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Going to Extremes

Going to Extremes
By Gardner Robinson 

Blazing into 10th GEAR

It is 1:30 a.m. on May 30 and, after a couple hours sleep, I’m driving south on an empty road to the starting point for the 10th Guam Extreme Adventure Race (GEAR). I’m outside my car chatting with a group of racers when my feet start burning. I quickly realize I’m standing in the middle of a fire ant convention. Others nearby start smacking the little devils off their feet as well; it’s perhaps a fitting start to one of Asia’s most unforgiving adventure races. 

At 3 a.m., teams eagerly receive race maps and have an hour to decipher and plan their routes before the start. Thirteen “pro” teams and six “social” teams will spend the better part of the next day navigating a series of checkpoints. Watching the teams pour over their maps and prepare, you begin to see who is in-it-to-win-it and who has more modest goals, such as finishing the race in one piece. 

In fact, Race Director James Oelke revels in GEAR’s high attrition rate. Less than 25 percent of racers usually make it to the final checkpoint. Right now, he’s directing everyone to get in the water for the start. “I don’t want to see any knees out of the water,” he hollers. Headlamps on, the teams await instructions, and they are directed to a flashing red light on the top of Mt. Bolanos across the valley – the first check point. Moments later they charge out of the water - GEAR is on. 

Welcome to the Jungle

The afternoon before the race, all the participants gather at the Guam Visitors’ Bureau for a race briefing and to learn the well-guarded secret of where the race actually begins. James starts the briefing with the simple question that started it all, “Are you tough enough?” 

I spoke to several past champions, and there is pride and a hint of masochism as they revel in stories of dehydration, seizures, adrenalin shots, boonie bees and coming back for more. But James is just getting started. 

“You will enter hell,” he tells his audience. “It will suck,” he continues. “At some point you will be chased by dogs,” although, he notes locals were requested to chain up their pit bulls. Walking out of the meeting, one first-time racer joked he was feeling pretty good until James started his pep talk. 

Now, the flickering lights on a pitch-black hillside mark racers searching for paths up to the first checkpoint. In the half-light before dawn, it’s easy to see which teams took direct routes and those less fortunate. 

The first team to the checkpoint is Don’t Be a Kitty, a veteran crew from Saipan. On the way down they get passed by several teams on their back down including Rocky Mountain Warriors who took the lead going into Checkpoint 2 where two team members kayak into Cetti Bay, while the other two will “coasteer,” meaning walk, scale or swim along the coastline to get there. 

High tide meant the paddlers had the easier job, but they would swap on the return. One team managed to kayak so far past the landing point, search boats couldn’t immediately locate them. They eventually made it back, but their teammates were understandably frustrated to lose so much time so early in the race. 

Team dynamics are a huge part of adventure racing. It is easy to get along when things are going well; however, in an adventure race, things rarely go according to plan. How teams deal with setbacks, mistakes, exhaustion or even injury, often is the difference between finishing the race and falling apart. 

Rocky Mountain High was still in first coming out of the kayak/coasteering section, then they charged off on mountain bikes only to have one member drop out due to fatigue. The heat on this day was stifling, and people were struggling to stay hydrated even early on. By Checkpoint 4, two IVs had already been administered.

Fire on the Mountain

As the day progressed, it became clear James wasn’t kidding about stepping into hell. The scorching heat was intensified by wildfires burning close to the course, the black earth literally smoking underfoot. And if the fires of hell don’t get you, the boonie bees just might. 

Team Depends, a two-man team from Saipan in their first GEAR race, was in the lead in the social category when they came along a solitary racer suffering from an allergic reaction to bee stings. One member was a doctor, and he volunteered to stay with the racer until he could be evacuated by helicopter, essentially sacrificing their chance of winning the division. 

The unselfish act showed one thing more important than winning an adventure race is surviving, especially on a day when temperatures would be higher than 100 degrees F with very little wind to provide respite from the heat.

When the smoke cleared, long after darkness had set in, Don’t Be A Kitty would tough out the wine, crossing the finish in 17 hours and 37 minutes. This would be the second GEAR title for three of the four members of the Saipan squad, which included Yosh Gabaldon, Tyce Mister, Russ Quinn and Mieko Carey. They would also be the only pro team to finish GEAR 2010. Ten others who had formed makeshift teams would go on to complete the course in just under 19 hours of racing in ruthless conditions. 

Oelke prides himself in making incredibly challenging courses that racers take equal pride in finishing (the few who do). Thirteen IVs would be given during the race; there would be one helicopter rescue and a “pulp fiction moment,” as James joked at the awards ceremony, when an adrenalin shot needed to be quickly administered. 

Oelke may not suffer nearly as much as his racers, but like them, he says he “goes through a full range of emotions during every GEAR race.” 

Organizers are keen to get more Japanese racers in next year’s event, and they hold regular “sprint races” in Guam to give newcomers to adventure racing a chance to gain some experience. It’s a short three-hour flight from Tokyo to Guam, so the question you have to ask yourself is, “Are you tough enough?” You can find out on May 29, 2011, at GEAR 11. 

Guam Extreme Adventure Race