Merrill, Nike win world title in Scotland
Vail, CO Colorado
FORT WILLIAM, Scotland ” On the final day of the Adventure Racing World Championship last week, its squad battered by some 65,000 feet of climbing and with two of its four racers, renowned endurance stars Mike Kloser and Michael Tobin, struggling through one of the worst experiences of their pro careers, the indomitable Team Nike received a disturbing update from race officials.
The four leading athletes were not hours ahead of the second-place team, France-based Wilsa Helly Hansen, as they’d suspected, but only 25 minutes in front of their hungry pursuers. This was literally the last thing the Colorado-based Nike foursome wanted to hear, yet as has become their pedigree over the years, they did not flinch.
Instead they saddled their mountain bikes, weary and demoralized, too frenzied to do much more than clip in and go. Then they tore up and down a stretch of muddy trail through the Scottish countryside “like we were riding a time trial,” Breckenridge racer and Nike veteran Monique Merrill said later.
The ride had been projected by race organizers to take between three and four hours. Nike, having slept just seven hours in five days, did it in 2:28.
When the four soggy racers arrived at their next and final transition area ” much to the shock of the volunteers manning the TA, who hadn’t expected the leaders for at least another hour ” they frantically requested any available info on Helly Hansen’s location.
It was then that race officials admitted there had been a mistake earlier in the day and that some inaccurate information had been distributed. Nike wasn’t 25 minutes ahead of Helly Hansen, as they’d been told, but rather 4 hours in front, the officials informed them.
Stuck in the middle of relief and frustration, Nike nonetheless forged forward. Soon after, they summited the highest point in Scotland, 4,406-foot Ben Nevis ” the first time the notoriously stormy peak had been climbed in competition ” and crossed the finish line just shy of five full days of racing. Eight and a half hours later, Helly Hansen arrived to claim its runner-up status.
Still the best
Sitting in a Breckenridge coffee shop on Wednesday afternoon, as early summer snowflakes swirl outside, Monique Merrill sips a steaming cup of mint tea. The Scotland race, she says, was hardly Nike’s best performance, a reminder that sooner or later every elite adventure racer has a tough time. This just happened to be the case for both Kloser, 47, and Tobin, 43, in Scotland.
However, like each competition in which this team has triumphed over the years, there was a defining moment ” a tiny capsule that illustrates why Nike goes home with the richest prize time and again. At the world championship, the final mountain biking leg delivered that moment.
“We still had that reserve,” Merrill said. “We could still turn it on when we needed to.”
Of course, as the four racers learned, they were so far ahead that they didn’t end up needing the reserve, after all. How they built such a commanding lead was the story of the race, according to Merrill and her teammate from Vail, Kloser.
With Kloser and Tobin struggling with side effects from antibiotics ” Kloser for a gruesome dislocated index finger that broke his skin in a trail-running fall a week before the race; Tobin for a sinus infection ” the team leaned on its new member, New Zealand’s Chris Forne, more heavily than expected. And Forne delivered in a way none of the Nike veterans anticipated.
Forne had raced in last summer’s Primal Quest Utah with Go Lite/Timberland, the team that pushed Nike to the very end of the race before settling for second, less than an hour back of the winners. When Nike was deciding on a fourth team member for this year’s world championship in Scotland, Merrill suggested Forne, who is known as one of the best navigators in the sport.
Kloser and Tobin, who have done Nike’s navigating for years, in turn considered Forne against the team’s other potential addition, John Jacoby, an Australian paddling specialist.
Eventually the Nike trio settled on Forne, who agreed to race once he determined it wouldn’t affect his current pursuit of a Ph.D. in engineering.
“We brought him in for his navigating,” Kloser said, “but what we didn’t realize was what a complete package we were getting.”
Kloser, who called the Scotland race one of the two most miserable competitions in his career, along with the 1998 Eco-Challenge in Morocco, said Forne not only charted the team’s route on the often-unmarked, overland course, but the Kiwi also set the pace “75 percent” of the time.
“The kid is gifted,” said Merrill, who won last year’s AR Worlds for Nike with three different teammates. “To me he’s the epitome of an adventure racer.”
Perhaps most notable, given his responsibilities already: When Kloser and Tobin began to fade due to their health problems, Forne volunteered to carry their gear.
“We kept giving him more weight and he would keep walking away from us,” Merrill said. “The guy is an animal ” and I do mean animal, like a billy goat or a deer.”
The Scotland world championship presented a unique course for an expedition race, in two ways. First, a race of this length (more than 300 miles) traditionally features more mountain biking than trekking, simply because it’s easier to cover great distances on wheels than on foot.
In the Scottish Highlands, however, the racers ended up trekking far more than they biked. Not just walking on flat country roads, either. They gained approximately 75,000 feet during the 5-day race, an average of 15,000 feet per day, the majority coming on steep ascents that reminded Merrill of a winter bootpack up a 40-degree snowy pitch.
“It was to the point where your head was almost hitting your teammate above you,” she said.
Typically, they’d ascend a 3,000-foot mountain that somehow managed to be both rocky and astoundingly green at the same time. Then they’d trace an undulating ridge, dropping 1,000 feet then climbing that much again, over and over, for as long as 17 hours straight.
The course also featured open-ocean kayaking next to white-sand coves, cliff jumping and swims up to 1 kilometer long. The beauty was one reason Merrill called it an “actually enjoyable” race ” despite the fact that it rained for two days straight in the middle of their frigid five days.
Not everyone agreed with Merrill’s assessment afterward, however. Only five of the 49 teams that began the expedition managed to complete the entire course without getting bumped to “short course” status upon missing a cutoff.
Experienced pro squads like Salomon/Crested Butte and Balance Vector were among those that failed to finish the full course, leading Balance Vector’s Nathan Fa’avae to call the layout “absurd” in a story on the Kiwi adventure site Sportzhub.
“It does little to grow the sport,” said Fa’avae, a New Zealand racer who has long been one of the sport’s top racers.
Kloser agreed, pointing out that teams which spent thousands to enter the race were pulled off the course within a day or two of beginning. “I have no comprehension why race organizers would want to go down that path,” he said.
In the end, Nike went home with about $25,000 for its victory (the racers still aren’t sure of the exact amount), or approximately $6,250 per team member. When you consider the squad’s 118 hours of race time, the winnings equate to about $53 per hour ” or, as Kloser put it, “chicken feed.”
“But it’s certainly better than finishing second,” he said.
Devon O’Neil can be contacted at (970) 668-4633, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Support Local Journalism
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User