Adventure Racing: A Test for The Mind and Body

The Storm combines paddling, biking and trekking over roughly 100 miles in 24 to 30 hours. As with most adventure races, no GPS devices are allowed, and racers cannot use well-traveled roads or other civilized surfaces.

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Other events throw in different tests—rock climbing, rappelling, whitewater paddling. Most stress teamwork, particularly in coed groups, and the longer events add sleep deprivation to the endurance equation.

"That's the cool thing about adventure racing—finding out your limits and who you truly are," Swann said. "Once all the layers are peeled away, that's the way truth presents itself."

Sometimes the truth hurts. Feet can become so blistered that racers are reduced to crawling on their hands and knees. "Your pain is our pleasure," reads the logo of Odyssey Adventure Racing, an event organizer based in Salem.

And sometimes, the truth is deadly. In 2004, for example, veteran Australian racer Nigel Aylott was killed in a rock slide at Primal Quest, and the race was cancelled the following year.

That event has bounced back signaling a resurgence in the sport said Don Mann, a resident of Williamsburg and CEO of Primal Quest.

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Mann started Odyssey in the mid-1990s and brought endurance events such as the Beast of the East to the region. For a time, Odyssey was the only adventure race organizer in the country, Mann said.

"Other ones started popping up, and now there are hundreds of them," he said.

One of those is Untamed Adventures. Formed by Grant Killian, longtime race director of the Storm, the group put on Untamed Virginia this summer, attracting 48 teams and nearly 170 racers to a 30-hour event based in Charlottesville.

Killian sees the sport maturing as it comes out of a lull that followed an initial boom.

"Now, you're seeing a more sustainable kind of growth," Killian said. "In North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland, there's a really strong representation that you might not see in some other states."

Ronny Angell, who took over Odyssey from Mann in 2005, also sees growth. 

"The primary goal is to race," Swann said. "But even though we like to get to the podium, that's not what it's about. It's about getting people out there."

Just being outdoors and enjoying nature is a big motivator for Swann and others, such as Chris Caul.

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Caul grew up hunting and fishing around Covington. Now, he and his family live in Goochland County, a springboard for his job designing courses and coordinating logistics for Primal Quest. An avid mountain biker, Caul got into adventure racing through an Odyssey event at Sherando Lake.

"I was hook, line and sinker after that," he said.

What is Adventure Racing?

Adventure racing is a hybrid sport that is the offspring of triathlons, backpacking, exploration and adventure travel.

While its roots go back centuries, modern adventure racing evolved from endurance tests such as the Iron Man triathlon and gained popularity through events such as Raid Gauloises, the Eco- Challenge and Primal Quest.

Distances and endurance levels vary, from sprints lasting six hours or less to expedition races spanning days.

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Basically, teams navigate from a starting line through various checkpoints in a wilderness setting to a finish line. Teams must stay together, and there are no timeouts to rest.

Coed teams play a large role, so the sport has a sizable female following.

Trail running, mountain biking, paddling and orienteering with a map and compass are common requirements. Some courses require ropes skills, others white-water or ocean navigation. Bushwhacking (covering ground without trails) and trekking (carrying a backpack or other equipment) also are elements.

Some races are broken into stages, and the winning team has the lowest combined time through the various elements. Some simply measure start to finish times. A "Rogaine" event measures points that teams accumulate by reaching various checkpoints, in any sequence, in a set period.

The sport rewards teamwork, fitness, a love of the outdoors and a quirky pleasure taken from overcoming—or enduring—adversity.

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Contact Lee Graves at (804) 649-6579 or outdoors@timesdispatch.com

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