South Dakota, USA
14th - 20th August 2009
Woken up at 3am for a quick breakfast and then on to the buses which would take us to the start. Of course in typical AR fashion the buses were late and the foyer of the hotel became littered with adventure racers trying to cram in a few extra minutes sleep while waiting for the buses to turn up. Finally they arrived and we were bused out into the countryside where we tried to get just a few more minutes rest before the call to assemble for the start was made. So we all lined up under the PQ start banner with the morning light just beginning to let us see the prairie land around us. It was nice and cool at this time in the morning and some clouds on the horizon gave us hope that the temperature wouldn't soar too much once the sun started to climb in the sky.
A short countdown and then with two cowboys firing off six shooters we were away on the first stage of PQ2009. A marathon, mostly on country roads through the prairie land. Fortunately we had a reduced compulsory gear list for this stage so we could run with relatively light packs. Pretty soon a bunch of half a dozen or so teams established itself at the front of the field which included Merrell and Salomon Crested Butte who I thought were most likely to be our closest competition in the race.
I think the course designers idea was that we would run the entire marathon on roads however there was no stated out of bounds areas and soon enough an opportunity to shortcut presented itself and we left the road and ran along cattle tracks and fencelines as we took a bee-line towards the first CP. With a couple of marginally quicker route choices we arrived at the CP/water stop first and just finished stocking up on water as the next team ran in.
Next came our encounter with the infamous farmer. Most teams seemed to have a run in with this guy who was very vocal and threatening in his efforts to get teams off his property. Unfortunately the race organisation had not asked his permission for access assuming we would stick to the roads. As racers we had been given the impression that there were no out of bounds areas on this stage and so we inevitably took whatever short-cuts we could. This led to a few standoffs with this irate farmer which was finally sorted out with the help of the local sheriff.
In the mean time we finished the marathon with a small lead and as we backed our navigation skills pushed pretty hard on the next orienteering stage so as not to get followed. We succeeded in opening up a small gap and were transitioned and leaving on our bikes before the next team, Salomon, arrived at transition.
Now we were off on what would turn out to be about 30 hours of mountain biking. Fortunately it was broken up a bit with caving and two orienteering sections (although one of those was still done on bikes). After an hour or so I was really starting to struggle a bit but thankfully Wayne was going strong and could take my pack for a while to help me recover. About that time we had our first rattle snake encounter. I was riding in front and by the time I saw it I was passing it by, only missing running it over by an inch or two! The others all opted to give it a wide berth and carry their around.
Soon enough we arrived at the caving. This was good for me as it gave me a bit more time to recover. The caving itself was a bit trickier than it first seemed. We had a map to follow but it took s a while to work out that the cave had several levels and we had to think about how and where the different levels intersected in order to find the checkpoints. After a bit of confusion we got it sorted and found our way to the checkpoints and back out again. Merryl were just entering the cave as we arrived and Salomon were already in there making their way through.
Back on the bikes we carried on our way. I seemed to have gotten over the problems I was having earlier and we were all going well. For many parts of this ride sealed roads were out of bounds and we soon found that our planned route would take us on a sealed road. We had to re-think our choice of route and saw that if we pushed our bikes through the forest for a few hundred metres we could reach an unsealed road and carry on our way. This we did but it turned out to be a waste of time. If we had read our instructions more carefully we would have seen that sealed roads were allowed at this point and could have saved a lot of time and effort by using them. Shortly after the next CP Salomon (who had used the sealed road) caught us and we rode with them for a while until we were able to drop them once more as dark set in.
By midnight we reached the mountain bike orienteering section. We decided to get a bit of sleep before setting out on this so grabbed some warm gear and curled up on the asphalt. Two hours later and shivering with the cold we set out on the orienteering through mountain bike and cross country skiing trails. Daniel Jones was on had to greet us at the finish and it was nice to see a friendly kiwi face although we couldn't stay long as there was a lot more biking to do.
The ride seemed to go on and on and on. We rode up some big hills, along technical trails and fast forest descents. At times there was great single track but there was also some horrible swamp and long grass where we had to push our bikes making painfully slow progress. Backsides were getting very sore so it was a relief to get to the next orienteering section. It only took a couple of hours but it was great to have a break from the biking and there were plenty of friendly people there cheering us on which gave us a good boost. Back on the bikes we tackled the last of the epic ride, finally reaching the transition at Crazy Horse just after dark on day two. Time for another sleep so we bunked down in the back of a transition truck for 3 hours.
