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.
In recent years, adventure-race enrollment has spiked as events have shifted away from life-altering voyages to day- or weekend-long races that attract more participants, usually in teams of two or four. In Kansas and Missouri, adventure racing has grown enough that Elsenraat, 34, was able to quit his job at Cerner six years ago. Since then, he has planned Bonk Hard races full time with help from his wife, Laura (who has kept her job as a designer at Hallmark).
Adventure races were once populated by spandex-clad endurance athletes who would tell you, with a straight face, that they got into the sport because they were "bored" with plain old triathlons. The current face of the sport belongs more to the bearded, laughing mugs of Team Virtus (it rhymes with "Beer-Bus," the team's website explains) and other more casual, rounder and older racers — people who look more suited to chess matches and barroom shuffleboard than blunt trauma and high mileage.
The seven men in Team Virtus — six live in Missouri, and one is from New York — take the events as seriously as they can without letting competition be their main purpose. A team mantra: "Fun is better than fast." Lamb, a stay-at-home dad of four and a property manager who's working toward becoming a certified strength and conditioning specialist, vows to quit the first time he is ever disappointed with his finishing position. The team's caste of racer is usually out of contention within the first half-hour but is always willing to labor past the finish line. More than the serious athletes, hobbyists like Team Virtus — and their registration fees — keep the local racing scene viable.
"Honestly, without teams like us, the sport would probably die," Lamb says.
The team has earned a following within the racing community through its blog, where members write about intimate bits of racing minutiae: the necessity of pre-race bowel movements, for instance.
"Everybody loves those guys," Elsenraat says. "They're really what it's all about, just going out and having a good time, and just trying to finish."
Team Virtus had its Buster Douglas moment in September in the Berryman Adventure, a 36-hour race in Steelville, Missouri. The race slogan: "A real ass kicker." Lamb and three teammates attempted the Berryman in 2001 and failed spectacularly. It was Lamb's first adventure race, and he showed up with a school backpack, denim shorts and no clue about what he was about to undertake. After hiking around the woods blindly for 15 hours and canoeing two miles, Team Virtus was called to the shore.
"I have good news and I have bad news," a volunteer told the spent racers. "The bad news is, you have 18 more miles to boat. The good news is, I have a heated van that will take you to the finish line if you want to quit." Lamb says they hopped in the van and enjoyed the ride.
Last September, Lamb and teammate Drew West pledged to finish the Berryman. Nine years of race experience did little to help them, though. They started the race at 4 a.m. At midnight, rain was falling, and Lamb was seeing what hardened racers call "sleep monsters," hallucinations provoked by mental exhaustion and the desire to rest. He saw an anaconda slithering at his feet, a prickle of porcupines following his steps.
The men spent all night hunting checkpoints in the rain. The Berryman had once again defeated Team Virtus.
Then, Lamb says, the sky started to lighten, the rain eased up, and the map began to make sense. "Just that sun coming up — it gives you hope."
The team strained on and accomplished its goal of finishing the Berryman. The time: 33 hours and 55 minutes. Soon after, Elsenraat called them over. "He stuck his hand out and said, 'Congratulations on winning your division of the 36-hour Berryman,'" Lamb recalls. "I thought he was kidding." They had finished almost eight hours after the second-place two-person male team, but Team Virtus had collected one more checkpoint, allowing the win.
"They were so surprised about it," Elsenraat says. "And I think that's what made it so exciting. Nobody actually thought they were going to win it."
The Berryman remains Team Virtus' only adventure-race division win. And the 2011 Bonk Hard Chill isn't going to change that statistic. When we make it back to the staging area, a volunteer tells me that I've likely strained a rotator cuff. I should see a doctor, he says — after the race. "Don't feel bad," he says. "A couple races ago, I took a header right into a tree."
Lamb looks at the map and divines that we can finish the race on foot, if we're willing to walk eight to 10 miles. As long as we cross the finish line under our own power before 7 p.m., it counts as a completed race. We trudge off into the rain, and Team Virtus is once again in it to finish, not to place.
