If the waiver is longer than your average State of the Union Address, be afraid. Be very afraid.
That's one thing I learned at the Presidio Adventure Racing Academy, which is based in San Francisco and twice a year (in March and October) offers crash instruction on a hot sport in which teams of three to five racers negotiate a treacherous course over land and water, day and night, for distances of up to 500 miles. With its emphasis on strategy, teamwork and respect for the environment, adventure racing has positioned itself as a thinking person's alternative to triathlons.
Thinking is definitely a requirement. After reading, then signing PARA's novella-sized waiver, my 19 classmates and I spent five hours indoors, taking notes on survival skills, teambuilding and land navigation. I first had reason to reflect on the waiver the following afternoon as I looked into the face of death during our training session. I was in the stern of a two-person kayak on San Francisco Bay, staring up at the sinister hull of the freighter Hanjin. Sharing the kayak with me was a laconic Midwesterner and a 2:52:00 marathoner named Charlie Engle, who asked me, as the Death Star-sized behemoth bore down on us, "What kind of a swimmer are you?"
The Hanjin missed us by a good 300 yards, but our troubles had just begun. We were out beyond the Golden Gate Bridge, struggling against a seven-knot ebb tide and nasty chop, and getting our tails kicked. Some 30 seconds after the freighter passed, we were slammed by its wash: a series of five-foot swells. In no time four of my classmates were in the water, yelling for help as they drifted toward Hawaii. The timely appearance of two Coast Guard boats, summoned by a bridge worker watching our distress, probably prevented a tragedy.
At that night's barbecue I thanked PARA founder Duncan Smith for arranging to have the Hanjin pass precisely when it did, thus providing us with maximum adventure for the 1,195 tuition dollars. "The key," said Smith, whose sense of humor is martini-dry, "is reserving far enough in advance." In his introductory remarks he said that we were among the sport's pioneers—a designation more rightly his. Smith has captained several adventure-racing teams and been a top finisher in the Southern Traverse in New Zealand and in the Raid Gauloises. After serving as a Navy SEAL, Smith got his MBA and a job in high finance, which he found remunerative and mind numbing. Three years ago he mothballed his Nicole Miller ties and opened the academy, which also conducts shorter races for corporations. (When I last spoke to him, he was preparing a race for an FBI hostage-rescue team.)
At the end of the evening we were split into four teams for a two-day, 50-mile race that would start at six the next morning. When Smith stuck me on the sad-sack Team Tamalpais, I suspected it was payback for my insolent reference to the near disaster on the bay. One of my teammates was Andy Townley, a fireman from Redding, Calif., who made it clear that, as a last-minute substitute for a friend who couldn't make it, he had no intention of risking either life or limb just to finish some race. During night navigation drills on Thursday, he'd made a simple declaration: "I don't run." It was clear that Andy had attitude issues.
So what happened? The race began when we were shuttled out to Angel Island as the sun staggered up over the horizon. Our first checkpoint was Mount Livermore, the island's highest point. Less than a mile in, we saw a trail that could have been a shortcut. Andy instantly volunteered to scout it out and sprinted off. My teammates and I shook our heads. He's running, we told each other. Andy was running. We suddenly realized that we had a chance to win.
The other members of my team were: Shawn Grenier, a marathoner and aspiring adventure racer who pilots F-18s for the Navy and who ended up handling most of our navigation (as someone who spends hundreds of hours each year searching for my car in parking garages, I had no problem with that); Krista Haferkamp, who also wants to get into adventure racing and who appears to have the physical strength and mental toughness to be good at it; and Burke Franklin, an ursine Silicon Valley executive who wrote a book called Business Black Belt. You know how some stout people turn out to be surprisingly fit? Burke was not one of those people.
Each team was accompanied by an instructor, who was a passive observer...unless he saw an opportunity to prevent life-threatening mayhem. Ours was the personable Nate Smith, a Navy SEAL you might have seen during the Discovery Channel's coverage of the '97 Eco-Challenge in Australia. Thirty miles into the 49-mile kayak leg, his team was overtaken by a squall. Ten-foot swells crashed over the two boats, sinking one. For 90 minutes Smith bobbed in shark-infested waters off the Great Barrier Reef. When a chopper finally arrived to film the scene, it did not lower a rope for him, but signaled that help was on its way. The rescue chopper arrived 20 minutes later.
Smith was still catching flak for the NAVY SEALS RESCUED AT SEA headlines. "We were 316 miles into a 335-mile race, and we end up getting DQ'd," he said. "You can be good in this sport, but you've got to be lucky, too." We soon saw that wisdom in action. Fifteen minutes after we pushed off Angel Island in three kayaks, the current shifted, making the crossing back to the mainland much tougher for the teams behind us. That was a good thing for our side, because we turned out to be a rather weak group of paddlers.