Wild Onion – A hot time in old New York
NEW YORK CITY – Danelle Ballengee has two words for the Wild Onion Urban Adventure Race in New York City last weekend: “sensory overload.”
When imagining an adventure race in New York City, one envisions racers in “Matrix”-style attire hurdling over Central Park benches containing sleeping derelicts or slaloming manholes on bicycles as an angry mob of rush hour traffic tailgates and honks incessantly.
As it turns out (except for the “Matrix” attire), this wasn’t far from the truth.
The Wild Onion race took place Friday and Saturday and consisted of more than 100 miles of running, biking, kayaking, orienteering and scootering through New York City.
While High Country adventure racers might write this off as a silly event for city slickers, Ballengee, who is a champion athlete in everything from the Eco-Challenge to local snowshoe and bike races, said the physical and mental demands of the urban race met or surpassed that of most every other 24-hour adventure race she’s ever done.
“It was dangerous out there, for sure,” said Ballengee, who, along with Nike ACG-Balance Bar teammates Mike Kloser of Vail and Michael Tobin of Boise, Idaho, completed the race in about 19 and a half hours to take second place, 55 seconds behind the winning local New York team. The winning team won $12,000 while Ballengee’s team shared $6,000.
“You’re out there running through the streets of the city, on your bikes racing through traffic, turns and stoplights,” Ballengee said. “People are yelling and honking and throwing stuff at you. We were out there racing on a Friday night, and most people are looking at you like, “Who are these people running around with Lycra on?’ It was definitely sensory overload. The smells, the sights, the flashing lights, the sounds … You’re trying to focus on the race, but you have to remember the street names, turns, the required equipment, the ferry schedule, the subway … There was a lot of brain overload.”
The race began with a 20-mile trek through Manhattan and continued with a 20-mile paddle up the Hudson River and a bike ride through the Bronx and Queens. There was also a substantial amount of scootering (on what Ballengee described as “an adult Razor scooter”), a sprint up the 86 flights of stairs to the top of the Empire State building, a couple of challenging segments of orienteering in city parks and riding the ferry and subway.
“The ferry left (Staten Island) at the top of the hour, so we had 19 minutes to run three miles,” Ballengee said. “We got on it with two minutes to spare and were literally shaking. By then, we’d already been racing for 17 hours. We bought some water and ate as much as we could and by the time we went to the bathroom and looked at the map, it was time to get off the ferry.”
Ballengee and her team had previously competed in two Wild Onion races in Chicago. In New York, she said navigation was more important than in previous races and that local teams familiar with the city had a distinct advantage.
“I liked the orienteering course, but we were out there at night trying to find these checkpoints, and it was like trying to find a needle in a haystack,” she said. “It was hard for us. Just being somewhat familiar with the streets would have helped a ton. If we were to go back, we would do much better with the streets. Even the smallest things – this park we were looking for, we had this picture in our heads of a park, we knew we were going to Christopher Street. But we get there, and it’s this teeny little thing with a fence around it that you wouldn’t really know was a park in the middle of the city. I wish we’d have a race like this in Summit County, where you’d take the Summit Stage and ride certain chairlifts. Then we’d have an advantage. They would say to go to Carnegie Hall, which, if they were telling us to go to Breckenridge Town Hall, we wouldn’t have to look at a map. If we knew we had to go to Peak 8, we’d just bomb up it and know all the hidden switchbacks and shortcuts. If I think about it that way, I’m not that disappointed (about finishing second).”
The challenges of the Wild Onion race weren’t all urban. Teams had to contend with some wilderness obstacles, such as poison ivy, which Ballengee brought home with her. For the most part though, the physical barriers were metropolitan in nature. At one point in the race, Tobin endoed on his bike when he hit a pothole and raced on with a fractured collarbone. In Ballengee’s mind, all 60 teams competing were lucky to avoid colliding with a bus or some form of wayward New Yorker.
“In all the Wild Onions, they’ve never had a (fatal) accident,” Ballengee said. “But I think it’s a matter of time before a car gets mad at a biker, or an athlete runs a red light or a yellow light. It’s a huge contrast to other (wilderness) races. At the same time, it’s still an adventure race. You just have different obstacles to deal with. It’s a different environment – if you get tired, you can stop in a Starbucks. The smells really got to me -there’s all these bakeries and you’d smell the slime of the city and the pollution. I had a great time, but I prefer a race that’s not in the city. I was really nervous riding my bike through so much traffic. There were people yelling, but it wasn’t that bad considering the millions of people we went by and passed in cars. New York was actually pretty cool about it.”
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