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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.