Merrell still leads, but Nike lurks ever closer | SummitDaily.com

Merrell still leads, but Nike lurks ever closer

DEVON O'NEIL
Summit Daily News

Summit Daily/Kristin Skvorc

MOAB, Utah ” Like a predator stalking its prey, Nike/PowerBlast continues to pursue the one team it has not yet caught. That team, Merrell/Wigwam Adventure ” which led Primal Quest Utah for a second straight day as of Wednesday afternoon, although its margin had been whittled to just one hour ” continues to act as if it either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that it’s being stalked.

In actuality, all four Merrell racers know. They know Nike is only an hour back ” thanks to a costly wrong turn by Merrell on Wednesday’s mountain bike leg ” and that the defending PQ champions will not stop pushing until they’ve caught their prey. So then, it must be that Merrell simply doesn’t care.

Judging from Wednesday afternoon’s events, that seems the most logical explanation at this point.

“We’re still just doing our own thing, going our own pace, not really racing anybody,” Merrell captain Robyn Benincasa said. “It’s working out.”

About 3:30 p.m., Merrell had advanced nearly 300 miles of the 417 on course. They transitioned off their bikes to a 37.5-mile mountain trek that will take them deep into the La Sal range overnight, leaving them just two subsequent legs before the race ends, likely sometime late Thursday or early Friday just outside Moab.

But this is still far from over ” perhaps not distance-wise as much as strategy-wise. Nike, as it planned to do before the race, had stockpiled more sleep than any other elite team in the first four days of the race. The vaunted group got three hours Wednesday morning, in addition to four hours on each of the two previous days.

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“It’s not seeming to help a whole lot, though” said Breckenridge resident Monique Merrill of Nike, visibly weary and drained at the top of a spectacular early morning rappel down the Gemini Bridges arch, just north of Moab.

The shift in stamina could occur at any moment, as rest (or lack thereof) begins to catch up with teams around this stage of an expedition race.

Merrell’s athletes took advantage of their course location Wednesday afternoon, hopping off their mountain bikes for a brief reprieve at the 24-hour Denny’s restaurant in downtown Moab, while en route to their next checkpoint.

Inside the restaurant, Benincasa and her three orange-clad Kiwi teammates sat in the waiting area and inhaled sandwiches, milkshakes and large lemonades as other patrons wondered who they were and what the heck was going on.

They plotted their maps and planned the rest of their night’s work, while their bloody knees dried up and overflowing ice bags cooled their core temperatures. Outside, triple-digit temperatures made the day one of the hottest yet.

“I’m terribly overheated,” Kiwi racer Jeff Mitchell said. “This is absolute suffering.”

The five or six teams still within striking distance a few hours back of Merrell plodded through the same sweltering conditions, though it’s beginning to look more and more like a two-team race at this point.

Spyder, captained by Dillon resident Danelle Ballengee, still cannot find a way to get quality rest. The four racers were literally falling asleep on their bikes during Wednesday’s 20-mile leg to Gemini Bridges.

“We’re kind of at a struggling point,” Ballengee said at the time.

As of 7 p.m. Wednesday, GoLite/Timberland stood in third, Spyder in fourth and SOLE in fifth. Nike/Beaver Creek, with Eagle County racer Sari Anderson, had fallen two checkpoints behind the leaders, and was in seventh place.