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Illustration by Barry Blitt

Adventure Racing Past 50 Years Old

When a Grand County sexagenarian tries the Never Summer Adventure Race two years in a row, he's left reflecting on the delusion of immortality.

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Every human body has an expiration date. This shouldn’t surprise anyone, especially those of us for whom the mirror suggests clear evidence of decline. But ego is a remarkable thing, and well into my later years—with just the right amount of squinting and Advil—I’d managed to cling to the idea that endless youth was within reach.

Which, in part, explains how a guy who had devolved into a white-haired, slightly paunched sexagenarian found himself at the starting line of Grand County’s first Never Summer Adventure Race, three years ago this month. Along with two nephews, also hoary at 50 and 56, I had signed up for the multidisciplinary event, which required our team to mountain bike about 15 miles of backcountry, navigate by compass deep into brushy wilderness, answer one confounding riddle, solve a sloppy logistics problem, and canoe around a set of islands in Lake Granby.

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Each team would have six hours to complete a circuit of checkpoints, punching a passport at each one to verify they’d finished that portion of the race. The more checkpoints you reached, the more points you’d get. All the while, the clock would be ticking; you could be penalized for things such as having noncompetitors assist you or arriving at the end of the course after the designated 4 p.m. finish time.

We paid the $100 (per person) entry fee and agreed to participate in the ordeal for the chance to pedal, paddle, and orienteer our way to geriatric glory. We’d also have a chance to win prizes that, arrayed on a table at the finish line, looked as though they’d come from some random drawers the organizers had just cleaned out at home.

No matter! This was not about prizes. We huddled with dozens of other men and women in the August morning chill along Lake Granby’s shore, awaiting the start and embracing our chance to prove that we were the iron-calved paragons of ageless virility we still imagined ourselves to be.

Data support this delusion. When scientists from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation studied life expectancies in the United States, they found that the longest-living people reside in three adjacent Colorado counties: Summit, Eagle, and Pitkin. Summit County residents, who rank at the top, live an average of 86.83 years, making them the Galápagos tortoises of the human species. Grand County, where I live, came in at a relatively sluggish 31st out of 3,142 counties and regions, averaging a mere 82.73 years—still four more than the national average. Overall, Colorado accounted for 10 of the country’s top 50 counties and regions, twice as many as California, the closest contender.

The reality is that in Colorado, you’re constantly surrounded by people—of all ages—who are hiking, biking, skiing, and otherwise recreating like a playground full of kids amped on Mocha Frappuccinos. And you think: Why not me?

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I fell into that trap. Starting an adventure-racing career at age 60 requires championship-level self-deception. But I’m vulnerable to flattery, which was definitely a factor the day I met Boulder’s Katie Ferrington. I usually try to work a meal into my exercise regimen—balance is so important—and I’d interrupted a spring 2016 bike ride for a sandwich. I shared a picnic table with Ferrington and her husband, who despite raising two young daughters looked like zero-body-fat cover models for Ectomorph magazine. They were in Grand County exploring bike routes for the first Never Summer race, an event they planned to stage a few months later. Katie, the race director, explained there’d actually be two races: one lasting 24 hours, for truly dedicated masochists, and the other lasting “only” six hours. She declared me a good candidate for the six-hour contest.

I contacted my nephews Chip and Sergio, both of whom live in Denver, and proposed forming a team. I suspect they were swayed by my idea to compete as the Lisa Wren Racers to honor the memory of a woman we all loved. She was my older sister, Chip’s mother, and Sergio’s mother-in law, and she’d died the year before just shy of her 73rd birthday—way too soon, by local standards.

Long before the starter’s signal, we noticed how different we were from our competitors. It wasn’t just that they were a fraction of our ages; they were clearly experienced at this sort of thing. The most obvious clue: Most wore knee-high socks to protect their shins during a trekking stage that would find us all tramping through brush that was a little like barbed wire. As the race’s oldest rookies, we blithely set off in our ankle-highs.

The overriding spirit of adventure racing for dilettantes like us is that of a giddy portable party. Team names often reflect that fitness-and-fun ethos. The 18 registered teams in the 2016 race included Oven Roasted Sneakers, 2 Lost Crew, and Team Lionel Richie Fan Club.

