Sunday, June 29, 2008

Happily Ever After

Jeff Akens, support crew leader for adventure racing team Merrell/Zanfel Adventure, carries fiancee Robyn Benincasa, captain of the team, to a support vehicle and a day of hard-earned rest in the team's Big Sky Resort condo. Robyn and her teammates had just completed the 500 mile Primal Quest expedition adventure race in Southwest Montana. The team took second place.

Merrell/Zanfel Adventure Completes Primal Quest


Six days, 2 hours and 10 minutes. That's how long team Merrell/Zanfel Adventure was on the Primal Quest Montana course. Well behind team Nike, but hours ahead of teams battling for third place, it's very likely that Merrell/Zanfel Adventure will in fact be awarded second place.

I was here in the Huntley Lodge at Big Sky, updating blog posts, when I heard a cheer outside. Sure enough, here comes Merrell/Zanfel Adventure! I packed up my laptop and camera and ran for the finish line, but they beat me by about a minute. A big thanks to Will Ramos, Primal Quest's director of photography, for providing the shot above to the media.

Support crew Jeff Akens and Ryan Floth arrived at the finish line just after I did, so they missed the big finish as well. That's all right. All Jeff and Ryan care about is that their team is done, and that everyone is still in one piece.

To view my gallery of Merrell/Zanfel Adventure finish line photos, click through to my Flickr photostream.

Merrell/Zanfel Adventure to Finish Primal Quest Today

Today team Merrell/Zanfel Adventure will finally cross the finish line of Primal Quest Montana. The expedition-style adventure race began at Big Sky Resort on the morning of Monday, June 23, and, for Merrell/Zanfel Adventure at least, will end right where it started, some time this afternoon, on Sunday, June 29.

The team has endured 500 miles of multiple mountain hikes, multiple mountain bike rides, rock climbing, rope climbing, orienteering, rappelling, whitewater kayaking and even whitewater swimming. Through it all, team members Robyn Benincasa, John Jacoby, Travis Macy and Aaron Prince have been forced to work together at all times, as a team, to complete the course. This was their first race together. They now have a bond so tight, it's difficult to comprehend.

Support crew members Jeff Akens and Ryan Floth have set up and torn down camp for their team a dozen times. Many former racers who work as support crew say that crewing is only slightly easier than actually competing in the race. Watching Jeff and Ryan in action, I believe it. Many nights they only got a few hours of sleep. Their endurance was astounding.

I expect my next post will show a very happy team Merrell/Zanfel Adventure at the finish line.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Merrell/Zanfel Adventure Takin' Care of Business in Primal Quest Home Stretch

Members of adventure racing team Merrell/Zanfel Adventure are in fine spirits and taking care of business as Primal Quest Montana winds down. It now appears certain Merrell/Zanfel Adventure will take second place in a field of more than 60 international teams that started Primal Quest back on Monday, June 23, 2008.

Support crew boss Jeff Akens said all members of the team are in good spirits, and are physically well. Robyn has developed a nasty blister on the pinky toe of her left foot, Jeff said, but it's not serious enough to threaten the team's forward progress. Teammates John Jacoby, Aaron Prince and Travis Macy continue to forge ahead with no reported physical issues, Jeff said.

Jeff said he expects to see the team around 3 a.m. on Sunday, June 29, 2008, at Ennis Lake, if all goes according to plan. The team will then have to return to Big Sky Resort, where the finish line awaits.

Travis Macy's Family Drops in at Storm Castle

Travis Macy of team Merrell/Zanfel Adventure has been looking forward to this day for more than a week. Because today, his family ventured out from Evergreen, Colorado, to visit Travis on the Primal Quest Montana course. They caught up with him at Storm Castle, just before team Merrell/Zanfel Adventure set off for the ropes and orienteering sections of the race. Family members who visited Travis include, from left, Travis' dad, Mark Macy; younger sister Dona Macy, age 14; and Travis' mom, Pam Macy. Mark Macy has been around adventure racing for quite a while. Check out his team Stray Dogs site here. Welcome to Montana, Macys!

Ryan Floth! Fix My Bike!

Bike maintenance genius Ryan Floth, supporting team Merrell/Zanfel Adventure at Primal Quest Montana, built his life around bikes that are ridden hard and put away wet. And muddy. Which isn't all that good for the myriad moving parts on today's bikes.

