VIETNAM — Few adventure racers would sign on for a race they didn’t believe they could finish.
So when the itinerary for the 2002 Raid Gauloises — the world’s original adventure race, now in its 11th year — said the course would cover 600-plus miles, why on Earth would 51 teams of five sign up?
“I’ve competed on a lot of teams, and I usually choose the races that present the biggest challenges,” said Nelson Snyder, a 1989 Hood River Valley High School graduate who just returned from his first Raid Gauloises last week.
“In a way, it’s hard to find anyone willing to commit to a race of this distance. But this group is very dedicated. We’re all in it for the sheer adventure.”
The 30-year-old Snyder and his California-based Team Karma (Charlie Kharsa, Joann Grether, Brien Crothers and Neal Radford) traveled to Vietnam on April 20 with one goal: To finish the race.
Each member of the team had to battle some form of adversity throughout the team’s 10-day, five hour, 17-minute trek (26th place) across the Vietnamese countryside — a race that included 52 sections of trekking, mountain biking, canoeing, caving, sea kayaking, bamboo rafting, rappelling, orienteering and more.
Some dealt with stomach illness, others weathered heat exhaustion, while most everyone was forced to endure excruciating foot pain throughout — the kind that makes your foot resemble one big blister.
“After a couple days, the feet are the most painful thing,” Snyder said. “That’s where the mental test really came into play.
“Your feet are bruised from carrying all the weight, and they’re blistered from rubbing around in your boots. But I’m sure all the things that happened to us happened to every team,” he said.
Each team was allowed a support crew, which would rendezvous with them in set locations every three or four days to give them supplies, treat injuries and discuss strategy.
“At the checkpoints, you try to repair yourself just so you can keep moving,” Snyder said. “All you can do is fight through it and wait for a full doctoring at the end.”
Upon his return to Portland, Snyder said he needed some time to recover, but not much. The wicked blisters brought on by hundreds of miles of trekking, and the saddle sores derived from more than 250 miles of bike riding only left him craving more.
“I had the time of my life,” he said. “It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced, so it’s hard to explain. In places, Vietnam is as primitive as primitive gets — and it was great!
“Everyone there is as happy as they can be. In a way, those people have nothing. Yet somehow, it seemed like they had everything,” he said.
Snyder said some of his best memories of the trip didn’t even involve the racing portion. Because everyone in the group was battling illness from the innumerable bacteria they came in contact with at every stage, they sometimes elected to stay in the local villages.
“The people of Vietnam were amazingly friendly,” he said. “You would never have thought we were in a war with them 30 years ago. Entire villages would line up to see us pass through. They opened their homes to us, cooked for us. Everyone just made us feel so welcome.”
To the dismay of Team Karma, they couldn’t spend more than a few hours with the locals. After all, they had a race to finish. So after catching their breath and massaging their heels for a spell, the team set out for the next leg of the journey.
While Snyder couldn’t recall what the team did in chronological order, he pointed to three portions of the race that were particularly invigorating: bamboo rafting, caving and mountain biking, his personal strength.
“What made the 250 miles of biking so hard is that the bacteria from the water was all around us,” he said. “It literally got everywhere, and by the end of the biking section, none of us were able to sit down.”
And if that sounds like fun, try this on for size:
“We had to navigate a bamboo raft with all five of us and all our gear down a huge section of river without any paddles,” he said. “All our gear was submerged and all we had to keep us moving were a couple of bamboo rods. It was just like in the movies.”
When the final standings were tallied, Team Karma had finished in 26th place out of a 51-team field. Team VSD-Eider of France led the 46 teams that finished the race with a mind-boggling time of six days, 19 hours and 14 minutes — some four days ahead of Team Karma.
The top American finish was turned in by Team Parallax, which finished fourth in a time of seven days, four hours and nine minutes. The 2003 Raid Gauloises will be held in Kyrgyzstan.
Snyder’s next adventure is this weekend, when he will ride in a 24-hour mountain bike race in Spokane, Wash., to prepare for the World Championships in September — a competition in which he took seventh place in 2001.
“I’m just getting over my soreness from the Raid,” he said. “But I need to start thinking about the Worlds.”