Is This Any Way to Make a Living?
With $100,000 for the winners, the world's most relentless teams, and a 138,000-vertical-foot Rocky Mountain course, the Subaru Primal Quest seemed poised to give big-time adventure racing a smashing return to U.S. soil. But then the race beganand all hell broke loose. A front-line report from the wildest, bumpiest game in the wilderness.
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EVERY SEASONED ADVENTURE RACER has a hallucination story. The visions usually happen on about the third day of around-the-clock hiking and biking, blistering and bonking, puking and paddling. Sometimes they get pretty weird: Frank Sinatra in pink Gore-Tex, or a Vietnamese fruit stand in a New Zealand cow pasture. My favorite is about a guy who decided, in the middle of a long trekking section, that leaves on the trail were actually $100 bills. Naturally, he dropped to his knees and started scraping up fistfuls of precious C-notes, while his teammates gaped. At the finish line he was chagrined to find his pack filled with worthless foliage.
The tale neatly symbolizes the pitfalls of professional adventure racing: Even at the highest levels, there’s more pain than money in this game. The winning four-person team at last year’s Eco-Challenge, the sport’s marquee event, took home $50,000, which sounds like a lot until you subtract the $15,000 entry fee, plus airfare to the race site in Fiji. Factor in food and equipment costs, and each thrashed competitor was probably looking at a net loss. In smaller races, you’re lucky to win free entry to the next event. That began to change on the afternoon of July 7, 2002, when 248 of the world’s top adventure racers, along with some not-so-great ones, lined up at the base of a ski slope in Telluride, Colorado, for the start of the inaugural Subaru Primal Quest. Billed as the highest-stakes expedition-length adventure race ever held on U.S. soil, Primal Quest offered more prize money than you could stuff into a GoLite pack: $100,000 for the winners, with a total purse of nearly a quarter-million dollars.
The big money had attracted the most competitive field ever, including such luminaries as Steve Gurney, winner of the Southern Traverse in 2000, three-time Eco-Challenge champion Ian Adamson, and Rebecca Rusch, winner of Vail’s Adventure Xstream in 2001. From overseas came well-oiled squads like the Finnish Nokia team, the Spaniards of Red Bull, the Kiwis of Seagate.com, and a Spanish/Latin American polyglot known as Team Buff. At the other end of the spectrum were outfits like the Too Much Fun Club, the Jelly Donuts, and Team Fred, whose names said it all.
Between them and the sport’s biggest payday lay a daunting course. Starting at a woozifying altitude of 9,550 feet, racers would climb straight up Telluride’s black-diamond ski runs, scrambling hypoxically over a series of nearly 13,000-foot ridges to hit the first three checkpoints (CPs), before looping back toward Checkpoint 4, at Telluride Mountain Village, the condo/golf-course/trophy-house complex at the base of the resort.
From CP4 they would switch to mountain bikes for a 103-mile grind over Last Dollar Pass; then they’d don mountaineering helmets before traversing a couple of crumbling peaks; then they’d bike some more; and then they’d paddle down the Animas, formerly the Rio de Las Animas Perdidas—the River of Lost Souls—in the nearly unsteerable inflatable kayaks that are a hallmark of the sport (“heaps of shit,” in the succinct view of John Jacoby, a veteran Aussie racer). From the takeout near Durango, teams would bike, trek, and rappel roughly 55 miles back to Telluride. To hit all 28 required checkpoints, they’d have to climb and descend a rugged 138,000 vertical feet over 238 total miles—assuming, optimistically, no wrong turns. That’s like starting at sea level and racing up and down Mount Rainier almost five times.
With the clock ticking toward the 3 p.m. start, the only thing on most racers’ minds was the prize money—and, apparently, where to pee. In the starting corral, two women squatted right beside me, in full view of racers, spectators, and TV crews. The anxiety was palpable. “I see all the same faces,” Gurney had said at the pre-race press conference, “but there’s a look of grim determination I haven’t seen before.” When the race began, the entire pack charged off the line at a dead run, even though the lead racers weren’t expected to finish for at least five days.
