posted on Nov. 26: Adventure racing team finishes 16th in China


[img_inline align=”right” src=””]”Skreemin' Fury” indeed.

With a speed worthy of their name, a fledgling Hamilton-based team of McMaster professors and graduate students has scorched a trail through the young but growing sport of adventure racing landing a coveted spot this fall on the starting line of one of the sport's top international races.

Three members of the team pitted themselves against some 30 entries from around the world in this year's Mild Seven Outdoor Quest, held earlier this month for the fourth time in China.

In adventure racing, teams of three or four people tackle a succession of sports – including running, mountain biking, paddling and orienteering — over outdoor courses ranging anywhere from 50 to 300 kilometres long and lasting from one to four days.

Based on its impressive track record – Skreemin' Fury won all five of the races it entered last year after it was formed in June 2000 – the team was selected early this year from among hundreds of would-be competitors. Says team member Mike Waddington, a professor in the School of Geology & Geography, “We were the only team invited from Canada.”

Theirs may also be the only team made up entirely of academics rather than professional athletes. Besides Waddington, the team includes Mark Tarnopolsky, a professor of medicine, and four graduate students: Doug Mahoney, John Markez, Natalie Perkins and Gianni Parise.

Tarnopolsky, Mahoney and Markez, along with Ken Sidney, a cross-country skiing champion and professor at Laurentian University, made up a foursome that finished exactly in the middle of the 32 teams that competed in the race.

“I broke my ribs on the first day of the race and we were in the top seven at the time,” says Tarnopolsky, about the team's showing. Although he was taped up every morning by doctors, Tarnopolsky and his team finished the race. “Not bad, given the fact that I [could not] take a deep breath. It was hard to run at 11,000 feet above sea level with shallow breaths. Overall it was a great experience.”

In an interview earlier this year, Tarnopolsky said a key challenge in the China race would be “sucking wind” – adventure racers' lingo for thinner air. The entire course takes place at elevations above 7,500 feet; the highest point was almost twice that elevation.

The team raced between eight to 12 hours each day. The group was aiming to finish in the top 10; they placed 16th. Tarnopolsky says the race is the most prestigious and competitive they been in.

It was held Nov. 1-4 in the town of Lijiang in southern China, near the headwaters of the Yangtze River.

Most adventure races include canoeing or kayaking, mountain biking, running and orienteering, with a variety of other challenges thrown in along the way.

In China, Skreemin' Fury members ran, cycled, paddled and roller-skied along various sections of the course, with some rappelling and rope climbing for good measure.

Like the daily stages that make up the Tour de France of cycling, teams competed over a different section of the course on each of the four days.

Waddington, who has trained as a backup racer for the China race, chalks up the team's early triumphs to its members' successful track record in orienteering. During the past 15 years, both he and Tarnopolsky have been repeat North American ski orienteering champions, including long tenure with the Golden Horseshoe Orienteering Club. “We're very good navigators. The orienteering aspect is a major skill to have in these sports.”

Unlike orienteering, which usually pits individuals on foot over a shorter course, he says, “anything goes” in adventure racing. A course might take teams through dense forests, over a mountaintop, even across glaciers.

Waddington says another factor in the team's favour is its location in a virtual adventure racer's training paradise. “This is probably the best university to be at to do this. We're on the edge of the outdoors with the Dundas Valley, the Niagara Escarpment, the Bruce Trail, Cootes Paradise for canoeing, biking trails, very strong orienteering.”

The team is planning to hold the first-ever local adventure race next spring. Expected to draw more than 50 teams from across Canada, the race would cover all of that local terrain and would perhaps range further afield using such facilities as the Hamilton-to-Brantford Rail Trail.

Although they're still working out details, Tarnopolsky figures such a race would draw national interest, benefiting both the City of Hamilton and the University. “We're hoping to base it at McMaster.”

Although Tarnopolsky's research in metabolism and neuromuscular conditions involves studying athletes, he draws the line at turning himself and his teammates into research guinea pigs during their races. “For me, this is an escape from work.”

Skreemin' Fury: (l-r) Doug Mahoney, Gianni Parise, Mark Tarnopolsky and Mike Waddington train on the trails in Dundas.

Photo by Simon Wilson