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Adventure Racing
Can You Go the Distance?
  by Jonathan Senk

For 10 relentlessly punishing days and nights, these daring teams of adventurers must mountain climb, paddle, trek, ride and race their way past the boundaries of human endurance not just to win, not merely to finish, but to uncover something deep and profound within themselves. For many, this quest will teach a humbling lesson in heartbreak but for an intrepid few, it could prove the ultimate victory of their lives - all to discover the hidden regions of their souls that may reveal themselves once their previous physical and mental limitations have been stripped away"

This introduction or, better yet, warning, was at the beginning of the Discovery Channel Eco-Challenge - Australia. That about said it all for me - as well as a thousand other people who had watched the Discovery Channel Eco-Challenge. From that moment, I was hooked on this new ultimate, experiential endurance sport: expeditionary/adventure racing. I remember watching the British Columbia Eco-Challenge two years ago and saying to myself in both awe and amazement, "I thought I was absolutely nutsbut these guys are certifiable!"

One year later, they were back at it again- down under in the Outback of Australia. And in between segments of cold, tired, wet and miserable, they advertised that the Discovery Channel was doing a promo tour in all major malls in North America, with North Point Mall in Alpharetta being one of them. There, I met two of the gods of adventure racing: Valhalla, David Kelly, captain of Team S.C.A.R. (Santa Cruz Adventure Racers) and captain Mitch Utterback of Team Special Forces and Team Dew. When I met them, the very first thing I noticed about each were that their legs were gigantic, especially their calf muscles. They were as big as milk jugs - no lie!

Both Utterback and Kelly were extremely approachable and friendly and I took most of their time at the mall learning as much as I could about adventure racing. They solidified my addiction to this extreme, supreme experience. On the last day of the tour, Utterback asked if I would like to do a race with him in May called the Fort Bragg Perimeter Challenge. I excitedly accepted.

But what did this mean, exactly? Training was going to take on a whole new meaning for me. I wasn't going to be racing for myself but for a team. Utterback, a special forces Green Beret, already had a team put together for this race, comprised of special forces operators who had done several Raids and Eco-Challenges with him. I think that he was looking for me to be an alternate or support. Either way, I was both ecstatic and honored that Mitch asked me to be on his team. I felt like a flea on the ass of an Arabian Stallion. I wasn't going to quit, though. I wasn't going to be the "liability."

For fellow Atlanta adventure racer and one of the most tenacious Tasmanian devils I've ever known and raced with, Jeff Westerfield of Team Atlanta, it was pretty much the same crystal clear epiphany.

"Like most people, the Discovery Channel Eco-Challenge in Australia roped me in. It captured adventure, anguish and athleticism. That right there was enough motivation for me to dive in head first. It seemed to capture what business and closing business deals could not. The typical marathon and triathlon never really offered me this level of challenge. I think I was looking for the adventure that these other things just could not provide. I had raced triathlons, marathons and half marathons but the difference really is in the operative word, 'adventure,'" says Westerfield.

Marathon runners are in their cars and driving home within five hours after their race starts. Ironman triathletes are in bed at the end of their race day. There is not any adventure there - it is a known course of 26.2 miles. It is measured time. It is measured performance. It is a measured road course. Adventure is rock and gravel or a snake on the road. In adventure racing you are worried about snake bites and dangerous flora and fauna. You are worried if you are going the right way in a place you have never been. You don't know what is going to happen. You are given a map and a compass and it's completely up to you and your team. It's the purest sense of adventure. It truly is an epic expedition. That is what struck my heart's core the most. And so, the next day, I was shopping for mountain bikes and gear management.

History of Adventure Racing

Adventure racing got its start in the mid- 70's during the running craze. People began to realize that a mile, a 10K or a marathon just wasn't enough to escape the ordinary routine of one's daily life. A French race, known as the Raid Gauloises (pronounced Gall-waw) which translates into "challenge of the warrior," began to creep into the last pages of the sports sections as more of a novelty or hobby than a sport. International/European teams would race three to 500 miles from checkpoint to checkpoint, from start to finish. Teams would rest at checkpoints for hours, drinking the French wines, eating baguettes and smoking Turkish and clove cigarettes.

A lot has changed with the Raid and adventure racing since then. No wine. No cigarettes. No leisurely resting for hours at check points. Hi Tech gear, Power Goop, sleep deprivation, Ibuprofen, bronchial dilators and time hypersensitivity rule the races today. The Raid takes place every year in a different, exotic setting, such as New Caledonia, Costa Rica, New Zealand, Oman and Madagascar.

