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Survivor, with added speed

"Adventure racing ... touches something very primal,'' Florida winner says.

By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 23, 2002

"Adventure racing ... touches something very primal," Florida winner says.

Paddling alone in the darkness, halfway through the 210-mile Florida Coast to Coast Eco-Adventure Race, Kip Koelsch thought a stretch of riverfront seemed a little too familiar.

"I knew something was up when I looked around and saw nothing but orange eyes," Koelsch said. "I figured I had taken a wrong turn somewhere, so I turned around and backtracked."

Koelsch had been running, riding and paddling close to 24 hours straight and his mind was beginning to play tricks on him.

"I saw a guy fishing on the bank and stopped to ask him where I was," Koelsch said. "He told me and then I realized I had gone in a big circle and was right back where started."

So Koelsch pulled over, climbed out of his 19-pound carbon-fiber kayak and knocked on the car window of a friend who was part of the support crew for one of the teams participating in the coast to coast race.

"He gave me a Coke, a pat on the back and sent me on my way," Koelsch said. "That's adventure racing."

The mistake cost Koelsch valuable time, but not the race. The 35-year-old environmental educator from Sarasota crossed the state in 32 hours, 42 minutes, more than an hour ahead of the runner-up.

"Adventure racing has always been a team sport," Koelsch said. "But just once, I wanted to try a race by myself."

Despite his recent successes, Koelsch is a relative newcomer to the sport. A former member of the U.S. Canoe/Kayak Marathon team, Koelsch didn't compete in his first adventure race until 1999.

These multisport endurance races started more than a decade ago with a coast-to-coast run, ride and kayak across the South Island of New Zealand. Since then, there have been a variety of races. They share something in common: Teams must finish together and the course is kept secret.

The most famous adventure race is the Eco-Challenge which, over the past five years, has been held in Australia, Morroco, Argentina, Borneo and New Zealand. This year's race will be held in October in Fiji.

The Eco-Challenge is an "expedition" length race and the teams, which must consist of men and women, utilize only non-motorized transportation such as canoes, kayaks, mountain bikes, white-water rafts, horses, their feet or climbing ropes.

It takes six to 10 days to finish and if a team loses a member to illness, fatigue, injury or lack of intestinal fortitude, it is disqualified.

Like the Eco-Challenge, the Florida Coast to Coast Eco-Adventure course changes from year to year. In 2001, it went from Crystal River to St. Augustine. This year the teams finished in Daytona Beach.

"You carry only what is necessary," said Koelsch, who has conducted several adventure racing clinics to help introduce other distance athletes to the sport. "The whole idea is to move as quickly as possible."

Each team or solo competitor must have support crew members who supply equipment and food/drink at each transition area.

"Everything is prepackaged and marked," Koelsch said. "This way I know exactly what to eat, drink and when."

Because after 24 hours without sleep, it is easy to make mental errors.

"Every race has its ups and downs," Koelsch said. "But the more experienced you become, the highs aren't as high and the lows aren't as low. Things start to even out."

People often ask Koelsch what goes through his mind in the middle of race.

"I am thinking about what am I doing at that moment, be it paddling, biking or running," he said. "Sometimes it takes a lot of concentration to just keep one foot moving in front of the other."

Koelsch said adventure racing is increasing in popularity because many endurance athletes, bored with double Ironmans and ultramarathons, are looking for new challenges.

"Adventure racing brings you a kind of focus that human beings haven't had since they had to deal with survival on a daily basis," he said. "It touches something very primal."

Koelsch, scheduled to leave today for a race in Canada's Yukon Territory, is working with Pinellas County and Treasure Island Charities to develop an "urban adventure race." The race, which will begin at Fort De Soto and end at Brooker Creek, will benefit the Pinellas Environmental Foundation. Stay tuned for details.

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