Volume 76, Number 1 | May 24 - 30, 2006


Amy Bartoletti and Rodney Villella will compete in Primal Quest, a 500-mile endurance race, in Utah, from June 25 to July 4.

Villagers push it to the max in quest for adventure

By Bonnie Rosenstock

On rainy, wind-swept days most New Yorkers have the sense to stay indoors, or if they venture out, they huddle under umbrellas to avoid the elements. But East Villagers Rodney Villella and Amy Bartoletti are in their element, as they jog and slog through the city streets and parks or rural mountain trails. Villella and Bartoletti are training for Primal Quest, billed as the world’s toughest expedition adventure race.

Starting on June 25 and ending on July 4 at 2 p.m., 360 competitors — 90 co-ed teams of four — from 13 different countries will traverse and navigate roughly 500 miles of rugged Utah terrain, part of which includes stretches of searing desert. They will journey on foot, mountain bike and horseback, scale mountain peaks over 12,000 feet high, descend 30,000 cumulative feet of rope, and paddle and swim through bruising Class III and IV rapids. They will face food and sleep deprivation, battle mental and physical fatigue, pain and disorientation. Just because it’s fun — at least for them.

Villella, 36, 155 pounds, 5 feet 8 1/2 inches “on a good hair day,” he says, is compactly built like a hybrid longshoreman and ballet dancer. With intense dark eyes and a quick wit, Villella, a native New Yorker, bears a strong resemblance to his father, Edward Villella, former New York City Ballet dancer and founder of the 20-year-old Miami City Ballet.

At 4 feet 11 inches (which she denies rounding up half an inch), Bartoletti, 35, from Wilkes Barre, Pa., is 100 pounds of solid muscle and sunny personality. While the couple competes together as part of Team Hype (Jay Zech from York, Pa., and Jeffrey Woods from Stafford Springs, Ct., round out the team), in business they are adversaries; they work for the two largest rival firms in municipal finance, he at U.B.S., and she at Citigroup in Tribeca’s “umbrella building” on Greenwich St.

Their demanding 50-to-60-hour workweek, plus the daily hike up to their fifth-floor, 600-square-foot, two-bedroom walk-up, provide Villella and Bartolleti, who met in March 1998, with a healthy dose of mental and physical stamina. However, they do most of their intense cross-training on weekends Upstate, where they have a country retreat, and on vacations. When time permits, Villella says he runs down Sixth Ave., so he doesn’t really need to train.

“I’m in a permanent hypoxic state because of all the exhaust,” he jokes.

They also prepare by competing in shorter races throughout the year, including those organized by the New York Adventure Racing Association, one of the biggest in the country.

“It’s supportive and fun,” says Villella. “You think Manhattan people, everyone is strong-minded, type A personalities. You just don’t associate them with running around in the woods for 10 days, but that’s not so,” he says.

More grueling than the course itself is that they must do each of the disciplines — running, biking, horseback riding, climbing, swimming and paddling — more than once, and they aren’t given the order or the length of each until they get the maps. Then they are required to plot out their own route to the next checkpoint, using only a compass and the maps. They carry all the equipment for that leg, including all food and water. At the checkpoint, they pick up the gear for the following segment.

“Unlike a triathlon where the course is marked, we could be on a hiking leg in the middle of the woods, and it could be 10 or 15 miles away to the next point, and they don’t tell you which way to go,” explains Villella. “A lot of times it’s across terrain that doesn’t have trails or roads, so you have to decide, do I go up or over the mountains, do I go around the mountains, do I go around the lakes?” he says.

For Bartoletti, what makes the race so appealing is that it’s not purely physical.

“If it were, we wouldn’t be able to be out there with people we’re racing against. Because it’s mental, I think sometimes we do a decent job.”

Sleep strategy is another challenge. It’s up to each team to determine how much time they want to spend resting, sleeping or moving. The fastest teams will finish in five or six days.

“Some teams will choose to start sleeping the first night for two or three hours and sleep a lot more often; other teams will forgo sleep for three days and push it as long as they can,” explains Villella.

In their last Primal Quest competition in 2004, they came close to accomplishing their goal of finishing. Less than 50 percent will. They were in 25th place and 12

hours from the finish line when their two teammates’ plastic kayak got stuck on a big log in the middle of a river, and fishermen helped rescue them. Since they needed outside assistance, they were disqualified.

“We were able to bend it back into its original shape and could have paddled it the rest of the way to the finish,” asserts a disappointed Villella.

Since Primal Quest is a four-member team effort, you are only moving as fast as your slowest teammate. In addition, it is mandated to be co-ed, for which there is no equivalent in the sports world. (Exceptions might be tennis doubles and team equestrian events in the Olympics, hardly comparable on a scale of difficulty.) For these reasons, Primal Quest is “inestimably harder” than the 140-mile, fast-paced individual Ironman Triathlon, states Gordon Wright, Primal Quest media director, via e-mail.

Moreover, “There are no ‘stages’ as in the Tour de France, where the racers get off their bikes, get a nice pasta meal, a massage and nine hours of sleep,” he says.

Even in the wilderness there’s no escaping state-of-the-art technology. Each team is equipped with a customized global-positioning-system tracking unit for safety (it can guide search and rescue teams to within 3 feet of where they are), to insure that the team doesn’t wander into private land or federal wilderness. The G.P.S. technology also allows couch potatoes to log onto the Web site, pull up a map and see where everyone is in real time. One will just see moving dots, but the Web site will also make available videos and pictures of the teams’ progress.

The total prize purse for Primal Quest is $250,000. First place is $50,000, with the rest of the purse distributed throughout the top 10. But these East Villagers aren’t doing it for the money.

“We’re competitive with ourselves,” explains Villella. “We’re not going to win Primal Quest no matter what we do. We can’t compete against world-class athletes. We sacrifice being a little less fit for having more fun.” So how do they expect to fare?

“I’m not the strongest,” admits Bartoletti.

“But you’re just the toughest,” responds Villella without hesitation.

To follow the event and root for the local home team online, the Web site is

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