Training for Primal Quest: The heat is on |

Training for Primal Quest: The heat is on

DEVON O'NEILsummit daily news
Summit Daily/Brad Odekirk

SUMMIT COUNTY – One of the reasons Danelle Ballengee lives here is because of the high-altitude training advantage the location provides for expedition-length adventure races. Like a number of other elite racers, she uses the thin Colorado air to make her lungs that much stronger when she needs them most: in the middle of a race, when the human body wants to shut down.But as the 2006 Primal Quest inches ever closer, you won’t find Ballengee anywhere near her Dillon home. That altitudinal advantage? No help now.Instead, the three-time PQ champion and current Team Spyder leader has left for the small town of Moab, Utah, in search of heat. And, of course, Moab is in the middle of the Utah desert, so there is plenty of heat. It was 85 degrees at 5 a.m. on Wednesday morning. Daytime highs routinely reach well into the triple digits during the summer; in fact, a 100-degree day in late June might actually be considered mild by Moab’s standards.Ballengee has stationed herself in Utah to prepare for what promises to be, at the very least, one hell of a draining week. The fourth-ever Primal Quest takes its 90 teams of four over 375 miles of brutal, arid terrain surrounding Moab, where the race begins on June 25.More than anything – the neverending treks, the grueling mountain bike rides, the whitewater swimming or the perilous canyoneering – what racers fear most about this year’s PQ is the punishing heat.”I have no idea why they’re doing a race in the middle of the desert, in the middle of July,” Ballengee said. “I guess they just want some good footage of people getting heat stroke or something.”The race’s location has led to some interesting training tactics among the athletes who are headed to Utah.The most basic strategy has been simple: do your hardest workouts when the day is at its hottest. But that depends on the day, and racers don’t always get a hot enough day depending on where they live.

Other ideas?”I’ve been training with lots of clothes on here,” said Breckenridge resident Monique Merrill, who will race in PQ with Team Nike, one of the favored foursomes. “But that’s not the same thing.”Anna DeBattiste, a Frisco racer and Team member, will be competing in her third Primal Quest. When listing ways one might acclimate the body to sweltering temperatures, she said, “A really lousy way to do it is to drive around in your car with the heat blasting.”A typical day of trainingAssuming athletes will find a way to wade through the temperatures (most expect they’ll sleep when it’s hottest, and push for distance in the middle of the night), the next training goal is to build the body’s endurance and strength.Most racers do not live in the same place as their teammates, thus training is left up to individual athletes to do on their own. This is where the strategies vary. It is difficult to pinpoint a “typical day,” racers maintain, but they did their best for the purposes of this story. Merrill said that on days she has to work (she owns a healthfood store in Breck), she usually goes for a one- to three-hour bike ride in the morning, then runs for about an hour in the afternoon. On her days off from work, she usually spends about six to eight hours training; she will either do three shorter workouts (a run, bike and paddle) or one long one (riding her bike up Mount Evans, or a daylong hike).She believes the race will not be won by who has the best training regimen, necessarily, but by those who bring a proven racing background with plenty of experience in events of PQ’s nature.

“I think so many of these expedition races, you have to look at the whole picture and not get too caught up in your training,” Merrill said. “A race of this length, whatever you’ve done the last 10 years is gonna play a huge factor.”Ballengee follows a similar program to Merrill – “no real structure” – but she also makes a point to add a technical element to her daily training, whereas Merrill said she does that only about once a week. For instance, Ballengee said she’ll run for an hour in the heat, paddle a kayak for an hour, get an hour on a set of wheels (either inline skates or a bike), then throw in the technical facet – working with a rope and harness, for example.Efficiency counts in a big way, too.”A lot of it is just getting comfortable with your equipment,” she said, “and being able to put your harness on, buckle your helmet – stuff like that – when you’re really tired.”Ballengee also has been known to simulate adventure racing’s navigation discipline by bringing a map to a place she’s never been, then going up one canyon and down another. “I just figure out how to get out,” she said.DeBattiste, whose best finish at PQ was 34th in 2004, said she generally tries to focus on one discipline for longer periods, like riding a bike for five to six hours. “More than anything, what I’m trying to do is get over a lot of the discomforts, like spending a long time in the saddle or on your feet.”DeBattiste, like Ballengee, has spent her share of time in Moab recently, training for the biggest discomfort of them all. “I’ve done hot races,” she said, “but nothing like I think this one’s gonna be. It might be 100 in Moab, but it’s 110 in the canyons.”

There is plenty of Primal Quest that nobody can train for: the nagging injuries, the sleep deprivation, the demoralizing, lost feeling when navigation goes wrong. But with a winner’s prize of $100,000 – the largest in the sport – elite team members who don’t train enough are crippling their mates.That is why the preparation never can be overlooked.”If someone shows up and they’re not fit,” Merrill said, “they get their ass. There’s no ‘I’ll try and do better next time.’ It’s professional.”Devon O’Neil can be contacted at (970) 668-4633, or at Primal QuestSet to take place in the desert near Moab, Utah, from June 25 to July 4, the 375-mile race will feature trekking, mountaineering, horseback riding, canyoneering, mountain biking, whitewater swimming, paddling and day/night navigation.- Visit for comprehensive race coverage beginning June 21.

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