While PQ Montana is Ryan's first time crewing for Merrell/Zanfel Adventure, it's not his first time to the Big Dance. He's crewed for team Subaru at two other Primal Quest expedition adventure races.

Experience has taught Ryan that Primal Quest destroys bicycles. He said there are three things every PQ bike mechanic needs to watch out for. Flat tires, which he avoids by running tubeless tires. Bent or broken rear derailleur hangars, which he says can't be avoided, so he brings spares. And mud, which he fends off by thoroughly cleaning each bike when it comes in from a bike section of the race.

Should the unthinkable happen, Ryan brought along two extra complete bikes. He also has on hand enough parts to build another complete bike if needed.

Ryan tuned bikes for Ellsworth Bikes in San Diego for a time. These days, he works at Performance Bikes in San Diego.

Unspeakably Dirty Laundry Piles up at Primal Quest

By now we've all heard the Primal Quest catch phrases and buzz words. It's a 500 mile expedition. Even the fastest teams will take six days to finish. Those facts are difficult to wrap your mind around. Here's one that's much easier to understand, because like you, PQ athletes put their pants or bike shorts on one leg at a time.

These athletes didn't bring six pairs of bike shorts. They didn't bring six moisture-wicking T-shirts. Even if they did bring six pairs of socks, they burned through those long ago in efforts to save their feet from certain disaster.

So six days into Primal Quest, team support crews are dealing with piles of unspeakably dirty laundry. Imagine the nastiest thing you have ever smelled, multiply it by your favorite large number, and you start to catch a whiff of what's developing here.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Surrogate Mom Comforts Benincasa at Primal Quest Transition Area

Team Merrell/Zanfel Adventure has unusually close relationships with its sponsors. Sue Harvey Brown from Merrell was in Montana prior to the start of Primal Quest, and Steve Sisler, the team's contact at Zanfel, rolled into Bozeman today to show his support. Steve's wife Heather Sisler, and Robyn Benincasa have developed something of a mother-daughter bond. Today at Transition Area 10, Heather was patting Robyn on the shoulder, probably telling Robyn everything will be all right. But not for another day or two, when Robyn and the boys cross the finish line!

John Jacoby Meets the Press

Interest in the Primal Quest expedition adventure race remains high here in Southwest Montana, with stories appearing in daily newspapers each morning, and on television each night. In the photo above, Australian John Jacoby of team Merrell/Zanfel Adventure answers reporters' questions before departing Transition Area 10.

Merrell/Zanfel Crew Chief Jeff Akens Knows What's What

Jeff Akens, support crew chief for adventure racing team Merrell/Zanfell Adventure at Primal Quest Montana, is a man in the know. He knows where his team is, where they're headed next, and where he'll see them after that. Confidence oozes from the man. He's even got a clever T-shirt that declares his certainty. It's a giveaway from watchmaker Suunto. It has their company logo on the front, and on the back, it tells anyone who sees Jeff to "Follow Me. I Know Exactly What I'm Doing." I can vouch for that.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Robyn the Adventure Racing Giant

I snapped a photo of Robyn Benincasa, captain of adventure racing team Merrell/Zanfel Adventure, as the team was about to depart Transition Area 10 for a trek. Being around Robyn is a unique experience. She's beautiful. She's smart. She's funny. She's tenacious. I decided to use some of my PhotoShop skills to see if I could post-produce an effect that shows how I see her. The image above is what I got.

Heat Bakes Merrell/Zanfel Adventure During Long Road Ride

The mercury was well above 80 degrees Fahrenheit this afternoon as adventure racing team Merrell/Zanfel Adventure rode mountain bikes along remote paved roads near Bozeman, Montana. That's hot enough to cause discomfort. You can see the heat radiating from the road in the photo above. An obvious air of relief fell over the team as they arrived at Transition Area 10, set in a partially mowed alfalfa field. Merrell-branded pop-up canopies provided much-needed shade.

"I'm burning up," said team captain Robyn Benincasa as she flopped into a chair. She looked dehydrated. Five minutes of rest and hydration later, she felt much better, quipping for a TV camera crew, "I'm coming back now." She'd tried Sprite, apple juice, and a Coca-Cola Classic before downing a V-8.

