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Chocolate Thunder

Sept. 13, 2004
Sept. 13, 2004

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Sept. 13, 2004

Sports Illustrated Bonus Section: SI Adventure
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Chocolate Thunder

Danelle Ballengee, the world's greatest female adventure racer, runs--and paddles, pedals, climbs and snowshoes--on candy power

Danelle Ballengee thrives on chaos. We know this because the cupboards in her Silverthorne, Colo., triplex are crammed with Triple Chocolate Chaos, the flavor of her favorite Balance Bar. The Chaos shares shelf space with bags of Reese's Pieces, Hershey's Kisses, Kit Kats, Snickers and Butterfingers; slabs of Hershey's chocolate--some plain, some almond; boxes of Cadbury eggs, Junior Mints and Milk Duds; jars of chocolate syrup; chocolate chips; chocolate brownie mix; chocolate Teddy Grahams; and itty-bitty chocolate nuggets shaped like Colorado River rocks. You can sometimes find Chaos in Ballengee's fridge, which she also lards with enough chocolate milk and ice cream to make even Willy Wonka envious.

This is an article from the Sept. 13, 2004 issue

Despite--or perhaps because of--her Chaotic existence the 33-year-old Ballengee is the world's premier female endurance athlete. She eats copious quantities of the chocolate every day, even during competitions. "Chocolate makes me happy," she says sweetly. "It energizes me." You need energy to complete 15 team and 20 solo adventure races a year. You need it to stand your ground when you're the only female on an adventure racing team of four. And you need it to summit all 55 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks in less than 15 days, which Ballengee did four summers ago to set a female speed record. While bagging the Fourteeners in the face of foul weather and assorted misfortunes, the 5' 4 1/2" Ballengee logged about 150,000 feet in altitude gain and loss and walked about 350 miles, yet she lost only a couple of pounds, going from 120 to 118. "I kept my weight by eating M&M's," she deadpans. "I ate and ate until I found a blue one."

Over the last decade Ballengee has won numerous national titles in triathlon, duathlon, trail and mountain running and snowshoeing, a sport in which she was unbeaten from 1997 to 2001. She has been feted as the Multisport Athlete of the Year (1995), the U.S. Pro Duathlete of the Year ('97) and the U.S. Mountain Runner of the Year ('99). She has helped paddle and pedal her adventure racing team to victories in more than a dozen major events, including last month's world championships in Newfoundland and in both runnings of Primal Quest, which, with the recent death of Eco-Challenge, has become the Super Bowl of the sport. (Ballengee's team will defend its title somewhere in the Pacific Northwest on Sept. 19.)

Ballengee loves the physical challenge of kayaking, portaging, trekking, climbing, rappelling, traversing, orienteering, mountaineering, skating, scootering and mountain biking through ice, snow and leech-infested swamps over hundreds of miles for days at a time. And she's unfazed by lack of sleep--she figures she'll be lucky to get 15 hours' worth during the eight or nine days of Primal Quest. "I'm adaptable," says Ballengee with a small shrug. She's also pragmatic, efficient and engagingly modest, a sylphlike woman who, according to teammate Mike Kloser, is an "incredibly organized disorganized person." The triplex Ballengee shares with her boyfriend is fastidiously unkempt. The backyard, home to her mutt, Tasman, is a jumble of tennis balls, cycling gear and unstuffed stuffed animals. "Tazzie brought all this junk outside," she says. "It's his 401(K)."

The older of two children of two schoolteachers, Ballengee grew up in the Denver suburb of Evergreen Meadows. Her days at West Jefferson middle school were a bit like the cartoon world of South Park--no surprise, given that the show's cocreator Trey Parker also went there. "He was a year ahead of me," she says. "At West Jefferson my dad taught him science." Parker based South Park's Mr. Markey--the guidance counselor with the hand-puppet fetish--on one of her old man's coworkers. "I don't think any characters were modeled after my father," she says. "At least I hope they weren't."

