When Triathlons Just Aren't Enough

Adventure racing offers a grueling challenge to those who want to plot their own course

Shortly after hopping on my mountain bike, I felt a pull from behind. My partner, Scott Powell, had grabbed on to my pack to help him increase his speed as he ran alongside me. A few moments later, Scott returned the favor. His pushing got me and my bike up some steep slopes. At that point, just minutes from the starting line, I understood how teamwork was going to get us through my first adventure race.

Tired of the same old road races or triathlons? I was, and that's what drew me to adventure racing, one of the newest endurance events for athletic fanatics. Teams of two to five members compete in at least three sports -- typically running, cycling, and paddling a canoe or kayak. The shorter "sprint" races can take 4 to 12 hours. Expedition races go up to 10 days and include additional activities such as horseback riding, swimming, rock climbing, rappelling, and even paragliding in such remote locations as the Australian Outback and Malaysia. In this multisport competition, physical prowess isn't enough. Teamwork is critical, as is the ability to navigate with a map and compass.


First-time adventure racers had best hook up with a veteran. My partner, Scott, 44, a neighbor of mine who by day is CEO of JPMorgan Chase's (JPM ) Consumer Lending & Servicing unit, had completed three Ironman triathlons and several multiday adventure races. When he offered to take me on, I jumped (and was willing to run, bike, kayak, and hike) at the chance. If you don't know other racers, you can find teammates and training help through the U.S. Adventure Racing Assn. (usara.com).

Genesis Adventures organized our May 6 race, the EMS Sprint Adventure Race #1, which would wend its way over 20 miles in Harriman State Park, 43 miles north of New York City. Yet we got the map coordinates for the 17 checkpoints we'd have to pass only an hour before the start. That's when Scott and I talked over the course with two of his longtime racing partners, Anthony Aquino, 36, a marketing company president and a U.S. Army reservist, and Jeff Neeck, 42, vice-president of a financial planning firm. Scott and I were competing in the coed elite division with 12 other teams; Anthony and Jeff were in the male division against 17 duos. In all, 96 two-member teams took part; three were women only.

The first leg was the mountain-bike event. Because Scott and I were competing on the more difficult elite course, the rules said one of us could ride and the other had to run to the first five checkpoints. Most participants switched off, but Scott ran the entire way. All the racers took the same route, clogging the rocky, muddy, slippery track. When we came to a checkpoint, one of us stood aside as the other fought in to get our checkpoint "passport" punched. Later during the kayaking and hiking, the teams spread out.

An hour into the race, Scott finished his run, and we picked up his bike at the starting area so we could peddle to the location of the kayaking leg. We hooked life preservers to our packs, rode to a trail so impassible that we dismounted, and hiked with the bikes until we hit a road that took us (uphill) to a lake. Then we dropped our bikes, climbed into our kayaks (which had been left there by the organizers), and paddled for an hour to reach four checkpoints on the lake. Within minutes, my arms felt like rubber and I had a shooting pain in my lower back. Scott showed me an easier way to paddle by using more of my torso and less of my arms. That eased the pain. Back on land, when we were walking our bikes to a drop-off point, I started daydreaming about the finish and smacked into a low-hanging branch, cutting the side of my face. Now I had the bruises to show my mettle.

We'd been out for 3 1/2 hours when we joined Jeff and Anthony for the final leg, the trek. Unable to find the trailhead, Anthony suggested we bushwhack our way up a steep ridge where he suspected we could pick up the trail. We found the next two checkpoints easily, but Anthony and Scott disagreed on the best route to the last one. In the end, we took the long way on a steep, rocky trail, and that was our undoing. Our trek took three hours, while all the other teams in our division did it in less than two. We finished last, with a total time of 6 hours, 22 minutes -- almost a full hour slower than the nearest competitors in our division.

I was disappointed, but Scott didn't mind. "The main goal was to have fun and finish the race," he said. His attitude confirmed how important it is to find a compatible teammate whose goals match your own. At that point, I was exhausted, thirsty, and sick of chewing energy bars. But I'm ready to race again.

By Toddi Gutner

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