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Survivor in the suburbs



Nathaniel Bittman and Steve Thomas aren't the type to distinguish themselves through physical feats.

Still, as "sales-oriented people" who work together in a mortgage company, they heard about a two-day race across a perilous land-and-water course east of Orlando and decided it would be a good team-builder. Good for leadership training. Good for leaving work behind. They didn't consider themselves lumberjacks, Army Rangers or runaway prisoners -- although, frankly, such skills might have helped.

"We're basic Joes," says Bittman, 28. "We're young professionals trying to challenge ourselves."

Their training consisted of the occasional evening game of ice hockey (although Bittman threw in a little bike riding and running). They might have chosen a shorter course for their first outing -- from four to six hours -- but picked the most punishing, to erase the idea they were competing against anything but the terrain. There would be little rest and no outside aid of any kind. They knew mosquitoes, sleep deprivation, fatigue and dehydration lay ahead. They were warned about wild hogs, moccasins and alligators. When race day dawned, the two were already at a disadvantage: They awoke at 2 a.m. in order to drive from Tampa for the 8:30 a.m. start time.

The only thing that mattered to them, Bittman said, was reaching the finish; they wanted to experience the "nice emotional relief" that comes from being in a state so primitive, they would no longer think of work.

The question was, during the pitch of night, among assorted calamities ready to threaten their lives, would they come to favor the rat race of the civilized world over the jungle that they were about to face?

For providing the framework for their misery, race organizer Dana Allen collected $325 per team, drawing about 60 participants to the wilds of southeast Seminole County on a Saturday last month.

Like the others in this race, Thomas and Bittman will bike 35 miles, trek 32 miles and paddle 17.5 miles over those two non-stop days. That is, if they don't drop out first. The novices were allowed in a race this long only because they convinced Allen that they could tolerate the extreme conditions.

If they did drop out, they wouldn't be the first. Allen, a firefighter and former bodybuilder who still holds lifting records at Orange Avenue gym, has seen many of his veteran competitors, tired and empty, drop out of races less exhaustive than this one. "Usually, they arrive at a checkpoint and ask, 'Can I go [back] with you?'"

These days, more people are tuning in to adventure racing than dropping out. Some publications peg it as the fastest-growing participant sport in America. Last year in the U.S., there were about 60 sanctioned adventure races. This year, there will be 300.

In Florida, 2000 is a year of firsts for the sport. The first coast-to-coast race, covering 160 miles from Tampa to St. Augustine, was run over Memorial Day weekend. The first national "sprint" championship -- sanctioned by the sport's governing body, the U.S. Adventure Racing Association -- will take place Nov. 4 at Jonathan Dickinson State Park, which straddles Palm Beach and Martin counties. Racers from across the country, especially Texas, California and Colorado where adventure racing is hottest, are expected to attend.

This year Allen's X-treme Gear company, which also sells adventure racing equipment over the Internet (, also began its own championship series. X-treme Gear is giving away $25,000 in cash and prizes to the top three teams in three racing categories: male, female and co-ed. Team points are compiled throughout the season in a fashion similar to the NASCAR system. The season's final race will be Nov. 5.

Adventure racing was the brainchild of a French radio journalist named Gerard Fusil. Known as the French Indiana Jones (he wears an Indy-style fedora) or the Jacques Cousteau of the jungle, Fusil thought of the idea as he reported on a transworld yacht race. Why not start a race that wasn't the same tired old thing? One that combined many disciplines such as trekking, kayaking, rock climbing and mountain biking, as well as something weird like camel or horse riding or in-line skating 60 miles?

The result was the Raid Gauloises, or the Challenge of the Warriors. Like a triathlon, the Raid was set up so that racers would pass through a series of checkpoints, some manned, some unmanned, where they could replenish supplies and receive first aid. The first Raid was held in 1989 in New Zealand. Twenty-six teams raced virtually nonstop for 300 miles. The winning team made the trip in five days, 21 hours and 15 minutes.

Since then, the Raid has been held in Costa Rica, Oman, Patagonia -- wherever the terrain remains exotic and relatively untouched. Though Fusil now hosts another adventure race (which is currently looking for a sponsor), the Raid continues. Teams competed in April in a 300-mile race across the Himalayas into northern India.

A former Raid competitor, the Australian Mark Burnett, borrowed Fusil's idea with the notion that he'd broadcast adventure races to a television audience. In 1995 Burnett held the first Eco-Challenge in Utah. Burnett, the executive producer of the "Survivor" television show, convinced the Discovery Channel to air the Eco-Challenge, helping to popularize adventure racing. Burnett signed a contract this year that gives the USA Network the option to broadcast the race until the year 2028; the network's first race, next month in Borneo, will be shown next April, and offers the highest first-prize payout in adventure racing history: $55,000. Of course, it costs a four-person team about $35,000 to compete in the Eco-Challenge, $12,500 for the entry fee alone.

