Triathlons on Steroids

Feel like kayaking, biking, and bushwhacking for a whole day? Adventure racing is the sport for you.

Cynthia Royer stared up the face of a mountain that was threatening to end her marriage. Every muscle in her body was reprimanding her for spending twelve hours going uphill on a mountain bike in 104-degree weather. Her husband, Karl, no less fatigued, fought gravity behind her. The couple’s exhaustion was taking an emotional toll and words were being exchanged that they knew they’d soon regret.

Cynthia and Karl, both public works managers in Hayward, are competitive adventure racers. Like their friends and teammates in the close-knit Bay Area racing community, their lives revolve around a relatively young sport that might be described as a wilderness triathlon on steroids. In stark contrast to their desk jobs, evenings and weekends find them on a demanding training schedule: a thirty-mile mountain bike ride, or perhaps a three-hour kayaking trip or an eight-mile run, each day. Why do they do this? Cynthia, who ultimately chose to terminate her ride that day, said, “I didn’t want to sit on the couch, smoke cigarettes, and miss life.”

Born of man’s love for nature and thirst for physical challenge, the worldwide sport of adventure racing demands flexibility, strength, teamwork, and endurance. Teams of four, which are usually coed, get a map with checkpoints noted and are responsible for getting themselves to each checkpoint using the means of transportation dictated. A single race might involve all of the following: kayaking, mountain biking, trekking, horseback riding, and wading through a canyon.

“Sprint races” serve as an introduction to the sport and involve less than six hours of racing. Longer races go for 24 hours or more. Multiday races are called expedition races, and are unique in that the clock does not stop at night. Teams often carry heavy packs, race on less than two hours of sleep per night, and strategize to take advantage of the changing temperatures and conditions as the day goes on.

Depending on how the race is set up, equipment, food, and water are driven from checkpoint to checkpoint for participants in a “supported” race (i.e., so bike shoes are ready and waiting), or racers have to carry rations and equipment with them (“unsupported”). The orienteering aspect of adventure racing can be an asset to those who navigate faster than they can ride, but even the best navigators have found themselves hiking two miles up the wrong mountain at some time or another. Although youthful energy has its merits, the older participants who compete in 24-hour or expedition races often beat their younger competitors. Ex-triathletes and marathoners are only too happy to trade battering their knees for the advantage of maturity and patience while navigating unfamiliar territory in the middle of the night.

Wacky training methods abound, according to John Turner, founder of a Bay Area adventure racing organization. You might see someone at your gym spending a few hours on the StairMaster wearing a weighted frame backpack. Some of the more bizarre antics include towing a shopping cart in the water while kayaking and working out in a sauna to get the body used to the oppressive heat of some races. Such techniques do pay off; Turner said he once had to paddle a punctured kayak for three hours as it filled with water.

Through the 1980s, various multisport races covering long distances took place around the world, but adventure racing began in its current form in 1989 with the enterprise of Frenchman Gerald Fusil. Fusil a created an expedition race called the Raid Gauloises, consisting of 400 miles of continuous racing with coed teams moving across forbidding terrain. Mark Burnett, a British expat and a former member of the elite Airborne Infantry in his home country, was on the first American team to compete in the Raid Gauloises. By 1995 he had created his own expedition race, the Eco Challenge. Burnett managed to get the race televised every year, and in doing so, stirred the imaginations of a generation of new adventure racers.

First aired on MTV, the Eco Challenge soon moved to ESPN as part of the X Games, and finally to the Discovery Channel, where Burnett’s huge budget resulted in a soaring exhibition of the limits of human performance, set against dramatic backdrops from Utah’s deserts to the wilds of Borneo. (Burnett parlayed that success into his next venture, producing a man-meets-wild summer television show called Survivor — and the rest is reality TV history.)

The Eco Challenge changed the lives of countless people across the country. Triathletes, weekend warriors, and couch potatoes alike were mesmerized by the Emmy Award-winning broadcasts of lithe teams tearing through jungles, kayaking across seas, scuba diving, and more. Says racer Rich Brazeau of Redwood City: “Ninety-nine percent of viewers thought they were crazy, but 1 percent thought ‘I’d like to do this.'”

