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From Rat Race on to World's 'Toughest Race'

June 21, 1998|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Martin Dugard's lament has a familiar, 20th century ring.

Trapped in an unfulfilling job as a marketing coordinator at Fluor Corp. in Irvine, he was, he says, "the living, breathing embodiment of 'corporate lackey' "--a suit-and-tie guy for whom going to work "was like doing time in a white-collar penal colony."

Dugard yearned for something more--to travel the world, to seek adventure. "My worst fear," he says, "was that I would grow old and die never having seen the world firsthand."

At 37, Dugard clearly has laid his fear to rest.

Since quitting his job in 1994 to work as a freelance sports journalist, he has covered everything from a tall-ships race in the Mediterranean to a dog-sled competition in Wyoming's back country and traveled at twice the speed of sound aboard a Concorde that circumnavigated the world in a record-breaking 31 hours and 28 minutes.

Dugard also has covered the Raid Gauloises--the world's toughest endurance race, held each year in a remote corner of the globe. Therein lies the inspiration for his new book.

"Surviving the Toughest Race on Earth" (Ragged Mountain Press; $19.95) chronicles Dugard's introduction to--and ultimate obsession with--the notorious, eight- to 14-day event in which up to 50 five-person teams race across hundreds of miles of forbidding terrain.

Considered tougher than the Ironman triathlon, the Tour de France or the Iditarod sled dog race, the Raid is said to push each team of four men and one woman to their mental, physical and emotional limits.

A $10,000 entrance fee buys each team the privilege of dealing with a mix of white-water rafting, mountaineering, skydiving, rock climbing, orienteering, cross-country skiing, spelunking and even camel riding (as was required as part of the 1992 race in Oman).

We're talking enduring freezing mountains, steamy jungles, scorching deserts and the threat of leopards, leeches, crocodiles, rocks, rivers, rain--and what Dugard calls "caving's indoor equivalent" of rain: falling bat guano.

In a word, the Raid is:

"Miserable," said Dugard with a laugh. "It's really weird. A lot of people talk about it as one of those things that when you're doing it you're cold, tired, wet, hungry and miserable. But the thing of it is that in the midst of all that, it's incredibly uplifting. You feel more alive than at any other time in your life."

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Dugard, a Rancho Santa Margarita father of three sons, was the first U.S. journalist to cover the Raid, in Madagascar in 1993, when Americans first began competing. That was three months before he quit his marketing job to begin freelancing full time.

Covering the Raid in Borneo a year later, he found that observing the race wasn't enough. He wanted to compete.

Dugard was no typical ex-white-collar pencil pusher: A lifelong runner, he ran competitively at Northern Michigan University and had run marathons, even triathlons. Still, he had to overcome a fear of heights and undergo heavy training that included scaling a wall of ice for his first Raid, in Patagonia in 1995.

To his great disappointment, he was forced to drop out on day fourbecause of a knee injury. He had better luck last year, in Lesotho, South Africa, completing the Raid in 11 days, seven hours and 49 minutes--2 1/2 days behind the winning team.

Why would anyone want to go through such a punishing ordeal?

"I think with most people, it's this adventurous pull to do something really epic," Dugard said. "But once you're out there doing it, it's really addictive. . . . You find yourself in this 'moment of excellence': You're pushing yourself harder than you ever knew you could push yourself, and it's not just once, it's all the time."

Although many Raid competitors "start out to do it as an accomplishment and say 'I did this,' they're either the ones who don't finish or don't try it again because they're doing it for the wrong motivation," Dugard said.

The "purest motivation" for competing in the Raid, he said, "is to pursue the sense of adventure and to take that big leap out of the comfort zone."

Dugard said completing the Raid in South Africa "made me think that anything was possible."

French journalist Gerard Fusil, who wrote the foreword to Dugard's book, organized the first Raid Gauloises ("Challenge of the French") in 1989. Since then, interest in adventure racing--a term Dugard coined in a 1994 article he wrote for Competitor magazine--has mushroomed.

Dugard said Raid officials turn away more than 400 teams each year, and there are now more than 300 adventure races, some of them one-day events such as one held recently in Miami for which 800 competitors showed up.

The ninth annual Raid Gauloises will be in Ecuador from Sept. 19 through Oct. 2. Dugard will be there, both as journalist and competitor.

He'll write about the race for GQ magazine and may pen another book on the race and the trip to Ecuador, which will be an adventure in itself.

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