Several years ago, a California company began a series of shorter races, called "sprints," that could be completed in four to six hours. The Hi-Tec Adventure Race Series now travels to Miami, Atlanta, Dallas, Pittsburgh and other cities, where the hype, crowds and vendor booths have created a kind of traveling carnival.

That, in turn, gave rise to promoters like Dana Allen in Central Florida and Adventurous Concepts in South Florida, both of which stage smaller races that attract the weekend warrior.

Sprints are almost an entirely different event than the Raid and other expedition-length races. For one thing, since sprints are so short, athletes hold nothing in reserve. There is no hiking, no hour-long resting periods and no worrying about solid food. More important, sprint races have mystery events -- surprises thrown into races that athletes have no way to prepare for. In a June 24 sprint sponsored by X-treme Gear, Allen unveiled a tarp over a pyramid-looking obstacle he placed in the middle of the Little Econ River. Racers traveling downstream had to exit their canoes and push their boats under the pyramid, while team members were made to scramble over the obstacle.

But whether a sprint or an expedition race, there are two truisms known to adventure racers.

The first is that the fastest and fittest often don't win. Orienteering, the ability to use a map and compass, is the most valued skill, keeping time-killing mistakes to a minimum. "When your adrenaline is pumping and you have to make quick decisions, that's where you make mistakes," says Dave Martinez, a graphic artist at WKMG-TV Channel 6. "A lot of teams have a lot of athletic ability, but you have to think under pressure."

Because of the raw nerves exposed, the best adventure racers tend to be stoics. In a race, emotions tend to become exaggerated. Whiners whine more. A control freak becomes more controlling. Reaching the next checkpoint as a team is often a matter of holding your temper and keeping your mouth shut. "It's really important to know how to work with other people when you're in a strange mental state," says Maryann Karinch, who completed the first Eco-Challenge and is the author of "Lessons From the Edge: Extreme Athletes Show You How to Take on High Risk and Succeed."

The second truism is that team unity is crucial. But tempers will flare when you combine hardships like sleep deprivation, dysentery, blistering feet and a team of Type-A personalities pushing themselves perhaps harder than ever before.

Martin Dugard is an adventure writer who has trekked the Raid Gauloises and Eco-Challenge in pursuit of a good story. He says he's seen more than a few teams melt down in the middle of a race. In an Eco-Challenge several years ago, he saw a Belgian team disqualified after the three men called their female teammate a bitch. And in adventure racing, a team is disqualified if it loses a teammate. (The sport does have soloists in the smaller races, but they tend not to fare as well as teams.)

Blain Reeves may be the best adventure racer to compete in Florida. A former commander of U.S. Army recruiting in Orlando, Reeves is an Army Ranger officer now stationed in North Carolina. One of the things he is known for is being caught on videotape falling asleep on his mountain bike while competing in Virginia's 350-mile Beast of the East race last year. Though Reeves often races as a soloist, he recognizes the power teammates wield over each other. "If you leave somebody off the back, they'll keep falling off," he says. "You have to keep everyone together. You have to keep everyone motivated."

Why would anybody bother? Adventure racing certainly isn't a glamorous sport. Bloody shins, dirty shirts, wet socks and shoes, dehydration headaches -- an adventure racer oozes discomfort.

The answer for many is fun, thrills, the chance to see parts of the unexplored outdoors. Wendy Chioji, the anchorwoman for WESH-TV Channel 2, has been racing for three years and says the one constant is the change; no two races are alike. "You compete against yourself and everyone else," she says.

Indeed, many adventure racers have graduated from 10K road races, marathons, mountain biking, duathlons and triathlons, where strategy is less important than conditioning. In those races, "It's the same race format, the same race course," says Yvonne Taylor, who ran Allen's course last month with a team called Running Wild II. "You don't have to watch where you step. You can just zone out."

The question of why people race is probably backwards, anyway. To the competitors, the question is, why not? After all, you're talking about a group of people who appear to enjoy the sadomasochist side of it. Even training takes on an extreme tone. A 30-mile kayak trip during daylight hours becomes a psychological exercise when it's scheduled in darkness. "We'll start at 10:30 at night and finish at 4:30 in the morning," says John Walker, past president of the Florida Adventure Racing Association. "It gives us the idea to keep moving, but during weird hours. You can always find your second wind in the morning."

