Unless you have a personal aversion to Giant Bicycles, take a look at them. Giant's buying power and engineering resources allow them to put some quality stuff out at pretty good pricing.
A couple other options to consider are '02' closeouts and / or waiting until you can spend a little more. Getting a good frame is crucial, the rest you can upgrade as the parts get trashed and worn out. Secondly consider the wheelset / tire package, you can overcome a lot of other shortcomings, but bent wheels and tires you aren't confident in will wreck the experience for you real fast.
2003 Iceman Challenge - 2:34:55 - 897 / 2,000*
2002 Iceman Challenge - 2:39:23 - 1093 / 2,186
2000 Iceman Challenge - 2:49:18 - 1516 / 2,153