Adventure Racing

So is adventure racing pure competition, or just a grueling way to grab TV ratings?

Blood, Sweat, and Terrific Footage

   

 
 
They had paddled for 56 miles across the choppy waters of Lake Nahuel Huap’ and Lake Espejo, portaged over steep slopes, and forded the raging Rio Limay, but only now was the real drama about to begin. Running in second place in last December's Eco-Challenge Expedition Race in Argentina, four New Zealanders dubbed Team MapInfo (after the name of their sponsor) had just arrived at Check-point Three, a dirt parking lot swarming with 150 spectators and 200 members of the press. Cameras zoomed in as the team stripped naked, threw on dry clothes, and flung themselves into the 26-mile horseback stage. As they rode through the gauntlet of onlookers, an overeager soundman swung a boom in front of Kristina Strode-Penny, MapInfo's most experienced equestrian. The horse bucked, catapulting Strode-Penny over its head and leaving her writhing on the ground with a broken right ankle. She struggled for ten miles to the next checkpoint, then collapsed in tears in a first-aid tent where, once again, the cameras pounced."All these media people were pushing through the flap in the tent and shoving huge lights and microphones and cameras in my face," recalls Strode-Penny, who was soon airlifted to a hospital in Bariloche, disqualifying her team. "They were just staring. No one was trying to comfort me, even though I was lying there alone with a compression fracture and it was obvious how much pain I was in."

Undoubtedly, when the slickly edited documentary about last year's Eco-Challenge airs on Discovery Channel on April 9 and 10, Strode-Penny's accident will make for great TV. But scenes like these have given rise to serious questions about the future of adventure racing: Is it merely a hybridized media confection built on ersatz drama, destined to fade like a ratings-challenged network sitcom? Or will it find a life of its own, endorsed by both participants and audiences as a legitimate com-petitive pursuit? "ÔThe Toughest Race on Earth' kind of thing is only going to last so long," says Martin Dugard, a three-time Raid Gauloises veteran and the author, ironically enough, of Surviving the Toughest Race on Earth. "The sport has already lost its purity. In order to get away from the realm of corporate sponsorship and television, it's got to embrace some of the traditional structures it disdained in its early days."

When French journalist Gérard Fusil established the inaugural Raid Gauloises adventure race in 1989, the event was intended to cater to French "adventurers" who took particular glee in racing for three days straight through remote, dangerous territory. Since then, overall participation in adventure races has increased at an average of 65 percent per year, attracting competitors from all over the world and even prompting coverage from publications like BusinessWorld and Popular Mechanics. Now, with 200 adventure competitions scheduled around the globe this year, the sport appears to be experiencing its heyday.

But while big-name races like the Raid and the Eco-Challenge have inspired multiple spin-offs, few share the same rules, regulations, or itineraries. The Elf Authentic Adventure, created in 1999 by Raid founder Fusil (who sold his stake in the Raid several years ago), involves kayaking, biking, and trekking in exotic locales while taking inept stabs at creating a culturally sensitive spin. (During last year's Elf, an American team took basketballs to Filipino villagers.) One- and two-day races for weekend warriors, such as the Hi-Tec Adventure Racing Series and the Brooks Muddy Buddy Ride and Run Series have also sprung up near American cities like New York and Los Angeles. The chief common denominator is a fierce need for sponsorship dollars and TV deals, since none of these races benefits from ticket sales or concessions. And to get that, they all need something else: moments of hold-on-to-your-remote drama—real or staged—that elevate adventure racing above the level of express backpacking in running shoes.

No one embodies the ability to invent, package, and sell that drama more enthusiastically than American credit-card marketer and three-time Raid veteran Mark Burnett. Having witnessed the huge growth in adventure racing firsthand, Burnett, 39, saw an unfilled niche in the United States and in 1995 launched the inaugural Eco-Challenge in Utah. The event proved to be quite Raid-like, with one exception: A shameless self-promoter, Burnett determined that with enough television deals and corporate sponsorship he could actually turn a buck. "I saw this enormous demographic of wealthy, active people," he says, "and I thought, what could be more perfect than a sport just for them?"

