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I sit in the middle of a wide, rocky riverbed, a maze of knee- to thigh-deep channels, 3 to 8 meters wide snake around me. This is the only place from which I can make radio contact with the four checkpoints I coordinate. I am here to serve as traffic control: teams pass in both directions and are restricted from crossing the river where it narrows to a single, swift and dangerous channel below me. In setting up this section of the course, I am haunted by my experience the summer before when, while working as a National Park Ranger, a small woman drowned trying to cross such a channel. I have become extremely cautious about fast water.

Indeed, only a month or so earlier I would have been swept away by the raging torrent resulting from the annual snowmelt, which tosses around boulders and rocks larger than my body. The northern side of the river bed records this history with a 120-meter high bluff of crumbling loam and rock. Massive Douglas firs, scrubby pines and tenacious slide elder are scattered down the near vertical slope. In the big rain forecast for a day or two from now, these trees will avalanche, crossing their branches to form fatal sieves in the river bed. For a day or so, the water will rise precipitously, making crossing even here a potentially disastrous choice.

At midday I look up and notice a male/female pair climbing the bluff; I scouted this area and I know that there is an overhang at the top, making ascent impossible and treacherous. Or at least treacherous. I thought it was obvious that the bluff was “off limits,” but to my surprise, one team has already scaled it using the trees that tenuously cling to the slope.

There are two kinds of racers—those who see the safe but longer route, and chose safety and certainty, and those who see the dangerous but potentially time-saving choice and “go for it.” Those who take the dangerous route will say they are looking for the strategic edge. I wonder if it is part of the culling of our species.

Discussion is underway 50 meters above me. The woman clearly does not want to go on, but the man seems to convince her, climbing behind her as if corralling a child. They, or maybe only he, is intent on going up, but I know they will not make it.

I call to the two checkpoints nearest me, requesting each to divert one of their medics to my location. Best not to discuss the details over an open radio line with media and god knows who else listening. One checkpoint acknowledges—I know it will take her 30 minutes to reach me. The nearer, badly sited location—racers are both dropping off and picking up bikes there—reports that they are swamped. It isn’t easy to pull someone away, as the record of racers through a checkpoint is our only means of tracking the location of the more than 500 racers, our only way to know the last definite location of racers who become overdue. I glance up at the climbers, who are now kicking rocks onto the heads of racers below them. “Checkpoint 8: please work something out. I have racers attempting the bluff.” There is a long pause. They all passed under the bluff when we hiked in at dawn, and I imagine him visualizing my situation. “8 here, will do.”

My task now is to reroute the racers who are traveling below the climbing pair. No one is wearing helmets because we didn’t require it, not guessing that anyone would try to scale the bluff. Several teams stop and look up.

“Wow, we aren’t supposed to go up that way are we?” According to the rules, course officials are not allowed to give directions to teams. I choose safety over rules, and say emphatically, “No!” I divert them back across the river and away from the falling rocks.

Time slows. Eventually the pair starts to descend. “It’s coming,” I think, knowing that because of the upright configuration of the human body, climbing down is far more difficult than climbing up.

More teams stop to watch. “Are they going to be okay? Do you want us to help?” I urge them to continue, telling them that the situation is under control, but secretly happy that there will be plenty of hands available if they are needed. These teams with cross paths with Medic 10 and, if I need to, I can radio to her to bring them back. This is the worst possible location for an accident: if the worst (or second worst) happens, we must chose between two unhappy scenarios: rigging for a high angle rescue to take them up the stable end of the bluff, then hiking the 20-kilo (plus person) litter another three kilometers to a logging road, or going out over 12 long, uneven kilometers over a single-track, cross country mountain-bike trail. In either case, we’ll be out past dark, with 25 or so rescuers. And, we will have at least one further injury—statistics say that 1 in 25 rescuers is herself injured and requires evacuation.

Space shrinks. The female racer slips and grabs a medium sized boulder, which lets loose. Rock and person plummet down the nearly vertical slope toward me. My vision splits into two modes, one which watches the woman falling in slow motion, noting where she hits and bounces in order to predict the nature and extent of her injuries. Some other form of vision sees the whole thing in fast forward: the woman and the rocks raining down on me like some nightmarish storm. Somehow my mind transforms this information into the command to jump sideways, and I dodge the largest rocks. Her companion watches in horror until she comes to rest at the apex of a clump of trees that have somehow—and barely—survived the last avalanching of the soft slope. I can no longer actually see her, and she will be difficult to reach, but this is much better than fishing her out of the river.

