Magazine article Geographical

The Pain Event: Surely One of the Toughest Sports Going, Adventure Racing's Popularity Is on the Rise. Steve Duffy Returns from the Eight-Day Eco-Challenge with Some Useful Advice for Would-Be Competitors

Magazine article Geographical

The Pain Event: Surely One of the Toughest Sports Going, Adventure Racing's Popularity Is on the Rise. Steve Duffy Returns from the Eight-Day Eco-Challenge with Some Useful Advice for Would-Be Competitors

Article excerpt

Every time the beam of my head torch hits the water, the ocean boils with fish. The occasional flying specimen launches itself out of the black sea, clearing the outriggers of our perahu (a small wooden outrigger canoe used by native fishermen) and causing us to duck or risk getting a face fu of sushi I haven't slept for more than 24 hours, so playing dodge the-fish isn't as much fun as it might sound.

Gliding silently across the Celebes Sea, we're attempting to find an island roughly the size of a football pitch. While term captain navigator Steve Watkins consults his trusty compass and the race map. Keith Byrne and I keep our eyes open for oil rigs, pirates and electrical storms--just a few of the hazards we were warned about in the pre-race briefing. 'The fourth member or our team, Naomi Spina, is already on her way back to Kota Kinabalu with a snapped anterior cruciate ligament. Our mast, meanwhile, has snapped twice. We've obviously angered a local deity, so are being extra vigilant.)

After hours of ghosting across the ocean, we reach our destination Exhausted, I stumble off the boat and notice tyro tracks on the beach. Why, I ask no-one in particular, would anyone bring a bike to an island that would take approximately eight seconds to cycle across from end to end. An American voice informs me that the tracks are made by the "poisonous but non-aggressive" snakes that call this is tiny strip of sand home.

Steve locates the source of the voice and hands him our race passport as Keith and I drag the perahu clear of the sea. Passport stamped, we settle down for an hours sleep before setting sail for Sabah, where we will cycle, swim, run and climb our way to the finish line. I console--myself with the fact that, if we Keep going at our current pace, we should be finished in, oh, eight days or so. This is Eco-Challenge, the world's most famous adventure race.

Up and running

As there is no international regulation of adventure racing, and arguments still rage as to how exactly you classify one, outlining its history is a tricky business. Single-discipline team events such as the Karrimor International Mountain Marathon, and solo wilderness races such as the Alpine Ironman can justifiably claim to be the spiritual forebears of adventure racing (or AR as it's also known). However, the first event that all commentators would agree was a genuine adventure race was 1989's Raid Gauloises.

Held in New Zealand, the Raid saw mixed-gender teams of five covering more than 640 kilometres of challenging terrain. The sport of adventure racing (or Raid Running, as it was then called) was born, and over the next few years, the event's popularity soared, as leading outdoor sportspeople competed in locations as diverse as Costa Rica, Oman and Madagascar.

Today, events range from four-hour 'sprint' races (featuring three disciplines, such as running, mountain biking and kayaking) through to multi-day expedition races. The latter require teams to travel for several hundred kilometres across some of the world's wildest landscapes using a variety of non-motorised transport (anything from camels to crampons, depending on where the race is being held). The exact route teams take, and when (or if) competitors sleep, is largely down to individual choice and navigational prowess.

A number of manned checkpoints must be visited and occasional 'dark zones' (sections that must be completed in daylight) may be enforced in extreme cases, but the teams are generally out there on their own and must carry all the supplies they need to survive. Hence, weight--or rather the lack of it--is crucial. One story tells of how the legendary Eco-Internet team spent the night before a race cutting the labels off every item of clothing and equipment--saving the five members a total of 900 grams. This is a perfect illustration of the fanatical approach racers take to shaving weight wherever they can. …

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