We're All Suffering Now

Once the pleasure of a few professional masochists, grueling adventure sports are suddenly a national rage

Jan 9, 2003
Outside Magazine

Wet work: Racers swimming Lake Almaden during the San Jose International Triathlon    Photo: David Madison/Getty

The Pain Gain

U.S. Marathon Finishers (up 1,700%)
1976: 25,000
2002: 450,000

U.S. Triathlon Members (up 150%)
1993: 16,000
2002: 40,000

12- to 24-Hour Mountain-Bike Races (up 5,900%)
1992: 1
2003: 60

U.S. Adventure Races (up 19,900%)
1995: 2
2003: 400

Sources: USA Track and Field; Association of Mountain Bike Team Relays International; USA Triathlon; U.S. Adventure Racing Association

IT'S FRIDAY NIGHT, and Erik Nachtrieb, the owner of a Seattle construction company, is exhausted after a long week. But instead of plopping on the couch with a Bud, Nachtrieb, 33, is going to keep the misery alive all weekend. He grabs a Red Bull-and-Clif Bar care package from his wife and points his Ford Explorer toward the Cascade Range. The next day at 9:00 a.m., he and three teammates will start trekking, mountain biking, and kayaking for 24 hours straight in the second of three stops in this year's Trioba Adventure Racing Series. Two years after entering his inaugural adventure event, he signed up for seven in 2003.

"I had to see if I was as tough as I thought I was," Nachtrieb says. "In our microwave culture, this is how we can take care of that real quick, and fairly safely."

Nachtrieb is part of a growing legion of nine-to-fivers who are downright blasé about taking on agonizing endeavors like 24-hour team mountain-bike rides and grueling adventure medleys. Twenty-five years after Americans guffawed at the first Ironman in Hawaii—Sports Illustrated said the 15 competitors had "ignored the boundaries of sanity"—elite endurance athletes are still stretching the limits of what's possible, and a huge number of amateurs are following their lead. "Today, a weekend warrior is quite happy to go out for eight hours and race," says Ian Adamson, one of the world's top adventure racers and author of the Runner's World Guide to Adventure Racing. "It's a complete mind shift."

This month, some 300 racers will head to Virginia's Allegheny Mountains to take on the Odyssey Off-Road Iron Triathlon, a cutting-edge sufferfest that combines the distances of an Ironman with alpine swimming, mountain biking, and trail running. ("Most of the running is going to be done at night," says Don Mann, president of Odyssey Adventure Racing. "They'll probably need a headlamp and a flashlight.") By year's end, an estimated 25,000 Americans will have participated in nearly 400 U.S. adventure races—up from two events just eight years ago—and about 30,000 will have entered 60 mountain-bike relays of 12 to 24 hours, just 11 years after the first such race was held. Tens of thousands more will cycle centuries and compete in events like California's 129-mile Death Ride, an annual contest that requires 16,000 feet of climbing over five Sierra passes.

Just ten years ago, the marathon was the outer limit for ordinary people. Now there are nearly half a million finishers of American marathons every year, and for a growing number of amateur athletes, the thrill of slapping their feet against pavement 10,000 times is gone. Plus, as Nachtrieb puts it, "a hell of a lot more bragging rights come with finishing an adventure race than with a marathon."

How did Joe Typical come to think he can tackle a punishing daylong sporting contest? In part by watching world-class athletes attempt increasingly outlandish competitions like the Iditasport Impossible, an 1,100-mile off-road bike race held every March in the Alaskan wilderness. "With pros pushing the extremes, the average cyclist says, 'If this guy can do a 100-mile mountain-bike ride, then I can do a 24-hour relay with four buddies,' " says K.C. Butler, 47, an event promoter and board member of the Bicycle Ride Directors' Association of America.

Reality TV shows like Survivor and The Amazing Race, on which common folks complete ruthless physical challenges, also play a role, as do the now-regular spring news reports of hundreds summiting Mount Everest (including the handicapped and the elderly). Add on publications like Outside that exalt the virtues of bold exploration and lifelong fitness and the result is hordes of dedicated amateurs believing that they also should push themselves to go farther. They can do it, too, thanks to better nutrition and training. "It used to be trial and error," says six-time Ironman champ Scott Tinley, 42. "Now you can get a software program, plug in your numbers, and get the correct combination of how much to swim and bike and run."

Yet the biggest attraction of the new endurance sports isn't improved fitness; it's the chance to lay it all on the line and survive an authentic adventure. "The athleticism is the means, not the end," says Laird Knight, who in 1992 organized the first 24-hour mountain-bike relay. "What you're after is the sense of adventure that comes from your teammate shaking your sleeping bag at 3 a.m. and saying, 'Dude, your turn to pedal.' " Of course, redlining your system regularly can come at a price. "The potential problems can look like the fine print on a prescription drug label," says Dr. Cedric Bryant, chief physiologist for the American Council on Exercise. "Sleep deprivation, heatstroke, hypothermia, frostbite."

Still, Troy Farrar, president of the U.S. Adventure Racing Association, predicts that the numbers of adventure races will double in the next three years. "Half the states in the U.S. still haven't had one," he says, "and once people start, they tend to get hooked."

Nachtrieb seconds that. "There's nothing quite like falling asleep while standing up, talking to my teammates, and holding a map."

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