Ever wondered whether you might be suited for adventure racing? Here's a short quiz to help you decide.
When I am severely sleep deprived, running a fever and nursing a sprained ankle, I like to:
A. Take two aspirin and call my doctor in the morning.
B. Take to my bed for several days' rest and recuperation.
C. Take a 30-mile cross-country mountain bike ride after dark, in the rain.
The answer, of course, is:
D. You wuss, the bike ride's just the warmup.
Tune in to cable channels such as the Outdoor Life Network or Discovery Channel and sooner or later you'll come across an adventure race. Stringing together a series of individual events -- such as mountain biking, trail-running, whitewater paddling, ropes courses and orienteering -- into one long competition, adventure races unfold over hours or days, and generally across rugged and remote country far from the comforts of dry clothes, hot meals and ready rescue. Teams of racers -- often coed -- have to depend on wit, skill, endurance, group coherence and steely determination to battle exhaustion, hunger, hypothermia, dysentery, foul weather, injury, emotional breakdown and equipment failure, rabid wildlife and all the other delights a race might throw at you. In short, adventure racing is a sport for people whose first thought after crossing the finish line of an Ironman triathlon would be, "Is that all?"
From my armchair, I've always thought adventure racing looked fun, presuming a definition of "fun" that includes generous helpings of mental and physical misery. Apparently, that's how a lot of racers get drawn in -- like Chris Rumohr of Fairfax. She saw a race on television and "it planted a seed," she says. At 39, she tried her first competition. Five years later, Rumohr says, "Often I'll get up at three or four in the morning to train, put in a full day at work, then go out and train again at night."
"Do I go to movies? No. Do I go out with my friends for beers? No," says Rumohr. Instead, she jaunts off on jolly training adventures such as the recent 19-hour "Winter Sortie": 44 miles by bike, 20 by foot, rain, mud and a run-in with llamas. Rumohr even maintains an informal e-mail newsletter she calls the A List (join by sending an e-mail to email@example.com) -- which now has close to 200 subscribers in the greater D.C. area -- to share news and link racers together.
"You just get hooked on this thing," she admits.
READY, SET, GO AND GO AND GO
Rumohr threw herself into adventure racing with a first event that required running, road- and mountain-biking, an obstacle course and a two-mile paddle with two portages. If you'd prefer easing in more slowly, then a Multisport race could be just for you. Launched by Mike Phillips and Jaci Lebherz, who themselves met through adventure racing, Multisport, based in Vienna, stages friendly, low-stakes competitions "to serve as an entry point for novice adventure racers," says its Web site.
Lebherz, who has the kind of enthusiasm that communicates itself in multiple exclamation points, recalls that while training together for a few events, she and Phillips "discussed how great it would be to have local training races that people could do in one day and recover on Sunday to go to work on Monday." It sounded like such a good idea that they decided to make it happen. Now Multisport gives people an opportunity to jump into adventure racing and get their feet wet -- literally; the December event, staged in Maryland on an icy day just after Christmas, included a scavenger hunt demanding periodic wades through the 38-degree Patapsco River.
"You've got to be prepared to trust your socks and your shoes, and you've got to know what hypothermia feels like," Phillips advised the assembled participants for that race, adding encouragingly, "We'll activate our search parties at 4 p.m."
Fortunately, no rescues were required. I spent the day trailing around Patapsco Valley State Park, learning the basic points of adventure racing, with Lebherz's and Phillips's friend Rob Jardeleza as my guide and interpreter. Adventure racing isn't much of a spectator sport; many a long and quiet interlude passed before a crashing in the undergrowth heralded a racer dashing past to disappear again among the trees. There was ample opportunity, then, to dig salient tips and the occasional war story out of Jardeleza.
A veteran of a couple of Eco Challenges and the Raid Gauloises, those suffer-fests you see on TV, Jardeleza said, "Adventure racing is a lifetime of experience, all the highs and lows, condensed down into eight hours or a couple of days."
