One hell of a ride
By BRANT JAMES, Times Staff Writer
It was a bit difficult to understand why Racheal Wood was doing it.
She had finished fourth in her age group the previous year at the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii, and had qualified again this year.
Now 40, her time last year in the 35-39 bracket would have easily won the 40-45 group. She had much to look forward to, but not if she was mending a broken neck when the Ironman was held again this fall. Still, here she was, uncrinkling from a night sleeping in the back of her van next to an old limestone quarry off Cooper Terrace in east Hernando County.
Leaden skies above were in as stark contrast to Hawaii as was the event she was about to undertake. She'd driven across the state from Deerfield Beach, curled up in the van and rose early for a unique challenge: the Heaven and Hell Duathlon.
A grueling, potentially dangerous test of mountain biking and running abilities, the 11th-year Heaven and Hell series is as unique as two of its principals: creator York T. Somerville, an adventure sports promoter and former motocrosser from Pinellas Park; and John Benefield, who owns and lives beside the Gran Canyon -- the 60-acre expanse in which the event is held.
At 60, replete with cycling gear as he mans the command tent near the start/finish line, Somerville appears to run on fusion power and adrenaline. His energy level is enough to shame those half his age to greater exertion.
Benefield, 66, is more on the periphery. He's there to make sure a waiver is signed by every potential life-and-limb-risker who enters his property and to see that the course is maintained. Another former motocrosser, he seems to exact great enjoyment from the riders' respect/fear for the new downhill portion he cut into the course.
"That was a place where we cut down into the canyon so the disc golfers that use the place could get to the next hole. So we decided to use it as part of the course," Benefield said, sitting on a cooler filled with sports drinks.
"The better riders ride up that last hill to get to it and are in more control on the way down. If you have to run up it (carrying a bike), you're probably going to be shaking on the way down and probably are going to go head-over.
"It's a pretty nasty place," he said.
The "nasty place," which includes a half-dozen twists and turns on the way to the canyon floor, wouldn't even let the overall winner -- former Florida Points Series champion road cyclist Paul Kavan -- escape without a nick.
On his seventh time of eight down the hill, the 37-year-old Tampa resident got snagged in roots near the bottom and sprawled into the weeds.
"I had some traffic at the top and got out of rhythm," Kavan said. "I knew I was in trouble."
Except for a few trail markers and some cut-out timber, the course is raw: rugged, bramble-filled and demanding. No place for the unsteady.
Participants are faced with steep climbs, snaking, root-laced downhills during bike phases, and two sets of sheer climbs and descents that require ropes to traverse.
Five sets of races in the series are held during the year, with the points-winner earning $500. Races are held in relatively mild (Heaven), difficult (Purgatory) and treacherous (Hell) categories. The primary difference being the number of laps.
About 12 of the 30 participants on Jan. 27 chose to put themselves through the Hell course. Among them were Woods; Linda Gabor, a top-10 finisher in last year's Xterra Championships triathlon; and pro cyclist Shelly Allen, the 2000 World Cup Masters mountain bike champion. They were faced with an 8-mile bike ride, then 3-mile run/climb, then another 6-mile ride.
The allure of the series is it is difficult enough to challenge expert athletes in search of a diversion, but not deadly enough to kill off weekend warriors such as Jeff Meeks, a 31-year-old salesman from Clearwater.
Racing in his third event this year, Meeks was out for self-fulfillment.
"It pushes the limits," Meeks said. "A lot of people use words like extreme and over-the-edge, and it is. It's not just a trite phrase like are used for many sports nowadays. It really is kind of pushing the limits of human endurance and risk factor and probably the intelligence factor.
"You get a lot of middle-aged guys out here that just want to push the limit and get that high out of it," he said.
Sounds great before the race. But once that front wheel tips down a slope, is there any trepidation?
"Every other lap," Meeks said, smiling.
A bit more often for his wife, Tish, who hands him water at each lap when he passes her reclining chair.
"I worry," she said, noting Jeff had gone head-first into a tree in his previous race. "I have my doubts, but this is what he loves to do so I support him. It keeps him happy."
All but elite racers require about three hours to finish the Hell course. By the middle of the event, a few teaspoons of blood and several pounds of sweat lighter, most of the weekend warriors had reassessed goals into avoiding the dreaded DNF.
"Nobody wants the "Did Not Finish,' " Meeks said. "That's probably the fear of 90 percent of the people out here.
"As extreme as this is and punishing on your body, it's more mental than anything. You ask yourself "Why am I doing this?' and "Am I trying to prove something?' and you have to push through and concentrate or you're going to fall or go over your handlebars."
Those thoughts had plenty of time to swim through Wood's consciousness as she slogged through the Hell course. About three hours after Wood began in nervousness, she finished in contentment -- dirty, tired, but in pre-race working order.
"I was nervous," Wood said. "I'm not used to mountain-biking, and I backed off a little bit because I'm such a chicken, but I didn't want to break my neck.
"But I'm glad I did it."
There are two races left in the season's Next Generation Off-Road Series -- Feb. 24 and March 10. The Heaven race starts at 9 a.m., followed by the Purgatory and Hell competitions at 11:30. The entry fee is $40.
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