Robyn is known for giving good sound bites, even when exhausted. She delivered more today when asked to describe the ride the team just completed.

"In an Ironman (triathlon), the last eight miles is an eternity," Robyn said. "Today, the last 60 miles on the bike was an eternity."

John Jacoby didn't like the heat of the bike section, either. "I'm feeling a bit shattered after that ride," John said. So was he looking forward to leaving the bikes and setting off on foot for the next trek? Not exactly.

"Going back to a trek is a little like going out of the frying pan and into the fire," John said. The next trek includes punishing elevation gain and loss. The team faces a long night on foot.

Benincasa Rides 'Project Pink' Bike to Support Breast Cancer Research

Adventure racer Robyn Benincasa, captain of team Merrell/Zanfel Adventure, is riding a hot pink Ellsworth mountain bike during Primal Quest Montana. For every Project Pink bike sold, Ellsworth donates $50 to nonprofits committed to research and curing breast cancer. Good on ya, Ellsworth! And good on Rob as well!

Prep the Gear, Cook the Food, Fill the Water Bottles, Cinderella!

If you look really close, you can see both Merrell/Zanfel Adventure support crew members under the orange canopy. That's Ryan Floth on the left, standing, and Jeff Aken on the right, seated in a yellow Merrell ball cap. The pair spends hours in transition areas preparing food and gear for the team. It's a life as thankless as Cinderella's. Today, the team requested McDonald's cheeseburgers, french fries, and pizza, so preparing food wasn't as labor intensive as usual.

And see that big mountain above the canopy? That's Sacajawea Peak. When the team leaves here this evening, their next checkpoint is on the top of that mountain. The checkpoint after that is at the bottom of the mountain, but on the other side. Is anyone going to stop this insanity?

Benincasa Love Interest Not Surprised She's Powering Through Primal Quest

Jeff Akens, made famous by my earlier "Mushy Squshy Love" blog post here at Primal Quest Montana, keeps getting asked the same question over and over about girlfriend and team Merrell/Zanfel Adventure Captain Robyn Benincasa: How is her hip?

Here's why that matters. Not even one year ago, Robyn had hip resurfacing surgery. Not a full hip replacement. Just a hip resurfacing. She's been adventure racing seriously for more than a decade, and last year, her hip finally let her know it was no longer going to tolerate constant overuse.

Robyn's first race back after surgery was a staged ultra run in February 2008 called Racing the Planet: Vietnam. She ran that event with teammates from her new non-profit, the Project Athena Foundation. Robyn appeared to get through that week-long Southeast Asian trail race just fine. Primal Quest, though, this is a whole other animal. Much more elevation gain, no planned overnight rest stops. If overuse is the lurking danger that could re-injure for Robyn's hip, Primal Quest Montana will absolutely deliver it. That's why everyone keeps asking Jeff about Robyn's hip. And he's got a great answer. So great, in fact, I'll make it a direct quote:

"She beat her hip into submission. That's her M.O. She just keeps on beating on problems until they go away."


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Many Primal Quest Teams Wearing Merrell Shoes

This is the back door of the cargo trailer being used by team Intrepid during Primal Quest Montana. Support crew member Autumn Loete wrote this thank-you note nice and big on the trailer so Merrell will know how much the shoe sponsorship means to her team.

Postcard Views All Day Long for Merrell/Zanfel Adventure at Primal Quest

These barns just outside of Bozeman, Montana, seem to be everywhere in this landscape. This photo is absolutely typical of the scenery around here. So when team Merrell/Zanfel Adventure isn't racing in the dark, this is the kind of thing they see, all day long.

Watch Team Merrell/Zanfel Adventure's Primal Quest Montana Course Flyover on YouTube

Wanna see exactly where in Southwest Montana team Merrell/Zanfel Adventure is racing? Click on the video link above to see Primal Quest's official "course flyover!"