Fifty yards from the start, one prong of the field veered left, breaking through gaps in the metal barricades and charging straight up the steepest slope. A racer from Team Whole Foods Market wrenched her ankle immediately and vanished in the cloud of dust raised by the stampede. I focused on the blue backpack of racer Jan Bear, who followed a less-steep service road, then cut left to ascend a gentle slope, picking his way through ankle-turning tufts of dried brown grass.
Jan, 47, was racing with his wife, Kim, 46, and their friends Ries Robinson, 38, and Lisa Barnes, 36. The foursome made up a good but not elite squad sponsored by Stryker, the medical-products company. I spent the first day with Team Stryker, struggling along as an unofficial fifth wheel to taste adventure-racing pain firsthand.
As we power-hiked to the top of the ski hill, my heart rate redlined past 180—awfully high, I thought, for the start of a weeklong race. Even so, a burly woman chugged past me, using a bungee cord to literally tow a male teammate. Jan was pushing hard, too: He wanted to get off the high ridges before nightfall. At the first checkpoint, several teams converged, and we were surprised to see Team GoLite, one of the favorites, arriving at the same time. Someone yelled, “We’re only five minutes behind the leaders!” and we all trotted down the trail in a long, panting line.
PRIMAL QUEST POSED CRUCIAL QUESTIONS about the future of the sport: Can you make a living competing in these things? More important for many participants and fans, can you get away with, let alone make a profit, putting them on in the United States?
Before Primal Quest, there hadn’t been a major adventure race in America since 1995, when Mark Burnett debuted the Eco-Challenge in southeast Utah. The next year, Burnett decamped for more exotic locales and never looked back. As Primal Quest began, race director Dan Barger was about to find out why.
Barger, 37, dreamed up Primal Quest in late 2000, while sitting at an In-N-Out Burger with a few adventure-racing pals in his hometown of San Jose, California. A champion ultrarunner—he set the world record in the four-event Grand Slam of Ultrarunning in 1998—Barger was known in adventure-racing circles as the promoter of the popular Cal-Eco series, one- and two-day races sprinkled around Northern California. He’d recently placed fifth in New Zealand’s notoriously difficult Southern Traverse and decided that North American racers needed their own major league event—one they could drive to. Since 1995, Americans’ participation in adventure racing has exploded, but the homegrown scene has been distinctly small-time. The two biggest happenings in the sport remain the Eco-Challenge (always run overseas) and the race that started it all: the French-organized Raid Gauloises, the 12th edition of which will take place in Kyrgyzstan next June. In 2000, 35 adventure races were held in the U.S.; last year there were more than 350. Events come in many shapes and sizes, from the short (about six hours) and popular Hi-Tec Adventure Racing Series to the urban Wild Onion events to multiday sufferbinges like Virginia’s Beast of the East. But none of these have approached the Raid or Eco in terms of prize money, exposure, or stature.
Though the Raid has a longer pedigree, it was Burnett who really put adventure racing on the map—by putting it on television (while he was at it, he even trademarked the term “adventure racing”). In the Eco-Challenge, five to ten days of racing emerge as three one-hour shows, carefully edited to maximize the drama and conflict between and within made-for-TV teams. The 2002 Eco, for example, featured a gay team, a cop team, an animal-rights team, and a crew of former Playboy Playmates. None of these outfits finished, but it’s a good bet they’ll get plenty of airtime when the Eco broadcasts on USA Network in April.
Team turmoil apparently has its appeal. Eco-Challenge’s TV ratings doubled between 2000 and 2001, climbing from 1.3 million to 2.6 million viewers, despite complaints among racers that the race was becoming soft. After the 2001 New Zealand race, where the top teams blitzed the course in record time, Burnett himself sniffed that the event was becoming “like off-road triathlon,” a “sterile, clinical” athletic contest rather than a true adventure. But there was no lag in the TV audience. When the show aired in 2002, viewers topped out at more than one billion, thanks in part to vastly expanded international coverage.