Ironman competitions were considered to be the toughest challenge for nearly a decade, until in 1989 when French journalist Gerard Fusil arranged a 35 five-person (men and women teams) to compete in the world's first adventure race - the Raid Gauloises. Held in New Zealand, the Raid consisted of 400 miles of mountaineering, horseback riding, kayaking, canoeing and rafting over a two-week period with one-hour of sleep per night. The Raid is now an annual event and considered by many to be the toughest, most challenging race on earth. It is widely whispered that the next Raid will be one of mythical proportions, taking place in the Himalayas racing from 1999 into 2000.

Although Europe started the adventure race craze with the Raid, by 1995, adventure racing was brought to the U.S., by Mark Burnette, who raced two Raids with the Navy SEAL team - American Pride. Burnette's version of the Raid was called the Eco-Challenge. The first race, held in Utah, topped 1.5 million dollars in television and sponsorship sales, which propelled the Eco-Challenge to the crown jewel of adventure races.

The Rules

All adventure races must meet specific guidelines but, based on the geographic topography, many races use different modes of non-motorized transports to complete the race. Adventure races are comprised of coed teams of men and women orienteering and racing through the great outdoors in unique, uncharted, exotic locations. Depending on the terrain, competitors usually partake in three or more of the following activities: trail running or trekking, rope climbing/ascending, canoeing or kayaking, skydiving, mountain biking, skiing, rock climbing, rafting and/or horseback riding.

Races are then designated as being a supported or a non-supported race. A supported race dictates that the teams competing can have a support crew to switch out gear and bring them food from check point to check point. An unsupported race dictates that the team has to carry everything, including food, gear, medical supplies and clothing, throughout the duration of the race (Mountain bikes and water craft are mobilized by the race, however). An unsupported race then amounts to a very, very heavy rucksack or backpack ranging in weight from 40 to 60 pounds.

The rules of the expeditionary/adventure racing are simple. The first four- or five-person coed team to leave the start and arrive at the finish as a complete team is the winner. Along the way, they must check into "CP's" (checkpoints) to have there race passports verified and signed by race management. If any member of any team can't make it to the next check point for any reason, then the whole team is disqualified at any stage of the race. Also, at certain CP's, there are mandatory gear checks for safety reasons. If a team is not carrying a certain mandatory item, such as a sleeping bag, to save on weight and space, the entire team is disqualified. They may finish the race, but they will do so unofficially and without rank. Each team is given a radio for absolute, life-threatening emergencies. If the radio is used for any other reason, that team is disqualified.

"People who arrive at a checkpoint with fewer members than when they started because they left them behind is a real disgrace. Therefore, I consider those who start and finish together to have really done the Raid Gauloises," says Garard Fusil, creator of the Raid.

Although adventure racers must possess many technical skills, including the ability to mountain climb and rappel from great heights, adventure racing goes beyond these skills. Each adventure racer must also understand the elements of navigation, self-sufficiency, sleep deprivation and teamwork dynamics to cross the finish line together as one cohesive unit.

Most adventure racers do not compete to win. They compete for personal growth in many areas, including the building of a team, the grueling physical conditioning, mastering navigational and team communication skills and meeting the challenge of every obstacle to finish. In the Raid, there are two types of competitors. There are racers and there are raiders. The racers race against each other to win. Raiders are competing with themselves just to finish together -going the distance, no matter what obstacles they may face mentally, physically and emotionally. These are the key elements that compel athletes to race in an expeditionary/adventure race.

"This is an exploration of your own personal world. An adventure race flings open about a hundred doors inside my head and my heart and if I allow myself to really look through those and see what's on the other side, I'll see a part of myself I've never seen before," says Terry Schnieder of Team S.C.A.R.

"You have to be able to wrap your mind around something abstract. An Ironman knows exactly what his distance is going to be. He can tune his body up for twelve hours of extreme physical output. An adventure racer can't do that because he doesn't know what is going to happen in twelve hours. In these races, you can only plan for so much and then the unknown overcomes. So, you have to train your mind to wrap around the unknown," says Jeff Westerfield of Team Atlanta.

Organizing a Team

"I think what a lot of first-year teams fail to realize is how important team dynamics are in adventure racing," says David Kelly, Team S.C.A.R. captain. "It's not five out three back; it's five out and five back! And, you have to figure out how to get five tired, worn out, sorry butts across the finish line."

Another important aspect that many newly-organized teams fail to recognize is that you have to train at night, practicing every discipline of your upcoming race. And you have to train with other people because it is not about how fast you can run, ride or swim. It's really not much about you at all except that you are physically fit and you are able to hang with the rest of the team. It is more about communicating with your team and, as a group of people, being able to accomplish these goals.

Not everyone on your team will be an expert in any one technical discipline. Instead of a team of specialists, it's better to have a team of generalists. Therefore, in my opinion, it is necessary to train together in a raft, on a rope or in a sea kayak to determine the strongest team member in that discipline and which people should sit together. A team needs to know what it's like to train together after it gets dark. The same team that you meet in the coffee house to plan to do an adventure race is not the same group of people 48 hours into an adventure race. It is a team effort and a team neeeds to train together in disciplines in all types of weather, all types of terrain and in the cold, pitch black of 0300!