It's 2 a.m. Time to Ride Your Bike

It was about 2 a.m. when team Merrell/Zanfel Adventure sauntered in to the remote bike-drop area that signaled the end of another long mountain trek. Accompanied by a TV camera crew, the group glowed strangely in the black Montana night. Travis Macy, naturally joyful, was the most talkative of the bunch, followed by John Jacoby, whose fun personality emerged more toward the end of the transition. Robyn Benincasa talked very little, same with Aaron Prince. They were both well, but very focused on making sure they were ready for the next leg of the race, a mountain bike ride.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Chasing Merrell/Zanfel Adventure

Merrell/Zanfel Adventure, where are you? Way out front, from the looks of the sign-in, sign-out sheet at Vernon Winter's checkpoint and transition area at the end of the whitewater swim and transition to trekking. They are team number 2, and appear at the top of the ledger. I haven't seen the team since very early this morning when I photographed them paddling the whitewater of the Gallatin River near Big Sky. I'm hoping to catch up with them tonight at a remote location where their support crew dropped the team's bikes earlier today.

The OTHER Team Merrell at Primal Quest

Wouldn't you know it, Merrell is such a cool company, it sponsors not just one but TWO teams at this year's Primal Quest expedition adventure race! This afternoon I caught up with the other Merrell team, Merrell Halti Multimania, as it was flushed through a section of high waves on the Gallatin River. Click on the photo to see it large. It's totally worth it!

Support Crew Customizes Merrell/Zanfel Adventure Van

Merrell/Zanfel Adventure isn't just one of the most competitive adventure racing teams at Primal Quest, it's also got one of the best support crews at this epic expedition. Check out this photo I got of the interior of the Freightliner Metro cargo van in use by Merrell/Zanfel Adventure at PQ. When support crew member Jeff Akens picked up the van from the rental place in San Diego, it was empty. See those shelves on the right-hand side of the photo? Jeff built them. One trip to the Home Depot for two-by-fours and plywood, six hours of careful power tool work, and there you have it. Shelves by day, bunk beds by night. A place for everything, and everything in its place. And only ONE trip to the Home Depot for this project? I make a minimum of three for every attempt I make at being handy!

Merrell/Zanfel Takes Lead at Primal Quest Montana

Horray! Merrell/Zanfell Adventure has taken the lead at Primal Quest Montana! The team overtook Canadian team on the Gallatin River near Big Sky, Montana. The river is dangerously high, and has overflowed its banks, as seen in the photo above.

It Ain't Glamorous

See that stinky sock Robyn Benincasa is peeling off her right foot? That's proof, as if you needed it. Adventure racing ain't glamorous. It's dirty, stinky, wet, tired, grungy, and lots of other words that end with the letter Y. Let your imagination run wild with Y-ending words. Adventure racing is those things.

Hot Water Now

Merrell/Zanfel Adventure support crew members Jeff Akens and Ryan Floth prepare to boil water, having heard their team is a few minutes away from TA 2.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Support Crew Sets up Camp, Waits for Team to Complete Trek

Merrell/Zanfel Adventure's support crew, Jeff Akens and Ryan Floth, set up camp at TA 2 Monday afternoon and waited for the team to complete the mountain trekking portion of day one of Primal Quest. Rumors abounded that the fastest three teams might arrive before the 5:30 p.m. Dark Zone cutoff, which would have put such teams 12 hours ahead of the competition.

Gone on a Trek, See You Tomorrow!

This is what team Merrell/Zanfel Adventure looked like leaving Transition Area One. They'd just summited and descended Lone Peak, that gorgeous mountain that sits right behind Big Sky Resort. Everyone looked strong, and was in a hurry to get on with the second leg of the trek. If they can make it to Transition Area 3 at the river, they'll get to start the whitewater section of the race tonight. They told me they think it's unlikely any teams will make that Dark Zone cutoff, set for 5:30 p.m. The race will re-start at 5 a.m. for teams that are at Transition Area 3 and ready to enter the water.

Mushy, Squshy Love at Primal Quest Montana

Hey! I thought this was a family show! Guess not! I was chimping back through my photos from the starting line this morning and remembered I had this shot of one of many RUSH HD film crews as they focused on Robyn Benincasa (long sleeved orange shirt, blue race jersey) and her decade-long love interest, Jeff Akens, saying their goodbyes. It's in HD, baby. I wonder if the PQ television program will be rated TV-14 for this moderate, you know, smoochy situation.

