Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Adventure Racing

The below passage is a reprint of a column published in the December 2007 issue of the STRIKE Tactical Newsletter. This is a timely article, since the Sloppy Hogs are participating in the Midwest Monster Adventure Race this month.

In recent years, marathoners and triathletes alike have been following a trend into adventure racing. I’m sure those athletes chased the same attraction I did when I began adventure racing…the adventure. And if adventure racing is new to you, maybe you’ll see the same lure. It doesn’t take long to realize racing does not build character. It reveals it. And the fabric of Mind, Body, and Spirit shall be exposed for all to see. Even as a weekend hobby, the lessons along the way may help you in your tactical career as well.

Adventure racing falls into the category of “multi-sporting.” Teams of two to four racers take on challenges of mountain biking, trail running, orienteering or navigation through dense forest, a ropes course, paddling, and a laundry list of obstacles and tasks. The race lengths range from Sprint (under 6 hours), 12-hour, 24-hour, to Expedition (72-hour). All members do the entire course, with many races requiring teams keep members within 100 yards of each other. Lastly, teams must carry all the required equipment like packs, first aid kits, water, navigation tools, dry bags, and the sort.

Some typical 12-hour races include 20-30 miles of mountain biking, 10-15 miles of running, a couple miles of canoeing or kayaking, and completing mystery events along the way. Some of the unorthodox events I have done include carrying a 40-pound sandbag for two miles, zip-lines, human wheelbarrow races, shooting archery, and agility courses. Teams are issued “passports” which are punched at various stations to ensure the team passed through all the checkpoints. And oh yeah, most of the racecourses aren’t even marked! You need to pre-plot checkpoints on the supplied maps and find your way with a compass. Sound like fun yet?

There’s a huge spirit among fellow racing teams. One rule in most races is this: you can only accept help from other teams, not outsiders. You wouldn’t believe the help another team will offer you when you’re in need. Whether you need assistance fixing a bike or begging for food or water, teams express an unparalleled sense of sympathy. Everyone realizes the tables can turn, maybe in the next race or in as little as five or ten miles up the trail. What goes around comes around.

Physical training for these races is obviously critical. The human body must be ready for a grueling day(s). Workouts must include combinations of running and biking, or running and paddling (mirroring triathlon brick sessions). You need not be a master of all disciplines, but you better be a jack-of-all-trades. Some races will only announce approximate distances and give no order to events, leading the participants to prepare for anything in any order. The adventure begins sooner than you think, sometimes months before! While endurance is the name of the game, peak physical conditioning is only one segment of preparation.

Logistical readiness sets teams apart. What foods and nutritional supplements do I eat during the race? What changes of clothes or shoes should I have? Do I have all the tools and material to fix broken equipment along the way? How will I patch up my injuries along the course? How many fresh batteries for the headlamps? Planning for these contingencies proves valuable. Rolling the dice on whether to bring along a spare bicycle tube is the sure path to failure. An old military saying is, “Better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it.” Rhodesian Tracker Combat Unit member and author David Scott-Donelan adds, “If you take it, you have to carry it.” Some equipment is mandatory. For the other stuff, team members must find that balance between preparation and wasted bulk. It’s not always an easy compromise. I’d rather run ten miles with a light pack, than a heavy one….but I also need to make sure I have all the right stuff along the way.

A frequent misunderstanding is that adventure racing is done by individuals next to each other. Wrong. It is done by TEAMS. There is a difference. Teams win together. Teams get lost, and passed by faster teams together. Teams get bogged down by a leg cramp together. Teams argue about their position on a map together. Teams share food and water, and treat cuts and scrapes, and tackle obstacle courses together. When racers are fatigued and malnourished (AKA “bonked”), and then get lost, stressed, and panicked, conflict rises and arguments happen. Teammates must be sympathetic and work through disagreement to get back on track, both literally and figuratively. Leaders must take charge. Staying focused and mitigating disagreements among the team is absolutely necessary to complete the course. I once saw a husband-wife team get disqualified after the wife was arrested mid-race for domestic battery at a gear staging area! Tempers must be controlled for a team to be successful. Racers must stay calm amidst confusion, and remain positive and encouraging with struggling teammates.

Some racers find the biggest challenge in the navigation and orienteering. The more members on your team that firmly grasp the principles of topography, dead-reckoning, UTM grid coordinates, azimuths, pace, and resection…the better. A team full of Olympic-caliber endurance athletes might be in peak physical fitness, but they’ll fail if they can’t navigate through the course, locate the checkpoints, and stay motivated. The mental side of using a compass, a map, and navigation techniques must not be overlooked. During training, do not sacrifice orienteering practice for the sake of physical conditioning. I remember pointing a lost team in the right direction, and receiving thanks from crying team members. But not as vividly as I recall the disappointment I felt in myself for yelling at my partner one race when we found ourselves completely lost in the woods. Navigation can make or break teams, as it’s usually the most frequent reason for quitting or disqualification.

Maybe you have found yourself a bit bored with some of the monotonous running or biking races you’ve been doing. I have learned many lessons from adventure racing. The navigational skills alone have been extremely helpful when drilling with my SWAT team in rural and wooded searches. I now have a much better understanding of my body’s nutritional needs during both shorter and longer endurance races. At work, I can better prepare myself for the hunger and thirst that comes with extended SWAT missions. Through racing, I have experienced the pitfalls of allowing fatigue, stress, and panic to seep into disagreements with teammates. My appreciation of a positive attitude and encouragement hopefully helps me to grow in my leadership position within SWAT. Logistical planning (such as supply, equipment-staging, and problem foresight) has helped me identify potential obstacles during tactical missions. Lastly, I have experienced increases in physical fitness, endurance, strength, coordination, and agility by training for adventure races. Those are tough benefits to argue against!

Mind: Know your equipment, how to troubleshoot it, and fix it. Understand how to orienteer and navigate through tough terrain. Plan accordingly.

Body: Attain peak physical fitness. Experiment with various combinations of food and liquids. Know your body’s limits. Avoid injury, and learn how to treat them.

Spirit: Stay calm. There’s more honor in helping one in need than winning the race. When the morale is low, and the discouragement is high, remind yourselves how the finish line feels.

During the last ten minutes of a recent grueling eleven-hour-plus race, I recall saying to my teammates, “Nothing can stop me right now. If scientists could bottle up the natural chemicals flowing through my bloodstream this minute, I’d be unstoppable forever!” It wasn’t the first nor the last time I’d felt that invincibility in my veins. The reality is that those chemicals are waiting in reserve for the right times to come out. For those of you who have experienced it, it’s unbelievable, isn’t it? I’m not sure how long that burst of energy would have lasted, but I ran faster in those ten minutes than probably ever! But to get me to that point just ten minutes from the finish line took a lot…a lot of teamwork, preparation, prayer, know-how, Gatorade, physical endurance, belief, leadership. And in the months before the race, I trained and trained.

I’m always looking for new racing teammates. Look me up. I’m up for a new challenge. But I’m warning you: I race outside my comfort zone.

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