Fancy taking part in a 600 mile cross country race? A competition which forces you to swim for miles down gushing rivers, kayak across vast lakes overnight, hike for days and get virtually no sleep for a week? Welcome to the world of adventure racing.
Meeting with Irish adventure racer Avril Copeland for coffee in St. Stephens green it is hard to believe this petite and smiley girl is involved with such an enduring sport. Avril tells me she started adventure racing after seeing “The Eco Challenge” on TV3 over six years ago and thinking she had never seen anything like it in her life.
Having grown up in South Dublin, she was a high sports achiever from a young age, representing Ireland on the U19 and U21 Hockey teams. In 2001, Avril moved to Nashville, Tennessee to pursue a career in country music. It was here in America that she began training and started taking part in the ‘shorter’ 100 mile races.
Adventure racing involves navigating, cycling, kayaking and swimming across mountainous terrain for periods of up to ten days. Competitors’ physical and mental endurance is constantly tested as teams of four race against the clock. According to Avril, sleep is a luxury and she is lucky to get two hours rest a night during a race, taken in 20-25 minute power naps throughout the day.
“If you stop and sleep you’re losing time on the clock. If we all feel like we can’t keep going then we will lie down wherever we are and set our watches for 25 minutes. Everybody is always tired. The minute you lie down, everybody will be out; it’s incredible, your body just totally shuts down.
Hiking and navigating your way around the 600 mile course is extremely taxing on the body and the competitors must take precautions to prevent injury while on the course. Hiking up steep terrain can be very dangerous and Avril explains how most adventurers do something called ‘the shuffle’;
“The terrain that you’re on is really steep so you can’t run up it and it’s too hard on your legs to run coming down. You’re sort of half walking, half running, and half jogging.”
Kayaking is another demanding part of the race and can often involve paddling all night out in the middle of an ocean or lake. In the past Avril has kayaked across both Lake Michigan in the USA and Loch Ness in Scotland, where competitors had been insured in case ‘anyone got eaten by a monster’.
As part of the race, competitors must swim distances of up to 10 miles rushing down raging torrents while dodging highly dangerous obstacles such as rocks and logs. The team is thrust into the rapids where the current brings them down the river at incredible speeds.
Last year, the same river in which competitors were swimming in, was closed to commercial rafts because the rapids were just too dangerous. For Avril, this is the part she fears most.
“You have to kick with all your might using your flippers to stay in the middle of the stream because the outside of the river is so dangerous. You are always conscious of rocks and trees or anything that could drag you down and force you underwater.
“You are trying to stay right in the middle but unfortunately that is where the highest waves are so it’s just a rollercoaster from the get-go. It really is horrific!” she laughs, as she see’s my awestruck facial expression.
Nothing is too much for Avril. She has run the Dublin, Chicago, Boston and Nashville marathons as well as ultra distance trail races which are up to 50km in length.
She believes that races are both physically and mentally challenging and are certainly not for beginners. Race teams are often unsupported meaning they have no back up and no one to help them throughout the course of the race.
Despite these challenges, Avril believes most people could participate if they put their minds to it.
“It is very much a mental thing. You will see these big army guys entering these races and quit after one day because they can’t deal with it mentally. For me, it’s just one foot in front of the other.” Such tough racing conditions, however, have caused many problems for Avril over the years.
“Last year they thought I had pneumonia on the 2nd day. I was lucky and got antibiotics from members of another team and was fine after a few days managing to complete the race. I’ve also broken my left ankle, my right elbow and even ‘my ass’ in past races. I didn’t actually realise I had broken anything until after the race when I realised it was still really sore,” she laughs, adding that her friends will never let her live it down!
These adventure expeditions are not for the faint hearted, with fatal accidents occurring over the years.
“In Primal Quest Washington one of the guys actually died during the race,” she says quietly. “That was the hardest race I’ve ever done. I remember thinking to myself ‘someone is going to die in this race’. There is a fine line between extreme and downright dangerous’.”
Now she has her eyes firmly set on Primal Quest 2009, the world’s most enduring expedition race. This year’s Primal Quest is 600 miles long which is the equivalent of running a constant marathon from the very north to the very south of Ireland.
Last year racers had over 100,000 feet of elevation gain throughout the course of the week, which organizers said would be as challenging as climbing Mount Everest three times within the same time period!
If you think you’re up for the challenge, log on to “IrishAR” the home of adventure racing in Ireland.
Galway adventure racer Richard Donovan set a new world record earlier this year as the first person to run seven consecutive marathons in seven continents in under seven days.
So how did this ordinary man from Galway, who had never run a marathon in his life, start breaking world records?
Richard says it was following a significant, life changing moment that prompted him to change his lifestyle and start his running career.
“It all started after the death of both my mother and father in 2002,” he says.
“I decided to do something in memory of them. Later that year I became the first person to run a marathon to both the North and South Poles, which I did in aid of two charities that had been close to my parents hearts.”
Since that achievement he has won the South Pole Marathon, the Inca Trail Marathon, the Everest Challenge, the Antarctic 100km and the Himalayan 100-Mile Stage Race. However, Richard believes pride does not come into the equation as he believes there is “so much more to achieve than what has already been done.”
“Anybody has it in them to complete an ultra distance marathon. People have misconceptions that it is an ‘extreme sport’ but it is actually more about having a certain mentality than anything else,” he says.
That same mentality kept Richard going after he suffered from Kidney failure during a race in the Amazon. “I think it was the heat and humidity contributed to my downfall,” he says.
“What happens is once you race over 100 miles, you reach a certain level of fatigue. You have used up so much energy running that there in no room for excess thoughts.
“While in this trance-like state, you almost have an epiphany or a feeling or enlightenment. Only things that really matter to you stay in your mind and that is what motivates you to keep running.”
Despite being unable to finish, he still believes it was a lot of fun and the best race he has run.
“You have to hold on to branches and vines climbing up the steep terrain and you are constantly avoiding logs and vegetation. Everything in the jungle seems to be out to get you!” he laughs, adding how the millions of fire ants attacking him helped him to run a lot faster!
Having run marathons and set new records around the world, Richard now spends his time as an adventure race organizer for the North Pole Marathon and is also the chairman of UltraRunning Ireland. The 47 year old tells me his running career is “far from over” though and has a few more stunts waiting up his sleeve.