Burnett has scored even bigger domestic success with the adventure-inspired reality show Survivor, and thus paved the way for other broadcast spectacles. Light fare like CBS’s The Amazing Race and NBC’s Lost have carved out impressive niches on network television. And this January, the Outdoor Life Network’s Global Extremes will send competitors around the planet to duke it out in running, skiing, mountain biking, and sea kayaking in exotic locales, culminating with a climb of Mount Everest—and a $50,000 cash prize per person.
Barger, though, was determined to keep his event pure. “Primal Quest is about creating the best damn race in the world for the best athletes in the world,” he says. To preserve its accessibility, Primal’s entry fee was set at a modest $4,000 per team. He also promised an epic, high-altitude course of more than 300 miles (though it ended up shorter). Subaru stepped up as title sponsor, and OLN bought the rights to broadcast the race into 45 million homes this past fall.
There were doubters, of course, especially since more than one ambitious promoter has challenged Burnett and lost. Two years ago, longtime race producer Don Mann was forced to cancel The Beast, an ambitious weeklong race he’d planned to hold near Alaska’s Denali National Park, when Burnett told the top teams that if they ran it they could forget about the Eco. But when Primal Quest came around, Burnett was uncharacteristically quiet about Barger and his stateside event. “I’m glad there’s an event for the 500 teams that can’t get into the Eco-Challenge,” Burnett told me on the phone from Thailand, where he was filming the latest Survivor. “But they’re rookies.”
In truth, Barger’s dream might have come to an early end if not for a deep-pocketed sponsor: Bill Watkins, president and COO of Seagate, a computer hard-drive manufacturer based in Scotts Valley, California. Watkins, 50, had fallen in love with adventure racing a couple of years back when he signed up for a one-day Cal-Eco race, in which, he says, “I got my ass kicked.” Clearly he found joy in the agony. Every year he hires Barger to stage a mini-race for Seagate employees, to build teamwork and leadership skills. He and Seagate CEO Steve Luczo gave Barger whatever he needed to stage Primal Quest. A large chunk of its nearly $3 million budget came from their personal checkbooks.
Their largesse allowed Barger to design his race without first selling the idea to a major sponsor. But he also knew that Watkins wouldn’t keep writing checks forever, so the bar was high for the inaugural event: He needed to build his brand, establish himself as the dominant North American race promoter, and attract enough corporate underwriting and TV exposure to sustain the event.
Telluride appeared to be the ideal venue. Surrounded by 13,000-foot peaks, the town is Polartec heaven. The race would be a cornerstone of the Telluride 360 Adventure Festival, a multisport jamboree featuring a World Cup mountain-bike race and bouldering competitions. Adventure racers seemed to agree that it sounded pretty cool: When online registration opened in September 2001, the 70-team roster filled in less than three minutes.
“THE TOWN OF TELLURIDE,” Edward Abbey wrote in The Journey Home, “was actually discovered back in 1957, by me, during a picnic expedition into the San Miguel range of southwestern Colorado. I recognized it at once as something much too good for the general public. For thirteen years I kept the place a secret from all but my closest picnicking cronies. No use: I should have invested everything I had in Telluride real estate.”
Sometimes it seems like everyone who’s moved to Telluride since has felt the same way: I discovered it, and you’re ruining it. Especially if you happen to be from California, like Dan Barger.
In choosing to debut Primal Quest in Telluride, Barger stumbled into the most hostile backwater this side of Sarawak. “We knew it was gonna be a pain in the ass,” he says now. “We just didn’t know how bad.” Sealed off from the rest of the world by sheer mountain passes, Telluride is stuck so far up a narrow box canyon that in winter some parts of town never see the sun. To reach the outside world, you have to drive 50 miles of vertiginous, winding canyon roads, where cell-phone service is dodgy at best. Although the race had been announced to the community in September 2001, the news didn’t seem to sink in until sometime in late May.