Though he still trains every day, Jardeleza, a father of three, rethought his own international racing career while lying gravely ill with altitude sickness somewhere in the Himalayas.
"There are plenty of near-death experiences in adventure racing," he told me, a touch wistfully. "You can never train for every eventuality you might encounter." And invariably, he added, "Ninety percent of the race, you're wet and it's steep." Also, you're desperately cold, tired beyond anything you ever could have imagined and starving, burning 10,000 to 15,000 calories a day by living off of whatever you can carry in a pack and eating on the run.
"There was a year when I couldn't even look at a PowerBar," said Jardeleza.
Yet as the sun sank and the competitors straggled in, a wet and dirty Dan Deptula, who with teammate Eben Phillips placed first in the all-male division (there were also coed and single-racer categories), pronounced the experience "lots of fun." First-timers Dave Hauver and Victor Lin called it "rough but fun."
"It just keeps going," said Hauver wearily. "My legs aren't used to quite that much motion."
Would they do it again?
"Oh, yeah!" agreed Hauver and Lin in unison.
"You should try it," said Jardeleza, and Lebherz, and Deptula. In short order I found myself succumbing to this monstrous peer pressure. Some might even suggest I enthusiastically volunteered.
The next Multisport race, the first of 2003, was scheduled for a Saturday in late March. Jardeleza offered to be my partner. Lebherz would loan me her mountain bike. I set to slapping my aerobic conditioning into serviceable shape.
But a week before race day, I came down with the flu. As of race eve, any exertion more strenuous than checking my e-mail still brought on a consumptive coughing fit. In less than 12 hours I was scheduled to jump into a daylong, multistage athletic extravaganza. Only a person bereft of common sense and good judgment would proceed under such circumstances.
You see where this is going, don't you? Within minutes of arriving Saturday morning at Prince William Forest Park, near Quantico, I was taking lessons from Jardeleza about plotting our orienteering course for the day's first stage. After that would come a bicycle race over paved and dirt roads. Then paddling around a lake.
We had a list of 18 orienteering checkpoints -- or CPs -- we would have to locate within the park. We had a topographical map known as a UTM or "universal transverse mercator." After signing page after page of waivers agreeing that I would blame no one but myself for death, dismemberment or other incidentals, I followed Jardeleza's instructions for translating the written CP descriptions into little red dots on our maps.
"Orienteering is where all of us run into trouble," Jardeleza told me. "It's an art based on a science."
Multisport's rules allowed -- indeed encouraged -- us to split the orienteering CPs between us. Numbers 14 through 18 were deemed the "expert" portion of the course. I'd leave those to Jardeleza.
Ranger George Liffert, spiffy in his National Park Service uniform, was standing by smiling broadly, appearing to be enjoying the spectacle of gathering racers. Mike Phillips was prowling the picnic shelter grounds with nervous energy, addressing all comers generically as "Dude" and frequently appearing to be talking loudly to himself. In fact, he was wired to a tiny mobile-phone earpiece and communicating with an all-volunteer race staff manning a course that sprawled over miles of parkland.
"Mike slaves over the course for weeks," Jardeleza said. "But there are so many variables involved." Unexpected complications arise. Weather and course conditions change.
Today, though, the sun was climbing into a nearly cloudless sky and the air was pleasantly mild. As if by tacit agreement, no one seemed to be speaking of the war that had just begun in Iraq; possibly all of us were grateful to be liberated from minute-by-minute updates. Sprawled about the parking lot and around the picnic shelter, racers short on body fat and long on Lycra were plotting their courses and chatting, stretching, changing clothes, chugging down sports drinks and energy bars, adjusting packs and inflating bike tires. Car trunks and pickup beds and Rubbermaid bins disgorged heaps of gear that littered the ground around each racer.
