Sylvia Corbett was delirious.
Ever so slowly, the raw, unrelenting cold of the Pacific waters had taken its toll, numbing first her body, then her mind. By the time she and her two kayaking teammates reached the first race checkpoint at Point Mugu, hypothermia had taken hold.
The fierce, chilling wind cascading off the Santa Monica Mountains only worsened her condition as her uncontrollable shivering turned to violent spasms. A race lifeguard massaged Corbett's legs to warm her and a sleeping bag was draped over her to fend off the wind. But all the work was useless. She was out of the Fogdog 24-Hour Adventure at the first checkpoint.
Corbett, considered one of the best in this multi-sport world of adventure racing, was driven to the staging area for more medical attention. One of her teammates, Corky Ewing, had seen the change coming over her an hour earlier.
"She wasn't paddling like she normally does. It was like she was half asleep," he said, trying to keep the disappointment from his voice. "We've been training for this race for months."
Others also succumbed to hypothermia at that first checkpoint of the recent five-event race. But most of the 78 teams of three contestants each checked in and went back out on the water to finish their 21 miles of ocean kayaking in the waters just up the coast from Malibu. And that was only the beginning. The paddling would be followed by eight miles of running in the mountains, 32 miles of mountain biking in the dead of night, five miles of point-to-point navigating along the rocky coast and a final 33 miles of arduous wilderness trekking before the racers finally finished the next morning at Leo Carrillo State Park near the Ventura County line.
There would be no directions given, no signs pointing the way, just map coordinates and 24 more checkpoints. The best of the racers--if all went well--would finish 24 hours after the start. The teams with the simple ambition of just finishing would stumble in a day later.
So it goes with adventure racing, an infant of a sport, but one growing so quickly it is difficult to keep track of the expanding number of events. According to MountainZone.com, a Seattle Web site dedicated to chronicling alternative sports, the number of adventure races worldwide jumped from 80 last year to an estimated 350 this year.
"That's based on a demand, obviously," said Brian Terkelson, MountainZone's general manager. "And the real explosion is being seen at the local level."
Adventure racing is but one of dozens of sports in the extreme category, many of them simply over the top. At the far end of the spectrum are sky surfing, street luging and snow kayaking. Even further out is BASE jumping--parachuting off cliffs and man-made structures--which is so dangerous it is illegal in most places. BASE, incidentally, stands for the places used by jumpers--buildings, antennas, spans (bridges) and earth (cliffs).
Closer to the middle are more mature sports that have gone from quasi-radical to mainstream in a generation. Some, such as mountain biking and snowboarding, are now Olympic sports.
Inline skating is by far the most popular alternative sport with more than 27 million participants in 1999, followed by mountain biking with almost 8 million riders, according to the Florida-based Sporting Goods Manufacturers Assn. That is followed by skateboarding (almost all young and male), paintball (6.3 million enthusiasts and trying to shed its survivalist image), artificial wall climbing, snowboarding, BMX bicycling, wakeboarding, mountain climbing and, finally, surfing.
At the same time, most traditional team sports are waning in participation, according to the same study. The number of people playing baseball in the United States, including both organized and pickup games, decreased by 26% over the last decade, from 12.1 million to 8.9 million. Softball's numbers are down while basketball participation remained flat. The only real bright spot for traditional organized sports was soccer, America's "hot" team sport, which grew by 11% over the last decade.
The reasons given for declining participation are varied, but topping the list, ahead of television and video games, ahead of the reduction in physical education classes in school, is the huge popularity of inline skating and, by extension, the growth of other alternative sports.
Mike May, a spokesman for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Assn., said his organization now tracks 102 different sports, from bowling to kite surfing.
"There were not 102 things to choose from 25 years ago," May said. "We're spoiled for choice." Indeed, so popular have the alternative sports become that there are now trading cards featuring extreme athletes. Stunt biker Dave Mirra has his own brand of bubble gum, and people like star skateboarder Tony Hawk have lent their names to video games.
Racing for the Prize