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When a trip is a real adventure; Endurance racing is the holiday of the future.

IT'S not everyone's idea of a holiday - in fact, it's most people's idea of torture. But adventure racing is one of the fastest- growing leisure pursuits of the last five years.

Extreme sports are very 20th century - the daring, adventurous sort have taken it a step further by pushing themselves to the very limit inendurance races that would kill most of us mere mortals.

The Eco Challenge is billed as "the world's most challenging race," and, as I discovered on a recent trip to Argentina, is probably better described as "hell on earth".

Even the pounds 25,000 prize for the winning team isn't much of an incentive, as most teams spend around pounds 10,000 to pounds 20,000 just taking part.

But the most amazing thing about adventure racing is that people - and most of them are ordinary people with very normal day jobs - actually do it for enjoyment.

Rather than laze around on a beach for two weeks, they choose to cross some of the world's worst terrain - and most even pay for the dubious pleasure.

The Eco Challenge, sponsored by the Discovery Channel, has been running for five years, in such exotic locations as Australia and Morocco, and now attracts 53 teams from 32 nations.

The Camel Trophy is another such endurance race, which takes place over threeweeks, 1600 miles and includes off-road driving, kayaking and mountain- biking.

Or there is the Raid-Gauloises, a French-run race which was launched in 1989, and the Corsican Raid Adventure, which seems to cover the worst parts of the beautiful island.

There is now even an Adventure Racing Association, with a growing membership of 1500, which helps to promote safety and new, solo multi- day competitions.

All these races have one thing in common - they aim to be the ultimate in testing competitors' senses, abilities and sheer guts, both physically and mentally.

In North America alone, there were more than 80 endurance competitions last year, and organisers predict that over the next decade such races will be ascommonplace asanyother sporting holiday.

The Eco Challenge is already seeking new sponsorship for its race in Borneo this year, as the Discovery Channel will no longer be involved.

"The Eco Challenge is the ultimate in thrill-seeking," says race founder and director Mark Burnett.

"Competitors spend months training for this, and while there is a huge element of competition, it's a challenge just to complete it."

This is not what the average family wants from its precious two weeks' holiday, but as the world becomes smaller in travelling terms, Spain, Greece and France are now more the norm than an exotic world away.

People have been going on adventure holidays with backpacks for decades now - the adventure race is simply the next step, if a pretty drastic one.

The latest Eco Challenge, in the Patagonian region of Argentina, was thetoughestyet,demandingthat competitorswereextremelycompetent, if not experts, in kayaking, horse- riding, mountaineering, white-water canoeing and abseiling.

Over some of the world's worst terrain,including3400mpeaks, bamboo forests and crevasse-riddled glaciers, it tested every ounce of human courage, stamina and determination.

The ethos behind the race is to look after the environment, so teams must take all their waste with them, or face a lifetime ban from the event.

The winning team, from New Zealand, had just nine hours sleep in the five days it took them to complete the course.

TheScottish teamcamea respectable 25th out of the 34 teams to complete the 300- mile course.

The race is 24-hours a day, non-stop, with eight hours of pitch darkness every night, and it took the Scottish team nine days to complete - which was way ahead of the 12-day deadline. Husband and wife Peter Collins and Liza Ireland, Tom Gibbs and Andy Dytch reckoned it was fun. Not only did they risk hypothermia and various other horrible illnesses, the foursome paid around pounds 20,000 just to take part.

"We tried to get sponsorship right up until the last minute," said team- leader Peter, "but we struggled even to get anyone to give us some of our gear. We had to pay all our own flights to Argentina, and most of our equipment. It has been an expensive trip - but worth every penny."

Peter, from Huntly, Aberdeenshire, is an adventure race company boss, wife Liza is an environmental educator, while Tom is an aerospace engineer and Andy the company manager.

They nominated themselves and were delighted when they were chosen to represent their country.

This was legendary explorer and travel writer Sir Ranulph Fiennes' third Eco Challenge - at the age of 55.

Even at 24 years older than his three team-mates from the British Hi-Tech team, Ran, as he likes to be called, didn't find fitness a problem. "I have done expeditions which have lasted six months," he says. "This one was tough, but very enjoyable.

"This is the way I make my living - I go on expeditions and write about it, so it's a way of life for me now."

Although all the teams have extensive sporting and outdoor experience, they are not how you would imagine super-fit people to be.

There are no bulging biceps or 20-stone musclebound hunks - these are just very fit, ordinary-looking people. So what's the kick?

"I train every day, just for life," says pizza restaurant owner Richard Pethigal, of Team Brazil. "I'm on the Brazilian rafting team, I do running in the mountains - usually two- and-a- half hours a day - I paddle half the week and I do Tai Chi every day, no matter what. This is just my thing."

The race began on one of the coldest mornings I have ever experienced. After camping out in temperatures of around minus 10 degrees, the teams had to jump into a Patagonian lake, complete with all their equipment and swim out to their kayaks.

The Argentinian climate being the way it is, two hours later the sun was blistering, and competitors were in danger of getting heat- stroke on the first leg, a 50-mile kayak race.

They then went straight onto horseback - which ended in a broken ankle for one competitor - and rode through the night across mountains.

Thick bamboo forests followed, which was one of the most dangerous parts - as was the highest peak of the course, a 12,000- feet snow-capped summit on the Andes.

Based in a cosy chalet in the ski-ing village of Bariloche, I was suddenly desperate for my log fire and Argentinian red wine. I'm sure this type of holiday appeals to many people, but I'm more the spectating type.

Director Mark Burnett sums it up: "We designed the course to allow a great expedition experience. This means removing unnecessary dangers, but not eliminating all risk."

I think I'll stick to the odd tame safari in South Africa.

DETAILS THE Eco Challenge will be screened on the Discovery Channel in June. For further information on the Eco Challenge, contact the Discovery Channel on Contact the Adventure Racing Association on for details of other races.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mail (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Jan 9, 2000
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