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Wild Miles

Blazing the trail for adventure racing in Vermont


Published January 14, 2004 at 2:34 p.m.

Williston software developer Chris Yager was watching TV one day when he decided to get off the couch and become an adventure racer. "It was the Eco-Challenge," recalls Yager. "I said, ‘This is cool. I want to do this.' So I called up some friends and conned them into doing a race near Ottawa."

For months, Yager and his teammates met two or three times a week to run the Intervale, paddle the Winooski River, mountain bike and practice orienteering with a map and compass. In the spirit of adventure racing, they came up with a name: Tuckered Indecision -- in honor of somebody's pooch, as Yager recalls. But when the team showed up at the pre-race meeting in ragtag hiking clothes, they felt like touch-football players at the Super Bowl. "There were sponsored teams with matching outfits; it was a little unreal," says Yager. "We're sitting around thinking, ‘We're going to get crushed.'"

When Tuckered Indecision went out and won the event, anyway, Yager was hooked. But then he looked around Vermont for more adventure races that would fit his schedule, and came up empty. Where were his fellow endurance enthusiasts? Slowly, he began to collect names and email addresses. Last month, he officially founded the Green Mountain Adventure Racing Club, which meets for the first time on January 22.

The sport of adventure racing began in 1989, most agree, with the inaugural Raid Gauloises, in which a French journalist sent teams on a multi-day, self-supported jaunt through more than 300 miles of New Zealand rainforest and mountain wilderness. After captaining a Raid team, a Brit named Mark Burnett whipped up the Eco-Challenge in 1995, which aimed to raise environmental awareness but actually turned out to be the perfect soap opera: buff bodies grunting and bickering against a backdrop of exotic locales. Eventually, the Eco-Challenge was eclipsed by Burnett's next television series -- "Survivor" -- and the race was suspended after the Fiji run in 2002.

If the Eco-Challenge inspired some armchair adventurers like Yager, it turned others off. Who wants to voluntarily get mired in misery for weeks at a time? Many competitors had to quit their jobs to train, or borrowed money to buy gear. Gradu-ally, though, the sport's ambassadors began to scale back, creating events that could be completed in a couple of days or even a few hours, and wouldn't break backs or banks. But they retained the ecological awareness and respect for the outdoors celebrated by their more grandiose predecessors. In adventure races, competitors must tread lightly upon the remote wilderness in which they race, carrying their own food and navigating with rudimentary tools.

Now, the sport is beginning to boom. "In 2000, there were around 35 races, and in 2003, over 350 races," says Troy Farrar of the United States Adventure Racing Association. "We expect this number to double in the next couple of years." The roster of competitors is growing at an equally astonishing rate, with an estimated 50,000 adventure racers in the United States, most recruiting buddies for good, old-fashioned fun in the woods.

"The sport is growing extremely fast, and it's being fueled by a couple of things," says Brian Metzler, editor and publisher of Adventure Sports magazine, which debuted last year. "First, people are looking for the next challenge to train for, beyond marathons and triathlons. Secondly, it mirrors the trend of more and more people getting into the outdoors and for pure enjoyment."

Races vary in length, from sprints of six to eight hours to efforts lasting 12, 24, 48 hours or more. The disciplines involved are also diverse. Most events include mountain biking, trekking and paddling in canoes or kayaks; others throw in climbing and rapelling. As the sport grows and splinters in new directions, the basic precepts remain the same: These are multi-sport, off-road events for groups of two to five, who must compete and cross the finish line as a unit.


The team is the major difference that sets adventure races apart from traditional endurance events. "What attracted me from the beginning was the nature of the sport -- in the wilderness, away from everything, doing lots of different activities," says Yager. "But what's kept me in it is the team aspect. Working with my teammates and competing against the course -- not other people."

Choosing the right teammates is essential, and can be as challenging as the race itself. Compatibility, both physical and emotional, is key. So your coworker can run a mile in four flat? What happens when he's hungry, lost or mad as a wet hen on mile 20 of the mountain-bike leg? And are you sure you want to saddle down your superwoman sister, when you haven't paddled a canoe in years?

"In triathlons, it's how hard you can push yourself," says Burlington physical therapist Brian Loeffler, a former triathlete who's done five adventure races and is co-founder of the Green Mountain Adventure Racing Association. "In adventure racing, it's how well the team can work together… And it doesn't matter how fast you're going if you're going the wrong way; you'll just have longer to come back when you figure it out."

There are stories of racers who curl up for a nap in the middle of the trail while their confounded teammates stand by, just waiting, and tales of athletes piggy-backing each other to the next checkpoint. The latter, as it turns out, happens more often than the former, and organizers often allow towing systems on the mountain-bike portions, so teammates can drag along the weakest link -- or the poor sod with a busted derailleur. Says Yager, "The physical aspect's important, but it's a lot more how you deal with each other, motivate each other, handle each other when you're up or down." Participants learn how to fight fatigue and boredom by reciting riddles or singing, say, "Rubber Ducky."

The most successful teams also know how to strategize, deciding as a group when, or if, to sleep during a 48-hour race, or whether to risk that sketchy shortcut across a river. (Yager's team did that once and ended up waist-high in the water while they watched the other teams prance across a bridge just yards away.) You also must determine how hardcore you'll be: Some top racers remove all their toenails before an event, to avoid losing them -- and precious time -- mid-trek.

And then there's the question of supplies and equipment. How much food, water and clothing can you bring? Should you shell out for that lightweight pack, or save your stash for new shocks? Gear has become such a touchstone for adventure racers that it inspired ediblegear.com, the website of Eastern Active Technologies, or EAT, which purportedly produces equipment you consume along the way. Here, you learn about ProteinStix trekking poles, available in beef, chicken, shrimp or textured vegetable protein, and California Roll sleeping pads made from CarboFoam. The site received so many hits and orders, the creators finally had to 'fess up that it was a prank. Perhaps it's just a matter of time before someone really creates comestible gear.

For now, adventure racers will have to make do with the dinners that follow events -- and for most people, this is just fine. After some serious water intake and, if they're lucky, a shower, competitors congregate not so much to celebrate individual achievements as to swap stories and pick up a few pointers from other teams. "That's the fun of it: ‘Did you guys find checkpoint 4? Oh, that was so hard!'" says Loeffler. "A lot of that goes on after a race."

The post-race meals are the sole objective for some teams. One racer, having finished an event so far behind that the burgers were cold, told Farrar his goal for this year was to arrive in time for hot food. Farrar adds, "I did see the team in the salon with some hot burgers and cold beers after this race."

On the menu for members of the Green Mountain Adventure Racing Association are networking opportunities, races and reduced rates on gear. "This is a way for all the racers in the area to get together," says Yager. "That first race, we were so intimidated because we didn't know if we were doing anything right. So it will be nice to have a place for folks to learn."

A few more adventure races are now happening around Vermont, and Yager hopes to host some local events starting this summer. The club has already attracted several sponsors, which offer discounts to members. Those who join can also attend orienteering workshops, learn training techniques and find teammates. "What's great about adventure racing," says Farrar, "is that there's always someone who achieved new limits they never imagined possible, learned a new skill, or just enjoyed a weekend in nature with friends."

The Green Mountain Adventure Racing Association hosts its first meeting on January 22, 7 p.m., at On Track, 1 Main Street in Burlington. For more information, visit www.gmara.org.