It is a hot, languid afternoon in New York City as Mike Kloser and
his Nike ACG/Balance Bar adventure racing teammates sprint
crosstown like children chasing an ice cream truck. They push
past tourists and old people, veer around hot dog carts and dodge
traffic speeding down the West Side Highway. "Keep digging! Keep
digging!" Kloser screams. "I can see them!" ¬∂ Having run,
mountain biked, orienteered and rappelled 100 miles since the
predawn start of last month's Balance Bar 24-Hour Adventure
Race, Kloser urges his weary comrades--Danelle Ballengee and
Michael Tobin--to chase down the leaders, Team Nokia Adventure.
Tobin and Ballengee know how much Kloser hates to lose, and
that's all the motivation they need. They pass Team Nokia and
go on to win by 57 seconds.
No one in the sport wants to win as badly as Kloser does, and in
fact, no one wins as often as he does. Nike ACG/Balance Bar has
emerged over the last four years as the most successful team in
adventure racing in large part because of Kloser's competitive
drive--what his teammates call "the Mike factor." Says Kloser, "I
don't race for anything less than first. Not trying to win is
At 43 Kloser shows no sign of letting up, either. The three-time
Eco-Challenge champion has won 24 other adventure races since
2001. This year he and his teammates have taken five of their
last six starts and won more than $50,000 each, a princely sum in
The team's all-star cast includes Ballengee, 32, who has won 96
snowshoe events in the U.S. and is considered the world's best
female adventure racer, and Tobin, 39, a former top off-road
triathlete. Ian Adamson, an expert navigator who leads Nike
ACG/Balance Bar's B team, competes with the crew in expedition
races. All three describe Kloser the same way: intense, intense,
October 12, 2003
"We call him Alpha Mike," Ballengee says. "If we're hungry, we
don't eat[unless he eats]. If we want to sleep, we stay awake
because we have to stay on Mike's schedule. If we stop to tie our
shoes, Mike yells at us. We put up with his intensity because
it's what helps us win races."
Tales of Kloser's resilience are legion. Consider last month's
Subaru Primal Quest in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. Twelve days
before the biggest race of the season, a Bernese mountain dog bit
Kloser's left foot at a party in Vail, Colo., where he lives. The
foot became infected, turned red and swelled to double its normal
size. Kloser received intravenous antibiotic treatments twice a
day and was on crutches for four days before the race. "He could
barely walk," says Emily, his wife. "I told him that he needed to
think about the team and find an alternate. Then Mike gave me
this scary look that told me I needed to shut up."
Over four days and 17 hours Kloser covered 457 miles and 55,000
feet of elevation gain around Lake Tahoe, not once complaining
about the pain. Instead, he barked orders in the wee hours of the
morning to paddle harder to ensure that his team thoroughly beat
its top rival, New Zealand powerhouse Team Seagate. To see Kloser
and his teammates gaining on you in the rearview mirror is, as
one racer describes it, an "unsettling sight."
"I think Mike's intensity can rub other competitors the wrong
way, though it's more out of envy," says Jonathan Denison, race
director of the Balance Bar 24-Hour series. "He wins races, and
people get intimidated by that."
Before Kloser established himself as the most accomplished
adventure racer in the sport's brief history, he was a two-time
World Cup runner-up on the international mountain biking circuit.
(He was inducted into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame last year.)
In a 12-year career he raced slalom, cross-country and downhill
before retiring from pro biking in 1997.
That summer a friend from Vail asked him to compete in the
Eco-Challenge in Australia. It was Kloser's introduction to
adventure racing, and Team Vail finished 19th. Disgusted, Kloser
returned home and studied videotapes of past races. The following
year, after extensive training in a wide variety of disciplines,
Team Vail became the first all-U.S. team to win the
Eco-Challenge. The town of Vail celebrated in 1998 by designating
Sept. 2 Mike Kloser Day.
Kloser adopted Vail as his hometown in 1979 because he loved to
ski. When he's not racing, Kloser is the activities director at
nearby Beaver Creek Resort. His kids, Heidi, 11, and Christian,
9, compete in junior mogul skiing races. Kloser grew up in
Dubuque, Iowa, a working-class town where his dad built
customized windows and his mom repaired fur coats. Kloser was the
fifth of 10 children. As part of a big family in which both
parents worked full time, Kloser learned to be aggressive. "In
our house you had to," he says. "I had to make sure I got enough
food at the dinner table."
From his hardened blue eyes to the way he wolfs down his
breakfast and unapologetically spews chunks of waffle as he
speaks, Kloser shows a determination that is unmistakable. Asked
to name a time when Kloser has given up, his teammates draw a
blank. Adamson, though, recalls a rare moment when Kloser
actually showed signs of suffering. "We were racing in Borneo [at
the 2000 Eco-Challenge]," Adamson says. "The heat index was 130
degrees, and we'd been hiking uphill in the jungle for eight
hours, and we didn't have enough water. Mike's eyes were rolling
back, and he gave up his pack. He looked like he was going to
die. Actually, what he went through would have killed a normal
Equally rare are the occasions when Kloser has cost his team a
victory. At the season-ending Balance Bar 24-Hour Adventure Race
in Los Angeles last year, Kloser's team trailed the leader, Team
Earthlink, at the final checkpoint by three minutes. "Let's go.
We can catch them," Kloser said. Ballengee, Tobin and their
captain made up the time difference by running six-minute miles,
carrying racing packs, for the final four-mile stretch. In the
last 50 yards Kloser's team was racing side by side with Team
Earthlink on Santa Monica beach. Then Kloser tripped in the sand,
and his team finished a second behind. "That was a devastating
blow," Kloser says. "It took me a solid month to get over that."
Kloser's ability to motivate and push his team also brings out
the best, or perhaps the worst, in his competitors. When last
year's finale ended, one racer was sobbing hysterically, another
was sprawled facedown and a third was bent over, grabbing his
sides in pain. "I knew it was going to be a dogfight to the end,"
said Isaac Wilson, a member of Team Earthlink. "To beat [Kloser,
Ballengee and Tobin] is to touch greatness."
Kloser may be one of the oldest racers on the elite circuit, but
he shows no sign of relinquishing his throne. In February he beat
out Josiah Middaugh, a top triathlete from Vail who is nearly 20
years younger, to claim the Mount Taylor Winter Quadrathlon in
New Mexico, an individual race that includes two skiing, two
biking, two running and one snowshoeing leg.
Next month Kloser and his team will return to Los Angeles for
Balance Bar's series-ending 24-Hour race. After that, it's on to
Malaysia for the Mild Seven Outdoor Quest, a serious cash event
in mid-December. "I'll do this as long as I can be in a position
to stay competitive and be a positive contribution to my team,"
he says. Asked what happens when the winning ends, Kloser is
unfazed. He says, "I'll just watch my kids win."
"I don't race for anything less than first," says the 43-year-old
Kloser. "NOT TRYING TO WIN IS UNACCEPTABLE."