Makeshift team jumps in to Armed Forces Eco-Challenge

Posted: Wednesday, June 20, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- They met each other last Friday, but they've got 150 miles to get to know each other better.

Two soldiers from Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C., are teaming with two Fort Wainwright soldiers to form a last-minute, dark horse team in the first Armed Forces Eco-Challenge this week.

''We're the underdogs, the step children,'' said Tiffany Morse, an Army staff sergeant from Fort Bragg competing in the 150-mile multi-sport endurance race through Alaska wilderness.

Twenty-two military teams with 88 service men and women are entered. The winner will represent the U.S. Armed Forces against 75 international teams in the global Eco-Challenge Expedition Race in New Zealand.

The race was to start at Fort Greely at midnight Wednesday. The finish line -- revealed to teams Tuesday night -- will be at Quartz Lake about 85 miles south of Fairbanks.

The course has six legs, requiring teams to use skills ranging from orienteering to pack rafting and from canoeing to mountain biking. All team members must start together and finish together. If one member cannot finish, the entire team is disqualified.

Before starting the race, teams are given a package that is only to be opened if they are in danger. The package contains a radio and a global positioning system that will help rescue crews find them. Any team that opens the package is immediately disqualified.

Morse and Capt. Hunter Crandall were alternates for a team of special operations forces out of Fort Bragg.

The two thought they could recruit other alternates to form a team, but after arriving in Fairbanks last week, they realized it wouldn't be possible.

However, a host family hooked them up with Fort Wainwright Sgt. 1st Class Kevin Ott, who jumped at the chance to compete in his second Eco-Challenge. Ott then called 1st Lt. Matthew Mapes, who immediately shelled out $1,000 for a mountain bike to use in the competition.

The four met Friday and made the commitment to compete Saturday. They spent the rest of the weekend and all day Monday frantically gathering gear and putting in a bit of training.

''For as little time as we've got, I'm amazed that we pulled it off,'' Mapes said.

The Eco-Challenge will test the team's skills and will subject them to sleep deprivation. Because most teams will travel 60 to 70 miles a day, the fastest team may be finished before the third day is over.

The team believes it has an edge in Ott and Mapes. Both have knowledge of the terrain from training.

''We have nothing to lose,'' Crandall said. ''Except for about $4,000.''

They'll have 60 days after the race to pay back the $4,000 entry fee, which means they'll need to find sponsors or add to the growing expenses they've had to spend to compete in the race.

''I wouldn't say we're prostitutes, but I'll wear anybody's name,'' Ott said.

Mapes, the youngest of the group at 25, was a distance runner in college and a mountain biker near his hometown of Normal, Ill. He was still unpacking from a deployment to Thailand when Ott called him.

Morse has competed in numerous marathons and has experience in mountain climbing, but said that ''this is the biggest thing I've ever done.''

Both Morse and Crandall have been training for the race for the last six months.

Crandall had to do a lot of his training while deployed to places such as Africa, where he spent two months prior to his trip to Alaska.

All four have extensive military training from their jobs in the infantry, but Ott, 35, has the most experience and was named team captain. Ott is trained to lead small units across mountains.

Crandall also competed in the British Columbia Eco-Challenge in 1996. His team was disqualified after two of his teammates were injured during the race and couldn't finish.

Ott prefers the multi-sport endurance Eco-Challenge to running in marathons because of the added obstacles.

''There's a whole lot of mental things,'' he said. ''There's sleep deprivation, there's a lot of misery to overcome. I love that stuff ... when it's all done you have a lot of interesting stories to tell.''

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