New Floridian - October 2006

Adventure Capitalists

Adventure Capitalists

No athletic training program, muscle builder or fitness regime will matter if you walk off the edge of a cliff. That’s a no-brainer. But in races that span hundreds of miles and up to 10 days during which competitors get little-to-no sleep, dehydration and exhaustion can wear as much on the mind as the body.

Shawn Dietrich, co-founder of the West Central Florida Adventure Racing Club (WeCeFAR), said that very often, adventure racing “is not about who’s the fastest; it’s about who’s the smartest … who makes the right decisions at the right times and who recovers faster from mistakes.”

Or avoids the worst of them. In Dietrich’s case, as he and his teammates navigated some gnarly off-road terrain during an arduous race high in the Cascade Mountains, instinct and observational skills proved far more valuable than physical-fitness training.

“The small bushes and trees got so tight that we had to carry our bikes above our heads,” he recalled. “And all of a sudden we couldn’t see [the brush] anymore, so we knew that the slope had gotten much steeper.” At that moment, the velvet blackness of the Washington wilderness seemed insurmountable. Despite the ticking clock, they decided to stop for the night. Wise move.

“When the sun came up, we were on the edge of a 300-foot cliff,” he said. One more step and Dietrich’s teammates would have watched helplessly as he and his helmet light plummeted into the inky void. “That was pretty crazy.”

Insane, some might say. Dietrich and his teammates (Team “Jim” Class) were ultimately disqualified as a result of a knee injury that prevented them from officially finishing the race. But hitting 34 checkpoints before bowing out isn’t bad, considering this was the Subaru Primal Quest Expedition Race, one of the biggest and most renowned adventure races in the world.

Events like this make for great television, but they also represent the tiniest segment of the adventure racing universe – a segment reserved for its most elite competitors. Most adventure races are outdoor enthusiasts who simply share a competitive spirit and a fondness for wild, woolly romps through the woods.

Defining Adventure

An adventure race is a multi-sport competition. “The general rule of thumb,” Dietrich explained, “is that it will have some type of cycling – usually off-road but it doesn’t have to be because there are urban adventure races, too – some kind of paddling (it could be canoes, kayaks, rafts) and some kind of foot section.”

Other disciplines might include rope skills, like climbing and rappelling; in-line skating and swimming. Orienteering (navigation using only a special-purpose map and compass) to reach specific checkpoints is almost always on the menu and lends an analytical element to the sport. Let’s face it, superhuman running, climbing or cycling skills are nothing if you can’t read your map.

Similarly, a team that takes the “easy” route to a checkpoint by running the trails may lose out to another that chooses to “bushwhack” through the brush using machetes to carve a shorter path – or vice-versa.

“In triathlons, 99 percent of the time, the winner is the physically strongest,” said Manny Otero. “Not so in adventure racing. Make one small mistake and you can get lost for hours.” Otero, 36, is an avid cyclist and active member of the Central Florida Adventure Racers (CFAR). He’s learned this lesson first-hand.

“In a race a few years ago, my team and I were running in third place overall starting the last leg of the race, which was a bike section. We made a small mistake reading the map and turned right instead of left at an intersection. By the time we corrected our mistake, we were in 10th place.”

Who Does It?

The sport probably is most common in Colorado and California, sad St. Pete-resident Jessica Koelsch, 37, who cofounded WeCeFAR in 2002 with Clearwater’s Shawn Dietrich, but it’s spreading across the state like citrus canker in a hurricane. Their club boasts 300 active members and counting.

“We do attract some serious athletes,” Koelsch said. “The 30-hour races are for people with a certain level of grit who can deal with giving up a night of sleep to go run around in the woods, but for the most part [the club is made up of] people who just want to play outside for the day.”

WeCeFAR races generally offer two levels of competition so that everyone can enjoy – and challenge – themselves. Most people get into it for the fun, the sense of accomplishment and the camaraderie. “With a lot of our events, we design a beginner’s version,” Koelsch said. “Distances are short, terrain is relatively nontechnical. It’s something to give people a taste and a sense of accomplishment, a course that is manageable so they’ll feel good about themselves and want to come back and do more.”

In fact, WeCeFAR runs “guided workouts” each month for all fitness levels; groups of similar skill go out at different paces. “You can come out and ride with us if you just bought your bike yesterday,” Dietrich said.

Workouts may start with a lecture and generally tackle one sport at a time, but either way they’ll finish up out in the woods. Sessions can cover topics from bicycle maintenance (how to fix a flat on the trail in a timely fashion) to cohesive riding. The rules of adventure racing require members to stay within sight of one another, which makes any team about as fast as its slowest person. “We can teach them to ride together as a team, which even experienced bikers may not be used to.”

At press time, the club was gearing up for a night paddle, said Koelsch, whose husband, Kip, coordinates adventure programs. “We’ve also got a navigation clinic coming up since that’s new for a lot of people. We’ll give them maps and compasses and some basic challenges and work up from there.”
The team aspect is appealing, too. Adventure clubs are automatically social. Solo racing isn’t unheard of, but it’s neither the purest form of the sport (a four-person, coed team), nor does it reflect the spirit of cooperation and companionship.

“One thing that draws me to AR, more so than the triathlons, is the fact that it’s a team sport,” said Otero. “It’s great to have a good and fun team to race with for hours on end. And teams in AR actually help each other. We band with other teams when looking for checkpoints. And if another team is in trouble, we help them out. It’s a great environment.”

And Where?

Koelsch, a Northeastern native, is proudly Floridian by choice. “This area is great for adventure racing because there is just so much around!” she said. “There are so many people, opportunities, clubs, locations …. If you want to get outside and be active, there is no excuse not to because everything you need is right here.”

Dietrich touts outer Hillsborough County’s Wilderness Park system, which consists of Flatwoods, Morris Bridge and Trout Creek, as excellent terrain for adventure racing disciplines. “The Tampa area has far more wilderness than most people think,” he said. “There are great parks out there with trails for beginners that you won’t find on maps. Places that no one really knows except the locals. People in our club know where they are.”

Curious? WeCeFAR’s upcoming Fort DeSoto Adventure – an off-road triathlon (duathlon if you’re too cold to swim!) slated for December 4 – might be worth trying, or at least checking out. It will be fairly nontechnical and the focus here is definitely on having fun. Distances are short, the whole event only lasts a couple of hours, and it’s ideal for beginners.

Koelsch added that those new to competitive sports often love adventure racing because it’s as much about making new friends and challenging yourself as it is about challenging your opponents. She highly recommends coming to a club meeting, event or even volunteering.

“See it from the other side of the fence and you’ll see the wide range of fitness, skill, body sizes and you’ll be like, ‘I fit in.’” 

Women: AR’s Hottest Commodity
There’s nothing a male adventure racer likes to see more at a recruitment meeting than a woman, but for reasons other than you might think.

“Women are a premium in this sport,” Shawn Dietrich said. “If you want to race at the top level, your team has to have a woman….” Why? Because women add a critical element to the character of an elite team.

“Women will go out a little slower,” said Jessica Koelsch. “They’re a little more – I don’t want to say ‘cerebral,’ but they stop and take their time, think about things, and don’t just charge ahead…. Guys are a little more hesitant to ask for help. Having a woman on the team to suggest that there be more cooperation [is useful]. Once somebody’s asked, everything’s cool, but nobody wants to be the one to say they need help.”

Dietrich said women represent between 25 and 30 percent of WeCeFAR’s membership. “I’d love to see more.”