As I prepare for the Eco-Challenge North American Qualifier race being hosted by the city this week, I find myself answering the same questions from friends, co-workers, neighbours and sponsors--"How did you get involved in this crazy sport? Why do you do this to yourself? What does it take to make it through the race?"
Adventure racing has become the new measuring stick of perseverance for endurance sports. In the 70s it was the marathon, in the 80s it was the Ironman Triathlon and now through the turn of the century the bar has been raised with adventure racing. The sport combines a number of endurance events with the added challenge of navigation. Teams of four must make their way to designated checkpoints using map and compass. The race directors set the disciplines used between checkpoints, however it is up to the team to choose their route. The duration of the race varies. Sprint races typically last only a few hours, while the Eco Challenge races can be up to 12 days. The Qualifier race lies in between at three to six days.
I suppose I have been unconsciously training for adventure racing my entire life. I grew up in Sault Ste. Marie and thanks to my active family, came to appreciate athletics and the outdoors at a very young age. By the time I left home for university, I had already put in many years of competition in Nordic skiing, swimming, cycling and running. Upon moving to the warmer climes of Southern Ontario for school, I poured all of my energies into mountain bike racing. After six years of bike racing, I succumbed to the pressure from my partner in crime, Lawrence Foster, and gave adventure racing a try in 1999. When I lined up for the start of my first adventure race, I had been competing in endurance sports for over twelve years.
Lawrence, who had already been adventure racing for a couple of seasons had followed an entirely different path. Though he also grew up in the Sault enjoying the outdoors, he learned to appreciate them more from the seat of a dirt bike than a mountain bike. Winter was not for skiing it was for snowmobiling. Throughout high school, the only "athletic" endeavours Lawrence undertook were those required during his shifts bouncing at the local bars. Beneath this exterior though he also had a passion for mountaineering, hunting, and exploring the shores of Lake Superior while rock and ice climbing.
There is no perfect recipe for building the perfect adventure racer. Perhaps one of the most important character traits is adaptability. The complement of skills necessary is so diverse that virtually anyone can develop a niche within the sport if they can adapt to constantly changing environments. A successful team needs members with different personalities, strengths and weaknesses. Over the course of the race, members need to be able to change roles quickly to adapt to the constantly changing disciplines, terrain, weather and emotional state of the team. When you are racing around the clock, there are many cycles of highs and lows. The trick is to capitalize on highs and minimize the losses when the team is at a low point.
There is very little glamour in adventure racing. There is no such thing as the term "weather permitting." There is no end to the day. During my first expedition race in Brazil, I was surprised that during the fourth day of the race I had no idea what day it was, nor did I care. I had become focused on the moment and that was what hooked me on the sport. During a race, time stops and I can experience the natural world. I travel through remote places never seen during my everyday life.
When I tell people about the sport, they often think that I must be some type of super hero. Quite the opposite is true. I have come to fully respect the physical limits of my body. The challenge of the sport is knowing these limits and successfully working around these constraints. For example, the body cannot go non-stop for days on end. Adventure racers need to rest to avoid the dreaded "sleep monster." This creature possesses weary racers late in the night and transforms them into zombies. Lawrence and I have perfected the art of sleeping while walking, riding and paddling. My team tries to take short naps every day in the early morning right around sunrise. By falling asleep while it is still dark and waking up just after sunrise, we feel like we are tricking our bodies into thinking that 30 minutes is as good as an entire night's sleep.
Racing is an entirely humbling experience. Injuries and pain are almost a given. My legs have become totem poles of my experience. Road rash from Mexico, coral reef gash from Brazil, infected splinter scar from Elliot Lake and toenail fungus courtesy of Fiji. The smallest scratch on Day 1 can later bring racers down with systemic infection. Lawrence's teammate Dave Zietsma almost lost a finger due to infection from a small wound incurred early in last year's Eco Challenge in Fiji. It is amazing how the body can cope with pain during the race and continue moving towards the finish line. Then it usually comes back with a vengeance. It is, however, much easier to deal with aches and pains when you are surrounded by the creature comforts of a bed, clean clothes and unlimited food and drink!
During the race, we stuff ourselves with as much high calorie junk as possible including every energy bar and drink you can imagine, chocolate, chips, candy, beef jerky and pepperoni-the more calories, the better. However the novelty of eating wears off very quickly. Dehydration often causes nausea and poor digestion. It is a vicious circle once it gets started. When you are tired, you forget to drink, dehydration sets in, your stomach gets upset and you stop eating which ultimately causes your fatigue to worsen until you hit the wall. Endurance athletes call this condition the big "bonk" and it is not pretty. Until you are able to get food and water back into your system, you are reduced to a pathetic, exhausted lump. There is thankfully life after the bonk and the beauty of adventure racing is that the events are so long, that you get many chances to redeem yourself after you make mistakes. It is not your second wind, which helps you cross the finish line; it is your thirtieth or fiftieth.
Once you cross that line, the simple act of brushing your teeth becomes glorious. I love to revel in the modern conveniences of life after a long race. Indoor plumbing, the barbecue, icy cold beverages, television and poolside deck chairs become the world's most marvellous inventions. To celebrate an end to the suffering, every race has an after party where all the athletes tell tall tales of their experiences on the course. The more miserable and gruelling the race, the bigger the party afterwards. Fireworks, food, drink, and live music are usually in abundance. It is incredible the dance moves racers are capable of when lubricated with tequila even with feet that look like hamburger. The after party on July 26th here in the Sault will be no exception!
Adventure racers are a colourful lot. They all have different backgrounds and unique reasons for being at the start line. They compete for much more than just to win. If these athletes wanted simply glory, the top competitors would surely choose an easier path to athletic success, or at least one with higher payback. Often the payout for the winners barely covers the cost of registration and travel to the event. True to life, it is the experience of the journey that these athletes covet, not the finish line itself.
Racing has taught me important skills which I take advantage of in other aspects of my life. I have learned the true value of teamwork, to define priorities, manage crisis, put aside differences to work together with people to reach a common goal and communicate more effectively. The lists sounds like the objectives of a corporate training weekend getaway! These skills are the first things that we were supposed to have learned in our early development. Think way back to Kindergarten_ report cards didn't grade students on English, math and science. We were evaluated on the basics--our sharing skills, ability to listen and get along well with others. Sometimes along the way, after all the maths and science, we loose touch of some of the fundamentals. Adventure racing for me has been an accelerated refresher course on how to be a compassionate human being. It is a reminder that I am a mere mortal.