Course designer Pat Harper of McCall, formerly of Bellevue, had it just right when he predicted that the Red Bull Divide and Conquer high-altitude relay race would be "the hardest thing you do in a day."
Never underestimate the ability of adventure racers to overlook the difficulties and forge ahead. Talking about the June 19 adventure race, Hailey's Nate Scales said, "It was really, really cool—just serious fun."
Scales, 32, a carpenter and paraglider, was a member of Team Idaho, one of 16 four-member teams in the arduous endurance test staged in the snowcapped peaks of the San Juan Mountains in southern Colorado.
Team Idaho consisted of runner Dave Bingham of Hailey, paraglider Scales, kayaker Ryan Casey of Ketchum and mountain biker Josh Oppenheimer of Boise.
They finished eighth overall, but the big news was the fact that Scales and Casey posted the fastest split times for their individual legs and won $500 each—despite the fact they were competing against a host of elite, sponsored gliders and kayakers.
All of the athletes battled cold temperatures, strong winds, high altitudes, raging rapids and rugged terrain in the second incarnation of the Red Bull Divide and Conquer, which debuted in Durango, Colo. in 2004 and was modeled after the revered Red Bull Dolomitenmann race staged in Austria for 17 years.
It wasn't a picnic for anyone. "Most athletes would be proud just to survive, which is why we're not looking for most athletes," said Harper beforehand, referring to the invitation-only nature of the event.
One of the competitors, mountain biker Chris Davenport, said, "It's just a cruel course, man. It's absolutely so painful and you feel like you're never going to make it. You're just pushing and suffering and feeling like you can't possibly go on."
The man responsible for the course, Wood River Valley native Harper, had his own problems when vandals removed signage along the course. So, the night before the June 19 event, Harper and adventure racer Rebecca Rusch had to remark the entire course, according to Scales.
"Pat and Rebecca did a phenomenal job, though," said Scales.
Would Team Idaho do it again?
"We definitely plan on doing it again. There was no entry fee, they gave us dinner the first night, the race was really well organized—and there was as many media as there were athletes," said Scales. "It was a chance to be famous."
Outdoor Life Network will televise the Red Bull in the fall.
The course in Colorado
On Sunday, June 19, a silver nugget signifying southern Colorado's mining past served as the baton, passing between racers on each leg of the extreme relay.
The race started at sunrise on Main St. in Silverton, Colo., elevation 9,300 feet. The relay runners started from there on a 7.5-mile trek with 4,125 feet of elevation gain, finishing near Kendall Mountain (elevation 12,200 feet) through snowfields.
The silver nugget passed next to a paraglider who hiked 1,000 feet to a perch at Kendall Mountain (elevation 13,300 feet). Organizers called Kendall Mountain the highest altitude competition launch in North America. The glider then descended over 4,000 feet to just outside Silverton on the banks of the Animas River.
A kayaker then carried the nugget along 24 frigid miles of class IV and V rapids through the notoriously gnarly Rockwood Gorge—from Silverton down the Animas River 2,000 feet to Rockwood.
The nugget passed again to a mountain biker who raced 28 miles from Rockwood up 1,800 feet to the finish at the base of Durango Mountain Resort, elevation 9,000. It was a daunting three-hour uphill battle—a super steep climb that started with a 3,000-foot rise in just four miles. And it ended with a wild descent down a downhill course to the finish line.
Specialized/Riversports biker Ned Overend, a mountain bike Hall of Famer who posted the fastest leg in three hours and 28 seconds lifting his team into first place, said, "The combination of the prolonged steepness and the altitude, it's just brutal, more than any other race I do."
Overend was the fastest biker, but he wasn't the top daredevil along the NORBA national downhill course at Durango Mountain that constituted the final stretch. "There were two or three 10-foot drops," Scales said.
That honor went to Marla Streb, who lived up to her "Gravity Goddess," nickname as the only biker to ride down the steepest decline. The rest of the bikers opted to walk their way down. "Everybody else got off their bikes except Marla," said Scales.
An athlete's view of the race
The real Team Idaho hero of the Red Bull Divide and Conquer was kayaker and Sun Valley native Ryan Casey, said his teammate Scales.
"Ryan was the motivation behind the whole thing for us. He kept the fire going, drove us all around, was the ringleader of the parties—he's the king of the dirtbags, out there having fun, not looking to get a job, a professional fun hog," said Scales.
In contrast, Casey's teammates were members of the establishment, although Scales said he is continuing to find a way not to work. Bingham has a log chinking business and mountain biker Oppenheimer is a third-grade teacher in the Boise area.
Despite his relatively anonymity as a kayak competitor, and fighting an injured shoulder, Casey also clocked the fastest kayak time for a $500 paycheck and he picked up another $250 for posting the top split time in a preem section of the course.
"They were all professional kayakers out there, and nobody knew who this Ryan Casey was or where he came from," said Scales.
