This Ain't No Ordinary Race

It's an adventure! Here's what happens when nearly 270 teams take on the ultimate corporate challenge: to run, bike, paddle, and puzzle their way through the Connecticut woods.

Just after sunup, in the damp Connecticut woods 10 miles west of Hartford, a mass of competitors herd toward the starting line of the Hi-Tec Adventure Race. Matt Felix trails behind, wondering what in the world made him sign up for a triathlon-like endurance race in which just about the only rule is that there are no rules.

Matt is a last-minute substitute for his brother Mark's team, dubbed the Garbage Plate Gang. The team's third member, Mark Wood, abruptly disappeared 30 minutes ago.

"Where's Woody?" Matt mutters.

"Don't worry," his brother replies. "He'll be here. Just be sure that you're ready."

Matt dutifully dons the official race bib. It's as itsy-bitsy as a jogging bra. The snug bib makes Matt, a six-foot-three-inch, 205-pound regional sales manager for Thomson Financial Services, look like an extra from "La Cages aux Folles." He was already wound tight, but now he's about to bust a button.

Ever since yesterday, when Matt arrived at Winding Trails, a 350-acre woodland reserve in Farmington, things have been off a beat. He's been in races before; he's even been in marathons. But this Hi-Tec thing is different. People are going to elaborate and enthusiastic lengths to keep him guessing. The trails that he will run and ride on are kept secret. He's been told to bring a compass, but he doesn't know why. Who knows -- maybe having to wear a race bib that's five sizes too small is some kind of head game.

To be sure, adventure racing is a new kind of animal. Unlike a garden-variety triathlon, an adventure race is a team-oriented affair. The blueprint comes from the French organizers of the 10-year-old Raid Gauloises, in which teams of five people must use their combined wits and stamina to traverse vast chunks of wilderness.

The 11-city Hi-Tec series offers a relatively sane alternative for weekend warriors. With a Hi-Tec race, there are no bivouacs to contend with, no volcanoes to climb. Instead, the core events are a 1- to 2-mile kayak race, a 10- to 15-mile mountain-bike trek, and a 6- to 8-mile trail run.

The "adventure" in adventure racing involves the unexpected: No two races are the same. The race distances change, the order of events changes, even the terrain changes. The course is also booby-trapped with 5 to 10 unannounced "tests." Some of these challenges are cerebral (stopping midrace to assemble a 15-piece jigsaw puzzle), some are gladiatorial (lugging a 150-pound railroad tie through a mud bog), and some are just annoying (reinflating bike tires that have been sabotaged by race organizers).

The expect-the-unexpected format has struck a collective nerve. Nearly 270 teams from 20 states have come to Connecticut to take part in this race. The field of competitors is both large and diverse. Among the corporate entrants are teams from BBN, Stratus Computing, and Pratt & Whitney. There are also teams composed of Navy SEALS and Mt. McKinley climbers.

Also among today's competitors are three archetypal performers -- three people who are each of a kind that you'll find on almost any team, be it athletic or professional: the newbie, the all-star, and the tactician. They are lonely long-distance runners who have suddenly been thrust into a world of synergy and on-the-run consensus building. Herewith, the story of these three rugged adventurers, who know that nothing will test their capacity for teamwork like a four-hour endurance race.

Let the race begin!

The Newbie: Matt Felix

Adventure racers usually come in one of two flavors: runner or biker. Matt Felix, 36, is decidedly in the former category. He has competed in 10K races, marathons, and the odd corporate challenge.

But adventure racing is mostly about coping with activities that lie outside your comfort zone. For Matt, one such activity is mountain biking. He has legitimate reasons to be spooked: His off-the-rack rig is a relic; his off-road experience is almost zilch. He envisions himself schussing off an Everest-size slope -- only to lose control, crash, and splinter into a million pieces.

And coupled with that Big Fear is this Insidious Worry: He's the new guy. If Matt screws up, he wrecks not only his race but also his team's race. The Garbage Platers don't expect to win, but they're highly competitive, and they're accustomed to success. Mark Felix, 32, is a partner at Rogen, an international consulting firm with a blue-chip client list. Mark Wood (aka Woody), 33, is a business strategist for Genzyme Corp., a biotech giant. Both served in the military, and both like the race's boot-camp aura.

Matt isn't military, and he's skeptical of adventure racing's one-for-all, rah-rah spirit. On the eve of the race, in their war room at Days Inn, Mark and Woody tried to take the edge off by giving Matt a rundown of some rules to race by: Don't split off from the group. Don't panic. And don't, under any circumstances, lose to Team Playboy -- a prominent trio of Playmates-turned-adventure-racers.

