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Laughlin major competes in 433-mile race through Utah's rugged terrain

LAUGHLIN AFB, TEXAS -- Shannon Phares, a 37-year-old Air Force major, enjoys running, hiking, backpacking and paddling--showing as much by competing in the 2006 Laughlin Adventure Race in May. Never content, late June saw her crushing out a 433-mile Primal Quest race in the rugged terrain of Utah.
"This was my fifth expedition-length adventure race," Major Phares, 47th Aerospace Physiology Flight commander, said. "This race included horseback riding, mountain biking, running, white water/flat water paddling, river boarding, ascending, rappelling and navigation." 
The major said she wanted to run the race because she hadn't participated in [a race] in a couple years and wanted to get back into it. She trained doing "a little bit of everything" the race had to offer, she said. 
So she set out for Utah with her team, the Radioactive Beagles, a group of four adventurous souls and began the trek that would take them 240 miles through blistering sand, down foaming rapids and up and down 400-foot rock faces.
"The start of the race was something of interest," she said. "Each team had one horse, given out randomly, and only one rider could be on the horse at any given time." 
At the beginning, Major Phares rode the horse, but not for long.
"Picture 90 horses with 90 riders and each team's other three teammates around you on the starting line," she said. "The horses were very nervous already--it was six in the morning, a helicopter hovered overhead, and someone on a bullhorn was shouting directions to everyone.
"As soon as the TV cameras were ready and the helicopter was overhead, the gun for the start went off." 
It was pure pandemonium, she said. 
"Horses were bucking riders off, dragging and destroying packs with gear flying all over the place." 
The major didn't get bucked off herself, but had her own share of equestrian troubles.
"My horse (who we named Daisy since they didn't tell us her name) and I were run into by two horses with no rider...one from each side while my teammates ran next to us for the first two miles," she recalled. 
The horse was supposed to carry all the team's packs and one rider at a time, "but our sweet Daisy had some serious arthritis and bad hooves, so we pulled her the entire 23-mile section we had to do with her. It was quite challenging right off the bat," she said. 
The major's troubles were only beginning, though. Five days into the race, at about the 240-mile mark, she was medically withdrawn from the competition because of foot trouble. 
"By the start of the fifth day, one of my teammates was having foot problems, and I was having some pretty severe issues," she said.
The pain in the major's feet was becoming unbearable.
"I have a very high pain tolerance...even for a girl," she said. "I couldn't take another step. I have never had to pull out of a race due to a physical problem." 
Her three teammates piggybacked her to the next checkpoint. 
"It was pretty humiliating," she said.
When they got to the medical tent at the checkpoint, the podiatrist took a look at her feet and said, "You're done." The team had to withdraw from the competition. 
"It was very difficult to have us do that, but we had more than 175 miles to go and 60 miles of that was on foot," she said. "My feet were like hamburger from the sand getting in my shoes and the heat... it was like sandpaper rubbing the skin off."
Most participants race in lightweight breathable trail shoes--not the best choice for this race--and the majority of teams had foot problems, she said.
Despite the problems, the major still had a fun time and really enjoyed most parts of the race.
"The river boarding was literally the coolest part of the race," she said. "I wish we had more of that--the scenery is spectacular."
Comparing the Primal Quest race to Laughlin's Adventure Race, she said, "Laughlin's race is a sprint adventure race and really a fun time, with not a lot of pain involved. But these expedition-length races are long, demanding and this last one was quite painful. They are also a lot of fun, but very draining." 
She said most expedition-length races last from five to 10 days, and the racing is non-stop, with very little time to sleep.
"We averaged about two to three hours of sleep within a 24-hour period, sometimes less. It requires patience and teamwork at all times," she said.
"You have to race smart and have a great navigator or two to get you to the transitions and checkpoints and eventually the finish line because you're in the middle of nowhere and have only a map/compass and your own sense of direction to get you to your next checkpoint." 
Major Phares said the way these team races work is similar to the way her flight, and many other flights, work.
"Doing these races forces you to work as a team," she said. "At any time, you can be the weakest link or the strongest link. You have to be able to read your teammates and know when they need help. My job every day is working with people, working with a team of people to accomplish a mission." 
The major also said the races, in an extreme way, embody the Air Force's Fit-to-Fight mindset.
"A team must be physically and mentally prepared to go through something like this," she said. "My weekly average training for a race of this magnitude included 50 miles of running, three hours of paddling, as much time as possible practicing ascending and rappelling, 150 to 175 miles of mountain/road biking, once a week in the pool practicing kicking, and a full training weekend in California doing river boarding."
Major Phares has been adventure racing for nine years, including two Armed Forces Eco-Challenges in Alaska.
"Right now, I'm doing only adventure races, anywhere from sprint to 24-hour to the expedition-length races," she said. In the past, I've competed in triathlons and raced road bikes for four years. I ran 800 meters and cross-country in college."
She plans to compete in races like the Primal Quest again, "just not in the desert!"
The Primal Quest Utah race will be shown on WSPN2 from Oct. 9 to 12, and the finale will air on ABC Oct. 14.