“Sorry, I just have to put my leg up.”
Greg McHale halts our conversation to relieve pain caused by an infection on his right shin.
Incredibly, it’s the only visible wound he can show off after six days and 800-kilometres of trekking, running, paddling, climbing, and perhaps a bit of praying, in the wilderness of Southern Utah.
In the interlude, his mind floats backwards about 14 days when, he, his wife Denise, and two other members of his Supplier Pipeline racing team were in the middle of the world’s biggest adventure race — ever — the aptly named Primal Quest.
“There’s no doubt we would have gotten third place if I hadn’t gotten this,” he says, pointing to his scabbed leg.
During the race his shin was covered in a massive blister that “just exploded” one day.
As Greg will tell you, it hurt, a lot.
The McHaleses, who live and train in Whitehorse, finished Primal Quest in six days and six hours, placing an impressive fourth and collecting $20,000 US for their efforts.
But even though teams don’t just finish Primal Quest — they conquer it, or overcome it — Greg is disappointed with fourth place.
Third was so close, and first is now within reach, he says.
“I know where our potential to be is, and that’s our goal, to be the best in the world.”
To put Greg’s frustration in perspective, of approximately 90 teams that entered this year’s event, only 28 finished.
Looking at pictures from the race — competitors with teeth bared, their faces dirty and their eyes bloodshot — one begins to grasp just how desperate Primal Quest can become.
It has been described as “like 17 marathons back to back.”
Though he encountered the most electrifying pain he’s ever felt on the course, Greg refused to let his team down by quitting.
“We were in the mountaineering section of the race, and walking uphill wasn’t a big deal with my leg,” he recalls, hands clutched around his shin.
“But walking downhill was quite painful. We were walking downhill … you kind of get out of focus because the race is so long … and I ended up kicking a rock or a stump.
“The pain that went through my leg was just something that I couldn’t even imagine,” he says.
“I’ve broken bones and separated shoulders and that wasn’t even remotely close to the pain I felt out there,” he says.
“You just take a few seconds, take some deep breaths, then keep going. That’s part of the sport.”
With three teammates counting on him and with years of painful training invested to compete, there was no other option, he adds.
His story underlines the difference between the McHaleses and most of us.
They redefine the term “power couple.”
During the week the two work eight-hour days, Greg for the RCMP, Denise for Sport Yukon.
Then they train in the evenings, by running, trekking or paddling, usually for 15 to 20 hours a week.
And for the last four years, they have been entering adventure races.
That makes the fact they aren’t receiving government funding to race all the more impressive.
“All of the other teams that we compete against are full-time athletes, that’s what they do,” says Greg.
Australians, Kiwis, Fins, Swedes and Americans are all paid to race, he adds.
“We haven’t had that opportunity.”
Without their sponsor, Supplier Pipeline of Ontario, the team couldn’t even contemplate competing, he says, adding that he’s hoping the Yukon government will take notice of two world-class athletes working to race in Whitehorse.
“We’re coming in fourth place in the biggest (adventure) event in the world, and we’re working 40 hours a week,” says Greg, with a touch of frustration.
With so many difficulties to overcome just to punish themselves in adventure races, why does the couple do it?
“We’re good at it,” says Greg.
“Once we completed our first adventure race, it was almost, for lack of a better term, life altering,” explains Greg.
“It’s amazing what your body and mind can do if you choose to do it.”
During adventure races like the Primal Quest, the McHaleses typically consume about 5,000 calories a day.
Yet, over the course of the race, Greg lost about eight pounds. And he only got about nine hours of sleep.
As the finish line loomed closer on the sixth day, Greg and Denise, understandably, wanted to relax a little bit.
They couldn’t. Instead, the team was “full-out racing” for the last six hours, says Greg.
Using their superior trekking skills, the Superior Pipeline team had reeled in Merrell/Wigwam Adventure, a team from the US, and taken third place.
As the two teams entered the final checkpoint and hit the water for a short 20-minute paddle to the finish, they were side by side, says Greg.
Paddling is currently the weakest part of the Superior Pipeline team, he says.
“We caught them, passed them, and got in the boats together,” recalls Greg.
“They’re just such strong paddlers. They ended up beating us by about two minutes.”
Greg is nonetheless encouraged by the team’s strong race and is bullish about its future prospects
A talented paddler joined the team two races ago, and may just bring that last bit of magic needed to take the top step in an adventure race, he says.
“He brought in the talents needed to make the team gel,” says Greg.
“Now that we’ve found that, we don’t have any real weaknesses. Our goal is to be the best in the world.”