The next day, as the race unfolds, Matt sets the pace on the 7.5-mile run. Competing as a unit, the Garbage Platers blow by several teams. But as Matt had feared, things begin to unravel during the mountain-bike stage. As Matt hops aboard his rig, he pleads with his teammates to keep him in sight: "I don't want to die out there alone!"

And then they're gone. Mark and Woody rip ahead; then they idle. Rip, then idle. Of course, they're waiting for Matt. Frustration builds. When Matt reaches the course's hairiest stretch -- a single-lane track lined with slick roots -- he's fuming. Hotshot riders approaching from behind yell at him to move aside. But the big guy is too pissed off to give way.

The All-Star: Laura Kolarik

Exhausted and nearing the race's end, Laura Kolarik and the other members of Team Spanky find themselves in unfamiliar terrain: They are lost in the Winding Trail woods, and neither their wits nor their compasses are guiding them to the finish.

Team Spanky has been cruising for almost three hours. Until a few minutes ago, it seemed to be on the verge of winning the entire race. But the three-mile orienteering course -- on which team members must use a map to find three hidden flags -- has turned into a big speed bump. They quickly discovered the first flag, but they can't flush out the second. Every time Kolarik tries to get a fix on their position, teammate Phil Lovalenti develops a "gut feeling" and peels away in a different direction.

This confusion is far from typical. By nearly everyone's estimation, Spanky is a team's team: confident, fast thinking, and naturally synergistic. Lovalenti, 34, an engineer at Union Carbide, and Rob Bauer, 28, a hardware engineer at Ascend Communications, are solid athletes. But Kolarik, 35, a product manager for Boston-based GTE Internetworking Inc. and a former Air Force officer, is special. Many say that she's one of the top female athletes on the Hi-Tec circuit. She doesn't play commander, but she exerts a commanding presence.

"There are obvious teamwide benefits," says Lovalenti, referring to Kolarik, "when you're racing beside someone who adores special tests, who can tell a joke, and who will stop at nothing."

Kolarik and her teammates got knocked around during the first test: dragging a railroad tie through an oily bog. But they hit their groove during the two-mile kayak race around Dunning Lake, and by the second lap, they were even with the race leaders.

As the teams head into the orienteering course, Team Spanky and Pennsylvania Adventure Racers are in a dead heat for second place. But by the time Spanky tracks down its second flag, Pennsylvania is charging down the race's homestretch.

"And the first team in," barks the race emcee, "is Pennsylvania Adventure Racers." Five minutes later, Team Chaos I crosses the finish line. And Team Spanky? It's nowhere in sight.

The Tactician: Jeffrey Hogan

A 15-foot camouflage-painted wall is the last obstacle between Jeffrey Hogan's team and the finish line, just 50 yards away. Team Christine is in fourth place overall, a few seconds ahead of arch rival Team Endeavor.

Hogan, as if fueled by a megadose of adrenaline, doesn't hesitate. He shoulders teammate Walter Rochefort and military-presses him halfway up the wall. The moment Rochefort is safely on top, Hogan scrambles up behind him. "We've nailed it," he thinks to himself. Then he looks down. Teammate Angela Heidgerd is at the base of the wall, going nowhere.

Reaching down, Hogan pleads with her to meet him halfway. "Walk it up, Angela, walk it up. You can do it!" Nothing doing.

This shouldn't be happening. In particular, it shouldn't be happening to Hogan, whose attention to detail and flair for logistics are legendary. He is to Team Christine what Q is to 007: slightly eccentric, but indispensable. Nobody is better organized. "I'm the kind of guy who wakes up in the middle of the night and makes lists," he admits.

Hogan, 35, a regional manager for Rogers Benefit Group, based in Minneapolis, is a walking Franklin Planner. He knows his teammates' training schedules; he knows the race times; he knows who's going where for every holiday.

Rochefort, a 43-year-old entrepreneur, is Team Christine's human lung. He paces -- and, if necessary, drags -- his teammates through the running and biking stages. Heidgerd, a 27-year-old teacher with a master's degree in educational media, is the glue: She holds things together when they threaten to fall apart.

For a time, Team Christine was pretty much acing the race. It caught the race leaders during the kayaking stage. And during the mountain-biking stage, Heidgerd kept a tired Hogan in the running. Then the team hit that wall. "You should never get passed on the wall," says Hogan. But as Heidgerd slumps in exhaustion, Team Christine finds itself being passed -- by Team Endeavor.