The night before the race, Team Virtus dines at an Applebee's before a mandatory pre-race meeting that gathers every team. A few other teams, identified by coordinated jackets, are eating in the restaurant, prompting Jenkins, an X-ray technician, to discuss the differences in teams and styles.
There are elite teams whose members are really nice to the mediocre ones, and there are what he and Lamb call PAMs: "poser-ass motherfuckers." These are the least likable adventure racers, the ones who have bought all the best gear but lack the skill, experience and natural ability to compete. "PAMs are like the people who buy it [lots of expensive equipment], then walk around like, 'Did you all see this?'" Jenkins teases, striking a model pose. Thankfully, he says, PAMs generally stay away from adventure races like the Bonk Hard Chill.
Team Virtus doesn't go high-end. Lamb had suggested that I bring a cheap, non-cotton workout shirt from Target, whatever running shoes I had, workout pants, a jacket, trail mix and Snickers bars — all in keeping with a racing-on-a-shoestring ideology. Jenkins and Lamb have some decent gear, but they work under tight budgets and don't have the sharp matching outfits that the best teams favor. The only uniform Team Virtus requires is facial hair, which I was commanded to grow before showing up for the race.
At the pre-race meeting at an Osage Beach, Missouri, church, all the teams are in one room to learn the ground rules. Jason and Laura Elsenraat clearly relish this time.
Racers say it's this moment — when the curtain drops and the course is revealed — that makes adventure racing so exhilarating. The 150 people in the church know only to train for high mileage, but without knowing the distance of each race stage. "If we knew ahead of time, it would just be a regular triathlon," Lamb says before the meeting.
Jason Elsenraat marvels at the size of the field and asks if there are any first-time racers there. About a half-dozen people hesitantly raise their hands, and the veterans applaud.
He goes through the rules: Helmets are required for biking; flotation vests are required for canoeing; racers must stay in the ditch for the part of the course that runs parallel to a highway. Breaking the rules results in a three-hour time penalty. One infraction could finish a team's day.
Finally, Elsenraat, a man who smiles with unnerving force, calls the teams to the front of the room to pick up maps and clue sheets with Universal Transverse Mercator coordinates. The room buzzes like a hive.
Lamb and Jenkins get the map, and we head back to a rented state-park cabin in the woods after a quick stop at Hy-Vee to load up the Virtus Van (a silver-gray minivan) with cases of Fat Tire, Woodchuck cider and other supplies. The unpowered cabin captures the intimate but not isolated feel of a backyard treehouse, even though it's only about 100 feet downhill from the parking area and restrooms, and lights from lakefront condo developments a quarter-mile away shine through the trees.
Inside the cabin, Jenkins and Lamb strap on headlamps, spread the map on a wooden table and begin plotting the checkpoints. They look like little boys playing general, planning an invasion.
Jenkins reads from the clue sheet: "542 ... 4212 ... 8420. And the clue is 'road junction.'"
"Perfect, that's right where I have it," Lamb replies, inking a dot onto the map with a Sharpie. Other than actually spotting the checkpoints during the race, plotting is the most important part. If Team Virtus improperly maps them, the race will be hopeless. Each set of coordinates shows where one of the 30 checkpoints is, and each one has a specific hole punch that must be applied to the team's passport. The goal of the race is to get as many as possible in the shortest time. Checkpoints outweigh time, so teams that take longer but hit more of them finish ahead of faster teams with fewer holes in their passports.
Over the next 40 minutes, the teammates piece together the course like a connect-the-dots puzzle. The picture they reveal is of the hazard and pain to come the next day.
It's not a defect," Megan Harrity, counseling and sport psychologist at the University of Kansas, says about the pain tolerance of endurance athletes. Their brains might be different from those people who would rather run three miles than, say, meet their friends for happy hour. New or pleasurable experiences, she explains, release dopamine, which makes us feel really good.