Easier said than done. Burnett has been criticized for creating an event that favors particular camera crews (parts of last year's Eco-Challenge were closed to all camera teams except those from Discovery Channel, the race's key sponsor)and selling documentaries that are more about telegenic stagecraft than competition. "They take massive amounts of footage, then make up the story afterwards," grouses Mark "Ox" Foster, captain of the losing Team MapInfo. "Their priority is ratings, not racers." Burnett, whose adventure theatrics will reach a new high (or low) this summer with a primetime show he's producing for CBS called Survivor, in which 16 contestants are dropped on a deserted island in the South China Sea with minimal provisions and try to outlast one another in hopes of winning a million dollars, argues that successful events are about entertainment. "Anybody who says the Eco-Challenge isn't a race is ridiculous," he says. "But people like a big show. And when the Eco-Challenge comes to town, the circus arrives in a big way."

Even without contrived tribulations, however, the broad contingencies in adventure races—bad weather, navi.gation errors, health problems—tend to steer actual events away from the script, occasionally causing the circus to spiral dangerously out of control. In 1997, at the ESPN-sponsored X Games adventure race on the Baja Peninsula, 250 miles south of San Diego, organizers grossly under-estimated potential problems such as dehydration and heatstroke. First, participants' shoes melted from under their feet; then racers began collapsing all over the course. In a few cases, it took hours for rescuers to reach the endangered contestants, one of whom slipped into a coma and had to be hospitalized. In 1995, Eco-Challenge racer Robin Horsfield succumbed to hypothermia after spending the night in a water-filled Utah canyon and had to be evacuated by helicopter. That same year, at the Raid Gauloises in Borneo, New Zealand's Steve Gurney contracted a potentially fatal virus after an open wound was exposed to bat guano in a cave; he was on a respirator for three weeks.

Despite the mishaps and risks, veteran participants are quick to defend their pursuit. "Let critics who say this isn't a sport try to finish one of these events, let alone compete," says Billy Mattison, an accomplished mountaineer who captained the winning American team from Vail in 1998's Eco-Challenge in Morocco. In the end, it may be the athletes themselves who steer the adventure-racing soap opera in a new direction. "The Eco-Challenge may be the gold standard by which you measure a great television adventure, but it is not the gold standard by which you measure adventure racing," says Dugard. "I think the hard-core adventure racer is already moving away from what Burnett's doing."


 

Breach of Faith?

A landmark report on the Snake River dams is expected to advise doing...a whole lotta nuthin'

   

 

Ever since we first reported on the campaign to breach some of the nation's oldest dams as the best means of restoring dwindling fish populations ("Blow-Up," February 1999), we've been monitoring the accelerating rate of federally ordained dam decommissionings. The most significant of these occurred last July when a backhoe pulled a bucket of earth from the Edwards Dam in Maine, making the Kennebec River free for the first time in 162 years. During the next six months, another 13 dams were demolished, including Rains Mill Dam in North Carolina and Idaho's Colburn Mill Pond Dam. This month, however, hopes surrounding the first large Western dam-breaching may by dealt a severe blow.

At the end of April, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates four massive dams on Idaho's Snake River, is expected to recommend keeping all of them in place—an announcement that may scuttle the dream of freeing one of America's most storied stretches of flowing water. That recommendation, which will cap a five-year, $20 million study of the Snake by the federal government, could establish an unsettling precedent in the volatile politics of dam removal. If, as environmentalists anticipate, the Corps of Engineers decides against breaching, its conclusion won't be resting purely on scientific evidence.

Last year, studies commissioned by the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service both declared that dismantling the dams would be the best way to save the Snake River salmon from extinction. "The bottom-line biological conclusion is really a no-brainer," says Ann Badgley, regional director of the Fish and Wildlife Service. "For native fish and wildlife, a free-flowing river is better than a dammed river."

