The Sea Otter’s first adventure race features two remarkable athletes.
Thursday, April 12, 2007
Rebecca Rusch was deep in the insect-infested jungles of Borneo when the cockroaches began to crawl all over her. Or so she thought. Four days spent biking, running, kayaking and climbing—on two hours of sleep a night—had left her hallucinating.
“I tried to take vitamins during the race,” she recalls. “I was dumping out vitamins in my hand and all of a sudden they became cockroaches. I chucked the vitamins and ran around in little circles. All my teammates started laughing at me.
“I didn’t take any more vitamins that race.”
For some people, trying the spicy pho at the Vietnamese noodle house is adventurous. For Rusch, the excitement doesn’t really kick in until she is seeing pigs attacking her bike or one of her teammates is talking to trees.
Rusch is one of the most famous women in the world of adventure racing. In the style made most famous by “Survivor” creator Mark Burnett’s “Eco Challenge,” an adventure race typically covers around 600 miles over five days. The course’s checkpoints are kept secret until the start of the race; to complete the race teams must navigate every type of topography imaginable—river and ravine, mountain and marsh—while staying together and resting just enough to stay clear-headed.
“Each race is kind of a life-changing experience,” Rusch says. “I always want to explore, see a new place...I love reacting to a challenge on the fly, reacting to what’s in front of you.”
This Friday, Rusch will compete with Team Specialized in the Sea Otter Classic’s own brand new adventure race, a special new spoke in a characteristically huge wheel of weekend activities (see event guide, pg. 24). While the half-day sprint won’t scratch the lens of perception like Rusch’s sleep-deprived endeavors, it will allow a wider spectrum of people to delve into the rugged and exciting experience.
“The short stuff is getting really popular,” Rusch says. “The cool thing about Sea Otter is they’re taking this relatively new sport to a huge venue with a ton of cyclists.”
For Rusch, the Sea Otter just fits into an already-packed calendar—the 38-year-old drips competitive adventure from her pores. Since the start of ’06 alone, her various teams have finished sixth at the Adventure Race World Series in Sweden and first at Australia’s top Expedition Adventure Race in Tasmania. Rusch herself claimed championships at the US Solo Mountain Bike Nationals in Wausau, Wisc., the 24-Hour Solo Mountain Bike Race in Spokane, Wash., and took second at the 24-Hour World Championships in Conyers, Georgia.
But when Rusch reports to the Peninsula this weekend, she may not even be the most adventurous athlete on her own four-person team.
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Deep in the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River’s thunderous avalanche of water can surge by at 30,000 cubic feet of water per second. That much water weighs around 950 tons—more than 400 adult rhinos. Only expert-led groups are granted a chance to kayak its furious force.
Willie Stewart is Rusch’s teammate for the adventure race this Friday. He is also a seven-time Iron Man and a veteran 100-mile marathoner. He is not, however, an expert kayaker. But when his friend obtained a permit to run the Colorado in 2005 and invited Stewart to join him, the Redlands, Calif. resident jumped at the opportunity.
Stewart, 45, wasn’t always so ambitious. “For two years I shied away from doing anything [athletic],” he says. “I didn’t think I could do it.”
Stewart had an understandable reason to avoid intense sports, as reasons go. When he was an 18-year-old kid just out of high school working construction, a loose end of a rope he was carrying was snared by an industrial fan, which snapped the rope taut and ripped his left arm off just above the elbow. He says he pitied himself for two years, drinking in pubs and fighting on sidewalks.
Then a friend invited him to join their rugby team. Sports rejuvenated him: the former high school state champion wrestler trained secretly for a year, proceeded to win MVP of the rugby league and never looked back. Today he leads a program he founded called PossAbilities at Loma Linda University Medical Center that empowers victims of traumatic injuries.
“I made a pact with myself never to back off or shy away from anything,” he says. “A life of fear was not a life worth living.”
The chilly Colorado River cared little for his pact, however. One particularly punishing stretch of the 227 miles Stewart rode nearly claimed his life; instead, it only claimed his prosthetic arm. In the violent wash cycle of a rocky rapid, Willy was able to surface only by freeing himself from the arm, which was strapped to his paddle and pulling him down.
“One-armed Willie” had lived to see another opportunity: joining Rusch’s team for the Sea Otter Classic.
“Race on Rebecca’s team?” he says. “I should have said no, because I haven’t been doing that kind of racing. But I’m not going to say no to a chance to race with Rebecca Rusch. She’s a stud.”
Then he adds a reverent observation that threatens to reset any potential adventurousness debate between the two. “She boogie-boarded the Grand Canyon,” he says.
So Stewart joined the team—and will write up the experience for Competitor magazine. Specialized also added one of their own, company spokesperson and avid rider Nicholas Sims, to the four-person roster. Then, despite knowing that adventure teams, as Rusch and Stewart both say, are “only as good as its weakest link,” the team decided to take a chance.
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“My heart is pounding, sweat pouring off my brow...I cram a cliff [sic] bar into my mouth fumbling over the keyboard. I’m trying to hold back the emotions as I pour my soul into this letter, hoping to be the chosen one.”
So wrote Thomas Bastis, a golf course superintendent from San Carlos, Calif. Specialized opened that fourth slot and an all-expense paid weekend with full access to the team tent for the member of their Specialized Riders Club who crafted the most compelling argument why they should join the team.
Bastis has written his way into a mean event. Though intentionally vague, early inside word on the adventure race’s course is that it will ask teams to paddle a full seven miles across the wide Monterey Bay, landing on Del Monte Beach, before moving through 20 miles of up-and-down biking and then into eight miles of trail, sand and pavement foot travel.
“We’ve all been trying to figure out where it’s gonna go, how the course will get us from the ocean to the Otter [at Laguna Seca],” Rusch says, “what kinds of bikes to use, what tires will be best. You try to guess and figure it out and usually you’re wrong.”
To his credit, Bastis seems to understand what he’s getting into—or at least how exclusive the company he’s running with is. “I can’t wait to race with SUPER well known teammates,” he wrote. “This is a recipe for true adventure.”
He even volunteered “a game plan to assure success” that includes items like “We’ll pummel anyone that whines” and a “promise [for] the time of your life while losing at least 5 lbs.” He is careful to include one key strategy right at the top, though: “I will stand by your decision to have Rebecca carry all the gear.”
Team members Stewart and Sims reinforce that wisdom.
“Rebecca is such a good teammate,” Stewart says. “That’s part of her job—the strongest makes the weakest stronger.”
“She can push through physical barriers,” Sims says. “but is mentally stronger than anyone out there.”
Bastis will be well-comforted to know, come mile 34, that the physical and mental strength he sees in Rusch is no hallucination.