Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Thrill-seekers get down and dirty in the latest spin on adventure racing

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Adrenalin surged through John Ford as he slowly slid across a rope and glanced down at the 300-foot canyon below.

The Winnipeg adventure racer, who was competing in the British Columbia wilds at the time, admits many of his friends and colleagues don't understand the thrill he gets from his sport of choice.

"Why would somebody want to do this? What is the appeal? It's just fun. It's something your mother told you not to do when you were younger," says Ford, 44, a full-time postal carrier who moonlights as co-owner of Swamp Donkey Adventure Racing.

"But now you don't have to listen to your mother. You can go out and get muddy."

Mud is what thrill-seekers will get during the Dirty Donkey Mud Run, an event Ford and his business partner, Rick Shone, will take to Springhill Winter Park on Aug. 18. Participants have the option to race solo or in teams.

Though the five-kilometre run is not as long as a traditional adventure race, it will be scattered with sweat-inducing obstacles and a muddy course -- complete with pits of the sloppy stuff, brought in especially for the event.

Racers, says Ford, will find themselves crawling under logs, slithering through mud and climbing walls.

He says local architectural firm, Smith Carter, designed three of the course's obstacles, including the Monkey Ramp, a plank that starts out flat but eventually curves, throwing racers off balance. "It's to the point where you'd have to hold on to a rope, otherwise you slide down into mud pits."

"Something like this has never been done here before," says Ford, who recently raced a mud run in Nebraska that saw 18,000 participants over two days.

"It was pretty amazing to see that many people crawling through the mud and running around and jumping over obstacles. It was an incredible time."

The River Heights resident says he placed 12th in his age category and ranked about 230 overall.

Adventure racing has taken off, thanks to television shows such as Survivor, The Amazing Race and Eco-Challenge, a program that broadcasts various adventure races involving mountain biking, canoeing, scaling cliffs and even dodging flames.

Mud runs have also splashed onto the scene as a sort of offshoot of the adventure racing industry -- favoured by race-junkies who don't mind ending up neck-deep in muck.

Adventure racing -- which can last from 40 minutes to several days -- is huge globally. The Wall Street Journal reports one race operator, Tough Mudder, plans to oversee 35 events around the world this year and projects 500,000 participants, up from 140,000 last year.

The numbers aren't as high in this country. Ford's Swamp Donkey drew 300 competitors in 2011. He expects this year's race to be another sellout.

The Ontario-born adventurer, who lived in Thompson as a child, says his love for adventure started at about age seven when he would wander off to explore the northern Manitoba town.

Adventure racing caught his attention a decade ago when he watched his first episode of Eco-Challenge. "I thought this is exactly what I want to be doing," says the ultra-fit and muscular father of two, who was drawn to the teamwork and multi-disciplinary aspects of the extreme sports.

He's since competed in approximately 30 adventure races and trains for them almost constantly.

Six years ago, he co-founded Swamp Donkey Adventure racing, which has hosted 15 competitions in the province so far. They include Pain in the Assiniboine, a 32-kilometre cycling journey over a series of trails from the Forks to Headingley; and the Ice Donkey, which includes ice-cycling over the frozen river trail.

His company's signature event? The Swamp Donkey, a six- to nine-hour race on 50 to 70 kilometres of unchartered territory deep in the Falcon Lake bush.

Participants use maps, compasses and GPS devices to race through the Whiteshell, the home of black bears, eagles and moose. Meanwhile, staff at various checkpoints ensures racers are accounted for.

Ford says he and his team change the course each year, racing it themselves several times before they get it right.

How does he keep himself in shape for the rigours of adventure racing?

With daily exercise, starting with the 12 kilometres he treks every shift as a postal carrier. In addition, he works out three or four days a week. But he swears you don't have to be an athlete to race next month's Mud Run -- or even longer adventures such as the Swamp Donkey, happening Sept. 22.

"You'd be surprised the people who have embraced this sport and this event over the years," says Ford. "We have everything from your seasoned sort of adventure racer that has been doing this for 10, 12, 15 years to people who have never done this before and this is their next challenge."

Cory Pratt is one of those people.

Three years ago, the St. James resident was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, a disease most often related to inactivity and an unhealthy diet.

"What I told (the doctor) was, 'Good. Now I have to look after myself.' It was just kind of a light switch sort of thing," says Pratt, who lost 80 pounds within the year when he took up running.

A few months later, a friend talked him into racing the Ice Donkey, his first-ever adventure run.

He admits it wasn't easy.

"There was a point there, from the skiing to the snowshoeing, where basically every muscle in my back of my leg was knotted up," he says.

Pratt also completed last year's Swamp Donkey race and quickly learned some valuable lessons.

"You're right away thrown into a team event and you've got to have a whole different mind set," says the farm equipment company supervisor. "You're as strong as the weakest person type of thing. You all have to work together to compensate."

Pratt says seeing some of his race mates bottom out has taught him to stay hydrated during events and to make sure his electrolyte balance is up. Entrants have to be prepared for anything. In 2004, a 38-year-old Australian adventure racer died after being struck in the head by a boulder during the Subaru Primal Quest in Washington.

Pratt isn't worried.

"I like to always push myself. I almost want to find my limits and try and find that point where I can't do something," he says. "I've had a lot of joy in not being able to find that so far."

To register for the Dirty Donkey Mud Run or the Swamp Donkey Adventure Race, log onto


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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 2, 2012 D1

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