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Age and the Adventure Racer
Why Gen-Xers Can't Beat the Baby Boomers
15 JUN 2000

The starting line of an expedition-style adventure race is a fascinating study in demographics and body types, and handicapping such events is quite different than picking horses at Saratoga or Churchill Downs.

Sure, there are thoroughbreds, young, taut, hard bodies, fantastic physical specimens with five percent body fat and muscles rippling through their Lycra. You'll see them doing pre-race wind sprints, calisthenics (push-ups, crunches, even pull-ups from tree limbs), and mind-boggling stretching routines. They are the 20-somethings, the young and nervous and agitated, shaking like finely tuned 3-year-olds before the bell sounds and the gates of the race track fly open.

Smart bettors will lay odds on the grizzled, worn, and wrinkled middle-agers. Put your money on the teams that look like bag ladies and homeless men. They don their favorite old ragtag garments rather than spanking-new spandex and matching fleece. Look for frayed, homemade visors and patched clothes. These have seen races before, and are lucky duds.

"No matter how tough something is, it will end, and if you keep that in mind it can get you to the next discipline..." A-Files Photo Gallery
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Exaggeration? Slight. But the curious truth is that in a culture driven by "Stay Young, Drink Pepsi" TV ads, a socio-demographic climate which decries the aging process at every turn, in a time when Gravity Games, X-Games, and skate ramps rule the airwaves, the best performers in expedition-style adventure races (arguably the hardest multi-day sports contests in the world) are between 35 and 45 years old, are often parents, and some look old enough to be grandparents.

Why this paradox? How can it be that the fastest to the finish in one of the world's most grueling physical contests are not the youngest and strongest? It defies logic.

You see a similar scenario at nearly every race. Pups in their youthful enthusiasm shoot off the front, ignoring their own pacing, and going with the lead pack. Within a day, maybe less, they are lost, five hours up the wrong canyon, bitching at each other, arguing, trying to lay blame. They are in meltdown mode, wasting valuable time and energy while older, more mature and experienced teams clip along at a comfortable pace, moving forward all the time. They have mastered team dynamics, group decision making, and supreme calmness under extreme duress.

"More than just finding themselves on the podium at race end, the older teams seem to always find their way to the finish. They rarely, if ever, drop out or quit..."

The results are telling. Team Vail, with an average age of 43, won the 1998 Eco-Challenge in Morocco. Team Eco-Internet won the 1998 Raid Gauloises — average age, 38. Team Greenpeace, winners of 1999 Eco-Challenge, average, 39. And there are a host of others who have done exceptionally well over the years, sage racers well into their 40s: Team Aussie's Jane Hall, a perennial top finisher, is 44; Louise Cooper-Lovelace, a wily veteran with multiple top-10 finishes in big races, is 46; and the Stray Dogs tandem Mark Macy, 46, and Marshall Ulrich, 48, finished 10th in Morocco 1998 and have never failed to finish an Eco-Challenge.

More than just finding themselves on the podium at race end, the older teams seem to always find their way to the finish. They rarely, if ever, drop out or quit.

There are a number of reasons for this phenomenon, but probably the most significant is that while adventure races are excruciatingly difficult physical ordeals, they are also profoundly cerebral events, in which mental fortitude, experience, and maturity all take precedence over one's physical abilities.

Says Ian Adamson, 35, one of the world's most celebrated racers: "To excel at adventure racing you need a high level of maturity, excellent communication skills and emotional stability. Athletic prowess definitely helps, but skill and cunning generally overcome youth and vigor in the longer races. The level of maturity and people skills needed for success in adventure races can only be gained through experience, and this takes time."

"To get through very difficult times, when you are suffering badly, you have to tell yourself that it will eventually end..."

Adamson goes on to say, "Most people do not choose to put themselves in a position where they experience the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and cultural extremes of an adventure race, so it is a shock when they get into a race and find themselves in tough situations. Younger people, in their 20s, often have not had the time to experience these stresses in their daily lives, so coping with them in a race situation is extremely difficult. There are many world-class athletes who have failed dismally at adventure racing due to a profound lack of life experiences."

Cathy Sassin, 37, who has competed in (and finished) around 13 full-length races, points out one obvious problem that younger racers encounter. "They forget that nothing lasts forever, and they get rattled. To get through very difficult times (and every race provides them), when you are suffering badly, you have to tell yourself that it will eventually end — the pain won't last forever. No matter how tough something is, it will end, and if you keep that in mind it can get you to the next discipline, or over that summit."

Mark Macy claims it's a matter of how you come to perceive things, a question of relativity: "At the start I see these young studs with muscles ripped everywhere, and there I am, an old, skinny guy with gray hairs on my chest. I wonder what in the hell I'm doing there. But as you get older you accumulate trying life experiences, and as a result you are better able to handle adversity and desperate situations.

"Experience is important, not only in life, but in racing. Ironically, more difficult things, longer distances, all these endeavors that were once 'extreme' become normal to you. I now think that the Eco-Challenge, rather than being 'extreme,' is a normal experience. Compared to having a job, raising kids, dealing with day-to-day life, the Eco-Challenge for me is basically a vacation!"

All of this is not to say that the youngsters shouldn't be out there trying. On the contrary, the only way to become experienced enough to excel is by doing it, by suffering for days on end, by getting lost, by going through hell with teammates and surviving to learn from the experience.

Just don't expect to win. Because even if you are teamed up with a group of superstars who on paper should blow away the field, up ahead there is likely to be John Howard, 46, arguably the world's greatest adventure racer, a crusty old Kiwi window cleaner who, late in a race, looks like he just crawled out from under a pier. And there the old salt will be in his tattered red nylon pants, exclaiming retirement as he crosses the finish line, victorious again, days ahead of you and your all-stars.

— Buddy Levy, Correspondent

SEE ALSO: Eco-Challenge 2002

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