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A Brief History of Adventure Racing
The New Sport for the New Millennium
01 JULY 1999

In the beginning, Gerard Fusil created the Raid Gauloises, and it was good. It took Fusil more than seven days to give birth to a brave new sport, but it was worth the wait. Now just 10 years old, adventure racing is enjoying the kind of growth and popularity experienced by the running boom in the 70s and the triathlon in the 80s. Adventure racing: the new sport for the new millennium.

In 1987, Gerard Fusil, a French journalist, was in South America covering the famed Whitbread sailing race when he had the first glimmers of the concept. He was intrigued by the idea of extended endurance races, by moving over foreign landscapes using different methods, some of them traditional modes of transportation. As a journalist he had for many years covered the Paris-Dakar rally, and he thought that such a journey an expedition, really, employing a team and many days of travel would be an excellent race, especially without motorized assistance.

People suffered. People bled. Blisters festered. And teams became addicted to the pursuit. A-Files Photo Gallery
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The epiphany really took hold two years later, when Fusil was whirring above rugged Patagonia in a helicopter. He understood then that to move across such vast expanses, over land and lakes and down streams, would require incredible fitness, many methods of transportation, and certainly a team of people to proceed safely. In his mind, The Raid Gauloises was born, and by October, 1989, the first Raid took place in New Zealand. Twenty-seven teams contested the inaugural event, and it was a big success. People suffered. People bled. Blisters festered. And teams became addicted to the pursuit. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.

Still, the event remained primarily a European phenomenon, proceeding in relative global media obscurity, and the teams in the first few Raids were mostly French. Then, in 1990, an American named John Markman of the L.A. Times wrote a story about the Raid, going as a competitor himself. An intrigue was sparked.

Mark Burnett was one of those living in California who read the L.A. Times article. Originally from Britain, Burnett was an avid outdoor adventurer and was clearly taken by Fusil's concept. He determined to do the race himself, then to bring such a sport to America. The events that followed, especially as they pertain to The Raid, are chronicled in detail in Marty Dugard's book Surviving The Toughest Race on Earth. The short version: Burnett understood that there was marketing potential in America for a race that blended extreme sports with human interest stories, and The Eco-Challenge became the forum. The entrepreneurial Burnett teamed up with Brian Terkelsen, a former New York investment banker, and the first Eco-Challenge took place in Utah in 1995.

Warring race directors plan races to conflict with other races, competing for entry of the best teams.

The first two Eco-Challenges, Utah and then British Columbia, were filmed by the talented young Mike Sears, and a wider audience sat riveted by the human drama, by the toil and hardship teams and individuals were putting themselves through for the sake of sport. When The Discovery Channel came on board and began airing dramatic "mini-series" of the events, the world took notice. Now, for better or worse, when you want to tell someone what adventure racing is, you say "it's like the Eco-Challenge."

Currently the sport is experiencing significant growing pains, and most of them are positive. Defining adventure racing has become rather difficult, since the number and type of races keeps exploding and metamorphosing.

There are a few main categories:

1. The expedition-style adventure race, including such events as The Raid Gauloises, The Discovery Channel Eco-Challenge, The Southern Traverse, The Elf Authentic Adventure (the new race by Gerard Fusil), and The Beast (America's new biggie). All of these require mixed-gender teams of four and include orienteering and multiple disciplines.

2. The Stage Race. The big difference here is that competitors race by day and sleep at night (like they do in The Tour de France). The most known and most highly funded of these is the Mild Seven Outdoor Quest, held annually in China. Offering big bucks for winning teams, this race attracts big name triathletes like Paula Newby Frazier and Mike Pigg, and indeed many of the elite, pure adventure racers show up too. The central difference here is that there is no navigation component, so strictly speaking The Mild Seven isn't a pure expedition-style adventure race. The Survival of the Fittest, originally an ABC gig but followed up by ESPN, has long drawn mountain people and cross-over adventure racers. It's a 12-day stage race of mixed events.

3. Short courses and sprints, including one, two, and three day races. Ironically, the longer races like Raid and Eco-Challenge paved the way for introductory "feeder" races and race series. Many of these are excellent ways for would-be expedition-style racers to test their mettle in an event that is contested over a day or a weekend. Many benefits arise, including that you don't have to quit your job or mortgage the farm to do them. The Hi-Tec Adventure Racing Series has been a huge success. Three member teams compete in what is essentially a one-day (usually between three to 6 hours) off-road triathlon, mountain biking, trail running, paddling inflatable kayaks and dealing with surprise "special tests" that are meant to simulate the kinds of decision making required in longer races. Again, there is no navigational component. A step up are the two and three-day adventure races like the Cal-Eco events, or the Endorphin Fix races. These are non-stop, 30-50 hour full-on adventure races, complete with navigation and sleep deprivation. They serve as prime stepping stones to the longer races.

Other issues and differences in philosophy and approach further complicate matters. There are issues of supported versus unsupported races (in supported races teams have a crew that travels ahead, providing warm food, changes of clothing, and shelter if needed). People argue about the value and purity of made-for-TV events versus low key, grass-roots "racer's races." Probably definitions and clear categories are unimportant. Likely, the sport will continue to grow and change. The common denominators are the team aspect (mixed-gender teams of four to five), multiple disciplines (usually trekking, fixed rope climbing, cycling, and some form or forms of water travel), and orienteering.

Gerard Fusil, father of the sport, has thrown a new wrinkle into the mix for the coming millennium: the cultural exchange project. A few years ago Fusil left The Raid and has since created a new race, The Elf Authentic Adventure. At last April's premiere event held in the Philippines, Fusil unveiled a concept that combined a full-on expedition-style adventure race with a cultural or community service project. The result is an expensive race that is logistically complex. Teams of seven (four racers, of which at least one must be a woman, and three support crew) show up in exotic locales to race, but the new twist is the obligatory service project that is judged by a selected panel. Last April's race produced incredible drama (at nearly 11 days, it was the longest adventure race on record), and it also produced some significant exchange projects, ranging from introduced sanitation systems to serious medical procedures like reparative surgeries for impoverished villagers, to teaching new fishing techniques.

There is even a small handful of professional racers now making a decent living traveling around the world, trekking zombie-like day and night, stuffing swollen feet into a variety of footwear.

Fusil's race signals a kinder, gentler adventure race, one that asks participants to engage in the cultures they visit, not simply race across the surface and return home. It is more interactive, as much about encountering culture as racing, and it's a welcome change. Fitting that it comes from the sport's original visionary.

What's next? More of the same in the immediate future. Adventure racers are getting plenty of choices. On the near horizon, there is The Southern Traverse in New Zealand in early December; The Discovery Channel Eco-Challenge in Patagonia in December; The Raid launches its Tibet version in the spring, and the second Elf Authentic Adventure is being held in Spring 2000 in Brazil. The Beast, America's grassroots race gone Big Time, heads to the far north of Alaska for its 2000 installment. It's a time of plenty for adventure racers, event organizers, and the media, with plenty of politics, too. Warring race directors plan races to conflict with other races, competing for entry of the best teams.

The sport has never been bigger, and the opportunities, for racers, would-be organizers/directors, sponsors, and the media continue to expand. There is even a small handful of professional racers now making a decent living traveling around the world, trekking zombie-like day and night, stuffing swollen feet into a variety of footwear.

Like the foreboding Y2K Armageddon, adventure racing sits poised on the cusp of the new millennium with an uncertain, but certainly intriguing, future. It will be exciting to see what is left when the smoke and ash clears.

— Buddy Levy, MountainZone.com Correspondent


SEE ALSO: Eco-Challenge 2002

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