Adventure-Race Boss Defends Environmental Record

National Geographic Adventure magazine
October 3, 2002
When Survivor creator Mark Burnett brought a 360-mile, ten-day
multisport race to Utah's Canyonlands in 1995, he effectively introduced
adventure racing, a sport that had flourished overseas six years' prior,
onto the American scene.

Burnett's "Eco-Challenge" also disrupted sensitive lands and archaeological sites, and garnered so much ire from environmentalists, neither he nor anyone else has held a similar race in the U.S. since.

Smaller-scale domestic adventure races skyrocketed after Burnett's departure. According to Troy Farrar, director of the United States Adventure Racing Association, 300 adventure races were held in the U.S. in 2002—up from 50 races just three years ago. But none compare to the sport's Big Three—The Southern Traverse, Raid Gauloises, and Burnett's own Eco-Challenge—all of which are held in overseas locales like Fiji or Vietnam, where international teams absorb exorbitant entrance costs to climb, kayak, bike, and trek hundred-plus-mile courses over an exhaustive couple of weeks.

But this July, for the first time in seven years, longtime race planner and champion athlete Dan Barger brought an expedition-style, international adventure race back to the United States. (See "Primal Heat" in the October issue of National Geographic Adventure).

A number of local environmental groups and citizens were upset by Barger's choice of venue, Colorado's San Juan Mountains, for his inaugural Primal Quest race. Complaints of the damage it would do to the Uncompahgre National Forest, and the damage it left, plagued the 36-year-old San Jose native from start to finish. Now, just weeks before he announces the site of his second Primal Quest race, Barger recounts his trial run.

Why put on an adventure race?

I think that the people involved in adventure racing are a phenomenal group. And one of the things I've been able to view in the 22 adventure races I've put on, was that these people (and I like to think that I'm in this category as well) learned principles like adapting to change and taking manageable risks that they would bring back to their job and to their personal life. I thought that was unique and I enjoyed creating a venue in which they can experience those things.

I think one of my qualifications as a planner is that I've raced in over 230 ultramarathons and competed in lots of mountain biking, equestrian, and adventure races over the past 20 years. So I go out and I try to set up a race course based on what I know I would like as a racer.

What gave you the idea for Primal Quest?

I was talking with friends about what a shame it was that there was no expedition-style adventure race that gave U.S. teams a fair chance to compete. Everybody had to travel abroad. So one of our missions was to allow racers to do what we felt would be a quality, affordable adventure race in the U.S.—instead of Fiji [where the Eco-Challenge is taking place this year]. The Eco-Challenge costs $14,500 U.S. just for the entry, plus another $5,000 for equipment, $5,000 in airfare, plus food. Before you know it, you're $25,000, $30,000 in debt.

Our entry fee was $4,000. We wanted homegrown teams to be able to do the race for a couple of grand a piece for a two-week, phenomenal vacation.

The race's prize purse, $250,000, was the largest pot ever offered in an adventure race. Why did you offer so much?

I think the racers in these events have become unpaid actors [in network broadcasts of adventure races]. We wanted to raise the bar and get other race directors to offer more money to the winners, so racers can earn some for themselves.

We lost 50 percent of our budget the first year, but we're not looking at it as a short-term event. We feel that it has a future, and hopefully in subsequent years it can earn money and pay for itself.

How did you choose the location and plan the course?

We were approached by the Telluride Foundation, who knew we were planning a race and wanted us to be the cornerstone of their 360 Degree Festival. I looked at the trails and the area, and thought it was the perfect fit. I put 640 hours into that course, and spent many of them pre-running it to make sure the flow of one discipline to the next was correct. Then I looked at the trails, from a racer's standpoint, to determine what would be spectacular to do—to ride, for instance, a singletrack uphill or downhill. It's the quality and the difficulty of the experience that I consider to put together the most spectacular course that I can, based on what I have to work with, and any restraints I have against trail use or access.

Mark Burnett was criticized for the damage his race did to Utah's Canyonlands. Were you wary of receiving the same criticism for bringing a similar race back to the U.S.?

The funny thing was, I had been putting on adventure races that were three days long for four years, so I didn't see why you couldn't extend it to an expedition-length race. I figured that as long as we embraced and listened to the communities and the environmental groups, we would dispel any myths about what we were doing. Some people thought we would be riding motorcycles! It's just because they didn't know [about the race], so we started publishing notices in the local Telluride paper beginning in September of 2001. We had also been talking about it with groups since the first of that year.

So we were obviously very sensitive to the public. We put forth a waste management plan, followed "leave no trace" guidelines for backcountry etiquette. Our racers tried to walk behind each other to minimize impact. And three racers actually called in fires to the forest service while they were in the backcountry. I called in one while I was in the helicopter [monitoring the race].

Adventure racers are among the greenest group of backcountry users—they're very ecology-conscious. I think a lot of these people enjoy the outdoors, and part of that is enjoying the countryside as it is.

Despite your efforts, environmental groups like the Colorado Environmental Coalition and the Colorado Mountain Club and locals complained about the ecological damage your race would do. Do you think those complaints were valid?

I met with the Uncompahgre Forest officials and an environmental group about a year prior to the race to identify any areas that they thought would be ecologically sensitive. As it turned out, the forest service is the one that pointed out the problems and we rerouted the course in four or five different places. The environmental group that we worked with didn't point out any sensitive areas, didn't put us in touch with anybody, didn't do anything, really. And they were supposedly the most vocal and largest group in the area.

After the race, the forest service reviewed the trails and determined that the event did no long-term damage to the environment. I even got a reference letter from the forest service to use for future events.

In the end, Telluride and Mountain Village thanked us for coming, as did the town of Ophir [who originally threatened to sue Primal Quest had they not detoured around a lynx habitat]. Half a dozen people from Ophir e-mailed or called us or stopped me on the street and said, "you know what, I'm really embarrassed, it wasn't anything like they made it out to be, and I'm sorry for the trouble."

Why do you think adventure racing has become so popular?

It offers people a completely different experience, taking them from a place they would be comfortable in, and putting them out in a place where there is managed risk. I think there's something special about [a race that involves] you and your team and the elements—it's a lot like an expedition. Like Lewis and Clark or Shackleton. It wasn't their physical exertion that made their journeys difficult. It was the elements, the one thing no one can control. And in the adventure races, those weather elements come into play, and it's how your team reacts and deals with those that determines your success.

We also race because we get to see new areas we wouldn't otherwise. It's kind of like a vacation, it just hurts a lot.

Do you hope Primal Quest will become as popular a race as Mark Burnett's Eco-Challenge?

That's not necessarily one of our goals, but I think that through our mission and our objectives, it's inevitable.

The October issue of National Geographic Adventure magazine is now on newsstands throughout the United States.

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