"They're dirty animals, and they make weird noises," declares adventure-racing veteran Billy Mattison. That may be an unfair indictment of a noble beast, especially considering the fact that Mattison, 41, and his three fellow adventure racers from Colorado failed to apply themselves to the finer points of dromedary science before embarking on the camel-derby segment of last October's Eco-Challenge in Morocco. (Their entire preparation consisted of watching Lawrence of Arabia on video just before boarding a plane for Marrakech.)
Perhaps sensing this disdain, the animals responded by biting and bucking throughout the initial nine-mile slog along the sand dunes of North Africa's Atlantic coast. Upon completing this phase of the competition, Mattison and his Team Vail colleagues — Michael Kloser, 38, who manages an outdoor-recreation center; Andreas Boesel, 48, who runs a restaurant; and mountain-biking instructor Sara Ballantyne, 38 — found themselves consigned to the middle of the pack, ranking a dismal 28th out of 57 teams.
Had they remained there throughout the rest of the seven-day, 300-mile race, whose eight events had competitors pounding up the Barbary coast, through the Atlas Mountains, and across sections of the Sahara — they would have adhered to a venerable Eco-Challenge tradition. In the four-year history of the race, no Americans have ever taken the title. And though a U.S.-based team did win the rival Raid Gauloises, which concluded a week earlier in Ecuador, most of that team actually hails from Australia and New Zealand. "It's taken a while to spring this sport in the United States," sighs Mattison. "People look at me and shake their heads, like I'm a freak or something."
This year's Eco-Challenge, however, proved to be something of a turning point. Once free of the cantankerous camels, Team Vail flung itself with such alacrity into the other phases of the competition — kayaking the Atlantic coast, racing Arabian stallions, and traversing the Altas range on foot — that as it entered the final 110-mile mountain-bike haul down to Marrakech, there was only one team in front of it. "We were pretty much brain-dead at that point," admits Mattison.
Nevertheless, his squad of fat-tire fanatics fended off Team Australia and Team Spain, whisking across the finish line with a winning time of six days, 22 hours, and 16 minutes — and forcing adventure-racing aficionados to concede that the Americans had finally proven themselves. "They raced smart and didn't make any mistakes," says Chris Haggerty, an instructor at San Francisco's Presidio Adventure Racing Academy who was part of Team Navigator, which placed 17th. "Americans are new to this sport for the most part, so that's pretty amazing." Mattison, however, says he's competed in his last dromedary race: "I couldn't care less if I never see another camel again."