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Adventure of Wills

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There will come a time when someone on Team Intrepid will want to stop.

Maybe as they peddle their mountain bikes up an endless hill or paddle in kayaks across open water. Maybe as they stand on a cliff and prepare to rappel hundreds of feet. Or maybe in the early morning hours as sleep deprivation saps their will to compete.

“You’re going to be tired. You’re going to be hurting,” said Doug Wilde, a member of the San Fernando Valley-based squad. “You’ll just want to sit down.”

But it’s unlikely that Wilde and his three teammates will succumb to such urges. They are veterans of a torturous sport called “adventure racing” and are considered among the best of 37 teams that will spend the weekend at Point Mugu State Park trying to qualify for the Eco-Challenge.

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The Eco-Challenge is an annual event in which competitors run, climb, bike, paddle, ride horses and sometimes crawl across 300 miles of wilderness, a race that requires eight to 10 days.

Having finished eighth in 1995, Team Intrepid’s members expected to be invited back for the race this summer in Australia. But, sidelined by injury last year, the team of 40-somethings is instead required to qualify in a mini-race against mostly younger opponents from across North America.

The hopefuls will start at 7 a.m. Saturday knowing that only the top three finishers go to Australia. They face a 120-mile course over land and sea that should take about 24 hours to complete. There will be little time to eat and no time to rest.

“The worse the conditions, the more our experience will pay off,” said Bill Lovelace, a team member. “We’re hoping for a hot day, a choppy ocean, the most awful conditions we can get.”

Such hardships lie at the heart of adventure racing, which began in New Zealand in the early 1980s as an outgrowth of extreme sports such as ultra-marathoning and orienteering, a timed cross-country competition in which runners follow a course by using compass and map. The concept was simple and brutal.

Come race day, competitors were handed a map and told to navigate their way across ever-changing terrain. They needed brute strength for long hikes and courage for mountaineering. They needed specific skills for kayaking and horse-riding. And they needed teamwork.

Depending on the given race, each squad was required to have either four or five members, including at least one person of the opposite sex. If any member dropped out, the entire team would be disqualified. So if a member was hurting, it behooved the others to carry his or her pack.

Races continued for days, teams scratching their way to the next camp to replenish food and water, to grab a few hours sleep before the next stage. This misery attracted a blend of athletes, outdoorsmen and military personnel.

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“They don’t just train for one event,” said Diane Korman, an Eco-Challenge spokeswoman. “It’s every day doing a little extra. Not just hiking in the mountains but hiking with phone books in your backpack. Not just rock climbing but riding your bike after that.”

Adventure racing grew quietly until 1989 when French journalist Gerard Fusil founded the Raid Gauloises, which soon attracted international television coverage. In 1995, Topanga businessman and adventure racer Mark Burnett organized an American version of the race.

Among those drawn to the fledgling Eco-Challenge were Wilde and Lovelace. Along with Duane McDowell, Kirk Boylston and Lovelace’s wife, Louise, they entered the 1995 race.

That year, the Eco-Challenge was run in the red-rock country of southern Utah. Over seven days, the team suffered through hardship and pain, each member experiencing a personal low point.

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For Bill Lovelace, that point came on the afternoon of the third day, when his team ran out of drinking water 20 miles from the nearest camp. They had to choose between two emergency sources: an abandoned well full of dead rats or a natural spring where the water ran orange from cattle urine.

They chose the tinted spring.

“You cannot imagine what it tasted like,” Lovelace told The Times afterward.

Wilde suffered his worst moment after a perilous rappel. Shaken and exhausted, he mistakenly believed that the next camp was only a few hours away. In fact, he and his teammates spent eight hours hiking and crawling through underbrush before reaching a site where the tents had been blown down by torrential rains. Then came an even greater insult.

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“Just when I thought I had reached the depth of human misery, there were some French teams and they started singing,” Wilde recalled.

The squad ultimately rejoiced in its top-10 finish but Wilde says, only half-joking, that he needed two years to recuperate. Lovelace needed surgery for an injured knee. Boylston left to form his own team. Louise Lovelace, regarded among the world’s best female adventure racers, joined a New Zealand squad that finished second in the most recent Raid Gauloises.

So for this Eco-Challenge, where the teams have been pared to four, Wilde’s wife Ronni has come aboard. The team has trained 12-14 hours each Saturday and Sunday for three months, meeting for shorter sessions on weekdays.

For Lovelace, the specter of going to Australia is powerful: “I want to bang the boards and compete against my wife.”

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The qualifying race will be run through some of Southern California’s most brilliant coastal land, beginning among the broad trees and purple sage of Sycamore Cove. From there, the Pacific stretches to the west and the land rises eastward in hills and ridges toward a 3,000-foot peak called Old Boney.

In addition to being shorter, the qualifier will include only hiking, climbing, paddling and biking.

As is customary, racers will not know the entire course or the order of events until Saturday. But Team Intrepid members are familiar with the area and eager to race there, even if they are not happy about having to qualify.

They face at least one other seasoned competitor. Team Rolex, from the San Francisco area, finished 20th in Utah but had to quit halfway through the Eco-Challenge last year near Vancouver, Canada, when a team member suffered heat exhaustion. The defeat was especially painful because it was broadcast nationwide.

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“We had trained really hard,” said Jim Newman, of Team Rolex. “We expected to do a lot better.”

The experience may serve them well this weekend.

“Teams that go out too intense don’t do well,” said Newman, whose team has a corporate sponsor to help defray training costs. “They’re expecting too much from themselves, from their teammates. As soon as one little thing goes wrong . . . people start pointing fingers at each other.”

Team Intrepid’s members know that they, too, must stick together and pace themselves against younger, stronger opponents. Their motto: “Old age and treachery will overcome youth and skill.”

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The team will try to keep sight of the leaders at first, then move forward in the latter stages. The strategy demands a willingness to ignore pain and exhaustion.

“The younger, less-experienced teams may go off in a dead run,” Lovelace said. “Come 12 or 15 hours into the race, when fatigue sets in, they’ll want to sit down. We expect to keep going.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Charting the House

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Thirty-seven teams of adventure racers will compete this weekend at Point Mugu State Park. The racers will hike, kayak, climb and bicycle for 24 hours in an attempt to qualify for the Eco-Challenge this summer in Australia.


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