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Last Among Finishers, but First in Their Own Hearts

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the 11th day of its attempt to complete the Raid Gauloises endurance race, the team that includes Times news editor Jon D. Markman finally reaches the last stage: the ride-and-run. Team members seem destined not to make a gallant dash on brilliant steeds to the finish line, instead becoming the reluctantly cruel Khans of three doddering beasts.

At 4:20 a.m. on Dec. 11, I shook out our food bag: Two packs of instant coffee, one tea bag, three dirty lumps of sugar, half a bag of powdered milk. That was it. We drank a communal cup of tea, filched some fresh water from the hermit doctor and aimed at the foggy dawn.

Not fooling around this time, we immediately soaked our last fresh socks when we had to cross a wide river a few minutes later. That’s a lot to bear at 5 a.m. on an empty stomach, and I felt enraged--cheated out of the modest pleasure of dry feet.

As we sloshed forward in a foul mood, the sun burned down like the jets of a gas stove. We slowed to smear sunscreen over the mosquito repellent and antiseptic we wore, then regretted it--for it’s an expeditionary soup that occasionally simmers over in the heat, dripping down your forehead and stinging your eyes.

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The sun seared the sky to such a brightness that distances became difficult to judge. At 8 o’clock we crossed the rusted remains of a crashed airliner. Five hours later, I turned around to see the metal skeleton so clearly that it appeared to be a 20-minute hike away. Super-clear air, something exotic to a Los Angeles native, smoothes the creases of space. The ambiguity of distance weighed sorely on competitors’ resolution. How much farther? How much farther? Who can tell?

At least the sand before us provided some distraction. It was deep enough to retain footprints, and a set of giant ones held us in thrall: There appeared to be four 7-inch-long paws and perhaps behind them a tail. Theories developed: A giant iguana? A crocodile? After two hours, we saw the answer disappear into the jungle just past a lonely Raid staffer’s tent.

“Puma,” said Laurent Gunio coolly when we reached his solitary post next to the last shark estuary. “ Ooh la la. A big one.” He stretched his arms out. “How do you say? Long-wise. Tch.”

Gunio donated a box of granola to us, and we devoured it like locusts with our pouch of powdered milk in a tin bowl. Even the most meager amount of food gave us a big boost of energy now, and we pushed on to reach the start of the ride-and-run by noon: a seaside stable and store on the edge of a dusty village called Carate. We could have felt sorry for ourselves, pulling in last and 2 1/2 days past our expectations, except for one unexpected pleasure: Just as we walked up, the Chrono Cats trotted out. We had caught them again.

Dearly wishing to distance themselves from us forever, their Costa Rican guide gave us a pained look and viciously kicked his horse into a gallop. Yet somehow I figured we’d see them again soon.

We had just 30 miles to go now: The map dot at Puerto Jimenez, the final checkpoint, gleamed before our eyes like a black pearl. But we couldn’t leave until 1:30. Tide tables showed that an estuary an hour’s ride away wouldn’t be low enough to cross on horseback until nearly 3.

While we stretched out on the store’s sunny patio, stable hands slowly assembled our motley band of three small, middle-aged, cloudy-eyed horses: the last of the last. One of the Raid’s singular logistic achievements had been to find and saddle 120 horses in this remote outpost, where no stable had ever housed more than 10 at a time. Equestrian honcho Ron Vega, I later found out, spent nine months negotiating with farmers in a 60-mile radius for the use of their finest steeds for a five-day span. He paid the farmers $30 a day and vowed only not to kill the animals.

The horses’ survival was by no means guaranteed, however, to the shock of many competitors--and one nearly drowned during a top-10 team’s race to the finish.

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Still, wranglers instructed us to beat the horses unmercifully in the event that they wouldn’t move. No soft click of the tongue, kick of the boot and “Giddyap!” would do, they said in Spanish. These horses responded only to brutality.

And so we plodded off--the reluctantly cruel Khans of three doddering beasts--after tying all the backpacks to the animals. We drew straws to decide who would ride and who would run. The losers had to ride, but only with the promise that we would switch off every two hours.

Raid rules required horseback riders to keep the runners within sight at all times. In reality, it was the runners who had to slow down. The horses shied away from the sound of the surf, veering into the jungle’s thorny brush and threatening to smash our heads on the low-hanging branches. Only murderous kicks to the flanks would steer them back to a timid course on the sand.

As the hours marched toward night we could find no sign of a path that would take us north into the jungle toward Puerto Jimenez, and our condition deteriorated: Mike’s stomach cramps grew sharper, and as badly as Catherine’s knee ached, she actually felt worse on a horse. Riding the fastest horse at the time, I passed Mike and he called out: “Run that damn horse up ahead and see if you can find the way!” And so I took off, the golden sun bearing straight for the sea behind me.

