The great adventure race is on
Outdoor adventure enthusiasts are going from strength to strength, but Ireland is still hostile territory, writes Haydn Shaughnessy
In the grey mist that regularly descends during the summer on the mountains of Scotland, the world's leading endurance racers, including three teams from Ireland, will compete later this month in the Wilderness Adventure Racing Championship (Arc), the best of British endurance racing and a qualifying leg for the adventure racing world championship.
If your cup of tea is racing non-stop for five days, or you prefer thinking about the poor souls who believe it to be the ultimate sport rather than chasing after them, you can follow the race on the Internet at www.sleepmonsters.com.
For the newly formed Irish teams, made up of highly accomplished athletes such as the two-time Olympian and former rowing world champion Gearóid Towey, it is a baptism of sorts, the first time he and his colleagues have, together, committed to five days of continuous motion and sleepless teamwork.
The Wilderness Arc represents also the initiation of the Irish Adventure Racing (AR) Association and AR Squad.
The event begins in Fort William in the Scottish Highlands and the mixed teams of two men and two women who line up for the starting gun next Monday will spend the following five days and four nights traversing hundreds of kilometres of the Scottish landscape, running, biking, climbing, and kayaking over hill passes, forest roads, rock and loch.
In the foreseeable future, however, Scotland is the nearest that adventure racing will come to these shores. For all its open space, Irish race organisers can't negotiate enough access to the land to run a five-day event. Even one-day races take place under extreme pressure from landowners, including the State, complains Irish adventure race organiser, Greg Clarke.
"People come to Ireland assuming they have the same rights as in the UK and are surprised to find themselves confronted with hostility," says Clarke.
Adventure racing presents unique challenges to participants. Not only are they pushed to their limits physically, they must also work as a team, sharing their knowledge of the different race disciplines, each taking a lead when appropriate, orienteering across wild countryside, often in pitch darkness, as sleep deprivation saps their bodies and minds.
"Sleeping loses you time," explains Clarke. "So you're inclined to do without it."
Though it may seem far removed from everyday sporting experience, the individual disciplines are increasing in popularity in Ireland. Outsider magazine, published and edited by biking specialist Damien Hackett, is read by approximately 20,000 hardcore adventure enthusiasts in Ireland, but Hackett estimates there's a market of some 400,000 Irish residents seeking outdoor sports. The hunger for a more challenging life is by no means an Irish-only phenomenon, nor is it confined to people who live in the countryside.
The Economist's Intelligent Life magazine recently reported that in the US there was an 80 per cent increase in indoor wall climbing in the five years to 2003. Professional services companies are beginning to install them in office blocks.
At the Mardyke Centre in Cork, instructors spend the bulk of their Saturday shift helping children from age six and upwards master the indoor wall climb.
Most are attending as a birthday treat. And, along the coast in Garretstown, Co Cork, H2O, Ireland's first all-water adventure company which recently morphed into an adventure travel specialist, is thriving on the new demand for surf, kayak and mountain leisure.
"It's definitely on the up," says Alayne Hynes, who runs H2O with her partner John. "It's become extremely popular, though most people come to us after trying it on holiday abroad. They come back and realise this is something they can do here."
"We get calls by the hour for information on surfing," says Alayne. "But adventure racing is also up there. We're regularly taking calls now for information on adventures in the Alps or from people who want training in adventure racing."
Adventure racing and adventure activities are not only, or not even, a young person's sport. Greg Clarke, who organises a series of one-day endurance events around the country, is a 44-year-old multi-event specialist with a running partner aged 50. Clarke argues that it takes many years to build up the kind of physique that will keep on the go for five days. Not to mention the mental toughness.
"Age brings endurance," says Greg, pointing out too that there are 60-year-olds still competing in mountain races. "And competitors need to build up the experience in kayaking, climbing, biking, as well as have the resources to buy the equipment, and take the time to train."
The popularity of adventure activities challenges the idea that we've turned into a nation of couch potatoes. Prestigious events such as the Wilderness Arc, which could further stimulate interest in adventure sports, are unlikely to be staged here, though. As Damien Hackett explains, it's barely legal to ride a mountain bike anywhere in the Irish rural landscape. A five-day, long-distance, multi-discipline event would cause too many land access problems. Race organisers are currently not even contemplating it. Ireland, meanwhile, loses out on the prestige of hosting international events and the potential health dividend from championing outdoor lifestyles.
Hackett points to Coed Y Brenin in the Snowdonia National Park in Wales as another model for how land access should be organised.
"They've built biking trails, and they've graded trails for different standards of bikers, and the bed and breakfasts, cafes, pubs are all making hay." Coed Y Brenin offers bike riders more than 70 kilometres of dedicated trails and attracts more than 120,000 users a year.
The reason Wales and Scotland are able to cash in on the growing demand for outdoor lifestyles is partly a tradition of open land access common to both but also, claims Michael Carroll of pressure group Keep Ireland Open, they realise the financial implications.
An event like the Wilderness Arc showcases the Scottish landscape and that's why the main sponsors are the Scottish Executive, The Highland Council, Scottish Enterprise and Visit Scotland, all bodies responsible for the Scottish economy and tourism.
"Allowing access to the countryside creates prosperity for the community as a whole and the landowners are going to benefit from that," Carroll argues.
Hackett, though, is sympathetic to landowners who face liability issues. "If I owned land I'd be very concerned about liability. If you allow access you have to maintain the land in a condition that people will be safe."
For event racing though, Greg Clarke points out that all competitors have their own insurance and large-scale endurance events are symbols of a new approach to health and fitness.
As rural areas face a decline in the share of tourism in Ireland, bringing benefits to rural tourism by championing a healthy way of life looks like a safe each-way bet.