I want my medics here now. What to say over the heavily monitored radio? I steady my voice and proclaim that “my climber has come down the fast way. What are your locations?” “This is Medic 8, I can see you across the river.”

I ask him to proceed, informing him that I am going up for the fallen climber. Among the things I don’t have today is a radio chest harness. In order to climb up to the impact point, I have to put down my radio. I do not like to be separated from my radio. Even with my medic in view, I feel isolated when I put my radio down and wade across the river. A small panic passes through me: what if I fall, too? Who will radio on my behalf?

I don’t really want to do this. It is dangerous, I have no ropes, and the male racer has resumed his descent and is kicking rocks onto me. I am finally able to signal him. . . with big gestures I ask if he can he talk to her. Yes, yes he nods. I wave my arms and look stern, “don’t move.” Another nod. Pointing to my feet and waving him away, I make him understand that he is avalanching me and must traverse the bluff away from me so that he and the unstable bluff do not engulf me in his cascade of bad decisions.

Margin of safety, or when the game goes bad

From 2002 to 2005 I was involved in a range of capacities as a safety volunteer or medic at six adventure races, multi-sport competitions that experienced a boom in participation and publicity from the late 1990s through that time period, as a set of independently owned races came and went and then stabilized into a loose competition circuit, after which participation leveled off. I recorded my experiences in field notes, supported by funding from my institution.1 My original research plan called for interviews with racers and observation of them while they were racing. However, a range of methodological problems arose, and I settled for a more philosophical consideration of the ways race course volunteers—and by extension, social classes of workers (medics, police, fire personnel in the domestic sphere, and the military internationally)—function as part of the margin of safety in the race (or in “the good life”), as a perimeter between the “race” and the actuality of what the bodies of the racers are undergoing.

The most obvious obstacle I faced with my original conception of the project was that while I am a good athlete, I did not want to actually compete in an adventure race. I considered this long and hard, and while many friends in the adventure racing (or “AR”) world encouraged me, I finally decided that I actually perceived some elements of this kind of racing as “too dangerous.” (I’m not a mountain biker, and the rates and kinds of injuries in this discipline are not ones I wish to entertain for the sake of research.) As a race volunteer, on the other hand, I could be “fixed in place”: standing (or sometimes asleep in my glow-stick-lit tent) with clipboard and radio, I would be the “checkpoint” racers had to find. My body marked a special location in the space of the race course, and I could record their arrivals and departures as particular moments in the “duration” of the race. Although this eventually became a focus of my interests, for a long time I thought my fieldwork might be for naught since I had no means of seeing racers “in action,” as we appear to see them when we watch programs like “Eco Challenge,” which followed such events for several years. My racers were either fleeting (pausing only long enough to sign in and out) or at rest (sleeping or eating or discussing the next leg of their race). Neither of these poses are telegenic or, in an obvious way, the stuff of a study on risk and racing.

My initial solution was to get a sense of their perspective from interviews. But I had always agreed with Bourdieu (1978) that “native stories” are at best a discourse on practice (and sometimes not even that!) and would be insufficient to the task of coming to some understanding of what is going on in these races. This problem seemed especially grave, given that what I was trying to understand was an “extreme” “experience,” whose expression in interviews would be rife with clichés and likely grotesquely overdetermined by racers’ consumption of media like the same Eco-Challenge and by the hokey self-presentation of “X-treme Sport” competition discourse (“Like, it was awesome, man!” “Stylin’ !”). I also had difficulty recruiting interview subjects—one novice racer who had agreed to be interviewed after her first race fell at the event and severely fractured her arm; an elite pro crossing over from a related sport also agreed to be interviewed after her first race, but when one of her teammates disqualified (“dq-ed”) the team late in the race due to an injury, she was no longer interested in talking. I came to realize that my potential subjects wanted to tell me a heroic story, but their actuality did not lend itself to a retelling—the highs, lows, and inevitable struggle to complete are largely not matters people want to formulate into something coherent.

