Adventure Racing?
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Is adventure racing the new pinnacle of endurance sports?

By Jenny Ruff -- Metro Sports Boston
3/13/2002 (from Active.com)

Stanley Chou/Allsport

The aspect of teamwork sets adventure racing apart from other endurance sports

adventure racing (ad·ven·ture rac·ing), n. 1. A nonstop, multiday, multisport, team event of strategy where competitors must travel without outside assistance in areas of remote wilderness. 2. An equal-opportunity event for leeches, bacteria-ridden water, foot-rot and other nuisances to attack the human body 3. The original reason behind the question, “Why would someone ever want to do that to themselves?”

During the running craze of the ’70s, marathon reigned supreme: a 26.2-mile ultimate endurance test. By the time the ’80s rolled around, marathons held about as much appeal as the previous decade’s velour jogging suits, and triathlon gained widespread recognition as the ultimate in athletic challenges.

With the ‘90s, a whole new era of competition was ushered in with the dawn of adventure racing.

“I think people like the challenge of [adventure racing],” says John O’Connor, creator of Chicago’s Wild Onion, a 24-hour urban adventure race that combines stair climbing, kayaking, running, cycling, orienteering, canoeing, rappelling and in-line skating. “It’s the idea of pushing yourself beyond what is a normal athletic adventure, like a running race or a triathlon. It’s a deeper challenge.”

In the 2000s, adventure racing has emerged as the latest pinnacle in both physical strength and mental stamina, and each year lures more accomplished athletes into its grasp. Lately, however, the sport has been opening to amateur athletes.

Marathoners train for Boston, triathletes compete with Kona in mind, and now adventure racers flock to local events in preparation for major races such as Beast of the East, Eco-Challenge and Raid Gauloises.

“Adventure races are a lot more accessible now,” O’Connor says. “People see races like the Eco-Challenge on TV, and they want to do it.”

Normally the mere mention of sleep deprivation, leeches, foot-rot and dehydration would send people running in the opposite direction, but adventure racers eagerly tramp through jungles, bodysurf rapids and mountain bike over extremely dangerous terrain. And they keep coming back for more.

“Anyone’s got it in them,” says Tom Tsatas, a co-owner of Pathfinder Challenge, an adventure race consisting of biking, canoeing, climbing, hiking, land navigation, rafting and trail running. “It’s just a matter of if you’re gonna open Pandora’s box or not — and most people probably won’t.”

Just as triathlons built on the discipline of marathoning, adventure races utilize the multisport format of the triathlon. This inclusion of several different types of sports makes it suitable for athletes from a variety of backgrounds. Those athletes used to competing alone and for themselves now must unify into teams that are then pitted against an unrelenting environment.

“There are hard-core athletes who can run miles and not even break a sweat,” says John Yeast, race director for the Bog Dog Suburban Adventure Sprint, a 40-plus-mile Chicago race that blends trail running, orienteering, canoeing, biking, hill climbing and a Tyrolean traverse over water. “You don’t expect these elite athletes to have to cope with one of the other racers who has hurt themselves.”

Where mottos may once have been “Every man for himself,” athletes must now collaborate. The team-building element is precisely why many people have caught the adventure-racing bug. Corporations are even starting to use the smaller races to train their employees to work together. The only win is one made by the whole team crossing the finish line together, and many participants grow to appreciate this joint effort.

“I like the variety in adventure racing … but I really enjoy the teamwork part of it,” says Mike Pigg, a pro triathlete-turned-adventure-racer. “I’m tired of being a loner. There’s some aspect of teamwork in the triathlon training, but you’re a loner when the gun goes off.”

Besides the satisfaction of teamwork, many people are drawn to adventure racing because they want a life-changing experience. Not only is racing a test of the physical mastery of multiple sports, but it also poses a mental challenge that has the potential to provide a great sense of accomplishment (or the complete opposite).

“I was never an athlete; I was always, like, the fat girl down the street,” says Sarah Boardman, a self-professed couch-potato-turned-adventure-racer. “Adventure racing takes so much more than athleticism; it’s about problem solving. It has helped me in my daily life. It’s helped me make better decisions and helped me with time management. And my people skills have gotten so much better. I’m able to ask for what I need now.”

Adventure racing may have quenched a bustling world’s need for existential challenges, but will it be able to stick around long enough to be recognized as more than just another trend?

“Adventure racing is just beginning its curve upward,” says Mark Burnett, creator of America’s granddaddy of the sport, the Eco-Challenge. “People get into races like this because they’re looking for self-discovery. Instead of sitting and frying on Waikiki Beach, they’re out kayaking on Lake Michigan. People are looking for that inner search, and it won’t be found in a building or on a laptop but out in the great outdoors.”

Adventure racing, as we know it now, may fall by the wayside, but evolution does not necessarily spell doom for the sport. Burnett and his peers will keep their races going by expanding on the three main variables: distance covered, variation of events and team format. By making the races longer, combining different sports and tinkering with the team element, race directors hope to keep the sport fresh and challenging.

Burnett refers to adventure racing’s design as “the thinking man’s race” and plans to incorporate more problem solving into the format. His main concern right now is racers who are simply getting too good for the sport and are able to conquer the courses in record time.

“The next revolution will make it much more Indiana Jones, with the whole evolution of navigating with maps that aren’t quite good enough and building rafts and sailboats,” Burnett says. “Ian Adamson [a prominent racer] may be a great navigator, but how will he do with maps that aren’t good enough? With a boat he had to manufacture himself?”

While some race directors may have to brainstorm continually to create trickier courses for the world’s top adventure athletes, others want to bring the sport closer to home — literally. Because of the sport’s burgeoning popularity, local adventure wannabes have only a matter of time before they can test their skills at regional races that are popping up all over the country.

“Anyone can race,” Yeast says. “If someone’s interested and willing to put in the time for training, then they can have a blast adventure racing.”

Right now there are three types of races: expedition, where teams race against the clock; stage, where teams race by day, sleep at night, and members have to hit as many checkpoints as possible in a set amount of time; and short courses, or sprints, which can last anywhere from a few hours to three days.

Technically, an adventure race can be any one of these three, vary greatly in length and combine any athletic elements in any climate. Plus, with the addition of urban adventure races such as the Wild Onion and the NYC Extreme in New York, races can now take place from anywhere in the thickest tropical jungle to the concrete jungle in a city near you.

“We want to take the Wild Onion worldwide to all major urban areas,” O’Connor says. “People are seeing that they don’t necessarily have to travel to Borneo to compete in a world-class adventure race.”

Because there is no organization as of yet to set up guidelines for these races, the sport may not have the same profitable future as its cousins, marathon and triathlon. Race directors do not seem too concerned about the outlook, however, because adventure races were created for the specific purpose of getting people away from the jurisdiction of any such governing bodies.

So will adventure racing ever hold the same mainstream success as its ancestor races? One thing’s for sure: The official recognition of races has little to no impact on current competitors; they are more concerned with the overall experience that the technicalities of the events.

“It’s just really, really cool,” Boardman says. “You’re up at 4 a.m. cruising across a moraine, and the sun’s coming up. Like in New Zealand — we’d be on these mountain passes that maybe 15 New Zealanders had ever been on.

“I was just telling my sister it’s like childbirth: Ninety percent of it you look back on and forget how awful it was,” Boardman continues. “But you remember that 10 percent that was just glorious.”

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