The Philosophy – the “Zen” – of Adventure Racing

I’m sucked in.

I’m hooked. Possibly more than I can remember being hooked on anything before, and this is from “Mr. Addictive Personality.”

Why? What’s the fascination? I think it’s the complete mental and physical commitment required, and the fact that it’s something I’ve never done before, and something that is never the same twice; no race, no day, no set of circumstances is ever the same, and training to be able to survive anything, conquor anything, and keep going, somehow, is like a drug… to be able to say, to myself, that I finished… that’s a powerful aphrodesiac, indeed.

I’ve also been doing a fair bit of reading, including the “Hairy Scary” website, and especially a great book, that coincidentally I bought 2 years ago, and never read, entitled “Surviving the Toughest Race on Earth,” about the Raid Gauloises, the world’s first great race, and there are quotes and passages that speak to my soul, though in a masochistic sort of way, I suppose.

Anyway, here are some of the many passages that I have found that speak to the soul of AR, and to the people who race.

The call of AR: 

 “While prerace conversations are invariably full of back-slapping and well wishes, the subtext is apprehension to the point of horror. “How will I face myself if I quit?” competitors seem to be thinking. “Do I really have what it takes to finish?” They turn up to the raid as if it were sonar, testing the depths of their character by plumbing, over the course of its sleepless days and nights, what they might never discover in a lifetime of Ironman Triathlons.”

“Ostentation and glamour are stripped from competitor’s minds within the first hour. Self-delusion vanishes soon after. It is as close to being a search for truth as anything ever devised. To call it spiritual would be to exalt it, and the Raid is far too humble for that. It is merely a test of human character, where honest motivation is devined from action.

“Do I have what it takes to finish?” was the question within each competitor. None knew, even those who’d finished before. The Raid is about looking into your soul, something modern man finds uncomfortable. We are distracted constantly by telephones and televisions (and one could add computers and the internet), too many hours of work, and frustratingly long commutes. Modern life is not conducive to reflection, but the Raid is. By the time you finish, each member of every team will have had a chance to spend countless hours inside his or her own head.”

From “Surviving the toughest race on Earth,” by Martin Dugard.

On the importance of the Team: 

“I think what a lot of first-year teams fail to realize is how important team dynamics are in adventure racing,” says David Kelly, Team S.C.A.R. captain. “It’s no five out three back; it’s five out and five back! And, you have to figure out how to get five tired, worn out, sorry butts across the finish line.”

Another important aspect that many newly-organized teams fail to recognize is that you have to train at night, practicing every discipline of your upcoming race. And you have to train with other people because it is not about how fast you can run, ride or swim. It’s really not much about you at all except that you are physically fit and you are able to hang out with the rest of the team. It is more about communicating with your team and, as a group of people, being able to accomplish these goals.

Not everyone on your team will be an expert in any one technical discipline. Instead of a team of specialists, it’s better to have a team of generalists. Therefore, in my opinion, it is necessary to train together in a raft, on a rope or in a sea kayak to determine the strongest team member in that discipline and which people should sit together. A team needs to know what it’s like to train together after it gets dark. The same team that you meet in the coffee house to plan to do an adventure race is not the same group of people 48 hours into an adventure race. It is a team effort and a team needs to train together in disciplines in all types of weather, all types of terrain and in the cold, pitch black of 0300!

“Always, always look for a good navigator first,” says Utterback. “If you don’t have a navigator, you need to find either a man or woman who can read a map well and orienteer day or night, rain or shine. Without one, your team will be lost pretty much all the time. Second, each member must have a concerted interest in doing well together. What it comes down to, basically, is personality and physical ability. I always look for persoanality first! Physical ability can be trained.”

Now, a word about the “liability factor” – a fear that comes to one who has never competed in an adventure race. This person is titled as “the Unknown,” because he or she has never been tested like this before. Everyone has gone through it and it’s a terrifying fear – one that produces cold sweat nightmares and anxiety attacks at least one month before the start of an adventure race. But it is a healthy fear that will push you past your regular training regimes and limitations so you will not be the weak link.

On the Female Aspect

“The fact that it is mandatory for a woman to be on a team is good and I am that person because I can do those things. The downside is their expectations is that the female is the weakest one, that everyone has to have a girl, that the woman is going to slow down the team and that as long as she can keep up with the guys then that’s okay. But that is not how it is,” says world-clas adventure racer Cathy Sassin.

“I think it’s lonesome. I think that probably most women who do adventure racing will say that. You are the only one on the team. Four of anybody on a team are going to have something in common more so than one person out of four. But, all in all, I don’t have any complaints. Those guys took really good care of me. My biggest fear was that I was going to be the weakest link; that I was going to slow them down and I had nightmares and dreams about that for a long time before the race. Everyone takes turns being the weak link. But I thought that everyone was going to be put on a scale with the men being way up here and me being way down here because I was the sole woman on Team Odyssey. But, once you are out there, everyone has their ups and downs and that made it a little more palatable. But that was scary. It wasn’t the race – hiking, biking or paddling – it was the fear of being the liablity!

….However, I think that females should definitely do it! We need females in adventure racing and there needs to be more women in the sport. Just because you are the female on the team, don’t belittle your skills. Go out there and be as well rounded in your training and disciplines as possible,” says Joy Marr of Team Odyssey.

“There might be moments when I feel good and strong and see the guys suffer. You have to look at your other teammates and there are certain moments when I am stronger. There are moments when they are stronger than me, but in the end, it has to be balanced. I have to watch out for them and they have to watch out for me. We all have to cross the finish line together. That’s most important,” says Andrea Spitzer of Team Presidio.

On quitting a Race:

“I think it happens for everybody at sometime. I know that it will happen. I know that day is coming for me. I just don’t know where or when. The only thing I do know is that it will…it’s inevitable,” says Mitch Utterback, captain of Team Special Forces.

