If you were given a choice between breaking your arm in a mountain bike crash, having your fingernails pulled out by a foreign interrogator, or racing in Primal Quest Utah, which would you choose?
Here’s my answer: the fingernails would hurt a lot, but only for a few minutes. The broken arm would hurt a little longer, but then there’s those fun pills the doctor gives you. Primal Quest Utah, on the other hand…pure, unadulterated pain and suffering for eight straight days. No thanks.
That’s not to say I didn’t appreciate the event. This year’s course was the most magnificent, awe-inspiring work of art the sport has ever seen. Don Mann’s course design was nothing short of ingenious in that he showcased the best that Utah has to offer, and brought racers to the brink of misery over and over while always injecting a relief point just before we were ready to quit. 110-degree remote canyon treks were followed by a paddle or swim section, and after mountain biking on burning slickrock we were sent to the cool heavens of the La Sal mountains. Just when you thought you couldn’t take it anymore, a new part of the course would ensure that you could survive for another day of pain. Very skillful torture. The TV coverage on ESPN in October is not to be missed; I’m sure this will be the most beautiful terrain adventure racing in North America has ever seen.
If I’d been able to keep a journal while I was racing, here’s what it would look like.
Saturday, June 24th, 7:00 pm
‘Tis the night before Primal Quest, and our sweet little riverfront Red Cliffs Lodge cabin echoes with sounds of dissension. Packing three shared 48-gallon gear bins, one for food, one for mountaineering gear, and one for general and ropes gear, is an exercise in team dynamics. Painfully, I tell Luther he has too many clothes in the general gear bin and must find something to leave out. Russ and I beg to put our Tevas in the bin, but alas, Luther sensibly points out that our climbing helmets have to fit in eventually. Blain, being a bigger guy than most, gets a generous offer from Luther for extra food bin space. We negotiate on into the night, forgoing sleep in order to get everything right. With no support crew, our choices about what goes in the bins will be critical.
The buses for the start line depart at midnight. We’ve already been told they are school buses, so we know we won’t get any sleep. We’re headed for an isolated area called Lucky Flats, about 30 miles south of Price, Utah.
Sunday, June 25th, 6:30 am
Horses and helicopters don’t mix. Any fool knows that.
“It’s coming in for another pass!” I scream, scanning the skies for the black ESPN helicopter. All around us, horses are throwing their riders. Just in front of us, a horse rears straight up, first vertical, then bent over backwards, and his Japanese rider is trampled. The dust swirls thickly, and I can’t see anything else. I wonder if he’s OK. Three of us grab at our horse’s halter, trying to hold him steady while Blain, astride the horse, grips the saddle horn and tries to maintain control. The chopper swoops, low enough that I can see the pilot’s face. The horse begins to buck and rear again, and this time Blain’s had enough.
“I’m getting off this frickin thing!” he shouts. We hold the horse while he dismounts. We’ve been told that we have to have a rider for the first two miles, until our first vet check, but the hell with it. Blain’s already been bucked off once, before the race start.
In fact, this is our third horse. The first was so unruly that the wranglers immediately took him back and gave us another. The second bucked Blain thirty minutes before the start and ran wildly into a crowd of racers, bucking and rearing and whinnying and sending athletes running and screaming from the jeep road in terror. We traded him in too. Our third horse, Catch, is OK when there are no helicopters around. Which is practically never for the first couple hours of the race.
We sit in the shade, giving me a much needed rest. Everyone else seems to be doing much better with the heat than I am.
Another team passes by, and their female says, “Are you Anna?” I nod.
“Adventure racing is stupid!” she shouts, quoting a favorite line from one of the blogs I posted on the PQ website in the months before the race. Everyone laughs, both her team and mine.
We’ve been trekking for nearly 40 miles, first with our horse, then without. Losing the horse was tough—now we have to carry our packs, which are heavy with 200 ounces of water and two days of food. A colossal mistake has become apparent to me: my choice of shoes. I should have worn Gortex shoes, not mesh.
The crazy thing is, I knew this. I’ve been training in Moab all year. I even ordered Gortex shoes just before
the race, but after wearing them twice, I decided I didn’t like them and thought that my usually tough feet would be OK. They’re not. Even with gaiters, I have to empty the sand out of my shoes every couple hours, and it’s clear that my feet will blister soon.
