Kloser talks about the EcoChallenge | VailDaily.com

Kloser talks about the EcoChallenge

Ryan Slabaugh

First of all, welcome back to this side of the world. In a competition that’s difficult just to finish (58 of the 81 teams dropped out), did you follow a certain strategy this year to complete the 500-kilometer course?

I think it might be the mentality that we go into the race with. I think a lot of these teams’ goals are to just survive or finish this race and our goal is above and beyond that, in a sense that we’re there in hopes of winning. Obviously, there are unlimited variables that come into play. But for us, our intention and our goal was to go into this race, give it our best and hopefully win the thing.

Having won the Eco-Challenge three times, you finished runner-up this year to Team Seagate.com NZ (New Zealand). Can you look back and say you could have beat them, or were they just a better team this year?

Without a doubt, we could have beat them. Whether we should have is another thing. A lot of that has to do with the way we raced ourselves. We made a lot of mistakes out there. We recovered well, but we made a lot of mistakes that were uncharacteristic of a team with our experience.

You raced for more than seven days straight. When did you sleep?

We anticipated this race, through everything we were hearing, to be longer than usual. With that in mind, we knew we were going to need substantially more sleep than we had for, say, the Primal Quest, which was a race in Colorado where we had three-and-a-half hours of sleep over the better part of three-plus days. In the Eco-Challenge last year, I think we had about four hours of sleep or rest – it’s not always sleep – over a four-day period. So, we had hoped to average about two hours a night, which is what we were hoping for.

You finished three hours ahead of third place. When did you make up that time?

We were neck-and-neck a lot of the time throughout the race, primarily in the last day or two. Where we made the difference in time was in the last outing trek. We lost time there, but we also gained time in the end because I think we were a little fresher. When we hit the last checkpoint prior to the boat pickup where we paddled back into the last leg to the finish, I think we were a little fresher mentally and physically and, when we stopped in that checkpoint, we all sat down for a minute and grabbed a little food, and assessed the situation. We took off and were gone, where as the Australian team stayed in the horizontal position. Consequently, they didn’t get out of that position for another three hours. They were definitely tired and feeling the effects of the race and the long day trekking around the island.

If one person on the team can’t go on, the whole team is disqualified. Were there any close moments?

For us, as with many, there definitely were. For me personally, day one was a bit of a shocker. About two hours into the race, we were trekking up this little ravine, I stepped on a stick, the stick snapped and my ankle rolled and I went down with it. Hearing the snap of the stick and some other things, I wasn’t sure what I had done to my ankle. At first, my fear was I might have chipped a bone in my ankle. It happened pretty quick and there was very sharp pain at the time. The first thoughts in my head were, “This can’t be happening. It’s day one of this race and I can’t let the team down at this stage.” So, I was a bit concerned at this point. Along with that, my other teammates, a couple of them got sick throughout, which was the case with a lot of teams. Michael Tobin spent the better part of the race dealing with stomach problems and dehydration, I believe, was the primary cause of that.

Is it difficult to keep the team moving together and thinking together when you’re all experiencing different ailments?

Yeah. It’s certainly difficult. When I did the ankle mishap, I just said to the team, “Listen, I know we’re on the start of the race and the pace is high. Let’s just ease into this a few moments to see how my ankle does.’ There’s no problem from them with that understanding. When Michael got sick, we all knew the only thing we could do for the team’s benefit was to help him get better. What that meant was rest and food and recovery. We opted at that point to take several hours of sleep over a couple of periods in one night. It helped significantly. I don’t think he ever recovered from it. You know, we knew what we needed to do and I think the same could be said for the other teams. Australia and New Zealand both were dealing with sick members of their teams early in the race. I think that’s a lot of the reason why our three teams prevailed in the end, because we caught some unplanned rest or more than we scheduled early in the race. That helped us be fresher later on.

The locals seemed to participate in the races, acting as advisors to different teams. How much did your team work with the locals and how much did they help?

The locals were incredibly supportive. Every town or village you’d go into, it didn’t matter what hour of the day, they were out there in force, men, women and children, to cheer you on. They’d invite you into their homes if you could or if you had the time to sleep or eat, a wash, whatever. They were always there. It was really interesting. They’d all ask what country you’re from because they were all informed that this race was happening and they knew we’d be coming through their villages. They had an approximate time and day we would be coming through, so they were all very curious and incredibly supportive. Whenever we’d tell them we were from the United States, they were just cheering us on even more. I have to comment that there must have been some good U.S. propaganda going on (laugh), because a lot of times we raced the Australian team was ahead or the New Zealand team and they’d say “Go U.S.A. and boo to the Kiwis or the Aussies or whatever.’

Did you do any research on the culture before you went there?

I personally didn’t. I know some of our team members had looked into the book, “Lonely Planet,’ to understand what we might be encountering. We had heard, I guess in a sense, I could say we did do a little research through the Eco-Challenge Web site had to offer. But, aside from that, we kind of went in there blindly, not knowing what to expect other than that these were supposed to be some very friendly people. They lived up to those expectations and then some.

