A team bikes to a checkpoint during a past Stubborn Mule Adventure Race in Wisconsin.

A team bikes to a checkpoint during a past Stubborn Mule Adventure Race in Wisconsin. Photo By Hilde Felsing

Long-distance adventure races pose a different kind of challenge

Wisconsin offers several races combining endurance events

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First there were the marathons, triathlons and every distance and combination in between. Then came Tough Mudders, Dirty Girl Mud Runs and other obstacle-style races.

Somewhere in the middle are adventure races, which combine two or more endurance activities like running, biking, paddling and orienteering into a sometimes full-day endurance event completed by a team or individuals. Many races include bonus or mystery activities like rappelling or white-water rafting. Each race is different, and participants usually don't know the exact course until right before the race begins.

Wisconsin is home to more than a handful of adventure races throughout the year, including the upcoming Stubborn Mule Adventure Race in the Tomahawk area on June 28.

"You don't need to be some sort of superstar athlete to do this, it's really for anyone who loves being out in the woods," said Paula Waite, who owns 180 Adventure and runs both the Stubborn Mule and the Stubborn Fool Adventure Race, held in the Madison area in the early spring.

The 30-hour Stubborn Mule includes 65 to 85 miles of biking, 18 to 25 miles of navigating and 16 to 25 miles of paddling, completed by coed teams of four people — the traditional adventure racing team — or any combination of smaller coed or single-sex teams or individuals. There's also a 12-hour race option with shorter distances.

"The difference between a triathlon and this event is the teams are navigating the whole time. There's not a set route," Waite said. Teams must navigate to various checkpoints throughout a course via a designated mode of transportation, but they can decide the exact route to take. "There's a lot of decision-making going on at the same time, and a lot (of) teamwork."

Teams must complete the entire race together — it's not a relay, and they may not split up during the race. But it's that teamwork that makes the sport fun.

"The team aspect is something I never thought I would enjoy, but you kind of become part of a family," said Kelcy Boettcher, a Wales resident who has been participating in adventure races since 2001, when her brother, Andy McCarthy, asked her to join his team for a race in Watertown.

That familial feel extends beyond individual teams.

"It's kind of lower-key than a triathlon. The teams are very friendly to each other. There's certainly competition, but it kind of feels like a family reunion," Waite said.

McCarthy, who organizes the Southern Kettle Moraine Challenge — an eight-hour race held Oct. 18 in the Kettle Moraine State Forest-Southern Unit — echoed the sentiments.

"It's really a good group of people. They're very positive and they're not afraid of a challenge," he said.

"Adventure racing is a small community, so you do get to know your fellow competitors, which is another reason we love the sport," said Mike Zolinski, whose Madison-based team, Medicus WRX, will host the Code Blue Challenge in the Madison area on Aug. 23.

Participants in races like the Stubborn Mule and Southern Kettle Moraine Challenge usually number in the hundreds, not thousands like Dirty Girl and Tough Mudder races.

"It feels sort of like an underground sport sometimes," Waite said. "For a lot of us who race, we kind of can't believe some people haven't heard of it."

Zolinski said part of the reason the sport has seen slower growth as opposed to the explosion of interest in events like the Tough Mudder is simple economics: Most of those muddy-obstacle races are hosted by larger for-profit organizations, while adventure races, at least in Wisconsin, are typically put on by smaller entities or teams "for love of the sport."

Plus, he added, most adventure racecourses are designed to have "minimal impact" on the environment, and they usually travel through state parks and other rural areas not normally traveled by people.

"You see some really beautiful areas. It gets you off-trail seeing areas you never would see," Boettcher said. "It's something that pushes you and gets you out there doing things you never thought you would do."

While the racing community in Wisconsin may be small, that's not the case in other parts of the world or even the country.

The sport's origins can be traced to a place none other than the heart of extreme sports: New Zealand. The country's Alpine Ironman, first held in 1980, included running, paddling and skiing.

In 1989, New Zealand played host to the first Raid Gauloises, a multiday, 400-mile race for coed teams. Two years later, the Los Angeles Times wrote about the race, which caught the attention of TV producer Mark Burnett ("Survivor," "The Apprentice," "The Voice"). Burnett put together the first American team to compete in the Raid the following year, and by 1995 he was ready to launch his own race in the United States.

The first Eco-Challenge was held in Utah and broadcast on MTV, exposing many Americans to adventure racing for the first time.