My other problem was that I was usually on the race course as part of the medical staff. All races have rules that in some way penalize or disqualify racers if they must access medical care. And medic work on races itself is complicated, since conventional protocols aren’t designed to account for the extreme body techne, like planned sleep deprivation and management (or mismanagement) of hydration and nutrition. I realized that my maximum exposure to racers would be at the point of their potential withdrawal from the race; indeed, under the rules of many races, even seeking medical advice from me would be grounds for disqualification. As I suggest in the narrative above, far from being a disinvested observer, the role of a volunteer on the course is to become quite actively involved at precisely the moment when the race has “gone bad.” So the moment of greatest intensity for me, an ethnographer, would come at the moment when I ought to be busy doing real work (rescue as opposed to research).

The “toughest races in the world”

Adventure racing is a world apart from other sports. Yet in a very interesting way, it bridges a set of cultural desires for danger and exotic adventure with North American competitiveness. The activity (I do not believe it was conceptualized as a “sport” in its inaugural years) allows athletes and adventurers to test their mental and physical skills in “raids”—multiday, team activities that require competitors to climb, hike, bike, swim, raft, kayak, orienteer, ride horses, and so on—in order to cross a finish line hundreds of kilometers away. Until the periodic televisualization of “Eco Challenge,” only the occasional newspaper article, usually designed to enhance the macho image of the race sponsor, informed those outside the small cult of “raids” that such events existed.

In the first raids of the 1980s, organized by French entrepreneurs, the explicit concept was to recreate the sense of conquest of the colonial French period (Dugard 1998). Less explicitly, the inspiration for the races was probably early twentieth century automobile “raids” across remote and exoticized areas that lacked formal roads. In those races, the automobile (a rather “soft” conveyance when compared to horse or camel travel) was legitimated as a manly form of traversing what little terra nullius remained—at least, unconquered by Europeans, now able to travel further into bush areas once safe from any but the heartiest explorers. Echoing this earlier masculinization of the car, in the 1990s manufacturers with “off road” lines of vehicles—the Land Rovers and Subarus, rather than the “sissy” overbuilt Caddy and Lincoln mega-SUVs—became adventure racer sponsors, despite the paradox of using the ultimate yuppie consumer vehicle to promote one of the most grueling non-motorized sports. With no hint of irony, and a double dip of product endorsement, 2002 Eco Challenge racers were treated to a ride to a next race leg in corporate sponsor Ford’s much maligned Explorer.

For those who somehow missed the several highly popular broadcasts of Eco Challenge (you could have confused it with “Survivor,” also produced by Mark Burnett), raids, also called expedition or adventure races, set a course across apparently untraveled wilderness, which in reality tracks between developed areas. In smaller races (6 to 36 hours), competitors may only be a 5 or 10 kilometers from a road for the bulk of their race, while in the longer elite races (usually a week, but up to a month), the course may be 20 or 30 kilometers from the nearest path to civilization. The courses are not announced until the night before the race begins (or an hour or so before shorter, day-long races), but increasingly, elite racers send scouts to the general area where the race is to be held to guess where the course may be laid. Each of the major course directors has a particular style of course design, so it is possible for the most elite racers to somewhat predict the course layout. In turn, these course directors, under pressure to create more interesting, challenging, and unpredictable courses, try to throw curves without creating routes that are too dangerous or simply beyond the reach of the racers.

Raids are a “multidiscipline” sport; that is, like triathlon races, competitors must consecutively engage in different sport activities. Unlike triathlons, the courses for which are standard in length, on-road, and, most importantly, clearly marked, adventure race courses are completely non-standardized and require competitors to use their navigational skills to find crucial check points and “transition areas,” which are special and larger check points where teams are met by their support crew, who have food and the items necessary for the next discipline (e.g., a racer or team switches from a trail run to the mountain bike leg, dropping of their back pack and picking up their bike and helmet). Entry-level races offer topographical maps with the checkpoints marked as located in real space. Elite races simply give racers LOG/LAT or UTM map coordinates (but no GPS), which they must plot for themselves. In Eco Challenge Fiji, Mark Burnett, famous for adding “local flavor” to his increasingly exotic races, gave racers only a hand-drawn mock “native” impressionistic map of the location of the initial checkpoints.

