They weren't expecting a brass band, but this made zero sense.
Upon arriving at the fifth checkpoint of the 2003 Raid Gauloises
adventure race in Kyrgyzstan, the four members of Team Montrail
were greeted by...no one. "I had a funny feeling," says Novak
Thompson, the team's navigator, "that someone was dead."
His awful premonition was borne out. The second section of the
race had begun with a long whitewater paddle down the Kysyl Suu
River, a twisting, brush-choked tributary to the mountain-ringed
Lake Issyk Kul. It was on this river on the second day of the
race that Dominique Robert of the French team Endurance-AGF was
dragged into the branches of a partially submerged tree--a
"strainer," as river guides call them--and trapped beneath her
boat. Despite nearly immediate assistance from two paramedics,
Robert, 46, could not be revived. A friend broke the news of the
drowning to Team Montrail as Thompson, fellow Aussie John Jacoby
and Americans Patrick Harper and Rebecca Rusch pulled their boats
ashore at CP5.
"It was surreal," says Rusch, the team captain, "carrying our
boats, starting to shiver from the cold while I'm crying over a
woman I didn't even know."
This race was supposed to hold more danger for Americans than for
anyone else. Three U.S. teams qualified for the Raid, an
invitation-only event boasting the best field, top to bottom, of
any adventure race in the world. But U.S. powerhouses Elite
Adventure Team and Team Salomon said thanks but no thanks, put
off by State Department travel advisories warning of recent
"military and insurgent activity" and the recent hostage-taking
of American citizens, such as the August 2000 capture of four
U.S. rock climbers who escaped six days later after pushing one
of their captors off a cliff (SI, March 17).
That left only Team Montrail to represent the Stars and Stripes.
After much research Rusch and her teammates decided to take the
risk. The race, they concluded, was steering clear of the most
violent parts of the country. And with the Eco-Challenge having
been postponed in early May, Rusch points out, the Raid was the
only race of the year that would be staged in a truly exotic
Misfortune befell Montrail early in the race. Harper was zapped
by a stomach bug and had to stop several times on the first
biking leg, over a sawtooth range called the Celestial Mountains.
"Teams were passing us left and right," says Thompson.
Carrying Harper's gear, the team survived the bike leg and
finished the subsequent Alpine trek a mere 18 minutes off the
lead. Montrail caught the leaders the next morning (Harper was by
then himself again) and had opened up a two-hour lead by the time
it finished another long hike. What followed was a kind of Monty
Python Western. The "sturdy Kyrgyz horses" promised for the
equestrian leg lacked horsepower, it turned out. After ferrying
the foreigners through the night, the nags gave out. "They were
cooked," says Rusch. "Patrick's lay down with him still on it."
The steed eventually stood, but it had to be walked the rest of
the way. Behind Montrail, Team Human Link, the quartet of Swedes
that had taken over second, was also having horse trouble. (The
Swedes poured Red Bull down the throat of one of their mounts. "I
heard it worked like a charm," says Jacoby.)
As darkness fell that night, Montrail had just finished its
paddle on a river called the Kokomeren. Its closest pursuers were
caught in one of the Raid's "dark zones" and forced to pull their
boats off the water for six hours. That was the race. Montrail
won by 4 1/2 hours.
While it felt good, being an American winning a French race and
uncorking a cheery "How's it going?" to French teams they passed
on the course, there was more mutual respect than animosity,
Rusch reports. "The French were really cool this year."
The fact was, everyone was united by loss. On June 17, at 7 p.m.,
as Dominique Robert was being buried in France, everyone involved
with the Raid--racers, officials, media--paddled out on a lake
and cast wildflowers on the water. Robert, a mother of two who'd
been competing in her 10th Raid, was memorialized. "Looking
around at all these people, I was struck by the closeness I felt
for them," Rusch says. "I shared more hugs and conversations than
I have at many other races combined."
For Rusch and her teammates, it served as a sad grace note to the
biggest win of their careers, and the most bittersweet.
The next SI Adventure will appear in the Aug. 4 issue.
COLOR PHOTO: CARLO ZAGLIA/RAIDGAULOISES.COM TRAGEDY Rusch's win was tempered by a deep sense of loss.
"I had a funny feeling," says Thompson, Montrail's navigator,
"that SOMEONE WAS DEAD."