The world leader of adventure racing is a window cleaner. You'd think that this increasingly popular activity would require more serious sporting credentials. It doesn't.
Adventure racing is the fastest growing sport in the UK, with events taking place all over the country. The idea is that mixed- sex teams navigate their way through mother nature using only non- motorised power: bikes, feet and paddles.
At the serious, semi-professional end - the level at which John Howard, the window cleaner, competes - these races are expedition- style events. They take place worldwide, in remote terrain, and can last up to 10 days. But at entry-level, which is the big growth area in the UK, races cover 25-30 miles and are completed in hours rather than days.
Anna Jenkins, 35, competed in one of the three Salomon X- Adventure races held in this country last year. The event lasted about seven hours and the majority of the race involved mountain biking, with a bit of running, an abseil and a short canoe section. There was also some orienteering involved - "we had to find various `checkpoints' along the course of the race," explains Anna. She wasn't "megafit" for the race but she still got a lot from it. "I didn't know what I was letting myself in for," she says. "But I loved it and I'm doing it again."
So what are the likes of Anna and John the window cleaner getting so excited about? Viewed from the safety of the sofa, these races seem mostly to be about unnecessary effort, pain and muddiness. The appeal, say contestants, is that it presents a serious challenge to mind and spirit as well as body.
"Participants need to stop and think about what to do next in a race," explains John Broughton, brand manager for Hi-Tec, which organises a UK racing series. "A lot of factors are unknown, so the best athlete in the world cannot prepare for them." You can't predict nature, or the human reaction to it. On top of that, several events involve surprise challenges.
Dr Costas Karageorghis, sports psychologist at Brunel University, compares the task-orientated nature of adventure racing - gaining skills purely for the sake of it - with the "ego-orientated" stresses of everyday life. "This sport takes a great deal of psychological resourcefulness," he says. "Participants are able to master skills without ego as the focus, and that's enormously satisfying."
It provides a type of satisfaction that is rare in our urbanised, sanitised and mechanised world. And, it is a satisfaction that is available to all of us. A degree of fitness is advisable, but this isn't some extension of gym culture. Interestingly, many of the "body beautiful" teams that take part in the longer races come unstuck early on. John the window cleaner is a weathered, wiry- looking creature. …