As these studies garnered attention, business leaders and politicians began howling in protest. Corps economists estimated that breaching would cost the region $246 million per year in increased shipping, irrigation, construction, and hydropower costs (equivalent to nearly 1 percent of the Northwest's economic output). Last autumn, perhaps after reading the political writing on the wall, the marine-science folks backed away from their recommendations and started pushing alternatives to tearing down dams. "From a purely salmon perspective, the maximum protection option [which includes breaching the four dams] would be best," admits William Stelle, the NMFS regional administrator. "But that's nonimplementable, because we just don't have the authority."

And there's the rub: Because the four lower Snake dams are federally owned, Congress and the president would have to approve their destruction. Chances of such a plan passing a GOP-controlled Senate are next to nil, while a Republican in the White House would almost certainly kill the idea. "If Governor Bush is elected president," says Washington's Republican Senator Slade Gorton, the region's powerful dam defender, "breaching will be off the table in 60 days." The candidate himself is slightly more circumspect: "We can save the fish," Bush said during a recent fund-raising swing through Oregon, "but we don't have to tear down dams to do so." Alas, the governor failed to elaborate on how he would ach.ieve this Solomonic compromise.

Democrats are equally wary of embracing the idea—most notable among them Vice-President Al Gore. Last fall, Gore angered some longtime backers in the environmental movement by staying conspicuously silent on the Snake River; a coalition of environmental groups and outdoor companies (including the Sierra Club, Trout Unlimited, Save Our Wild Salmon, and Patagonia Inc.) even took out full-page ads in the New York Times chastising him for skirting the divisive issue. Gore later met privately with Northwest environmentalists and insisted he wasn't playing duck and cover. "He's not ruling dams in or out," says Tim Stearns, former director of Save Our Wild Salmon. "But he assured us that salmon and dams are going to get more attention." Unfortunately for the Snake's salmon, the gap between action and attention could spell the difference between survival and extinction.


   

Mr. Salty to the Rescue

Don't let sodium deficiency trip you up on the trail

   


"I'm on a new campaign to push junk food on the trail," announces Sherrie Collins, branch chief of emergency services for Grand Canyon National Park. "My favorite is Cheez-Its." Collins's preoccupation with the unnaturally orange snack food stems from the fact that a single-serving bag contains 40 milligrams of sodium—enough to stave off hyponatremia, a condition involving critically low levels of sodium in the blood that plagues increasing numbers of mountaineers, adventure racers, and day hikers.

During periods of sustained physical exertion, your body prevents itself from overheating by flushing water through the pores of your skin. The price for keeping cool is that you not only lose enormous amounts of water—up to 25 milliliters each minute—but also significant amounts of salt (hence those unsightly white rings around your armpits after an epic mountain bike ride). The traditional mantra for outdoor enthusiasts—drink water or die—helps you to redress the H2O deficit, but it does nothing to replace the lost salt, which is critical for transmitting nerve impulses in the brain. Once blood-sodium concentration drops below 9 percent, hyponatremia sets in. The symptoms, which include malaise, confusion, and nausea, can presage severe and in some instances fatal complications.In 1998, Kelly Barret, a 43-year-old distance runner, died while participating in the Chicago Marathon. Although his death was attributed to a rare heart condition, doctors said it was aggravated by hyponatremia. Part of the problem is that in its early stages, hyponatremia mimics heat exhaustion, which makes diagnosis quite difficult. "They look exactly alike," says Collins, "but you treat them differently."

During the last few years, efforts to detect, treat, and prevent hyponatremia have increased significantly. In 1997, Dale Speedy, a University of Auckland physician, conducted the first comprehensive hyponatremia study at the New Zealand Ironman and found the condition in one-fifth of 330 finishers. Those numbers have gone down in the past two years, but cases in noncompetitive outdoor activities have rocketed upward. In 1989, the first hyponatremic hiker was evacuated from the Grand Canyon; by 1999, the number of diagnoses in the park had risen to 36. The elevating statistics led park rangers to pioneer the use of portable blood-chemistry analyzers in 1996, which allow for on-the-spot assessment and treatment. This summer, Collins is trying to add another of those $5,000 analyzers to the three currently in use. She's also expanding the park's Web site to educate visitors about the risks of hyponatremia during desert hiking.

