If the waiver is longer than your average State of the Union
Address, be afraid. Be very afraid.
That's one thing I learned at the Presidio Adventure Racing
Academy, which is based in San Francisco and twice a year (in
March and October) offers crash instruction on a hot sport in
which teams of three to five racers negotiate a treacherous
course over land and water, day and night, for distances of up
to 500 miles. With its emphasis on strategy, teamwork and
respect for the environment, adventure racing has positioned
itself as a thinking person's alternative to triathlons.
Thinking is definitely a requirement. After reading, then
signing PARA's novella-sized waiver, my 19 classmates and I
spent five hours indoors, taking notes on survival skills,
team-building and land navigation. I first had reason to reflect
on the waiver the following afternoon as I looked into the face
of death during our training session. I was in the stern of a
two-person kayak on San Francisco Bay, staring up at the
sinister hull of the freighter Hanjin. Sharing the kayak with me
was a laconic Midwesterner and a 2:52:00 marathoner named
Charlie Engle, who asked me, as the Death Star-sized behemoth
bore down on us, "What kind of a swimmer are you?"
The Hanjin missed us by a good 300 yards, but our troubles had
just begun. We were out beyond the Golden Gate Bridge,
struggling against a seven-knot ebb tide and nasty chop, and
getting our tails kicked. Some 30 seconds after the freighter
passed, we were slammed by its wash: a series of five-foot
swells. In no time four of my classmates were in the water,
yelling for help as they drifted toward Hawaii. The timely
appearance of two Coast Guard boats, summoned by a bridge worker
watching our distress, probably prevented a tragedy.
August 9, 1998
At that night's barbecue I thanked PARA founder Duncan Smith for
arranging to have the Hanjin pass precisely when it did, thus
providing us with maximum adventure for the 1,195 tuition
dollars. "The key," said Smith, whose sense of humor is
martini-dry, "is reserving far enough in advance." In his
introductory remarks he said that we were among the sport's
pioneers--a designation more rightly his. Smith has captained
several adventure-racing teams and been a top finisher in the
Southern Traverse in New Zealand and in the Raid Gauloises.
After serving as a Navy SEAL, Smith got his MBA and a job in
high finance, which he found remunerative and mind numbing.
Three years ago he mothballed his Nicole Miller ties and opened
the academy, which also conducts shorter races for corporations.
(When I last spoke to him, he was preparing a race for an FBI
At the end of the evening we were split into four teams for a
two-day, 50-mile race that would start at six the next morning.
When Smith stuck me on the sad-sack Team Tamalpais, I suspected
it was payback for my insolent reference to the near disaster on
the bay. One of my teammates was Andy Townley, a fireman from
Redding, Calif., who made it clear that, as a last-minute
substitute for a friend who couldn't make it, he had no
intention of risking either life or limb just to finish some
race. During night navigation drills on Thursday, he'd made a
simple declaration: "I don't run." It was clear that Andy had
So what happened? The race began when we were shuttled out to
Angel Island as the sun staggered up over the horizon. Our first
checkpoint was Mount Livermore, the island's highest point. Less
than a mile in, we saw a trail that could have been a shortcut.
Andy instantly volunteered to scout it out and sprinted off. My
teammates and I shook our heads. He's running, we told each
other. Andy was running. We suddenly realized that we had a
chance to win.
The other members of my team were: Shawn Grenier, a marathoner
and aspiring adventure racer who pilots F-18s for the Navy and
who ended up handling most of our navigation (as someone who
spends hundreds of hours each year searching for my car in
parking garages, I had no problem with that); Krista Haferkamp,
who also wants to get into adventure racing and who appears to
have the physical strength and mental toughness to be good at
it; and Burke Franklin, an ursine Silicon Valley executive who
wrote a book called Business Black Belt. You know how some stout
people turn out to be surprisingly fit? Burke was not one of
Each team was accompanied by an instructor, who was a passive
observer...unless he saw an opportunity to prevent
life-threatening mayhem. Ours was the personable Nate Smith, a
Navy SEAL you might have seen during the Discovery Channel's
coverage of the '97 Eco-Challenge in Australia. Thirty miles
into the 49-mile kayak leg, his team was overtaken by a squall.
Ten-foot swells crashed over the two boats, sinking one. For 90
minutes Smith bobbed in shark-infested waters off the Great
Barrier Reef. When a chopper finally arrived to film the scene,
it did not lower a rope for him, but signaled that help was on
its way. The rescue chopper arrived 20 minutes later.
Smith was still catching flak for the NAVY SEALS RESCUED AT SEA
headlines. "We were 316 miles into a 335-mile race, and we end up
getting DQ'd," he said. "You can be good in this sport, but
you've got to be lucky, too." We soon saw that wisdom in action.
