Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Stage 1 - The Race is On

The 250 KM journey for 51 racers started yesterday morning at 8AM. Racers started the morning huddled around a huge fire for warmth in the chilly mountain air. This first stage would be the most arduous of the race, as it totalled 105 KMs and would have most racers competiting all day and most of the night without rest. Just before the race began, local villagers from Si Ma Cai performed music and dance in what appeared to be a cheerful send-off. The dancers smiled and grabbed the hands of many racers and encouraged them to join in on the fun.

My co-workers, Tilden, Leighton, and Kim joined together for one quick photo before launching into their attack on Stage One. What the team soon encountered was sloppy rain-soaked trails that contained endless patches of mud that acted like glue when racers' feet sank into its depths. Walking poles became almost a necessity in order to gain balance and leverage against the mud. Checkpoints were set up along the way in roughly 15 KM increments and offered racers a quick salvation where they could re-fill water bottles, consult medical staff on-site, and prepare for the next 15K.

I was riding along on the day with NBC Sports, one of America's major sports networks, who is here to capture each day of the competition. During the ride, I had time to chat with the NBC camera-man. I showed him my Flip Video camera and some of the videos I had been capturing. He was genuinely impressed with this pocket technology and thought my footage was good. Always nice to get approval from a professional and I've been trying to watch him closely and learn.

The weather is a constant antagonist in this area and it takes no mercy on anyone. One of the scariest scenes took place at 1AM on the day the race began when a jeep, containing 5 local Vietnamese porters that were assisting with the race, went over a steep bank in heavy and dense fog. They all sustained numerous lascerations and broken ribs and are now recovering in a nearby hospital. This was a painful reminder that Mother Nature is always present and we must do our best to stay on our toes.

My co-workers, along with many of the competitors, pushed on checkpoint after checkpoint clear through the night. Racers used headlamps to illuminate their path in the pitch black night. As if the race was not tough enough, Leighton and Kim encountered 4-legged challenges in the form of angry dogs. The dogs litterally chased the two for over 20 KMs and both sustained bites.

Both Leighton and Kim arrived into Base Camp this morning thoroughly exhausted from their 105 KM journey. Remarkably both looked well besides some tender muscles and blistered feet. Tilden did not arrive until almost 33 hours after he started. His fortitude is truly amazing as he told me privately that he considered quiting at numerous times during the stage. Quiting ended up not happening on this day, and Tilden walked into Base Camp with his patented smile. He was exhausted and sore but his feet were amazingly dry and without blisters -- a real rarity with this group of racers.

The longest stage is now in the history books, and my friends are most importantly still healthy and alive, and they are equally still in the race. 105 KMs are now at their backs, but the next stage is rumored to be extremely technical and challenging. Best of luck to all of the racers as we follow them and cheer them onto the end.


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