Some race conventions add to the general giddiness. During the first Never Summer race, for example, organizers tracked the completion of an early orienteering challenge by painting each fingernail on every competitor’s right hand a different color. By the end we all looked like EDM festival refugees.

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Our team’s inexperience showed early and often during the race. After miles of biking, one of our first major tasks was to dismount and navigate by foot to a far-away checkpoint. Sergio, the only team member with compass skills, guided us in precisely the right direction—at least, until we veered off to follow another team that seemed more confident. Confidence, we soon learned, can be deceiving.

At another checkpoint, we were handed a three-foot-long PVC pipe, pointed to a nearby creek, and told to fill the pipe using only a small container to ferry water from the creek. The catch: There were holes all along the pipe. Had we been thinking clearly, we would have used the duct tape in our packs—one of the few items organizers allowed—to close the holes rather than trying to plug them with our fingers.

Another hurdle involved a mental test. As we stood panting after a rough bike climb, a race worker presented us with a choice. We could try to solve a riddle immediately—failure to do so would mean we’d get no credit for the checkpoint—or spend precious time gathering clues that had been scattered along a nearby trail to help us piece together the answer. We took a chance and were presented with the riddle:

A bear invades your campsite.
You run one mile south, then one mile west,
then one mile north,
and then arrive back at your campsite.
What color is the bear?

When your muscles can’t spare oxygen for your brain, the answer isn’t as obvious as it should be. Still, Sergio came through with the correct answer (you’ll get it eventually), and we hopped back on our bikes.

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An hour later, after riding miles of rain-slick dirt past a hard-to-find turnoff, Chip stepped into the hero’s role by persuading us to backtrack, locating the likely turnoff, and imploring us to follow him in lifting our bikes over a rail fence. Voila! A downhill singletrack trail opened up before us. It led us to the checkpoint and then back to the staging area for the race’s paddling phase.

By then, Sergio’s knee was bleeding after an extravagant bike crash, and we were moving like drunks on a bender. We capsized our canoe just offshore before righting ourselves and racing the clock to the final two island checkpoints. After about a half-mile, we made a strategic decision to turn around and finish on time rather than be penalized for being late, even if it meant losing credit for the final checkpoints. We finished with two minutes to spare.

When the points were tallied, the Lisa Wren Racers finished second in the three- and four-person open division—never mind that there were only three teams competing in that demo. We declared victory and, over post-race beers, began making plans for next year. We were beat and bloody, but really, age is just a number. Right?

Everyone achieves self-awareness in his or her own way. For me, it came during the second stage of the 2017 race, which included almost three dozen more competitors compared with the year before.

We had trained hard that summer, and we started the race with confidence, thanks to our 2016 showing. But hubris and humility are cousins. At one point, we decided to pad our point total by biking to an optional checkpoint. We found ourselves following a singletrack trail to the bottom of what felt like the Grand Canyon. It took us forever to get out, and by then we were frustrated and far behind schedule.

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We struggled through a short orienteering exercise and began the long bike ride toward one of the final challenges, which involved rafting down the Fraser River. Our new raft was inflated and waiting at the river’s edge. To get there, though, we had to pedal past an inviting bar near the start/finish line. Discussion ensued and, well, let’s just say our raft still awaits its maiden voyage. Among the 34 teams competing that year, we were one of nine whose final race results included the inglorious notation “did not paddle.”

From the bar, we watched many other teams finish both the six-hour and the 24-hour races. I later stopped by to applaud the winners at the post-race barbecue, where I noticed that one of the dominant 24-hour crews looked like SEAL Team Six. I could have been mistaken for their grandfather.

Then and there seemed like the time to embrace the obvious. I ended my two-year racing career and conceded the adventures to come to the generations behind me. The 2018 edition and this past June’s race took place without the Lisa Wren Racers, and I’m wistful about that. But I also cherish the peace that comes with acceptance. No one is immortal, and at a certain point in life a participation medal feels like a victory. Of course, when racing is no longer an option, there’s always the bar.

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