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Reversal Of Fortune The inaugural Primal Quest adventure race featured the usual blackouts and sleep deprivation, but for its competitors, long accustomed to suffering unrewarded, there was this blessed balm: serious cash

Aug. 05, 2002
Aug. 05, 2002

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Aug. 5, 2002

Reversal Of Fortune The inaugural Primal Quest adventure race featured the usual blackouts and sleep deprivation, but for its competitors, long accustomed to suffering unrewarded, there was this blessed balm: serious cash

Two minutes. For most people that's enough time to flip through
the channels or fire off an e-mail--or maybe retrieve a beer
from the fridge. But in the masochist's theater that is
adventure racing, 120 seconds is an eternity, long enough to
really accomplish something. At least that was the case for the
SoBe/SmartWool team on the final morning of the 238-mile Primal
Quest in Telluride, Colo., two weeks ago, when, to hear team
members tell it, the two-minute trailside power nap they took
was as restorative as a trip to any of the host town's famously
luxurious spas. "It made a world of difference," said SoBe's
Mike Kloser, who estimated that the team slept a total of 3 1/2
hours over three-plus days of trekking, biking and kayaking.
Added teammate Mike Tobin, "We set the alarm for one minute and
59 seconds, lay down on some rocks, and then--bam!--we felt
great."

This is an article from the Aug. 5, 2002 issue Original Layout

Such a twisted sense of circadian rhythm has become routine in
the world of adventure racing, in which a team would most likely
be heckled were it to finish looking any less haggard than Keith
Richards after an all-nighter at the Playboy mansion. In that
regard the Primal Quest, which was held amid the skyscraping
peaks and cat's-back ridges of the San Juan Mountains, did not
disappoint. In addition to such standard fare as sleep
deprivation, spectacular bouts of dry heaving and spontaneous
blackouts, the race, which SoBe's four-person team won handily
in a time of 74 hours and 30 minutes, inflicted altitude
sickness and pulmonary edema, products of the elevation, which
topped 13,000 feet.

Such suffering, of course, is nothing new. What set Primal Quest
apart from its predecessors was something most adventure racers
are wholly unfamiliar with: money. The $250,000 purse, of which
100 large went to the winning team, doubled the previous high,
for the 2001 Eco-Challenge. Lured by this cache of cash,
competitors did their best to ignore it. For the first 65 hours
or so, SoBe captain and legendary Kiwi racer Steve Gurney
steadfastly refused to ponder all those seductive zeroes. It
wasn't until the final morning, after completing a 365-foot
rappel through the mists next to Bridal Veil Falls, that he gave
in. Red-faced from the altitude and coughing like a '72 Gremlin,
he managed a smile when asked about the money. "I can't quite
taste it yet," he said as he stumbled down a gravel road toward
town, "but I can get a wee smell of it."

A few hours later, sitting in a giant leather armchair at race
headquarters and slurping a caramel milk shake from a container
the size of a flowerpot, the victorious Gurney not only could
taste the money but had already spent it, at least in his head.
Sadly, his plans were not very sexy: payments toward the
mortgage and the kitchen and bathroom renovations at his home in
Christchurch, New Zealand. "Look, it's great," he said of his
$25,000 cut, "but in the big picture it's peanuts. Compared to
golf, baseball and--what's that other sport you have here?--yes,
basketball, it's nothing. And look what we had to go through:
sleep deprivation and a year of training."

He makes a good point. Shaq probably wouldn't miss 25 grand if
it fell under his couch cushions. Even the slogan of the Primal
Quest--it was proclaimed the Earth's Richest Adventure--is
almost comical, for if there's one thing adventure racing has
never been all about, it's the Benjamins. Rather, the sport,
which originated with the Raid Gauloises races of the late
1980s, has traditionally been like some karma-friendly vision
quest, a triathlon with tents. Teams banded together, shared
supplies and often finished arm in arm. Almost everyone had a
day job, if not two, and the idea of making a living off the
sport was laughable, for surely there is no athletic pursuit
with a lower remuneration-to-recuperation ratio.

So what happens, then, when you add a modicum of money? As
Primal Quest proved, you attract an all-star field, in this case
the strongest ever. Every adventure racer worth his or her
carbohydrate gel was in Telluride to compete. When he hatched
the idea with two race buddies at a Northern California In-N-Out
burger joint a year and a half ago, race director Dan Barger
designed Primal Quest to be different from the Raids and the
Ecos, to reflect what he calls a more "utopian ideal." First, it
would be in the U.S., not in some far-flung foreign locale.
There would be top-notch technology; each team, for instance,
carried a GPS transmitter for uploading at 28 checkpoints, which
enabled race officials to create a nearly real-time website. All
the crucial management positions would be filled by
racers--starting with Barger and his girlfriend, event
codirector Maria Burton. And, of course, when Subaru signed on
as title sponsor, there would be good dough. "I wanted to reward
racers and not just have them be unpaid actors in a television
show," explains Barger, taking a not-so-subtle shot at Mark
Burnett, the Eco-Challenge creator, who is both loathed and
grudgingly respected in the adventure racing community. "The
whole idea was to create this from the racer's perspective, not
the media's or a sponsor's."

