Portfolio of Pain
By Ron Donoho
Friday night begins deliciously. I devour two chile–roasted turkey sandwiches and a plate of plum sauce–doused miniature egg rolls. Wasabi- and soy-soaked California rolls are next, followed by vegetable stir-fry. The gastronomically grand event is this magazine’s 50th-anniversary fête, held at the Stephen Birch Aquarium-Museum in La Jolla. It’s a very Grey Poupon get-together. Guests gossip and gab; imbibe and imbue.
Alas—all too soon it’s last call. We don’t have to go home, but we can’t stay here. Valets commence bringing the Jags and Lexuses back around front. Party animals depart for nightcaps on Prospect Street. Others head home.
I point the car east and drive an hour to Cleveland National Forest. Destination: base camp near Lake Morena. I arrive at 11 p.m. The temperature is in the 50s. I slip out of my smart Banana Republic khaki suit and into gray sweatpants and warm layers of old shirts.
The party is definitely over. The Eco-Adventure has begun.
Three hours later, the wooded silence is pierced by the theme song from Mission Impossible. (Nervous excitement has kept me from sleeping, anyway.) Tents rustle, and inhabitants slip out of down-filled sleeping bags. The night comes alive via flashlight and headlamp. It’s go time.
Overseeing this wakeup call to order is Mitch Utterback. An imposing—yet unfailingly even-tempered —former Army Green Beret, Mitch has Dolph Lundgren spiky blond hair and the stealth-like stare of First Blood’s Rambo. Mitch’s upper body is sculpted granite. His limbs are oak, fastened to that granite torso by steel-belted ligaments. Mitch could beat the crap out of you, or it seems assuredly so. Luckily for all, Mitch assures us he’s never killed a guy and doesn’t see the logic in fisticuffs. Nonetheless, all defer to Mitch’s authority with nary a question or look askance.
Mitch was one of the first Americans to take up adventure racing. He competes in the international sport’s premier events: the Discovery Channel Eco-Challenge and the Raid Gauloises (pronounced gal-oh-WAHZ). He’s been an instructor in 14 Eco-Challenge schools and conducts corporate programs based on the teamwork and leadership lessons of adventure racing.
What exactly is adventure racing? In a nutshell (a term not loosely used), adventure racers must, as a team, get from start to finish while navigating a top-secret wilderness course. The rules vary somewhat between the Eco-Challenge (which is not affiliated with Frog’s Eco-Adventure) and the Raid Gauloises.
This year’s Raid was held September 19-30 in Ecuador. Five-person teams, including at least one woman per team, trekked across glaciers, whitewater-rafted, sea-kayaked, rode horseback and climbed an active volcano. In 11 days, racers traveled 450 miles and averaged three hours sleep a night.
The Eco-Challenge was held in Morocco, and the winning team, a four-person co-ed group from the United States, finished on October 16—coinciding with the kickoff of this second-ever Frog’s Eco-Adventure. The main differences between the teams wrapping up things in Morocco and those of us just getting started in East County: The Eco-Challengers did one leg on camelback, rappelled down a 3,500-foot mountainside and averaged two hours sleep a night over 11 days while traveling 300 miles. We are preparing to hike, mountain bike and rappel (a measly 250 feet) and will be given the chance to grab about four hours sleep during a weekend in which we’ll travel roughly 50 miles.
Ergo, the difference between a “challenge” and an “adventure.”
So it’s 2 a.m., and I’m being readied by my teammates for a night hike up a mountain. The team: Josh, the strong, silent type who works for Qualcomm; Beth, an organizational psychology graduate student; Dave, a business development rep; Michelle, a mother of three; and me.
The others arrived at 4 p.m. on Friday to be prepped by Mitch. No one seems to hold it against me that I’m media, or that I was at a party while they were huddled around a campfire trying to learn the compass and orienteering skills that would get us from point to point throughout this weekend.
There are four teams participating. It would be folly to say we are actually competing. The teams are stocked by like ability. The best team includes Robyn Benincasa, a member of the first-ever American team to win the Raid Gauloises. The least-experienced team contains—you guessed it—a magazine writer still burping up vegetable stir-fry.
