Reaching new extremes

For athletes who’ve done it all, adventure racing tests participants in a gantlet of muscles and will
Friday, March 5, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:31 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 3, 2008

Adrenaline junkies love it. It might give you a natural high, but it’s the last activity most people would ever choose to do.

The sport is adventure racing, best described as a triathlon, and then some, and then some more.

Defining adventure racing is nearly impossible. There are just so many events: biking, running, canoeing, kayaking or any other non-motorized method of travel.

Teams of athletes scramble among these activities while competing. The sport has been around for about 15 years but has become more popular in the past seven years.

Cammy Ronchetto, 43, is a Columbia native and adventure racer of nine years. She called the activity “a combination of extreme sports started and finished by a team of mixed-gender racers which sometimes pushes you to your limits.”

MU senior Josh Dunham, 23, finished his first adventure race in Chicago in February. He called it “a triathlon on steroids.”

Columbians are jumping into adventure racing with increasing regularity.

Ronchetto and Dunham both competed in the 2004 International Adventure Travel and Outdoor Show race at the Navy Pier Convention Center.

The five- to seven-hour race was the first for Dunham and Columbia teammates, Maresa Burleson, 21, and Kurt Downing, 22.

For Ronchetto, it was just another race.

“We missed second place by 2 minutes,” Ronchetto said. “We’re not really sprinters anyway.”

Dunham, Burleson and Downing placed 23rd out of 50.

“We were ecstatic,” Dunham said.

“We didn’t really know what to expect at all,” Burleson said. “We didn’t even find out what we were going to be doing until an hour before the race.”

Surprises are the norm in adventure racing, and each event has a rhythm all its own.

Little of this, little of that

The “extreme” sports can include running, mountain biking, kayaking, canoeing, rafting, mountain climbing, rappelling, orienteering, canyoneering, swimming and sailing. Tired yet?

Ronchetto and Dunham’s teams biked, ran, orienteered, hefted a kayak, known as portage, and completed initiatives around downtown Chicago.

While every race is different, certain concepts are similar throughout the circuit.

Teams range from two to five people, and in almost every race, the team must include men and women.


Maresa Burleson, Josh Dunham and Kurt Downing load up the car for their drive to Chicago on Feb 20. The three had placed in the top half of the Adventure Race. (NATALIE GUILLÉN/Missourian)

Races can last a few hours or up to seven days or more.

There are four types of adventure races — expedition races, races in stages, weekenders and sprint-type races —although promoters are constantly pushing the sport to try new forms.

Expedition races are the oldest and most extreme form.

They can last from four to 10 days, with occasional breaks where racers eat, sleep — and vomit.

Braving the elements

Racers face rain storms, searing heat, jungles, falling leeches, blisters and wildlife.

Over the years, Ronchetto has come up with her own tricks for surviving the races, including using sticky foot spray and cow udder butter to prevent blisters.

Ronchetto started training nine years ago after a substantial weight loss.

She has a sculpted body of someone who routinely gets up at 3:30 am to work out. Her seemingly perpetually tanned face is framed with bleached blonde hair. She has an energy about her that could motivate you to quit your job, sell your house, and start exploring the harsher regions of the globe just has for the past nine years. When she’s not out being a professional adventure racer, she teaches preschool.

“I’m totally broke all the time; every cent I make goes to racing,” Ronchetto said.

Camera crews have trailed Ronchetto and her team through the jungles of Borneo and up the peaks of New Zealand.

CBS produced a special on adventure racing, focusing on her team and teammate, Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind climber to reach the summit of Mount Everest.

Ronchetto’s extreme race memories might seem like nightmares to some.

“I’ve seen plate-sized tarantulas, and there’s a reason they call them plate-sized,’” Ronchetto said. “They’re seriously as big as a plate.”

She’s faced a poisonous green mamba snake and been covered in leeches.

“During the Borneo race, I was standing at the checkpoint when another team radioed in to report a leech going up one guy’s urethra,” Ronchetto said. While Ronchetto laughs off most of these incidents, she has been through a few serious moments.

Once , she and a teammate kayaked over a waterfall, ended up in a flash flood and got pinned underwater for 45 seconds.

She described getting “cliffed out” in Switzerland.

“We got to the edge of a cliff and had to get down to the other side. The only way to do that is to traverse across on slippery rock,” Ronchetto said. “There is really tall grass in Switzerland that’s good to hold on to, but there is razor grass in the middle of it and it’ll cut your hands. You just get through it by laughing, really.”

For Ronchetto, it’s all part of the ride.

“I’ve had lots of close calls,” Ronchetto said. “You just get used to it.”

No racers have died in the United States, according to Troy Sarrar, president of the United States Adventure Racing Association.

The association was created seven years ago and is the national governing body of adventure racing. It formed after a number of promoters banded together to get cheaper insurance for racers. The group also sets safety standards.

“Lots of unsafe things were happening during races in the early years,” Sarrar said. There are about 350 races in the United States each year — more than any other country — and Sarrar expects that number to double or triple in the next year.

“The mainstream communities are getting more involved,” Sarrar said. “It used to just be outdoorsy people. That’s starting to change.”

Something for everyone

Columbia is one of the communities embracing adventure racing. The fourth annual Shakespeare’s Adventure Challenge will be this September.

The race consists of a 4-mile canoe course, a 6-mile mountain bike race and a 3-mile run. Last year more than 100 people participated.

The event has two parts: a race and a poker run. Competitive racers sprint to the finish, while poker run participants go at their own pace, picking up playing cards at checkpoints.

The team with the best poker hand at the end can win prizes.

Dunham and his teammates said they didn’t have many Ronchetto-style stories from their first race, just new knowledge of their abilities.

Burleson wished she had biked more, Downing wished he trained harder for better endurance , and Dunham wished he could have understood how better to help his teammates overcome their weaknesses .

The team members graduate in May, and none are sure what lies ahead for their adventure-racing careers.

As for Ronchetto, she continues to train every day.

“It’s my life,” she said.

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