Intense wilderness

Adventure racing combines running, climbing, rappelling, canoeing and biking with navigating through wild over hours or days with 2- to 4-person team.
Sunday, January 14, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:23 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 4, 2008

With a nearly full moon as the only light, Team Inertia huddled around three containers of Tupperware holding gear including Pringles, bike pumps and extra socks. Even before 7 a.m., the group searched for the right carabiner, the filed-down purple one, not to be confused with the pink, yellow or red ones. Checking for the fourth time to make sure all the gear was in place, the team offered words of comfort to one another.

“It’s mostly about how the teams communicate,” James Kaufman reassured teammates Ryan Slebos, Nancy Day and Aaron Bahney.

Jason Elsenratt, the organizer of Castlewood 8-Hour Adventure Race, announced over a loudspeaker that someone from each team needed to retrieve the passport. Kaufman hopped on his bike to fetch it. Returning, he tucked the passport into his pack, and Slebos hung a plastic-covered map around his neck. Day and Bahney, who are both teammates and significant others, briefly kissed. Team Inertia was ready to take flight. Along with more than 50 other teams, the team lined up for the start. At the sound of the buzzer, it took off for the sprint race. At eight hours, Jan. 6th’s Castlewood 8-Hour Adventure Race was considered a sprint. The word ‘sprint’ sounds almost laughable, since the race requires more than 10 miles of canoeing in the Meramac River, 10 miles of forest trail running through Castlewood State Park in Ballwin and 30 miles of biking the surrounding park area.

Adventure racing is a sport that’s younger than its competitors. The genesis of adventure racing in the United States is credited to TV producer Mark Burnett. Inspired by adventure races abroad, he initiated the first U.S. race in 1995. In simple terms, adventure racing is a triathlon in the woods. This definition, however, completely underplays the intensity and athleticism it requires. Adventure races incorporate a number of activities such as running, climbing, rappelling, canoeing and biking, with orienteering. A team, usually consisting of either two or four members, is given a map and compass and must navigate through the wilderness. The team must find its way through the checkpoints while using the designated medium of transportation.

Races normally last between 24 and 60 hours, but they can span up to 10 days.

Nothing in Kaufman’s sparse office at MU’s Economic and Management of Agrobiotechnology Center, where he is the project director, gives any indication of his alter ego, Kaufman the adventure racer. His office is as economical as his profession. There are no clues about his moonlighting that began three years ago when he completed his first adventure race. A former collegiate runner, Kaufman talked about past marathons and triathlons in a casual fashion, the way most people describe activities like walking the dog.

“I wanted something else – a new challenge,” he said. “While triathlons and marathons take dedication and motivation, adventure racing takes it to the next level and makes it mental. And you’ve also got to like mud.”

Finding a team is an incredible challenge, Kaufman said. “You need people with similar personalities and athletic abilities, since adventure racing rules require that the team stays within 100 feet of each other.”

Kaufman’s team, Inertia, consists of participants from throughout the state: There’s a surgeon, a Sprint employee, an auto mechanic and Kaufman, the economist. Each member brings expertise to the course. The auto mechanic, Ryan Slebos, serves as the chief navigator; he even takes navigational classes to hone his skill. Jason Elsenratt, sponsor of Bonk Hard adventure races, cites orienteering as “potentially the most essential skill.” Kaufman leads the team in the running expeditions, often literally towing his team through the trails. This means he harnesses other members to him, like a pack of sled dogs, in order to take some of the physical burden off the other members.

Kaufman said he doesn’t train specifically for adventure racing. He just keeps fit by running, cycling and lifting, each at least four times weekly. Since Team Inertia is from different corners of the state, the members can’t meet frequently for dry runs. So when the team can convene, practices stretch over 12 hours. In the past, Kaufman has set up a scavenger hunt of sorts for his team at Mark Twain National Forest. “I leave out markers ahead of time, have them plot it out, then they run around and find them. It’s fun.”

Adventure racing is often critiqued for its dangers. Several people have died while participating in races. In 2004, Austrailian ultra runner Nigel Aylott died when a boulder crushed him while competing in the Primal Quest, an expedition-length adventure race.

When questioned about the risks, Kaufman said, “Isn’t that part of the fun?” He said the sport is unique because the ultimate competitor is the terrain.

“In adventure racing, it isn’t so much that I want to get this place or I want to beat this team. It’s more I want to defeat the course,” Kaufman said. “At least once per competition, you’ll be completely lost. You’re convinced that you’re here on the map when you are really there. You lose it physically and mentally.” The sports also taxes the wallet: “You are required to carry a long, expensive list of gear. It’s not optional. Sometimes you carry up to 25 pounds – which wouldn’t be that bad if you weren’t running up stupendous hills.”

Don’t expect to hear about any crazy after-party stories with adventure racing. Unlike other extreme sports, adventure racers don’t party hard after the competition.

“We celebrate with sleep,” said Kaufman.

The Castlewood race was initially scheduled for Dec. 2, around the time of the snowstorm, so Kaufman’s team got stuck at his home. “Since we’re all very active, it was an interesting experience to have us all indoors,” he said.

More than 50 teams competed on Jan. 6. Despite a team member’s illness, Team Inertia placed second in the four-person coed division. Kaufman plans on competing in several other races, including the 18-hour Bonk Hard Chill on Feb. 3 at Lake of the Ozarks State Park. This race will be a qualifier for United States Adventure Racing Association national championships, which will be held in Potosi, Bolivia on Nov. 2 and 3. Kaufman and his team hope to compete for the title.

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