Discouraged and exhausted, Nathan Rafferty sat in a tent in Morocco texting a friend.
“I reached out, ‘Hey, remember how I said everything was going well? Well, I’m not feeling so hot. … I don’t know if I can do it tomorrow,’” Rafferty recalled. “And he just said, ‘You are not alone. There are other people, everybody else in the race is feeling the same way right now. You know, there’s this adrenaline spike, and you kind of go down, and then you muddle through.’”
Like every adventure seeker before him, Rafferty found transformative experiences in seeking to do something he wasn’t sure he could accomplish.
A lot of us watch a television show about high adventures in far off places, and think, “Wow, I’d love to do that.” But the 47-year-old CEO of Ski Utah watched such a show, and instead of day dreaming, he took up a new hobby — rally racing.
“I grew up riding mountain bikes, but I watched this seven or eight part series called 'Long Way Around’ in which these two guys, Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor, the famous actor, said, ‘We’re going to ride our motorcycles from London to New York the long way.’ That was through Eastern Europe — Kazakhstan, China, Russia, all this crazy stuff,” he said of the 2004 British television show. “And I don’t know why I started watching that, but I did, and like two or three episodes in, I was like, 'That is it. I need to do that.’”
He bought a used BMW 650 that he found on eBay.
“The kind that you see going down the freeway that’s got big boxes on the side,” he said. “It looks like you can go around the world, and turns out you can.” He rode every back road he could find from his Park City home to Utah’s most remote and most famous treasures.
“I’ve been all over the place,” he said. “Utah is just made for that, right?”
He bought a “lighter bike” so he could “explore a little bit more, and it led to doing a couple of races, just to see if I could make myself a better rider.” As these things often do, each adventure just led to more yearning.
For his 40th birthday, Rafferty, his brother and some friends went to Morocco to do a dirt bike tour with a guide. It was the guide who suggested he try the Africa Eco Race, a 4,000-mile race that traces much of the Paris to Dakar rally race, which ran until a terrorist attack in 2008 caused the event to be canceled and eventually caused organizers to move to South America.
It began in Nador, Morocco, and ended in Dakar, Senegal.
“It was incredible,” he said. “It was probably the biggest accomplishment of my life, physically and mentally. It was 12 days, 4,000 miles, and it’s like riding your dirt bike from Salt Lake to New York and then turning around and going back to Denver.”
Riding a dirt bike through rocks and sand may not seem like a big deal, but it is.
“People think, ‘Hey, you’ve got a motor, how hard can it be?’” he said smiling. “I get it, but there is very little truth to that. It’s really hard mentally and physically. You’re scanning the ground constantly, and you’re going over the Sahara sand dunes, and you’re kind of wrestling an alligator for six, eight, 10 hours a day.”
Part of the challenge is being able to follow precise directions and navigating through fatigue.
“You’re standing up most of the time, and you’re moving back and forth, depending on the terrain,” he said. “It’s amazingly physically intense.”
But, by far, the toughest aspect of the Africa Eco Race was that it lasted 12 days.
“I’ve done all kinds of races — bike races, ski stuff, and I always think, ‘I can do anything for one day because I know there is an end to it,’” he said. “Twelve days is really tough because you have a really tough day on the bike and you get off, and you think, ‘I’ve got 10 more days of this.’ So there were some tough days, especially mentally.” That’s where the ability to “muddle” comes into play. Every endurance sport athlete understands this concept. There are stretches, sometimes most of a race, where the doubt feels bigger, heavier and more capable than the desire, the belief and the joy.
Rafferty’s strength is his ability to "muddle" through the monotony and the challenges, while keeping a steady pace and not making navigational mistakes.
Sometimes the tough stuff is inside your own head, and sometimes it comes in the form of a challenge you never expected and couldn’t control — like an injury or mechanical failure.
During the Africa Eco Race, he’d prepared himself to face what everyone said was the toughest day — the ninth day.
“I was super psyched to get through it, and it turns out, it wasn’t the toughest day of the event,” he said. “The 10th day, the one right after it, was even more difficult.”
Wind had made the sand riders had to navigate softer than usual, and he dropped his bike repeatedly.
“There was a time where I thought to myself, ‘If this bike goes down anymore, I’m not sure I can get it back up,’” he said. “I was just tired.”
When he finished, he felt elated, accomplished, relieved.
Rafferty ended up finishing first in his division and sixth overall — far better than he ever imagined.
“When I got there, I was kind of like, ‘What am I doing here?’” he said of questioning his abilities going into the race. “It was just a huge sense of accomplishment.”
Rafferty thought that was it.
Item checked off the bucket list.
Lessons learned about who he is and what he is capable of accomplishing in the toughest of circumstances.
But then he felt the pull of another challenge, the yearning of racing another course.
“Whatever you do that is really hard,” he said, “and a couple of weeks go by and it starts, you know, somehow all the bad, tough memories fade away and only the good ones remain.”
So the next adventure is on the calendar. In January, he’ll race the Darak Rally in Peru to raise money for the High Fives Foundation. The foundation offers financial assistance to people who suffer serious injuries in the outdoors. Many of those they serve are action sports athletes, but they help athletes of all types find their way back into the outdoors after life-altering injuries.
For Rafferty, it is a way to do some good while challenging himself.
And for those who wonder why someone might attempt the kind of challenges Rafferty seeks, he quotes another adventure seeker — Greg Paul, owner of Momentum Climbing Gym, who became the first person to summit Mount Everest on two artificial knees.Comment on this story
“He said somebody told him, 'If you make it to the top of Everest, and in my case, this was kind of my Everest, your confidence in your own decision-making will be so much greater, and you’ll make better decisions for your entire life because of that moment,’” he said. “I think a lot of it is just … confidence that you gain from knocking off something that you didn’t think was possible for you. It’s why we play sports, right? And if you can, just like me, start with a small race, and then move to a bigger one, that’s how it works. Apply that to work or relationships or whatever. It’s just a huge confidence builder.”