That there was a race at all was something of a surprise. Before
a late rain provided a reprieve, Colorado wildfires had raged
within 20 miles of the course. What flames couldn't stop,
litigation almost did. Environmentalists and locals in Telluride
and neighboring Mountain Village, the ski town that served as
race headquarters, threatened a lawsuit, protesting that the
race could have a harmful impact on the course's terrain. In
response Barger and crew hit the town halls. No, we're not going
to use motorbikes. No, there won't be cars on the trails. The
irony was palpable--few athletes are more environmentally
conscious than adventure racers. But a big-ass corporate race in
your backyard is just that, no matter how many Sierra Club
members are competing. Eventually, days before the event, the
two sides signed a "memorandum of understanding." As part of the
deal Barger cut 12 miles from the course and made a dozen other
adjustments, including skirting a lynx habitat and a patch of
wetlands.

Twenty hours into the race, team Montrail, a talented U.S. squad, created its own controversy. In eighth place after being docked
eight hours for straying too far west on Highway 145, the Montrail
racers tore back onto the trail, leapfrogging three teams on one
26-mile river section alone. By the penultimate checkpoint, half a
mile from the finish, they were in second. Prepared to celebrate,
they instead were presented with a six-page list of infractions,
ranging from criticizing checkpoint officials to illegal crew
support. Infuriated, Montrail negotiated the penalty from another
6 1/2 hours to 1 1/2, thereby securing second place.

Montrail's tactics didn't sit well with Ian Adamson, the
three-time Eco-Challenge winner who captained third-place Go-Lite.
"It was totally unethical," he said after the race. "You don't
argue or negotiate; a penalty is a penalty." When asked if he
thought the prize money played a role, Adamson nodded. "Without a
doubt. You never used to see people pushing the rules. It used to
be a lot of handshakes and hugs and crossing the finish line
together. Now it's 'Screw it, we're going to get as much as we
can.'" Montrail's response was, Hey, it's hard to follow the rules
if you don't know what they are. "If the issues had been clear, we
would have accepted the penalties," said team captain Rebecca
Rusch. "But there were a lot of gray areas. It's almost like yacht racing, where teams need a lawyer to deal with all the legalese."

Despite their differences, Rusch and Adamson agree on one thing:
As the sport grows, it needs more structure. Instead of the
current situation, in which a hodgepodge of races are held
independent of one another, Adamson suggests a pro tour of sorts.
This was attempted last year, with little success, in the form of
the Discovery Channel world championships, which consisted of
seven qualifiers that led up to the finals in Switzerland. Barger
and Rusch envision a nonprofit governing body to provide a
uniform set of rules. It's a great idea, but as in boxing, no one
wants to remove his fingers from the cake to allow proper
slicing. As Montrail's Patrick Harper explains, "Every race
director wants to think of his event as the best, not part of a
larger whole."

Another issue is spectators. While adventure racing is
exceedingly dramatic on television--full of rugged terrain and
quick cutaways--in person it is like watching a three-day Easter
egg hunt. At the Primal Quest, media and supporters loaded into
cars and floored it from one checkpoint to the next, arriving in
time to see four brain-stoned racers run in, sign a logbook and
then sprint off. At the transition areas, where teams change
gear, it wasn't much better. Racers sat in chairs, stuffing
cheese sandwiches in their mouths while support-team members,
usually friends and family, attended to them like a pit crew at
a NASCAR race, changing their socks and slathering sunblock on
their faces in great white swaths. Not exactly scintillating
stuff.

That is a concern for down the road, though. For now the sport is
still feeding off its newfound economic viability, further
boosted when Ford signed on to become the title sponsor at the
Gorge Games in Oregon in mid-July. For the first time there is a
feel of professionalism, and about a half-dozen teams are racing
full time. But as Montrail's Rusch, who lives out of her 1975
Ford Bronco when not training, says, "We're not exactly living
large. When we win, it's, 'Oh, now we can pay off our credit-card
bills.'"

If there was a test of the sport's nascent corporate culture, it
came on Day 4 in Telluride, when team Subaru and team Schick
Extreme III/Salomon came into the final leg vying for seventh
place and the $8,500 prize. As the afternoon sun illuminated the
last downhill in giant streaks of orange, race p.r. director
Gordon Wright grabbed the microphone and urged the 200-odd fans
to prepare for a photo finish, a rarity in the sport. "Let's see
if one team tries to make a break for it!" he shouted. Then,
sensing another possibility, Wright, ever the good flack, altered
his spin. "Or maybe," he continued, "in the great tradition of
adventure racing they're going to cross the line together."

Dirty, dizzy and dehydrated from some 100 hours in the
backcountry, the eight racers approached the finish and hesitated
for a moment. Then, like a football team spreading into kickoff formation, they fanned out and crossed over as one, arm in arm.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY WALTER WORKMAN CRY ME A RIVER Some Primal racers (like Team Epinephrine, above) fear that prize money will make for a more cutthroat sport.COLOR PHOTO: CARL YARBROUGH ON THE ROCKS The Colorado wildfires and the threat of a lawsuit by environmental groups nearly ended the race before it began.COLOR PHOTO: HOLMSTROM PHOTOGRAPH (TOP) PAY DIRT Winner SoBe/SmartWool, which split $100,000, crossed the finish in 74 1/2 hours, only 3 1/2 of which was spent sleeping. COLOR PHOTO: WALTER WORKMAN MIDNIGHT RIDERS High-tech gadgetry such as GPS transmitters ensured that the event wasn't a lost cause for any teams.
"You never used to see people pushing the rules," says Adamson.
"Now, it's 'Screw it, we're going to get as much as we can.'"