How different is Fiji’s geography than Vail?

Fiji surprised me quite a lot, in a sense that there it was quite mountainous – endless rolling hills and rivers and drainages and creeks. Thick dense jungle. Arid, open countryside in one portion of the island. Vast oceans and some big rivers. I was quite surprised. One thing that really shocked me, after the race, I downloaded my watch to check what kind of elevation gain and loss we had and we had gained over 70,000 vertical feet over the seven-day period we had raced, which was more we had gained in New Zealand, more than we had done in Switzerland. It was incredible.

Was there a moment during the competition that you questioned your training, or maybe questioned why you punish your body like this?

Training, no. I felt really good throughout the whole race which was surprising, because usually you’re coping with some sort of injury or illness. Aside from the ankle deal, I felt really quite healthy and fine throughout the race. You know the heat was a definite factor some of the days, the heat and humidity. I certainly did question why I was there at times, which I think everyone does in these races. You know, you wonder why you put yourself through this misery at times but, even several hours afterward, you can think “It wasn’t all that bad.”

We’ll go the other way. Was there a moment that validated why you choose to be in the Eco-Challenge every year?

I think there were many moments. Probably the majority of those moments were meeting these village people and experiencing their friendliness and outgoing willingness to help us in anyway they possibly could.

How do you describe the race to your children, Heidi and Christian?

I would have to first describe it as being the longest and toughest Eco-Challenge I’ve ever participated in. And probably with that, in the same sentence, probably one of the most enjoyable, even though we didn’t win.

Do they watch the broadcast on television?

Of course. They love to see it. They were very disappointed to hear I took second, and I think it was reassuring to them when I called and spoke to them on the phone and let them know it was OK that their daddy took second. I felt it was a good result because of the circumstance and that they shouldn’t be too sad for me.

You’ve kind of mentioned this already, but how does this race rank with all the others you’ve done?

I think it was the best expedition race I’ve ever done, in the sense it was true adventure. It wasn’t contrived. It offered a wide variety of activities or disciplines and a wide range of environments. Even on this one island, which I assumed was a rather small island going into it, I found out differently after travelling and trekking around it. It was definitely an experience of a lifetime and something I will certainly never forget.

Bill Mattison, another resident of Vail, also competed and finished 14th. How good does it feel to know that kind of talent resides in the Valley?

It’s great. Billy got me started in adventure racing. I can either credit him or blame him, whatever the mood might be. In honesty, Billy and his team had a fantastic race. Granted, they might have finished a day or two back on us, but this was a race that attrition played a huge factor in. Experience was of the upmost, I believe. Billy’s team actually finished seventh in the rankings. They were the seventh team to finish the entire course. Some of these other teams that are listed in the rankings had abbreviated courses. That was the plan these race organizers had to help bring some of these latter teams into the finish, at least make it to the finish line, whether they did the entire course or not. I think that was a good call on behalf of the organization, because it would have been tough for a lot of these teams to be out there for eight or nine days, maybe 10 days, and get that close, but not actually finish. This enabled them to at least cross the finish line.

Is having him around a motivating factor?

Absolutely. I love going out training with Billy and other teammates of his or ours and friends and family. Billy’s always felt this happy-go-lucky attitude, which is great. He’s out there to have a good time. He’s very competitive. He likes to win like the rest of us, but Billy seems to keep things in perspective and keep this fun-loving approach to whatever he’s doing, whether it’s work or play.

Are you going to compete at the Eco-Challenge next year?

Absolutely. We have revenge on our mind now. When the Kiwis made a few statements in the closing award ceremony, that really kind of lit a fire under us. When Nathan (Fa’avae, Team Seagate.com NZ captain) was up speaking, it was a great little speech he had, but it was also very motivating on our behalf to hear some of the statements he made. They were out for blood this year and the blood was to avenge their loss last year against us. No matter where they placed, they wanted to beat us. Our intent was to win the race, no matter who’s behind us.

So you guys got directly mentioned in their speech?

Oh yeah. This next year, my goal isn’t going to beat the Kiwis, our goal is going to be to win the race and in the process, beat the Kiwis.

Last question. You don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to. Do people ever call you crazy?

You know, I don’t think they do as much as I would if I was on the other end. A lot of people are very curious. I think a lot of local people are more familiar with this whole thing now that Billy and myself have been doing it, as well as a number of other locals for the last six, seven years or so. So, I think it’s becoming a more familiar thing to these people and they’re seeing it on television. Sure, it’s looks pretty extreme and, you know, painful at times, and all the suffering that a lot of these athletes do out there. But I think there’s a better understanding. Maybe they do, inside, call me crazy, but I think there’s also a sense of appreciation for what we do out there and what we achieve.

NOTE: Bill Mattison’s Team Spectrum Access included Cory Nielsen, former member of the U.S. Kayak Slalom Team, Charlie McCarthur, a kayak instructor from Aspen and Monique Merrill.

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