After miles of flat jeep roads through desert landscape, we’ve finally come to a drainage with a few boulders in it. The scrambling breaks the monotony. Luther and Blain are briefly disoriented, and they consult with the navigator from Team Sante Fe Bear Pair, Dale Blankenship, a friend of Luther’s. After a few doubletakes and consultations, we’re off again, headed for our first bike transition.
Monday, June 26th, 3:00 am
Russ must have a problem unclipping his bike shoes, I think. Every time we hit a patch of sand, he falls. It’s not difficult riding, but you have to be able to unclip when you hit the sand because it’s not all ridable.
“Look at this,” he says grimly, sliding one side of his bike shorts down over his hip to reveal a deep purple swelling the size of a kiwi fruit.
“Why can’t you unclip?” I ask.
“It’s my bad knee. I can’t make that kind of sideways motion.”
Blain rides behind for a while, coaching Russ on sand riding technique. Russ is our relative rookie—it’s his first major expedition race, not counting the Eco Challenge North American Championships, which his team only made it three days into. He has made me promise not to let him quit. So far, I think I’m a lot more likely to quit than he is.
We were warned not to expect to go through any towns during this race, but once we received the maps, we found that Don Mann had decided to give us a break. We were to go through a town twice; Green River in the early part of the race, and Moab a little more than halfway through.
We pull into Green River on our bikes and make a beeline for the first hamburger joint we see. It’s only been a day and a half, but the terrain has been so remote that we’re thrilled to be in a town no matter how backwater a town it is. I’m eating my tater tots and corn dog when Corey Rosen, a Sleepmonsters reporter, and Kristin Skvorc, a photographer from my local paper, pull in and sit with us for a while.
“How’s it going?” Corey asks.
“Great,” I say through a mouthful of food. “I’m eating tater tots and corn dogs. Doesn’t get any better than this.”
Kristin snaps some photos of us as we raid a local grocery store and head out in a pace line on pavement toward our next transition area. We can hear helicopters in the distance. Water is next, and we can’t wait.
It’s weird, sitting in an SUV, being shuttled by race staff to the next TA. I’ve heard it was supposed to be some sort of Nissan promotion, but we’re not driving in a Nissan. Our driver is a veterinarian who was working the horse section, and she chats affably with us as her SUV fishtails madly on the deep sand road.
“Tell us some stories,” I ask her.
“Well, there were some great teams on the horse section. I was surprised at how well you all treated those animals. One team taught their horse to drink out of a camelback.”
When we reach the TA, I realize I forgot to sign out of the last one. Will we get a penalty? After some debate, we decide to beg forgiveness and continue on. We don our wetsuits, fins, and knee/elbow/thigh/shin pads, and jump into the Green River. The next three hours are pure pleasure; surfing class two rapids on our boogie boards in cool, 68 degree water. In between rapids, I put my head down on my boogie board and snooze for a few minutes.
There is a Japanese woman kneeling on the front of my boat. She has her head pressed to the bar, I mean the boat, and it makes me think of asking for some sake, but that will make it harder to paddle. I blink and shake my head, and then it’s a drybag, yellow, clipped to the carrying handle of the boat but it won’t stay still and then it’s a Japanese woman again and sake would really be good right now and won’t you all stay for tea?
“You guys!” I yell desperately. “I need to sleep! Can we pull over?”
We’ve already talked about pulling over in the town of Green River, which we’re going through again, and there’s a restaurant right on the riverside that we hope is still open. But when we get there, it’s closed. I know there’s a truck stop in town, so we dock our two kayaks on the side of the river under a bridge and run up the bank and down the street. The servers at the truckstop don’t seem surprised to see such a wet, dirty clan—there are eight of us, two teams—so others must have had this idea before us. We order lots of food.
“I think I’ll call my wife,” Blain jokes. “Hey Trac! I’m eatin’ nachos!” He wiggles happily in his chair.
After we eat, we check into a Motel 6 down the road.
“We just need the room for a few hours,” I tell a dubious clerk. “I promise we’ll leave it very clean. Do you think we could have the single rate, instead of the four-person rate?”