Course design is, of course, a major issue in the production and marketing of adventure races. Courses must be challenging but safe—more or less. Competitors, who suffer increasing dehydration, hypo- or hyperthermia (or both), and exhaustion, get into trouble in one of two ways: they fall off something, usually their bike, or they get lost. Designers of entry level races thus try to minimize the difficulty of biking and climbing sections, and look for ways to box competitors into a relatively small area, preventing them from going very quickly, very far off course. The hazards on novice courses are generally fairly obvious to anyone with even modest map reading skills. (Or so we thought! We boxed our racers in only to have people heading up the bluff: no one got lost, but we misestimated homo machismo’s instinct to climb.) In elite races, designers intentionally set courses through locally specific hazards that may be obvious only to those who have done their homework about the general terrain.

As a multi-discipline competition, the adventure race permits a wide range of bodies to be competitive. Indeed, part of the strategy of an adventure race team is to select experts from the required disciplines and with complimentary physical and mental characteristics. Recent winning elite teams, for example, have included international level kayakers, climbers, and mountain bikers, with additional skills in navigation, logistics, and pure physical power. Other teams rely on absolute domination in a single discipline—for example, a team of elite climbers who do best during water and biking segments. In addition, teams of military or fire personnel transform their sheer fitness and experience in high stress “real life” professions into competitive excellence.

Until recently, the Iron Man triathlon was the race format deemed the “ultimate test” of human fitness and will. However, the proliferation of “mini-triathlons” in the 1990s put a truncated version of the sport within reach for ordinary competitors, diluting the meaning of “competing in a triathlon.”2 Considered technically more demanding than triathlon, adventure races are viewed by adherents as the new “ultimate test” of the human body. Several racers have commented to me that they used to compete in triathlon, but, as one racer put it, “that’s only a day at the most, even if you do an ‘ultra.’ This is several days.” In addition, unlike the triathlon and similar endurance races, adventure racing also demands team work and continuous logistical planning. This status of the adventure race in the late 1990s was achieved in part through Eco Challenge’s position among the initial “reality TV” offerings. Volunteers and racers I talked to are as likely as not to have discovered adventure racing on television. While racers generally agree that “it’s not like they show on TV,” they nevertheless dreamed of participating in Eco-Challenge while it aired. Though many disdained producer Mark Burnett’s mode of race coverage (“he makes it look like people fight all the time, but I guess that’s what sells”), they still followed the once-annual series, believing that they could read through the production to the “real” race underneath. The effect of race coverage on races has been a topic among racers, who believe that Eco Challenge—from team selection to course design—emphasized the televisual possibilities the race can afford. In response, New Zealand’s Southern Traverse, now bills itself as “the racers’ race,” and Frontier Adventure Racing of Canada describes its “Raid the North” races as “more about conquering the course than winning a race.” As Kay and Laberge (2002) note, this double tension—between speed and survival, the “reality” of the race and the spectacle that the race may afford—defines adventure racing. After all, the only really-real thing about an adventure race is that hard as you try to plan, you never know who will get lost or injured. Indeed, as the death and permanent disability suffered by racers in last few years has shown, no one has yet defined the line beyond which there is too much challenge.

Urban Interlude

In the spring of 2003, I left one world—a British Columbia I was just beginning to “belong” in—for another: a New York City I had once known quite well. Canada had opted out of the invasion of Iraq, leading to a frenzy of accusations about poor neighborliness and lacking commitment to global safety. Crossing the border became more difficult, with lineups so long that casual day trips became unfeasible (or worrisome—as only a quasi-legal resident, there was always the possibility of being refused reentry into Canada now that a day trip to Seattle no longer signaled proximity, but instead a potentially suspicious activity). The American side dramatically increased scrutiny of Canadians; especially those with a hint of brown in their skin tone or anything other than an “English” name. When I crossed from my home in Vancouver to visit Washington State, American officials cheerfully greeted me with a “Welcome home,” apparently unable to remember that border towns, especially between countries so culturally and historically conjoined as the U.S. and Canada, blur nationality and residency. These small moments, of which I’d never before been aware, seemed emblematic of a larger American arrogance. There was the unrelenting demand by American officials for Canada to stop being childish and join the transparently pure “war on terrorism,” manifest at that moment in the invasion of Iraq. Still in the forefront of the Canadian psyche were the NAFTA- and WTO-level softwood lumber disputes, a situation that threatened to crush British Columbia’s principle legal export. And, of course, British Columbia’s major crop—marijuana—was ongoingly in jeopardy from the never-ending American “war on drugs,” complicated, at that moment, by decisions at the Canadian Supreme Court that had legalized (or at least decriminalized) marijuana. Paul Celluci, then-U.S. ambassador to Canada, went so far as to chastise Canadians for moving in a different direction, as if somehow Canadian law had to be subordinated to that of its American cousin. As a nearly-Canadian for the first time in my life, the distillation of issues I felt at the border caused me to understand, at the physical level, the meaning of sovereignty. (To cap off my innocently planned trip to New York, border crossing worries were redoubled by the SARS scare, then in full swing. Chilly Toronto was transformed into a strange kind tropical breeding ground, the translocation of teeming Hong Kong into pristine North America. Close the borders! Pull on masks! Run from Chinese and Canadians!)

