Honey, I'm Going to Try Something New
by Mitch Utterback
I am out for a glorious run. The sun was just going down when 200 other folks and I set out a few hours ago. It is very dark now and there is no moon. Thousands of stars fill the sky, but I don't recognize very many. The dirt road I run down is the same color as the surface of Mars.
My running form is best described as a catatonic lope. I am trying to conserve energy. I have to.
My trance is interrupted as my teammate calls out, "Time to walk for five minutes!" A shocking reality sets in as I go into a speed walk. I am wearing a 30-pound rucksack. Two Camelback hoses dangle at my chest with water and electrolyte replacement fluid. A small nylon fanny pack filled with food is strapped below my stomach. I bring my trekking poles into use again and stride hard.
My out-of-body experience ends completely as my teammate switches on his headlamp to consult the map. I feel like I have just been returned from an alien abduction. We are in Australia doing the Eco-Challenge. We are in first place for the moment.
This will soon end.
No doubt you have heard of the growing sport of adventure racing. It's that thing you saw on the Discovery Channel, ESPN, Outdoor Life Network, MTV, Wide World of Sports and Dateline NBC. A 2-3 hour sprint event or a 350-mile "expedition competition" like the Eco-Challenge or the Raid Gauloises, this could be your next race.
Do you work well as a member of a team? Races typically are for co-ed teams of three to five people.
Do you like outdoor sports and camping? The shortest of the races will have you paddling, mountain biking and trail running. The big races take a week or more and provide ample opportunities for climbing, rappelling, crossing glaciers, rivers or deserts, mountaineering, rafting, canoeing, kayaking, mountain biking, horse or camel riding and lots of map and compass navigation. You provide the accommodations, typically in the form of a space blanket.
Adventure racing came to the United States in the form of the 1995 Eco-Challenge held in southeastern Utah. It was patterned after the French-organized Raid Gauloises, which had been popular in Europe for several years. Oh, I remember it well, the pioneering days of American adventure racing. Back then it was so hard that we had to.... Sorry.
Flashback. I know what you're thinking. You've decided that you want to try this. There is just not enough pain in your life these days. Miles 21 through 25 in your last marathon weren't so bad, now that you think about it. "I can suffer with the best of them," in the comfort of your own home.
Back to Australia. We are running again. I don't recognize many stars, because I am in the Southern Hemisphere. There's the Southern Cross - their version of the Big Dipper. Better to keep my eyes fixed on the feet of the person in front of me. Two other teams now run with us. No one talks. Twelve adventure racers running down a road in the outback, sounding not unlike a dozen people jogging while wearing backpacks.
We only run that night for about 20 miles. It's a good thing there are only 330 miles to go! For the rest of that race, we walk instead of run when travel is by foot. We have to. Already two on our team are having problems. One with her feet, the other from the heat. More than a week later, we finish near the bottom of the rankings. At least we finish as a team. There were moments when that was certainly in question.
Don't be surprised in your first long adventure race if the voice in your head sounds a lot like that one you hear late in the marathon. It's the same one, but this time expect to have it as a constant background noise. Think you can get used to, "This sucks, this sucks, this sucks..."?
My favorite answer to the question of why do I do these things is, "It feels good when it stops." Then again, so does hitting yourself in the head with a hammer. But seriously, folks...
Pick up a race calendar for this year. Find something close to home and round up a few running partners. You should have several races to choose from of various disciplines and lengths. If you want to be home by dinner, a sprint race is your best bet. These might have you paddling an inflatable canoe in a lake for a mile or two, mountain biking for 15 miles or so and trail running maybe 10 miles. Expect to race for 2-4 hours. Some events throw in a form of testing or obstacles that the team must complete together. These can be very exciting and at the same time frustrating. Past sprint races have had teams carrying hay bales, climbing cargo nets and vertical walls, putting up tents, assembling puzzles and shooting paint guns for accuracy. Races have been won and lost in the rapid turn of events caused by these "special tests."
Costs for sprint adventure races are a bargain when you consider the logistics that go into a multi-sport, cross-country race. A couple hundred bucks split between the three or four of you should do the trick. A race that lasts half a day may set you back $500. If you go longer than 24 hours, don't be shocked with a registration fee of $1,000. What it takes for a team, their gear and support crew to get overseas for an expedition-length race is another matter.
Put it this way, if you fund a team yourself, one of your kids had better win a college scholarship.
You get to play with lots of fun toys in an adventure race. Other than your bike and the gear you carry and wear, everything will be provided by the event organizers. No, you won't have to bring your own horse and keep him in the kayak with you. All races publish lists of whatever gear you will need to safely negotiate the course. Your proficiency with this gear and in some special skills will be tested before you are allowed to start. Count on it.
It's a great idea to put yourself through an adventure school before you take on a race a day or longer in duration. The schools are typically staffed by experienced racers who keep no secrets. This is one unique aspect of the sport - people you may race against someday are eager to tell you all they can about how to beat them! Lessons are too numerous and painful to learn only in the actual races. Adventure school courses last 2-5 days, depending on whom you go with. Seriously consider one.
One great way to decide if you really want to subject yourself to a long race is to go out and hike for 24 hours straight. Carry enough food, have a water supply, bring a friend and stop as little as possible. Select a route that enables you to return to the car a couple of times. Not only will it serve as a support site, but late at night the voices in your head will beckon you to get in and drive home. Ignore them! When you are at your lowest point on that 24-hour test hike, make your decision to do a long race or not. I am not kidding. Whatever you decide is the right thing for you.
Finally, pick teammates you respect and trust. Avoid racing with government officials (just kidding!). They might as well be people you like and can have fun with, because you are in for something very special when it comes to adventure racing. Hope to see you out there!