In expedition racing, you won’t find a gender gap |

In expedition racing, you won’t find a gender gap

Devon O'Neil
Summit Daily/Kristin Skvorc

MOAB, Utah ” When you watch a race like Primal Quest, you see something you can’t see anywhere else in professional sports. Women and men, world-class athletes all, competing on an equal level.

Except, this is not Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs. This is not Michelle Wie trying to qualify for the U.S. Open. And this is certainly not Candace Parker or Lisa Leslie barely dunking an undersized basketball.

This is equality unto itself. Spyder’s Danelle Ballengee carries the men on her team as often as they carry her. So does Monique Merrill of Nike/PowerBlast. And Sari Anderson of Nike/Beaver Creek.

Robyn Benincasa of Merrell/Wigwam Adventure, the team that was leading Primal Quest on Wednesday, barks orders to her three Kiwi mates like the take-charge California firefighter that she is. The men listen and heed the direction, because they know it’s good for them.

Perhaps the field would not be even if it were not a required element of adventure racing ” every four-person team must have at least one woman. Then again, it would not be required if it were not a reality: women are just as strong as men when it comes to racing all day and all night over 400 miles, on little to no sleep, with as many as eight disciplines involved, in the dry, scorching desert.

Women pull even … or ahead

Nobody debates that in shorter events, say 24-hour races, women are at a disadvantage. The genetic, physiological differences between men and women are still too salient there. But when it becomes a test of true endurance, the women pull even. Or, some say, pull ahead.

Don Mann, who spent 21 years as a Navy SEAL and designed this year’s Primal Quest course, is one who believes female expedition racers are actually tougher than men.

“I really think there’s something in women that men don’t have in this sport,” said Mann, who competed in four Raid Gauloises, considered by many to be the original expedition adventure race. “I don’t know what it is, but it just doesn’t seem to affect them like it affects men.”

Elina Maki-Ratila, 30, won the Adventure Racing World Championship in 2001 and competed in this year’s Primal Quest until the men on her team had to call it quits, much to her frustration. The Finnish professional concurred with Mann ” though she did not do so while pointing the finger at herself.

“They,” she said, speaking of female racers, “just can handle suffering in a different way. They don’t need sleep so much. They don’t need to eat so much. … Sometimes we think that this is not very smart, and maybe there should be some races for females. But it’s possible (for women to be equal to men).”

“Women have to” keep up with the men, said Lisa Jhung, a Boulder racer who competed in Eco-Challenge Morocco in 1998 as part of a three-woman, one-man team. “It’s the nature of the sport. It’s also such a dynamic sport in that it’s not so straightforward ” there’s mountain biking and running and rappelling, and a lot more things come into play than pure speed and genetics. So I think that balances out the field and it becomes less of a gender thing and more about how each person handles themselves.”

Just tough

Travis Macy, a 23-year-old pro racer who competes with Ballengee’s Spyder team, marvels at the toughness of his female captain. He points out the way she got out of a kayak on Tuesday with blisters all over her raw feet and excruciating pain pulsing through her body from the day’s wear. Then, he recounts rather matter of factly, she got the blisters drained and proceeded to trek over rugged terrain for 15 hours before getting on a mountain bike and riding through the night.

Perhaps it’s the human being’s survival instinct. That’s what elite-level expedition racing is about so often, anyway ” survival. The instinct does not differ by gender.

“In a long race like Primal Quest, you’ve got many times when everyone will be the weakest person on the team, and also multiple times when everyone will be the strongest person on the team,” Macy said.

Merrell’s Ian Edmond, Benincasa’s teammate, may have put it best. Asked to come up with a favorable comparison to the male-female equity in adventure racing, the Kiwi searched the concrete at his feet for an answer, then propped his head up and let loose a wide grin.


Devon O’Neil can be contacted at

Vail, Colorado

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