I arrived in New York on a virtually empty Hong Kong-Vancouver-New York- London Cathy Pacific “shuttle,” having undergone a strange array of electronic, aerosolized particle, and verbal screenings. I had passed through safety zones populated by X-ray machines, sniffing dogs and their swab, and spectral scan surrogates, men and women with big guns and scary uniforms. I was no longer accustomed to the level of quotidian violence (people glaring and swearing, police dragging people away) and displays of security that characterize Bush’s America (lots of police carrying guns, metal detectors and official-looking McWorkers questioning your presence). Though still possessed of (or by) an American passport, I had become one of the 30 million Canadians terrified to arrive in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

The New York I found was not a good place to experience this confounded sense of whether I was “at risk” or “a risk.” The city had recovered from the complex personal and representational crisis of the attack on the World Trade Center. Security in Times Square, where I stayed, had shifted from isolating and removing homeless people and prostitutes to cordoning off buildings from terrorists. There was a blur of inexplicable quasi-military activity: barriers erected for no apparent reason, then gone with no more explanation; trucks disgorging armed and uniformed people who ran into buildings; sirens everywhere; pedestrians steeled for unpleasant encounters. On my first morning I attempted a breakfast time mission to Starbucks but was stopped by heavily armed guards setting up a perimeter around the Empire State Building next door. I dared not ask what was going on for fear of being implicated in the apparent attack on the building. Starbucks was eventually allowed to open, with a narrow yellow-taped corridor defining a single permissible entrance. Only hours and much speculation later did it become clear that the cause of the police action was not a terrorist threat, but dangerously loose ice that might come down in giant, icy blocks, crushing hapless pedestrians. Nature threatened New York City!

Maybe it was the jet lag, but I felt a strange synergy between what I experienced negotiating this succession of safety perimeters and the adventure-race-related issues I was struggling to frame in the conference paper I had traveled there to deliver. At the time I could not make legible the relationship between national and city safety zoning and the object of my study, between the “real world” and “play space” techniques and technologies used to make dangerous things safe and safe things seem pleasantly dangerous, a relationship made more evident during times when the margin of safety fails and real harm comes to actual bodies. I came to see that the study of a minor sport that is entirely about danger was an analytically safe space in which to work out questions of how we come to feel safe, how we stoke ourselves with “the appearance of danger” in order to constitute the “margin of safety” that allows us to live a life in which we can make invisible the actual dangers of everyday and national life.

The vicissitudes of conference planning resulted in a slightly strange placement of my paper (though I think not so terribly misplaced, as adventure racing has more in common with militarism than anyone cares to admit) with several papers on representation and technology in the US invasion of Iraq. There were lots of good questions posed to panelists, but none really had to do with my paper (how would you find a question to link something as frivolous as adventuring racing with something as weighty a military invasion?) Eventually, somehow, a question came my way (I don’t remember the sequence of events—I think perhaps Lisa Cartwright confessed to interpolating herself into Eco Challenge while working out on her Stairmaster; and then Patricia Clough asked for the “ending” to the story. (The racer took a nasty fall, but was fine, though she declined to finish the race, leaving her husband to go on by himself.) To the horror of many of those attending, I said something like, “In the moment, I wanted her to fall.” How terrible! Why wouldn’t I want her to come down safely—or better yet, make it to the top of the bluff!?! Two conferees who had also served as paramedics later told me that they’d known just how I felt, but it took me some time—and additional race fieldwork—to begin to explain to myself what I felt.3 It was only after I allowed myself to shift my fieldwork from the racers’ eye view to the volunteers’ eye view that I could make sense of the interpretative stance I’d embodied when I blurted out the unspeakable.

