It was my distinct pleasure a few days ago to chat with Don Mann, the CEO of Primal Quest, adventure racing’s premiere event. After taking this year off, PQ is looking to make a big return in 2008. Don and I talked about the race and it’s future, as well as his new found passion for mountaineering.
Don is an interesting guy. Besides being a world class adventure racer, he is also a motivational speaker, author, and former Navy SEAL. On top of that, he is the first person I’ve interviewed for the blog. I hope you enjoy:
Adventure Blog: First, let’s start with Primal Quest. How are preparations for the 2008 race coming along?
Don Mann: Preparations for the 2008 race are coming together very well. We’re still waiting on final approval of some permits, but the process has been very smooth so far, and I don’t foresee any late issues arising. The officials in the state where the race will be held have bent over backwards to accommodate us and provide everything we need. I couldn’t have asked for a smoother process.
On a different note, we’re not ready to announce anything just yet, but we’re in talks to bring Primal Quest back to television again. I wasn’t very happy with the way that the event was covered last year, as I felt that they missed too many of the great human interest stories. This time we want to treat Primal Quest more like the Olympics, focusing on the athletes’ stories, many of which are very compelling. I’d like to see Primal Quest as a 10 or 12 part series focusing on the racers competing against each other, but also the course itself. I think it has some exciting prospects.
AB: That’s good to hear! So the final location and course have been set?
DM: It has. We were actually working on three courses in three different states at the same time while we were sorting out all the details, but now that we’re in the final stages of getting the permits, we’re getting close to announcing the actual location.
AB: Care to give the Adventure Blog an exclusive and announce the location now?
DM: (Chuckling) I’d love to! But until everything is finalized, we can’t make any formal announcements. Hopefully soon though.
AB: Primal Quest is legendary for its challenging courses. How will this year’s course stack up to those in previous races?
DM: Last year’s race was the fourth Primal Quest, and racers rated the course as the toughest yet. I remember Robin [Benincasa] crossing the finish line and collapsing on the ground saying “Never again!” Ian [Adamson] retired after that race. The fact that the course was 500 miles in length, unsupported the whole way, and extremely hot and dry, led many of the veterans to declare it the toughest course in PQ history. This year, they’ll retract that statement.
Because the weather will be much more moderate this time, and teams will be supported, we felt that we could make the course even tougher. There will be much better support options this time out, but the teams are really going to need it.
AB: What advice would you give to teams preparing for this year’s course?
DM: Run hills. Lots and lots of hills. The more comfortable they are with running hills, the more prepared they’ll be for the course. Also, in the past, Primal Quest has been criticized for not having enough navigation, and that will change this year as well. Teams preparing for the race should focus 90% of their time on running hills and orienteering. Those skills will go a long way in keeping them competitive.
Of course, they shouldn’t neglect the other disciplines either. The mountain biking segments will be particularly challenging as well. They won’t be quite as technical as they were in Utah, but the biking legs will be much more challenging up and down. Especially up!
AB: Is this the year we’ll see someone finally knock off Nike?
DM: As long as Mike Kloser is on the team, I’m not sure anyone can compete with them. Last year I saw him cross the finish line dragging a teammate, carrying two packs, while conducting an interview, all the while making it seem easy. He’s an incredible athlete, and with him on the squad, Nike is practically untouchable in the field. Right now, I’m not sure anyone can beat them in a race of this length.
AB: What does the future hold for Primal Quest? Where do you see the race heading?
DM: We have a lot of plans for the future of the race. First and foremost, we want to make sure that it becomes an ongoing annual event. We don’t want to see the race taking another year off. I’m also hoping to take the race to an international location in 2009 as well. In fact, this could be the last year that a Primal Quest of this length is held here in the States…
AB: Why is that?
DM: There is just too much bureaucratic red tape to cut through. Getting the permits for the race isn’t always as easy as it has been this year, and in some locations there is opposition to us being there at all. I hope to continue to have Primal Quest in the U.S. in some form, but it may be a shorter race.
AB: And where would you like to see the race held when it goes international?
DM: We’re already in talks with several different locations, with British Columbia and Costa Rica leading the way right now. We’re also considering Vancouver Island, Iceland, or even some place like Tanzania, although there are different logistical issues to deal with there.
