The MisFits: Adventure Racers Get a Physical and Mental Workout

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By Lenny Bernstein
Tuesday, September 29, 2009

VentureQuest should come with one of those disclaimers you see with certain TV commercials: "Parental supervision required." Or "Kids! Don't try this at home!"

To be honest, I had no intention of tackling the 28- to 35-mile "adventure race" at Fountainhead Regional Park in Fairfax Station one recent Sunday. Race director Jim Harman had advised me that sections would be too difficult for someone who had never done any single-track off-road cycling. He said the race -- which includes cycling, trekking, canoe or kayak paddling, a surprise obstacle and lots of map- and compass-reading -- would probably take me more than nine or 10 hours, even if I were in good shape.

Neither of us wanted me to risk injury. Wait till next year, Harman advised, and try the beginner's race.

So what was I thinking when I took off running with the team of Kyle Bondo, Sid Billups and Kelly Sanderson as the race began at 8 a.m.? Really, I just wanted a taste of the endeavor that would consume the rest of their day.

But instead of sticking to the narrow trails, as I had assumed they would, Bondo's team immediately started bushwhacking through dense forest, bounding up and down grades so steep that I was scrambling to stay upright. Within 15 minutes they had left me far behind and I had fallen, turned an ankle and opened a nice-size gash on my thigh. It wasn't long before I stepped in Occoquan Reservoir muck, soaking one running shoe.

Soon all 200 racers were out of sight, leaving me alone in the woods to negotiate a river's-edge trail so sharply inclined that I had to cling to small trees as I headed back to the safety of the race photographer's truck.

Adventure racers. They're not like you and me.

"You've got to be comfortable with being uncomfortable," Harman said. "The people who persevere are the ones who are going to come out ahead."

You probably have at least a passing familiarity with adventure racing. "The Amazing Race," which sends contestants on a worldwide scavenger hunt by various means of transportation, is television's Emmy-winning twist on the sport.

Maybe you've seen cable channel coverage of the Eco-Challenge, Raid Gauloises or Primal Quest. Those ridiculously arduous races ask teams of superhuman athletes to pay thousands of dollars for the privilege of trekking over mountains, rappelling down sheer rock faces, shooting rapids and generally risking life and limb while becoming increasingly irritated with one another.

(In the world of adventure racing, such multi-day challenges are considered "expedition" length, while VentureQuest and its ilk are mere "sprints.")

What makes adventure races such as VentureQuest more than just wet, woodsy triathlons is the orienteering involved. To complete a course, competitors must reach a variety of checkpoints, where they punch in with electronic keys worn around their necks. But they don't have to get to every single one; it's up to them to figure out, with the help of a map and a compass, the fastest route to the minimum number of required destinations.


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