If adventure racing doesn't kill you, the gear list will bankrupt you. Jardeleza told me he owns 20 different pairs of shoes for every conceivable configuration of outdoor sport and weather condition. A (partial) list of racer Jamie Webster's equipment included three backpacks, six or seven different kinds of lights, multiple pairs of gloves, a bike, a carbon-fiber paddle, three life jackets, an ice axe and an avalanche receiver. Rumohr added, among other items, a wet suit, knee and elbow pads, and a Boogie board (for whitewater swimming, in case you wondered). Don't forget the carabiners and climbing harnesses and the fleecewear and the polypropylene and the SmartWool socks. And the ibuprofen.
If it's any consolation, racer Lisa Hansel insists, "You don't need high-end gear to play, just to win."
At any rate, the key seems to be knowing how to use the least amount of equipment necessary at any given point. Jardeleza was dressed in bike shorts, a shirt of some microweight fabric and a teeny-tiny little waist pack roughly the size of a throat lozenge, just about big enough to carry the two aspirins and a Kleenex that presumably are all Jardeleza needs for a couple of days in the wilderness. CamelBaks, those sleek, strap-on water bladders with pockets, were heavily favored among the rest of the crowd. Me, I had shouldered a whacking big albatross of a day pack.
"Extra pens," I said to Jardeleza, gesturing at the pack.
Shortly before 10 a.m., Mike Phillips gathered the racers together for a briefing.
"This is like boot camp," he said. "We've got no money, so enjoy yourselves." Winners would get a T-shirt and free entry in the next Multisport race.
"Okay, go!" said Phillips. Everyone sprinted for the woods.
"Do you want to run?" asked Jardeleza courteously.
Run? I wanted to throw myself on the ground and have someone bring me a blanket, hot tea and periodic race updates.
"Um, how about we speed-walk?" I suggested. By the time we gained the woods, maybe 200 yards away, everyone had disappeared. We were alone on a scenic forest path, but this was not the time, I could see, for exclaiming delightedly over passing chickadees and gay blossoms dancing in the breezes. Jardeleza had his game face on.
He pointed out where we were on our maps, and I nodded as though I actually had any idea what I was looking at, while furiously reviewing all I knew about topographical maps: When the lines get closer together, the angle of rise is steeper.
"We are surrounded by hills," I concluded with keen perception. Over the next few hours of orienteering, we dashed up each and every one of them. Slapping aside small branches and underbrush, hacking up random bits of my respiratory system, I kept going mostly on pride. Then the fresh air worked its magic and I started feeling -- well, "good" would be a grotesque overstatement, but at least less in need of the immediate application of supplemental oxygen. Meanwhile, Jardeleza may have broken a sweat, but I doubt it.
The orienteering CPs were each marked by an orange and white nylon flag, hung from a tree and dangling a numbered tag and a plastic punch with its own unique configuration of small, sharp points; we punched the corresponding numbered blocks in our race "passports," small squares of waterproof paper. With Jardeleza guiding, we knocked off CPs 1 through 6. Then, with a wave and a "Good luck," Jardeleza turned me loose to find 7 to 13 on my own.
Alone now against the wilderness, what daunting obstacles might I face?
A couple of senior citizens strolled by walking their dog.
"Hi," I waved, and resolutely unwrapped a PowerBar.
Okay, so it wasn't Amundsen at the Pole. Still, for the next hour or so I plodded through the forest steadily ticking off CPs with only a moderate degree of random blundering about. I seemed to have a knack for marrying my map-reading skills (none to speak of) with a vague instinct for where I was and where I ought to be. Or maybe it was just pure dumb luck.
I was heading toward what my map promised to be a fork in the path, where I believed I'd locate CP12, when I met a fellow racer. This was Karl Brockenbrough's first adventure race. "Orienteering is kind of nerve-wracking," he said, a sentiment I heartily seconded. The triumph of finding one checkpoint is replaced almost immediately with bewilderment and uncertainty as you go in search of the next. Karl and I jogged up the path, but when we came to a fork, there was no sign of CP12. He drifted one way, I wandered another. Then I heard a yell from Karl's direction. Hoping it meant "CP12 this way!" I changed course. Rounding a bend, I found another fork, and the sought-after 12. Thank you, Karl.