There is a good bit of equipment required by an adventure racer, including a “camelback” water supply (a plastic bladder carried in a knapsack with a drinking tube that hangs over your shoulder), rappelling harness, leather gloves, mountain bike, compass, headlamp, comfortable shoes, lots of warm clothes and various products that protect the lips and skin from the sun.
Though none of us is armed, these outings are vaguely paramilitary. Especially when it comes to group movement afoot. There’s lots of it. We hike everywhere—to the tops of mountains and into the backwoods. Along paved roads and rocky paths. Everywhere. Did I mention there’s a lot of walking?
Want To Have an Eco-Adventure?
Almost anyone can participate in these two- to four-day wilderness adventures of kayaking, mountaineering, horseback riding, rappelling and/or mountain biking. The experience is open to individuals as well as teams and corporate groups.
Frog’s Athletic Club and Trident Adventures joined forces in August to form Trident Adventures & Training. Both entities were created by former Navy SEALs—hence the frog (for frogmen) and the trident (the SEALs emblem).
Trident Adventures & Training is composed of divisions focusing on eco-adventures, eco-races and corporate adventure-based training. The corporate division specializes in three areas: team building, leadership and communication skills, and organizational behavior. Programs can be customized. The next Frog’s Eco-Adventure is scheduled for February 19-21, 1999, at Lake Morena in East County. Cost for previous Eco-Adventures has been about $525 per person. Participants must provide their own equipment.
For more information, call 755-0811 or e-mail trident3@ pacbell.net.
It is a pleasant fact that Cleveland National Forest is a beautiful place to hike. But before long, our first team member needs to have duct tape applied to blistered feet. That’s right, duct tape. It’s the miracle fixer-upper around the house—and it’s the moleskin of choice for adventure racers.
Eighteen miles and about 12 hours after first setting out, our team—not exactly bonded into a crack regiment—finally arrives at the kayak leg of the day’s activities. Bad news. Strong winds prevented all preceding teams from paddling to an island on the lake (the next checkpoint). That doesn’t, however, deter one female member of the lead team from swimming to the island.
Park rangers subsequently nix the kayaking. This means that instead of a 50-minute paddle across the lake and back to camp, we have to hike around it. Add another 9 miles of pedestrian travel.
During this stretch, I happen to be the designated team leader. We’ve been switching the title around, as decreed by Mitch. Now, with some of us eager for this unexpected hiking leg to end as soon as possible, we begin stepping up the pace. Laden with duct tape, others lag.
“Team leader,” Mitch announces all of a sudden, “your team is too spread out.” Up to now, I’ve been satisfied to simply observe the group dynamic. I’m the writer, here to report on the team’s bonding experience or lack thereof. I’m not here to be the story. Mitch has other thoughts.
“The distance between the person in the front and the person in the back is akin to a psychological bungee cord,” Mitch calmly declares. “The more you stretch it, the more tension there is.”
It’s clear I am being designated to relieve this tension. For his part, Mitch chooses to help ease the strain by discussing books he has read. He makes particular note of a book by Slavomir Rawicz called The Long Walk. It’s the account of a Polish World War II POW who escapes a Siberian gulag and travels 4,000 miles to freedom in British India. I think Mitch is trying to tell us to chill—that others have had it worse. We try telling jokes, to no avail. By the time our group shuffles back into base camp, our psychological bungee cord is both stretched and frayed.
Mitch informs the team we have half an hour to get our mountain bikes ready. At this point, sitting down would be nice. But sitting on a bicycle seat is the best we’re allowed.
Riding along a flat trail begins as a rolling respite. As he has done on several occasions, Mitch is discussing the “Portfolio of Pain.” He’s referring to the experiential side of one’s life—specifically, when situations of duress seem overwhelming. Give in to a situation, let it get the best of you, and it becomes a bad memory. Overcome the adversity, and the instance can proudly be added to one’s Portfolio of Pain.
