March 28 2018
Many experience-driven athletes are drawn to adventure racing, a sport that tests participants' physical and mental toughness.
I love running on golf courses early in the morning. Just after sunrise in Scottsdale, the grass is glistening with dew, and I have the manicured green hills all to myself. I inhale the heady smell of creosote plants as a rabbit hops out from behind a cactus sprouting fuchsia flowers.
The sun warms my face while I enjoy what will be my only run for the next few days. I’ve come to Arizona with three likeminded runner friends to up our game with some extreme cross training. Over the course of the week, we’ll be canyoneering, rock climbing, mountain biking, kayaking and hiking the Grand Canyon. We’ve chosen the Scottsdale-Phoenix area, because perfect weather and endless sun make it one of the world’s most scenic playgrounds.
The first challenge in our grand adventure is canyoneering. Inspired by Native Americans who first used it as a mode of travel, this wild sport involves scrambling over boulders, sliding down waterfalls, rappelling down rock faces and swimming in ice-cold water.
We drive through the Sonoran Desert toward the starting point of our first canyoneering trip with our guide Bruce Leadbetter, owner of 360 Adventures. When we step out of the van, Bruce warns, “Be careful, because everything in the Sonoran sticks, stings, bites or eats meat.” Presuming we’re the meat, we all walk carefully around the stickery brush and into Tonto National Forest.
Bruce sorts out our wetsuits, climbing harnesses and helmets, then hands each of us a backpack. “Anyone afraid?” he asks. We stop chattering and shift nervously. “You know what fear is? It’s false expectations appearing real.” Easy for this former marine corporal to say. I think: frightened, edgy, anxious, restless.
We hike a mile down to the river at the bottom of the canyon and strap on our gear. The sun is high in the sky, and I wish I were back at my resort sipping an icy margarita poolside. My two male adventure mates, Scott and Ben, are both elite triathletes, and even they don’t look too happy right now. Marianna, who like me, isn’t a hard-core athlete but will try anything, says, “My heart’s beating so fast I think it’s going to explode.”
“Don’t worry,” Bruce says. “Adrenaline is a natural high.”
We walk along the bank with our backpacks humped on our shoulders until the path turns into nothing but bulking wet boulders. I’m pretty fearless, but slippery rocks scare me to death, so I grab at tree branches for balance. When the rocks drop off, we wade in knee-high water or swim to the next boulder. The water’s cold, but our wetsuits keep us warm, and the backpacks make great life preservers. I float on my back and gape at the stunning 200-foot-high burnt orange rock walls.
When we come to a dead end, Bruce grins. Below us, a waterfall pounds down a 15-foot drop. “This will be fun,” he says. “Just do it like this.” Bruce sits at the edge of the rock, folds his arms over his chest and sides down into the waterfall. At the bottom, he stands up and calls, “Don’t go to the right because there’s a huge boulder. Stay left.”
Stay left!? How can I control the direction if I’m sliding? I wait for the others to go, sit down for my turn, and stall. Everyone is looking up at me. “Come on!” Bruce calls. I count to three and push off. As I start to slide, I let out a cry of terror which turns into a scream of joy.
We swim on through a large grotto, wade to shore, climb over more boulders and arrive at a 20-foot precipice. Bruce fixes a rope so we can rappel down. After my waterfall adventure, I feel empowered. I slide down the rope so quickly that Bruce’s mouth is left wide open. “You’re Spiderwoman,” he says. All I can do is grin.