The question of recruiting technology to national and political ends was the dominant thread at the conference, acutely aware as we all were of “current events” (though each in our own regionally specific way). But with a few exceptions, while rejecting instrumentalist understandings of technology, we mostly lapsed into instrumentalist language about it. Two exceptions (and perhaps also my paper, though I failed for my own reasons) stood out, but these became something like limit cases: Brian Massumi’s eloquently dense paper on experience, perception, and bodily boundaries was framed in philosophical categories that seemed incapable of connecting to the materiality of technology in its instrumentalist mode; and Sandy Stone’s description of lost boundaries between herself as researcher and a feline research subject—uncomfortably received and ultimately categorized at the conference as some kind of performance art.

Hardly anyone, especially those assembled then, endorses a functionalist or instrumental understand of body-technology relationships. But the truth is that the predominant analytic strategies for addressing the conference’s subject effected this kind of separation (if only momentarily). We face an extension of the problem of social science identified by Foucault in The Order of Things (1994/1966). Much labor has been expended in anthropology to find a way out of being the “doublet” that is simultaneously subject and object of study, with all of the problems of false objectivism and obscurantist subjectivism that our “modern” state of inquiry entails. But what to do when we turn to technology? How to analyze—or is it even possible to analyze—the prosthetic body? And, given the extent to which technology is part of our analytic process (we work on computers and edit via internet, we “read television,” and so on), how can we work on, how can we make critical statements about, the relationship of technologies and bodies? Like Foucault, who writes most eloquently at precisely the moments when conventional forms of historical analysis fail, I chose to make a rhetorical break as I struggled to trace the edges of a sense of the margin of safety—an ineffable space precisely because it is the line between life and death, between a being-conscious we faintly understand and represent through the conceit that there is some form of intersubjective understanding; when we try to give voice to the starkly unknowable place of death, of the dead body, we speak in sentimental or admonitory languages that reconstitute the margin of safety. My analytic strategy was to rework my field notes into a story that broke expected narrative conventions about heroism and “accidents,” that is, the momentary population of the space of the breach, until order is restored.

After the reception of my paper (and Sandy Stone’s) as prominently a story that did not foreground a philosophical thematic (as in Brian Massumi’s paper, which worked in the absence of a sustained example), I struggled to understand what, actually, I had “done” in this minor body of research. Of the various considerations of body-technology relationships, I amplified my analysis of how this game, and social and political practices, engender classes of body/technologies in order to create a margin of safety. I want to describe just one example, my own training and experience that placed me where I was in an adventure race.

Virtual training, real disasters

When I worked as an emergency medical technician I saw quite a few bad things. As any EMT will tell you, there is a strange relationship between the actuality of accidents and illness and the virtual nature of our training. When you begin your training, you have to get used to looking at morgue shots and, later, at real bodies in distress. Once you are actually employed to respond to emergency calls, you live in two temporalities: much of the time you have nothing at all to do (you can only sort supplies so many times), but then suddenly, you have far too much to do (find an address in the middle of a rainy night to discover a car wreck with multiple injured persons). The worst part, at least in the beginning, is projection; having trained to be ready for anything, you wonder what you will find when you arrive “on scene.” Eventually, you learn to just drink your coffee and suspend. You’ll be there soon enough.

The peculiarity of watching the cliff climbers was that I couldn’t do anything. I was forced to drift between the “safe points” of my training—between the nothing to do (because no one needs me) and everything to do (because an accident has already happened). In my stints as a Park Ranger and lifeguard, I saw lots of people doing or about to do dumb things. My job was to stop them, to prevent the accident before it happened. Although you know you may have to respond to an accident, the mark of being good at these jobs is, paradoxically, the absence of accidents, the absence of the very scenario that would enable you to “show your stuff.” But at a race I can’t tell people not to go up (though I admit that I have on other occasions told teams not to go a particular way, and I might well have so advised this team, had I noticed them before they were well up the bluff). In the tension of both believing and fearing that things were about to go very badly, I just wanted to move forward in time. If my identificatory path had been ‘athlete to racer,’ I suppose I might have imagined them making their way over the top of the bluff, but as a medic my identification and training was to be control in disasters. So for me, at the point of maximum tension, a feeling of being back in control was articulated as “falling,” not “climbing.”

