Blood, Sweat, and Terrific Footage

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

Apr 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

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."