The clerk gives us a rate of $40.00. With no set-up time, we figure we can afford to sleep for three hours.
Tuesday, June 27th, mid-day
“See the piles of stuff on the beach over there?” a race volunteer asks us, pointing across the river. We are at Ruby Ranch, and must swim to the other side of the Green River for our next section, a canyoneering loop. “Aim at that, using a ferry angle. You’ll want to start pretty far up the bank, because the river will sweep you down a ways no matter how hard you kick. You can use the sandbar in the middle to stand up and walk a piece of it.”
We put on our fins and PFD’s, and walk up the muddy bank before launching into the river. The cool water feels good, but I have to kick frantically to make it. I have the panicky feeling that I’ll be swept away if I don’t.
Luther loses a fin on the way over. “Damn!” he says. “This is gonna make it hard to get back across later on.”
We figure we’ll worry about that later. We leave our wet gear on the river bank and put on trekking shoes. We’ve seen racers way ahead of us come limping in from this loop and we know it’s going to be a tough one. Hot, sandy, and long. But we’ve heard that it’s beautiful too. And we’ll have our first ropes section along the way.
Blain grabs a trekking pole out of Russ’s hand and lunges up the road ahead of us, chasing a pick-up truck, roaring and waving the trekking pole. We can’t stop laughing. Luther has warned us that eventually the Army Ranger personality will come out.
“I want water!” Blain shouts to the pick-up truck, which is speeding away. “Give me water!”
We ran out about an hour ago. Blain had stopped the truck and begged the volunteers inside for water, but they simply pointed out that we were almost to the checkpoint.
In the last few hours, we’ve trekked up high on slickrock formations above the Green River with panoramic views of the San Rafael Swell, and then rappelled back down to the river. We trekked through a hot narrow canyon where a panicked deer, thinking we were chasing her, nearly ran me down. We ascended out of the canyon on ropes, and now we’re on a flat dirt road, headed for a checkpoint with water, and then the final part of the section, a slot canyon. The scenery has been incredible, but it’s hard to enjoy it when you’re dehydrated and overheated. I got so exhausted in the canyon that Luther had to take my climbing gear, and even then, it took me a long time to do the ascent. Pull, pull, rest. Pull, pull, rest.
I’m laughing so hard I’m rolling in the sand. Russ too. Blain is standing in front of us on a sandy road, shouting some nonsense about how this canyon never ends and we will be buried here. I can’t even understand half of what he’s saying, but it’s funny because it’s so true: this canyon never ends. We’ve been here for hours. When it narrowed to a slot, and had some technical bouldering and scrambling, it was fun for a while. But then it widened again, and there was nothing to think about but the blisters on our feet and the hourly stops to empty our shoes. Blain stamps his feet and yells, “There, take that! Take it back!” We laugh harder.
We were traveling with some other teams for a while, NW Nike ACG and Sante Fe Bear Pair, but they’re gone now. I think they stopped to sleep.
Wednesday, June 28th, 1:00 am
The river bank is steep and muddy, and the underbrush I’m fighting through is so thick that I can’t see where I’m going. My feet slip out from under me, and I go down on my hands and knees. I hear a rattling noise, and pull my head up just in time to see a snake rearing in front of me, maybe six inches away, clearly threatened by my sudden invasion of his space. I back away quickly.
We wade into the river, bound for Ruby Ranch again. The canyon finally ended. Now we’ll get back into our kayaks and continue down the river.
The swim goes much better for me this time, but one of my teammates gets too close to a farming irrigation pump. A worried volunteer shouts from the opposite bank, “Get away from the pump! Get away!” I can’t see who it is. Either Russ or Luther. Whoever it is, he obviously can’t hear anything. He clears the pump anyway, and I heave myself up on shore, relieved.
We’re all so sleepy. This paddle is taking forever, because at least one of us is always sleeping. We take turns, tucking our paddles under the elastic on the boat’s hull and sinking down until our heads loll over the side of our cockpits. The Green River winds lazily through Grays Canyon, sheer red rock walls towering above us. Once, early this morning, I saw furry little animals swimming toward us. Muskrats, maybe.
