The first event will be a 500-foot climb up the face of a mountain and a rappel down the other side. That will be followed by whitewater kayaking and swimming events, an aerial obstacle course with commando lines and Burma bridges and a jousting match 20 feet above a raging river.

When the CBS cameras start rolling next month in the mountains of southern New Zealand, eight men will be competing in a tailored-for-television sporting circus called "Survival of the Fittest." First prize will be $15,000 and bragging rights to the title of leanest, meanest, grittiest athlete in the whole macho world.

Dan Schnurrenberger doesn't sound ready for the role.

"I just hope I don't embarrass myself," said the 26-year-old Silver Spring kayaking and canoeing champion, who has soft brown curls and the face of a choir boy. "I wouldn't bet on myself."

Schnurrenberger is too modest. He has been national men's wildwater kayaking champion for the past three years and represented the United States in the last two world whitewater championships. He has tamed more wild rivers than the Army Corps of Engineers and has the torso of a comic book hero.

He may not have much experience with pugile sticks and cliff hanging, but he has already earned a master's degree in survival.

For the last three winters, Schnurrenberger lived in the unheated attic of a boathouse beside the Potomac. His doorway was an open window reached by a 20-foot rope climb. Last year, he earned only $4,500 and spent as much time under the hood of his ailing pickup truck as he did behind the wheel. His wife of three months is pregnant and he is up to his gunwales in debt.

"Sometimes, things can get real intense," said Schnurrenberger last week as he stood beside the C&0 Canal, getting ready to paddle into a pink sunset. "But it's how you handle the bad breaks that makes the difference."

Schnurrenberger trains with many of this country's best canoeists and kayakers at the Washington Canoe Club, whose headquarters are a green, Victorian-style boathouse on the Potomac. Even in that community of remarkable athletes, Schnurrenberger is considered special.

"Dan is so strong, so quick and so agile," said Chic Dambach, a member of the club who helped introduce Schnurrenberger to flat-water paddling three years ago. "From the very beginning you could tell he'd be the best someday."

Schnurrenberger has a light, bubbly personality that seems unsuited to his stern attachment to training. For the sake of his sport, he has lived his entire adult life below the poverty level, suffered domestic distress and spent seven years at the University of Maryland getting an undergraduate degree in agronomy.

"I thought he was going to collect Social Security before he graduated from college," said Schnurrenberger's father, Bud, a veterinarian with the Agriculture Department. He said it sympathetically, but it was apparent it was not the first time he'd said it. "It's been kind of a chore for him."

Ask Schnurrenberger what motivates him to make the sacrifices and he shrugs. "There's no money in it," said the 5-foot-10, 170-pounder. "You just have to love it."

The prize money being offered in the "Survival of the Fittest" contest ranges from the $15,000 for first place to $1,000 for last. By the standards of most professional sports, that's small change. But for Schnurrenberger, who hasn't made $15,000 in three years of reading patents part time for a private invention marketing company, it is a tidy sum for a week's work. Throw in a free trip to New Zealand and the national television exposure and it would appear to be an offer he couldn't refuse.

But when Schnurrenberger was first contacted four weeks ago by CBS officials, he balked.

"I had to do a lot of soul searching," he said. "With my final exams, getting married and trying to make some money, I hadn't been training like I should during the winter. And the other athletes in it impress the hell out of me."

Among the six Americans in the contest are Kevin Swigert, a cross-country skier from Idaho who has won the 4-year-old competition the past two years, and Scott Tinley, who recently won the "Iron Man" competition in Hawaii. Tinley finished a two-mile ocean swim, a 115-mile bicycle race and a marathon run so far ahead of everyone else, he had time to shower and change before the second-place finisher arrived. The other two competitors will be mountain climbers from Japan and New Zealand.

Schnurrenberger never has run more than 10 miles at a time. And although the "Survival" running event is only 2 1/2 miles, it is all over hills.

"There used to be a lot of jokes about my legs," said Schnurrenberger, who has been called "Birdlegs" more times than he cares to remember. "That will be my weakness. I'm just going to have to go berserk."

His strength, he says, may be mental. He has studied some in martial arts and Zen philosophy. And his powers of concentration are legend in the kayak and canoe community.

"I don't want to sound like G. Gordon Liddy, but it's not always the best athletes that win," said Schnurrenberger. "Sometimes, it's who has the most willpower."

And if the last few years of low-budget living haven't swamped his resolve, he doesn't think anything as trifling as a New Zealand mountain can. Ask him when the pressures of family and finances will force him off the river and into the mainstream and Schnurrenberger talks about Los Angeles and the next Olympics.

"I can put it off until 1984."