An unforgiving first day in the Utah desert |

An unforgiving first day in the Utah desert

Devon O'NeilSummit County correspondent
Summit Daily/Kristin Skvorc

THE UTAH DESERT – The first-place team suffered as much as the last-place team, normally tame horses bucked like wild broncos before the sun came up, and the scorching Utah desert lived up to its brutally dry reputation.Day 1 of Primal Quest Utah was every bit a promise that this year’s race will be just as difficult and punishing as advertised. So you’re a no-name team trying to survive? Good luck. You’re the best in the world? Good luck to you, too. Judging from favored Team Nike/PowerBlast’s experience on Sunday, the foursome is going to need it.It came as no surprise that Nike grabbed the early lead at the end of day 1 – although in theory, it means nothing (more on that later). The three-time defending PQ champions completed a grueling 46-mile trek through dirt and prickly stickers, fighting 102-degree heat and severe dehydration to reach the fourth leg of the race, a whitewater swimming section, comfortably ahead of the other 88 teams.Yet upon reaching Transition Area 2 (TA2) around 5:15 p.m., the team wasn’t interested in a pat on the back. Instead, they lashed out at race organizers for what they said was a poorly chosen and dangerous course made even worse by an underestimation on fluid consumption.

“You guys are gonna have some real issues on your hands,” Vail resident Mike Kloser, Nike’s captain, told race officials at TA2. “It was frickin’ brutal.”Turning to a reporter, Kloser said, “They totally underestimated this. They need to put water out there.””It took us six hours,” Nike’s Michael Tobin said of the second leg, a 23-mile trek through unforgiving desert terrain. “They told us four hours, so we packed water for four.”Breckenridge resident Monique Merrill, Nike’s lone female, was in visibly bad shape as she limped into TA2 late in the afternoon. Her shirt was tattered and covered in brown dirt. And she was terribly dehydrated.”They should’ve had more water out there,” she said. “We had a lot of water – I had 100 ounces and three water bottles, and they recommended 100 ounces and two bottles. We went the last five miles without water.”

“It was as ugly a trek as I’ve ever done in adventure racing,” Kloser said. “I would say they’ve got a little bit of work to do if they wanna have people survive this thing.”Anyone who has listened to PQ CEO Rich Brazeau describe the course over the past year could have seen this coming (except the water part). This year’s race was designed to be as remote and backcountry-specific as it gets. It was intended to punish both the mind and the body. No section was intended to be easy.Mission accomplished. The day began with a scene as wild as sporting events get. After driving four and a half hours northwest from race headquarters near Moab, teams – who did not sleep the night before embarking on their 417-mile journey – lined up to receive their respective equines in the dark (one per team). The sunrise soon illuminated a monstrous desert valley that would serve as the race’s starting point – the beginning of the 10-day expedition.Then the fun began. Some horses bucked their riders in advance of the start; others, perhaps the more intelligent ones, waited until the gun had been fired to buck and sprint for freedom. Hundreds of onlookers watched with amazement as a free-for-all start featured a half-dozen buckings and, subsequently, horses dashing toward the valley walls.

Cowboys quickly corraled the misfit animals and restored them to their teams. The race was on. First came a 23-mile trek with said horse, then the desert journey on foot. All but the top teams made their way by walking. (Merrill said Nike ran about 70 percent of the 46 miles over 12 hours.)In the end, however, Nike’s exhaustion meant little more than a slight advantage in sleep. Because no team reached the whitewater swimming leg before 6 p.m., adventure racing “dark zone” rules presided. All that completed the third section (a 54-mile mountain bike ride) start anew Monday morning at 6, equal in status though not “psychological edge,” as Nike’s Ian Adamson pointed out.According to the race website, as of press time Nike/Beaver Creek – with Eagle County’s Sari Anderson manning the female position – was in second place, followed by SOLE in third and Dillon resident Danelle Ballengee’s Spyder squad, which led early on Sunday, in fourth.For comprehensive coverage of this race, visit

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