Sometimes we hook up a tow rope between the two boats, with Blain and Russ’s boat in front. But we have to unhook whenever one of them sleeps. We’ve come from the canyon that never ends, and now we’re on the river that never ends…
We are at a TA at Mineral Bottom, a river put-in right at the start of the famous White Rim jeep trail. We are to do another canyoneering loop from here, and then come back, just like we did at Ruby Ranch.
We’re hearing bad things at this TA. It’s 110 degrees in Hell Roaring Canyon, the second of the two canyons we have to travel through. One racer has been airlifted out with heat stroke and is now in the hospital. Rob Harsh, the water director, is telling teams that they’re crazy to head into the canyons now. He advises us to sleep until nightfall.
“There’s an old mining shaft a couple kilometers up Mineral Canyon,” he says. “You can sleep there until the sun goes down.” Russ is scared. He asks me if we’re willing to use the satellite phone if things get rough.
“Of course!” I tell him. “Nobody wants to die in there. It’s just a race, right?” I manage to sound more confident than I am.
We set off with 250 ounces of water in our packs. My back hurts instantly, and I walk in a stooped position, trying to shift the weight off my lower back. When we reach the mining shaft, we decide it looks unsafe, so we find a shady drainage to sleep in instead. Blain sets his alarm for 8:30 pm. Despite the shade, the sand is so hot it’s hard to lie still on it. The heat radiates up through my space blanket, which I lie on top of instead of crawling inside.
We were with Santa Fe Bear Pair again, scrambling up through a boulder field, but then we lost them. Now I’m hanging on a 200 foot ascent, listening to the broken members of their team shouting for each other down in the canyon below me. Somehow, they got separated. One of them tells us that the Bears, a couple from Sante Fe, have bad feet and may not be able to go on.
The ascent is hard, even harder than the last one. It’s all free-hanging. Pull, pull, rest. Pull, pull, rest. We’re making our way out of Mineral Canyon, and now we’ll trek across the rim until we reach Hell Roaring Canyon, which we’ll rappel into.
Thursday, June 29th, 2:00 am
“Stay back, and don’t look up until I tell you,” Russ says. “There’s too much debris falling through the chimney, it’ll get in your eyes. We’ll hand the packs up one by one, and then you can climb up.”
We are in a technical bouldering section above Mineral Canyon, and the chimney we’re in is so narrow that we start making jokes about how fat racers will have to DNF here. Not that there are any fat racers at this event.
Blain is already on top. I wait for Russ to climb through the narrow slot, and then I hand packs up to him. Finally, it’s my turn. I’m not a climber, and finding handholds is tricky. I squeeze myself through the narrow opening, scraping skin off my back in the process. At last, I am on top, and we can see a wide open expanse of desert before us.
I can’t keep my eyes open. Every few steps, my knees buckle and I stagger, weaving back and forth across the trail like a drunk. Russ, Luther and Blain are ahead of me, and no matter how I try, I can’t catch up. I hear them talking about stopping to give me a sleep break, but I can’t answer to tell them how much I need one. I open my mouth and nothing comes out. Maybe I’m already sleeping?
We must be lost, because we turn around and go the other way for the second time on this trail. Finally, someone tells me to lie down for a few minutes while they figure out where our turn is. Thank god. I put my head down on a rock and am out instantly.
When I wake up it’s light out, and they figure it out. We walked past some flagging in the dark. At Horsethief campground, we see a sign that says“soda and candy bars for sale” and we follow the arrows to a campsite where a man pops out of his tent when he hears us coming. He is an enterprising camper who heard about the race and made a quick trip to a store. He has cold drinks and chocolate bars. We stop a while and Russ pulls out some money and treats us all.
Hell is a place called Hell Roaring Canyon. I will never forget this place.
The canyon is wide, and we follow a flat jeep road through its bottom. Sand seeps through the mesh in my shoes at an unbelievable rate. I’ve jettisoned my gaiters; they don’t help.
Russ is really suffering. The skin has rubbed off his little toes, and he limps along at about one mile an hour. Luther told us we’d be out of here in five to six hours, but now he is saying eight. The thought is unbearable. Our water won’t last that long. I hang back to talk to Russ.
“Is there anything we can do to step up the pace, do you think?” I ask him. “Tape your feet, carry your pack, anything?”
