Nathan Rafferty’s first love is the mountain. The president of the non-profit Ski Utah works tirelessly to promote the state’s ski and snowboard industry.
But lately, Rafferty has found his attention turning from snow to sand.
“Skiing is what I’m married to,” he said. “Motorcycles are more like my mistress.”
Earlier this year, Rafferty’s hobby took him to northern Africa, where he became the first American to finish the grueling, 12-day Africa Eco Race — a 6,500-kilometer competition.
The 46-year-old has competed in other endurance events. As part of a Ski Utah promotion, he once finished 60-runs during a 12-hour overnight event. Nothing Rafferty has done, he said, compared to his two weeks in Africa last January.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he said.
Rafferty grew up riding mountain bikes but wasn’t allowed to ride motorcycles because his parents felt they were dangerous. When he turned 30, he bought one for himself. Now he owns four bikes (“if you ask my wife, she’ll say we have way too many and if you ask me we’re just right,” he said) but he competed on a rented 2015 450 KTM Rally Replica.
The Utah racer trained for the grueling competition at a crossfit gym in Park City, but said the mental aspect of the race was his greatest challenge.
“Going into it, you understand there’s going to be a rollercoaster of emotions,” he said. “It’s so tough mentally.”
Over two weeks, Rafferty and his fellow racers traversed sand and desert across Morocco, Mauritania and Senegal.
“You can hum along at 85 mph and start looking around. There’s a camel, some clouds,” Rafferty said. “And then you remind yourself that you’re speeding on a motorcycle and you should start paying attention.”
As he had prepared for the undertaking, Rafferty was often met with the same question: Why?
“The fun is in the finish,” he said. “That sense of accomplishment. I suppose that’s why a lot of people do these crazy things that are really hard. It’s just to see how much you’re capable of.”
Only one other American rider ever entered the race, Rafferty said, but he had to pull out halfway through with engine troubles. So when Rafferty crossed the finish line in sixth place out of the 33 riders, he had made a bit of history.
“It really is a huge feeling of accomplishment,” he said. “That’s why I went and what I was looking for. In my day job, I’m dealing a lot with government and relationships. There are definite wins and losses day to day. It’s nice to dig in really hard and you either win or you lose, you finish or you don’t.”
Rafferty returned home, his head still buzzing from the concentration and effort he’d needed in competition, and soon realized his biggest takeaway.
“At the end of the day, if I’ve got something hard at work, I’ve got so much more confidence,” he said. “You get to the end of something like that and you feel like you can do anything. You gain this confidence that stays with you for the rest of your life.”
Maybe that explains his next plan.
After finishing his race in Africa, Rafferty thought he’d checked a box on his bucket list, that he’d never do anything like that again. But he soon found himself looking at the sports other major endurance race, the Dakar Rally in South America this January.