Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Smile for the cameras

Team Merrell/Wigwam arrived first out of a 100-degree canyon hike today, just over halfway through the 400-mile Primal Quest adventure race near Moab, Utah. At the top of the hike lay a 400-foot free rappel into the depths of Hell Roaring Canyon.

Californian Robyn Benincasa and New Zealander Ian Edmond were the first to drop over the edge. "Holy S@#%! These guys aren't messing around," Benincasa said as she backed down over the lip.

A few minutes of air later, she was on the ground.

The team's two other members, New Zealanders Jeff Mitchell and Neil Jones, followed so nonchalantly that Jones was literally yawning when he stepped over the precipice.
He and his mate stood there at the edge just long enough to thank the rope riggers for their help.

"Shall we drop into space Mr. Jones" Mitchell asked. "Why not?" Jones replied.

As they slid down the ropes five video cameras panned after them, including a nimble boom that could peer out over the cliff.

Adventure racing's premier events are planned months in advance to be friendly to TV, and gratuitous rappels like the one into Hell Roaring Canyon are added because, hey, that's good TV. The racers could have scrambled into the canyon a half mile farther down, but that's not really much fun to watch.

Much of the silly stuff the race directors dream up because it will look cool on TV, in the end, matters little to the race. The horse riding, the river crossings, the rappels don't usually add or take away much time for teams. It's the boring stuff (50 miles of walking) that weeds out the weak and punishes even the strong. This isn't to say these sections aren't important. They are. Good TV means lots of attention. Lots of attention means big money prizes. The top team gets $100,000.

People are naturally competitive and adventure racing can, and for the most part does, thrive with little attention outside of a small group of racers, but competition is also never hurt by a little exposure and a lot of money. So a little rappeling makes for a much better race.

Merrell had an hour lead over team Nike/Powerblast at the ropes, teams SOLE and GoLite were a half-hour behind Nike.

They now go down another canyon in the dark to the kayaks where they left their gear. Sometime Wednesday they'll bike into Moab (briefly) before pushing on to the mountains.

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