Russ says he doesn’t think so, but then Blain and Luther take his pack, and we get faster right away.
My feet are not nearly as bad as Russ’s, but for someone who never gets blisters, they’re pretty bad. Each toe has a blister on the end. I think it’s from the heat of the sand.
We trudge up steep switchbacks that climb the canyon wall from Mineral Bottom. We’re carrying all of our paddling gear from the boats down below, and we heard that Don Mann was going to make us carry the boats too, but someone told him it was too hard and he relented. We did have to portage our boats around a lowhead dam for a half mile near Green River, and we can’t imagine what it would have been like to carry them up this canyon wall. They were so heavy we had to drag them.
At the top, we turn in our paddling gear and transition to bikes. We’ll be on our bikes for a very long time after this.
Friday, June 30th, 2:00 am
As we drop down beneath the arch of Gemini Bridges, Luther and I can see the headlamps of our teammates on the other side of the bridge. All four of us are descending at the same pace, two on each side. I almost wish it were daylight so I could see this spectacular sight, but then I remember the heat and banish the thought.
Next to us, our bikes whiz by on a zipline to the bottom of Bull Canyon.
Once on the ground, our bikes retrieved, we decide to sleep for ninety minutes. It’s a shame to waste cool hours, but we are tired and the sleep is needed. We find a sandy drainage, far enough from the rappel that we can’t hear the noise of other racers, and everyone dozes off quickly except Russ. He has been having trouble sleeping. I didn’t realize it at first, but gradually I begin to notice that whenever I wake up, Russ is already awake.
“I don’t know what it is,” he says. “Stress, I guess. I can’t stop my brain from all its frenzied activity.” The lack of sleep is really beginning to take a toll on him.
Luther is fuming. “I’ve been looking forward to this bike section for the entire race,” he says, “and now all I’m doing is pushing my bike. They said it was all ridable.”
“I think they meant ridable for a strong technical rider out for the day when it isn’t this hot and he isn’t carrying 250 ounces of water and he hasn’t been racing for five days,” Russ points out, sensibly.
We’re pushing our bikes up the Golden Spike jeep trail, traveling on and off with Team Mandatory Gear. The trail is very technical, with pockets of sand and steep rock ledges and lots of climbing. Temperatures are soaring. The slickrock is so hot I can feel it through my shoes. Every hour or so, we stop under an overhang and rest in the shade.
Luther collapses on a rock at the side of the trail and sits, mutely, as we grab his pack and his bike from him. We’re almost at the checkpoint at the end of the Poison Spider trail, and there will be water there, but we ran out a while back. Luther is clearly in the early stages of heat exhaustion. It’s the first time he’s had any real trouble on this course.
Mercifully, we reach the checkpoint minutes later and the volunteer there lets us put Luther in his car with the air conditioner blasting. We bring him bottles of water, and within a half hour, he has recovered. We’re lucky–had this happened a few miles back, we’d have been in trouble.
I marvel at the strength of my two military teammates. This is Luther’s only “bonk” if you can call it that. And Blain never goes down at all. Occasionally he complains that his “dogs are barking” (meaning his feet hurt), but that’s about it. Me, on the other hand—I’m constantly drifting to the back of the pack, feet screaming, back throbbing, unable to keep up with my teammates. And now I have a new problem—a nasty diaper rash from the bike seat. I haven’t had one of those in years, and I don’t even know what to do about it. It’s so raw and painful that I ride the roads into Moab with a theatrically agonized expression on my face.
“Let’s see if we can get that face in front of a camera,” Blain says as we pull into town. Very funny.
The waypoint we have to pass is at the Denny’s right in town, and that’s fine with us, because we planned to stop there anyway. I order takeout food for everyone while Russ gets a room at the Riverside Inn across the street. Blain and Luther will plot the rest of our maps there. They only did about half of the course before the race start, opting for more gear organization time instead.
I had a good sleep in the motel, although not everyone was so lucky. Luther had to go to a bike shop down the street to get a bigger size bike shoes because his feet were so swollen. And Blain plotted maps by himself, because I promised to get up early and help him and I didn’t do it. I have not been a very good teammate during this race, and I’m only getting worse.
