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Endurance on the Edge : An Orange County team will be among about 50 looking for glory in the world's ultimate stress test--the rugged Raid Gauloises.


The trick, they tell you, is to think of it as fun.

Sure, it might involve lowering yourself over a 400-foot cliff, being tossed like a tiddlywink over white-water rapids, or feeling so exhausted the thought of bedding down on a leech-infested trail sounds like pure heaven.

But, this is adventure racing. You've got to love it, its disciples say. Otherwise, you may not survive.

Next Monday some 50 five-person teams, including one from Orange County and another five from elsewhere in Southern California--will gather in rugged Patagonia for the start of the annual Raid Gauloises. The race is an ultra-endurance competition that requires teams of men and women to navigate their way across hundreds of miles of wilderness. Athletes travel by horseback, canoe, kayak and on foot across snow, mountains and glaciers. Officials estimate it will take seven to 10 days to complete. Many teams will average less than two hours of sleep per night.

The five Orange County athletes organized as Team Rockport left Monday night for Bariloche, Argentina, where they will meet up with other competitors. David Allen of Irvine, Lydia D'Alessandro of Fountain Valley, Jan Richardson of Santa Ana, Kent Street of Mission Viejo and Arend Westra of San Clemente have been training for this event for nearly two years.

As with previous editions of Raid Gauloises--held in New Zealand, Costa Rica, New Caledonia, Oman, Madagascar and the jungles of Malaysian Borneo--the 1995 competition demands a healthy respect for mother nature. Patagonia, encompassing the southern parts of Chile and Argentina, features a million square miles of wilderness and a harsh combination of ice, snow, heat and relentless Antarctic winds.

The athletes will ride horseback as the gauchos do--atop wooden saddles. They'll don snowshoes and crampons. They'll carry 30 to 50 pounds of gear. They'll risk altitude sickness and avalanches and hope they're not swallowed whole by crevasses.

The reward? The winning team nets $40,000, a decent purse until you consider the registration fees ($15,000 per team), travel and equipment expenses ($40,000 to $50,000) and time and energy spent training.

And don't forget: Half the teams don't make it to the finish.

"People always say to me, 'Well, what do you get if you win?' " says Gail Verwey, a 33-year-old Raid Gauloises veteran and marketing consultant from Redondo Beach. "I don't even think about that. I do it because I love the experience."

In the past, that experience has included crawling through underground caves, making pit stops to remove leeches from one's body, and shimmying down a rope that cobras simultaneously chose to climb.

Is this a competition--or a mass channeling of Indiana Jones?

"It's way off the scale of being crazy," says Julie Leach, an Irvine resident who entered--and won--the Hawaii Ironman triathlon five months after being hit by a car and breaking her leg. Leach, a two-time Olympian, has no interest in this event. "You could die out there," she says.

Apparently, that's part of the attraction.

The Raid Gauloises, sports psychologists say, attracts personalities that thrive on overcoming challenges, the tougher the better. In the 1970s, that might have meant running marathons. In the '80s, it often meant competing in triathlons. Now that those sports are considered passe, challenge seekers have moved on, creating the next niche.

"Some people race sports cars, others jump out of airplanes," says Ken Ravizza, a professor of sports psychology at Cal State Fullerton. "These people need to push the edge. It gives them meaning."


In preparation for Raid Gauloises, members of the Orange County team have spent long weekends rock climbing, river rafting, kayaking, hiking, horseback riding and running long into the night. Last month, they practiced glacier crossings at Yosemite, dodged rapids on the Kern River and ran 30 miles with backpacks along rocky trails in the Cleveland National Forest.

"It's fun. It's adventurous. It's 'Gee, let's see if we can get to the next spot,' " says D'Alessandro, 34, a fifth-grade teacher in Santa Ana who competes in ultramarathons of 50 to 100 miles or more.

The downside of the Raid, she said, is that with its endless hours of preparation, the event becomes a participant's sole focus.

"Friends get married--you send a card. Friends want you to come to their baby shower--you send a card," D'Alessandro says. "You have no social life."

That hasn't seemed to deter the would-be Raid-ers of the world. The event, created seven years ago by French journalist Gerard Fusil, has become so popular that there was a waiting list to get in this year. Raid Gauloises spinoffs have popped up from Europe to Africa to the southern Utah desert.

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