Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

Just brutal

Adventure race competitors scale cliffs, fight whitewater, deke snakes and sleep in ditches for days at a time

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IT'S TV's Eco-Challenge pumped full of adrenaline in a ruggedly real, rather than reality TV, production.

It's more amazing than television's The Amazing Race. It's about being a true Survivor in South Dakota's Badlands and Black Hills during 1,000 kilometres and 10 days of climbing cliffs, crossing water and getting little sleep, food or bathroom privacy in an event called Primal Quest Badlands.

"It's intense," chuckled Winnipeg's Catherine Alleyn-Dornn, 32, a fitness consultant and BlackBerry-bearing married mom of three, including a 19-month-old, who will be the only woman on a team of three men for the coed Aug. 15-25 event that she said is to be televised on the Outdoor Life Network.

"I'm never one to sit still. A lot of women don't do it just because there's a big, huge, physical demand. For me, it's because I can and it's something that even though it's a scary thing, you just want to do it to prove you can.

"I'm a mother and I'm a wife and you do all that, you do everything for everybody else, but when I do these races, it's just me and my team and we're outside and I'm pushing myself to extremes."

Alleyn-Dornn teaches yoga and does other fitness work with clients in the early morning and after her Winnipeg-born husband, Harry, gets home from work. The couple moved to Winnipeg from Montreal four years ago. In addition to toddler Luke, she has two other kids -- Justus, 13, and Noah, 9.

She has competed in triathlons and other adventure racing events before. The gruelling test is what makes her continue and her work, she says, is her training.

This time around, she and her experienced team of Vancouver-based captain Jim Mandelli and Winnipeg's Alex Man and Kurt Gibson are raising money for the Never Alone Foundation, Winnipeg Blue Bombers CEO Lyle Bauer's cancer-awareness/fundraising organization.

"Just to get to that finish line is huge," said Alleyn-Dornn, who has had her own cancer scares and has had family members and friends die of the disease or struggle to fight it. "We've always gotten there, but out of 40 teams that have signed so far, or maybe 38, maybe 12 will finish.

"So it's just a huge accomplishment to get through it."

Especially as the lone female on the team, she said. There's little time for sleep and it's mostly eating on the run.

"People that have seen that (Eco-Challenge) show know, and they say, 'Oh, you're crazy.' And others, you're trying to explain it to them and they're like, 'So, do you stop at night and sleep?' And I'm like, 'Uh, no, no we don't; we keep going. We don't sleep. If you sleep, you sleep on the side of a road, a ditch.

"Wherever you are, you drop in that for 20 minutes if you have to and keep on going. We're used to just going. You want to be smart, you want to conserve your energy, but you also want to get to the finish line in the fastest time that you can.

"We basically will probably race 23 hours out of the day and probably have about an hour total in sleep."

And when Mother Nature calls, Alleyn-Dornn heeds that call, no matter when and where, and if necessary, with a little help from her friends.

"When you've got to go, yeah, you find an area," she said. "Guys can just go wherever, so it's more convenient for them. But the guys are always gentlemanly; they'll walk ahead or shield me if it's an open field or whatever. You don't have a choice.

"Yeah, your pride sort of goes. I'm a very modest person by nature, but when I do these races... you just do what you have to do."

The foursome has already paid the $11,500 entry fee, but are hoping they can secure a sponsor to pay all or part of that. They are holding a fundraising social at Canad Inns Stadium at 8 p.m. Saturday, June 13, to raise more money.

Tickets are $10 and sponsorships, donations and silent-auction prize donations are being sought for the event.

In a much smaller race in Quebec last year, a team Alleyn-Dornn was on raised $5,000 for Never Alone.

"This is the biggest race out there right now. The longest I've ever done has been a five-day race that we finished in four days. The guys I'm racing with have all done these seven-day and 10-day races, so they're super-experienced."

Adventure racing sees teams finding out their daily challenges the night before, when they're given maps with checkpoints on them. They have to decide which routes to take and how to navigate rivers, hills or mountains with canoes or kayaks, rafts, by foot, with climbing gear, on bikes or otherwise.

Teams have to bring their own climbing gear, their own bikes, their own kayak skirts. They know they'll need them; they just don't know when. Alleyn-Dornn hasn't been to South Dakota's Badlands before and doesn't want to hear about it.

"I don't want to see the big ascensions or the big rappels. I'm OK with heights, so that's not my problem, but I think it's just that people like to tell you the horror stories that, 'Oh, there's rattlesnakes and there's spiders,' and I'm OK with all of that.

"But it's a scary thing to know that you're going for such a long distance. It's a long time without sleep."

Despite the physical challenge of the race, it's more mental, she said. Any top athlete who's in peak shape can crack under the pressure of the challenges and duration that an adventure race presents.

"You do start hallucinating after not sleeping and you really have to be careful with that," she said.

"And that's why it's good when you're on a team, because most of the time, not everybody's bonking at the same time and they can say no, you're not seeing things, you're not hearing things, there's nothing there, so you've got to work through it and be smart.

"These guys have done so many of them that you just know you've got to eat properly, you've got to make sure you're talking as a team, and that's a big thing, admitting that you're tired or you're sore. I've been in races where someone's really tired and we've carried two backpacks.

"I've had one in the front, one in the back, just to help someone get through their time. And someone's taken my stuff. It is huge teamwork and if you're not in it as a team, it makes for a horrible experience."


Non-stop, multi-day, multi-sport competition involving four-member, mixed-gender teams racing in disciplines like mountain biking, trekking, canoeing, kayaking, whitewater rafting, mountaineering, horseback-riding. Can be as brief as eight hours and last as long as 10 days; from 40-1,000 kilometres in length.


Billed as the toughest human endurance race on earth (, it's slated for Aug. 15-25 in the Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota. Estimated distance is 1,000 km, the longest Primal Quest to date.


Jim Mandelli, structural engineer, Vancouver (team captain)

Alex Man, geological engineer, Winnipeg

Kurt Gibson, power system supervisor, Winnipeg

Catherine Alleyn-Dornn, fitness instructor, Winnipeg


Racing in honour of those who have fought and who will fight cancer. Holding fundraising social for race expenses and for the Never Alone Foundation at the Winnipeg Sun Centre, Canad Inns Stadium, Saturday, June 13, 8 p.m. Check it out on Facebook at Tickets $10 each.


Seeking sponsorships, donations, silent-auction prize donations for June 13 event. Alleyn-Dornn competed in a Quebec event last year and her team raised $5,000 for the foundation -- her goal this year is to top that. The more sponsors or donations to pay for gear and travel, the more proceeds can go towards fighting cancer.


For social tickets, to donate or to become a sponsor, contact Alleyn-Dornn at or call her at 333-7760.

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