We ride out of town, headed for Pritchett Canyon, which we’ve heard has been the hottest part of the course yet. It was so hot there today that they put a heat stop on it; no teams were allowed in until evening.
Even after dark, it’s still pretty hot. We travel with a half dozen other teams, including Racing with Giants, on which our friend Shari Hymes races. Although I’ve hiked Pritchett Canyon twice, I seem unable to help out when we all get disoriented and start backtracking, thinking we’ve accidentally gotten off in a side canyon. It looks so different at night. Finally, Shari’s team figures it out and we continue out of the canyon, finding an unscheduled and unexpected water station at the top. We fill up, gratefully.
Throughout the race, making cut-off times has been our foremost concern. Before the race started I predicted that only the elite teams would be able to make the cut-offs, and everyone else would end up on a short course, in the “adventure class.” But when we made the first cut off, at Ruby Ranch, by more than 24 hours, I began to think we had a chance of staying on the full course. Other cut-off times, not originally published, have been inserted along the way and many teams have missed them and been short-coursed around certain sections of the course, such as Hell Roaring Canyon. But we’ve continued to stay comfortably ahead of those cut-offs too. Now, however, we’re getting close to the last published cut-off time, which is in the La Sal Mountains just before the mountain trekking section begins. I desperately want to make this cut-off, because it means getting out of the heat and sand and trekking at cooler temperatures.
Saturday, July 1st, 2:00 pm
We’re at Pack Creek Ranch, in the foothills of the La Sal Mountains, the TA just before the mountain trek, and we made the cut-off by two hours. But we get bad news here.
“You guys have a choice to make,” a TA volunteer tells us. “You made the cut-off, and you can continue on the full course if you want. But it looks like we’ve underestimated the times for the mountain trek. We told you the slow course time was 34 hours, but Team Nike Powerblast took 30 hours in there. You may want to consider taking a short course option from here, skipping the mountain trek and biking directly to the next TA.”
“What happens if we continue on the full course and don’t make the finish line by Tuesday?” I ask him.
“It’s a DNF,” the volunteer says firmly.
I am crushed. Get back on my bike? No mountains, no wildflowers, no 70-degree temperatures? But we discuss it, and everyone agrees; it’s too risky. We can’t have a DNF after all this. We take the short course option.
Something is wrong with my bike. I keep shifting and the pedals clang to a stop, like they’re hitting a brick wall. Am I cross-gearing or something? My eyes won’t stay open, and the road shimmers and shakes ahead of me, and sometimes I think I’m shifting up when I’m really shifting down. We’re biking the La Sal Mountain Road, and it’s all uphill. I get frustrated and stomp on the pedals, and suddenly I hear a wrenching metal-on-metal sound, and the pedals don’t work at all. I stop, and yell to my teammates.
Luther, our bike expert, takes one look at my bike and tells me I’ve trashed the derailleur. Did I do that on purpose, sort of, subconsciously? Very possible, I have to admit. After all, how the hell does someone trash a derailleur biking on smooth pavement?
Luther says he has a spare derailleur in his bike box at the next TA, and maybe he can fix it. We decide to sleep for a couple hours and find a field to lie down in. It’s cold up here in the mountains, and I put on every piece of clothing I have, hoping it will be enough.
Sunday, July 2nd, 2:00 am
In my dream, I am quitting the race. What does it matter, anyway? We missed making the full course. My derailleur is broken. The guys can get to the finish line easier without me. It seems so simple, and suddenly, it’s not in my dream.
“I quit!” I shout, sitting up in my space bag. Was I ever really sleeping anyway? I’m still shaking from the cold.
“If you quit, then I quit too,” Russ says quietly. He pauses a moment, then goes on. “I don’t really have what it takes to do this race. I admire you guys, but I just can’t do it myself.”
Aw, shit. Regret floods me in an instant. This isn’t what I meant to do.
We pack up and hit the road, pushing our bikes up the hill. No one says a word. I imagine that Luther and Blain are paralyzed, wondering if Russ and I really mean it, afraid that anything they say will make the situation worse.
Finally, I get next to Russ and break the silence.