Fifteen minutes after we pushed off Angel Island in three kayaks,
the current shifted, making the crossing back to the mainland
much tougher for the teams behind us. That was a good thing for
our side, because we turned out to be a rather weak group of
I soon discovered that we were better in kayaks than on bikes. A
mile into the 18-mile mountain-biking leg, at the first hint of
an incline, Andy and Burke were off their bikes, puffing hard
and walking slowly. I wanted to shout at them, "Suck it up!"
Shame on me. At that moment I was the jerk so often ridiculed by
real adventure racers: the testosterone-addled triathlete who
charges out of the gate, then crashes and burns by Day 3. One of
my favorite instructors was Michael Lucero, who died six weeks
later in a car accident on his way to a race. Michael was a
serene, likable guy who directed music videos and cautioned us
to distrust our "inner warrior." For the '96 Eco-Challenge in
British Columbia, one of his teammates was a triathlete who
claimed to enjoy "boar hunting with a knife." Mr. Studfish
Boarhunter dropped out after five days.
Halfway up the first hill, while waiting for the rest of the
group, I noticed, with a stab of guilt, that Shawn was carrying
Burke's pack. Instead of trying to shame my teammates back onto
their bikes, I muzzled my inner warrior and, with Krista's
permission, grabbed her pack. Before we had gone five miles,
which included four fairly serious climbs, Burke was a soup
sandwich--adventurespeak for suffering badly. Since we would win
only if everybody on the team finished, he became our group
project. The weekend turned into a litany of questions directed
at him: Burke, may I walk your bike for you? Burke, are you
hungry? Burke, may I carry your pack? Burke, should I call 911?
I was surprised to see how quickly we settled into our roles.
Andy was the jester, tossing off Eddie Murphy monologues and
periodically launching into a falsetto Julia
Child-as-survivalist bit: "Keep moving forward! And
remember--save the liver!" Krista provided more inspiration than
she realized as she powered over the course in her sports bra;
she served as a buff siren, luring straggling teammates up hills
by shouting back at them, "Almost to the top!" and "Flat part
coming up!" Grenier's error-free navigation earned him the
nickname Spot-on Shawn. His tendency to shout, even when we were
all within 10 feet of him, underlined his status as our leader.
Unable to contribute much else, I devoted myself to carrying the
packs of others. They called me Sherpa.
I credited myself as being the group's strongest cyclist, right
up until the moment I executed a face plant into an El
Nino-carved rut on a trail above Muir Beach. The crash tweaked
my rear derailleur, ensuring that for the rest of the race the
bike would shift itself--at the worst possible times, into the
worst possible gears--causing me to exceed my lifetime
allocation of profanity in just two days.
We were overtaken by Team Alcatraz midway through the bike leg,
but we didn't care. At that point we didn't want to win, we were
praying to finish. Late in the bike leg Alcatraz took a wrong
turn, riding merrily down a long hill and out of contention.
Around this time a member of Team Golden Gate dropped out,
disqualifying his group. Because we had taken no wrong turns
(thanks, Shawn) and because no one on our team had quit (thanks,
Krista) or died (thanks, Burke), we were the leaders in the
clubhouse on Saturday night.
Smug and sitting on a one-hour lead, we were the last team to
arrive at Sunday's first checkpoint, the east peak of Mount
Tamalpais. But that was O.K. While waiting for the logjam at the
mountain-climbing venue to clear, we took in spectacular views
of San Francisco, the East Bay and Mount Diablo, 40 miles
distant. Red-tailed hawks and turkey buzzards wheeled hundreds
of feet below. In addition to the obvious advantage of not
having to make conversation with tiresome, Speedo-clad men with
shaved legs, this is another way in which adventure racing beats
the hell out of triathlons. We could smell each other--Nate
admits that he did not brush his teeth during the '97
Eco-Challenge--but we could stop and smell the flowers, too.
Our lead was fat enough to offset our slow Sunday-morning start.
Despite being the last team across the finish line, we won the
overall competition by 28 minutes. Failing to share in my team's
triumph was my wife, who had come to give me a lift home after
spending the weekend with our four-year-old girl and
21-month-old boy, both of whom had come down with high fevers
within minutes of my departure--according to their mother--and
neither of whom had allowed her to sleep more than 30 minutes
While I told her about cheating death in the bay, eating dirt
during the bike leg and gallantly carrying the packs of my
comrades, she searched for a decent song on the car radio. I
began to suspect that she thought she'd had the tougher weekend.
While this might have been true, I merged onto 101 North knowing
that I loved adventure racing. It had forced me to discover new
personal limits, to do things I didn't know I could do. For
instance, my last expense report included a $65.42 repair bill
for a badly tweaked derailleur.
Smith said we were among the sport's pioneers--a designation more
I credited myself as the group's best cyclist, right up until I
executed a face plant.