Now the flat bike trail has become a gentle upward slope. The slope quickly ceases to be gentle. The clack-click-clacking of gears means everyone is shifting down. Soon, I’m in the lowest possible gear. My breathing becomes labored. It sounds like I’m either about to give birth or cough up a hairball the size of Ted Kennedy’s head.
I’d love to stop. But I can’t.
I don’t know why I refuse to stop, get off my bike and just lie down to wait for hawks to dine upon my oxygen-depleted carcass. I think the reasons are both internal and external. Part of the reason is Mitch. Earlier in the day, he’d taken to calling me Mister City Magazeeene Man! (Read the italics as Mitch’s imitation of a Deliverance hillbilly.)
“You sure are breathin’ hard, Mister City Magazeeene Man,” he’s saying. I manage to keep the bike pedals circling. The rest of my team is farther up the hill. My chest is burning now. I believe my esophagus has shrunk to the size of a straw. The road, winding as it is, doesn’t offer a glimpse of the top. It must be coming soon ... please ... I can’t fail ... I don’t want to be the weak link ... How embarrassing to write that ... There it is! Damn it, there’s the top.
The team is waiting, smiling. I drop the bike and sprawl in the dirt on the side of the road. My face feels flushed. My teeth have gone numb.
“How do you feel?” Mitch asks.
Like somebody with numb teeth and the oxygen supply of a sparrow, I think but can’t yet utter.
“I’m excited for you,” Mitch says. And he means it.
Somebody else mentions that it looks like I’ve got something to put in my Portfolio.
Much of the rest of the biking is downhill or on fairly flat surfaces. We go on some off-road trails, too, bouncing over rocks and through gullies. I excel here; others have some trouble. It occurs to me to stop and wait while teammates navigate the rocky terrain.
On the way back to camp, we descend what I now call Portfolio Hill. It’s dark, and the temperature has dropped. Flying down the path, a painful chill runs through my body.
Once again back at camp, we are fed and given a chance to sleep. My legs ache so bad I can’t drift off. Soon, it’s 2 a.m. Out here, that’s rise-and-try-to-shine time. There’s more orienteering and hiking to do. We depart for a new mountainside, on which we take turns rappelling down a rocky incline. Very cool. This last day’s activities also include a Tyrolean traverse (named for an area in the Swiss Alps, this entails getting from one cliff to another while clipped to a rope) and spelunking (cave exploration) that includes climbing up and down rocks and wading through a knee-deep underground stream.
The intricacies of the second day’s adventures could be described at greater length. But by now, deprived of sleep and weakened of muscle, the greater chore—and more compelling story—becomes maintaining sufficient mental acuity and interpersonal harmony.
Actually, this outing was not designed specifically as a team-building exercise. If so, our group would have failed horribly. I can only speak for myself, but unequivocally, I came face-to-face with what Mitch calls the “humility and the humanity” of adventure racing.
The humanity lies in helping and supporting teammates who are lagging. It entails picking up—either with physical aid or a mental boost—those who are more tired or less adept at a particular task. The humility comes from situations in which you, yourself, are the one who needs support from the rest of the team. You give, you get. The intended overriding lesson: Do whatever is best for the team.
But just before a Mount Vesuvius of conflict erupts within our group, the adventure ends. We are fed, break camp, shake hands, hug and depart.
It feels like I’ll fall asleep driving back from Lake Morena. I make it safely. Once home, I nearly do fall asleep in the bathtub. I limp out of the tub and finally pass out in bed. When I wake up, Game Two of the World Series is almost over. My toddler daughter comes into the bedroom and pronounces the word my wife has just taught her to sum up the Series for the Padres: “bummer.” I laugh. So does my daughter.
Days later, I’m still trying to stretch the soreness out of my legs. Each ache, however, is a folder tab on my new Portfolio. I decide that in life, one may gain inspiration from actions or words of family, friends, motivational speakers, great movies or books. But no emotional impact will last as long as one acquired by stripping away the veneer of civilization and finding out what lies at the core of your being.
The Frog’s Eco-Adventure was the most painful, demoralizing, exhausting and exasperating 44 hours I’ve ever spent. And even if there’s no party beforehand, I can’t wait to do it again.