DOGS OF WAR
Returning from a 10-year hiatus, adventure racer Mark Collins rediscovered what it means to go to the edge and back
After a 10-year hiatus, adventure racer Mark Collins wants to prove that you can’t let a sleeping dog lie
MMARK COLLINS HAD unfinished business.
He had quit adventure racing, after a long and prolific career, because he felt guilty. He felt culpable and chastised for burying himself in a sport that at the time he believed robbed him of time to focus on “stuff he should be doing”. But over the next 10 years he felt that guilt, “guilt piled on guilt”, slowly erode his sense of fulfillment.
“Guilt is the most selfish of all indulgences,” he says.
He saw himself as a martyr, sacrificing his passion for some invisible greater good. But he felt incomplete – his expedition racing career was work half-done.
“Like a degree half-finished, or a house half built, it sits there roofless, haunting you.”
That’s why, after a decade-long absence, and at 47 years old, Mark returned to the wild.
Leaving the Pack
In 1997, Mark and his younger brother John, 42, began participating in adventure racing. If you’ve never heard of the sport, think of it as a Mad Max mix of Man vs. Wild and an Ironman race, with a little Survivor thrown in because, why not? Teams are given a destination and a cut-off time and are left to their own devices, and minimalist rations, to hike, run and paddle their way to the finish line.
The race takes competitors to the edge. Imagine days spent navigating and problem-solving your way through unexpected environmental hazards, taking sporadic and excruciatingly short naps in a sleeping bag, wolfing down food whenever you have a chance.
In Mark’s own words: “Going to the edge and back gives you a new perspective. Music sounds better, food tastes different; you see the world in a way you didn’t before.” After their first race, they were hooked. Under the name Team Mazda, Mark and John Collins led teams that dominated the adventure racing scene during the early 2000s. Their crowning achievement: placing 4th out of 89 teams in the Eco Challenge Fiji 2002. It’s still arguably the best result achieved by any SA team on the international scene.
Cue the encroaching sense of guilt, and Mark’s sudden withdrawal from the sport.
Wolf at the Door
When Mark decided to return to adventure racing over 10 years later, he knew it was going to be an uphill battle to get back into shape. At his age, it takes longer to get fit, and longer to recover after training sessions. Those challenges can quickly turn into a world-class excuse.
You have to put your fitness under a microscope, paying attention to the tiniest signs of injury; signs that you can easily ignore when you’re younger.
“The most dramatic change, however, was my eyesight,” says Mark.
Racers need to be able discern landmarks and features on a detailed map, whether under the glare of the sun or the faint light of a torch.
“But I don’t have another life and a new body waiting for me,“he says. “As far as anyone knows, this is all I’m going to get. I am actually pretty cool with what I’ve got.” Mark was teaming up with his brother again under the new banner of Team Sanlam Painted Wolf. John says he wasn’t concerned about the older siblings’ fitness.
“In adventure racing, participants have an enduring shelf life. The learning curve is high because of the skill required – so what you lose by ageing in terms of strength and speed, you gain in experience and endurance.” Did Mark still have it? “Yes,” he laughs. “Just hanging in there.”
Andre Gie, a former member of Team Mazda, and Robyn Owen, one of the most accomplished SA Woman multisport athletes of her generation, rounded off the four-man roster.
And while Mark was returning from a lengthy hiatus, the team had lofty ambitions: they wanted to win the 2016 Adventure Racing World Championships taking place in the wilderness south of Sydney, Australia.
The Thrill of the Chase
Training for the event was tough: it’s a packed weekly calendar of sprints, hiking, paddling, cycling, rinse and repeat. But as they lined up on the starting line, Mark and the team felt ready for victory.
A podium finish was an elusive proposition for the team, who had seen a top three time fall between their fingers due to punishing shifts in weather conditions, injuries and illness.
However, their biggest challenge – where the real skill of adventure racing comes into play – would be navigation. This responsibility, as it
“Too much sleep and you fall far behind. Too little and you face mental and physical shutdown.“
had been done in the past, fell to Mark and John, who relished the opportunity to guide their team safely and speedily through the unforgiving Australian terrain.
“Our job is to take the team over the best route via all the checkpoints and to the finish line as quickly possible,“he says. “We spend a lot of time working out the optimum sleep strategy. Too much sleep and you fall far behind. Too little and you face mental and physical shutdown.”
As the race began, Mark and John naturally settled back into their tried-and-tested team dynamic. “For younger brothers and sisters, the role of the older sibling is defined early on: responsible, accountable and generally more conservative,” says John. “Once that is accepted, there is no problem. What is important is the trust and support Mark has in me, even after massive navigation errors.”
John is often described as the maverick, his gung-ho attitude setting the pace for the team as he throws himself at natural obstacles.
The team suffered a major setback in the mountain bike leg of the race, seeing them drop from fourth to 26th. Then they lost half an hour – a priceless thirty minutes they would never get back – due to a navigational error. It looked like their plans were falling apart.
“We had to pull the team aside to refocus,” says Mark. “It turned out to be right thing to do, as we jumped 16 places in just one leg by doing what we do best and refocusing our minds.”
The caving section was another spanner in the works. Mark says they had underestimated how challenging it would be.
“In our minds, we thought this was just one of those irritating distractions that are common in adventure racing.”
But they were wrong. Very wrong. First, they struggled to find the entrances to the numerous caves that concealed mandatory checkpoints. And once they had found a way in, they found themselves sliding underground, down drainpipe-like tunnels not even wide enough to turn your head.
“You’d often get stuck between the shoes of the teammate ahead of you and the helmet of the person following, unable to move your arms from below your shoulders to ahead of you,” says Mark.
It was hard not think of the millions of tons of rock that enfolded him as his own breath rebounded against the cave wall.
After 14 stages, 627km, and 100 hours and 25 minutes of non-stop racing, where the team slept for just four hours total, Mark and his team crossed the finish line.
It was a sprint right up until the end as they pushed to trump the French team to claim a fourth-place finish.
“Afterwards, I felt stunned,“says Mark. “Like I had just woken up from a frantic dream. One of those where you try to run but your legs won’t work and you wake up drenched trying to recall your recent thoughts. Was it a nightmare or fantasy?”
Strength of the Pack
The race shook up Mark’s life, which had become mired by routine and a relentless cycle of discontent.
“It made me look at everything anew,” he says. “I touched new bounds of both invigoration and anguish. I didn’t find all the answers out there yet. Maybe because we didn’t achieve what we aspired to.”
But he feels like he’s further along the track of life than before. That he has added a new piece to a puzzle he is still trying to finish. And now he has a new vantage point to see how many more there are still to find.
Adventure racing requires a certain personality. Loving the outdoors is a given, and having mental resilience on tap and reserve is mandatory. But it’s the teamwork that keeps racers coming back.
“This is why so many people who have all excelled in sport as individuals, on an international level, are irresistibly drawn to expedition racing. There is something pre-programmed in the intrinsic human psyche that can only be fulfilled by overcoming challenges as a team.”
THE WAY Trust between teammates is what sets these winners apart. THE SLOG Selfbelief only goes so far. Here, you need to believe in the team. THE QUESTION Losing your way can cost you. To find it, keep calm and recalibrate. THE REWARD The finish line is a sacred place: the holy grail of a special few.