Mark Richardson has dedicated his life to risk taking. As an 18-year veteran with the Tracy Fire Department, there is little that is predictable about his day in-day out job.
Career choice aside at the age of 45, Richardson appears to live a fairly ordinary life in Oakdale with his wife Kyle and their three children Sabrina, Audrey and Nathan.
His career of saving lives and fighting fires is perhaps just the beginning of what makes Richardson not only interesting, but also admirable. Equally impressive is the ‘green’ approach this dedicated firefighter takes when making the commute to Tracy for his weekly shift. He spends his mornings seated on a road bike for the 36-mile journey to work. A choice, which quickly turns a 45-minute car ride into a two-hour cycling excursion.
“I ride to work about 80 percent of the time,” Richardson said of his transportation choice. “I don’t ride much between Thanksgiving and March 1, because of the threat of Valley fog.”
In mid-August this family man took a little vacation time for a trip to South Dakota. The trip, however, did not include his family, a bed or even indoor plumbing. Richardson, along with his team co-ed Tecnu Extreme/StaphAseptic journeyed to South Dakota as participants of Primal Quest Badlands 2009.
Primal Quest is described by Wikipedia as one of the most difficult athletic events in the world and cited as the most prestigious expedition event in North America. This summer marked the 6th annual Primal Quest. The 2009 event was an expedition-level adventure race, which challenged co-ed teams of four across 600 miles of unmarked territory through the South Dakota Badlands.
During their journey from beginning to end, the participants utilized skills in trekking, running, mountain biking, caving, flat-water swimming, kayaking and a fixed line ropes course. Since the course is unmarked, teams must also be prepared to navigate their way through the 32 checkpoints staged throughout the vastness of the desolate Badlands.
A total of 32 teams began the race in mid-August, each equipped with a Global Positioning System (GPS). The GPS was not for the purpose of their navigation, but rather for organizers to keep track of the teams once they started. Keeping true to the ‘primal’ nature of the event, each team was given a topographical map the evening prior to the start of the race.
“The challenges in these races is that you always know where you are on the map,” Richardson said.
Richardson tried his hand at Primal Quest for the first time in 2004 on San Juan Island in Washington.
“I’m a much better racer than I was then,” he said.
He shared that his first race taught him many things about adventure racing and what it takes to be a successful team. As the lead navigator in 2004, Richardson learned it was crucial to the team to have more than one person strong in navigation. After all, nine consecutive days of traveling 600 miles with three hours of sleep each night eventually becomes not only physically, but mentally, taxing.
Richardson, however, did not first join the Tecnu Extreme/StaphAseptic team until late spring of this year. The team was originally comprised of team members Jared Hanley, Charlie Kharsa, Melissa Griffiths and Team Captain Doug Judson.
Early in the training season Judson sustained an injury, which forced him to pull out of the race and the team left to find a replacement.
“When I got injured, we sat down to set the team goals for the race,” Judson stated. “Going top ten was the goal.
“Going top ten against international competition is difficult and quite a feat against much more experienced teams who had many years of racing under their belt,” he added.
With Charlie Kharsa stepping in to the role of Team Captain, Richardson was invited by the team to join them on the Badlands journey.
“Mark is one of those athletes who has been poetry in motion,” Judson said. “He has trained his whole life putting skills and resources into his life well. He is the poster child for knowing what you’re good and not good at, and making better decisions when you race.”
The maturity and experience Judson spoke of quickly became evident during the second leg of the team’s 600-mile, nine-day trek.
On day two, just barely 10 miles into the mountain biking leg of the race, a combination of less than desirable weather conditions as well as clay-like terrain, caused Richardson to break the derailer hanger on his bike. The team was forced to travel the remaining 30 to 35 miles of this portion of the race on foot, while pushing their bikes through the muck caused by the bad weather.
“It was unusual weather,” Richardson said of the conditions. “Evidently, at this time of the year in South Dakota if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes and most likely it will change.”
According to the team navigator the early bad luck quickly altered a portion of the race, which should have taken them an hour and a half on bike to 13 hours on foot. With a cut-off checkpoint looming, the team knew they had to push through and not quit.
They were racing the clock literally to stay in the game. According to Richardson, as well as the Primal Quest website, a cut-off checkpoint is established during the course of the race. Teams that reach the checkpoint before the cut-off time continue through to the long course, while the others are rerouted through a “short-course” of the Badlands.
With sights set on top 10 of the 32 entered teams, Richardson’s team continued to push through each hurdle it was faced with along the way.
“We were worried the whole time,” Richardson stated honestly. “We knew we had to do what we could do and just keep going.”
As day turned to night the team quickly learned that while temperatures may escalate during the day, they plummet at night. Seeking shelter in the vastness of the Badlands posed its own challenges; sleeping while shivering was the icing on the cake.
Richardson shared that a few nights into their travel, the team adapted its sleep time to three hours immediately following sundown. This strategy enabled them to be in forward motion when the bone-chilling nighttime temperatures returned.
“It was basically 20 hours of forward motion,” he said of the expedition. “If there was one thing I learned on this race it was that I could sleep through shivering.”
Richardson also noted that extreme adventure racing, such as Primal Quest, not only pushes, but challenges, the best of athletes.
“The challenge, I think when you start doing things like this, are the things that come easy aren’t as rewarding,” he said. “Small details become more challenging.
“Adversity is an opportunity to persevere.”
And persevere is exactly what Tecnu Extreme/StaphAseptic did.
A broken bike, bone-chilling cold, sleepless nights, even a knee injury to teammate Hanley just three days short of the finish was not enough to stop this team.
Four-and-a-half hours into day nine, the team crossed the finish line — together — and with two hours to spare before the final cut-off. They were the tenth and final team to earn the ranking of ‘finisher’ on the long course of Primal Quest Badlands 2009.
“It is critical that the team gets along well,” Richardson said of their ability to finish. “We didn’t sleep the night before, because we were so worried about the cut-off.”
As for the team’s final thoughts as they crossed the finish, he admitted, “We were too tired to love it.”
As days passed and Richardson returned home to his family, the accomplishment finally sunk in.
“It took me about a week to really appreciate that we’d finished top ten,” he said. “There’s always a sort of “Now what?” kind of feeling, because so much of my energy had been focused on preparation and competing. Now there is nothing to focus on.
“It is a relief to finally have time take care of all things that were neglected leading up to the race — like yards, changing oil in the cars, etc.”
With the major event now behind him, Richardson will soon begin busying himself promoting a four-day event to be hosted by local group Gold Rush Adventure Racing. The event will be hosted Nov. 4 to Nov. 8 in the Mother Lode. Persons interested in acquiring information may do so by visiting www.goldrushar.com or e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org