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Reversal of FORTUNE
Chris Ballard
August 05, 2002
The inaugural Primal Quest adventure race featured the usual blackouts and sleep deprivation, but for its competitors, long accustomed to suffering unrewarded, there was this blessed balm: serious cash
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August 05, 2002

Reversal Of Fortune

The inaugural Primal Quest adventure race featured the usual blackouts and sleep deprivation, but for its competitors, long accustomed to suffering unrewarded, there was this blessed balm: serious cash

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Two minutes. For most people that's enough time to flip through the channels or fire off an e-mail—or maybe retrieve a beer from the fridge. But in the masochist's theater that is adventure racing, 120 seconds is an eternity, long enough to really accomplish something. At least that was the case for the SoBe/SmartWool team on the final morning of the 238-mile Primal Quest in Telluride, Colo., two weeks ago, when, to hear team members tell it, the two-minute trailside power nap they took was as restorative as a trip to any of the host town's famously luxurious spas. "It made a world of difference," said SoBe's Mike Kloser, who estimated that the team slept a total of 3� hours over three-plus days of trekking, biking and kayaking. Added teammate Mike Tobin, "We set the alarm for one minute and 59 seconds, lay down on some rocks, and then—bam!—we felt great."

Such a twisted sense of circadian rhythm has become routine in the world of adventure racing, in which a team would most likely be heckled were it to finish looking any less haggard than Keith Richards after an all-nighter at the Playboy mansion. In that regard the Primal Quest, which was held amid the skyscraping peaks and cat's-back ridges of the San Juan Mountains, did not disappoint. In addition to such standard fare as sleep deprivation, spectacular bouts of dry heaving and spontaneous blackouts, the race, which SoBe's four-person team won handily in a time of 74 hours and 30 minutes, inflicted altitude sickness and pulmonary edema, products of the elevation, which topped 13,000 feet.

Such suffering, of course, is nothing new. What set Primal Quest apart from its predecessors was something most adventure racers are wholly unfamiliar with: money. The $250,000 purse, of which 100 large went to the winning team, doubled the previous high, for the 2001 Eco-Challenge. Lured by this cache of cash, competitors did their best to ignore it. For the first 65 hours or so, SoBe captain and legendary Kiwi racer Steve Gurney steadfastly refused to ponder all those seductive zeroes. It wasn't until the final morning, after completing a 365-foot rappel through the mists next to Bridal Veil Falls, that he gave in. Red-faced from the altitude and coughing like a '72 Gremlin, he managed a smile when asked about the money. "I can't quite taste it yet," he said as he stumbled down a gravel road toward town, "but I can get a wee smell of it."

A few hours later, sitting in a giant leather armchair at race headquarters and slurping a caramel milk shake from a container the size of a flowerpot, the victorious Gurney not only could taste the money but had already spent it, at least in his head. Sadly, his plans were not very sexy: payments toward the mortgage and the kitchen and bathroom renovations at his home in Christchurch, New Zealand. "Look, it's great," he said of his $25,000 cut, "but in the big picture it's peanuts. Compared to golf, baseball and—what's that other sport you have here?—yes, basketball, it's nothing. And look what we had to go through: sleep deprivation and a year of training."

He makes a good point. Shaq probably wouldn't miss 25 grand if it fell under his couch cushions. Even the slogan of the Primal Quest—it was proclaimed the Earth's Richest Adventure—is almost comical, for if there's one thing adventure racing has never been all about, it's the Benjamins. Rather, the sport, which originated with the Raid Gauloises races of the late 1980s, has traditionally been like some karma-friendly vision quest, a triathlon with tents. Teams banded together, shared supplies and often finished arm in arm. Almost everyone had a day job, if not two, and the idea of making a living off the sport was laughable, for surely there is no athletic pursuit with a lower remuneration-to-recuperation ratio.

So what happens, then, when you add a modicum of money? As Primal Quest proved, you attract an all-star field, in this case the strongest ever. Every adventure racer worth his or her carbohydrate gel was in Telluride to compete. When he hatched the idea with two race buddies at a Northern California In-N-Out burger joint a year and a half ago, race director Dan Barger designed Primal Quest to be different from the Raids and the Ecos, to reflect what he calls a more "utopian ideal." First, it would be in the U.S., not in some far-flung foreign locale. There would be top-notch technology; each team, for instance, carried a GPS transmitter for uploading at 28 checkpoints, which enabled race officials to create a nearly real-time website. All the crucial management positions would be filled by racers—starting with Barger and his girlfriend, event codirector Maria Burton. And, of course, when Subaru signed on as tide sponsor, there would be good dough. "I wanted to reward racers and not just have them be unpaid actors in a television show," explains Barger, taking a not-so-subtle shot at Mark Burnett, the Eco-Challenge creator, who is both loathed and grudgingly respected in the adventure racing community. "The whole idea was to create this from the racer's perspective, not the media's or a sponsor's."

That there was a race at all was something of a surprise. Before a late rain provided a reprieve, Colorado wildfires had raged within 20 miles of the course. What flames couldn't stop, litigation almost did. Environmentalists and locals in Telluride and neighboring Mountain Village, the ski town that served as race headquarters, threatened a lawsuit, protesting that the race could have a harmful impact on the course's terrain. In response Barger and crew hit the town halls. No, we're not going to use motorbikes. No, there won't be cars on the trails. The irony was palpable—few athletes are more environmentally conscious than adventure racers. But a big-ass corporate race in your backyard is just that, no matter how many Sierra Club members are competing. Eventually, days before the event, the two sides signed a "memorandum of understanding." As part of the deal Barger cut 12 miles from the course and made a dozen other adjustments, including skirting a lynx habitat and a patch of wetlands.

Twenty hours into the race, team Montrail, a talented U.S. squad, created its own controversy. In eighth place after being docked eight hours for straying too far west on Highway 145, the Montrail racers tore back onto the trail, leapfrogging three teams on one 26-mile river section alone. By the penultimate checkpoint, half a mile from the finish, they were in second. Prepared to celebrate, they instead were presented with a six-page list of infractions, ranging from criticizing checkpoint officials to illegal crew support. Infuriated, Montrail negotiated the penalty from another 6� hours to 1�, thereby securing second place.

Montrail's tactics didn't sit well with Ian Adamson, the three-time Eco-Challenge winner who captained third-place Go-Lite. "It was totally unethical," he said after the race. "You don't argue or negotiate; a penalty is a penalty." When asked if he thought the prize money played a role, Adamson nodded. "Without a doubt. You never used to see people pushing the rules. It used to be a lot of handshakes and hugs and crossing the finish line together. Now it's 'Screw it, we're going to get as much as we can.' " Montrail's response was, Hey, it's hard to follow the rules if you don't know what they are. "If the issues had been clear, we would have accepted the penalties," said team captain Rebecca Rusch. "But there were a lot of gray areas. It's almost like yacht racing, where teams need a lawyer to deal with all the legalese."

Despite their differences, Rusch and Adamson agree on one thing: As the sport grows, it needs more structure. Instead of the current situation, in which a hodgepodge of races are held independent of one another, Adamson suggests a pro tour of sorts. This was attempted last year, with little success, in the form of the Discovery Channel world championships, which consisted of seven qualifiers that led up to the finals in Switzerland. Barger and Rusch envision a nonprofit governing body to provide a uniform set of rules. It's a great idea, but as in boxing, no one wants to remove his fingers from the cake to allow proper slicing. As Montrail's Patrick Harper explains, "Every race director wants to think of his event as the best, not part of a larger whole."

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