x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Narrow victory for desert race team

After a gruelling six-day journey across Abu Dhabi emirate, a tired but elated team grabs the narrowest of victories.

The race winners, left to right, Jarad Kholar, Elina Ussher, Richard Ussher and Jay Henry.
The race winners, left to right, Jarad Kholar, Elina Ussher, Richard Ussher and Jay Henry.

After a gruelling six-day journey across Abu Dhabi emirate, a tired but elated Richard Ussher led a team to the narrowest of victories in the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge for the second consecutive year. Team Desert Islands headed the field from start to finish but their lead was never more than a few minutes and at the beginning of the final day was a scant 63 seconds over the team skippered by his 2007 teammate, Gordon Walker.

Ussher's team extended their advantage to four minutes after the biking, running and rope-work section on Jebel Hafeet yesterday then faced an anxious 27km final mountain bike leg to Jahili Fort in Al Ain, knowing they could lose the race if they crashed. "We almost rode our own race, out to the side of the bunch and trying to stay out of trouble," he said. "Things can get pretty ugly pretty quickly in the bunch and there were a couple of close calls."

Ussher and his wife, Elina, won the inaugural Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge with Walker last year but faced far tougher competition this year, not least from Team Nike, the pre-race favourites, who finished fifth. "It's great to come back and defend the title. The team from last year came first and second," Ussher said. "I didn't think it was one thing that got us through. We were the most consistent team. The pace was much faster and you had to strategise a lot more and do more preparation.

"We all had situations where people weren't feeling very good, particularly on the desert section. A lot of the time, we felt the race was a little out of our control but we just really stayed focused. "Gordon put together a super team. They had their issues too and if they had a little more luck roll their way, it could have been them." The Usshers had to pay their own way to compete in last year's challenge and would have found themselves significantly out of pocket if they had failed to finish near the top. Even after winning the world's highest-paying adventure race last year, the couple only finished paying off debts from the 2007 event last month.

Their half of the US$40,000 prize money, shared with team members Jarad Kholar and Jay Henry, will be used to "pay off a bit of the mortgage" on their home in New Zealand. He said he hoped to defend his title again next year but that depended on finding sponsorship. Walker, of Team New Zealand, said failure to find a major sponsor had made taking part this year expensive but the $25,000 second prize would recoup their costs.

"It was definitely a stronger field. We had a couple of things that didn't go the best - but that's just racing. We had the horsepower but we just didn't adapt to our situation," he said. The pace along a 100km-plus run through the dunes of the Empty Quarter near Liwa was a dramatic change from 2007, with the average speed of the leading teams up from 5kmh to 7kmh. Matthew Boucher, who managed the race for the Abu Dhabi Tourist Authority, said the intention for the 2009 Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge was to be even bigger and better.

"We'll aim to have 50 teams and we'll also aim to have an entirely Emirati team," he said. The race this year had included a mountain biking leg on the wildlife preserve of Sir Bani Yas Island, the former private island of Sheikh Zayed, the late founder of the nation, and he said they were already discussing what to introduce to the race next year. jhenzell@thenational.ae