When locals finally digested what was coming, the backlash was swift and harsh. Rumors swept through town that the racers would be riding motorbikes through the area’s lovely alpine meadows, stopping occasionally to light forest fires. (Colorado was suffering through its worst drought since the 1800s, and fires raged near Denver and Durango.) Some believed the race had been kept secret from the community as part of a corporate conspiracy involving Subaru and the Forest Service. Others simply worried that hyping Telluride would bring in more yahoos. As a bartender at Telluride’s Wyndham Mountain Lodge put it to me one night: “Why couldn’t they pick someplace that’s already fucked up?”
The loudest shrieks emanated from neighboring Ophir, a tiny former mining town located ten miles south of—and 30 years behind—Telluride. Don’t bother dropping by; xenophobic residents keep ripping down the sign marking the turnoff from Route 145. Backed by two Colorado environmental groups with itchy legal trigger fingers, Ophir forced the Forest Service to hold a public comment period about the race, which in turn required Barger to disclose the general route. In mid-June, course maps—without precise checkpoints—were posted at a ranger station in Norwood, at a campground near Telluride, and on the Web.
This was a disaster, since it violated a central premise of adventure racing: The course must remain secret until just before the start. (In 1995, Mark Burnett was also forced to reveal his Utah course, thanks to a stack of eco-lawsuits.) In a blink, the top teams were out pre-running the hardest stages, even as Barger revised his course five times, changing the route in reaction to forest fires and the drought. Worse, he feared that the enviro uproar and difficulties with permit wrangling would force him to cancel Primal Quest altogether, a worry that persisted to the end.
In a series of last-minute negotiations, Barger learned what the Ophirites really wanted: to keep the race away from Ophir itself. He gladly rerouted the course again, shortening it by 27 miles and declaring Ophir Valley off-limits to all race vehicles. Members of the media were also forbidden to enter, film, photograph, or even mention Ophir. The official race map had a red line drawn around Ophir Valley—a no-go zone that was soon dubbed “Ophirstan.” These concessions came late on the afternoon of July 3, the last business day before the scheduled Sunday start. After that, the Forest Service permits were finally signed, and big-time adventure racing returned to the United States.
THE NIGHT BEFORE THE START, clapping, cheering Primal Quest staffers herded antsy racers and support crew into the Telluride Conference Center. After an inspirational video with a soundtrack by Enya, racers were warned to bury or pack out human waste and informed by grim doctors about altitude-induced ailments like cerebral edema, which, basically, causes you to go insane and then die.
Afterward, each team was given a map and the locations of the first four checkpoints. With no specific line marked, it was up to the competitors to connect the dots, a process that can turn dangerous as racers scramble down cliffs, swim through rapids, and blunder through snake-infested jungles. Amazingly, since the first Raid Gauloises in 1989, only two fatalities have marred adventure racing’s safety record—a female racer who died from heart failure during the Challenge of the Volcanoes race in South America last February, and a woman who died from hypothermia last June at the Fundy Multi-Sport Race in New Brunswick, Canada. Nine hours into this race, it looked like Primal Quest might produce the latest casualty. On the map, it had looked as if the quickest way to Checkpoint 3, the old Tomboy Mine, was up and over the saddle of Ajax, a relatively unremarkable little peak that looms over the east end of Telluride. As I slogged along with the team, I was foggy from the altitude but elated to be getting closer to CP4, which would mark the end of my participation and the beginning of a nice, cozy sleep in my hotel room.
When we reached the saddle, we peered over the edge into a steep, nasty couloir. Whoops. Far, far below, we could see a few lights—racers gathered at the checkpoint—and a slow train of headlamps waltzing gaily down the correct route, an old mining road leading down from Imogene Pass. We stepped gingerly onto the talus and then froze immediately when we heard yelling below: We were kicking rocks down onto other teams. We waited for them to clear, and then it was our turn. Terrified, we scree-surfed our way down as fast as we could. Then we noticed boulders rolling past us and scampered to the sides of the chute, where we stopped and shouted at the teams above us to cut it the hell out.