"I saw Endeavor coming," Hogan recalls. "I kept yelling, 'We've got to do something!' Unfortunately, I had no idea what that was."

Epilogue

The Newbie: Matt Felix got his revenge: On the second lap of the mountain-biking stage, he passed several weary off-road hotshots by shouldering his bike and jogging through tough sections. The Garbage Plate Gang finished the race in a little less than four hours -- and a good deal ahead of Team Playboy.

"I doubt Matt expected the race to be as hard as it was," says Mark. "But he was stoic about it. We clicked pretty well."

The All-Star: Team Spanky managed to negotiate the orienteering course, but it finished the race in third place. "Coming so close and not winning is really tough to take," says Lovalenti. He thought he would give his teammates a breather by racing ahead of them on the orienteering course. Noble impulse; wrong move. "I broke the golden rule of adventure racing: Never abandon your team."

Kolarik is philosophical. "We didn't have a bad race," she says. "We had a bad moment."

The Tactician: Team Endeavor caught Team Christine on the wall. "It galled us to get passed," reports Hogan. "We let our adrenaline keep us from thinking clearly."

Three weeks later, at a season-ending night race in Los Angeles, the trio was ready. Despite feeling physically unhinged, team members stopped at the wall, reviewed their strategy, and then made their move.

"I've never seen anyone go over the wall as fast as we did that night," says Hogan. "We flew."

More important, they completed their mission: They had built a bomb-proof team.

Action Item: Adventure On the Web

Looking for a startup guide to adventure racing -- or for people whom you can team up with? Here are two new Web sites that will get you up and running.

Adventure Team Outdoor Sports: is an online network of outdoor enthusiasts who organize and participate in various wilderness sports. But adventure racing is their number-one passion. The site includes plenty of road-tested tips and lots of resources for rookies. There are also event listings, gear reviews, and a comprehensive lineup of links to other adventure-racing sites.

Coordinates: Adventure Team Outdoor Sports, www.adventureteam.com

Adventure Racing World: is a news-oriented site, featuring lengthy dispatches on brutish international races (from the legendary Raid Gauloises to the ominous-sounding Desert Quest). But neophytes are welcome too. There are FAQs about adventure racing ("What exactly is an adventure race?") and tips from Robert Nagle, one of the top adventure racers in the world, on getting ready for your first race. There's also a glossary of "adventure-speak." Best of all, the site is putting together a database that will match soloists with squads that need new members.

Coordinates: Adventure Racing World, www.adventureracing.org

Sidebar: Places for Races

Ready to rock? Be sure to choose the right event. Here are three of the top races for weekend warriors.

Hi-Tec Adventure Racing: Henry Hagg Lake, Portland, Oregon. Among the tests encountered at Portland last year: a railroad-tie toss and a 200-foot Tyrolean traverse across a gorge.

Coordinates: Michael Epstein Sports Productions, 818-707-8867, www.mesp.com

XTerra America Tour: Wailea, Maui, Hawaii. Be ready for the 30K mountain-bike ride up the Haleakala volcano.

Coordinates: TEAM Unlimited Inc., 808-521-4322, www.teamunlimited.com

Travel Country Outdoors Sprint Eco-Series: Olena Park, Florida. The highlight of this second stop on the Florida-based circuit is its gamut of "mystery tests."

Coordinates: Athletic Event Market-ing, 407-880-7689, www.greatraces.com

Sidebar: Stay the Courses

Adventure-racing schools typically feature a three-to-five-day curriculum, during which you and your teammates learn how to stay the course. Here are three blue-chip programs.

Presidio Adventure Racing Academy: San Francisco, California The original adventure-racing school, Presidio offers multisport training, along with team-building programs that include 24-hour "practice" races. Instructors include some of the sport's best and brightest racers -- people who have trained teams from Levi Strauss, Salomon North America, and numerous Silicon Valley companies.

Coordinates: 415-775-8210, www.presidioar.com

Sol Adventures: Moab, Utah. Led by a group of hotshot racers, Sol Adventures emphasizes helping participants to complete their own multisport adventures. The group's three-day guided expeditions cover such challenges as orienteering, rappelling, and mountain biking.

Coordinates: 435-259-8062, www.soladventures.com

Odyssey Adventure Racing Academy: New River Gorge, West Virginia. The academy's three-day sessions are geared toward the novice racer. Activities include land navigation, white-water paddling, and rope climbing.

Coordinates: 757-425-2445, www.beastoftheeast.com

Todd Balf (toddbalf@compuserve.com) is a contributing editor at Fast Company.

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