Testing mental, physical limits

Team: Three county men are into the arcane sport of adventure racing - against the clock and nature.

Howard At Play

September 26, 2004|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

Thomas MacLellan Trey Cassidy swears he'll never forget his first try at adventure racing. It happened two years ago, and it was a misadventure.

"A neighbor talked me into taking a spot on his team," said Cassidy, who heads Glenelg Country School's upper grades and is a world-level competitor in duathlon - cycling and running. "It was supposed to be a 12-hour event, starting at midnight in Boonsboro [in Washington County]. We each had something to do the next day - a birthday party, a soccer game."

The finish line at Cabin John Regional Park in Montgomery County came into view about 22 hours later. And Cassidy had experienced what adventure racing involves: fitness, stress, endurance, agility, camaraderie, courage, unpredictability, cussedness, enthusiastic love and respect for the outdoors.

He, West Friendship neighbor William Marciniak and teammate Thomas MacLellan from Ellicott City finished. Exhausted, they were one of the few three-man teams to complete the ordeal. They had rappelled precipitous Annapolis Rock, run on the pitch-black Appalachian Trail with small headlamps casting shadowy light; mountain-biked on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal towpath; canoed the Potomac River amid wind-whipped whitecaps; and endured a scary band of violent thunderstorms.

"It was pretty poorly set up," MacLellan said last week. "Organizers had estimated some of the sections wrong, allotting a couple hours for something that took us eight, plus there was the weather. They're not all like that."

The three men persist in the arcane sport. They're competing this weekend on 27 miles of trails and waterways spanning three Northern Virginia parks. Next weekend, they'll be near Richmond, Va., hoping to win; last year there, they led near the end but finished sixth after unsnarling a mountain-bike chain cost them precious minutes.

Adventure racing requires athletes - in teams of three or four, typically - to test their physical and mental limits against the clock and Mother Nature. Organizers draw from a mixed bag of individual outdoor skills, such as kayaking, canoeing, rock-climbing, traversing an unfamiliar trail using a map and compass (orienteering), as well as running and cycling.

All team members must do every component of an event; one breakdown - for exhaustion, blisters, a broken or lost paddle, whatever - and that team is eliminated. Get lost and the clock keeps ticking. Injuries aren't infrequent, and, though rare, deaths have occurred in extreme races.

You might have seen on cable TV between 1995 and 2001 an event called the Eco-Challenge Expedition Race. It pushed teams of four - three men and a woman - through 300-mile, six- to 12-day courses in places such as the Australian Outback, Patagonia and Malaysian Borneo. Perils ranged from snow and ice and ocean kayaking to raging white water to poisonous snakes and scorpions to scorching desert heat.

Corporate sponsors sustain adventure racing, albeit on shorter courses called sprints that occupy five- to six hours, for racers such as the Howard County trio.

"We're pretty complementary," said MacLellan, referring to his county teammates. "Each of us has a strength: Trey is the strongest runner, Bill's is mountain biking, and kayaking and paddling are mine. So all of us take leadership positions at different times during an event. One of the things you learn is that you can go farther and faster as a group than as an individual."

MacLellan, 37, a criminal justice analyst for the National Governors Association in Washington, got into adventure racing with Marciniak in its earliest days and is no slouch outdoors. He and his wife, Ann, climbed Mount Rainier in Washington last month. They got caught near the top in whiteout conditions and 75-mph wind gusts, one of which, he said, picked up their guide and tossed him about 10 feet.

Marciniak, 42, who sells bicycle parts and outdoor gear to Mid-Atlantic region retailers for an array of makers, said he has been mountain biking almost since the nubby-wheel models reached the market. He does about 20 races annually in off-road cycling in addition to several adventure races.

"The appeal to me is racing as a team, the friendships," Marciniak said. "When we're together, it's just one joke after another. But the bottom line is we're having fun, getting dirty, and keeping fit. I'm into it for fitness, staying healthy."

Cassidy, 35, is no stranger to endurance-type racing. He began multisport competition in 1994, first in triathlons. For eight straight years, he has been Maryland duathlon champion. He has represented the United States in five world duathlon championships, annual competition that has taken him to Spain, Germany and France, and he has been ranked as high nationally as No. 2 in that sport.

"The mental part of adventure racing is part of what keeps me coming back," Cassidy said. "It mixes things up, makes them more interesting."

Interesting for sure. Sometimes offbeat, too. Marciniak and MacLellan recalled a 2002 adventure race in, of all places, downtown Chicago.

That race required, among other things, crossing a piece of Lake Michigan at the famed Navy Pier entertainment landmark while dangling from a zip line, running up and down steps between the Sears Tower's 103 stories, and dashing through several neighbors in the middle of the night on scooters.

"You know, the kind kids play on," Marciniak said, "with one foot on, the other pushing."

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