Too late. A boulder the size of a truck tire came rumbling out of the darkness. Illuminated by someone’s headlamp, the rock wobbled through the air like an onside kick, picking up speed. Two teams—eight lights—froze in the middle of the chute. It plowed right through the trailing team, and a woman screamed, from either fright or pain.
“Is everyone OK?” Jan shouted. Silence.
“Is anybody hurt up there?” he called again.
Still no response. We got out of there as fast as we could.
THE NEXT DAY, having showered, slept, and scarfed a huge bacon-and-egg sandwich, I drove ahead on the course, hoping to catch some of the leaders. No one had been injured in the rockfall the night before, I learned—a huge relief, especially for Barger, who was now zipping around the course in a black helicopter. I drove 90 zigzagging minutes to reach Ouray, which is only 18 beeline miles from Telluride. From CP13, the end of the 103-mile bike leg, I backtracked by mountain bike until I spotted four grimy characters pushing bikes up a shallow incline. Were they even racing? They looked more like zombies crawling out of a shopping-mall basement at midnight.
Hard to believe, but this was the famed GoLite team, captained by the legendary Ian Adamson, 38. His teams have won three Eco-Challenges and one Southern Traverse by puttering along just like this, conserving energy and waiting for the other teams to blow up or screw up. When GoLite hit the checkpoint and found its support crew, food, gear, med supplies, and really filthy socks started flying. Adamson sat in a chair in one corner of the tent looking at a map while his teammates ate and patched themselves up. Keith Murray chomped on a sandwich, Andrea Murray gulped soup, and John Jacoby—naked from the waist down—rubbed Hydropel ointment on his feet to help prevent blisters. Each athlete had a crew member focused on him or her: “Who needs a sandwich?” “Are these socks OK?” “How are your feet?” “More soup, Andrea?” “Time?” “Six minutes!” It was five in the afternoon. SoBe/SmartWool was long gone, but other top teams were here: Seagate and Nokia had arrived within the past hour, while Team Buff had been lounging around their mobile home for the last couple of hours. On the other side of a split-rail fence, racers on Team Montrail were curled up in their sleeping bags, serving an eight-hour sentence for taking an illegal paved road and bypassing the rocky climb over Last Dollar Pass—accidentally, insisted Montrail captain Rebecca Rusch. After 22 minutes in transition, GoLite checked out in third, just steps behind Team Buff.
GoLite had arrived in Telluride only four days before the start; other top teams had been in the area for weeks, training and acclimatizing. Montrail had been living out of a motor home since Memorial Day, and SoBe’s Steve Gurney had climbed almost every ridge and scree field in Colorado.
“I could have done that,” Adamson said, “but I didn’t think it was ethical. It’s totally against the spirit of adventure racing.” Despite the disadvantage, GoLite moved into second place, shadowing leaders SoBe/SmartWool by a few hours. In adventure racing, that’s bumper to bumper.
BY THE THIRD DAY, the lack of sleep and oxygen had begun to take their toll. Eyes were bloodshot, tempers were short, and fatigue was etched on everyone’s face—and I’m just talking about the journalists. Every night, we got to return to the rejuvenating luxury of the Wyndham Peaks Mountain Resort, complete with its Golden Door Spa and plush couches in the lobby bar. As we dropped into race HQ at the Telluride Conference Center, stuffed with elk steaks and fine wine, we could only imagine the suffering of the poor buggers out on the course.
We felt guilty about it, but the fact was we didn’t really need to leave Mountain Village at all. The Primal Quest Web site, www.ecoprimalquest.com, was packed with information—team bios, training diaries, stories kicked in by hardworking staff journalists—and was constantly updated. The best feature was the GPS tracking program. Each team carried a GPS unit, and at every checkpoint the data was downloaded, allowing Web surfers to trace the team’s pace and trajectory.
This was popular among journalists because, truth be told, watching an adventure race live is about as exciting as watching a rash heal, a fact that Burnett tried to work around by accentuating the human drama. Even some of the athletes could be skeptical. “People don’t want to watch really fit people hiking through the woods,” says Rusch, “unless they’re yelling at each other.”
