's seat despite all the cameras. She must navigate the difficult terrain at unnatural angles and with confidence.

Nelson and I swap roles after the next tree and I take the navigator's chair. Nelson follows and finds the next hole punch. It is located midway up a steep section of rock and requires a sharp left turn midway up. "More to your left!" More to the left! Nelson shouts at Vonn as Vonn starts to rock crawl towards the tree. Nelson is focused and intense. She shouts instructions and her eyes never leave the ground.

Vonn shouts, "I have it," loud enough to hear only me. "I know. This is what I have. I can do it." She's not listening.

Vonn doesn't question her moves. She doesn't hesitate to take her foot off of the gas when her tires slide on rocks or the SUV loses grip. This is a common mistake. Her calm and unwavering determination impressed me, as well as a quote she shared with me shortly after her retirement.

Vonn said that she keeps her foot on the gas until the fence is reached. "Most people brake before their car runs off the edge. While I'm trying to pull myself out of the wreck, I have my foot on gas and keep my foot on it.

Nelson gives Vonn valuable input on terrain she doesn't see and tries to keep her from the fence. At first I see Vonn's description of a woman who prefers to do it herself than trust someone else. Then I notice a shift. "OK!" Vonn shouts at Nelson through the window. "What's next?" "What next?" I watched her realize, or perhaps remember that Nelson was on her team. Nelson wants her win.

This attitude change lasts for the rest of the day. Challenge No. Vonn says she will be a passenger when challenge No.7 requires precise navigation. She says, "This is your strength." "You and I have this!"

TReK is not only about driving fast, but also about communication and problem solving. Diwang Valdez for ESPN

Vonn exclaims, "THIS IS THE FIRST TIME I've put on an official race bib in over two years," as she displays a bright orange "TEAM 6” bib and mugs to the documentary cameras.

Vonn skied in her last professional race at February 2019's world championships in Are (Sweden). Despite suffering from severe pain in her knees after a surgery, and an unfortunate crash in the super G five day earlier, Vonn won bronze in the downhill. She called it a career. It was a fitting end to a long and successful career. It was also a complete disappointment in other aspects. Vonn planned to retire 10 month later after breaking Ingemar Stenmark’s World Cup wins record, which was 86. Her body was unable to keep up with her, and she fell four short of her goal.

Vonn states, "I believe I am luckier that most skiers to be honest," "Most people cannot have one last race. Although I knew that I would eventually retire, it was a different experience to realize that what you have done all your life is not what you will do again. This is the truth. Most people can go back to their previous jobs. It's not for me. It was a difficult transition.

Vonn wrote a memoir during those last months of her career. As HBO cameras followed Vonn for an all-access documentary on HBO, She was on a Copper Mountain training run in November 2018 when she crashed and tore her lateral collateral ligament. Her left knee also suffered multiple fractures. She continued to write.

She realized that she had written the book from an emotional dark place when she completed it in late 2019. She couldn't identify herself in the book as she went through it. It was negative. Vonn states, "I wanted it to be right." "So, I wrote it all over again."

Vonn's perspective changed over the months. After racing, Vonn felt more at ease and more comfortable in her own skin. She spent the winter at home with her dogs in Park City and re-calibrating her priorities. People close to her also noticed the shift. Vonn states, "They're like: 'This is my happiest ever and you seem so happy with yourself. "That's exactly how it is. "I'm very comfortable being me."

Vonn drove off-road around her Park City, Utah property and was thrilled to have the opportunity to improve her driving skills on the challenging course in Asheville. Diwang Valdez for ESPN

"Rise" will be released in January 2022. It focuses on mental health and Vonn’s battle with depression. Vonn began talking about this publicly in 2012. It was back then like, "Oh my God, why would you discuss this?" Vonn says. "I felt like people were judging me. "Mental health is something that I am really happy with. It has become a more common and regular conversation.

She has been a Harvard Business School student since her last World Cup race. She also interned with a venture capitalist, and is now an advisory board member for two funds. She is passionate about supporting Black and woman-owned businesses, particularly those that are focused on technology to democratize healthcare. She is interested in a Jaguar ride in Formula E racing. She was the first global ambassador of Project Rock with Under Armour's Head Sportswear line.

She skied with her family this winter for the first-time since she was 12. Since then, she has split her time between New York, Park City, and Los Angeles. This allows her to reconnect with friends and decide what next. She will be attending the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures' opening gala in Los Angeles the week following TReK. Then she will travel to Italy with friends for a vacation. She says, "I really miss Europe." "I cannot wait to go back."

Vonn is considering her role in the sport as the Beijing Games near. She was the CEO of the U.S. Ski Team's ski team last year and served as an advisor to him. For women who are interested in the sport, she created an email address that can be used to contact her directly.

Vonn states, "I still miss racing no matter how happy in my life and I still wish to be racing at Olympics." "I love skiing and will continue to do so.

Vonn says that she can see the additional strain that her sport has placed on her mental health as she looks back at her career. Vonn states, "There is this misconception that athletes are superhumans." "And although we can do physical superhuman things, it is far from the truth. It's 10x more stressful to be an athlete than to have a regular job. Imagine only seeing three to four people every day when you go to work. It doesn't matter how successful you are, as long as there is no one in your hotel room. It's about how you feel at night, when there's no one around. It's all about you. It can be very frightening sometimes.