The day after Reeves finished the 350-mile Beast of the East, he was out trail running with a partner. "It's all about pushing through pain thresholds," he says. "It's about pushing through comfort zones. I'm comfortable with a five-mile run. But when you tag on a 12-mile bike ride, dragging a canoe, climbing a rope, it all adds up."

Karinch, the author, kept racing for two days in the British Columbia Eco-Challenge in spite of blowing out her knee. She continued only because the cold temperatures delayed the swelling. Moreover, once Karinch finishes a longer race, she doesn't long for a hot shower and comfortable bed. As a matter of fact, she has trouble sleeping inside. It seems that expedition racing makes her feel claustrophobic in her house. She has to remind herself to do little things like flush the toilet.

"It doesn't take long to adjust to the outside," she says. "The outside is where you live."

Coming into Checkpoint Two, where the St. Johns River meets Highway 46 in C.S. Lee Park, most of Dana Allen's racers indeed seem motivated and cheerful. The first team is Running Wild I, a threesome from near Palm Beach that is breaking in a new teammate. Running Wild I is well-known to X-treme Gear staffers; they've already won three races during this year's challenge series. The racers gallop into the checkpoint strong, as if their legs were inflated with helium. "You're setting the pace as usual," Allen tells them. "I would expect nothing less."

Within minutes they shove off in a canoe. But they head in the wrong direction. Staff members warn them to check their maps, and Running Wild reverses itself to get back on course upstream.

Reeves, shirtless, leads his team 30 minutes behind Running Wild. He fumbles with his map and dons a jersey, then departs. Running Wild II, the sister team of Running Wild I, arrives in third place. They, too, are well-known adventure racers, having won Florida's coast-to-coast race Memorial Day weekend. They take several minutes to change into life vests. Then they also head upstream on the St. Johns. Other teams lag behind, some athletes yelling "Wassup?" or "How's it going" or joking, "Is that my jet ski?" A racer loses his sunglasses in a small inlet and a teammate jogs down the bank of the river to help him search.

Two hours behind the leaders, Nathaniel Bittman and Steve Thomas appear on the horizon as two more stragglers wandering through the woods and swamp of some tough Florida back country. Once within eyesight, Bittman gives a salute. "Well, you know, it's great," he says. "We're not totally in last place."

The 11 miles they've trekked have barely worn on them. "You just have to rock and roll, baby," Bittman says, putting on his lifejacket. After a few moments to get their bearings, he and Thomas shove off in a red canoe -- also in the wrong direction. Once warned, Bittman shrugs it off, joking, "We wanted to check out these air boats."

It's sort of a lonely sight, two guys headed to Lord-knows-where. In the distance, purple and gray clouds are forming. Soon pellets of rain begin dropping. There's nothing to do but look to the horizon for the next signs of the racers.

Dana Allen has never participated in an adventure race. Ironically, he started X-treme Gear three years ago so that he could race as much as he liked.

Living on the St. Johns, he kayaks, treks, mountain bikes. But he didn't expect that his job as an Oviedo firefighter would allow him to travel to many out-of-town races. So he formed his own promotion company and enlisted the help of fellow firemen to run the races.

To create his course, he negotiated with Ed and Bo Yarbrough, third- and fourth-generation cattle ranchers, for the use of their family's 8,000 acres of pastureland. The Yarbrough's ranch, which sits on Snowhill Road across the street from Little Big Econ State Park, is surrounded on three sides by public land. The location affords Allen tens of thousands of acres of racing turf, most of which he personally clears and marks for trails. In a corner of a Yarbrough pasture, Allen has built the tallest climbing wall in the state.

Like an investor with a hot stock, Allen has become a race promoter at the right time. He went from four races last year to eight this year to unlimited opportunity next year. He's hoping to host youth races and hold a training academy that teaches orienteering and other basics of adventure racing. "We'll be bringing in experts in paddling, land navigation, Army Rangers, Navy Seals and a psychologist employed by NASCAR to help [racers] work on team building," he says. He hopes to form his own team, Team X-treme, but he's worried that surgeries to both knees will prevent him from competing.

Allen also has plans for his own Eco-Challenge-length race. If all goes well, he'll host a 250-mile, multiday race in the Bahamas next November. He already has a name: La Chasse, or The Chase.

The July 22 race was Allen's first round-the-clock event. Up to now, he's hosted mostly sprints and rock-climbing races. And at first, the race went smoothly.

But as lunchtime fades into late afternoon, it's clear that all is not well on the race course. This is a sport, after all, where Murphy's Law is most applicable: Everything that can go wrong probably will.

