This is an accounting of the 2000 Raid Gauloises that took place, starting in the Autonomous Region of China, approximately 430 kilometers from the infamous Everest expedition-launching city of Lhassa. The five people, expedition style race would then traverse across the Himalayas, traveling into Nepal and ending 827 kilometers later in Janakpur, close to the border of India.
The team, Tactel Ispira AKA Team Stray Dogs, was comprised of five individuals with varied strengths. Michael Kloser, former World Mountain Bike Champion and winner of the 1998 Eco Challenge in Morocco, proved to be a strong leader and extraordinary athlete. Rebecca Rusch is a world-class paddler and rock climber who added a strong female influence to the team. Her three-woman-one-man team landed a fourth place finish in the 1999 Eco Challenge. Isaac Wilson has won many major adventure races around the world, he is a superb paddler and mountain biker, is a sustaining member of Team Stray Dogs. I (Marshall Ulrich), come from an ultrarunning background and have competed in a prior Raid and all past Eco-Challenges. Patrick Harper is a backcountry guide and paddler who was the wild card since he had no history with the team. He proved to be an extraordinary navigator, athlete, and voice of sanity and maturity throughout the race.
Ann Wilson and Bob Haugh were the designated assistance personnel. Ann has crewed and participated in the management of many adventure races. Bob Haugh is a past participant and finisher of Eco Challenges. The crew members were instrumental in the success of the team. Bill Miller was the team reporter, who did pre and post race interviews as well as team updates.
The race started with a 3km run starting in Shegar Ozong, climbing up toward an old monastery. Our strategy was to get out in front as much as possible, so as not to get slowed down on some of the single track trails by teams who had gone out a bit too fast. It became very apparent, as we climbed to 4310 meters, that altitude would be a factor within the race. The strenuous activity at altitudes up to 17,000 feet caused increasingly adverse physical effects that over the next few days would prove, at times, almost impossible to overcome.
We came off of the run in the top ten and had a quick transition into the first of three mountain biking sections. This 85 kilometer ride would take us up to about 4600 meters, starting out flat, climbing significantly, then downhill and flat to the trekking and horse packing portion of the race. I was struggling more than anyone to keep up with Mike and Ike, so I was put on tow at times to help balance the progress of the team. We wound up finishing somewhere, again in the top ten to transition into the uphill trekking portion of the race. Effects of the altitude began to show on Rebecca, Ike, and myself.
Teams started to pass us as our race position began to slip. Our horse became a work tool hauling packs, and at times hauling Ike and myself to perpetuate forward progress. Rebecca was able to continue on her own up to the top of the pass. She suffered greatly, but showed extreme courage and discipline, much to her credit. As we arrived at the top of Yarle Shungla La Pass at the first horse vet check, Ike, Rebecca, and I checked into a local Tibetian tent where a smoky yak dung fire was lit. The conflict was to keep warm, stay inside and endure the smoke stench, or to return outside into the cold air-we opted for warmth. It was mandatory that we stay 30 minutes minimum for the horse evaluation. We were now at 17,000+ ft. and the full effects of the dry dusty air and altitude were present. My best guess is that we had now slipped to about 12th place or lower. We were now at CP 6 and began a short decent to PC 7, then a climb to PC 8.
When we arrive at PC 8 where we left our horse, the medical personnel were waiting for us. They had gotten word that three of us were experiencing altitude sickness. Oxygen saturation tests were done on Rebecca, Ike and myself, as was done on everyone at the start of the race. In comparison, we all tested between 88% and 92% at the beginning of the race; the tests showed me at around 70%, Rebecca somewhere around 65% and Isaac at less than 60%. We were told that if we dipped below 65% we would not be allowed to continue. The doctors said that we couldn't continue because of Ike and Rebecca being too low on oxygen saturation-and not only that, but as they pointed to me saying "he is out of his mind". We asked them to give us 30 minutes. They came back and checked us by giving us a sort of sobriety test that Rebecca failed. Once again they said we were out of the race. We argued our point and asked for two hours more. After much negotiating they agreed and let us rest in an old bus that they had been using for a shuttle. There we sat and waited, not knowing if we were in fact ejected from the race, but determined to continue.