Vonn asks me if her new perspective and happiness will follow her into darkness.

Vonn states, "Now it doesn’t matter where or what I’m doing, lights on, off, strobe lights, it doesn’t matter." "I'm happy. Even when I get up in the middle night to sleep in a tent with my dog."

Vonn's ability to overcome pain and injury was a hallmark of her skiing career. After sustaining nerve damage to her right arm and a broken arm, Vonn skied the entire season 2017 with her hand duct-taped on her pole. TreK was full of this trait. Diwang Valdez for ESPN

Upon arriving at checkpoint 10, we quickly realize why it is one to avoid. Teams must pull a hilift (a heavy, tall jack used to lift farm equipment) off their car's roof. Attach it to a tree using chains and tow straps and then turn it into a medieval winch to pull the 5,500-pound car up a hill approximately two cars long.

A Land Rover representative told me that this vehicle is used by many teams. Men especially. They burn out quickly and start too fast."

We come up with a plan in the car: Three of us will each work the winch together so that no one is ever at risk of being tapped out. On the spot, however, it becomes clear that someone must remain in the car to operate the brake.

"You are the lightest. Vonn says, "Get in the car." "Hilaree, I've got this."

Ten minutes pass, then fifteen... twenty. I feel frustrated from the front seat. I feel helpless, like I don't have the strength to pull my weight (or that of the car). "Brake on!" They yell when they are tired and need to stop to change the tow chains. "Brake on!" "Brake on!" I respond and stop the car from moving.

"You guys are OK back there?" After 30 minutes, I yell. "I'm fresh and ready to help!"

There was no response. Vonn sprints towards the front of the vehicle a few minutes later. Her blonde ponytail is matted and soaking, and she's rushing towards the front of the car. Do you need a break? I shout out, but then realize that she isn't stopping to talk. She's simply switching sides.

"No time!" She yells while she runs. We have a system. We have a system.

It was now my turn to learn. When physical challenges required us all to work together, I was there for them. In this case, however, being a good teammate meant that I was willing to accept a supportive role.

They were right to keep going. I'm a sportswriter and not an elite athlete, no matter how many pushups or strength I have. They weren't going to put off this physical challenge for me.

With more than 10 minutes remaining, our back tires crossed the finish line. As they catch their breath, I put the car in park and give water to my team members. Their sweaty, matted hair is a constant companion. I look down from the top of the car as the hi-lift is being replaced. I take a moment and appreciate my badass team.

Vonn states, "Using a hilift as a winch is one of the most difficult things that I have done." It was hard. It was hard. We did it together. We were there to win it." Diwang Valdez for ESPN

FINALL, WE PASSED 7 of the 12 challenges. Later, we found out that we were first or second in every challenge except one. We also had the fastest and most precise time through navigation and hole-punch challenges. We construct a bridge and use a compass for puzzle clues. This allows us to test our communication skills, driving abilities, and strategy. It's also a lot fun. Nelson said, "So much more fun that I expected."

Vonn looks out the driver's windows as we pass a field full of cows that are grazing in a nearby cornfield. "Moooooooo! "Moooo!" She yells at the herd. "Hey guys!" "Hey guys!

"Anyone else have a 'Children of the Corn’ moment?" Nelson questions.

As we contemplate whether our scores will be able to hold up against the competition's, Vonn starts to hum.

"Bum ba dum dum ... bum ba dum dum!"

"Is that the theme tune to Star Wars?" Nelson joins the conversation with a slightly different version. "No!" "No! Vonn says. "This is so Indiana Jones. Nelson and she begin to hum together.

I join in, but a little too loudly. Then I realize that I don't know the lyrics to either of these songs. "I believe I am humming the theme tune to 'The A-Team'," I reply.

"We are the A team!" Vonn says.

Team Rocky Road finished second in the competition after completing seven of the twelve challenges. Vonn states, "We'll return next year." Diwang Valdez for ESPN

The THREE of us stand in a field holding our hands and bowing like the last contestants on "American Idol." The other contestants are all around us, and they look as nervous as we do. While we are hamming it out for the cameras, jokes aside, our goal is to hear our team's name in first place. We had targets all day as the only all-woman team and the only team with two elite athletes. We know that victory is possible, but it's not likely because one team has completed more challenges.

After congratulating everyone, the contest director reads out the names of the winning teams in reverse order. The contest director starts with the sixth place. We let go of each other's hands when we see we have made it to the top three and then we jump up and down.

"We reached the podium!" Vonn says. "I'll take the podium finish. Or a win."

He announces the third place and we are still alive. The remaining two teams move to the front of their group.

"In second place... Team Rocky Road." We have a lot of fun, hug each other, and take a picture with our trophy. We are surprised at how happy we are with second. One of our competitors laughed, "Hey, first is the worst!"

Vonn later said, "We'll get'em next year." "Our team is a great combination of our three minds and our combined skills. Team Rocky Road will return."