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Novices prepare to take on nature in adventure racing

Adventure racing participants rappel down a cliff in March, east of Moab, Utah.
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MOAB, Utah (AP) – Adventure racers proudly tell of feet too blistered for walking, of pushing themselves well beyond exhaustion. And their tales have a common theme:

It is sooooooo worth it!

Adventure racing, basically translating a triathlon into wilderness and whitewater extremes, seems to be inspiring more people than it’s scaring away.



“It’s getting through something almost nobody else has done and coming out on the other end – limping, mind you, but coming out at the other end,” said Jodie Levitt, a 45-year old neurosurgeon attending a weekend certification camp for this summer’s Primal Quest.

Primal Quest, or PQ as racers call it, is for the most advanced adventure racers, who need to be certified in skills such as rock climbing and kayaking before venturing out into the woods for hundreds of miles over several days.



But scaled-down adventure races, which give novices a taste of competing for an afternoon instead of more than a week, have been growing in popularity. And weekend clinics are available to people who are interested but not quite sure about the whole thing.

The U.S. Adventure Racing Association in Austin, Texas, has gone from sanctioning about 30 events six years ago to 350 last year. And many of the races are “sprints” – shorter, tamer versions designed for newbies who know their limits.

“We’re seeing a real change,” association founder Troy Farrar said. “We kind of did our sport backwards. We started out with these multiday monsters.”

Adventure racing is a broad classification. Races are usually for teams. The disciplines include biking, hiking and sometimes orienteering, and some sort of water element – usually paddling. Checkpoints can be scattered over a remote area or downtown in a city.

It’s like an extreme triathlon for teams of two to five, who compete together rather than in a relay. Events can last 10 days or a few hours, depending on the teams. The most grueling, such as Primal Quest, require competitors to have certification in the different disciplines because there are risks.

Adventure retreats, such as the one Levitt attended recently in Moab, provide racers a chance to practice and be certified during a long weekend.

Workshops and retreats are held throughout the country, as are the actual races. It doesn’t take mountainous wilderness to make an adventure race. The USARA summer schedule has races from Florida to Alaska in all sorts of environments, and for a variety of teams.

And for those who really don’t want to venture too far outdoors, Houston is hosting an urban race through the city in July.

Adventure racing caught on in the United States with the Eco-Challenge, created by “Survivor” producer Mark Burnett. The physical hardships and squabbling among the teammates made for great TV, and many current racers got the bug to try it.

“It takes a different breed of person to be an adventure racer. Most people would rather sit back on the couch and watch a reality show,” said Dean Baumgartner, a 41-year-old engineer from Geneva, Ill.

Primal Quest begins June 25 in Utah, though the starting point and 500-mile course for the 90 teams won’t be announced until closer to the race. Organizers don’t want participants to get a head start on navigating the wilderness.

Experts don’t recommend major endeavors such as PQ for even the heartiest newcomers. A sprint, with maybe a few miles of trail running, seven to 10 miles of mountain biking and a 30-minute paddle is a good introduction. Shorter races also often include a mystery event, such as climbing a cargo net or some sort of team challenge.

After that, participants can work their way up to something like Primal Quest.

Levitt was among a group of racers at a weekend retreat put on by Gravity Play Sports Marketing, a Durango, Colo., company that offers certification and introductory clinics. Participants were instructed in kayaking, orienteering and ropes – climbing up and down the red rocks of Moab in a blowing snowstorm.

Adventure racing is a major commitment of both time and money. As equipment technology improves, making boots, mountain bikes and headlamps just a tad lighter, racers build up quite a collection.

“I feel like I’m a mini-sporting goods store,” said Michael Bell, a 35-year-old insurance broker from Fallbrook, Calif. “I own nine backpacks. NINE!”

For complete novices who aren’t sure how much they’re ready to invest in adventure racing, there are training and introductory camps.

John and Gretchen Gorham traveled from Sun Valley, Idaho, where they run a sandwich shop, to a recent camp in Moab. The breathtaking red rock cliffs of southeastern Utah are ideal for mountain biking and hiking, and the Colorado River is a prime kayaking site.

Gretchen Gorham, a 40-year-old mother of three, was wary of the idea when her husband suggested it. But the camp would at least be a weekend getaway, so she agreed.

Instead of balmy spring weather, the Gorhams biked through blowing snow over some very rugged terrain, getting lessons in both biking and another adventure racing staple: The weather can be a bonus challenge.

They decided adventure racing maybe isn’t so scary, after all.

“You don’t have to be the ‘uber-athlete’ to do these. That’s been really refreshing,” Gretchen Gorham said.

“It’s a little intimidating to see yourself doing it without some stepping stones. We just thought this would be a starting point to see if it’s something that we might be interested in doing and kind of see if we were even physically capable.”

Racers emphasize it doesn’t take a fitness nut to successfully take up the sport. Start with something you can handle, they suggest, then gradually take on more.

“I think the most important thing is that you don’t have to be a great athlete. You have to be somebody who has real desire. Keep going no matter what,” Levitt said. “I’m not a great athlete. I just push and push and push.”

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