You look at Paul Rudman and think, nah. Not this guy. He doesn't fit the part. Adventure athletes, the latest breed of sports extremists, are intense, driven characters--would-be conquerors of earth, sea and sky. Rudman, a baby-faced 29-year-old, looks like he would be more comfortable at home watching cartoons.
When the Orange resident takes his place on the starting line at this month's inaugural Eco-Challenge, a 300-mile wilderness survival race through remote parts of Utah, he will do so alongside dozens of Marines, Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, search and rescue instructors, outdoor survival experts--people who make their living living dangerously.
Rudman's line of work? Professional cheesecake taster.
Well, that's only part of his job. As an "inventory control specialist" for Price Costco, Rudman helps decide which frozen-food products the stores will carry. This means that nearly every day, he and his co-workers head to the company kitchen and taste-test everything from chocolate-covered pretzels to chicken pot stickers to barbecue fajita lasagna. One recent afternoon, the assignment \o7 du jour \f7 was mocha cake, chocolate cake and cheesecake. This after a sampling of pizzas, pastas and seafood casserole.
"I'll tell you what: The grossest thing is cheese," Rudman says, wiping a dab of chocolate frosting from his chin. "We put out mounds of it, all different varieties, and have to try them all."
A challenge, yes. But nothing as daunting as what Rudman will face beginning April 25 in the wilds of Utah.
The Eco-Challenge, modeled after the French-inspired Raid Gauloises, will require five-person teams to navigate their way across 300 miles of cliffs, canyons, rivers and rocks using a variety of non-motorized transportation: white-water rafts, mountain bikes, canoes, climbing ropes, horses and, of course, the entrants' own feet.
The Eco-Challenge slogan? "This Little Race Eats Ironmen for Breakfast."
The race requires team members to stay together from start to finish--the exact course won't be revealed until 24 hours before the start--and is expected to last seven to 10 days. Fifty teams will try to race virtually nonstop. Rudman and his Team Free Spirit teammates hope to average less than three hours of sleep per night.
They certainly have had practice. Three times a month, Team Free Spirit trains from Friday night through Sunday afternoon. An example from one weekend in December:
Left Huntington Beach Pier in white-water raft Friday at 9 p.m. Paddled to Laguna Beach, turned around, paddled into Newport Harbor by dawn. Exchanged raft for canoes. Canoed in Newport Beach's back bay for four hours. Practiced rappelling off cliffs. Hiked 12 miles. Got on bikes, rode to San Clemente. Checked into motel, slept five hours. Got up, rode to Camp Pendleton horse stables. Four-hour horseback ride. Three-hour team meeting. Rode bikes to teammate's house in Oceanside. Drove home.
That, Rudman says, was just a moderate weekend. Sure, a big wave knocked over the raft that night, and somebody lost his glasses, and a powerboat filled with late-night partyers nearly blasted them to salty smithereens. You learn to take these things in stride, he says.
Same with that "short" bike ride across the Anza-Borrego desert, the one that turned into an 11-hour slog through deep sand. Same with the time they rappelled off a 70-foot cliff into a swarm of bees. Same with the time Harry the horse decided he'd had enough, knelt down and bucked one of Rudman's teammates into a ditch full of water.
"Really, the toughest part is just trying to stay up 36 hours straight," Rudman says. "The worst is at 5 a.m. on Saturday. Everyone wants to go to sleep. If you can get past that magic hour, you're OK."
And if that means having everyone whistle the theme song from "Speed Racer" or analyze the latest episode of "Seinfeld" to stay awake, so be it. Rudman and his teammates--Scott Van Horn of Aliso Viejo, Mark Mason of Manhattan Beach, Scott Thomas of Oceanside and Iris Ziegler of Hermosa Beach--do whatever it takes.
Of course, exhaustion eventually takes its toll. After training 36 hours straight one weekend, Thomas awoke from a nap screaming that he was being attacked by coyotes. Another Eco-Challenge entrant allegedly became so delirious he tried to put a quarter into a tree, thinking it was a soda machine.
Oh, what fun.
Although the Eco-Challenge has attracted a large number of current and former military personnel, it has also drawn a triple world triathlon champion, a fellow who once ran 13 marathons in 13 consecutive days, and an Englishman who, organizers say, was the first to cross the Antarctic without aid of man, machine or beast. There are power lifters, karate experts, bodybuilders and a man who claims to have recorded 20 consecutive perfect scores in the Marine Corps' physical fitness test.
They are strong, fit and chiseled. They wear sweat as their signature fragrance.
What's a laid-back guy like Rudman doing in a race like this?