Primal Quest 2008: A passion for pain
July 2, 2008
BIG SKY, Mont. The wind felt hungry, like it was about to rip the pack off your back. Gray rock spires shot from the rugged tundra in all directions, creating a tunnel effect to magnify the 50 mph gusts. It was so loud you could barely hear the person next to you unless he yelled.As the four Nike adventure racers huddled together on 7,600-foot Ross Pass last Thursday afternoon in the Bridger Range high above Bozeman, Mont., the options were two: continue on the singletrack trail down the west side of the range before eventually gaining the ridge again much later, a 2,000-foot drop then climb back up; or do as Chris Forne suggested and take the ridge right from the start, a rugged, unpredictable trek with snow and loose talus everywhere, sheer cliffs off the back and this merciless wind pelting your being all the while.It was 370 miles into Nikes Primal Quest Montana experience, the middle of a 12-hour trek that would define the race and, as it happened, this team. They had slept 10 hours in four days, rarely ceasing movement otherwise, and they still had 180 miles to go. They entered the 29-mile leg with a 4-hour lead, comfortable but certainly not insurmountable, given all the variables involved in such a backcountry competition.Forne, Nikes navigator, announced his plan. The ridge, he said. Well go up the ridge.
It had been barely a year since Forne joined the team, taking the spot of Boulders Ian Adamson, a six-time world champion who retired after helping Nike to its fourth straight Primal Quest title in 2006. For Nike to hand the navigational reigns to the Kiwi Forne at the time was akin to the Super Bowl champions asking a college star to play quarterback albeit one who began reading topographic maps at age 6.Since then, Fornes backcountry route-charting has been nothing short of remarkable in the discerning eyes of his teammates, who say the correlation between his confidence and accuracy is uncanny. Hes the best Ive ever seen on a race course, by far, Nikes captain, Mike Kloser of Vail, would say after the race.Here, though, on the windblown summit of Ross Pass, Kloser and his longtime racing partner, former Xterra triathlon world champion Michael Tobin of Idaho, challenged Forne in a rare fashion. Theres no way that ridge is faster, Kloser, still a bull at 48, shouted through the howling wind. Forne, however, stood his ground, pointing to the fact that taking the trail would require an extra 2,000-foot climb back up to the crest. Monique Merrill of Breckenridge, the teams lone female member, usually leaves the navigational decisions to the other three, which meant it was Kloser and 44-year-old Tobin, the veterans and foundations of the team, against Forne, the 31-year-old wunderkind.You dont understand, Chris, Kloser barked. These ridges are like Colorado ridges, man. They take for-f******-EVER. They can get really, really ugly.Again Forne stood his ground. It will be quicker, he said, forcibly now, and within a minute he was kicking steps in the steep-snow ascent toward the ridge, as the others filed in behind him.
According to stats kept by Kloser, Nike wins 75 percent of its races. If asked, most of their competitors would probably say thats a low estimate. Not only has Nike established a success rate matched by few other professional sports teams, it has done so in the only sport that puts women on the same stage as men, and also one in which the slightest mistake can end a teams race.Most of the competitions Nike enters are expedition events, lasting three to seven days. Such a duration requires a special combination of speed to be deployed only when needed and endurance. The four athletes on Nikes Primal Quest team (others are often used as subs in smaller races) bring a variety of backgrounds to meet those needs.Kloser, for instance, is a member of the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame. Both Tobin and Merrill are former off-road triathlon stars. And Forne, well, hes basically king of the thriving endurance-racing world in Christchurch, New Zealand, where he grew up. At home, Chris sort of sets the benchmark, and everyone else tries to beat him in anything, says Aaron Prince, Fornes former teammate and fellow Christchurch native. If you can get one over Chris, ever, its a good day.Each of Nikes four members began competing in shorter events, picking up expedition racing only after someone else in the sport recognized their special makeup as individuals. All four are as gifted mentally as they are physically. In fact, if there is a prerequisite to earning inclusion on this team, it is an ability to keep up with the group even under extreme discomfort.For Merrill, the discomfort arrived at a terrible time last week. Racers in events like Primal Quest must consume up to 10,000 calories to fuel their daily exploits. Nike, for instance, averaged 100 miles of travel and 13,000 feet of elevation gain (and another 13,000 lost) per 24 hours in Montana. But such consumption demands wild things from ones digestive system, especially since the tract must work its magic while the body is in constant motion.Merrill began by calling it indigestion. Gradually it became a painful case of diarrhea, baring its fangs in the middle of the most technical trek on the course. In cases such as hers, there is no relief upcoming. No good nights sleep to count on. Not even a toilet. Just bushes and rock and wind, and a whole lot of pressure to keep up in spite of it all.
