In the red, rocky desert of southern Utah, the air is dry and still and temperatures hover around 100 degrees under the hot summer sun. Not the ideal conditions for being active outdoors-but, then again, Primal Quest, the world's premier adventure race, is not your average outdoor activity.
For starters, the race lasts a grueling 10 days (24 hours each), carrying racers over 400 miles of some of the world's most extreme conditions - including long stretches of desolate plains, high mountains, and whitewater rapids. And competitors don't just run. They do it all: bike, ride horseback, kayak, and rock climb, all the while navigating with a compass and their teammates in an all-out effort to reach each of the race's 42 checkpoints before any other team.
This summer, 89 teams of adventure racers migrated to rural Moab for the event. Some signed up and competed for their share of the $250,000 cash purse - others for the kind of intense challenge you can't get from any other sport.
And as if racing weren't hard enough, building a team with the skills and qualifications needed to win is a whole other challenge. "After training, the chemistry of the team is essential," says John Moss, 36, member of Team Silly Rabbits, who competed in this year's race with Jason Quinn, 32, an emergency-room doctor from San Francisco, and Jennifer Ratay, 31, an endurance mountain-bike champ who spends her days working at Stanford Business School. "It's like having three girlfriends," 35-year-old Rick Baraff, the fourth Silly Rabbit, adds. "We train together year-round. And after it's over we may take off the tights and cape and go back to the normal world - but we're always plotting for the next race."
Like any competition, Primal Quest is as much about preparation as it is about fitness and skill. Before the event, teams pack the provisions they'll need to complete the race: mountain-bike equipment, gear for fixed - rope climbing and mountaineering, as well as gear for paddling and swimming. Food boxes are stuffed with bars, gels, and pills to keep athletes fueled along the way, plus a few supplies you might not expect elite athletes to carry.
After a few days of nonstop racing, appetites plummet as dehydration and exhaustion take over, and nausea kicks in. "The amount of calories you need to take in is nearly impossible to meet, and once you've covered a couple hundred miles and slept just minutes, your appetite isn't very strong," says Paul Romero from Team SOLE. "You need to take in whatever you can keep down." That's why his team lives on unlikely essentials such as Coke and Cheetos. And he's not alone-many teams will seek the boost they need from junk food. Burgers, cola, and chips all pack the calories and sugar competitors need to stay energized.
After diet, one of the most important issues racers face-and the most difficult to prepare for - is lack of sleep. During a round-the-clock race of this magnitude, sleep becomes a commodity: banked, rationed, and negotiated carefully among team members. An hour too long and you wake up at the back of the pack; too little and your brain has trouble working, leading to bad decisions - even hallucinations. This year's winning team, Nike-Power Blast, finished with only 13 hours of sleep in almost six days of competition.
It's the kind of hardship no amount of training can prepare you for. One minute you're in the middle of a scorching 54-mile cross-country mountain-bike ride. The next, you're completing an eight-mile whitewater swim in the icy Green River. Then it's back into the blazing sun of the afternoon, straight through to the chilly desert night. "It's just one extreme to the next," Baraff told MF as he peeled off his wet suit coming out of the whitewater swim after the epic desert ride.
When all was said and done, the race's top competitors crossed the finish line in just under six days, four full days ahead of the last-place racers. But for any team, finishing is a major accomplishment, regardless of how long it takes. Of all the teams that entered, only 28 completed the course.
Find more about Primal Quest and great photos at ecoprimalquest.com