Experts say that prevention hinges on maintaining a consistent water-sodium balance by not drinking too much water and by replenishing at least some of that lost salt. Caveat: Don't overdue it. The simplest remedy is an off-the-shelf sports drink like Gatorade, which is loaded with sodium-rich electrolytes. Or, as Collins points out, Cheez-Its—a prescription that may soon imbue the snack food with a noble new role. "Now," notes Hawaii Ironman medical director Bob Laird, "it can save lives."

  

   

Blue Sky's Noisy Dawn

Vail sweeps up the ashes of ecoterrorism and opens its newest powder paradise

   

 
 
 
 
If there was ever a lynx residing on the back side of Colorado's Vail Mountain, the shy bobcat cousin must have fled in terror on January 6 when approximately 6,000 powder-crazed skiers and snowboarders beelined for the ski resort's newest stretch of terrain, a 520-acre expansion called Blue Sky Basin. The throng swarmed the area's two new high-speed quads and stacked up in hour-long lift lines before finally frolicking through Blue Sky's broad glades, open bowls, and hip-deep stashes.

That opening-day scrum was somewhat ironic, since Blue Sky Basin has been at the center of a prolonged environmental battle that climaxed in a fiery arson attack by the Earth Liberation Front that destroyed Vail's mountaintop Two Elk Lodge in October 1998 (see "Powder Burn," January 1999). Blue Sky, formerly known as Category III, was quickly dubbed "B.S. Basin" by detractors who are convinced the project is merely a ruse to fuel real estate development on private land near its border. Longtime ecoprotester Jeff Berman, who recently founded Colorado Wild's Ski Area Citizens Coalition to fight expansions at Vail and a half-dozen other regional resorts, says the only reason he or his cohorts will ski the terrain is to ensure that Vail follows required mitigation measures to protect the lynx habitat. The coalition has already called attention to sensitive wetlands that were damaged by a logging road built to haul millions of board feet of timber from the Blue Sky site. "We're watching very, very closely," warns Berman.

And yet the land-grabbing shows no signs of slowing down. While timelines vary over the next few seasons, nearly a dozen U.S. ski areas plan to open expanded terrain, including Saddleback Mountain in Maine (1,800 acres) and Wyoming's Grand Targhee (195 acres), while Vail plans to add another 365 acres to Blue Sky. At press time, Berman and other environmentalists awaited a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision to add the lynx to the endangered species list, which could derail at least a portion of those projects. But Forest Service officials caution that approved plans have already taken the possible lynx listing into account. "The lynx listing isn't going to preclude future expansions," says Ed Ryberg, who helps oversee the Forest Service's ski resort permits. "It's just going to complicate them."


 

Cotton That Won't Kill Ya

A California company unveils what could be the next wünderfabric

   


One Tuesday afternoon last fall, Donald Duncan, a vice-president of Nextec Applications Inc., a textiles company near San Diego, California, stood in the middle of his headquarters' conference room wearing a distressed-red organic-cotton canvas jacket while a colleague doused him with a bottle of tap water. Two designers from Patagonia Inc. watched in astonishment as the water hit Duncan, beaded up, rolled off his jacket, and soaked the carpet at his feet. The demonstration highlighted the benefits of a new cotton fabric that Nextec hopes will make current outdoor garments as old-fashioned as oilskin. "Cotton," exclaims Duncan, "is going to be huge!"

Duncan's enthusiasm is understandable, given that cotton in the outdoors has traditionally sucked—literally: The material excels at absorbing moisture, trapping it next to the skin and sapping body heat. "It's known as Ôkiller cotton,'" explains Billy Roos, a medical consultant for the Colorado Outward Bound School. "If you're going into an environment where body heat can't keep you warm and dry, cotton definitely isn't the way to go."