But Barger and Watkins envisioned a different kind of race, one that would use television and the Web to emphasize the environment and athletic drama. The TV crews were doing their best, swarming around the interesting sections: the river paddling, the moonscape scree fields, and the huge rappel on Bridal Veil Falls—the race’s money shot.
There was no denying the athleticism at Primal Quest. At the front of the race, the pace was punishing, sometimes breaking into a trot. SoBe/SmartWool had kept its lead since the first day, thanks in part to Montrail’s penalty, but it wasn’t easy. In fact, as the team tottered into town late on Wednesday afternoon, its members didn’t look at all like the healthy young athletes who had left Mountain Village on Sunday. Every few yards, Steve Gurney doubled over, hacking violently, somewhere between coughing and vomiting.
SoBe/SmartWool was perhaps the fittest team in the race: In addition to Gurney, the squad included Xterra off-road triathlon champ Michael Tobin, former pro mountain biker Mike Kloser, and Danelle Ballengee, who summitted all 55 of Colorado’s 14ers in a record 14 days. But Ballengee wasn’t feeling so hot either. She hadn’t been right since the mountaineering section, where a Tirolean traverse turned into a zip line, sending her zinging into rocks at 35 miles per hour and shattering her helmet in three places. At least two other teams suffered similar incidents, but Barger insisted that “it was their teammates’ fault for clipping in at the same time. It was never meant to be a zip line.”
The two Mikes, on the other hand, appeared relatively spry. Trailed by an OLN camera crew, Kloser dashed into the Village Market to buy SoBe drinks for the SoBe-sponsored team (ka-ching!). At the gondola base, where they started the climb up to Mountain Village and their $100,000 check, Tobin tossed his empty into a trash can. “No recycling today,” he said.
By this point they had raced, nonstop, for 74 hours and 25 minutes, almost as long as Lance Armstrong rode his bike during the three-week Tour de France. They slept just three hours, although “rested” is probably a better word. And now, doubled over by coughing spasms, Gurney looked like he might not make it. Twenty yards ahead, Tobin was towing Ballengee with a bungee cord, while Kloser gave a radio interview via cell phone.
“The pace wasn’t too bad,” he said. “Sure. It’s K-L-O-S-E-R.”
“Animals!” Gurney gasped.
AT THE FINISH LINE in Mountain Village, a few photographers, journalists, cameramen, and race staff mingled with family, fans, and a handful of curious onlookers. “Oh, it’s the Eco-Quest thing,” a tourist dad explained to his son. The Telluride Adventure 360 Festival was just setting up, and a few forlorn expo tents fluttered in the Village’s faux-European plazas. Those who were on hand weren’t quite sure where to look until the lead team appeared around the corner of a condo complex. Skirting the barriers for the weekend’s mountain-bike races, the four trotted past a row of portable toilets to the finish, where they hugged one another while champagne corks popped and the media moved in.
Barger had hoped to make Primal Quest more spectator-friendly by looping the course through town. But that move mainly produced quizzical looks and honking horns as haggard racers stumbled into traffic. He’d also planned for teams to finish on Friday or Saturday, at the peak of the Adventure Festival. But the top teams flashed the shortened course much faster than he’d estimated.
Fresh and merry after their eight-hour penalty-nap, Montrail had caught and passed four other teams, including GoLite, to move into second. Then, at the top of the gondola—the final checkpoint—the team got another surprise: a five-page indictment from officials detailing myriad infractions by Montrail’s overeager support crew. (Examples: trespassing on private property, borrowing badges from other support crews, stashing food and water in a portable john.) The cost: a 90-minute delay, to be served at the gondola station. “It was like getting in trouble in school,” huffed Montrail’s Novak Thompson.
