Lt. Col. Sam Little, left, Lt. Col. David-Ashley, center, and Col. Rory Welch compete in the Boar six-hour adventure race in Florida. They are among a growing number of airmen who have taken to the sport. (Pangea Adventure Racing)
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The first time Lt. Col. David "Dash" Ashley raced through the woods with nothing more than a map and his wife and best friend, it took him four hours to get to the finish line.
He finished the race pretty pleased with himself. His wife and best friend, not so much.
The friend was sick from heat exhaustion and his wife was mad as a wet hen, literally.
"We flipped our canoe about 10 minutes into the race, which got my wife very upset with me," said Ashley, who is commander of the 5th Space Launch Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla. "I was pretty tough on them about ‘Hey, let's go faster. We're doing well. And at the end of the race, I was like, ‘Great job,' and both of them wouldn't talk to me for a couple of hours afterward."
That was seven years and 70 adventure races ago. And while Ashley's wife has only recently agreed to race with him again since that first time, and only under strict conditions — she gets to be in charge, he can only assist — he's still very much enamored with the sport and has even recruited other airmen along the way.
Ashley is among a growing group of airmen hooked on adventure racing, a grueling sport that combines elements of orienteering, trekking, cross country and trail running, mountain biking, canoeing and kayaking. More advanced racing can include rappelling and other rope disciplines and whitewater rafting.
The sport has military enthusiasts who use their training to their advantage over opponents. But Ashley says airmen can also use adventure racing — and the endurance and strength training needed to prepare for the races — to achieve better scores when it's time to take the physical training test.
"It's perfectly aligned with the Air Force fitness goals," Ashley said. "We take people who haven't raced before and introduce them to the sport, and after they do a couple of races, they are extremely fit. They become] good runners, good bikers, and with all the paddling, they have good upper-body strength for the military PT test pushups and situps."
Not your average race
The races are mentally and physically exhausting. They are anywhere from three hours to three or more days as teams race to checkpoints in wooded and mountainous terrain, picking their way to the finish line. Those who are really skilled — and a little lucky — arrive at the finish line with their teammates. Those who are really unlucky might need someone to come rescue them.
Lt. Col. Sam Little, director of operations for the 45th Launch Support Squadron at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., said adventure racing is for the endurance athlete, or the would-be one, who loves the outdoors and doesn't mind taking things off road.
That's what drew him to adventure racing when he set out on training runs with an office mate who introduced him to the sport in Virginia.
"Generally, I like being outside and I am always trying to find something to do outdoors," he said. "Adventure racing is something a little different than just pounding the pavement."
He met Ashley through work and their common interest in adventure racing. Little and Ashley are in sister squadrons that are a part of the 45th Launch Group. They did a race together, and the rest is history.
Ashley captains Team Florida Xtreme/U.S. Air Force, which is a developmental team designed to train people, particularly airmen, for the rigors of elite adventure racing. Little serves as a navigator and co-captain for Florida Xtreme, which is ranked No. 1 in the Pangea Adventure Racing Series, a major producer of adventure races in Florida.
Ashley also met F-15 pilot Maj. Greg "Cord" Voelkel through racing, and now the two are teammates on Team Rev3/Mountain Khakis, which holds national rankings — No. 1 with the U.S. Adventure Racing Association and No. 3 with Checkpoint Tracker Adventure Racing.
For Voelkel, the attraction to adventure racing is the mental challenge, the team aspect and the uncertainty of how the race might unfold over a few hours or even days of picking your way through the woods.
"You will do things you haven't done before," said Voelkel, who is with the 479th Fighter Training Group at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla. "Marathons and triathlons are great and a physical challenge, but they're still like a canned thing where you know exactly what you're doing. Adventure racing takes it to the next level."
That once meant racing with a team and getting lost on a trail, having a bike tire go flat and hearing the rumblings of a bear in the distance — something Voelkel chuckles about now.
"We were like, ‘This race is over,'" he said. "But we pushed through, got the tire fixed. The bear didn't kill us and we wound up getting second place."
