Ned (The Lung) Overend was still two hours from the finish line
of the Red Bull Divide & Conquer at the Purgatory Resort in
Durango, Colo., and he was ascending straight into hell. The
veteran mountain biker began the final section of the
four-discipline extreme relay on Sunday sweating buckets and
gasping for oxygen. His legs were filling with lactic acid as he
pumped his way up a single-track trail that climbed 3,000 feet in
four miles. But the real agony started when Overend reached the
top of 10,200-foot Hermosa Cliffs and, with 85% of the race's
distance still in front of him, cramped up. "I got a gut ache,"
he says. "It was brutal."
Overend and 67 other beaten-down racers spent more time trying to
divide and survive than divide and conquer in this inaugural
race. The relay, which consists of trail running, paragliding,
whitewater kayaking and mountain biking through the San Juan
Mountains, is the U.S. version of the Dolomiten Mann in Austria,
which is billed as the toughest relay race in the world. When the
winners, Team Nike ACG/Balance Bar, finished in seven hours and
58 minutes, two hours before the scheduled trophy ceremony, some
organizers worried that the Divide & Conquer wasn't hard enough.
But competitors felt otherwise and were quick to debate whose
discipline was the toughest.
"Our section was the most grueling," says top U.S. downhill racer
Marla Streb, a member of Divas of the Divide, the only all-female
team to compete. "I pushed my bike 30 to 40 percent of the time.
It was just hard to balance at 10,000 feet. I'd take a step
forward and go two steps back. I was getting hypoxic. I'm sure I
killed some brain cells."
Brain damage wasn't the only risk. Sections of the eight-mile
switchback trail along 13,200-foot Kendall Mountain had runners
crawling on all fours and hanging on to fixed ropes through
snowfields. At 12,300 feet the paragliders set a world record for
the highest-altitude launch in a competition then spiral dived to
earth at 70 miles per hour. And while two paddlers on the Upper
Animas River flipped out of their kayaks and struggled to stay
afloat in the 48° waters of No Name Rapid (Class V), no one had
it tougher than Steve Fisher.
June 27, 2004
On a practice run three days before the race, the pro expedition
paddler from South Africa missed the takeout and wound up 200
yards downstream, at Unrunnable Gorge, so named for its Class VI
rapid. Fisher paddled to an eddy, ditched his kayak and gear and
climbed a 5.9 sheer wall to safety. "No one runs [that gorge]
this time of year, when the water's high," says Jon Krueger, the
event's river safety director. "Steve Fisher is a mad dog. Anyone
else would have died, and we'd have had to cancel the race."
But no one died after all, which means the Divide & Conquer will
be back next year. "There were times that I thought, Boy, I'm
definitely not doing this again," Overend says. "But I'll do this
again. I just have to forget how painful it was."