Getting hooked

That's how Waite was introduced to the sport around 1999.

"I wasn't a big athlete prior to starting adventure racing," she said, noting that at the time there were a lot of races in Wisconsin and across the U.S., thanks to the popularity of the Eco-Challenge.

But after the final Eco-Challenge was broadcast on the USA Network in 2002, things cooled off a bit.

"There came a time maybe seven or eight years ago when there seemed to be a pretty steady decline with the number of races offered," Waite said, which is what led her to think about putting on her own.

Around the time she was introduced to adventure racing, McCarthy already had a race in the works. In 2000 he put on the first Southern Kettle Moraine Challenge, which has taken place every October since.

Zolinski has been racing with a coed team of six people for about eight years. His Medicus WRX team is hosting its first race in Madison this year. The rogaine-style race is good for beginners, Zolinski said, because teams choose the number of checkpoints they want to try to reach within a designated amount of time. Beginners are encouraged to seek closer checkpoints, while more advanced teams can work to reach more difficult ones.

Zolinski hopes the Code Blue Challenge will be part of an adventure race series in Wisconsin next year — a collection of five to seven races in which teams can earn points that determine an overall winner. The Stubborn Mule, Southern Kettle and another race, the Ya Mule MAFF, have already joined up to form a series, the 1st Basis Adventure Series.

Getting started

The thought of biking, hiking and paddling nearly 100 miles in a day may sound daunting, but it's not as hard to get into the sport as you might think.

"For a beginner, though an eight-hour race sounds tough, actually it's not any harder (than other races) because you're changing disciplines fairly often, so you might just bike for an hour, then maybe switch to paddling for an hour, then maybe back to navigating," McCarthy said. "If you can run 5 miles and mountain bike another 10 in the same day, you at least know how to paddle a canoe, you can probably survive an eight-hour race. It's really a steady-as-you go thing."

Waite said the most challenging part of a race can be the navigation. "I think most of us can trek or run, most of us can bike, anybody can probably paddle, but when you add in that aspect of figuring out where you're going, how you get there, trying to track on a map, I think that can be most frustrating. But it's also the most fun."

And most teams will have one person act as lead navigator, Boettcher said, so if you're not comfortable doing it, you don't have to.

Boettcher, along with all the directors, also pointed to Badger Orienteering as a good way to learn how to navigate using a compass and a map. The Madison-based club hosts navigation races and training sessions all over the state.

For real-time practice, Waite's organization has set up a permanent adventure race course in the Madison area. The Cherokee PARC around the Cherokee Marsh north of Lake Mendota includes three levels of distances and checkpoints for novices to pros. Find instructions and details at 180adventure.com.

"Start with the beginner level, take your time and give yourself a good part of a day so you can really enjoy it," Waite advised.

And while the sport can be male-dominated, with most coed teams consisting of three males and one female, Boettcher said that shouldn't hold women back from participating.

"Align yourself with a like-minded group. There are a lot of guys out there looking to just do it for fun," she said. "It's a ton of fun, and I've seen so many people go out there for the first time and think this is something they could never do, and they just have a blast. It's really a very welcoming sport."

More information

Most races require minimal gear: a mountain bike, hydration system, first-aid kit, compass and lighting system for longer races. Many provide canoes for the paddling sections.

The Stubborn Mule Adventure Race, held June 28 in the Tomahawk area, offers 30-hour and 12-hour options. The event includes flat-water paddling, mountain biking, orienteering, road biking, trekking, land navigation and team challenges/mystery events. It's open to coed and same-sex teams of two, three or four, and individuals. Cost is $110 per person for the 12-hour race and $200 per person for the 30-hour race. The Stubborn Fool, a six-hour race geared at beginners, is held in April. See 180adventure.com.

The Code Blue Challenge takes place Aug. 23 in the Madison area. The eight- to 10-hour race is also designed for beginners, with more challenging options for advanced teams. Cost is $90 per person. See medicuswrx.com.

The Wisconsin Adventure Racing Society's Southern Kettle Moraine Challenge is scheduled for Oct. 18 near Whitewater. The eight- to nine-hour race includes 7 to 9 miles of single-track mountain biking, 35 to 45 miles of road biking, 7 miles of paddling and some trekking and running. The race costs $90 per person. See wisadventureracingsociety.com.

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