Chasing the clues to adventure
Races feature diversity and a brain teaser

Paul McHugh, Chronicle Outdoors Writer

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Jon Bonwick (left) and Karen Rehder were linked during th...

Competitors began littering the lawn with pricey sport toys as they arrived at Crissy Field in San Francisco to check in for the inaugural Golden Gate Adventure Race at 5:30 a.m. Sunday.

Jesse Iverson, 32 (with a three-person team, City Kayak), was among the athletes sorting their gear. As they moved about, shafts of light from their headlamps scissored through pre-dawn shadows.

"Adventure racing is a fabulous way to keep in shape," said Iverson, while he pushed his Stumpjumper mountain bike into a fenced transition area, where athletes planned to snack and change equipment between the three main phases of the race.

The Golden Gate race was a new addition to the Big Blue Adventure Race Series, now producing 10 events around Northern California. This one involved 6-8 miles of kayaking on the bay, 24 miles of mountain biking in the Marin Headlands and 5-8 miles of running through the Presidio.

"It's a fine way to combine all my favorite activities," Iverson said. "It's highly competitive, but a lot of fun, because this sport has great camaraderie."

Anyone worried about American health trends would be heartened by viewing this bunch. The 130 competitors ranged in age from the low-20s to the mid-50s. They arrived in all heights and shapes, but not a paunch or sag could be seen anywhere on them.

Four players constituted team No. 431, the Dirty Avocados. The Avocados are a loose-knit clan of a dozen Bay Area sport and fitness buffs who exercise and train together, then form teams to enter contests. The quartet they had assembled for the Golden Gate race was: Adam Armijo, 33, of San Francisco, an Internet consultant who migrated into this sport through mountain-bike racing; Adam Doti, 32, of San Rafael, a design consultant and mountaineer; Aja Cook, 26, of Vacaville, a high school teacher and mountain-bike racer; and Donato Polignone, 38, owner of a specialty chemical firm and a trail runner.

As morning sun washed across Crissy Field, Doti, lead navigator for the Avocados, bent over the competition maps just issued to him. These displayed "control points" where his team had to go to acquire signatures, code words or specified information to enter on a passport, in order to complete this course.

Clues about locations of these points had to be derived from course photos, map labels and bearing-and-distance data. The navigational element is adventure racing's brain-teaser, demanding attention to detail and a creative strategy for making progress.

"ARNavsupplies, number 417, that's our team to beat," Doti said. "But we probably won't do that, not unless they make some huge mistake. Still, it's always possible."

Polignone chugged down a Red Bull energy drink as he squatted down by Doti. "I say, we hammer to the death on our bikes up to Point 14. Total redline! Take any rest on the downhill," Polignone said. Then he leapt up. "Oh my god, I'm getting old, my knees are locking!" He shook out his muscular legs as he jigged about the staging area. Other than that, the man presented the very image of pre-race tranquility.

This race had a literal launch, a Le Mans-style start. Competitors ran watercraft down to the beach at 7:40 a.m. Soon a rainbow of colorful kayaks spread out under the leaden high fog, everything from tubby open-cockpit boats to sleek, carbon-fiber hulls. Differences in speed and varying tactics for combatting a three-knot ebb tide scattered paddlers from Pier 39 to Alcatraz as they sought to reach a buoy on the island's far side. Eighty minutes later, front-runners made landfall back at Crissy Field through light surf.

ARNav and the Avocados waded ashore in a dead heat. They and other early arrivals initiated a mad frenzy in the transition zone. Then, mounted upon their bikes, teams pedaled over that famous bridge to the hills of Marin.

Adventure racing doesn't provide much spectator opportunity, but watchers can glean details of backcountry happenings from vivid team chatter amid the brief and frantic transitions between sports.

At 12:41 p.m., with bodies and bikes spattered by mud, ARNav whirred back to Crissy Field, followed in 30 minutes by a coed pair, Team Luna. The hapless Avocados didn't arrive until 89 minutes after their arch rivals. The huge mistake made had been theirs, not ARNav's. After accidentally bypassing Control Point 12, they had been forced to charge back up a 1,000-foot hill to regain it and record its key data.

Team ARNav still had some its own confusing drama during the final running leg in the Presidio. A crucial, red-and-white control-point flag had been pulled down by some park visitor and flung in the trash. It took a half-hour for the team to discover it in a garbage can, then re-hang it.

So, the first unit actually to cross the finish line was Team Luna: Karen Rehder, 52, a nurse-practitioner, and Jon Bonwick, 37, a professional climber and rigger. Rehder is only 5 feet tall, Bonwick stands several inches above 6 feet. They presented a remarkable show, with Rehder towed on a bungee cord so she could keep up with Bonwick's long-legged stride. Tow lines are commonly used to keep teams together; Team Luna looked like the ne plus ultra of the practice.

ARNav came in nine minutes after Luna. However, after its problems at the control point were verified, ARNav was declared the overall winner.

On Monday, the morning after the day they almost had pounded themselves into guacamole, the Dirty Avocados waxed philosophical. They took comfort in the fact that a few other teams had made the very same navigation mistake. And the Avocados had recaptured some pride by winning back many lost minutes with a determined charge at the running leg. They ended up taking second place in the four-person, coed team division.

"Sure, we had our error. Still, this was the strongest, fastest race we've done," Doti said. "It's a good sign for our future."

All the available signs suggest adventure races of 24-hour duration or shorter will continue to proliferate, and attract increasing interest from multi-sport aficionados -- especially those looking for the next dimension, something beyond triathlons.

Galen Pewtherer posted a new Web site in May with partner Jen Klafin, called, "bay area adventure racing babes and dudes" (, to nurture the local scene. "The more people we can pull into this style of racing," Pewtherer asserts, "the less crazy we'll all look."

Adventure racing

Golden Gate results: 1st place, four-person coed, Team; 1st place, two-person coed, Team Luna; 1st place, two-person male, Team Sweden; 1st place, three-person male, Team Crissy Fields Is My Porn Name; 1st place, three-person coed, Team City Kayak; 1st place, solo, Racing With Giants.

Racing resources: networking, or; training, or (415) 409-5900; events,, and

E-mail Paul McHugh at

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