By Clare Morin
One of the most competitive forces at this year’s Sahara Race is the team’s division. There is a great sense of drama unfolding with the Mister Running Desert Team in the lead, followed very closely by Team Beauty and the Beasts.
But the two leading teams couldn’t be more different.
Former Sahara Race champion Paolo Barghini is leading the Mister Running Desert Team, and because he is also their trainer, the group have been through extensive training together. Team Beauty and the Beasts, on the other hand, had never collectively trained before setting foot on the Sahara.
Team Beauty and the Beasts consists of Anastasios (aka Ernie) Votis, the chairman and CEO of Matplas Holdings, a private merchant bank with offices in New York and Canada; Stefan Danis, CEO of human capital company Mandrake; and Sophie Collett, a physiotherapist from the UK.
Their story really starts 12 years ago when Ernie and Stefan jumped out of a helicopter above a mountain together. They had met on a heli-skiing trip, and became instant best friends. “Everyone should have an Ernie,” says Stefan endearingly.
The pair shared a similar sense of adventure, and tackled the Gobi March in 2009 as individuals. Stefan was so taken by the experience, that he wrote the book Gobi Runner. “It’s a story about overcoming adversities and the Gobi March is a metaphor for life,” he explains. “I have never thought so much about life as I have when running these races. Your real self comes out. I was touched by the generosity of other people.”
Perhaps inspired by this generosity, Stefan and Ernie decided to compete together for the Atacama Crossing 2011 drawing in fellow teammate Louis Santaguida for team Old Guys Rule. Then came the Sahara, and the need for a new teammate, as Santaguida wasn’t available.
They thought it may be fun to run with a woman, and approached Sophie Collett who they had briefly met at the Gobi March, but barely knew. Sophie had already run with teams before and accepted the offer, “They seemed like really nice people and I thought, well, that would be fun for a week.”
They are doing well so far. “It helped that she was willing to come,” says Ernie. “She’s now carrying us. We’ll do whatever Sophie wants us to do.”
But how are the team dynamics unfolding? “Well, I think that running as a team is more difficult,” offers Ernie. At this point, fellow competitor, friend and current third-place contender Mehmet Danis, who has been listening to the interview, adds, “There’s two cooks in the kitchen in this team.”
“There’s two cooks in the kitchen, but Sophie’s the chef,” counters Ernie. “We’re having a good time. The talking comes when you have the luxury of being ahead or being really far behind… Early on [in Stage 1] I wanted to slow down, but Stef was feeling good so we kept up the pace. There’s communication but no one’s listening. We’re all type A personalities – but my ego is smaller than Stefan’s. There’s a lot of mileage and a lot could happen. You’ve just got to keep going.”
For Sophie, there is the added challenge of running with men. “It does make you really conscious of how fast you’re going,” she admits. “Listen, I know that guys are faster than girls–I’m not going to pretend otherwise. So I try not to whine and not do anything to slow them down.”
“I think Sophie brings tenacity and the ability to manage through adversity more than I can,” points out Ernie. “She’s a Sherman tank.”
“Heart of a lion,” adds Stefan.
With all the banter and joking that emanates from this group, it also becomes apparent that there is a deep sense of appreciation and support amid them. Stefan turns to his good friend Ernie, and analyses his strength as a teammate. “He’s in front all the time. He’s the pace,” he says. “It’s a gift for a superior runner to choose to sacrifice his own individual ranking for the team ranking.”
Then he quickly returns to the comedy, “He values the fun and giggles. Whereas if he was running on his own he’d have to find somebody else to pick on.”