Based on ideas pioneered by a California inventor named Mike Caldwell, the new fabric is created by using high pressure to bond industrial-grade silicone polymers to individual cotton fibers. The process "encapsulates" each fiber within a thin, resinous barrier, sort of like rice noodles coated in sesame oil. Result: a pliant, breathable, and hydrophobic material that is more stylishly versatile than fleece and doesn't feel like cardboard after encapsulation—a pernicious side effect when laminates like Gore-Tex are applied to cotton.

Aficionados of cutting-edge fabrics got their first glimpse of the new material at January's Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt Lake City, where Nextec unveiled prototype barn jackets and khakis. The company is now finalizing contracts with L.L. Bean and the Asian skiwear maker Phenix. Duncan's vision of mountaineers summiting K2 in his parkas, however, may prove to be a fantasy. Industry pros see the new cotton working best as value-added street clothing, since it isn't as durable or as weatherproof as high-end synthetic performance wear. "I'd love to have a Nextec work shirt or a pair of casual pants," says Joe Walkuski, a fabric engineer at Patagonia. "But would I wear them ice climbing? No."


   

I'll Hike Manhattan

A retired corporate exec indulges his pedestrian obsession by taking on the Big Apple

 
 

 
 
Block by grimy block, avenue by gritty avenue, Paul Grand is establishing himself as the John Muir of New York's concrete canyons. After retiring as a vice-president for Colgate-Palmolive, Grand, 58, decided to devise an adventure quest that fused two of his strongest passions: hiking and New York City. He is now engaged in a multiyear expedition that may not be quite as grandiose as the thousand-mile schlepp that Muir made from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico in 1867, but it is surely every bit as bold: hiking nearly all 504.3 paved miles of the streets, boulevards, lanes, ramps, tunnels, passageways, and back alleys that crisscross the island of Manhattan.

As any seasoned Goth.am pavement pound.er will tell you, the traverse from, say, the Harlem River to the South Ferry Terminal is no easy stroll. Grand, however, comes prepared, having made winter treks in the Swiss Alps to alpine villages like Saas-Fee and Zermatt. Limiting himself to a more leisurely pace for this endeavor, he has taken on Manhattan by covering as much as 15 miles a day once a month since his enterprise began in 1997. "I'm a hiker and alpine mountaineer," he said one morning last December as he left his Highland Park, New Jersey, home for a six-mile ramble through the alternately fetid and tony meat-packing district just north of Greenwich Village. "But I'm consumed by the city. There's a more expansive palette here than anywhere else. Depravity, squalor, joy, spirituality—all the world exists here. That's why it's a great place to hike."

Dressed in a fishing vest, fleece shirt, and hiking boots, Grand looks like an outing club stalwart who took a wrong turn down a Connecticut trout stream. "I'm prepared for anything," he says, pointing to an emergency urine bottle dangling from his backpack. Walking briskly, he covers the meat-packing district in concentric passes the way a Zamboni sweeps an ice rink. "Thrilling!" he sputters, pointing at a shadow-draped redbrick facade above the Hellfire Club, a well-known S&M establishment. "Some people walk to go. I walk to see."

Grand has plotted his course across Manhattan by breaking the borough into zones. So far, he's tramped every neighborhood below 181st Street save for the affluent Upper East Side, which he dismisses as hopelessly colorless. An avid amateur photographer, he shoots six or seven photographs per hike, and he'll pull practically any stunt to get exactly the right image. Last summer, on a West Harlem excursion, he scaled a seven-foot wall with $9,000 worth of photographic gear, including four Nikon camera bodies (three with black-and-white film, one with color) and five lenses, to snap a trash-filled lot. "It wasn't a Motherwell," he says, "but I saw a painting there. I'm on safari. I'm looking for trophies."

Of course, Manhattan is only one of New York's five boroughs. Expeditions to Brooklyn, Queens, and storied old haunts like Coney Island are in the planning stages, but for now, Grand's focused on tackling Inwood, from 181st Street to The Cloisters. And once he's walked all of New York City, what then? "I'll do this for the rest of my life," he says. "Every three years or so I'll walk it all again, and I'll see it differently. Won't that be wonderful?"



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