"Some of the studies have shown that people who are higher on the sensation-seeking scale will have potentially more receptors for dopamine in their brain," she says, meaning that they have an easier time doing extreme sports. She adds that some athletes are just skilled at dissociation, able to turn their minds away from pain by singing a song in their head or focusing on something else.
Before the race, I asked Jenkins what he thought about instead of his own discomfort. "Boobs," he said. But there are other motivational mirages. Besides breasts, Jenkins dreams of baked potatoes. In a Bonk Hard tradition, organizers pack a cooler with baked potatoes wrapped in foil. He talks about them with respect, like they're steaming, silver gods.
It's raining harder, and we're about two hours into our walk toward the finish line, which Lamb now admits isn't 10 miles from the boat-to-bike interchange but 13. After the canoe stage, after biking over wet roads, after the walking we've already done, we're saturated. Water has penetrated our first layer of clothing, our second and third layers, and hats and gloves. Dryness is a distant memory.
So is the adventure part of the race. Watching empty Keystone Light cans sail down footwide rain rapids forming in the ditches makes me long for the five-and-a-half-mile canoeing stage that we tackled earlier in the day, down Grand Glaize Creek. About halfway through that leg, we tried squeezing between the bank and a dead tree, only to find the roots of the trunk sticking too far up in the water for the boat to pass. Lamb and Jenkins paddled hard to redirect the boat, sending us toward another tree arching over the water. "Limbo!" Lamb shouted from behind. In front of me, Jenkins ducked. Lamb palmed my head and shoved it toward the belly of the boat as we passed under the tree with our skulls intact.
There are no such thrills on this hike. It's just one sloshing step after another. Quarter-sized blisters sprout on my feet, so moist and white that my toes look like they've been dipped in vanilla frosting.
As we get within three or four miles of the end, the rain stops, and teams that have completed the race begin passing us in their cars as they drive from the finish line to their campsites and hotel rooms to change clothes. Friendly teams stop and chat with us. After two or three teams tell us that we're "getting close," my motivational thought becomes punching the next person who encourages us. I tell myself after every turn in the road that this is the last turn. But it never is. They're all lying.
Throughout the endless slog, Lamb and Jenkins keep up a steady banter, and they bait me into the discourse, like I'm one of them, like I belong here. Our conversations range from how to spot buck rubbings to why snow is the best substance in the woods to use as toilet paper. This jocular camaraderie is their best recruitment tool, and it's surprisingly effective. I catch myself thinking of ways to plan better for the next race, before I mentally scream at myself that there will not be a second race. This happens over and over, as though I'm being indoctrinated into the world's friendliest and best intentioned cult.
The other racers were telling the truth. After about five hours of walking, we make the final turn, down a driveway to a park meeting hall where an inflated orange-and-white finish line awaits. A dozen people are there cheering for Team Virtus.
Inside, we find the cooler of baked potatoes and hold them against out bodies and stuff them in our pockets, using them to warm up before eating. Jenkins shoves one under each armpit. We eat bowls of hot chili and potatoes and drink cold beer. Nobody is surprised that Bushwhacker, a strong team from Illinois, came in first with a time of six and a half hours and all 30 checkpoints punched. Team Virtus limped across the line in 10 hours and 30 minutes, with only eight checkpoints found — a disaster even by Team Virtus' standards.
The fistful of ibuprofen that Lamb gave me immediately following the wreck has worn off, and I have begun to fantasize about amputation. But tonight, as Lamb pilots the Virtus Van back to the cabin, on miles of the same asphalt we walked over hours earlier, I'm helpless to stop the stream of ideas about how to run this race right in the future. I would pack shoe insoles, an extra rain slicker, hand warmers. Maybe I should buy a bike. Lamb drives the van fast, taking corners blind on the unlighted park roads, and I find myself hoping that he'll go faster. What has Team Virtus done to me? I've completely forgotten that adventure racing is not right.