The point of everything Nike does, of course, is spelled out in three little letters: w-i-n. It is easy to say the team triumphs because it has the best athletes. But the truth is, they look the same at the starting line as all the other racers: lean and cut, with quads that bulge like balloons when they walk.Only when you see Nikes athletes perform, when you watch how preciously they treat every moment in a race this ungodly long, you start to understand.There are no accidents. When the team was looking for a fourth support crew member to aid at transition areas for Primal Quest, Kloser called an old friend in Montana and asked if he knew any local guy or gal who would fit the requirement: an intimate knowledge of the local backcountry, all the trails, all the roads, all the mountain ranges, so whenever Nikes racers needed a straight-up assessment of what they faced, theyd have it.Other teams used whoever was able to take time off work, usually two or three friends and family members. One pro team from Canada found its third support crew member on the plane ride down to the race.The leader of that squad, TeamPeakAdventure.coms Greg McHale, was already prepared to hand Nike the title on Day 3, with his team just three hours back.They just dont stop, he said at a transition area before a 14-hour trek through the Crazy Mountains. They dont make mistakes. Thats why theyre the best in the world right now, and thats why theyve been there for years, because they dont make errors.Dude, they are just so much frickin faster than we are, Merrell/Zanfel Adventure captain Robyn Benincasa, who, along with John Jacoby, gave her team the two most experienced racers in the field, said at the same checkpoint. The team also included the top two 20-something racers in Primal Quest, in Prince and Denvers Travis Macy. At the end of the day, said Benincasa, who competed with searing pain from a resurfaced hip the previous summer, if Nike decides to just piss off, they can do it at any time.The most impressive part, then, is Nikes restraint in doing so. The team recognizes the length of the race and how vital it is to conserve energy. So they hike the uphills usually straight up the fall line, so they dont have to deal with stupid zigzags, as Forne refers to switchbacks then run any hint of a downhill, since gravity is handing them additional time.When they stop, which isnt often, it is not to take a break. Each understands that its his or her responsibility to do something useful with the time. Lather on more foot grease to prevent blisters. Eat. Fill up a water bottle in a creek, then treat it with purification drops part of the often overlooked backcountry nature of these races is that there are no aid stations in the middle of a 50-mile trek at 9,000 feet.