Get ripped, have fun
Ashley said adventure racing is not just a great test of one's physical ability. It also is great for team building.
"Unlike a 5K, when you're out for an eight-hour race, you get so worn down that you're social mask is gone and people are seeing the real you," he said. "I like to know people at that level. You do a race like that with someone — you're going to trust them for the rest of your life."
Voelkel said that those with a military background have an advantage because they are trained to work in teams to complete missions. He has the added advantage of having been through survival, evasion, resistance and escape training.
All three men admit they were in pretty good shape when they got into adventure racing. Ashley was a runner and had logged long miles biking an hour or more while commuting to work from San Pedro, Calif., to Los Angeles Air Force Base. Little had run cross-country in high school and taken up mountain biking while stationed in Colorado. Voelkel commutes to work on his bike, racking up 35 miles round trip, every day, instead of driving for 30 minutes.
Their workouts consist of endurance activities similar to the ones they'll use during a race. They run a few times a week and work in at least one long run, take long bike rides, do weight training and spend some time in the water, either practicing paddling or swimming and surfing.
Little said it is important, too, to practice good nutrition and hydration because adventure racing burns lots of energy and you need to take in the right amount of calories and appropriate liquids so you don't dehydrate.
Get out there
Ashley said he's always on the lookout for promising potential adventure racing teammates, and scouts the base 5Ks and triathlon events mainly because he's looking for people he might get along well with. The way he sees it, if they're already in the Air Force, they'll have something in common. Teammates who don't get along during races don't win, and they don't have fun.
His pitch is simple. He approaches the fastest people — men and women — in those events and asks them if they'd like to try something different, more challenging.
"I'd say, ‘Hey, are you interested in ... maybe taking it up a notch, and doing some of this adventure racing stuff,'" he said. "‘You get to see some beautiful parks that you probably would never see otherwise and hang out with some fun people. We have a pretty good team, so we tend to win a fair amount, too, which is fun.'"
His Team Florida Xtreme has raced under the service logo to help generate awareness about the Air Force and to help recruitment.
Little, who counts a tough six-hour solo race in England that involved him running through a wet valley and mountain biking through freezing rain and snow as one of his favorite races, said any airman looking for a new challenge should give adventure racing a try.
"Don't be afraid. Find a short one, about three hours, plan it out and don't worry about your time," he said. "I think airmen will find it a fun and rewarding way to spend their day."
Troy Farrar, president of the United States Adventure Racing Association, said that when the sport gained traction in the U.S. in the mid-1990s and the community was much smaller, many competitors were obviously military. But the sport has become so popular, it's much harder to tell today.
"We've gone through an evolution from kind of what were called expedition races that were really long events to now what we call sprint events that are one or two hours to six or eight hours," he said. "These are great because they are kind of a gateway into the sport and more beginner friendly."
But he said the military presence is definitely still there. USARA, for example, has designated an annual adventure race put on by the Navy — the all-military Wilderness Challenge that includes an 8K mountain run, 12-mile mountain bike race, 14-mile forced hike, 13-mile whitewater rafting race and a seven-mile kayaking race — as a regional qualifier for its national championship.
A coed military team from the Citadel is the USARA national champion in the organization's coed collegiate division this year.
Paul Ankell, president of Checkpoint Tracker Adventure Racing, said he believes the sport appeals to many military members and veterans because it more closely resembles the kind of mission-accomplishment and skill-deployment focus that they experience.
Ankell said anyone looking to get into the sport should not overthink it, just do it.
"The foremost impression that a lot of people get is that it's too much," he said. "But at the entry level, it is not hard to find events in any part of the country that are short enough to complete the mountain biking, navigation and trekking in a day, and at the end of the day go home.
"Everyone goes to work and to school, and maybe you'll go for a bike ride or a run on the weekend or do an obstacle race or triathlon, but adventure racing takes you completely out of your element," Ankell said.
If you're still not convinced, Ankell and Farrar recommend signing up as a volunteer, which allows you to see up close how teams get it done, without actually doing it.
"Most people, when they volunteer, are like, ‘Oh man, I should have raced,'" Farrar said.