Just three hours into a four-day adventure race in Malaysian Borneo called the Mild Seven Outdoor Quest, I emerged from the suffocating jungle after a long run, trudged to the transition zone on the beach, and collapsed like a fat man who’d just sprinted up 15 flights of stairs. Dazed and nauseated, I sponged ice water on my head in the triple-digit heat and gulped enough fluid to hydrate a family of four.
The day, which only hours earlier had seemed so promising, had become a disaster. The race featured four kayak segments. Since three of us had solid paddling resumes, we figured this would be our opportunity to shine. And early on, we’d recorded the second-fastest kayak leg of the 26 teams, but after we emerged from that agonizing hike/run, we’d fallen helplessly behind.
Mercifully, the next leg of the race was a 12-mile paddle across the South China Sea to a fishing village on the island of Sapangar.
The good news was that the wind was up and there were waves to surf-ideal conditions to make up time. The bad news was that our team captain, a former pro cyclist turned triathlete, soon became so seasick that she was unable to paddle. We bungeed the boats together and carried on. Long before we crossed the finish line in 9 hours and 33 minutes-two hours behind the first-place team-all my doubts about this dopey sport came flooding back.
In the 1970s, the marathon was the standard by which endurance was measured; in the ’80s, the Ironman Triathlon was the Moby Dick of the fitness world. Adventure racing surfaced in the mid 1990s, something new for endurance athletes to sink their Type-A teeth into. While the number of people who actually participated in these grueling, time-consuming, and expensive races was relatively small, the telecasts reached millions at a time when the marketing of Mother Nature was becoming big business. Today, adventure racing is one of the fastest-growing sports in the country.
Unlike the marathon or triathlon, an adventure race cannot be defined, only described. Imagine coed teams of three, four, or five athletes competing in a multi-sport race in the wilderness, covering hundreds of miles kayaking, mountaineering, mountain biking, orienteering, rafting, horseback riding-or using whatever form of self-propelled locomotion a fiendish race director has devised-and you get the idea.
The first big adventure race to hit our shores-the Eco-Challenge-was a grisly affair, held in stunning locales including British Columbia, New Zealand, and Fiji. The telecasts of these continuous 6- to 11-day races featured blistered, emotionally overwrought competitors who had slept less than a mother with twins. Marketing the formula of push-till-you-puke (with a healthy dose of tears and bickering thrown in), Mark Burnett, founder of Eco-Challenge and creator of Survivor, one of America’s highest-rated TV shows, introduced a nation of armchair adventurers to masochistic coed armies on the march.
As interest in adventure racing grew, race directors recognized that weeklong expedition races were too exclusive and began promoting shorter, more accessible events. Today, there are more than 350 one- and two-day races staged each year in North America alone.
While I’ve followed the big adventure races with interest since 1995, I couldn’t picture myself forgoing sleep night after night. And, saddled as I was with an urban sense of direction, the thought of navigating, say, through a ravine in thigh-deep water at night appealed to me about as much as sitting in rush-hour traffic with my verbose cousin Dewey.