"Always, always look for a good navigator first," says Utterback. "If you don't have a navigator, you need to find either a man or woman who can read a map well and orienteer day or night, rain or shine. Without one, your team will be lost pretty much all the time. Second, each member must have a concerted interest in doing well together. What it comes down to, basically, is personality and physical ability. I always look for personality first! Physical ability can be trained."

Now, a word about the "liability factor" - a fear that comes to one who has never competed in an adventure race. This person is titled as "The Unknown," because he or she has never been tested like this before. Everyone has gone through it and it's a terrifying fear - one that produces cold sweat nightmares and anxiety attacks at least one month before the start of an adventure race. But it is a healthy fear that will push you past your regular training regimes and limitations so you will not be the weak link.

The Female Aspect

"The fact that it is mandatory for a woman to be on a team is good and I am that person because I can do those things. The downside is their expectations that the female is the weakest one, that everyone has to have a girl, that the woman is going to slow down the team and that as long as she can keep up with the guys than that's okay. But that is not how it is," says world-class adventure racer Cathy Sassin.

"I think it's lonesome. I think that probably most women who do adventure racing will say that. You are the only one on the team. Four of anybody on a team are going to have something in common more so than one person out of four. But, all in all, I don't have any complaints. Those guys took really good care of me. My biggest fear was that I was going to be the weakest link; that I was going to slow them down and I had nightmares and dreams about that for a long, long time before the race. Everyone takes turns being the weak link. But I thought that everyone was going to be put on a scale with the men being way up here and me being way down here because I was the sole woman on Team Odyssey. But, once you are out there, everyone has their ups and downs and that made it a little more palatable. But that was scary. It wasn't the race - hiking, biking or paddling - it was the fear of being the liability!

However, I think that females should definitely do it! We need females in adventure racing and there needs to be more women in the sport. Just because you are the female on the team, don't belittle your skills. Go out there and be as well-rounded in your training and disciplines as possible," says Joy Marr of Team Odyssey.

"There might be moments when I feel good and strong and see the guys suffer. You have to look at your other teammates and there are certain moments when I am stronger. There are moments when they are stronger than me, but in the end, it has to be balanced. I have to watch out for them and they have to watch out for me. We all have to cross the finish line together. That's most important," says Andrea Spitzer of Team Presidio.

A First-Hand Look

"I think ultimately the competition is the race course. From all my understanding and experience, the race course is designed to hurt, bruise, maim, punish and take no prisoners," says Kelly of Team S.C.A.R.

"A lot of people romanticize a lot of sporting events and they want to become a part of it. The reality is it takes a huge, huge, committed, tough person to finish an event like the Eco Challenge," says Schnieder of Team S.C.A.R.

"I would say about 80 percent is mental in this type of racing because what you are asking your body to go through is just physically impossible," says Cathy Sassin of Team Hi Tech Adventure.

"We came up one gigantic mountain and went down into this enormous valley where you could see as far as you could see, like halfway to where we were going. And when I saw that mountain on the other side, I just stopped and thought I can't do this; I can't go that far. But, I just kept going and going," says Joy Marr of Team Odyssey about the 1998 Raid in Ecuador. "There was this one French team that we played tag with and when I would pass the woman on that team, we would look at each other and, even though we couldn't communicate, a billion words would pass between us. I knew that she was feeling the same thing I was feeling. The mountains in Ecuador at that elevation are sandy and, in my exhausted mental state, I thought that it looked like the beach. And I thought, 'I got to go there, I got to go there.' And when I reached that place ahead of the guys, I got off my bike, sat down and needed to cry. I really needed to cry and I was fighting with myself on whether or not to cry because of the energy it would take. I finally decided that it would take more energy to fight the release than to let it go . Don Mann, the captain of Team Odyssey, came over and asked if I was okay. I told him that I just needed a little time to cry. So, we hung out there and 10 minutes later, I got up, felt much better and said, 'Okay, I'm ready to go.' And that was about it."

"When you feel physically broken when you really feel on edge but you think you can hang on, then something really small, really insignificant, like a flat tire, will happen and it just screws you emotionally - and then you snap!" says Kelly of Team S.C.A.R.

"In expeditionary type adventure racing you want to keep a pace that you can sustain over possibly 10 days that allows you to stay fresh for decision making is what normally equals success," says John Howard, captain of Team Solomon-Presidio.

Have we enticed you yet to throw yourself into this new, exciting sport? It takes a strong commitment and dedication to training and to believing in yourself. And if you are up to the challenge, pick up the April issue of Atlanta Sports & Fitness Magazine to see how to get started, places to train, the cost of competing, and more!

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