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I rode fast until the others were out of sight, passing a woman who said the road I wanted lay one kilometer ahead next to a finca that had two cottages. After more than three desperate kilometers, I finally heard voices and saw one little bungalow, then another. And then I caught a glint of flashlight. It could only be the Chrono Cats.

I found Gavin, the New Zealander who was the Chrono Cats’ lead guide, sternly instructing two teammates on how to ride through the jungle at night. They were standing on a muddy road wide enough for a four-wheel-drive vehicle, the biggest path I had seen for days, and their faces looked slack and empty. Aziz Ojjeh, the immense and strong Chrono Cat leader, had already gone way ahead on foot. With loud “Gee-ya!” from Gavin, the stragglers turned uphill after seeing me and disappeared without another word.

Stars popped out over the surf. Assisted by the finca ‘s watchman, who had materialized from the palms, I turned back to find my team. My horse felt slick with sweat now after her long day’s run, so we were walking when Kaz suddenly splashed up through the surf, his voice full of curses.

“You idiot!” he screamed. “Where have you been? Why are you walking? The path is back there two miles! Everyone is furious! You have the fastest horse--what’s taken you so long?”

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I wanted to kill him, but there was a witness. I had finally grown weary of his arrogance--for days he’d been saying that Japanese skin was better, Japanese were better at riding horses and making cameras and finding their way. The seams of civility were ripping.

“I found the damned path,” I yelled back, “and it’s up ahead a mile! This watchman says the road you found stops after 300 yards. Where the hell have you guys been?”

The watchman stared at us dumbfounded, and after a few seconds even Kaz and I realized the pointlessness of our fury, though we wouldn’t talk again for hours.

Soon the others walked up. I talked things over with Eric, and we all decided to follow the watchman to the big road north--acknowledging that on this occasion, as on many others, our map might be outdated.

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The rest of the night, and race, passed like a fitful dream. Up the jungle mud road to an even bigger mud road, then hours more tramping through streams and fields--arguing every so often over whether the horses were too tired to be ridden. We laughed to think of the way we were supposed to end the race: a gallant dash on brilliant steeds to the finish line.

Instead, Kaz and I trailed far behind as our nags poked along. All but sleeping as we rode to the rhythm of frogs’ alto singing and fireflies’ blue dancing, we finally imagined that we had missed a turn and were lost. We whistled hard and got no response. Still bitterly angry at each other, we could at least agree that we should bivouac and wait for morning before going on. We tied our horses to a tree and curled up in survival blankets under a steady midnight drizzle.

Kaz fell asleep in seconds, but I wrestled with the concept. And then I heard a thump-thump-slither-thump--the noise you never want to hear. I bolted up straight, pointed my headlamp south and found myself staring into what appeared in the dim light to be the eerie red eyes of a crocodile. It had sneaked up from a small river a dozen feet from our bivouac, presumably to check on the possibility of a midnight snack.

At the same time, I heard a car coming and saw headlights angling toward us from beyond the next hill. Choosing quickly between being munched or crunched, I woke Kaz and rushed toward the headlights, waving my arms and yelling an SOS in Spanish.

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The car bounced crazily over the foot-deep ruts of that awful road and leaped straight at our encampment. It swerved at the last moment, and with the headlights’ glare averted I could finally see it was our assistance jeep--with Eric in the passenger seat.

“If you run us down, we can’t win!” I called out, surprised but delighted to see them. “Where the hell are we?”

“Oh, about three kilometers from the finish--what are you doing here?” Eric said back, laughing.

Kaz and I had ended up like that Bahlsen team of canoeists--without knowing it, we had ridden straight and true but quit just short of the checkpoint. Puerto Jimenez lay just over the next two hills.

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And so it ended after 11 days, not with a whimper or bang but with a last solitary trot into a deserted town on a beaten-down horse well past 4 a.m. Kaz and I met up with the others just past a ghostly, illuminated gasoline station named La Bomba, where the driver of a tanker truck had gone to sleep with a Lou Rawls tape blaring out his window, splitting the serenity of the jungle night with the surreal sound of a Las Vegas lounge show.

Dim street lamps lit our pitiful but triumphant march down the final straightaway--past shuttered shops, a weedy airfield and an old cemetery. At the end, where the final checkpoint lay hard by the beach, TV camera lights dazzled our tired eyes and the Raid staff greeted us with kisses, hugs and intangible but unspeakably sweet garlands of congratulation.

The next day we would climb aboard a tattered Guatemalan paratroop plane and parachute into rice fields 100 miles north outside the beach resort of Quepos. Thirty-four teams had preceded us onto those sloppy, pungent furrows. We were last, yes, even behind the Chrono Cats. But by our own standards, perhaps we had won.


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