She had more chins than attitude, and she had plenty of attitude.
Seeking water and calories on a recent bike ride near my Northern
California home, I popped into a deli where the cashier, a
muumuu-clad ogress with a noseguard's build, let me cool my heels
at the counter while she finished her cigarette out back. Spying
my bike helmet when she returned, at long last, to her station,
she launched into a tirade about a strange sporting event she had
seen on TV the night before.
"These people were out in the mud, pulling leeches off
themselves--it was disgusting," she said. She had been watching
USA Network's coverage of the 2000 Eco-Challenge in Borneo. The
Eco is the world's best-known adventure race, a multiday,
multidiscipline event in which teams cover treacherous terrain
and suffer (the TV producers hope) from a roster of repugnant
maladies. "One guy got impaled by a tree branch!" howled my new
friend. "Why would people put themselves through that?"
I chose not to share with her the fact that I am training for an
adventure race this summer. But I did mull her question for the
remainder of my ride. Why adventure? Why suffer? Why risk the
trauma of the poor bloke who could be heard, at the tail end of
that Eco telecast, informing paramedics that he'd just seen a
leech disappear up his urethra? (From my own craven perspective,
there is no reason, short of a gun barrel pressed to one's
temple, to risk the ingress of a leech through that particular
portal. Who needs that kind of writer's block?)
"Why do I do it?" says my friend Charlie Engle, a veteran of the
Eco, Raid Gauloises and Southern Traverse races. "The same reason
I smoked crack cocaine and drank. Racing is the only chance I get
to totally unplug from life: no cell phones, no pagers, no
anything. It's pure escapism. When I hit the wall in one of these
races, I think back on my last drug and alcohol binge, nine years
ago, when I spent a week peeking through the blinds of a
$10-a-day motel. Then I find the strength to push past my
April 22, 2001
I last saw Cathy Sassin at the '99 Elf Authentic Adventure Race
in the Philippines, where her teammate John Howard used a knife
to dig through a blackened toenail. As a small geyser of pus and
blood spurted through, Sassin smiled with relief and then went on
to win the race.
"Brutal as it looks," she says, "it's way more fun than it is
painful. And it's the ultimate vacation: I travel all over the
world and get to kick some butt with friends."
This is where adventure racing kicks the crap out of triathlon.
You're not some heart-rate monitoring, shaved-legged uber-athlete
running alone through someone's neighborhood in a Speedo. You're
racing with your friends. Selflessness, and the willingness to
admit weakness, is not only encouraged but also mandatory for
success. "It's incredibly liberating letting go of the idea that
I've gotta look out for myself," says Robert Nagle, a member of
three Eco-winning teams. "In this sport you look out for your
teammates because you know all three of them are looking out for
Nagle, by the way, is a former visiting scientist at Harvard and
now the director of software development for InterSystems. What
is he doing in this sport? Nagle puts it this way: "I remember at
the '96 Eco in British Columbia, my teammates and I were trekking
up this glacier at sunset, with a full moon rising in east. The
play of light and color as the sun set and the full moon
rose--well, you can't imagine it. Racing keeps fueling all the
other passions in my life: my work, my friends and family, art."
Terri Schneider, an exceptional racer who holds a masters in
sports psychology, quotes research indicating that some of us
are born with "a chemical predisposition to be a
sensation-seeker." Such individuals have lower levels of the
chemical dopamine, the production of which can be jump-started,
she says, by "seeking novel sensations."
In the interest of providing me with those sensations, my buddy
Marty Dugard keeps asking me to do the Eco with him in New
Zealand this fall. It's not a good idea. It could strain my
marriage, stunt my career....I really want to go.
Why do you think they call it dopamine?
Why risk the trauma of the poor bloke heard informing paramedics
that a leech had disappeared up his urethra?