An Adventure Racer is Born
by Shawn Grenier
Imagine yourself sitting on the couch late one night flipping through the channels on your TV when you run across a show describing a human powered race covering about 300 miles of wilderness. When you get past the initial awe, you either think the athletes are crazy or you're feeling a bit interested yourself.
I was faced with that scenario in the spring of 1997 after watching the Discovery Channel Eco-Challenge in British Colombia. The athletes seemed just a bit insane. Riding horses, swimming icy rivers, facing glaciers and storms - could that be fun? About an hour into the coverage, I began to realize that, while the race was definitely extreme, it was within the realm of possibility. My introduction to adventure racing had begun.
Adventure racing's beginnings may be clouded, but it certainly has ties to most "off-road" human-powered pursuits. Most races contain four basic elements: travel on foot, on bike and on water, all tied together with a map and compass. Race distances vary significantly. While some of the first organized races covered many miles and several days, a whole array of smaller races have cropped up in the past two years. These smaller races are helping to bring the sport into reality for the average athlete. Not only are they usually a few hours to one day, they are also very affordable. But the bigger races still define the extreme nature of adventure racing, and most racers still look forward to their first expedition length race.
After 10 months of wondering how to actually break into the sport, a co-worker brought in an article from Fitness Runner magazine (Spring 1998) that described a school in San Francisco specifically for budding adventure racers. After a few quick phone calls to Duncan Smith, director of the Presidio Adventure Racing Academy, I signed up for a class scheduled to begin a few weeks later.
Next came the gear requirements. Adventure racing requires a lot of gear. With some trepidation, I laid down the plastic and began collecting the equipment and clothing I would need for class. Then in March, accompanied by my wife Jessyca, I was off to school.
Presidio spent two days covering the basic skills required in most races, then held a two-day race for the students. Teams of four students battled each other for the elusive victory.
In the end, the team I was on came in first. What a way to start off the sport! Well, kind of start off. Now I had to complete a real race.
Finding one I could do based on time, location and cost took me some time, but a year later I finally entered my first adventure race, The Endorphin Fix in West Virginia.
The Endorphin Fix carries a reputation; it's a very difficult race. The physical challenges are not insurmountable, but the speed of progression through the course is the barrier to many who start the race.
When the second member of my two-person team dropped out at the last minute, I hooked up with Brad Miller, an athlete who lives in Atlanta. We met literally four hours before the race began. Over 100 miles and 37 hours later, we crossed the finish line in second place.
Not bad for my first race. Even better when you consider that only a handful of the original 38 teams actually completed the course in the allotted time.
In the summer of 1999, I entered two more races, each of which were vastly different in skill and endurance requirements. First was one of the Hi-Tec series races. That one lasted only a few hours and proved to be similar to a triathlon, but it provided some different challenges.
The second race took place in Canada. I joined Team POWERADE to compete in a six-day race called Raid the North Extreme. The events included canoeing, hiking, climbing, mountain biking and sea kayaking. With breathtaking scenery and some very intense terrain, the whole event proved extremely difficult. We officially finished in seventh place (16 teams started the course), although we were unable to paddle the last 40 kilometers due to severe sea states on Lake Huron. Our team learned vast amounts about racing, team dynamics, and ourselves that made all the effort greatly worthwhile.
In 2000, I began the season with the Mega Dose, a 240-mile unsupported race through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and there were many more on the horizon.
Adventure racing involves many levels of commitment. If your interest lies in short, one-day races, the commitment level is low. If, however, you desire to race in the longer, expedition-style races, the commitment level rises quickly.
Racing through the wilderness in any capacity truly brings joy to most people and, in the end, you definitely learn something about yourself and the ability of our amazing human bodies.
Life is an adventure; race it.
Note: Shawn and his partner, Greg Bosworth, as Team Native, did not finish the 2000 Mega Dose. Here's Shawn's account of the outcome:
"The race was very challenging. Only five teams of 55 actually finished. My teammate and I finished 175 miles of the 240-mile course. It started with a 29 mile run, then a 35 mile canoe, 70 mile bike and we stopped after the 40 mile hike. I got a bit behind on fluid intake during the run and it caught up with me in the end."
Shawn Grenier is a Navy fighter pilot living in New Orleans. His athletic background includes AAU and collegiate water polo, road racing, marathons, triathlons and now adventure racing. He's been a Run America Club member since 1998. He is married to Jessyca, a landscape architect and mother of their daughter, Hunter.