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Anatomy of an Adventure Race

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The checkpoint flag was hidden in a swamp. My shoes were sinking into muck, cattails and reeds spiking overhead in a dank wetland near the Minnesota River. “Any luck in there?” my teammate shouted, inquiring on the search from higher ground.

It was 10a.m., a hot morning in mid July. The Minnesota Orienteering Club’s annual adventure race had kicked off an hour before, releasing 42 teams to hunt and search for flags scattered miles apart. As the third of five events in a local race series, the competition mixed running, biking, and kayaking with a choose-your-own-route challenge through the prairies, woods, and swamps in and around southern Minnesota’s Minneopa State Park.

Racer Darrell Louder trekking in tall grass on the orienteering section. Photographer: Adriaan Greyling
(Click for Adventure Race PHOTO GALLERY)

GPS devices were not allowed. Instead, the teams — most coed squads with two or four people — employed maps and compasses to locate and punch more than 25 checkpoint flags hidden in a tangle of topographic detail.

Adventure racing, an activity characterized by its multi-sport wilderness race courses, has gained popularity in recent years with a diehard demographic of outdoors athlete. More than a decade ago, the Eco-Challenge race and its accompanying reality-TV series put adventure racing on the national radar. Today, it remains a growing activity, with about 50,000 participants nationwide, according to data from the United States Adventure Racing Association in Austin, Texas. The association cites more than 350 adventure races around the country in 2009.

“We have a community of core racers that have given a lot of time to the sport in this state,” said Justin Bakken, a top area racer from Minneapolis with the team WEDALI. Bakken’s team, a fixture at races in the region, finished fourth place in the 2008 National Championships last autumn. Next month, he will navigate for WEDALI in the 10-day Primal Quest Badlands event in South Dakota, where teams will race for hundreds of miles in search of flags and the finish line.

Checkpoint! Flag hidden in a pocket on a cliff. Photographer: Tom Eddy
(Click for Adventure Race PHOTO GALLERY)

At the Orienteering Club’s event near Mankato, Minn., held July 11, the time limit was about seven hours. In general, adventure races range from half-day-long competitions to events like Wild Adventure Race’s annual Fall 24-Hour, held in mid September, which goes non-stop all day and all night in the forest around Duluth, Minn.

Longer events like Primal Quest are called expedition races. In 2006, I raced on Team Bulleit in Primal Quest Utah, which was a sleep-optional ultra-endurance challenge that reeled on for nine days and untold miles through the mountains, deserts, and unending rivers of the region.

At Minneopa State Park, the race began with a foot orienteering section, one of five disciplines of the day. Teams were handed maps a few minutes before the start time. “Remember your bike helmets on this leg,” shouted Pete Curtis, the race director.

Racers paddle off on the kayak section of the MNOC race. Photographer: Adriaan Greyling
(Click for Adventure Race PHOTO GALLERY)

Backpacks loaded with gear are a fixture in the sport. At Minneopa, the complex course included transitions between running, road biking, mountain biking, kayaking, and a “creek walk” section, which involved trudging upstream more than a mile in shallow whitewater.

Racers monitored multiple maps and a set of instructions. The goal was to find and punch two dozen checkpoints in the allotted time, thinking quick, navigating straight, and relying on a race strategy as much as raw physical output and speed.

In tall prairie grass, the first checkpoint was hidden behind a boulder. Teams sprinted off a main trail to find the flag, an orange and white nylon box. Six miles of intricate navigation — including time spent searching in a swamp — led to the mouth of Minneopa Creek. I tightened my shoelaces in anticipation of rushing currents ahead. “Life jackets on,” a race volunteer yelled out.

My team jumped in and waded upriver. Rocks and muck made for uneven footing, a slippery struggle up a stream and into the unknown ahead. In a few minutes, the creek disappeared into a tunnel. Stanley Barton, one of my teammates, took out his headlamp and led the way.

Trekking uphill and out of a gorge. Photographer: Tom Eddy
(Click for Adventure Race PHOTO GALLERY)

We found a flag in the dark depths, and then we pushed back to the light. A racer running ahead slipped on a rock, splashing in the creek with a thud. Upstream, a waterfall roared.

Our bikes were staged above a ravine, ready and waiting for the next section of the race. Later, it was onto kayaks and a shallow river flowing north. Then mountain bikes and the singletrack trails at a ski area close to the park.

Seven hours of effort in the hills and forests around Mankato. Seven hours of rivers and swamps, feet slipping on rocks, getting stuck in the muck. In an adventure race, you pull your shoe out without a thought, and then you trudge on again, unstopping until the end.

—Stephen Regenold writes about outdoors gear at www.gearjunkie.com.

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