What a difference a day makes.
Yesterday, we saw four teams come running neck and neck into a checkpoint at a rappel deep in the Utah desert: Merrell/Wigwam, Nike Powerblast, Spyder and SOLE.
Today, after a 20-mile canyoneering hike and a 45-mile overnight kayak, the group had disintegrated. Some pushed on with no sleep. Some had tried to sleep but been plagued by bugs. Others had enjoyed a solid 2-hour nap.
The next checkpoint was in Mineral Bottom, a flat area at the bottom of a 600-foot-deep canyon carved by the Green River. Here the teams pulled their boats ashore and transitioned to a 30-mile canyoneering section with a long rappel in the middle.
It was 96 degrees at Mineral Bottom, so the trek through the canyons could floor some teams.
Merrell arrived at a checkpoint first with no other teams in sight. They looked strong and coherent enough to crack a few jokes. When the race directors asked them to drag the boats up onto the beach, then all the way up to a small dirt parking lot, a woman said, “What, do you want us to drag them all the way to Phoenix?”
Within a few minutes, they had filled up their water bottles and left.
Then came Spyder, 29 minutes later. But with none of Merrell’s gusto. Danelle Ballengee, the team’s only female racer, was limping badly due to blisters and was exhausted almost beyond being coherent. The team had tried to pull over and sleep during the night on the river, but had wasted an hour swatting mosquitoes instead of resting. Ballengee could not go on. After an excruciating half-hour in the medical tent getting her blisters drained and taped, she and her team crawled under a nearby bush for a two-hour nap.
Team Sole arrived while Ballengee was still in the med tent, smiling as usual. None of them was limping. The team’s female racer, Karen Lundgren, didn’t have so much as a blister on her pink toenailed toes, and was so chipper that when a teammate asked her to rinse out his socks, she jogged down to the river instead of walking. Pretty incredible 200 miles into the race.
Just as Sole was leaving, at 12:12, Nike Powerblast arrived, looking tired but calm, and with no major injuries. They had enjoyed over 2 hours of sleep before getting in their kayaks. The team is known for not wasting time in transition zones, and as expected, efficiently filled up water bottles, packed food, taped a few minor blisters, and left.
The race lead will now change often as teams stop to sleep at different times.
“Some teams push more in certain sections and some teams sleep more and save up for a leg ahead. They all have their own plan,” said Robyn Benincasa, Merrell’s captain. “That’s the nature of the beast. You just have to hope you have the better plan, that’s how you win.”