Traversing a jungle because it's there

John Howard smiled to himself as he chased his third serving of fresh squid with a cold drink. "I can't believe I'm in the middle of a race," the New Zealander said.

He was resting with his team at Checkpoint 15 on the tiny Philippine island of Guintarcan, five days into the Elf Authentic Adventure, the latest addition to the sport of adventure racing.

The young sport is a showcase of both true athleticism and quirky masochism. Races can last for weeks, with teams at the back of the pack finishing four days after the winners. Coed teams are made up of four or five racers who must complete the race together. If one team member is hurt or too tired to continue, the whole team is disqualified.

Stopping for only a few hours a day to sleep, teams navigate unforgiving landscapes and battle exhaustion and dehydration to finish events that rarely offer a cash prize. Often the only prize for the winners of a race are free plane tickets to the next event - so they can do it all over again.

The Elf (funded by French oil giant Elf Aquitaine) was held from April 17 to 29 and centered around two major islands, Leyte and Samar, in the eastern Philippines.

Twenty-two teams had to pass through 28 checkpoints along a 386-mile route. The exact route was revealed to the teams only 24 hours before the start.

Competitors traveled by foot, navigating through thick jungles and slimy caves, paddled kayaks through portions of the Samar Sea, navigated rivers in dugout canoes, in-line skated for 62 miles of coastal road, and sailed a local fishing craft 64 miles to the finish line.

Adventure racing has been compared to racing a triathlon every day for 10 days.

Mr. Howard, a window washer from Christchurch, New Zealand, is considered the top adventure racer in the world, with two victories at the Eco-Challenge on his rsum.

With a good meal and some sleep, Team Spie left Checkpoint 15 feeling strong. But none of the racers knew that over the next five days, the Elf would turn into the longest, most difficult race in the sport's 10-year history.

The Elf is the creation of Gerard Fusil, a charismatic French journalist who sports a musty Indiana Jones-style fedora. Mr. Fusil is credited with inventing the sport of adventure racing in 1989 when he launched the first Raid Gauloises.

Still the premire race, the Raid was the first "multisport race" where coed teams of five would race several hundred miles in annual events in exotic places like Madagascar and Sarwak.

For the early part of the decade, adventure racing, and the Raid, remained a uniquely European sport. Only a handful of Americans raced, and there was little awareness of the sport in the United States.

The best way to describe adventure racing would be to call it a multisport, multiday race, with teams competing to finish a course that runs across a remote wilderness area without motorized vehicles. It's similar to the Discovery Channel's Eco-Challenge, an American event started by a media-savvy Australian, Mark Burnett.

Mr. Burnett bought Fusil's concept and turned it into a made-for-television event that was accessible for an American audience and filled with the human drama typical of Olympics coverage. In April, the 1998 Eco-Challenge in Morocco was shown as a miniseries on the Discovery Channel.

Looking to push the limits of racers even further, Fusil sold the Raid and began work on the Elf Authentic Adventure last year. "The Elf is different," he says. "The spirit of this competition is not only about sport in the natural environment but about the total autonomy of the teams as they race."

Unlike the Raid or Eco, where the organizers supply much of the equipment to the teams, the Elf teams are self-supporting. Each team consists of a three-person logistics crew that supports the four racers.

The support crews are on an adventure race of their own: Traveling by jeep or boat, they have to meet up with the teams at designated points along the course to resupply them with gear and food.

The American team, Pharmanex/Epinephrine, barely held on to its second-place position during one of the jungle legs when their crew's jeep broke down on a muddy road. After some quick improvising, they commandeered a dump truck and rolled into the resupply point with time to spare.

Fusil had expected the lead teams to finish the race in eight to 10 days. But the race stretched to almost 11 days for the leaders.

Eight days after the start, the Elf took on a grueling tone. Nine of the 22 teams starting the race had already dropped out because of injury or exhaustion.

Fusil, flying in his helicopter over the jungle canopy, saw a red signal flare, fired by one of the teams. The flares are part of the safety gear each team must carry. Fusil landed his helicopter on a riverbank and found the four leading teams huddled together. None of the racers could walk.

More than a week of trudging through wet jungles and caves filled with bat guano had caused severe foot problems. The teams had been forced to stop racing and alert Fusil about their condition.

Worried that no team would finish the race, Fusil shortened the course for all the teams and allowed them to travel by boat from their position to the next resupply point to get medical attention.

"I'm not going to take it easy on the skating leg, because that makes it last too long," said Ian Adamson of Pharmanex, as he slipped his skates on over his tender feet.

Amazingly, Howard and Spie led all the teams out onto the in-line skating leg. Spie and Pharmanex finished the race in first and second place, 11 days after starting.

Adventure racers have the same "because it's there" attitude about their sport that mountain climbers have.

"If I asked myself at any one time during the race, 'What is the point of this?' I would quit. So I don't ask," said Isaac Wilson of Team Pharmanex.

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