They have ripped, lean bodies housing amazing engines. What Norm
Greenberg and his wife, Tracyn Thayer, do not have, however, are
gills, which is why their scariest moments in last week's
375-mile Beast of the East adventure race came during a midnight
crossing of the rain-engorged New River in western Virginia. The
couple, who make up Team RacingAhead.com, had spent the previous
three days methodically devouring the notoriously gnarly Beast
course--sleeping all of 70 minutes over that time--when they
arrived at the banks of the New late last Friday night. The
darkness was near total, the water bone-chilling. The
Greenberg-Thayers did the logical thing. They took off their
This is an article from the April 23, 2001 issue
Storing their garments in dry bags and clipping daisy chains to a
river-crossing rope, they waded into the water with Team Subaru
Outback, a quartet of Canadians with whom they had hooked up
midway through the race. Of the Subaru racers, only Lawrence
Foster elected to disrobe for the occasion. "People have
different ways of solving the same problem," says Greenberg.
"That's the beauty of the sport."
There was little beauty or grace in what ensued. Tugged by the
swift current and not wearing life jackets, the racers often
found themselves totally immersed as they pulled themselves
across the 200-yard stretch. "I'd get my head above water, then
go under again, kind of like a fishing lure," said Subaru's
Richard Browne, a five-time Ironman finisher. "I was really
A roaring campfire awaited them at the far bank, which they
reached after much loss of dignity but no loss of life. Although
a 300-foot climb awaited--and 42 miles more of trekking and
canoeing--the worst was behind them. Fifteen hours later the
Greenberg-Thayer team paddled across the finish line together,
the First Couple of adventure racing taking first overall.
Subaru, which actually crossed the finish alongside the winners,
took second, thanks to a two-hour penalty it had been assessed
earlier for its failure to wear helmets while shooting a rapid in
You didn't need to see naked guys emerging from frigid water to
be reminded that one of the themes of the 2001 Beast was
shrinkage. Sixteen teams showed up to test themselves on the
punishing course laid out by race director and former Navy SEAL
Don Mann, an extremely nice man whose nickname is the Sweet
Satan. While 16 teams is a healthy number, the field was smaller
than that of a typical Mann race. Even so, when the race started
at Virginia's Claytor Lake State Park at midnight on April 10,
Mann looked like a man who was just happy to be there. Since its
inception in 1998, the Beast has become one of the most
respected adventure races in the country. Last year, though, it
was canceled on short notice. That's the sort of thing that
happens to race directors when they piss off Mark Burnett.
Last year Mann staged his race in and around Alaska's Denali
National Park and dubbed it the World Championship. (Having
invited the top two teams from the leading four races--the
Eco-Challenge, Elf Authentic Adventure, Raid Gauloises and
Southern Traverse--over the previous two years, Mann felt
justified in making this claim.) Taking umbrage was Burnett, who
announced shortly thereafter that his race, the 2000 Eco, would
be held in Borneo in August, within a fortnight of the Beast.
Burnett is renowned not only for founding the Eco, the world's
best-known adventure race (and, of course, TV's Survivor), but
also for scheduling it on top of races that might threaten his
hegemony in the sport. This time it was Mann's turn to get
crushed. Lured by the Eco's offer of free entry and airfare,
racers deserted Mann. After taking out a second mortgage on his
home to finance the race in Alaska, Mann was finally forced to
cancel it, at a personal cost of $255,000. Eco officials deny
that the Beast dates had anything to do with their event's
schedule. "Our decisions about race dates are always complex,
but we have no intention of conflicting with other race dates,"
says an Eco spokesperson.
Enter the Discovery Channel. Its contract with the Eco-Challenge
having expired last year, the network announced in February that
it would hold a World Championship in Switzerland this fall. It
named seven races as qualifiers for its championship, among them
the resurrected Beast. While the prize money is modest ($5,000
for the winner of each qualifier), the series brings much-needed
structure to this highly balkanized young sport. "It helps the
sport, it helps the racers and it undercuts Burnett--always a nice
benefit," says Greenberg.
The Beast's carrot of $5,000 and an automatic bid in the World
Championship for the first four-person co-ed team upped the ante
considerably for some racers, who resorted to some highly
creative navigation of the course and of the rules. The race was
only eight hours old when Teams Santa Fe and Peak.com pulled
their canoes out of the New River, put them on portable wheels
(allowed by the rules) and portaged 5 1/2 miles up a county road,
cutting 16 miles off the paddle and putting them in the lead.
Taking his cue from what he saw as a liberal interpretation of
the rules was Dan Barger, the captain of Team Cal-Eco. Over the
next two days Cal-Eco dramatically improved its position by
taking routes other than those specified in the "passports" given
to each team. (In a prerace conversation with Mann, the team had
gotten the impression--mistakenly, Mann says--that it was O.K. to
freelance.) When race officials located Cal-Eco on Thursday
afternoon, they informed the team that it faced time penalties.
The Californians quit soon thereafter.
Santa Fe faded from the front not long after pulling its boats
out of the water, but not before providing one of the race's
lighter moments. Jan Bear is an orthopedic surgeon and
ultramarathoner. His wife and teammate, Kim, a nurse
practitioner, is also an ultramarathoner, but she was made
queasy by the 200-foot rappel that followed the first canoe leg.
As the couple disappeared over the cliff's lip, Kim cracked,
"You are definitely not getting any for a while."
"So what's new?" came Jan's reply.
Peak.com, Santa Fe's partner in creative portaging, also cut a
corner or two on the 60-mile mountain bike, earning it five hours
in penalties and the resentment of teams that stayed on course.
After a miserable night of biking up and down mountains together
in rain, RacingAhead.com and Subaru overtook Peak.com on Friday
afternoon a few miles outside Checkpoint 13, 70 miles from the
finish. "They weren't happy to see us," said Thayer, grinning.
Before all three teams left the checkpoint to begin the 27-mile
trek to the New, Greenberg said to Subaru's Dave Zietsma, "What
do you say? Run the downhills and the flats?" The two teams did,
and Peak.com couldn't hang. Said Thayer, "We dropped the hammer
The Canadians were happy to paddle under the FINISH banner
alongside their friends Norm and Tracyn. The popping of champagne
corks celebrated both the efforts of the athletes and the return
of a resilient race. The Eagles sang it, Don Mann proved it: They
just can't kill the Beast.
a fishing lure. I was really scared."