What does it feel like to quit a race like the RAID?

As they carried me to the medivac helicopter that freezing Argentine morning, a wholly unwanted image flooded my mind. I thought of the Madagascar RAID, where I watched a normally stoic German team break down after circumstance forced them from the race. What puzzled me most as I watched the Germans was how a simple contest could force men of infinite masculinity to weep as if they had lost a loved one.

I also remembered it was in Madagascar where I had seen a French squad abandon a teammate atop a towering windswept butte, at the same time abandoning their chances of winning. ‘She is a bitch,’ they shrugged in explanation, forgetting they had trained together for almost a year, pledging allegiance for the RAID’s arduous days and nights. At the time, I empathized with that lone woman. How she must have felt, watching her teammates go on without her after all that mental and physical preparation. In Patagonia, I found out. As the blue and white medivac helicopter lifted me from the course, I looked down from on high and saw my team continuing without me,. The tears began to fall right about then. The Raid Gauloises, I realized, is much more than a simple race. How does it feel to quit the Raid Gauloises? Like Death.

– An excerpt taken from chapter nine of “Surviving the Toughest Race on Earth,”; by Martin Dugard.

 On Age:

In a word, age does not matter. Some of the most accomplished adventure racers are in their forties and fifties, like Louiese Cooper Lovelace, John Howard, Robert Nagle, Don Mann and Jane Hall, and are still very strong after several days of racing. How? They approach the sport properly. Instead of trying to conquer, ignore or endure the pain, they are in tune with their bodies. For example, experience will tell them, “I have a headache. What does that mean to me physically? It means that I have to drink more fluids.” It seems that experience has a stronger force in these types of races than youth.

“I never think that I don’t want to go on. I would like to go out of this life moving,” says Team Sun Precautions Helen Klien, 73, who has completed 93 marathons and 101 ultra-distance marathons.

Klien’s age didn’t prevent her from becoming one of the 42 percent of competitors who made it to the finish of the Utah Eco-Challenge. “People who don’t know me obviously think that I shouldn’t be doing these things but anyone who knows me accepts it and supports me the whole way,” says Klien.

After watching Klien compete in the B.C. Eco-Challenge for the third time, she erased any excuse I had for why anyone can’t do this type of racing. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard, “I’m too old to do any of that.” Just get outside, exercise and experience the one life you have! Hey babe, this ain’t no dress rehearsal. Doing an adventure race has less to do with competition and infinitely more to do with finishing a personal exploration of one’s self.

About the Race: 

“For 10 relentlessly punishing days and nights, these daring teams of adventurers must mountain climb, paddle, trek, ride and race their way past the boundaries of human endurance not just to win, not merely to finish, but to uncover something deep and profound within themselves. For many, this quest will teach a humbling lesson in heartbreak but for an intrepid few, it could prove the ultimate victory of regions of their souls that may reveal themselves once their previous physical and mental limitations have been stripped away…”

This introduction or, better yet, warning, was at the beginning of the Discovery Channel Eco-Challenge – Australia.

Why AR is the greatest challenge: 

Marathon runners are in their cars and driving home within five hours after their race starts. Ironman triathletes are in bed at the end of their race day. There is not any adventure there – it is a known course of 26.2 miles. It is a measured time. It is measured performance. It is a measured road course. Adventure is rock and gravel or a snake on the road. In adventure racing you are worried about snake bites and dangerous flora and fauna. Your are worried if you are going the right way in a place you have never been. You don’t know what is going to happen. You are given a map and a compass and it’s completely up to you and your team. It’s the purest sense of adventure. It truly is an epic expedition. That is what struck my heart’s core the most. And so, the next day, I was shopping for mountain bikes and gear management.

Although adventure racers must possess many technical skills, including the ability to mountain climb and rappel from great heights, adventure racing goes beyond these skills. Each adventure racer must also understand the elements of navigation, self-sufficiency, sleep deprivation and teamwork dynamics to cross the finish line together as one cohesive unit.

Most adventure racers do not compete to win. They compete for personal growth in many areas, including the building of a team, the grueling physical conditioning, mastering navigational and team communication skills and meeting the challenge of every obstacle to finish. In the Raid, there are two types of competitors. There are racers and there are raiders. The racers race against each other to win. Raiders are competing with themselves just to finish together – going the distance, no matter what obstacles they may face mentally, physically and emotionally. These are the key elements that compel athletes to race in an expeditionary/adventure race.

“This is an exploration of your own personal world. An adventure race flings open about a hundred doors indide my head and my heart and if I allow myself to really look through those and see what’s on the other side, I’ll see a part of myself I’ve never seen before,” says Terry Schnieder of Team S.C.A.R.

“You have to be able to wrap your mind around something abstract. An Ironman knows exactly what his distance is going to be. He can tune his body up for twelve hours of extreme physical output. An adventure racer can’t do that because he doesn’t know what is going to happen in twelve hours. In these races, you can only plan for so much and then the unknown overcomes. So, you have to train your mind to wrap around the unknown,” says Jeff Westerfield of Team Atlanta.

What does this mean to a racer: 

~ “Out of everything I have ever done, adventure racing is the greatest, most challenging, most rewarding thing I’ve ever done, with the highest highs and the lowest lows,” says Mann. “And the greatest part about it is that I can continue to experience and share this experience with others over and over again. I believe it is the greatest sport and the greatest human experience ever.”

Don Mann – SEAL, Adventure Racer, Director of Primal Quest

“We rejoice in our sufferings because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance produces character, character produces hope. And hope does not disappoint us.” ROMANS 5:3-4 – An adventure racers prayer.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed these! I’ll post more as I find them!



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