Until he took up adventure racing, Sam Johnson had no idea what Stinging Nettle was. He knows now, and surprisingly, he’s come to enjoy the pain.
Stinging Nettle is a plant that, as the name indicates, is armed with hollow stinging hairs on its leaves that feel like a hypodermic needle when they jab into your skin.
“My first experience with Stinging Nettle really hurt,” Johnson recalled. “Now, they kind of help you get through the race. It’s like it gives you a jolt of energy, a wake-up call when you need it.”
You could say the same thing about Johnson’s relationship with adventure racing. Over the years, he’s come to embrace the hurt.
Johnson and teammate Jeramie Carbonaro combined to win a recent South Coast Adventure Race at Holiday Beach conducted by the Essex Region Conservation Authority (ERCA).
“You get to see parts of Windsor/Essex that you otherwise would never get to see,” Johnson said. “I like the aspect of going and bushwhacking through these places. It’s fun. Is had a mental component. It’s more fun than running a marathon.”
Carbonaro can speak to that latter fact with authority. A former track athlete with the Windsor Lancers, he’s put his body through the challenge of both of these daunting punishments, and gives the nod for toughness to adventure racing.
“It’s just different,” Carbonaro said. “It’s a different use of muscles. You’ve got to make sure you’re hydrated out here.
“I just did the Cleveland Marathon five weeks ago. It’s completely different. You will literally seize up in this race, whereas in a marathon, you will not.”
The SCAR event at Holiday Beach – that’s the acronym for the series, and yes, it is an entirely appropriate handle, because when the racers cross the finish line, their bodies are awash in lacerations and bruises – covered a 70 km course that saw competitors cycling, paddling, running and most of all, orienteering their way through thickets of brush and forest.
Contestants are not given their maps and informed of the route they must take until just before race time, adding a further element of intrigue to the day’s event.
“Part of the adventure is them strategizing how to get from one checkpoint to the next,” race organizer Danielle Breault-Stubbing explained. “You have to use your navigational skills. It is quite exciting.”
Most work in teams of two or three, though there are some racers who opt to go it alone. For most, though, it’s the teamwork that is vital to success.
“We always stay with 25-50 metres of each other and we’re talking all day,” Carbonaro said.
Johnson, a kayaker and rock climber, and Carbonaro, an elite runner, have found their individual skills mesh well.
“I do all the navigation,” Johnson said. “He doesn’t know his left from his right.”
“He reads the maps and I run and get the flags (at the checkpoints),” added Carbonaro, who insisted it was “impossible” not to get off course at least once during an event.
“If you get lost for less than 10 minutes, you’re happy,” Carbonaro said. “That’s a goal in any race.”
Top teams finished the journey in approximately five hours, while the slower teams completed the 70 km sojourn in the eight-hour range.
Adventure racers come from all walks of life – Johnson is a chemistry professor at the University of Windsor and Carbonaro and engineer at Ford – and from around the province to compete, and many first timers are perplexed to find out how challenging the course proves to be in relatively flat Essex County.
“They generally associate adventure races with areas with more topography, like the Niagara Escarpment or the Muskokas,” Breault-Stubbing said. “People were surprised when they came down here and saw the many natural and beautiful areas we have here.”
As with any endurance competition, it takes a certain type to want to tackle an event where the first thing they do after you complete the course is check you for ticks.
“It’s nice to get out and stupid stuff with your friends sometimes,” Johnson said. “Everyone’s a little off. That’s for sure.
“You have to have this thing about Type 2 fun. Fun that is after the fact fun, not in the moment fun.”
Regardless, they are unique individuals who can say they’ve achieved quite the accomplishment when all is said and done.
“It’s someone who is willing to do something that is out of the box,” Breault-Stubbing said. “It’s very much a mental competition, in some ways more so than the physical aspect of it.
“People who are able to correct on the fly and not let it shake them too much are the ones who are going to do well.”
Those that do it find it to be like an elixir. They can’t wait to sample the next batch.
And when they complete the journey, as the sign at the finish line suggested, they are “SCAR-red For Life.”