All images © 2006 Primal Quest LLC and Side Light
By STEPHEN REGENOLD
On the sixth day of the race, my head began to float free from my body. It was on a mountain biking leg, heading east into Manti-La Sal National Forest, where I first noticed the phenomenon. Halfway through an all night ride, pedaling from 6PM to 6AM, on a trail near Moab, Utah, the sensation kicked in strong.
My eyes looked out on the dark, quiet world. Bike tires whirred on sand. I felt wind on my sweaty brow. But below my neck — fingers wrapped on handlebar grips, feet spinning fast — there was an abrupt lack of sensation.
“Let’s hit it,” yelled Jonathan Dorn, captain of Team Bulleit, the four-person squad I had joined for the 10-day Primal Quest adventure race, which was held June 25 – July 4 in Utah. Dorn, a 39-year-old magazine editor from Emmaus, Pa., was pushing the team straight through the night in a mid-race strategical move. “We need to make this next time cutoff,” he said.
The trail dipped and climbed on slickrock and sand. My headlamp formed a halo on the ground ahead. Eyelids drooped hard, and a flip inside me seemed to switch: Autopilot in the deep desert night. Forty miles in, 25 more miles to go. Legs spinning on their own. Mind looking down on the detachment. A ghost in a machine, on a mountain trail near Moab, pedaling hard in the race of my life.
Primal Quest, an event promoted as the toughest ultra-endurance race on the planet, had kicked off six days prior in a dusty field near Elmo, Utah. Eighty-nine teams of four — 356 racers total — lined up in the predawn light to wait for the starting gun. More than 400 miles of wilderness, including canyons, mountains, whitewater rivers, and great stretches of desert sand, separated the race pack from the finish line that morning.
Adventure racing is a sport characterized by its long and sleepless multidisciplinary race courses, and Primal Quest, which was created in 2002, is the largest and longest race of all. This year’s course, which began in central Utah and finished 417 miles later near the town of Moab, included trekking, kayaking, mountaineering, canyoneering, riverboarding, horseback riding, orienteering, mountain biking, and multiple rope climbs and rappels. Each discipline made up a course within a course, some segments requiring 30 hours of race time or more for each team to complete.
Racers go nonstop at Primal Quest, pushing their bodies for days and nights on end. Gear, food and water are carried in backpacks. A map and compass are the racers’ sole guides to mandatory course checkpoints that form a vague route through the desolation. Sleep is purely optional.
On the mountain trail near Moab, my head floating off in some alternate realm, Team Bulleit pushed on through the darkness. It had been more than 20 hours since our last catnap, and the team was running a bit ragged.
“You should get out in front,” yelled Kirsten Gum, our teammate from Manhattan, signaling me to pedal past her and Dorn. The team needed better visibility for a downhill, and my bike light was the group’s most powerful that night.
The trail climbed on smooth slickrock — the pavement of the desert — and then descended into loose, impassable sand. Shoes filled with pebbles and dust as we pushed our bikes through the rough. Blisters, throbbing like burns on the back of my heels, began to clog with grit.
A sliver of moon, hazy and deep orange, hovered over the distant ridge. Wind came and went in furtive gusts. Stars clung in a dome of black sky.
“There’s another team,” someone yelled from behind, shaking me out of thought.
Four bikes, tipped over in the sand, came into view on the trail ahead. Four bodies lay unmoving on the ground. A competing team collapsed in a heap, forfeiting to the night, like zombies in the sand.
Sleep, or the lack thereof, is a major strategical factor in races like Primal Quest, and every racer needs to be prepared to deal with deprivation. Dave Boyd, a doctor from Houston, and an accomplished racer himself with Team M.O.A.T., which placed 14th in this year’s Primal Quest, said managing sleep deprivation allows teams to keep on the move for up to 48 hours straight.
“The human body has a reserve capacity to handle at least 24 hours of constant physical activity,” said Dr. Boyd. “And longer periods of sleeplessness can be trained for and endured.”
Primal Quest is a race in which most teams try to sleep as little as possible, with exhaustion and general misery being the obvious results. Cantankerousness among teammates — who must stay within 100 meters of each other for the entire race — is common. Hallucinations, which adventure racers exasperatedly call “sleep monsters,” are another side effect that creep in after hours and days on the trail.
Bright bulbs of light popped in my eyes one night during Primal Quest. It was midnight on the fourth day of the race, and exhaustion was tipping the scale toward an unavoidable delirium. Team Bulleit was pushing through a kayaking segment on the Green River after a day of desert trekking and canyoneering. Sleep began to overwhelm, and my head flopped in and out of consciousness even as my body continued to paddle on.
“Keep talking, keep awake,” said Roy Wallack, my teammate in the front of the boat. Wallack, a 50-year-old writer from Irvine, Calif., was swapping stories with me on the river in an attempt to ward off the sleep monsters coming in from my periphery.
But the whole team would soon surrender for the night. Sleep came at a bend in the river five miles into our paddle. Four hours face down on a sandbar. Deep sleep, utterly blank and abysmal. A reboot after days on the go.
Then, in a blink, our boats were back in the water. Paddling at 4:30AM and waiting for the sun to rise. Tracking the river’s fading, mercurial currents. Dodging rocks and eddies. Waiting to see what was around each next big bend. Straining to see what the next crazy day would bring.
—Stephen Regenold writes about outdoors gear at www.gearjunkie.com.
Primal Quest Utah (www.ecoprimalquest.com), which was held June 25 – July 4, 2006, was billed as the world’s longest and toughest adventure race. Eighty-nine teams from all over the globe climbed, trekked, paddled and biked on a 417-mile wilderness course in temperatures ranging from 50 to 110 degrees. A 10-day limit was imposed on the course; average finishing time was just under nine days. More than 20 teams dropped out due to injury or exhaustion. The race winners, Team Nike PowerBlast, finished just after sunrise on their seventh day to win $100,000 (out of a total $250,000 prize purse). My four-person squad, Team Bulleit, took 46th place, finishing the course on the morning of our ninth day in the desert.
Primal Quest Utah Race Schedule
Race start: 6AM, Sunday, June 25, 2006
Leg 1: Horseback riding, 23 miles
Leg 2: Desert trekking, 23 miles
Leg 3: Mountain biking, 54 miles
Leg 4: Whitewater swim, 8 miles
Leg 5: Paddling, 35 miles
Leg 6: Canyoneering, 27 miles
Leg 7: Paddling, 45 miles
Leg 8: Canyoneering, 33 miles
Leg 9: Mountain biking, 20 miles
Leg 10: Ropes, 300-foot rappel
Leg 11: Mountain biking, 46 miles
Leg 12: Mountain trekking, 38 miles
Leg 13: Mountain biking, 42 miles
Leg 14: Mountain trekking, 9 miles
Leg 15: Ropes, 500-foot ascends, rappels, zipline
Leg 16: Paddling, 2 miles
Finish Line (first-place team): 5:45AM, Saturday, July 1, 2006