Brazeau, a lean, muscular man with the telltale scrapes and scratches of an adventure racer, was living in Washington, DC, when his television set introduced him to adventure racing via the Eco Challenge. A former college basketball player, Brazeau said he had been getting bored with his exercise routine. “But I had no outdoor experience — I had never even gone mountain biking. It was such an amazing thing. It was ultra-endurance but with exploration, like Magellan or Columbus.”

That very weekend, Brazeau called up an outdoors outfitter and asked to be left with a canoe in a river and picked up fifty miles downstream. Brazeau went armed with a family two-pack of Kentucky Fried Chicken and two bottles of water. He’d eaten it all within three hours and he was starving, but he was hooked nevertheless on the masochism inherent in adventure racing.

Now that Mark Burnett is channeling his energies into pursuits such as Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?, the Olympics of racing is surely Primal Quest, an annual ten-day trek into challenging territory. PQ, as it is known, has taken participants to starkly beautiful US locations: Telluride, Colorado; Moab, Utah; and, this year, the Badlands of South Dakota. Brazeau, who had been organizing races as a hobby since 2001 and working in software, found himself tapped to be CEO of the enterprise in 2004. His Moab race was one of the largest ever held, in both budget and scope, with horseback riding, rappelling, canyon swimming — and $250,000 in prize money.

Although the sport is young, it is technically possible to be a professional adventure racer. The labels of sponsorship grace a few teams lucky enough to benefit from paid travel or free gear. Cynthia and Karl Royer’s sponsorship was from the CyclePath bicycle store in Hayward, and the hypercompetitive Team Nike figures prominently in big-purse races. Mostly, though, racers are competing for the glory; anything from a free T-shirt to a few hundred dollars might be the biggest material reward.

Since adventure racing at any level approaching serious involves a demanding training schedule, occasional travel, and lots of gear, the sport can be daunting in terms of time and cost. Racers tend to be in their thirties and forties with steady 9 to 5 jobs — financially secure enough to finance their trips and equipment, and with a schedule reliable enough to meet teammates in the evenings for training.

Adventure racers also tend to be married with small children, which creates its own set of complexities. Racer Thomas Bastis of South San Francisco, a former competitive cyclist who used to compete in fourteen adventure races per year, had to make some concessions when his children came along. “My wife is understanding … to a point! Now I compete six to eight times a year, and it’s mostly local,” he said. He squeezes in extra training time by participating in events such as trail runs, and by “working out at work. … I’m a golf course superintendent, so I’m outdoors anyway. I commute to work on my bike. I can hike around on the golf course with weights.”

Racer Bill Schwaab of the highly ranked Dancing Pandas team, a San Carlos father of four who traded ho-hum triathlons for the thrill of adventure racing, credits his understanding wife with making it possible to spend hours training for adventure races like Primal Quest. “She had to get used to some of the team aspects. … There’s a commitment to be with your team at certain times.” His children, while excited to track his adventure racing progress in real time via the Internet, still worry about their dad’s antics. “I come back from a race bruised and scratched up and they give me the ‘why aren’t you more careful’ looks,” he said.

Unlike signing up for a triathlon online and simply showing up, another challenge of adventure racing is coordinating team members to be in the same place at the same time for a race. Many teams fly in to races from different states on a regular basis. “It’s hard to [agree on] a race schedule with three other people,” Bastis said. “We’re all going through different dynamics and changes careerwise; sometimes you have the money, sometimes you don’t.” Racers’ conflicting schedules can make it impossible to compete in a given race.

Though adventure racing is a difficult sport technically and logistically, Todd Jackson of Lake Tahoe is optimistic about the future. His company, Seventh Wave Productions, specializes in producing competitions for sports such as windsurfing, triathlon, or trail running. His popular adventure race series, Big Blue Adventures, features sprint divisions as well as longer races, offering plenty of opportunities for winning a championship in one’s division. “The attention span of our populace is getting shorter,” he said. “Adventure racing has multiple sports and a social aspect that you don’t get at work or school anymore.”

Hard-core racers have found their lives changed immeasurably. Schwaab trains twenty hours a week to prepare for moments like guiding teammates down a cliff to safety at 3 a.m. on a misty West Virginia night. Turner found himself pushing the limits of his endurance at Primal Quest after bidding on an Eco Challenge video on eBay. Cynthia Royer sums up the mentality of the adventure racer: “I gained a ton of muscle. I feel good about myself. My husband and I have learned how to communicate efficiently as a team. We love it.”

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