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Adventure Racing: The next step.
By Tom Demerly.

 


Eco-Challenge Adventure Racing School 1997

In 1983 I did my first triathlon. It had a kind of new, funky "cult" feeling to it. There was only one or two races in Michigan, only a few people in each. We were considered exotic athletes. The event was "extreme". In 1986 I did my first Ironman: Hawaii. About five people from Michigan had done an Ironman.

Today, at least 15 people from Dearborn have finished an Ironman, and well over a hundred in Michigan. What was once "exotic" is now a reasonable and attainable goal for dedicated fitness athletes.

What's the next step? Adventure racing.


Sahara Desert, Marathon Des Sables 1999.

Mark Burnett's Eco-Challenge and serialized, sensationalized "Survivor" television drama have put outdoor adventure competitions at the top of the fastest growing sports.


Point Mugu Adventure Race 1997

All the elements line up: Drama, outdoor exposure, team interaction and competition. The new lifestyle points people toward adventure racing. Sport utility vehicles have been popular for years. They are marketed to a new demographic who feel an association (real or imagined) to the outdoor, extreme lifestyle. The influx of females into endurance sports is larger now than ever. Every time females solidify their roles in endurance sports it brings more females into the fold. Endurance sports empower every person who participates, without regard for gender. Being empowered feels good.
Many sports are labeled "fastest growing", but adventure racing seems poised for a real explosion.


Navigation at Eco-Challenge School.


Team Phoenix #39 at Eco-Challenge British Columbia 1996.

The sport is not without its problems though. Expedition style races like Raid Gauloises are inaccessible and dangerous for novice competitors. They require a range of skills that take years to acquire and perfect. This accounts for pitifully low finish rates among teams. In an Ironman distance triathlon, usually well over 90% of the field finish. It is unusual for more than 15% of a field from an expedition length adventure race to finish.
Environmental issues are so profound that outdoor guru Yvon Chounaird, founder of Patagonia, lambasted the sport saying "Very little of what these people are doing is adventure". Eco-Challenge founder Mark Burnett took his event outside the United states after the 1995 Utah race because of complications dealing with the Bureau of Land Management (and difficulty recovering a six figure "bond" he put up against environmental damage the race may have done). Adventure races can have a negative impact on the environment if not properly administered.
Finding team members and organizing travel and logistics are big jobs, usually larger than the race itself. For all the teams who set out to "do an adventure race", probably only 1 in 20 make it to the start line. Getting to the start is as hard as getting to the finish.


First River Crossing, Eco-Challenge B.C.


99 Marathon Des Sables

As a result the sport is evolving. Shorter events with a more accessible format are exploding. The Hi-Tec Adventure Racing Series is the premier series in the U.S. A 3-6 hour duration event that requires simple skills and a small team that can either be co-ed or same gender; these races are competitor friendly. Tomorrow's Eco-Challenge competitors will come from today's Hi-Tec Series finishers. Just like triathlons. It's the next logical step.
In 1996 I did Eco-Challenge British Columbia. I went to the Eco-Challenge Adventure Racing School. In 1999 I did the Marathon Des Sables (a solo running, 152 mile adventure race across the Sahara in Morocco) and the Antarctic Marathon. Last year I did the Pathfinder Challenge in Northern Michigan. In each of these events- from British Columbia to the Sahara to the Antarctic, I saw familiar faces and had the feeling of a sport ready to explode. A new horizon with the same feeling I got on the pier in Hawaii in 1986. This year I'm headed back to the desert for the Desert Cup, a 105-mile, non-stop solo adventure-running race through the sands of Jordan in the Middle East. It feels like starting over again. A new sport with a new future and new wonder and promise.


96 Eco-Challenge Race Start.

In 1984 an exercise physiologist from a prominent California university said, "No one can complete an Ironman distance event without sustaining significant physiological damage." Perhaps these are the same people saying that Eco-Challenge and Raid Gauloises is "crazy", "extreme" or "impossible".

To me, it is the next logical step.

Adventure Racing Resources:

 

 

© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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