Primal instincts |

Primal instincts

Special to the Daily/Dan Campbell Team Nike ACG/Balance Bar's Mike Kloser (left) leads the way up a mountainside during a training session with his teammates Danelle Ballengee (middle) and Michael Tobin (right).

When it comes to choosing life’s paths, the heart knows the way, but it whispers and can be heard only in the stillness of the wilds. – Tom ShealeyThe Tuesday before he leaves for Washington state for the 2004 Subaru Primal Quest adventure race, Mike Kloser works until 7 p.m. at his recreation director job at Beaver Creek, then jets home to celebrate his daughter Heidi’s 12th birthday with his wife, Emily, and 10-year-old son Christian, and then stays up into the insomniac hours of the night packing gear and tuning equipment. Emily, exhausted from the meticulous packing involved in preparing for the unyielding 400-mile race, which starts Sunday and will take upward of five days to complete, eventually nods off just past midnight after making adjustments to Mike’s backpacks on the sewing machine and pitching in where need be.She doesn’t even know what time her husband comes to bed, but in the morning he is energized – sleep be damned – and ready to get on the road as he waits for his ride. The story is just one of many that illustrates the make-up of one Mike Kloser, the driving catalyst behind the world’s best adventure racing team: Team Nike ACG/Balance Bar. Manic. Obsessive. Scrupulous. Driven to no end.

Kloser has the best stamina in what is arguably the toughest endurance sport in the world because he seemingly never runs out of fuel in everything he does in life.As Emily relates, there doesn’t seem to be enough time each day for all the things her husband wants to do, so sleep can always wait. “He’ll find a 10-minute job to do, when I say I’ll be ready in five minutes,” she says. “He’s very intense, very focused and very goal-oriented.”It’s for these very reasons that Kloser should win his third straight Primal Quest next week in the Pacific Northwest with teammates Danelle Ballengee, Michael Tobin and Ian Adamson. The event boasts a prize purse of $250,000, the largest ever in adventure racing, and will draw the biggest names in the team sport, all of whom have the singular goal in mind of dethroning the reigning world champs.But, somewhere in the rain and the mud, after hours without sleep and intolerable fatigue, Mike Kloser will find strength in his competitor’s weariness. He will remain sharp in the moments when other minds become fuzzy. He will ignore pain when it is consuming everyone else’s mental resolve.He will do these things because he’s systematically done them before, and he will win because he never stops. Not even when it’s just a regular Tuesday work day, and definitely not when the world’s largest adventure races hang in the balance.

“I mean I enjoy beautiful conditions,” Kloser says. “Good weather and sunshine. Calm and beautiful days. But, I do know that when the conditions get adverse that a lot of people run and hide. For me, I think it helps me weed down the competition more. I enjoy the fact that when the conditions get tough, the tough get going. I think our team as a whole is really strong in that respect.” An innate giftWhere this freak competitive zeal comes from, it’s hard to say. Born as a middle child in a family of 10 kids, Kloser seems to be unique in his complexion See Primal, page A34as an unrelenting competitor.He grew up in athletic circles competing in football, baseball and wrestling as a boy in Iowa. He has also actively pursued careers in various mountain sports since moving to Vail in 1979, first starting out in professional mogul skiing, then snowshoeing and then onto pro mountain biking. Each stage represents the building blocks in an evolutionary process that has led him to the multi-discipline realm of adventure racing.

But as for the addictive, unrelenting personality – the one which has gotten him in trouble with his wife over the years when he was off training in the dark instead of being home for dinner, and which still continues to surprise his elite circle of racing friends who remain puzzled at his ability to be the best, while at the same time being a dad at 44 – well, who knows?”As far as Mike goes, he’s not human,” says local adventure racer Dan Weiland. “He is, I think, genetically a freak. I’ve seen him race with swollen ankles. There was also a dog bite last year. You name it and he’ll race in it. If he’s dying, he’s out racing still. He is tougher than anyone I’ve ever met.”Emily doesn’t know where the extra drive comes from either, and she’s been married to him for the past 14 years. When the two were engaged, she was under the impression that he was going to race on the pro mountain biking circuit for another two or three years.So much for that. At 44, her husband still shows no signs of slowing down. And, that’s the way she likes it.”I gave up on worrying about Mike a long time ago,” she says. “Cell phones help. Before cell phones, it used to be this hour of the night (9 p.m.) and he’d be out training somewhere. It hasn’t always been easy being married to him, but it’s definitely always been interesting. I wouldn’t trade him for anything.”Even Kloser himself doesn’t know where his inner drive comes from, necessarily. He just knows that he has it, and that it has grown stronger with age.

“I’m pretty driven, I guess, to win,” he says. “I think it’s just more innate than it is anything else to me to go out there and to win and to win handily. I know the rest of my teammates are right along with me, but they may not expose that as much as I do to the rest of the team.”Which is why Mike Kloser should win, or will win short of a major disaster. There are so many variables to a race such as the Primal Quest – a 400-mile odyssey that includes rock climbing, sea and river kayaking, mountain biking, hiking, skating, glacial travel and orienteering – but Kloser has the one variable that matters most: persistence. It’s a primal instinct for what is the most primal of competitions. Something will go wrong, whether it’s a mechanical problem with a bike, or an injury, or a wrong turn somewhere that will cost time. There’s no doubting that. But, Kloser and his teammates have been there before, and know how to push on.”It definitely is a mental game out there as well as physically,” he says. “Experience plays a huge role in some of those areas. I hate to say it, but everybody is capable and nobody is immune to making mistakes whether it’s mental or physical or navigational. But, what often wins these races is being the one who can make the least mistakes and move most efficiently.”

A stellar castOne of Kloser’s strengths, too, is that he realizes how important his team is in a group sport which definitely holds true to the weakest link edict.Each team is only as strong as its slowest member, being that everyone has to stay within 100 yards of each other at all times. Even though Kloser can admittedly push a little much at times, he always knows when to tone it down.Most of the time that is not the case since his team is made up of the sport’s other all-stars. Ballengee, who is based out of Summit County, is a former USA Track and Field Mountain Runner of the year in 1999 and Triathlon Magazine’s Multi-Sport Athlete of the Year in 1995 and Duathlete of the Year in 1997. Adamson is a native-born Australian who has a strong background in paddling, having competed in the Summer X Games and a bevy of other kayaking competitions. He is also the current record holder for endurance kayaking.Tobin is most decorated athlete of the bunch, having won 16 Xterra triathlon events in his career, including series championships in 1999 and 2000, as well 14 International Powerman victories to go along with all of his adventuring-racing titles.It’s a team whose credentials intimidate the psyches of their peers, and whose success has come from years of dogged work.

It’s also a group that has hashed out its differences over the years and is a cohesive force – the most important characteristic in a sport where teams can come apart at the seams while out in the wild.”The team chemistry is huge,” Kloser says. “We are not immune to having our little struggles, as is anyone else out there. But I think we know how to manage everybody as a team, as a whole, pretty well. We’ve got some pretty strong personalities out there because we’re competitive. That’s what makes us successful and helps drive us to win. I think there will be little things that come up, here and there, but I think we’re a strong team overall and we know how to work together really well.”Predators beware.Contact Nate Peterson at 949-0555, ext. 608, or via e-mail at

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