Once awake it was time to go trekking so we loaded up and headed off into the night. We reached the ropes section just on day break which was fantastic as we got to enjoy a spectacular sunrise as we climbed, abseiled and traversed our way around the impressive ropes course. That behind us and after a few wrong turns to begin in was a pretty straight drag to the next transition. Straight, but long... We didn't arrive at the end of the trek until 2am on day 4! We had seem buffalo and more snakes on the way but by the end we were starting to see things that were not there at all so it was time for another sleep.
Awake and onto the bikes again but this time it was not for long and we were soon at a reservoir where we had the first water stages. First we had three checkpoints that we had to swim to. We quickly decided that we would be better off running for some of the distance so we took off carrying out lilos and flippers until we just had a short swim to get to the first checkpoint. We thought that this was a fairly obvious strategy however some teams swam the entire distance which was about 8km in total! We ended up running about 6km and doing two short swims which totalled about 2.5km. Merryl took this one step further and rode their bikes for some of the distance. This did not seem quite right and the checkpoint official wanted to check with the race organiser before allowing them to do this. Merryl argued with the official and then rode off without waiting to hear if their tactic would be allowed. I'm not sure what the ruling on the tactic was but for arguing with and disobeying the official they received an 8 hour penalty! A heavy price to pay for saving a few minutes.
Meanwhile we finished the swimming and headed back out on the reservoir in kayaks. The wind started to really pick up and as we had no spray decks we took on a lot of water which had to be bailed out. We were doing a big loop to collect 6 checkpoints but as often the case it seemed to be a head wind for almost all the way! Finally we returned to the beach and transition and prepared for the next ride.
It was only a short way to the river. We carried our life jackets and paddles with us so that we could use them on the prairie paddle. This paddle was in inflatable kayaks and the average water depth was only about 30cm so we were forever getting out of the boats and dragging them across the shallows. This paddle took us right through the night. The temperature plummeted and we fought off tiredness as we strove for an end which seemed to never come. Finally just before daybreak after 14 hours of kayaking we made it to the end of the stage, pulled on some dry clothes and lay down for a couple of hours sleep.
We had a shock in store for us when we woke up. We started organising our gear for the next trek and we quickly discovered that Anna's backpack an life jacket were missing. While we were asleep some scumbag had snuck in to transition and nicked off with her gear! Fortunately between us we had enough equipment so that Anna could have all her compulsory gear except for a lighter and ID. Getting the OK from HQ that we could carry on without that we put that incident behind us and started trekking.
We started off walking beside the river we had been paddling down. The water was very silty and our filter quickly clogged up. As the temperature soared we had no choice but to keep drinking the unfiltered water and hope that any ill effects would not arise until after the race. We left the river and passed though the town of Scenic. The shop had closed but fortunately we were able to buy some food from a local who also provided us with a huge watermelon which tasted amazing after having existed on muesli bars and energy gels for the past 4 days. Now we headed properly into the badlands. The terrain became more and more bizzare. Ravines and rock formations which did not appear on the map made the navigation very difficult in the dark. We made steady progress until we got to a place where we thought we should meet a track but there was no track to be found. As it was not long until dawn we decided to rest for an hour and hoped that in the daylight we could make sense of our surroundings. Once awake we were confused at first but soon established that we were right where the track should be – it just wasn't there. We picked our way down through the gullys and ridges to the next CP and managed to score a huge bag of M&Ms from the CP man. It was a long, flat, boring trek to the final transition although we where kept somewhat entertained by the prairie dogs which popped in and out of their holes observing us as we passed.
Finally we were onto the final stage which should have been a fairly straight forward 10 hour bike ride to the finish. We should know by now that things are rarely straight forward in adventure racing. This stage turned into a 24 hour epic. The race notes instructed us to follow a particular trail which they had marked on the map. When we got to that place however there were no signs for the trail and no trail! We could have gone a different way but we did not want to be penalised for not following the compulsory instructions so we searched and searched for the correct trail. It was not until daylight that we could finally see for certain that the trail did not exist where they had marked it. (We later determined that they had marked the maps incorrectly and the trail was in a different place altogether) With daylight we could follow where the organisers had marked on the map but as there was no trail we ended up pushing through swamp and long grass before we finally made it back to a road.
Having lost a lot of time we were nervous that Salomon and Merryl might now be close behind us so we put in a big effort for the final 40km or so to the finish. Finally we made it back to Rapid City. The locals were out in force cheering us on and many people we had met along the way came to see us finish. Finally after over 6 days of racing, having taken only 11 hours sleep, we crossed the finish line and won Primal Quest – South Dakota Badlands.