Allen becomes worried that the leading team, Running Wild I, has paddled too far south on the St. Johns. Likely other teams followed. The pack mentality is difficult to overcome when bodies are relying on inertia. The result is that teams probably will be forced to look for their canoes again in the dark after trekking 22 miles to Checkpoints Three and Four. And the odds are slim that they'll be able to find their watercraft.

The staff of X-treme Gear, mainly Oviedo firefighters and their wives, stare at the horizon with binoculars. They pass information back and forth over cell phones. Somebody jokes that waiting for adventure racers is like hunting with dogs: You turn them loose and wait and wait and wait, listening for their sound.

Finally, several staff members, including Allen, drive into the race area, a section of wetlands south of Highway 46, north of Highway 50 and east of the St. Johns. As Allen soon discovers, many racers have lost their way. Running Wild I, the first team to C.S. Lee Park, became disoriented in the tall grass of the marsh, double-backed on itself, and eventually stumbled into Checkpoint Three, having wasted hours wandering around.

Running Wild I wasn't the only team lost. Reeves' team also paddled too far south and had to hike with their canoe over their heads for 10 miles to correct their error. Some teams were five miles out of their way and completely lost; others found the checkpoints just fine, but couldn't locate their canoes, hiking up and down the St. Johns before locating them near dark.

The problem, as some teams explained, was that Allen's maps didn't have a reference point, such as power lines, to guide racers.

"It was kind of like a treasure map," says a tall, thin member of Team So Far. The racer adds that nobody seemed to be able to guide themselves with a compass, either -- the blind leading the blind. "I'm not doing another race until I learn how to navigate," he says, "even if I have to take a class to learn."

The next morning -- the racers having been out all night -- Allen helps one finish the last leg of the course, a 40-foot ascent up a climbing wall. The climber is tired. He takes several deep breaths before beginning. He wears a harness secured by a set of pulleys to Allen, who barks out encouragement. "Good, there you go," Allen says. "Right leg up. Right foot yellow, left foot blue." The racer is surprisingly nimble, even though he's been racing for 30 hours.

Once to the top, Allen gives final instructions: "Sit back and I'll let you down."

Other racers have already completed the course. The winners were Running Wild II, whose members crossed the finish line at 7:57 a.m. Less fortunate was Running Wild I. They dropped out of the race after becoming frustrated between Checkpoints Three and Four.

In spite of toting their canoe 10 miles, Reeves' team came in second, two hours behind Running Wild II. Catherine Parbst, the lone female on the three-man team, received what looked like 100 mosquito bites on the backs of her legs. "With a boat on your head, it's tough to swat mosquitoes," Reeves said. He crept up his shorts to reveal a thick red welt hastened by wet shorts rubbing against his skin.

The threesome, however, was surprisingly upbeat. "Blain's deodorant isn't working," joked Parbst, who had just completed her first overnight adventure race.

The group saw "tons" of alligators and lots of snakes, and Reeves again lost control of his mountain bike, this time traveling over his handlebars when he hit the branches of a tree. "When I knew he was OK, it was funny," Parbst says.

As for the missed boat landing and canoe-carrying, Reeves says it's part of the game. "Bottom line, mistakes were made," he says. "Hey, that's why they call it adventure racing."

And Bittman and Thomas? They found the troublesome Checkpoint Three OK, becoming the fifth team to reach it. It was Checkpoint Four, back toward Highway 46, that caused them problems, putting them more than five miles out of their way.

They were tempted to wade through creeks or cut through tall grass, but they didn't want to risk an encounter with an alligator. ("If you see tall grass, hunt and peck around it, because you don't know what's in it," Allen had warned at the start.) At one point they found themselves trekking along Highway 46, cars speeding past them. The two quickly realized that following other people wasn't a good idea. Everybody was lost. "All of a sudden you'd see people coming at you saying, 'Don't go that way. It's totally the wrong way,'" Bittman says.

Cramping from dehydration and his legs aching, Bittman at first wanted to stop sometime near 5 p.m. on Saturday. But after he'd rested for an hour, he decided to press on, since Thomas seemed to be fine. But after reaching Checkpoint Four, discouraged by the chaos they'd just come through, the two called it quits sometime near midnight. Bittman says Thomas could have continued on, but foot blisters probably would have kept him from finishing.

Despite problems reading their map and battling snakes, dehydration and fatigue, Bittman and Thomas say they aren't frustrated. As a matter of fact, they seem to be already hooked on adventure racing. The two might even compete in X-treme Gear's Aug. 26 night sprint.

"It's totally different from the business world," Bittman says. "There's a whole other layer of putting things together. There's a totally different set of deadlines. You know that if you aren't making it to this next checkpoint, you're not eating."


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