Soon after, I logged in CP13, and grimy, scratched, sweaty and tired but triumphant, I clambered out of a ravine and headed for the picnic shelter. Other than wanting to ditch my dorky daypack, I was having a great time.
Given my blistering morning pace, most of the other competitors had long since passed through to the bicycling stage. Lisa Hansel, however, was waiting for her husband and teammate, Cary, who was still orienteering.
"My husband and I usually do these together," Hansel said. "It's a way to spend time together. We like getting outside together when it's nice."
Tom and Deb O'Donnell offered the same reason for racing together when they came rolling in on their bicycles, first-place finishers in just under four hours. Parents of four children, Tom and Deb get up early every morning to train with each other. They've been doing adventure races for three years. Their winning strategy for the day, they said, was "good orienteering."
What they like about adventure racing, said Deb O'Donnell, is "the camaraderie. Everyone's willing to help you out. We've met the nicest people."
Denelle Grant, who placed second in the coed division with teammate Mike Runnals, agreed. Hanging out after the race is sometimes the best part. "Once you get involved with a bunch of racers, then you're stuck. It becomes a social event," she said.
Talking with returning racers, I had been sitting still -- well, sprawled, really, rather like a shipwreck upon a shoal -- exactly long enough to realize I had no desire, and less energy, to rise again, when Jardeleza came jogging up looking fresh and wholly unfatigued.
"You ready?" he said, pausing only to slip into his bike shoes.
I got on the bike.
As it happens, bicycle road-racing was once my sport. True, my team role ran heavily to comic relief. Nevertheless, not so very long ago I was logging thousands of miles annually in the saddle. I imagined, then, that I'd really hit my stride when we hit the road.
Alas, pride goeth before the bicycling stage. Almost before we'd rolled out of the parking lot, an empty, rubbery feeling where my quadriceps were supposed to be informed me that, contrary to my hopes, I was about to have a really, really bad ride. On the first hill, I watched the speed on my bike computer drop through the single digits. My calves tied themselves into square knots. Waving Jardeleza on, I crawled through the first bike lap. If a team is only as strong as its weakest member, things were not looking good for Team Rob-and-a-Writer.
I wanted to finish the race. I could have finished the race. Eventually. Within the calendar year, certainly. But influenza was having the last word, and it wasn't a nice one.
A good adventure racer rises above such impediments.
"You are not an adventure racer," hissed my insidious Inner Sloth.
My teammate would have gone the distance, but I was just a goner. What I did next, then, is technically known as "short-coursing," though I prefer the term "artistic license." Skipping the final bike laps, we headed for the paddling start, acquiring a full complement of bleeding wounds wading through a sea of briers on the way. Knocking off just one of two loops by canoe on a lake, we mercifully headed for the finish.
"No matter what you said to yourself, no matter how you promised yourself you'd never do this again, it disappears as soon as you cross that finish line," says Rumohr. Back at the picnic shelter, Phillips and Lebherz had laid out a copious caloric spread heavy on the fats and carbohydrates, and while stuffing cookies with two fists, I started wondering. What if I trained harder next time? What if I hadn't been sick? Didn't I owe it to myself to find out? Didn't I owe it to Jardeleza, who had gone down uncomplainingly with my sinking ship?
Staggering to my car, I stopped briefly to chat with Wendy Abner and her partner, Pat Spalding, from Fredericksburg, who were happy to have completed their second race. "We were hooked after the first one," said Abner.
Multisport -- P.O. Box 956, Vienna 22183-0956, 703-946-3626. www.multisportraces.com. The next two races are scheduled for April 26 and June 14. The first Multisport 24-hour event will be staged in July. More information about adventure racing can be found at the United States Adventure Racing Association's Web site at www.usara.com.
Caroline Kettlewell's adventure racing career will have to wait until she completes her upcoming book, "Electric Dreams," a true story of polar opposites, to be published by Carroll & Graf in 2004.