Scales did all right for himself. Although his paragliding leg wasn't easy, he downplayed its difficulty, at least the airborne part. "The paragliding is sort of fluff in the race, but Red Bull really likes air sports and it adds a lot to the TV," said Scales.
Team Idaho was in ninth place when Scales got the silver nugget from Bingham, and Scales improved Team Idaho's position to fifth place with a final time of 36 minutes and 22 seconds that was about 96 seconds faster than the next-best glider.
Scales passed the nugget seamlessly to Casey. Casey paddled such a great two-hour and 15-minute leg, a minute faster than the next-best boater, that he installed Team Idaho just 10 minutes out of first place when he passed the nugget to biker Oppenheimer for the final leg.
High altitude was one of the biggest factors for everyone. Scales said, "The elevation was more brutal than I could have imagined."
Experienced adventure runner Bingham tagged Scales at the 12,200-foot elevation on Kendall Mountain. Then, the paragliders had to ascend 1,000 vertical feet of slope just to arrive at the takeoff spot.
They carried about 18 pounds of paragliding gear.
"We waddled up," said Scales. "Actually I'd been training on Carbonate (mountain in Hailey) and I thought I could do it, but the hill was a little bit steeper than Upper Warm Springs (on Baldy). A slow walk was as fast as you could go."
Scales was in racing mode and he passed three gliders on the ascent.
'I was trying to catch people the whole way, just telling myself don't stop. I stumbled two or three times, but the footing was real good and I recovered. It helped that the Red Bull people were giving me a hard time while I was doing it. Can't even say some of the names they were calling me," said Scales with a laugh.
After reaching the top, the gliders ran out on the ridge about 400 yards and then sprinted downhill 200 feet prior to their lift-off. "All the gear was whanging into you as you ran, and it was extremely painful. But the main thing that was going through my head was it was a race," he said.
Scales worried a little that the demands of the steep climb and run would send all his blood into his feet, deprive him of oxygen and take away some of his mental powers for the launch. "It was the most anaerobic and hypoxic thing," he said.
Wind conditions were favorable, though, which helped his state of mind when he elevated from elevation 13,300 feet—about 700 feet higher than any mountain in Idaho.
"My ride was great. The wind was blowing up the hill at about 10 miles per hour, which made it real easy to get off the hill. I caught one person at the takeout and passed another on the way down. The air was nice and smooth," said Scales.
Scales enjoyed mucking it up for the cameras during the flight. "A helicopter was in the air for nine hours filming the race, and I had the helicopter and an ultralight right there on the way down. It was exciting—a chance to be famous," he said.
After descending over 4,000 feet to just outside Silverton on the banks of the Animas River, the paragliders were required to land near—but not on--a Red Bull promotional arch. In his smooth landing Scales was the most accurate of anyone.
"I was able to land inside the arch and I tagged Ryan just as my feet touched the ground. It felt real good. Others landed 100 feet away, but I didn't want to run any more," he said.
The winning relay team took home its share of the $17,500 prize purse and a guaranteed seed to compete in the 18th annual Red Bull Dolomitenmann race in Austria in September of this year.
Money was paid to the top five teams. Team finishes and top splits:
1—Specialized/Riversports (Andy Corra, Jesse Rickert, Dave Melon, Ned Overend) 7.37:34.
2—Adventure Sports Magazine (Dave Mackey, Josh Briggs, Mike Freeburn, Pete Swenson) 7.45:16.
3—The Bull Riders (Noel Wade, Bernie Boettcher, Ben Stookesberry, Charles Jenkins) 8.07:38.
6—Team Jackson Hole (Rob Macal, Matt Combs, Aaron Pruzan, Jay Petervary) 8.22:26
8—Team Idaho (Dave Bingham, Nate Scales, Ryan Casey, Josh Oppenheimer) 8:30.14.
Fastest Trail Run—Bernie Boettcher (The Bull Riders) 1.39:59.
Fastest Paragliding Leg—Nate Scales (Team Idaho) 36:22.
Fastest Kayaking Leg—Ryan Casey (Team Idaho) 2.15:54.
Fastest Mountain Bike Leg—Ned Overend (Specialized/Riversports) 3.00:28.
Harper and Rusch
Course designer Harper and adventure racer Rusch are members of the elite Team Montrail. They are past winners of nonstop weeklong adventure races, including the 2003 Raid World Championships in Kyrgyzstan, the "world's toughest race."
Through his involvement with these punishing, sleepless races, Harper has also designed a number of courses. In 2003, he drew the course for Idaho's first adventure race, the Solomon-Saab Raid Series in Stanley. But the Red Bull Divide and Conquer was "definitely the hardest," he had ever conceived.
Harper trains most days, preparing for the late summer race season.
Rusch and Harper will reconnoiter with Team Montrail for upcoming Raid World Cup qualifying races at Bend, Ore. and in the south of France. This year's Raid World Championships will be held in the French Alps in September.