Going for the "real experience’
“In this race, there isn’t going to be a lot of room for mistakes,” says Rebecca Rusch, one-time Vail resident and captain of adventure racing’s elite Team Montrail.
“You’re running instead of walking. A flat tire could mean the difference between winning and losing. It probably comes down to the same amount of pain, but compressed into a shorter period of time,” she says.
Rusch is comparing Beaver Creek’s inaugural Balance Bar 24-Hour Adventure to longer adventure races like the EcoChallenge and the legendary Raid Gauloises, which her team won last month in Kyrgyzstan, in Central Asia.
At 34, curled around a sofa cushion at Beaver Creek’s Charter Hotel, Rusch looks a decade younger – a pretty, dark-haired girl with wide eyes and blue-painted toenails. It is 9:30 a.m. on a typically hot July morning in the Colorado High Country. On the deck of their suite, team navigator Novak Thompson fiddles with the team’s racing gear. Both athletes appear relaxed, rumpled and slightly sleepy. What you wouldn’t guess by looking at them is they are just four weeks out from the final day of the grueling Raid Gauloises – the bare minimum of recovery time – and headed into the hot-paced Balance Bar 24-Hour Adventure in a matter of hours.
“Your toenails have fallen off. You’ve got skinned heels and blisters on your hands, and you’ve slept a maximum of 11 hours in six and a half days,” Thompson says of the days following the Raid. “That, and you’ve really been on a starvation diet the whole time. It’s like a forced concentration-camp march.”
Winning “The Raid’
When Rusch and her team paddled to victory in the nomadic high country of Kyrgyzstan last month, it was against no small odds. Government advisories warning against travel to regions near Afghanistan had already deterred two other American teams, leaving Team Montrail as the lone U.S. representative at the starting line.
And then there was the race itself.
While the media-heavy EcoChallenge has captured national attention with its flashy TV coverage, the Raid Gauloises, founded in 1989, is the original adventure race and, Thompson says, still the most prestigious. Taking on locations such as Oman, Madagascar, New Caledonia and Ecuador, “The Raid” remains the prototype – the wildest and most grueling of them all.
“”The Raid’ is the only race that really makes an effort to let you explore countries in their essence,” says Rusch, a veteran of six EcoChallenges and three Raids, which took her to Tibet, Nepal and Vietnam, among other exotic corners of the world.
“You really get a chance to interact with the culture,” she says. “It feels to me like it’s the most adventurous of all the races – checkpoints are fewer and farther between, there’s lots of off-trail travel, and there isn’t all the media – no helicopters. It makes for a real experience.”
The 2003 Raid pitted 36 mixed teams of four competitors against a seven-day, nonstop trek across 950 kilometers, or 589 miles, of the Kyrgyz Republic high country. Disciplines included trekking, orienteering, mountain-biking, rappelling and climbing, rafting, canoeing and horseback-riding. Only 12 teams would make it to the finish line.
“It was a special race,” says Thompson. “The course covered everything, from high plains to mountain passes to hot, arid terrain – a lot of it uninhabited. We had all sorts of weather, from heat to blowing snow to heavy rain.”
Rusch recalls the curiosity of the locals as the team passed through yurt villages on the high mountain passes.
“One guy was really interested in looking at Novak’s map,” she says. “They gave us wonderful, round loaves of bread. Some of the ladies in one village gave me a bunch of flowers. They were very interested, but they couldn’t understand why we were walking instead of riding horses. This is a nomadic culture, and very horse-oriented. They kept asking us to come inside, stay a while, eat, and we were trying to explain why we had to keep moving. I don’t think they understood at all.”
The team members, Rusch says, went into the race June 10 with the knowledge they were capable of winning. It was their best season. They were strong, and time and experience had created an innate kinship among Montrail’s members that had them working like a well-oiled machine.
“You always go into a race feeling that you’re capable of winning it – or I do,” says Thompson. “Strategy in the long races is that you’ve got to play your own game. You’ve got to go at your own pace, and you’ve got to do what you think is right and not be affected by anything that’s going on around you.”
