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March 02, 2005

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Publication Date: Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Cover story: An amazing race: Portola Valley's Don and Mary Jean St. Claire travel the globe on CBS reality show Cover story: An amazing race: Portola Valley's Don and Mary Jean St. Claire travel the globe on CBS reality show (March 02, 2005)

By Jane Knoerle

Almanac Lifestyles Editor

They camped on a glacier in Iceland, where they scaled a 50-foot wall of ice. Don descended 2,000 feet on a zip-line from the top of the highest ski jump in Europe. Mary Jean spent grueling hours harvesting 25 pounds of salt from Lac Rose in Senegal, the same country where Don single-handedly lifted up a taxi twice to fix a flat tire -- because a jack didn't work.

The Portola Valley couple almost lost it counting more than 2,000 tiny Teddy bears at an IKEA store in Sweden.

Would they do it again? "In a heartbeat," says Dr. Don St. Claire. "It was a life-changing experience. Physically we did things we never dreamed we could do."

Don and Mary Jean St. Claire were one of 11 two-person teams who took part in the sixth season of the CBS reality show "The Amazing Race." On the show, teams endure mental and physical hardships in their search for the next clue. They compete for a $1 million prize, with one team eliminated in every episode.

The St. Claires took part in five of 11 episodes. The first took place in Chicago on August 8. They were eliminated in episode 5 in Berlin in mid-September.

Last month they flew to New York City for a reunion with fellow participants when the final show was aired February 8. Although the St. Claires were almost 40 years older than most of the competitors, they forged friendships, including with father and daughter Gus and Hera McLeod. "We call Hera our adopted granddaughter. She's visited us twice," says Mary Jean.

The St. Claires were the oldest couple (he was 69 and she, 65) in the race and also the oldest to ever take part in the show. Married for 23 years, they dubbed themselves "Team Medicare." Between them they are the parents of six and grandparents of 16.

At the beginning, the St. Claires felt isolated from the younger couples. They were identified as "the grandparents" on the show, while other teams were given such label as "engaged models," "dating actors," and "high school friends."

"However, we shared so many experiences that, by the end, that was no longer true," says Mary Jean. "They told us, 'We look at older people differently now. When we get older, we want to be like you.'"
Answering an open call

Last April the St. Claires responded to a newspaper ad for an open call for "The Amazing Race." They gathered with hundreds of others at the Presidio in San Francisco, where they took part in a three-minute interview.

A week later, they were called back to CBS Studios in San Francisco to tape another interview. At the end of May they were sequestered with 50 other couples in a Southern California hotel for a week. "We weren't allowed to speak to others, but we noticed everybody was so young," recalls Mary Jean.

They underwent multiple interviews, physical and mental tests, and security checks before being pronounced "squeaky clean."

During this time, they weren't allowed to tell anybody what was happening, but they were already training for the show, physically and mentally. They learned basic phrases in about 20 languages and "were in the gym all the time," says Mary Jean.

"We wanted it so badly," says Don. "We were really pumped."

They hired personal trainer Shelley Sweeney of Alpine Hills Tennis and Swim Club. "She had us doing things we would never have been able to do without her," says Don, who was running up and down their steep driveway with a 25-pound pack on his back.

One night at 10 p.m. the call came, "You're on!" "We were like little kids," says Mary Jean.

Suddenly, decisions had to be made. Don, who is an internist in private practice in Portola Valley, needed to find someone to take over for him. Arrangements had to be made for care of the house and their pets for several weeks.

Their children would not know their whereabouts, but once a week, one of the them would receive a call saying their parents were all right. He, in turn, would notify the rest of the family.
The race begins

The couple flew to Chicago on August 8. They were told to bring what they needed for all kinds of weather. "We weighed everything in our backpacks, down to our toothbrushes. We were not fashion plates," says Mary Jean.

For the next five days in Chicago, they trained in how to run the race and took part in magazine interviews. They learned they would be accompanied by a photographer and a sound person 24 hours a day.

After receiving their first clue at a park on Chicago's lakefront, the couples flew to Reykjavik, Iceland, where the teams made their first "pit stop," camping overnight on a glacier. "That night they threw a big party for us with a beautiful buffet set up right on the glacier," says Mary Jean.

The Scandinavian tour continued on to Norway, where Don rode a 2,000 foot zip-line down a mountain. It was a place he had first visited when he was 17.

Traveling on to Stockholm, the couple donned Arctic wear to visit the Ice Bar in the Nordic Sea Hotel, where a member of each team had to slide a shot glass across the frozen bar to hit a target before receiving the next clue.
Too many teddy bears

A detour in Sweden led them to the world's largest IKEA store, where they were given the choice of either counting bins containing teddy bears and pots and pans, or assembling a complicated desk. After miscounting the thousands of teddy bears more than once, Don moaned, "This is the worst day of my life."

While the other teams sped on their way, the St. Claires finally assembled the desk hours later.

That disaster turned out to be a life-changing experience. "We ended up working as a team," says Mary Jean. "Before, Don always took the lead. Now we do things together."

Mary Jean became the heroine in the next episode when she spent back-breaking hours harvesting salt from a marsh at Lac Rose in Senegal in western Africa. Her husband was moved to tears by her hard work and determination, saying "That's one hell of a woman."

After an emotional tribute to Africans sold into slavery, the teams headed back to Europe, landing in Berlin.
The race ends

After a series of adventures that included making sausages in a sausage factory and a downhill race in a soap box derby car, the couple was falling behind. They struggled to find a route marker in downtown Berlin and couldn't make up for lost time. At the Brandenburg Gates, host Phil Keoghan told them, as the last couple to arrive, they were out of the race.

"We'd been without sleep for 40 hours at this point," says Don. "Finally your head just quits. We were devastated."

However, the adventure was not over. They were whisked to a posh hotel, then flown to a "sequestered city," where they remained for two weeks. There they joined the three couples that had already been eliminated and welcomed two more teams during their stay.

"It was great. While we were there, we got our scuba certification," says Mary Jean.

All the teams flew back to Chicago last fall to welcome "Amazing Race" winners Kendra Bentley and Freddy Holliday when they crossed the finish line in the final segment of the race.

The St. Claires then re-lived their adventures when the show began airing in November. For the first show, Don's son, Greg St. Claire, hosted a party for them at D'Asaro restaurant in Redwood City. "It was like we were running the race all over again. I couldn't sleep at night after I watched it," says Mary Jean.

Season six of "The Amazing Race" concluded with a cast party on February 8, where all the couples had dinner at a fancy French restaurant in New York City and watched the two-hour finale. "Everyone was so dressed up, we hardly recognized them," says Mary Jean.

The teams were then taken to Madison Square Garden, where 500 fanatic fans of the show were waiting for them.

"We walked down a red carpet. The fans were screaming bloody murder. They gave us gift bags. We signed autographs. It was like being at the Academy Awards," says Mary Jean.
The first program of "The Amazing Race 7" airs Tuesday, March 1, at 9 p.m. on Channel 5.

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