My uncharitable impulse to end the tension with a fall was not the product of some personality flaw, but was an outcome of the way I am trained: as a medic, the expectation is to arrive after the fact. EMTs rarely see an accident occurring, and a great deal of our training is learning how to “read a scene”; that is, figure out what must have happened, then make educated guesses about the likely pattern of injuries a body would sustain in this or that situation. Determining the “mechanism of injury” (or MOI) is critical to providing good care, and over the nearly two decades since I first trained as an EMT, it has become a greater focus of training. A really good EMT is able to visualize what must have happened. This “vision” enables you to treat the patient and offer a vivid reconstruction of the scene; the clues a good EMT can provide save time and misdirection in determining the ensuing definitive care that a physician will provide to the patient.

As a medic-in-potentia, I had the advantage of seeing the accident. In a paradoxical way though, this gave me far too much information. It was as if I were previewing rather than reviewing the scene for all the possible ways things might progress, and therefore all of the damage this falling body might experience. Seeing in advance what I might have to attend to, I had a sense of estrangement from my expected role relationship of rescuer to victim. It was in thinking through this strange position, being at, but not really in the race, that I began to interrogate the role of the volunteer as a means of sustaining the edge of the race; that is, in keeping the race within the “reality race bubble.” There when needed, invisible otherwise, the volunteers, I came to see, separate the Event of the Race from the actuality of what is happening to the bodies in the competition. Thus, when the woman fell, in a very real sense, she fell out of the race. When she fell, she crossed into (and happily not beyond) the margin of safety she expected would be for her as the implied contract between volunteers and racers.

Real sports, real life

Nobody really wants things to go wrong, but they do. Despite the marketing of events with names like “Death Race,” the dance with reality that constitutes adventure racing and its representation is not meant to include death or serious injury. Veteran racer, sports journalist, race director, and pioneer of Malaysian adventure racing Chan Yuen-Li (2003) is very critical of televised representations of the “eeeew” factor in hyping dramatic-looking, but basically un-extreme accidents.

This story (of smashed in teeth) has a very high “Eeeeew” factor. It’s a great tale to recount when you want to give your audience goose bumps. But it is also interesting because it illustrates two very important points about risk and danger in adventure racing. Firstly, that the majority of accidents are actually quite ordinary; this guy basically tripped and fell on his face.

What’s more he could have done that anywhere in the world, at any time in his life. He really needn’t have paid a USD$12,000 entry fee to get into Eco Challenge to do that. Not very glamorous, right?

The second point of the “Eeeeew story” is that an incident which may not be so serious in everyday life, can be very difficult to deal with when you are out in the back country. Adventure races are set in the wilderness and there will always be an element of risk inherent in that. Teams are often many hours or even days away from the nearest medical help. Even the best mountain or sea rescue services can be paralyzed by bad weather.

She goes on to note that adventure racing falls somewhere between the extremes of a guided outdoor activity, in which “operators accept any reasonably fit person” who is not “expected to be proficient” and “expeditions where the participants organize everything for themselves. . . you are on your own.”

Somewhere in between lies adventure racing. When you participate in an adventure race, you are expected to have all the necessary skills and equipment to survive and complete the course. But if something does happen, help isn’t that far away. There are medical crew on standby. There are checkpoints so the organizers know approximately where and when you are lost. Most importantly, the teams you were competing with before an accident become potential saviours.

The difficulty for me arises in the sport’s popularization, through the media and now via the expansion of small, sometimes financially struggling production companies. Given that these races are bound to “reality TV” but also potentially very, very real, how do competitors decide how much to put themselves in harm’s way and expose themselves to the freak accidents of nature over which their racing directors really have no control? How do race directors improve the margin of safety by creating screening systems to ensure that racers really understand—if that is possible—what they are getting into? Somewhere between the attempts of race directors to up the challenge of races while maintaining safety and the attempt on the part of racers to prepare themselves to live for a few days on a razor’s edge lie the race volunteers and medical crews. Also subject to the hype and “wannabe-ism” of the race context, we are the line between danger and safety, and the portal through which racers pass as they leave the “reality” of the race and encounter the actuality of their own limitations.

