As I fly over the handlebars of a women's mountain bike, just before crumpling into a ditch on the side of this mushy trail, my brain fires off a supremely clear thought: This isn't right.
It isn't right because I'm watching the front wheel of the black-and-turquoise Specialized seize up and vanish out from under me. It isn't right because I haven't been on a bike in nearly a decade. It isn't right because people aren't meant to ride mountain bikes through rural Missouri in February. And then my left shoulder plows into the rocky earth, and the pain silences coherent thought.
As I open my eyes, pull my face out of the mud and spit out a mouthful of gravel, I recall something that Bob Jenkins, a member of Team Virtus, an adventure racing team based in Jefferson City, told me when the hill started to pull down hard: "You need to let off the brakes!" His instruction promised that, counterintuitive though it might seem, going too fast is better than braking too much.
I should have listened. Instead, I panicked. On the left side of the road, the hill — more like a dirt wall — had begun to flatten out, and I started braking. My tires dug into the wet muck, and by the time I drove over a basketball-sized rock half-buried in the clay, it was too late to save myself.
Jenkins and fellow Team Virtus member Luke Lamb, who are a couple of hundred feet ahead of me, make U-turns and arrive at my side. It's only about 11 a.m., but we've been up since 5 and racing since 7. We've already hiked three miles and canoed more than five miles on a shallow creek. Yet many hours of racing are left in the Bonk Hard Chill, today's adventure race in Lake of the Ozarks State Park.
Blood begins to ooze from my elbow as I realize that we have more than a dozen miles of biking left, plus an orienteering section through the woods, before I can forsake this sport. I can't lift my shoulder enough to keep biking, so we walk the few miles back to the staging area to plan our next move.
Adventure racing is not right. It's clearly for lunatics. But it's drawing a rapidly growing segment of the weekend-athlete community in Missouri and Kansas — exceedingly friendly people suffering from questionable mental health. In the six years since the first Bonk Hard Chill, the 12-hour race has grown from a niche contest with 80 participants to an event that last month drew 150 racers. In both scale and popularity, it's the young sport's rugged model.
A couple of expedition-style adventure races enjoyed limited popularity over the last 20 years. Survivor producer Mark Burnett organized the Eco-Challenge, from 1995 to 2002, which he managed to produce as a series of TV specials on cable. And Primal Quest, a famously difficult race that claimed one athlete's life, captured some mainstream momentum from 2002 to 2009 before ceasing. These odysseys lasted longer than a week, with courses hundreds of miles long. They included horseback riding, rock climbing and spelunking, alongside the core sports of mountain biking, running and canoeing or kayaking.
Races like those still exist, but adventure athletes have largely recognized that a more sustainable model is required. Jason Elsenraat, owner of the Prairie Village-based Bonk Hard Racing, says the logistics of the events require large budgets for televising. Doing it on the cheap, with spectators on the course, is out of the question. Organizers don't reveal race routes until the night before an event, and after the first couple of miles, there's nothing to see — the racers are too spread-out. For anyone not competing, it lacks the excitement of successful bike tours or the Ironman Triathlon.