Topanga Man Seeking to Stage Race of Endurance : Adventure: The event would be a California version of the Raid Gauloises, a 300-mile contest. Obtaining permits is key obstacle.


Mark Burnett rarely faces a challenge he does not attempt to meet head-on.

The 33-year-old Topanga resident organized the first American team in 1992 to compete in the Raid Gauloises, a 300-mile adventure race that has been held annually in different exotic locales since 1989.

Burnett and four teammates, including one woman, traveled to the Sultanate of Oman, where they rode horses, climbed sheer mountain faces and paddled sea kayaks through a storm before team unity dissolved. Only Burnett and two other members finished the race, placing 39th out of 51 entries.


Undeterred, Burnett organized a new team that included the same woman and three members of the Navy Seals and entered the 1993 Raid in Madagascar. Last November, the unit parachuted into the jungle, scaled rocky peaks, canoed through rivers, navigated tropical forest and kayaked to a ninth-place finish despite severe storms and temperatures as high as 120 degrees. Only 15 of the 37 teams that started the race completed the course. A documentary on the race will be broadcast on KCAL, Channel 9, today at 7 p.m.

“When things seem impossible and all seems lost--it never really is if you work together,” Burnett said. “That’s what the Raid teaches you.”

With two raids under his belt, Burnett is now embarking on perhaps his biggest challenge--organizing and staging a similar race in the United States.

Assuming he can get the necessary permits, Burnett said the so-called Eco-Challenge will debut in April, 1995. Burnett said he has secured a broadcast deal with MTV and has lined up several corporations and equipment manufacturers as sponsors. He intends to stage an eight-day, 300-mile race in California. The specific site is yet to be determined.

“I want to show people that we’re more than natural disasters, that we have great things here as well,” Burnett said. His home was threatened, but survived, during last year’s fires, with fire-hose assistance from his Navy teammates, who were in town for training. “This race is a perfect way to show the various terrain and beauty of this state,” he said.

If he cannot obtain the permits needed to stage the race in California, Burnett said he would take it elsewhere--possibly to Alaska.

A former member of the British Army Parachute Regiment who gained American citizenship in 1990, Burnett said he started and ran several businesses in the United States before becoming interested in running an adventure race.

Married with a 6-month-old son, Burnett said he became interested in the Raid after reading an account of the 1990 Raid in Costa Rica. Burnett said he plans to compete again this year when the race is held in Borneo--"to complete a personal trilogy"--as a prelude to staging the Eco-Challenge.

Burnett said the Eco-Challenge will include 50 five-person teams. Entry fee for a team and two assistants will be about $7,500. Like the Raid, all teams must include at least one woman. The race is not a relay--all team members must cover the entire course together or the team is disqualified.

Teams can also be disqualified for leaving food wrappers, burning living wood in campfires or failing to bury human waste.

“One of the major things I want to promote through the race is ecological responsibility and sensibility,” Burnett said.

“If you see trash on the sidewalk, pick it up and put it in the trash can. If you are going to do the race, don’t even leave one (snack bar) wrapper.

“We’re calling it the Eco-Challenge. And if you do that, you have to be beyond reproach.”

To help with organization, Burnett has contracted Raid Gauloises creator Gerard Fusil and his wife, Nellie, as consultants. Gerard Fusil, a French radio journalist and sportsman, began his event as an alternative to traditional sport. The first race was held in New Zealand in 1989. Since then, the event has been contested in Costa Rica, New Caledonia, Oman and Madagascar.

“If a race like this is not in a beautiful area, it becomes boring,” Nellie Fusil said from Paris. “You have an obligation, to the competitors and to the people who will watch the broadcast of the race, to have a good picture. It’s important to keep it interesting.”

Like the Raid, the exact course for the Eco-Challenge will not be revealed to competitors until 24 hours before the race begins. Burnett, however, said horsemanship, rock-climbing experience, map reading and navigation skills will be necessary.

Burnett said he would like to stage the race in a different state each year. He foresees each state eventually staging its own Eco-Challenge as a qualifier for a national competition.

“I want to use this race to show the world, and Americans, that you don’t have to dream about places like Borneo and places like that, because it’s all here in the U. S.,” Burnett said. “We have everything we need in this country to stage a great competition.”