It's been a couple of days since I got back from Camp Pendleton in
Southern California. The bad news is that I had a little trouble
transcribing parts of interviews I tape-recorded on the shooting
range. I'm sorry. Could you repeat that? The good news is that
the ringing in my ears has almost completely gone away.
I was there to hang out with Thom Shea, a Navy SEAL instructor
who is also an avid adventure racer. The SEALs, those
special-operations ninjas who endure some of the toughest
military training in the world, have long been drawn to this
sport. (Two years before he created the Eco-Challenge, Mark
Burnett--along with three SEALs and a TV producer named Susan
Hemond--finished a creditable ninth in the 1993 Raid Gauloises in
While SEALs have a tradition of applying their Sea, Air and Land
skills to Raids and Ecos, Shea is taking things a step further,
making the sport work for him. He has begun incorporating some of
the lessons of adventure racing into his SEAL instruction.
Such as? I wondered when I heard about this. Trekking poles as
interrogation devices? An empty camelBak bladder as an impromptu
April 19, 2004
Nothing quite so esoteric, says Shea, who emphasizes to his
charges that because things tend to go awry in SEAL missions just
as they do in adventure races, both require flexibility and
creativity in solving problems. "A team leader has to be able to
roll with whatever happens," says Shea, who decreed, after
studying the 400-plus-mile course for last September's Subaru
Primal Quest in South Lake Tahoe, that his team would average
four mph and rest four hours a day. That squad, Team Warrior
Foundation (which raises money for children of Special Forces
soldiers killed in action), was thrown off schedule two hours
into the race, when its four-person kayak was swamped, then sunk,
by choppy waters on Lake Tahoe.
"As in adventure racing, your [SEAL] mission almost never turns
out the way you planned it, " says former SEAL Don Mann. "So we
always say, 'Be Gumby, be flexible, do a lot of contingency
planning.'" Mann is the president of Odyssey Adventure Racing,
which puts on, among other ordeals, er, events, the 24-hour SEAL
Adventure Challenge in Virginia Beach and a seven-day New Balance
Adventure Racing Academy (open to anyone) in West Virginia. Also
a Raid veteran, Mann sees many parallels between his sport and
his former career. "In some ways adventure racing is easier" than
being a SEAL, he says. "When you're out in the woods at night
during a race, you can talk out loud, and you can turn on a
But in some ways, Mann goes on, it's harder. "Hell Week [the five
grueling days that are the heart of SEAL training] is brutal, but
you do get four meals a day, and there's an ambulance nearby."
Special Forces in general, and SEALs in particular, are given far
more rein by the military than are regular grunts. They are
encouraged--indeed, required--to be creative and audacious in
solving problems. "We're faced with daunting obstacles, and we
have to come up with ingenious ways to overcome them," says Shea.
An example he cites to his SEAL wannabes: When a teammate got a
flat during a mountain biking leg at the Primal Quest, the
Warriors discovered that they had no extra tubes. Eight teams
passed them; none had a tube to spare. In desperation, they
stuffed the tire with long grass. "It was loose and floppy," says
Shea, "but at least it got us back on the course."
On missions and in races team members must be brutally honest
with one another. "You have to be able to say, 'My feet are
falling apart,' or 'I feel sick, I need a break,' without fear of
repercussions," Shea says. "Otherwise, you're endangering the
Not all missions are accomplished. The Warriors were forced to
withdraw from the Primal Quest one checkpoint shy of the finish
line. A team member was suffering from hypothermia, and it was
too dangerous to go on.
Shea regards that failure to finish as a temporary setback. He
is, after all, a guy who failed four times to make it through
Hell Week. (Twice he was injured, twice he came down with
pneumonia.) The fifth time was the charm. He will be back at the
Primal Quest next September. This time, the Warriors will be more
wary of hypothermia. This time, they will carry spare tubes.
The next SI Adventure will appear in the May 31 issue.
Navy SEALs say adventure racing is like a mission: IT NEVER TURNS
OUT THE WAY YOU PLANNED IT.