What happens when you take world-class athletes, pair them with the most capable four-wheel-drive vehicles on Earth, and drop them in the Nevada desert for torture testing? What Land Rover USA hopes is that these competitors will eventually win the G4 Challenge finals, held somewhere in Asia in mid-2009. Many may remember the Camel Trophy events of yesteryear, where international teams would travel to far-off jungle locales and compete in several deviously designed and intricately planned events. The G4 Challenge is different in that it incorporates more athletic components, rather than focusing solely on driver and vehicle skill.
Land Rover has done the G4 Challenge twice before: first in 2003 and again in 2006. While previous events were successes overall, the U.S. teams didn't do well. To deepen the selection pool, Land Rover teamed up with the Nevada Passage, an existing event that pits competitive triathletes against extreme Nevada terrain. Because of this partnership, the Nevada Passage became the U.S. qualifying event for the Land Rover G4 Challenge. Word spread on the Internet and in a few short months, 20 top athletes (10 men, 10 women) were paired in mixed double teams, set to compete throughout Nevada in kayaking, orienteering, running, rallying, mountain biking, rock climbing, and even an advanced winching competition. All events were scored and all teams carefully watched.
Competitors were from as far east as Waitsfield, Vermont, and as far west as Santa Cruz, California. Ages ranged from 47 (veteran competitor Tom Lyons, a real-estate investor from Reno, Nevada) to 25-year-old Marne Smiley (a director at the Michigan MTB Association). Professions ran the spectrum, as well, from doctors to a schoolteacher, a lawyer, glass blower, and even a Land Rover repair-shop owner. Each of the 10 teams was set up with the exact same gear: a specially modified LR3 (winch, roof racks, cooler, spare tire, camping gear, and first-aid supplies), a kayak, and a pair of mountain bikes. All sleeping was done in the beautiful outdoors with their own gear. The event organizers supplied the food (good thing, too--top-level athletes, burning thousands of calories a day, tend to eat huge quantities of food).
The first event of the four-day multi-stage event started in an old ghost town in Clark County, which had until recently been submerged in Lake Mead. The navigating exercise had competitors make several stops in the desert to seek the next set of instructions. Eventually, they made it to the Overton Marina, where they put their kayaks into the lake for a timed, seven-mile paddle to Echo Bay. There, teammates paired up again for a five-hour off-road adventure, navigating to Hell's Half Acre near Alamo, Nevada, in a Time-Speed-Distance rally-type trial. At the end of the first day, the grizzled veterans, Team Purple (Tom Lyons and Lisa Lieb) were in the lead, with several of the younger pairs close behind.
Day two started with a fiendishly challenging 4x4 course, designed by the most warped Land Rover instructors around. Facing some of Nevada's toughest terrain, teams had to traverse tight, narrow, twisting, sandy, and uneven trails that in some cases allowed only inches on either side of their LR3s--quite a challenge for those who had never been off-roading before. Returning champions Team Green (Tim Menoher and Linda Lindsay) navigated the obstacle course with the best time, incurring only two cone penalties. Just one team made a flawless run (Team Lime Green's Phil Glenn and Laura Home), but missed out on winning the segment because of total elapsed time. At the end of the day (at least, what they thought was the end of the day), competitors found instructions to their next event--a run--to start immediately. The teams ran through Cathedral Gorge State Park, over a muddy Juniper Draw trail, down a section of Moon Caves, then through a dramatic section of bentonite clay columns (narrow walls of mud shaped by freezing rain and wind), where runners even had to get on their hands and knees to crawl through blind tunnels to get to the proper coordinates. The fastest combined time was Team Gray (Dean Kruuse and Emma Garrard), and they had the mud all over their bodies to prove it.
Day three had competitors breaking camp and heading into the backcountry early so athletes could navigate a challenging 17-mile mountain-bike loop, geocaching along the way. Tom Lyons and Lisa Lieb took a strong lead in this event, but that didn't surprise too many because both had recently won various mountain-bike multisport events. From the exhausting mountain-bike event, competitors caravanned to Lincoln County's Rainbow Canyon where teams dual-climbed a nasty set of vertical rock faces. Each team was timed, and none was allowed to watch the team before them. As it turned out, the last team--the one that had to spend all afternoon nervously listening to the cheers of the others--had the fastest time: Team Royal Blue (Adam Chase and Caroline Colonna) finished their respective climbs in less than three minutes, for a combined total time of 5 minutes and 20 seconds.
The final day of competition put the teams just outside of Las Vegas, in the shadow of Nellis Air Force Base (with jets flying overhead), where each would get a condensed advanced education in winching their LR3s up an impossibly steep sand dune. Pulling up a fully loaded 6000-pound vehicle complete with kayak and two bikes strapped to the roof isn't an everyday occurrence, but is a skill that'll come in handy for both winning teams. In addition, the winners will go for more advanced Land Rover training in early 2009 at Eastnor Castle in Herefordshire, England. Team Red (Jim Perkins and Brandyn Roark-Gray) posted the fastest winching time of the day with a time of 14 minutes, 52 seconds, just eight seconds better than Team Lime Green.
Once finished with the dune-winching event, scores were tallied and the major announcement made. With all competitors exhausted and buzzing with anticipation, Tom Lyons and Lisa Lieb of Team Purple took top honors, with Peter Hanson and Sarah McMahan of Team Turquoise as the runners-up. Both will go to England in January to train with other international teams to select the final two competitors that will compete in the main event in Asia in June 2009.
Congratulations to everyone who was a part of this competition.