ONE FOR ALL, ALL FOR ONE Above, VentureQuest teammates Paul Dzelzgalvis,… (Photos By Susan Biddle For…)
VentureQuest should come with one of those disclaimers you see with certain TV commercials: "Parental supervision required." Or "Kids! Don't try this at home!"
To be honest, I had no intention of tackling the 28- to 35-mile "adventure race" at Fountainhead Regional Park in Fairfax Station one recent Sunday. Race director Jim Harman had advised me that sections would be too difficult for someone who had never done any single-track off-road cycling. He said the race -- which includes cycling, trekking, canoe or kayak paddling, a surprise obstacle and lots of map- and compass-reading -- would probably take me more than nine or 10 hours, even if I were in good shape.
Neither of us wanted me to risk injury. Wait till next year, Harman advised, and try the beginner's race.
So what was I thinking when I took off running with the team of Kyle Bondo, Sid Billups and Kelly Sanderson as the race began at 8 a.m.? Really, I just wanted a taste of the endeavor that would consume the rest of their day.
But instead of sticking to the narrow trails, as I had assumed they would, Bondo's team immediately started bushwhacking through dense forest, bounding up and down grades so steep that I was scrambling to stay upright. Within 15 minutes they had left me far behind and I had fallen, turned an ankle and opened a nice-size gash on my thigh. It wasn't long before I stepped in Occoquan Reservoir muck, soaking one running shoe.
Soon all 200 racers were out of sight, leaving me alone in the woods to negotiate a river's-edge trail so sharply inclined that I had to cling to small trees as I headed back to the safety of the race photographer's truck.
Adventure racers. They're not like you and me.
"You've got to be comfortable with being uncomfortable," Harman said. "The people who persevere are the ones who are going to come out ahead."
You probably have at least a passing familiarity with adventure racing. "The Amazing Race," which sends contestants on a worldwide scavenger hunt by various means of transportation, is television's Emmy-winning twist on the sport.
Maybe you've seen cable channel coverage of the Eco-Challenge, Raid Gauloises or Primal Quest. Those ridiculously arduous races ask teams of superhuman athletes to pay thousands of dollars for the privilege of trekking over mountains, rappelling down sheer rock faces, shooting rapids and generally risking life and limb while becoming increasingly irritated with one another.
(In the world of adventure racing, such multi-day challenges are considered "expedition" length, while VentureQuest and its ilk are mere "sprints.")
What makes adventure races such as VentureQuest more than just wet, woodsy triathlons is the orienteering involved. To complete a course, competitors must reach a variety of checkpoints, where they punch in with electronic keys worn around their necks. But they don't have to get to every single one; it's up to them to figure out, with the help of a map and a compass, the fastest route to the minimum number of required destinations.
At some points they can also choose whether to go on foot or, say, in a canoe, depending on which method they believe is faster.
Historically, adventure racing is a team sport that requires competitors to carry all their own gear and supplies. VentureQuest allowed solo competitors, who used kayaks instead of canoes. And at transition points, where they were switching from one mode of transportation to another, racers were allowed to stash dry clothes, food and other supplies, and to refill the water packs they wore on their backs.
While the winners are almost always the best athletes -- the top three-person co-ed team covered the course in 5:02:50, while Bondo's team took 9:27:22, good enough for fourth place in its division -- the orienteering can level the playing field somewhat.
Hence Bondo's strategy of heading straight from Point A to Point B. Who needs trails when there's a more direct route?
Harman, who runs EX2adventures, which has put on 10 VentureQuests (this year's was the last for that competition) and runs about 20 other races of various kinds in this area each year, assures me that I was observing one of the tougher sprint competitions. The company's Greenhorn race, in April, can be handled by anyone able to ride a bike, run and paddle a canoe. There are also trail runs, off-road bike races, a "day of endurance" and other races that are accessible to the average weekend warrior.
In truth, it does look like a lot of fun.
"I think that a lot of people are looking for something different," Harman said. "There are so many marathons out there, so many triathlons out there. Adventure racing is one of those different activities that you don't see that much of."
"What I like is it's a team event," Bondo said. "I'm done doing solo stuff. Doing solo stuff is boring. . . . Building a team is hard. It's like having a band. It's really hard to keep the band together."
Billups agreed, saying marathons and triathlons had become too predictable for him.