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|July 10-17, 2008
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by Marek Warszawski
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That’s adventure racing
They gain from pain blisters, barfing and bears
by Sam Mcmanis
They tear off their toenails, by choice. They drink from puddles of dirty bath water, willingly. They even happily scarf down a greasy-spoon breakfast, fully fearing intestinal problems may result.
All sorts of calamities, maladies and snafus beset adventure racing teams. It’s part of the deal in this nonstop, multiday, multisport test of wills and wiles over unmarked and sometimes untrodden-upon terrain: Expect the unexpected, and overcome it without being overwhelmed.
So they endure stalking by bears, trampling by horses, and attacks by flying frogs, angry wasps and creepy white bats.
They deal with deprivations of food, water and sleep, leading to hallucinatory visions of animals and other spectrals more imagined than real. Pink flamingos in the Colorado mountains? Alligators morphing from mangrove trees in Fiji? Witches and UFOs in the woods of Oregon? Dude, they seemed so freakin’ real at the time.
And so they risk injury and, yes, death, by gamely pushing on by hiking, kayaking, running and swimming despite broken bones, bruised psyches, frost-bitten extremities and the occasional collapsed lung from being impaled by a branch.
All for... For what, exactly?
Hard to say. For glory and money, of course. The winning team in Primal Quest, the yearly 12-day Super Bowl of adventure racing, takes home $100,000 and probably earns a better sponsorship deal.
But the four-person, mixed-gender teams swear their motivation transcends the monetary.
Nor is it flirting with mortality. It’s the horror stories athletes relish. They squirrel away choice anecdotes in their satchels like so many Clif bars.
“There’s almost too many to remember,” says Sacramentan Doug Judson, whose Team Tecnu Extreme will compete in the 12-day event featuring disciplines as varied as kayaking, trekking, orienteering, running, mountain biking, zip-lining and — boiled to its primal essence — surviving. “You always try to control the variables, but at the end of a race there are always about 30 things that go wrong that you never thought would happen.”
At least they make for great stories. And adventure racers aren’t shy about regaling anyone who’ll listen with unforgettable tales less hardy women and men would like to forget.
Agony of ‘da feet’
Being ambulatory is key. If you can’t move, you can’t win. Simple as that. And when Robert Beauchamp, a member of the
Radioactive Beagles adventure team, finds blisters under his hiking boots or running shoes, he knows just what to do.
“I rip my toenails off,” he says. “Most people kind of cringe when I say that.”
Included in that cringing group was the doctor at a checkpoint during a race a few years ago in New Zealand. Beauchamp showed the doc his swollen, discolored big toe with a bloated blister. The medic drilled a hole in the nail to relieve pressure, but Beauchamp took things a step further.
“I pull the toenail up on one side and across the back and then just rip,” he says. “It hurts and bleeds for a couple minutes. But then it stops, and I’m able to put my boot back on. ... Over the next couple of days, it doesn’t bother me. You think I’m totally nuts. But am I more nuts to leave the toenail on and suffer?”
Blisters are a problem, no doubt, but it beats the alternative of no shoes whatsoever. Roy Malone learned that at the 2002 Eco Challenge in Fiji. On the fifth day while rafting on a slow-moving river, he took off his shoes to let them dry off. He ended up losing the right one.
When he told his teammates the bad news two hours later before the start of a trekking section, they freaked. But Malone decided to cobble together a “fabricated shoe.” He wrapped his left foot, toes included, in duct tape, then duct-taped the insole of his surviving left shoe to the bottom, put on one sock, wrapped an Ace bandage around his foot, used more duct tape to secure it, and then covered the whole mess with a second sock.
He walked all night on slimy and spiky canyon rocks. By the time he reached the next checkpoint, the makeshift shoe was in shambles. He bought a spare shoe from a competitor on another team for $60, cut out the toe box because his foot was too big and wore it for the next seven days.
When animals attack
The horse was named Dick.
“And that’s appropriate,” laughs Judson.
It was the first leg of the 2006 Primal Quest, held in Utah, and the teams were supposed to trek with one member on horseback and the other three following on foot. Fine, except the horse given to Tecnu Extreme was recalcitrant and bucked off rider Iona Mackenzie.
“Amazingly,” recalls teammate Charlie Kharsa, “she lands on her feet. Lucky for us. So I’m holding Dick’s reins and figure we’ll just walk the thing into the canyon to start the race. All of a sudden, I hear a scream so loud.”
Dick, all 800 pounds of him, had stepped on Mackenzie’s foot and wouldn’t budge. Finally, Kharsa nudged the horse away, like a football player ramming a tackling dummy. But Mackenzie’s foot was broken, turning three shades of purple, tender to the touch and swelling. A doctor confirmed it.
What to do? Quit the race even before starting?
Nope. She grabbed two trekking poles and limped the entire course — 10 days, 400 miles.
“All she said was, ‘I’m hurt, but I’m dealing with it,’” Kharsa recalls.
That same race in Utah, another Northern California team, the PoliceDefenders.com, simply could not deal with its horse. (They never learned its name, but two years later they still curse it.)
“Worst horse ever,” says Paul Goyette of El Dorado Hills. “He throws our rider, Kim, and takes off. The cowboys nearby catch him, bring the horse back. The horse won’t run on its own so we walk it, really slow. It was 110 out, and we were pissed at the horse. We dragged it for eight or nine hours.
“Finally, it stops. We figure, ‘OK, maybe now we can put a rider on it.’ My teammate David got on and the horse went berserk. It threw David and took off. We never saw the horse again. (Race organizers) sent out two helicopters and found the horse two days later, 20 miles away. We got penalized six hours because of that damned horse.”
You ate... what?
Giardia and other water-borne bacterial intestinal illnesses are common for racers. They know that risky behavior — such as drinking from a puddle where a Fijian woman was washing clothes, as Malone’s team did — will hit them at some point, but it’s a chance they take.
But one place adventure racers don’t expect to get a stomach bug is from a chain restaurant. It happened to Kharsa a few years ago at a race in Idaho. It was the team’s fifth day, out and it stumbled upon a well-known eatery before starting a high-altitude mountain trekking stage. Kharsa ate two eggs, bacon and sausage. Hours later, he paid for it.
“The suffering was amazing,” Kharsa says.
“You could say,” Judson says, smiling, “that we won’t be asking (the restaurant) to sponsor us any time soon.”
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