Go OutsideBlack Toenails, Vaseline, and Duct Tape: The Secrets of Adventure Racing

Black Toenails, Vaseline, and Duct Tape: The Secrets of Adventure Racing

It was one recent Monday afternoon at the gym, and I was bent over studying the recent demise of my feet. I prodded several blisters that I had popped the previous day and marveled at the blackened toenails that I sport pretty much year round; a byproduct of my chosen sport. While I’m performing this inspection, some guy next to me gags (maybe a little exaggeration) and says something like, “My God! What happened to your feet?”

I smiled and responded cheerfully. “Did an adventure race over the weekend.”

He shrugged and looked again at my toes.

I started to explain that I’d just spent 32 hours at a race in Northern Georgia in sub-freezing weather. At one point I had spent 14 painful hours with my rear end on the seat of a mountain bike, pushing and sliding through snow in weather that never got above 30. I considered adding that blisters generally came with the territory in most cases, but these here were more likely the effects of trekking through snow for 16 more hours. By this time I noticed that he had opted to move a little further down the bench away from me and my feet.

I have to admit this wasn’t the first look of confusion, dismay, or incident where someone, upon inquiring about the sport I love, treated me more like a Leper than an endurance athlete. Often when I first meet people and tell them that I’m an adventure racer, they smile and nod their heads like they know what I’m talking about.

Sometimes they say things like “Yeah…I’ve heard about those things.” Or “Isn’t that kind of like a triathlon?” Or maybe they don’t say anything at all and just look at me with a mild curiosity. That‘s typically when that mild curiosity turns to apathy.

As I think about this now, it occurs to me that their lack of understanding probably stems more from my own inability to articulate and describe the sport I love, than some ineptness on their part. So now I sit and ponder, thinking ‘what is Adventure Racing really about’.

Adventure racing is being around a bunch of people who are fit and strong and a little twisted. These people tend to like it when their knees bleed and they have mud on their legs, on their glasses, in their teeth, and on their bike. If after a race, they aren’t bent or broken, mangled, sprained or bloodied, they feel like they didn’t get their money’s worth. They’d rather have their butts on the seat of a mountain bike climbing some torturous hill from hell, than in a first class seat on some jet going somewhere (unless of course they’re flying to their next adventure race). These people feel like slugs when they only get an hour workout in a day and they believe muscle cramps are just God’s way of telling them they are still alive!

They’re generally a resourceful lot that can speak intelligently about many obscure topics. This may include:

  • 116 different uses for Duct tape
  • The countless benefits of carrying Vaseline with you during a race
  • How long AA batteries in a head lamp will last in 30 degree weather

They often speak in a language foreign to most normal people. Words and phrases like TAs, Sevvies, hard tails and soft tails, Camelbaks, and azimuths are common in their conversations. They also possess skills unknown to most like:

  • Knowing how to use a chain breaker at night
  • Knowing how to turn an old fishing rod and surgical tubing into a bike tow assembly
  • Understanding the sophisticated techniques to duct tape a flashlight to the top of a bike helmet

Unlike many people they gain pleasure from some of the simpler things in life. Things like:

  • That wonderful first drink of cold water after a long trekking leg
  • The sheer ecstasy of finding a wadded-up peanut butter sandwich in their backpack when they thought they had run out of food
  • The unadulterated joy felt when your teammate offers you a dry pair of socks after you’ve fallen into a ditch filled with cold water
  • The soothing calm felt after applying a liberal dollop of Vaseline to a raw spot

The sport of adventure racing has given me the opportunity to travel to places and see things I would have otherwise missed in my life. I’ve seen the amber haze of the sunrise as it spills over snow-capped mountains of northern Georgia. I’ve seen farmers, men, women, and children in rural parts of China stand alongside poorly developed roads and cheer me and my team as we traveled through their villages by bike and by foot. I’ve watched the sun melt into the horizon of the mountains of west Texas. I’ve marveled at the beauty of an east Texas swamp under a December full moon.

I’ve run or biked with deer and wild hogs and turkeys, and porcupines. I’ve paddled alongside alligators and nutria rats and been chased by bees and wasps and an assortment of other insects. I’ve gone three days without sleep and witnessed some of the most incredible hallucinations on that third day.

I’ve witnessed the courage of team mates and others as they struggle to continue on with races, hobbled by broken collar bones, sprained or bloodied knees, fever and chills, vomiting, and diarrhea. All these experiences have marked me; made me a little different.

But when I think of adventure racing, and why I do it, I most often think of my teammates and the trials and tribulations we go through together.

Adventure racing is about the relief one feels as you struggle up a never-ending hill, worn out and downcast, wondering if you’ll make it to the top, and you suddenly feel the weight of your pack lifted off your shoulders by one of your team mates. It’s climbing up a rock slope on all 4s carrying your bike on your shoulder and getting to the top and seeing a team mate struggle with theirs. And it’s taking a few deep breaths and summoning the strength to slide back down the hill to help them.

It’s having the feeling that you can’t put one foot in front of another, and a teammate placing a reassuring hand on your shoulder in support. It’s coming off a bitterly cold paddling leg and shivering uncontrollably with few dry clothes to change into and your teammate offering without hesitation, a dry shirt or pair of socks or gloves. It’s watching a teammate crash on their bike hard and getting up and fighting back the tears and climbing back on that monster again to press on; fearful of slowing the team down.

It’s about pulling and pushing each other to levels that you’d not have thought possible for you to physically achieve individually. It’s running and pulling your slower teammate at a pace you shouldn’t be able to maintain and hearing them challenge you and the team to keep going, all for the sanctity of the race. It’s the almost cosmic feeling of going faster and harder as a team than you thought possible. It’s seeing your nearest competition in the race on your tail and the three or four of you, your team, suddenly becoming one stronger, faster force.

It’s watching and feeling the total sense of unity as your team succeeds, and it’s sharing an equal responsibility when you do not. It’s a sport where the strongest of the team is only really as strong and fast as the slowest member, forcing the Team to focus and excel as one unit. It’s a sport characterized by a myriad of changing human dynamics and moods within a race. One person emerges as the strength of the team only to be replaced by another who grows stronger. It’s where you can in one moment be almost paralyzed with desperation and a second later be driven to great heights because you just found a Hershey bar or a handful of trail mix to eat.

It’s about screaming and cursing each other over not being able to find a checkpoint, or over losing the passport or just because you’re tired and worn down and filled with frustration. And it’s about freely bantering among the team with liberal spattering of expletives and then hugging each other at the end with those obscenities forgotten.

It’s asking your teammates for something, for anything, and knowing without a doubt that they’ll give it to you if they have it to give.


Places to Go, Things to See: