As I hobbled out of the canoe in the middle of the night, soaked and shivering, the race volunteer said, “I have some good news and some bad news.”  The bad news:  “Well, you’ve only paddled about 4 miles and you have about 20 more to go.” What?!?! We thought we only had a few miles left! Our spirits plummeted.  “…The good news is there’s a van right here if you want to pull out of the race.”

I was elated and embarrassed – elated because the agony was finally over, embarrassed because I didn’t even come close to finishing my first adventure race, The Berryman Adventure.  I crawled into the volunteer’s van, conceding defeat, and I promised myself I would never again be foolish enough to do another adventure race.  NEVER!  Well, eleven years and more than 25 Adventure Races later, I’ve clearly broken my promise.

It’s hard to truly describe what Adventure Racing is, but I’ll give you my own version of the Wikipedia description.  Adventure Racing combines two or more disciplines, usually mountain biking, paddling of some sort, and trekking/orienteering.  You and your teammates must make your way through an unmarked course using a map and compass to find Checkpoints along the way.  Adventure Races can last anywhere from 3 hour “sprint” races up to 10 day expedition races.  Longer races usually include more disciplines such as river boarding, rappelling, ascending, rock climbing, caving, horseback riding, and occasionally “mystery events.”

Paddling with Bikes while Adventure Racing

Sometimes you have to paddle WITH your bikes.

But Adventure Racing is so much more than that.  It’s not about who is the fastest.  That’s what triathlons are for.  Adventure Racing forces you to work as a team, use your head, and make critical decisions under enormous stress.  And that’s just to finish the race.  If you want to do well, it clearly helps to be fast, but you have to be fast as a team.

And yet, even that description doesn’t do it justice. To try to portray the spirit of Adventure Racing, allow me to describe the “Noodle Raft” mystery event.  After racing for more than 30 hours straight, my teammate, Drew, and I had to construct a raft using twenty foam pool noodles, three PVC pipes, and boxing twine.  We then had to paddle it a half mile across the lake to get a Checkpoint (CP), and then paddle back.  Did I mention that it was around 50 degrees?  And did I mention we were running on just 2 hours of sleep in the previous two days?

We could have skipped this non-mandatory CP, which is what most teams did.  Had we skipped this CP, we would have had more time to get more of the “easier” CP’s before crossing the finish line.  That probably would have been the smarter choice, but no one ever accused us of being smart.

Noodle Raft Mystery Event for Adventure Racing

Is that a Noodle Raft or a Guy-yak? You decide. (Photo Credit: Gary Thompson)

How many chances does someone get to do something like this?  I mean, have you ever paddled a homemade Noodle Raft across a lake with one of your best friends?  Well I have.  And it was definitely worth it.  It’s one of my fondest memories of any race.

And to me, that’s what Adventure Racing is all about.  It’s about the experience.  It’s about the fun.  It’s about overcoming your preconceived limits.  It’s about teamwork.  It’s about the people.  It’s about the memories.

I’ve had some of the best times of my life while adventure racing.  I’ve also had some of the worst times.  It’s funny, though.  As time passes, our memory blurs the lines between good and bad, pleasure and pain, enjoyment and suffering, and as I look back on all the racing I’ve done, all of it is good.  Especially the worst of it.