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.

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