by Lisa Jhung
New Zealand Threesome Dominates Final Balance Bar Race
photo by Dan Campbell
Mountain biking down the sweet singletrack of the Backbone Trail in the Santa Monica mountains, it’s easy to forget that you’re just miles from the craziness of Los Angeles. The Sunset Strip, Venice Beach, the Hollywood Hills and an array of crowded freeways surround a wilderness playground boasting 300 trails, 3,000-foot climbs and rolling terrain that’ll put a grin on your face, even during a race that slathers on the pain.
A field of 90 teams took on the third and final Balance Bar 24-hour Adventure Race in L.A. on November 15, tackling the challenging 91-mile course in uncharachteristically rainy weather.
With an elite field of 22 teams showing for the finals, reigning champs Team Earthlink (2002 L.A. winners) and Team Nike ACG/Balance Bar (which won the previous two Balance Bar 24-hour races in 2003) knew they had their work cut out for them. But it wasn’t the sheer volume of elite teams that was remarkable — it was the quality of teams that came craving a piece of the $20,000 prize purse.
Team Nokia from Finland had lost the New York Balance Bar to Nike ACG by less than a minute (tainted by a controversial call regarding language barriers and race information). And Team Seagate, stacked with the New Zealand trio of Nathan Fa’avae, Kristina Strode-Penny and Hayden Key, were ready to drop the hammer in L.A. The last time the Kiwis competed in a 24-hour Balance Bar Adventure Race (Portland, 2002), they beat Nike ACG (then SoBe/Smartwool), Earthlink and the rest of a competitive U.S. field.
The race in L.A. started on Saturday with an 11-mile run — with a twist. After being bussed over an hour from Santa Monica to the foggy hills of Newbury Park (a location kept secret until arrival), racers gathered at the starting line and received coordinates to CP 1 just five minutes before the start. The 90 teams (comprised of elite, co-ed, masters, all-male and corporate divisions) frantically plotted the point before the start gun sounded at 6:45 a.m.
Lead teams tore down the paved road. As instructed by race director Jonathon Denison, they weren’t allowed to turn off the pavement for the first 200 meters. At that point, the majority of lead teams continued straight, while Team Seagate and a handful of others turned left.
“At the start, I took a bearing to CP 1 and would have shot left across the field if Jonathan hadn’t said that we couldn’t,” said Fa’avae, who was navigating for Seagate. “I saw tripods and camera men down that way, so I knew I was right.” He was, as were the few teams which went that way. Team Nike ACG/Balance Bar, Gregory, Epinephrine and others continued on a roundabout way to CP 1.
Seagate arrived at the first CP six minutes ahead of second-place Team Salomon-Smartwool (a threesome of Colorado mountain runners) and were given coordinates to CP 2. During the 11-mile run and through a 180-foot rappel between CPs 3 and 4, the Kiwis increased their lead to nearly 45 minutes. At CP 4, the transition to bikes, Team Earthlink followed in second, with Team Salomon-Smartwool in third.
A fast, paved downhill mountain bike ride brought Team Seagate to the Pacific Ocean, where three-person kayaks awaited. The Kiwis continued pushing hard thorugh the 10-mile paddle, then got back on bikes for a 40-mile ride back up into the mountains.
Meanwhile, Team Nike ACG/Balance Bar was making up time from their early navigational mistake. “We just didn’t communicate that well with each other at the start,” said Kloser. The team was in fourth place at the start of the paddle, and was able to pass Team Salomon-Smartwool on the water. Between CPs 9 and 10 on the mountain bike, Nike ACG/Balance Bar overtook Team Earthlink to move into second. But by CP 12, the TA to another 11-mile foot section, the Americans were still almost an hour and a half behind Team Seagate.
When Fa’avae and team were leaving CP 12, race staff told them that there was a chance that the team would beat the staff to CP 13. “After seeing how fast they got through the first foot section, we knew we’d have a hard time keeping up with them,” Denison said.
Seagate got to where they believed CP 13 should be. “We looked around for 300 yards from where it should have been. I was really confident we were in the right place,” Fa’avae said. “We knew that it would be cutting it really close with the CP staff getting in place, so we figured if the guy was on his way there, we’d run into him on our way out and have him sign our passport there. We never saw him.” Fa’avae’s team continued to CP 14.
Nike ACG/Balance Bar was the next team to search for the elusive CP 13, and although the CP staff was manning the post then, they were in the wrong place. “We were walking along a drainage on the way to where we thought it should be,” said Nike ACG’s Mike Kloser. “Then all of a sudden, we saw it.”
Team Epinephrine wasn’t so lucky. The team spent roughly four hours wandering around in the dark, rainy night. “Eventually,” said Epinephrine’s Karen Lundgren, “we tried to figure out where they would put it if they were going to put it wrong. And we went to that spot.” Ironically, that’s how Team Epinephrine found the checkpoint.
“After 16 teams had dropped down in the area around CP 13, we realized the problem — it was, in fact, misplaced,” Denison admitted afterwards. “Rather than trying to replace it, we decided to route the rest of the teams directly to CP 14.”
The confusion didn’t change teams’ efforts through the rest of the course; whether they had found CP 13 or been re-routed to 14, teams continued racing to the finish. A 7-mile mountain bike ride and hike-a-bike brought teams back to sea level, where they ran five miles along the coast to the finish line at the Santa Monica pier.
“It was really cool coming down the beach at night with all the lights, running toward the ‘circus’ — the ferris wheel and whatnot — on the pier,” Fa’avae said. Cooler, still, since he and his team crossed the finish line victorious, a full two hours and 40 minutes ahead of second-place Team Nike ACG/Balance Bar, making the Kiwis $10,500 richer.
“This distance — 12 to 13 hours — is good for us,” explained Fa’avae. “We all have one-day multi-sport backgrounds. Every weekend up and down the coast of New Zealand, there’s a one-day, six- to seven-hour multi-sport race.”
“We didn’t really see anybody,” added Fa’avae’s teammate, Hayden Key. “We ran our own race. Nathan had one flat tire, that was the only time we had to slow down.”
The Kiwis narrowly beat Denison’s estimated winning time, smoking the course in 13:18. “Every time I saw them on foot they were running,” said Denison. “They never took longer than three minutes in a TA. I never saw them stop to look at their maps. That team I saw out there is untouchable at the 24-hour length.”
Team Seagate is planning on competing in all three Balance Bar 24-hour series in 2004, if they can swing the travel and manage their schedules in New Zealand.
Kloser and cohorts Danelle Ballengee and Michael Tobin are up for the challenge. “If I thought that Seagate wasn’t beatable at a 24-hour race distance than I guess we all might just as well show up and race for second place,” he quipped. “Of course I believe they are beatable at this distance, and I can’t wait for the opportunity to prove it!”
After the race, a handful of teams filed protests about the missing checkpoint.
Since CP 13 was indeed misplaced, Denison decided the Elite race results would be determined by the order teams reached CP 12. The ruling benefitted some and hindered others. Team Epinephrine, which was in fifth place leaving CP 12 and 14th place at the finish line, was happy with the outcome, but “not happy that it had to happen,” Lundgren said.
Overall, 30 teams finished the challenging course intact (33 percent), while three others completed it unranked. None of the teams that dropped went looking for CP 13. Most quit because of the rainy weather that made the mountain bike course a sloppy mess.
“That’s adventure,” said Pamela Fletcher of Team Bunch of People, which dropped out at CP 9 due to a sick teammate. “You deal with the situation and press on. After all, isn’t this what we crave?”