“When I said that I quit, I just thought you guys would be better off with an unofficial finish than with the DNF that I might cause you,” I tell him. “But I didn’t mean for you to quit. You asked me not to let you quit. And Luther and Blain can’t go on without you.” Race rules prohibit unofficial teams of less than three members.
Russ starts to say something about how the race has exceeded his abilities again, but I’m not listening.
“Let’s just get to the next TA,” I tell him. “Maybe Luther can fix my bike.”
“I can’t fix it,” Luther says. “Your derailleur hanger takes too much pounding, I don’t have the tools. But we’ve looked at the maps, and the next bike section is almost all downhill. And then we’re done with the bikes.”
The sun is up, it’s not hot yet, and I have a better outlook. Luther puts my bike in a middle gear, and we set off. By the end of the day, I will have a new respect for single-speed bike racers.
This bike section is beautiful. We ride out of the La Sals on pavement, then climb to the top of Fisher Valley and ride jeep roads out the valley to Onion Creek. Onion Creek is a rolling ride through a lush green drainage, and the trail splashes across the creek every mile or so and cools us off. By the time we reach the TA, we are rejuvenated. The finish is close.
Only the teams on the full course are doing the final ropes, an ascent up the magnificent Castleton Towers rectory, then a high zipline across to one of the Priests and Nuns formations, and then a rappel down. Luther is disappointed to hear that we’ll miss it, but I’m indifferent. We will still trek up the enormous talus field that constitutes the base of the towers and travel along a knife-edge ridge and down the other side. And we’ll be able to see the racers on the ropes.
First, we sleep. It will be tricky up there, and we’ll be doing it in the dark. Russ, still not sleeping, is loopy. We lay down for what is supposed to be an hour, but for the first time in this race, Blain’s alarm goes off and he resets it. I wake up confused as Shari’s team arrives, and Blain runs through the TA shouting that some unknown creature has brushed by his leg. Then I put my head back down and hear nothing until Blain wakes me another hour later.
As we pack up, Russ asks if I have seen his camelback bladder.
“Yes,” I tell him. “One of our teammates has it, but I can’t remember his name.”
“You need to stay put!” an irate racer screams from an unknown team below us. “Don’t move until we tell you we’re clear!”
We thought they were already clear. I feel like an asshole now. The rockfall is indeed very dangerous, and we’ve been descending from the Castleton Towers ridge one by one to mitigate the hazard. Someone dares to make a reference to last year’s rockfall accident, commenting that this year’s course is supposed to be “safe,” and we laugh, irreverently. Another rock crashes by, to a chorus of “rock!” from Shari’s team above us.
Finally, we’re clear of the loose talus field and on a trail heading out of the valley toward the Colorado River. The sun is up, and we’re so close to the finish that I start running to catch up with Blain. Luther runs behind me, and soon the three of us are strolling along at early race speed.
Then we stop to look behind us. There’s Russ, limping slowly, haggardly. His trekking poles trail behind him. His face is pale and drawn behind his eight-day facial growth, and his eyes are bloodshot. Luther and Blain begin to laugh, and I can’t help it, I laugh too. Russ, good naturedly, looks up and immediately grasps what’s so funny. He joins in.
“I don’t know if I can bring him in like this,” I gasp. “I’m going to get in trouble with his wife!”
“Let’s dunk the three of us in the river and leave him like he is so he looks even worse,” Blain says.
We laugh on and off all the way out to the river.
The finish is a paddle in two muddy duckies, on a two-mile stretch of the Colorado River. We pull into the Red Cliffs Lodge at 7:00 am, and Don and Dawn Mann are there to greet us. Someone hands us an American flag to carry across the finish line. Then we’re ushered onto a stage, together with Shari’s team, to say a few words for the camera.
I don’t remember what anyone says. I don’t even remember what I said. I know Luther said something funny about portaging kayaks, and I made a weak joke about Hell Roaring Canyon. We’re done, and that’s enough for me. I’m ready to have my fingernails pulled out and my arm broken in a mountain bike accident.
Nonetheless, I’m sure I’ll see everyone in South America for next year’s Primal Quest. Till then, my Tango watches us all from doggie heaven above, and she says, keep on racing and may your adventures take you far and wide.
Anna DeBattiste – Team Tango – July 10, 2006