We’re also in negotiations with two resorts outside the U.S. to create a Primal Quest branded stage race in the same vein as the Mild 7 races that are, unfortunately, no longer being run. Teams would compete in a different discipline each day, trail running in one stage, paddling in another, and so on.
We think the PQ brand is a very strong one, and we want to leverage it in some unique new ways. We’re considering launching a series of sprint races, 4 to 6 hours in length that would also fall under the Primal Quest banner
Finally, we’d also like to partner with smaller races. Help them promote themselves and the sport. Offer guaranteed entries into the race for their winners, and so on.
AB: Wow. Those are some ambitious goals! As a fan of adventure racing in general, I really like the sound of all of that. Switching gears some, I understand that you went to Denali this past spring and reached the summit. What was that like?
DM: It was an amazing experience. I really wanted to do Everest, but I didn’t have the time or budget, so I elected to go to Denali instead. When we arrived at base camp, and you couldn’t even see the summit, it was covered in clouds and mist. We began to go up the mountain and at times I would look up and think to myself “We’re going up that? You’ve got to be kidding!” But we kept going, kept making progress, and as we got near the top, we saw other climbers coming down, with discouraged looks on their faces. Some of them had been there for days, waiting for their opportunity to summit, but the weather wasn’t very cooperative, so a lot of climbers went home without having a chance to reach the top. As we continued to go up though, the weather cleared, and we saw the summit for the first time. The weather window stayed open, and after 13 days on the mountain we reached the top. It was a phenomenal experience to stand on the summit. Denali was easily one of the best experiences I have ever had in the outdoors. It was amazing.
AB: Since Denali, you’ve also climbed Pike’s Peak and Longs Peak as well. What kind of mountaineering background do you have?
DM: I’m new to the sport actually, and just now getting into true mountaineering. I was a lead climber on my SEAL team, but the military approach to climbing is very different. I’ve also done some climbing while participating in adventure races of course, but not what I’d call real mountaineering.
When I was younger I use to race motorcycles, and I started running to get into better shape to become a better rider. But I found that I really enjoyed running, which led to marathons, which later led to triathlons, which in turn led to adventure racing. Now, at the age of 50, I’m focusing on mountaineering, and I’m very excited about it.
AB: Next you have your sights set on Kilimanjaro. Kili isn’t as technical as Denali, what appeals to you about it?
DM: I’m looking forward to climbing Kilimanjaro with my wife. We climbed Longs Peak and really enjoyed it as an activity we could do together. I’m hoping that she’ll find that she enjoys climbing as much as I do, and we can go on future climbs together as well, like Aconcagua.
AB: Which route are you taking up Kili?
DM: We’re doing the Machame Route. The “whiskey route.” We opted to take the extra acclimatization day, just in case. Afterwards we’re going on safari as well.
AB: After that, it’s on to Everest in the spring? Which side do you intend to climb from?
DM: I’m not really sure yet. Honestly, I would love to climb Everest, and I had planned to, but now I’m not sure I have the time or money to do so. There are plenty of other mountains in the Himalaya to climb that are a lot less expensive. Right now, I’m thinking I’ll climb Ama Dablam instead. I’m told it’s one of the most beautiful mountains in the World. After that I’d like to do some climbing in the Tetons and give Aconcagua a shot as well.
AB: Denali? Kilimanjaro? Aconcagua? Possibly Everest? Are the Seven Summits in your future?
DM: Possibly. I like the idea of going for the Seven Summits, but Everest and Vinson are the real show stoppers. Their costs can be pretty prohibitive. [Editor’s Note: Someone sponsor this guy!]
I would love to go to Antarctica, even if I don’t climb Vinson. I’ve recently read the book Endurance about Shackleton’s adventures in the Antarctic, and it’s really inspired me to want to go there and see the place for myself.
AB: Finally, what draws you to climbing and adventure racing? Have you always felt the lure of adventure?
DM: Yes, I always have felt that lure. Even as a child I have memories of wanting to do adventurous things. I’d always wander off into the woods and do all kinds of different things. Later I turned my attention to racing and jumping motorcycles, and as I said, that led to running and adventure racing. Mountaineering has become my new passion, and I’m loving it so far. Life is an adventure!
I would really like to thank Don for allowing me to interview him. As a big fan of adventure racing, I’m looking forward to next year’s event, and can’t wait to find out where it will be held. The course sounds killer, so the teams had better come prepared. To learn more about Don, check out his website at USFrogMann.com.
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