Though Ballengee can't recall any school bus drivers with birds nesting in their hair or classmates hallucinating pink spiders with the head of Christina Aguilera, Ballengee sees a lot of South Park in West Jefferson. "Both are goofy mixes of rich and poor kids who live in everything from mansions to teepees," she says. Like the young protagonists in South Park, her fellow students perpetrated many pranks--some clever, most predictable--but Ballengee steered clear of the hijinks. "Since my dad was a teacher," she says, "I couldn't really get into trouble."

She looked forward to getting in trouble at the University of Colorado, where she got a degree in kinesiology and biology in 1994, and did just that. She came to the school on an ROTC scholarship ("I thought being 'all you can be' meant truckin' through the woods") but didn't care for taking orders and standing endlessly in formation. "I enjoyed getting punished," she says. "Whenever I screwed up, they'd make me run."

Ballengee has loved running since age 10, when she finished a 5K race and promptly threw up. She had modest success in cross-country in high school, then quit the team at Colorado after her freshman season. "I burned out," Ballengee says. But she quickly bounced back and entered her first triathlon that summer. She tackled her first Pikes Peak Marathon in '94 and won the women's competition. She went on to win it the next three years. In the mid-'90s she ran roughshod over the Fila Skyrunning series, establishing course records in races from Colorado to Tibet. She plunged into practically any event that ended in "athlon," including the Mount Taylor Winter Quadrathlon--biking, running, skiing, snowshoeing--which she won nine times.

She took up adventure racing in 1998 on a lark--she liked the idea of being at once in harmony with and in defiance of nature--and has made a living off it ever since. "It's a tough living," allows Ballengee, who pocketed $60,000 in prize money last year. Among the toughest hardships she has faced were having to paddle a kayak with a broken left arm suffered in an in-line skating accident earlier in the race, enduring frostbite so severe she nearly lost four toes, and going partially blind for 36 hours in a Borneo jungle after a leech cut her left eye.

But Ballengee's greatest obstacle has been the chauvinism of her teammates. In the coed sport of adventure racing, teams are only as fast as their slowest member, which tends to be the lone woman. "The men are stronger in many ways," says fellow racer Rebecca Hodges. "We're the handicap." Ballengee says that despite her competitive record, she's often treated as if she's a little wifey whose purpose is to be nurturing and to take the blame for mistakes made by the men. "The guys patronize me, ignore me and generally make me feel like I suck," she says. "I think they resent having to include a girl on the team, especially a girl with ideas."

Asked if Ballengee excels at any aspect of adventure racing, her teammate Kloser pauses for a long moment before saying, "Well ... she's actually quite good with maps."

And that's it?

A longer pause. "She's ... quite a respectable paddler."

Would you prefer not having a woman on your team?

"Possibly." An even longer pause. "I guess having a woman along is good for the team. It keeps the males from getting off on a testosterone tangent. We pace ourselves better." Which is a backhanded way of saying women are a drag in adventure races.

"All I ask is to be treated like a human being, not a toy doll," says Ballengee, who adds that she has enjoyed recent races with another team--one made up of younger, less grimly intense (and less piggish) male athletes. She says she will stay with her current team through this season, but is considering switching or even competing solely solo. "Adventure racing is becoming more and more of a struggle," says the woman who savors struggle as if it were a Belgian truffle. "It's becoming a job. I liked it better when it was just a hobby."

"I'M ADAPTABLE," says Ballengee. She's also pragmatic, efficient, modest and, according to a teammate, "an incredibly organized disorganized person."
In races Ballengee has had to paddle a kayak with a broken arm, endured frostbite and gone blind for 36 hours after A LEECH GOT IN HER EYE.
COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by Dan CampbellSTROKE PLAY Ballengee (far right) and her teammates plowed through the Colorado on their way to victory in July's Beaver Creek (Colo.) 24-hour race.Photograph by Dan CampbellFALL GAL Ballengee thrives on adventure racing's many natural challenges, such as this suspenseful moment in Oregon. COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by Dan CampbellRESTLESS During a typical eight- or nine-day adventure race, Ballengee can expect to get by on no more than 15 hours of sleep.COLOR PHOTOPHIL MISLINSKI