Raid Gauloises competitors range from soldiers to triathletes to race car drivers. The assumption is that they are moderately insane, have a death wish or do not really know what they are getting themselves into.
I probably fall into the latter category.
I first heard about the Raid from a friend, Eric Charamel, who is a French mountain guide. He has led me on climbs in southern France and Corsica. Together we have dreamed of new trips, with explorations of jungles, the Gobi Desert and the Andes high in the list.
So when he got a chance to join Team Alfa Romeo last year for the first Raid, I was extremely jealous. I hoped someone on his team would drop out. None did, so I plotted to join this year's Raid from the start. I'm on a team of three other journalists plus our guide, Charamel.
My wife and family are strongly against me on this; they are certain I am going to die.
I tell her, sorry, it is something I have to do. That sounds vacuously macho, a cliche from a John Wayne movie, and I'm sure it is. Still, I feel tugged into the race, as if into a vortex of childhood fantasies about the great American explorers. Lewis and Clark, John Fremont and John Muir were heroes for me as a kid, and their adventures have not lost any allure.
I want to test myself in the wilds in ways a regular backpacking trip or triathlon won't allow. I want to compete. And I want to drag myself out of city complacency and stare at fears more awesome than my daily hour commute on the 101, 5, 605 and 405 freeways. I believe, as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote as an ode to the Transcendentalists in the 1830s, that to be a good human you must "first be a good animal." That notion impelled Henry David Thoreau into the woods. Good animals are strong and cunning, work best in teams and focus sharply on self-preservation. I don't care if it sounds smug to most people; I want to develop those qualities.
Granted, I am only a reasonably fit recreational athlete and have no delusions about winning. But I do have confidence in my ability to survive. I am running longer and longer distances each week, lifting weights, cycling and learning to canoe. Next week, I will begin to run dirt trails in the Santa Monica mountains in hiking boots. I plan to start riding horseback on weekends out of the Beachwood Canyon stables and to take a few parachute jumps up in California City next month.
Gerard Fusil, organizer of the race, assures me that I am not unusual, although the comparison he gave was strange. Last year, the wealthy French co-owner of the TAG watch company found out about the race while visiting Singapore in the summer. From his yacht in the South China Sea, Fusil said, Azziz Ojjeh wired the $6,000 team entry fee to Paris, then phoned New Zealand for a guide. He paid the guide's passage to Malaysia, where they trained together for a month. They then assembled a team and trained together in New Zealand, becoming a media sensation as the bizarre Frenchmen who trained by day and partied by night. At the start of the race, when other racers dashed off across a meadow, his team popped Champagne corks and sang before heading off.
That is one way to compete. Mine is another. Most competitors are more serious, however. They include Patrick Tambay, the Formula 1 racing driver; Christine Jenim, a reknowned climber of Mt. Everest, and Veronique Perillat, an "extreme" skier and daughter of former Olympic ski champion Guy Perillat. They may win. I hope to finish. Either way it'll be a good story. I'll let you know in January.