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Originally published Monday, July 21, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Gobi March teaches Microsoft team about potential

Three Microsoft employees tossed out the corporate hierarchy and pulled together to complete the ultimate team-building exercises: a seven-day...

Seattle Times technology reporter

Three Microsoft employees tossed out the corporate hierarchy and pulled together to complete the ultimate team-building exercises: a seven-day, 150-mile race last month across the Gobi Desert in remote Western China.

The Gobi March, part of a series of extreme-endurance events called RacingThePlanet, pits teams and individuals against mountain passes as high as 10,000 feet, flat expanses of sun-baked desert, rocky riverbeds and deep gorges.

Debby Fry Wilson, an avid distance runner who has worked at Microsoft for 10 years, first read about the race in Runner's World two years ago.

The idea simmered in the back of her mind until one day, she and her boss, Orlando Ayala, were talking about running, and he mentioned that a good friend had done the Gobi March.

"Originally, the idea was to do it as individuals, as a private endeavor," Fry Wilson said earlier this month. "... Over time we started to think about, could we do it as a team and in a way that combined it with our work mission?"

Ayala, Fry Wilson and a third racer, William Calarese, work on a new Microsoft effort called Unlimited Potential. The goal is to spread access to technology (and, eventually sales of Microsoft's products) to the "next billion" people in emerging markets around the world by 2015.

Their work involves new products and business models for people without the means, or inclination, to pay developed-world prices for technology. It also includes education and training programs and partnerships with governments and development groups.

Before they settled on the Gobi March, Fry Wilson, in true Microsoft fashion, brought her co-workers a PowerPoint presentation laying out hard, harder and hardest options for an endurance run they could do together. "I did it in a way that we'd do in a business context," she said.

Ayala was game. He chose the hardest option, the Gobi March, without hesitation. "I think personality-wise, I've always been attracted to crazy stuff," he said.

The racers were already used to spending extended stretches together away from the office because of a demanding international travel schedule. But they quickly realized that to be successful in the Gobi, they had to let go of the corporate structure that defined their work roles.

Ayala is a senior vice president. Fry Wilson, a senior director, reports to him. Calarese, a director, reports to her.

"We very much stuck to that the whole time," Calarese said. "That probably took a little bit of adjusting."

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"We had hard talks," Ayala said.

"When you stick a bunch of Microsoft employees together, they all want to be in charge at the same time," Fry Wilson said. "We needed to figure out, how do you leverage that energy? Rather than competing for the same decision-making ... we decided we would each have a specific role distinct from every other person's role."

Team leader, doctor

As the most experienced runner, Fry Wilson was the team leader and doctor. She organized their training and strategy, and dealt with blisters, electrolyte imbalances and pain medications.

Calarese took charge of nutrition. Because racers must carry everything they need on their backs (with the exception of water and shelter, provided at checkpoints along the way), getting the most calories for the least amount of weight was key.

Ayala kept an eye on hydration. "And, frankly, ensuring that I know how to follow as opposed to lead," he said.

That distribution of decision-making paid dividends during the race, they said. A rule of the competition is all team members must stay within 25 meters of each other throughout the race.

The Microsoft employees said they accomplished this by doing almost everything together: drinking, checking each other's health, eating energy gels and taking turns leading their "pace line."

That also made them more efficient. They spent less time organizing in the morning, fumbling in their packs, or fording rivers that crossed the course.

Support crew

Camilla Buttery, one of the crew of Microsoft employees along on the journey in a support role, recalled the racers in camp one night at the end of a very long day on the course.

"They'd go to wash their feet in the little stream, go to the medical tent, or go to the bathroom, God forbid," said Buttery, who had been to previous RacingThePlanet events. "There was never more than 5 feet between the three of them."

Still, across miles of hot, unforgiving desert, the elements took their toll. They watched other teams disintegrate as racers pushed too hard — or were pushed — to keep up.

They finally broached an uncomfortable topic: What would they do if one person couldn't continue?

"At that moment, we had to decide to be completely transparent and totally vulnerable to each other," Fry Wilson said, recalling the heated discussion. "To me, it was the turning point."

"We all finish or nobody finishes," Ayala said.

Resolve tested

Their newfound resolve was tested the following day, the longest of the race.

They had to pick up the pace to make it to a checkpoint before the 11 p.m. cutoff time. They made it, but were exhausted and shivering, having walked about 130 miles in five days. Fry Wilson calculated the distance left to the next checkpoint. They would have to depart into the moonless night on almost no sleep to make it.

"It didn't make any sense," Fry Wilson said. She presented their situation to her teammates, and they all agreed. "It was too risky."

When Fry Wilson told the head volunteer at the checkpoint of their decision to drop out, the volunteer, "a big strapping Australian guy" named Erik, gave her a sideways look and took her by the shoulders. He said, "You can make the cutoff," she recalled.

She told her teammates of Erik's confidence in them. Ten minutes later they were back on the course.

Best moment

This was their best moment, they said. They found a hidden reservoir of energy. Their vision sharpened and they were able to spot the flags that marked the course despite the darkness. They even helped a solo racer — delirious and stumbling in the night — make it to the checkpoint.

They completed the 50-mile stage in 26 hours, 15 minutes, arriving at midmorning on the sixth day.

But the searing-hot, wind-blasted camp was polluted with flies, acrid smoke from cooking fires and the awful braying of donkeys. In these conditions, Fry Wilson came down with a bacterial infection. The latrines were "holes in the ground." The modest creature comforts they carried were exhausted. The only food left was a packet of chili mac.

Fortunately, the final stretch was a less-daunting distance, roughly equal to the 9.3-mile loop around Lake Youngs, near Kent, where they had trained. The team awoke feeling good and decided to run to the finish, where they were greeted with cheers from the other racers and kids from a local school.

Shared experience

Back in the comforts of their office building on Microsoft's campus, they said they see their professional relationships and work mission differently.

"There's a certain knowing and a certain understanding with each other," Calarese said. "How could you not with a shared experience like this?"

Before the race, the team had spent a more typical business week outfitting a school with computers and donating two buses loaded with technology, among other things.

The camps and checkpoints were often part of villages in this part of China, where the way of life has changed little for centuries. Seeing them up close emphasized for the Microsoft employees that technology is not a first priority, and it has to be brought here thoughtfully.

Benjamin J. Romano: 206-464-2149 or bromano@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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