After less than an hour the doctors came in the bus and told us that we were out of the race. We continued to argue and after several attempts trying to convince us to quit, they told us to leave the bus and continue on the trail. I believe because we would not yield to their wishes, they felt they would give us a chance. The doctor followed us about a mile up the hill dogging us and asking "Don't you really want to quit?" Rebecca replied with a courageous "NO, I DON'T". After that they left us alone as we continued to crawl up the hill (in the literal sense of the word, but not much more).
Dark was closing in on the second day; we now finally started our decent from the altitude. Our spirits were now lifting, despite having slipped into the top 20 ranking. It was then that I knew the spirit of the team was unshakable, and that we were totally unified. Anything was possible from that vantage point!
We trekked into HQ 1, sometime around 2:00 in the morning and immediately started putting our bicycles together. The next section to the border was a dark zone because of the many drops of 1000 feet or more beside the road. We would be allowed to leave at 4:30 in the morning, so we managed an hour or so of sleep. We awoke to about an inch of snow that had fallen during the night. We were very anxious to start down from the altitude. We would drop almost 10,000 feet in 117 kilometers passing through the border, on one of the most epic mountain bikes ride I've ever done. Once again we were on the move and passing a few of the teams along the way. We experienced the only flat tire that we would have over a total distance of about 300 kilometers of mountain biking. A bit of luck was also had when they opened the border minutes before we arrived and we were but a few places back in the line waiting to cross into Nepal. We were now in the top 12 and moving up.
We left our bikes and trekked 7 kilometers to the start of the whitewater swimming/hydro tubing. It was refreshing at first, but after 23 kilometers of being in the water, much of it being flat, it became a grind. We hurried quickly to make PC 21, since it was a dark zone. If you arrived before the close of any of the two checkpoints you would be allowed to continue to the next and if not, the team would have to stay and camp on the beach and continue on with swimming the next day. We made the cut off by five minutes and were allowed to continue on to PC22. That was the second assistant point, end of the whitewater swimming, and where we spent the rest of the night. At the next Checkpoint a few kilometers up the road, a dark zone existed from 6:00p.m. until the morning hours because of looting and politically motivated bandits. We could have moved on, but felt that it was important to rest a bit and fuel up for the days to come. This offered a bit of a lead for those teams immediately in front of us, (two to four hours) but we felt confident that this strategy was the best.
As morning arrived we immediately had an 86 kilometer Trek in store for us rising from the Sun Koshi river at about 800 meters climbing to 2115 meters at PC23 then climbing again from PC 24 to 3149 meters. Michael and Patrick carried much of the load and continued to give towing aid when needed. They proved to be the least affected by the effects of the altitude, dust, and dryness. They were the binding glue that held the team together and keep it strong. As for me, I was able only to hang on and move at a pace that was at times only achievable by stopping to rest. The days heat became a major factor now and during the next days to the end reaching upwards in the nineties and approaching 100 degrees fairenheight. Word from up front was that despite the perceived slow pace, other teams were having their difficulties and were lucky to maintain distance from us.
Morning of the fourth day came as we approached the highest point we would achieve in Nepal during the race at Sallungestwar, CP 26. Four teams were in front of us ranging from two to four hours lead. We hurried down crossing valleys and traversing terraced rice and cornfields through the spectacular Nepal countryside. Children would travel with us on their way to school (one and one half hours away) practicing their English and trying to understand what the race was all about. They were gracious and giving, respectful and full of life. We were able to pass another team that had made a slight navigational error, and continued to make up time on the teams near us in the front.
Coming into PC 29, which was the third assistance point, we were all excited about being able to get on the river and paddle for a couple of hours. We were just in front of the team we had just passed and about one to three hours behind three more. We each drank a six pack of orange or coke soda, got our gear together, and after a stressful transition, got on our inflatable canoes and started the 120 Kilometer paddle to PC 32. The dark zone on the river put a halt to our progress shortly, and the night fell heavy upon us as we settled in for a well-deserved sleep. The river would open at dawn in the morning and we wasted no time pushing off in the morning. Some of the river deserved scouting, as the rapids were up to class three for this canoeing section, however we passed with only one boat flip, during the entire canoeing and rafting sections combined. Lots of flat water paddling and at times in the afternoon, we experienced headwinds which slowed progress.
We reached CP 32 sometime before around noon and loaded our raft preparing for a 110 kilometer section that would bring us up to PC 34. We would end the day paddling and finish at PC 34 to the 3 kilometer canyoneering section. We would climb a steep difficult hillside early the next morning, two thousand feet to the top of the canyon, then descend through numerous cascading waterfalls and pools of water in a beautiful canyon tucked within the walls of the secluded canyon. Everyone was feeling much better at this point in time, as the moisture of the river air was starting to help repair damage that was done to the lungs earlier during the race. Spirits were high as we knew that we were making up time and catching teams in front of us.