Once the top teams finished, the air seemed to leak out of the race. Mountain Village was taken over by well-muscled climbers and downhill mountain bikers, with their anatomically improbable girlfriends. Wasted, filthy adventure racers wandered into the base area from time to time, including Team Stryker, which passed oodles of teams to take a solid 17th place (out of 39). The finish area began to smell of stale champagne, complementing the racers’ own pungent reek. By week’s end, no one except a few friends, family, and crew seemed to be aware that the biggest adventure race in the country was still in full swing.
ON DAY EIGHT, Barger choppered up in search of Team Fred, which had been holding on to last place for several days. It wasn’t that Fred was lost, he said; it’s just nice to know where they are.
After he found the squad nearing Bridal Veil Falls, he returned to Mountain Village to mingle with press and athletes. Barger looked visibly relaxed for the first time in days. Nobody had been killed, despite a few close calls. Stryker’s Kim Bear had taken a watermelon-size boulder in her back, but her pack had cushioned the blow. And Ian Adamson had nearly met his end on a rappel when a rope sheath tore off. “They were using old ropes,” Adamson fumed. Still, Primal Quest could be called a success, and Barger cautiously began talking about next year.
While he had a renewable agreement to stage the race in Telluride again, it would be moving on, given the locals’ angsty response. The 2003 Primal Quest will take place in South Lake Tahoe, from September 6 to 15. Subaru has agreed to return as title sponsor, and ESPN is considering the TV rights, despite the fact that OLN’s October broadcast scored slightly below average for its Wednesday-night time slot.
In 2004, Barger plans to introduce a four-race qualifying series, with the ten top finishers winning slots in Primal Quest—establishing it as a kind of de facto North American championship. The 40 remaining entries will be distributed by lottery, ensuring that the Freds of the sport will always have a chance to do Primal Quest. The race’s everyman appeal could make it the next Ironman, and that level of success would be just fine.
Barger’s cell phone rang: Team Fred had just finished the rappel at Bridal Veil Falls. I hopped into the gondola and caught them entering town, four shambling figures clad in very dirty clothes. Team Fred was a revolving crew of mostly rookies, shepherded by Marc Bender, a 48-year-old deputy sheriff from Southern California, as its personification and permanent leader. “He races solely to get new people into the sport,” said an admiring Barger. Two of this race’s Freds, Bernice Pierson and Alberto Flores, had never done an expedition race, and many other racers got their start on Team Fred.
With his stringy gray braided ponytail and ample gut, Bender looked more like an aging hippie drug dealer than an endurance athlete. Twelve years ago, he was a “burned-out dope cop” with a pack-a-day habit and a thirst for booze. Then he met and later married multisport athlete Carla Conti, 41. She got him into running, and he did his first 5k at age 37. They started adventure racing together three years ago; now they race separately, because she wants to be competitive and he could care less. As Montrail’s Shane Sigle said before the start of Primal Quest, “For the top teams, it’s a race. For the rest, it’s an adventure.”
The adventure was a bit more arduous for Team Fred. Bender said he really felt good only once, on his bike. “I was flying up hills, thinking, God, I feel so powerful!” Turns out he’d forgotten his backpack. Usually, their packs are heavy with supplies, because part of being a Fred is knowing it’s going to be a while before you reach the next checkpoint. The hundred-mile bike leg took them two full days. In the mountaineering section, they coached along another team that was struggling on the scree slopes. After dark, they all bivouacked at 12,000 feet, seven people crammed “ass to face” in a small tent, as the wind howled. When they ran out of water, they filled their hydration packs with snow, which was delicious and cold.
At last they hit the homestretch. A small crowd was waiting at the gondola station, Checkpoint 27: Bender’s wife, Carla, and Marley, their eight-year-old daughter, were there—Carla’s team had finished more than 36 hours earlier—with a few friends and a cameraman from ESPN. First Marley came running down the road, wearing her Primal Quest kerchief as a tube top, squealing excitedly. Her dad gave her a kiss, and she ran back up the road. When Bender reached the top, with just a short downhill hike to the finish and a cold Corona and a shower, his beautiful Carla grabbed him in a clench so full of pride and love that even the cameraman got teary.