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The ultimate test

Unique adventure race combines tests of endurance with physical and mental challenges

By TERRY TOMALIN
Published November 4, 2005


Imagine being cold, wet, tired and hungry for a day and a night, then getting lost in the woods. Sound like fun?

How about for two days? Three?

If you answered yes to one or all of the above, then read on.

"People call it the triathlon of the new millennium, but I do not agree," veteran adventure racer Shawn Dietrich said. "Triathlons are predictable. Adventure races are not. There are a lot of unknowns. That scares most people."

But Dietrich, organizer of this year's United States Adventure Racing Association National Championships, said it is the ability to adapt and overcome that sets apart adventure racers from other endurance athletes.

"If you think like an accountant and like everything measured and precise, then stick to triathlons," he said. "But if you think like an artist and like the unpredictable, then you will love adventure racing."

The triathlon is a solo sport where each athlete must master the disciplines of swimming, biking and running. Adventure racers must have similar skills - trail running, off-road biking and paddling - but all three or four team members (one of whom must be a woman) must finish together.

The Croom Crusher, a recent sprint adventure race in Withlacoochee State Forest, was completed by the fastest team in 6 hours, 23 minutes. Competitors began by riding 7 miles through the woods on mountain bikes, then ran 4 miles on unmarked trails, paddled in canoes 8 miles down the Withlacoochee River, then completed a series of special tests that included a tightrope walk, an obstacle course and a blind challenge. The athletes then ran 2 miles back to their mountain bikes, rode another 22 miles on trails, then, suspended in a mountaineering harness, slid across a sinkhole on a "zip line," jumped back on their bikes for another half-mile and finished by completing a 21/2-mile orienteering problem.

"You are always as slow as your weakest team member," said Michael Moule, whose team Flight won the Croom Crusher. "But that can change during the course of the race. It adds an interesting dynamic."

Moule, a 33-year-old transportation engineer, was a road and mountain biker before he completed his first adventure race in 2003.

"The thing I like is that every event is different," he said. "You never know what the course is going to look like until the last minute. Every team makes at least one navigational error. It can cost you five minutes or five hours but you will get lost just the same."

Murray Maitland, a 47-year-old assistant professor at the University of South Florida and native of British Columbia, came from an extreme sports background.

"I did a lot of extreme running over boulders, through creeks, down steep terrain," he said. "I love just being out."

Maitland, a member of team E-Caps Florida, recently completed the 65-hour, cross-Florida, "Coast to Coast" race. "How else would you get to see such varied terrain besides an adventure race?" he asked.

The hardest thing for Maitland to adjust to was being wet all the time. "From the minute you start to the time you finish you're soaking wet," he said.

He also had to learn to navigate.

"Since the course isn't marked, you're on your own," he said. "Small errors keep compounding. It is all hurry and no speed."

For Aaron Freedman, a 41-year-old air-conditioning contractor on Team Bill Jacksons, sleep deprivation was the challenge.

"We recently did a race from Sarasota to Key Largo," he said. "In 72 hours we slept just three. We took it one hour at a time. It didn't get to me until the end. The last 10 hours were really, really tough."

The national championships, which begin this morning somewhere in Hillsborough County, likely will cover about 100 miles of varied terrain.

"All we know is that it will start within one hour of Tampa International Airport," Moule of Team Flight said. "Other than that, it is anybody's guess."