But the race would not be without its pitfalls. During the 2002 Raid in Vietnam, the team’s collective strength had been compromised by two illnesses in the course of the race, leaving them in fourth place. On the night following the first day of the Kyrgyzstan race, it looked as if illness would hobble them once again as teammate Patrick Harper, a Nordic coach and adventure racing instructor from Ketchum, Idaho, was struck by health problems that would plague him for the duration of the race.
“He just nearly came to a halt during the first mountain-bike ride,” Rusch says. “It was really early on in the race. None of us knew what was going on, and neither did he. So we stopped and slept for an hour and hoped he would be all right.”
Harper, she says, wasn’t getting any food down – a potentially incapacitating problem in a race where calories are being burned at nearly superhuman levels.
“We made a second stop at the end of the mountain-bike segment for a couple of hours to let him rest and try to eat again, and that seemed to help a little,” Rusch says.
While refueling Harper, team Montrail watched helplessly as they were passed by team after team.
“We’re going – OK, now we’re fifth … now we’re sixth. But if we hadn’t done that for Patrick I don’t think we would even have finished the race,” Rusch says.
“It wasn’t until after the race, when he got home, that we found out he’d damaged the lining of his esophagus somehow – bad food or bad water, we don’t know.”
Strength against the odds
Montrail pulled together to compensate for Harper’s illness.
“We shared the weight of his pack, tried to keep him eating consistently,” Rusch says.
And to their tremendous surprise, Montrail found they were not as far back following two forced rests as anyone had suspected.
“We were only an hour off the lead after all that,” says Rusch. “We were like, “OK, we’re still kind of in there.’ We were able to make that hour back up thanks to a navigational decision that Novak made. We didn’t push any harder or faster, just kept at our own pace, and then all of a sudden the three teams ahead of us were right there.”
A number of factors may have contributed to Montrail’s triumph over the teams that had passed them. According to race records, efficient transitions and a steady pace allowed Montrail to catch the leading teams on the morning of the third day. A significantly extended mountain-bike segment, improvised when a river section was closed due to a death on another team, proved taxing to several other teams, while Montrail remained strong. On Day 5, Montrail made an impressive dash to clear the cutoff time for a river section, allowing them to push on through the night while other teams would have to wait until morning.
“It’s never just brute strength,” says Rusch. “Your body is deteriorating every day. You have to work together and think your way through.”
By the predawn hours of Day 7, Montrail had secured more than a four-hour lead over the closest team.
“The time after a race like that is pretty much just for enjoying the little pleasures in life,” says Rusch. “Like having a pillow.”
“Sleep, eat, sleep, shower, sleep,” says Thompson, reclining with satisfaction in a hotel armchair, half a world away from his home on Australia’s Sunshine Coast.
But there is little rest for the weary among adventure racing’s elite, and soon it’s on to the next airport, the next grueling 150 hours of trekking.
“You look forward to just time spent in one place, when you’re not on a plane every other week,” says Rusch. “Time to do laundry, cook normal food.”
“I’d like to spend more time at home,” adds Thompson. “But it’s a lifestyle thing. Beats working for a living.”
Top finishers, Balance Bar 24-Hour Adventure Race Series, Elite division:
Place, Time, Bib No., Team, Members
– 1,17:40:09,1,Nike ACG-Balance Bar, Tobin, Michael,Boise, ID; Ballengee, Danelle, Dillon, CO; Kloser, Mike, Vail, CO.
– 2, 19:50:33, 5, Nike ACG-Balance Bar 2, Adamson, Ian, Boulder, CO; Ballentyne, Sarah, Boulder, CO; Weilend, Dan, Boulder, CO
– 3, 20:40:56, 7, Team Montrail, Wadsworth, Justin; Bend, OR; Thompson, Novak; Queensland, Canada; Rusch, Rebecca, Ketchum, ID