You do what you have to do.For Nike and Merrill, already dehydrated by her stomach ailment, that meant getting through the last five hours of their trek through the punishing Bridger Range last Thursday night sans water. To cope, they began eating snow. They trekked over late-season cornices reared up like cobras, calling back to warn each other if there was a danger it would break off; leaped down 4-foot notches in the rock onto loose talus slopes, where a simple slip-up could mean the end of their race. And they did it all in trail-running shoes with no ankle support.The natural dangers on the course were many a number of early grizzly sightings prompted organizers to require teams to carry bear spray at the ready but the primary threat, at least early in the race, was the fuming Gallatin River. On the second day, their fresh-faced eagerness still driving them, the 56 coed teams of four riverboarded down the Gallatin, which by midafternoon had swollen to potentially catastrophic levels. Boulders the size of SUVs split the flow in half as the brown snowmelt suddenly roiled like an ocean in a hurricane. It was the biggest water most had ever seen.Put it this way, Merrill said. We slept for three hours that night, and all I did was have nightmares for three hours. Chris really wanted to go down this thing called The Rock, and I didnt, and thats all I dreamed about, was that we went down that and I died. Im not kidding. I just cant read water that well, and it was petrifying for me.Realizing the gravity of the situation with scores of teams still on course, race officials ordered everyone off the river immediately. Volunteers on shore scrambled to grab the horrified men and women whooshing by on their flotation devices toward the next monster rapid. At one particularly nasty hole, five different athletes were being rescued at once. For an event with a history of death Australian Nigel Aylott died in the 2004 Primal Quest it was a perilously close call, one which ultimately forced the cancellation of all subsequent water legs.Given such instances, and the fact that the distances they cover and elevation they gain are almost impossible to relate to the layperson, Nikes racers rarely talk about their experiences after theyre over. Tobin says he sometimes fields questions at dinner parties but struggles to explain it in comprehensible detail.When I go home, he said while trekking in the Bridgers, I never really think about any of this stuff, what we went through, where we were, any of it. But when I get back with these guys, it all comes flowing back in vivid memories. Only at the big races, in the awards room afterward, do I really feel like Im around other people who understand.Theirs is a rare preference in the suffering world. Tobin, for example, said he is totally intimidated by a 24-hour mountain bike race. Kloser said people ask him if hes ever done a 100-mile foot race, and he scoffs. That, to me, just seems like way too much punishment, he said.And yet there they were, nearing the end of the 29-mile trek through the Bridgers that would bring their Primal Quest mileage to 385 in three and a half days. It was almost 2 a.m. when they reached the town of Bozeman on the southern tip of the range, their knees and quads battered by the unrelenting 4,000-foot descent. Merrill practically sprinted to a nearby river, forgoing the purification drops as she gulped water by the quart then continued on her way to the transition area, saying nothing.A police car whizzed by in the black, silent night and flashed its lights at the quartet of headlamps bouncing down the side of the road. Every five minutes another car would fly by and honk. Sometimes I forget where I am, Merrill said, by now almost delirious. People have jobs here. Theyre normal citizens. They must see us out in the middle of the night and just think were so weird.After 45 minutes of trudging along town streets, the Nike foursome arrived at its transition area, where the warmth of an RV awaited them. Somewhere up on that wind-scoured ridge, their closest pursuer, Merrell, was still out there chasing them, its four weary racers forced to sleep under a tarp rather than risk further travel over the perilous terrain in the dark.Kloser still wasnt convinced Fornes decision to take the ridge instead of the trail had been right, but word from the course director soon confirmed it had been faster. Over the course of its 12-hour trek, Nikes lead had grown from four and a half hours to nearly 8, all but ending the race.
A day and a half later, at 9:19 Saturday night, Kloser, Merrill, Tobin and Forne rode their mountain bikes across the finish line at Big Sky Resort just shy of five and a half days since theyd started. Their victory margin ended up being 21 hours a rout, in other words, and a smoking time for an event in which fewer than half the teams finished the full course in the allotted 10 days.They celebrated for an hour that night, gobbling pizza and sipping red wine before slinking away to slumber in the teams rented condo. They had done what they came to Montana to do: beat everyone, and leave no doubt along the way.Later, Merrill, who nearly fell off a sheer cliff during a horrifying free-climbing segment five days into the race, pondered a question she fields from time to time.Why do I do this? She shrugged her shoulders. Just winning. I hate to say it, but thats why I do it.You just kill yourself for five days, and then for the following five days you cant do anything. Its from one extreme to the other. And I actually hate feeling so handicapped. My feet really, really hurt, and you get a ton of edema for two days, and your bodys just trying to heal itself. And I hate that. But in the same breath, I love the racing and I love winning. So you kind of have to put up with the compromise.Forne, who would go straight from Primal Quest to the orienteering world championships in the Czech Republic, debated the same question. I dont enjoy being miserable, he concluded, but its a little bit of a challenge to push yourself, I suppose. Thats the satisfaction of doing these expedition races. He paused and grinned. Plus, I havent managed to disintegrate yet.