- Down to the raft we had left three hours earlier, and that had been ferried across the river by the organization, we descended. Quickly we loaded our gear back in the boats and paddled from PC 36 to PC 37, a distance of about fifteen kilometers. As we approached the start of another 25 kilometer trek, we saw another American team, Team Outlast just leaving the PC, after serving a 30 minute penalty for not having a tent on a Nepal trekking section. We would incur the same penalty as we watched Outlast disappear up the hill. We had worked ourselves up to ninth place and were closing on two teams.
- We climbed another 300 meters up the hill in the heat of the morning that proved to be some of the hottest heat we experienced. We were on day six of the race and our focus was to finish as high as possible. The prior highest, all American Team finish was ninth place during the 10 year existaance of the Raid Gauloises. We now had hopes of bettering that. At the top of the hill we caught team Outlast. They were having trouble dealing with the heat and were very tired from the extreme demands the race was imposing on all of us. We hurried down the hill and were soon out of sight moving at a runners pace at times.
- As we can into HQ 4, and assistance point 4, we surprised to see so few assistance crews set up. Our plan was to have a quick transition to the bicycles, which we anticipated there and built for us to jump on and leave. As it turned out Team Red Bull had just arrived ten minutes before and were in the process of refueling, Team Outlasts crew had everything ready and waiting for them, and our crew had not arrived and no word had been received as to where they were, and when they would arrive. We later found out that many teams had encountered the same scenario, and a bit of luck was required to be able to arrive in time. Flat tires, traffic, bad roads, breakdowns, were happening to all of the assistance vehicles.
- Some of the wind taken out of our sails we organized the gear we had preparing for the impending arrival of our crew and bikes. Word came after 45 minutes that our crew was spotted and was about 30 minutes away. In the meantime Red Bull and Outlast left before us on the 138 kilometer bicycle ride to PC 43.
- When Bob and Anne arrived, Team Endeavor's crew and our crew helped us unload and we all hurriedly assembled our bikes. Four spokes had been bent on one of Ike's wheels, and small other problems existed with each of the bikes. The soft bike cases had been inadvertently sent to Kathmandu, so the bikes were transported loose in the back of a mini truck with all of our other gear. The roads were extremely rough, and gear got thrown around. Our crew had been up for almost forty-eight hours trying to get to the Assistance point before us. Needless to say they were very frustrated.
- To reassemble the bikes and get back on the road must have taken about 30 minutes thanks to Endeavor and our crew. We were back on the road and feeling good, eager to try and catch the two teams who had just left in front of us. Within two hours, we caught Outlast. They were moving slow and were very tired. Keeping focused we picked up the pace as best we could in the dark flying over rutted sandy roads, sometimes being thrust in surprise over the handlebars. Picking ourselves up after frequent falls, we would continue on with great progress, looking for Red Bull. After a few hours we passed them and keep moving toward the final checkpoint. Looking back the lights from Red Bull fell and faded again we were enveloped by the night with fifty kilometers to go.
- We were now in seventh place, focused, tired, and looking forward to a strong finish. Somewhere around 4:00 that morning, we crossed a river out of Siraha, and reached the road on the other side that ran parallel to the river. We spent about fifteen minutes looking for a junction of another road that would lead us to PC 43. We went up and down the river and found a road that ran generally in the correct direction. We would follow this road falling and flipping for about thirty minutes before we determined that it had to be the wrong road as it was gradually turning the wrong direction. Back to the river we went, down the other direction, and we finally found the road that would lead us into PC 34 for the final 4 kilometer walk to the finish.
- As we approached the PC, there was much talk about whether or not one or both teams we had fought so hard to pass, had arrived before us. This was not to be the case, as we checked in before them. Dropping our bikes, looking behind to make sure no one was catching us from behind, we walked into Janakpur to finish as the highest All American Team Ever in the 10th Edition of the Trans Himalayan Raid Gauloises. Rebecca's mother Judy, my son Taylor and Theresa Cain (my significant other), Bob Haugh, and Anne Wilson (our crew), were all there to help us celebrate a seven-day adventure that will be remembered in our hearts forever.