Only 200 Miles to Go

The rugged charms of adventure racing

Last summer, Jon Brown and three of his closest friends lined up at dawn for the start of Primal Quest Utah. They began with a 29-mile horseback ride. From there, they trekked 21 miles across the desert, rode mountain bikes for 65 miles, and hiked eight miles along a river in the dark. And that was just the first day. In all, racers covered 433 miles in six days. "When you get to the start of a race and look at the course, it's overwhelming," says Brown, 35, a partner in Go To Guides of Colorado, a $450,000, seven-employee telephone directory in Gunnison, Colo. "To get through it all and come across the finish line with your team days later is just incredible."

Welcome to adventure racing. Few sports will test your mental and physical wherewithal or give you a crash course in teamwork like this one. With maps in hand and supplies on their backs, racers pedal, paddle, run, and sometimes trot from checkpoint to checkpoint, often covering hundreds of miles and stopping only when necessary until, finally, they cross the finish line. Every adventure race is different—that's part of the appeal—but most require teams of two to five people to navigate an unmarked course by bike, boat, foot, and other means.

Brown trains for multi-day events, but aspiring adventure racers need not travel so far or suffer so much to enjoy the satisfaction of racing. "The trend is for smaller races that cater to the weekend warrior," says Ronny Angell, president of Odyssey Adventure Racing, a Salem (Va.) company that organizes adventure races and other endurance events. "You can train for five or six hours a week to go do a three- to six-hour race." The popularity of short races, called "sprints," is soaring: In 1998, the United States Adventure Racing Assn. sanctioned 11; in 2006, it approved of more than 300, in which about 50,000 people participated.

BUILDING A TEAM

Interested? First volunteer at a local event. "That's the best way to see what this sport is all about," says Angell. Search the USARA site, usara.com, for races in your area. Entry fees range from about $50 a person for sprints to about $2,000 for expeditions, according to Angell. Race organizers will tell you if some areas are off-limits for safety or environmental reasons. Depending on the event, the organizer may supply gear such as boats, but you'll often be expected to bring your own bike.

When you're ready to race, you can put together your own team. Keep in mind that attitude is as important a prerequisite as athletic ability. At any distance, team dynamics play a significant role. Everyone must cross the finish line together, making the team only as strong as its weakest link. The best teams find ways to exploit their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses. Says Angell: "This is a thinking man's game."

No matter how fit you are, start with a short race before moving on to anything that lasts longer than a day. You may quickly find yourself chasing bigger events, but be warned: That is no small commitment. In 2003, Brown, a former pro mountain biker and collegiate cross-country skier, started racing with Team Salomon/Crested Butte, an elite team that competes around the world. He trains an average of 20 hours a week to prepare for a big race, the next of which is the Adventure Racing World Championship in Scotland in late May. And he says he can justify his time on the course as it trains him for the demands of running a small business. "Keeping people motivated and working through problems is essential in adventure racing and business," says Brown. "And I find that very few things get you worked up after going through experiences where you fear for your life."

By Sarah Max

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