In Memoriam

Adventure Race Championships, 2001 (held in Switzerland). Former Scottish world-class rower Carolyn Jones (33) was sucked under water on a section of the race in which competitors had to swim/float down an icy, rapidly flowing river. A cameraman was nearby and managed to reach her with his tripod, lifting her head out of the water for a period of time until his camera broke off and he could no longer safely maintain contact. Under water for well over 10 minutes, she was revived with CPR. She suffered severe brain damage and is currently in respite care and very slowly recovering some of her cognitive functions. Her motor functions are not expected to recover. This and several other cases of profound hypothermia occurred during the first 24 hours of the race. However, the race continued.

Fundy Multi-Sport race, 2002 (a single-day event in New Brunswick, Canada). Experienced racer René Arsenault (22) capsized in rough water and, after an unsuccessful rescue attempt by another competitor, was eventually rescued by lobster fishermen. However, he succumbed to irreversible hypothermia. Although not finding liability in the case, an inquest revealed that not all volunteers had radios, kayakers were not required to wear wet suits, and the race plan did not require safety patrols on the water to have visual contact with all racers at every moment. Arsenault was among the top three leaders when he entered the kayak leg, and he and several other front-runners capsized almost immediately, requiring multiple rescues and assists in the frigid water.

Raid Gauloise, 2003 (held in Kyrghystan). Dominique Robert (46), former French national cross country ski team member, professional ski instructor and alpine guide, pioneer adventure racer, and veteran of 10 Raid Gauloise (winning in 1990; third in 1995 and 1997; winning Eco Challenge in 1995; second in 1996) drowned after she became trapped in branches (a “sieve”) during a class II-ill whitewater canoe run. The river rose suddenly and unexpectedly, making it difficult for racers to “read” the river. Rescuers had to cut branches away to pull Robert and a teammate from the river. The teammate had managed to keep his head above water, but Robert was pulled under and could not be revived. The race was halted for a day, then resumed.

Challenge of the Volcanoes, 2002 (race from Chile to Argentina). Veteran Uruguyan racer Tatiana Goldini (26) died at the four-day Challenge of the Volcanoes. An experienced adventure racer, paddler, and outdoors person, Goldini collapsed at a checkpoint and could not be revived. The race was terminated upon news of her death.

Primal Quest, 2004 (Washington, USA). Nigel Aylott (38). Much decorated Australian endurance and adventure race athlete, Aylott died after he was hit in the head by a boulder. Teammate John Jacoby was hit first, causing a significant leg injury that necessitated his evacuation. The race continued.

Howe Sound, 2007 (Vancouver, B.C., Canada). Denis Fontaine (40) and Richard Juryn (50) died of exposure after several kayaks capsized during an adventure race training session.

Cindy Patton

Cindy Patton holds the Canada Research Chair in Community, Culture and Health at Simon Fraser University, and is a Professor of Sociology. Work at the interstices of social studies in medicine, media studies, queer theory, and community studies, her published works include media analysis of popular culture, historical and critical work on social aspects of AIDS, and ethnographic research in quasi-clinical settings. She can be reached


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1. I conducted this research with support from the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Simon Fraser University President’s Research Grant. The project was approved through the ethics board of Simon Fraser University’s Offices of Research Services.

2. Almost everyone recognizes this kind of event. When I announced to friends and acquaintances that I would undertake my first triathlon, the most common reply was, “that’s swimming, biking and running, right?” Few people knew what the official distances were, but many knew the order of disciplines. By contrast, when I tell people that I am off to an “adventure race,” hardly anyone knows what I am talking about. I resorted to saying, “like Eco-Challenge” (while it aired), which generally moved the discussion toward what exactly the racers do. Only fellow aficionados seem to have a realization that neither the distances nor the disciplines are standardized.

3. One of the issues I raised that day was the problem that a “free” society faces when it constitutes a civil response force. Although we do not like to think about it this way, volunteer rescue, fire, and medical personnel have much the same kind of training as military personnel. We memorize the “Incident Command System,” a civilian version of military chain of command. However we feel about militarism in our “ordinary” lives, when we are part of a rescue effort we abide by strict codes of action. We are, as one of the conference members put it, trained to be “prepared” for disaster. We play disaster games and we practice the duties we will have if disaster strikes. There is a double edge to this training, of course, and this is also the dilemma—but from a different trajectory—that arises the training of a soldier: we will only know if we can “do our job” if, in fact, disaster strikes. I don’t think anyone really wants a disaster. At the same time, how can you spend so much time training and practicing and not want to find out if you can “cut it”?

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