PQ Archives: Sportsmanship to the rescue
Shocking to some, confusing to others, the sight of archrivals uniting as one in the name of sportsmanship last week was touching to all.To put it lightly, adventure racing was in big trouble. The sport’s showcase race, the Subaru Primal Quest, had not gone well. Two and a half days into it, a competitor had died on a questionable orienteering section, struck and killed by a massive boulder dislodged by an opponent. When officials restarted the race, a day and a half later, it was done in a way that “couldn’t have been more unfair,” Breckenridge competitor Monique Merrill of Team GoLite/Timberland said, referring to significant leads that were whittled to a fraction of their former size.Designed to test the world’s top endurance racers in a number of disciplines (mountain biking, inline skating, trekking, kayaking and orienteering) over the course of a week, Primal Quest – the sport’s richest race with a $250,000 prize purse – in effect came down to a one-day kayak race on the waters of northwest Washington state.Silverthorne resident Danelle Ballengee’s team, Nike ACG-Balance Bar, began the kayak leg with the lead and was in line to collect the $100,000 first-place prize. But paddling wasn’t the group’s strength, and team members knew it was only a matter of time before New Zealand-based Seagate – Nike ACG’s archrival – caught up.Just as Nike expected, the two Kiwi boats paddled past less than two hours into the 60-mile leg. Although the Nike foursome should’ve had a four-hour lead going into the deciding day, they led by mere minutes instead because of the restart and were forced now to sit on the tails of their rivals’ boats, desperate racers with no other options.Second place seemed an inevitability. And when you’re the world’s No. 1 adventure racing team and you’ve won the only two Primal Quests ever held, second sucks.Then, it happened. Seagate captain Nathan Fa’ave leaned forward to the group’s other boat, said a few quick words to his three teammates, and stopped paddling. They turned back toward Nike’s two boats.”Hey guys,” Fa’ave said in his Kiwi accent to the demoralized Nike foursome, “we wanna chat.”Fa’ave explained that because of the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the race, he and the rest of his team thought both teams should finish together, in a tie.In what Nike captain and Vail resident Mike Kloser described as a “no-brainer,” Nike agreed.So with the chase for the $100,000 first prize out the window and still grieving over fellow competitor and friend Nigel Aylott’s tragic death, the archrivals teamed up. Some 11 hours later, they crossed the finish line together.How big was the Kiwis’ move? Said Merrill, “Seagate saved the race.”
Tragedy unfoldsTeams train all year for Primal Quest. The entry fee alone is $8,000, but when you factor in crew, travel and accomodation costs, the price of competition can be upward of $50,000. When the race began, with a Pacific Ocean paddle in the early morning hours of Sunday, Sept. 19, the 56 teams in attendance were ready.Australia’s Team AROC – Aylott’s team – was one of a number that jumped out front early. Nike ACG was there, too.As Ballengee recounted, the mood was relaxed; they knew the tough stages lie ahead.AROC began singing, with Aylott bellowing the words as loud as any of them.Stand on your head!Fall through your ass!”They’d sing the same words over and over, just to different tunes,” Ballengee said. “Then they’d sing, ‘We come from a land down under.'”The jovial Aussies eventually pulled away from most of the other teams, and by Tuesday afternoon it was AROC and Team Montrail, another Australian group, neck and neck in the lead.The two teams reached the top of their toughest leg yet, an orienteering section down a rocky ravine on Mount Illabot.Eerily, the night before the race, in his standard prerace video briefing on the course, race director Dan Barger had showed a clip of the Illabot section.
It was one of a number of places on the course where racers had options on which direction to go. For this one, Barger showed the route that AROC eventually would choose, and said, “I don’t think I’d take that option.”Then he showed another descent available to the racers, and said that would probably be the better route.After evaluating both routes at the top of the ravine, AROC and Montrail still weren’t sure which one to take. (Kloser said it’s routine in adventure racing for rival teams to travel together during a race.)Aylott made the decision for everyone, jumping into the tougher of the two options with the gung-ho spirit that made him popular on the adventure racing circuit. Cautiously, the other racers followed.By the time seven of the eight racers had dropped down the initial ledge – which Kloser called between six and 10 feet, based on what he saw in photographs – Team Montrail’s John Jacoby took his turn.When he put his hand on one of the larger rocks, however, Jacoby dislodged it. The giant rock – a 4-foot-long, 3-foot-wide “disc slab,” Kloser said – caught Jacoby’s leg and took a chunk out of his ankle, then headed down toward the racers in the ravine below. Three of them jumped out of its path at the last moment, but AROC captain Alina McMaster didn’t have time.Right before it careened into McMaster, however, the boulder hit another rock and bounced out of her path, sparing her life. Tragically, this sent the boulder – which was going more than 50 mph – over a second ledge of similar size to the first, where Aylott was waiting below. From the accounts Ballengee heard from those present at the time, the rock killed Aylott instantly, and sent him cartwheeling down the slope another 20 feet.The oddest part? Because of where the rock sat, Ballengee said, “Every single person who went through that gully had probably stepped on that rock.”The controversial restartAs word spread of the accident, the race was put on hold. All remaining teams (AROC and Montrail dropped out) were summoned to the transition area closest to the Illabot section – even though, according to Merrill, only six had reached that point on their own. The others drove their support crew RVs to get there.A pair of makeshift ceremonies were held in memory of Aylott; AROC team members spoke to the group and said Aylott would have wanted the race to continue. Barger, the race director, then decided to start the race again at midnight on Wednesday, about 31 hours after the accident occurred.
To keep the race tighter and get as many people through the course as quickly as possible, Barger prorated the times separating the teams – in effect eliminating the leads those in front had worked tirelessly to build.”Teams that were two days behind other teams started two hours behind them,” said Merrill, whose team, GoLite/Timberland, would’ve finished in the top three without the restart but instead finished sixth. In addition, because of the timing of the restart, it made it impossible for the top teams to get to the paddling leg by the time night fell the next day – and adventure racing “dark zone” rules don’t allow them to paddle after dark in most cases. So even though Nike ACG-Balance Bar finished first and beat Seagate by two hours the day of the restart, they still had to wait until 6:20 the next morning to start their paddle, at virtually the same time as Seagate.This was why, even after the Kiwis passed Nike, Fa’ave was quoted on the race’s Web site as saying, “We realized we didn’t have the right to win. It didn’t seem sporting and it didn’t seem fair.”The final legWhat followed Seagate’s decision to join forces was equally unexpected. Deciding more or less on a whim, the two teams switched boats for the final five miles.It was a move aimed, at least in part, to ensure the eventual third-place finishers – Team Holifiber – wouldn’t catch up and spoil the moment (by splitting up the stronger paddlers the entire eight-person team was faster).With CBS TV crews and spectators baffled by the mixed boats, the eight world-class rivals crossed the finish line as one team and will split the first- and second-place prize money.Of Seagate’s decision to unite, Ballengee said she was “taken aback,” and Merrill said, “It put honor and integrity back into the race when it seemed to have lost it.”But Kloser may have put it best. “Most sports,” he said, “there’s a definite camaraderie between athletes and teams. But this sport seems to bond us differently.”Devon O’Neil can be contacted at (970) 668-3998, ext. 231, or at email@example.com.
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