Merrell/Zanfel Adventure Begins Epic Endurance Race

Merrell/Zanfel Adventure team members were all smiles at the starting line of Primal Quest Montana this morning. These smiles are genuine. They show giddy bliss. They are the smiles of hour one. This brave band of athletes is about to take on more than 500 miles of the wildest terrain Southwest Montana's Rocky Mountains have to offer. Future smiles will come, but they'll look little like these. Relish the moment.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Bring Your Appetite to Primal Quest Montana

If you're going to try to complete an adventure race like Primal Quest, it's a good idea to have specific plans. Two of the most important things to plan are hydration -- what you're going to drink, and nutrition -- what you're going to eat. Members of adventure racing team Merrell/Zanfell Adventure spent the days before Primal Quest packing their food into separate bags for each 24-hour period of the expedition. Then those seven bags went into one large bag for each athlete. The photo above shows the foods team captain Robyn Benincasa selected for her Primal Quest experience. Imagine all of that going into one person. Eww. Nutrition ain't pretty, but it beats the alternative -- the horrific bonk.

No Plan Survives First Contact With Primal Quest

Travis Macy, John Jacoby, Aaron Prince and Robyn Benincasa study maps they will use during the 500-mile Primal Quest adventure race.

Adventure racing team Merrell/Zanfel Adventure attended a mandatory pre-race briefing this afternoon here at Big Sky Resort in Southwest Montana. They sat in the back of the room, looked kinda bored. They were eager to get their hands on the post-meeting prize: Maps! Maps! Give us our maps! When the briefing ended, teams got the maps -- there are 10 maps in all -- that would show, in detail, where the checkpoints for Primal Quest Montana will be. With the desired goods in hand, the team scooted back to its condo to begin studying the routes they will take through different sections of the course.

Some route choices aren't choices at all, but are mandatory routes required by the race organizers. Everywhere else, though, a thorough study of possible routes is adventure racing strategy. If you can get from Point A to Point B by going over a 5,000 foot mountain, or by going eight miles around the mountain at a pretty constant elevation, which way is better? It comes down to the skill set of the athletes on the team, and which way would be most efficient for the group as a whole.

But as Robyn pointed out as the team was marking its maps, plans have a way of not working out. She's pretty sure that'll happen again, likely soon after the race begins tomorrow morning!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Merrell/Zanfel Adventure to Face Montana's Rivers at Flood Stage During Primal Quest

Adventure racing team Merrell/Zanfel Adventure completed its check-in procedures at Big Sky Resort in Southwestern Montana, and now has some time to cool its heels in the frigid Gallatin River.

An e-mail update from team captain Robyn Benincasa earlier today illustrates what's on the minds of many athletes about to take on Primal Quest Montana, a 500-mile race on foot, bike, boat and riverboard, through the wilds near Yellowstone National Park:

"The snow looks like it's melting a bit, which just means the water is higher and faster, which means I'm scared. :). They keep telling us they'll make sure we're safe-ish, but the water is officially at flood stage, so who knows. Eeek!"

Friday, June 20, 2008

Adventure Racing Team Merrell/Zanfel Adventure Discovers Snow at Primal Quest

Merrell/Zanfel Adventure team members at Primal Quest Montana include, from left, John Jacoby, Robyn Benincasa, Travis Macy and Aaron Prince.

Robyn Benincasa, captain of adventure racing team Merrell/Zanfel Adventure, said she and teammates John Jacoby, Aaron Prince and Travis Macy are settling in well in Big Sky, Mont., headquarters for the Primal Quest expedition adventure race set to begin Monday morning.

Because some of the team live at sea level, they tried to choose pre-race accommodations as high up in Big Sky as possible. They ended up in a condo at an elevation of 7,500 feet, where there's still plenty of snow on the ground. Robyn said she can only imagine how much snow the team will encounter during the race, which is expected to reach elevations above 10,000 feet. Specifics of the course are traditionally kept secret until just before the start.

While the altitude difference will require acclamation, the team, which has not raced together before, appears to be in no need of a break-in period whatsoever, Robyn said.

"I can already tell we're going to have a good time," she said. "John Jacoby adds an element of fun to everything we do. This is gonna be great!"

Merrell/Zanfel Adventure will begin its check in process tomorrow, then continue to explore the region until the race begins Monday.

Merrell/Zanfel Adventure Takes on Montana

Merrell/Zanfel Adventure has arrived in Montana and is amped up to take on Big Sky Country!