Imagine biking up a steep Colorado peak, rafting through the Rapids of the Colorado River and then rappelling down a jagged and imposing cliff. Now imagine doing that blind or without the use of an arm or both of your legs. That's exactly what many of the participants will be doing in this weekend's Adventure Team Challenge (ATC) outside of Eagle.
The race, which is facilitated by World T.E.A.M. Sports, pits thirteen teams of disabled and able-bodied people against each other and sends them through the Rocky Mountains via bikes, rafts, zip lines and the participants' will. The two-day race begins on Sunday and is the fifth annual race in Colorado.
World T.E.A.M. Sports (T.E.A.M. stands for "The Exceptional Athlete Matters") has been organizing similar races all over the world for twenty years.
"It is a life-changing experience for both the able-bodied and disabled participants," says Paul Bremer, World T.E.A.M. Sports CEO and President. "Our motto is 'Changing lives through sports.' We argue that if you take part in one of our events, it will change your life."
The Adventure Team Challenge was the brain child of Erik Weihenmayer, a blind adventurer and mountaineer who lives in Golden and has climbed the Seven Summits, the seven tallest peaks on each continent. He was inspired to create the race after competing in the 2003 edition of Primal Quest, a nine-day, 400-plus mile torture test that Weihenmayer says featured 16,000 feet in elevation gain. He was the only disabled competitor in that race.
"The talk was, we wouldn't make it past the first day," Weihenmayer says. "The environment is too rugged. The blind guy will be a liability. We finished as one of 42 teams out of eighty teams that started the race. I always thought after that race, 'Why aren't there more disabled people accessing the wilderness, the rugged outdoors?' There is so much to teach us, but because disabled people think it's too unsafe and they're too slow, they just don't get out there."
Weihenmayer, who went blind during his freshman year of high school due to a rare disorder, took to the challenge of being the only disabled person in the Primal Quest race.
"It's a cool feeling, because you're doing something pioneering," he says. "It's hard to do that in the modern world, where there's no road map. And that's the cool thing about this race (the ATC). There's no road map."
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He's speaking literally. The participants have no idea what the race route looks like until they start. Climbing, hiking, biking, zooming down a zip line, rafting and, this year, paddle boating, are all in play.
Weihenmayer has been competing in World T.E.A.M. Sports races for about fifteen years, so partnering with them to create his own race was a natural fit. Each team must have two disabled participants, including one in a wheelchair. Many paraplegics use One-off handcycles, which have two tires in the front and one in the back. The participant then lies prone and peddles with his or her hands. It's not the ideal way to traverse a mountain.
"I remember riding up a trail once with a friend of mine on his One-off," Weihenmayer says. "I asked him how he felt and he said, 'I feel like I just got kicked in the chest by a mule.'"
Two quadriplegic competitors will be taking part this year with the help of Jake O'Connor, owner of ReActive Adaptations in Crested Butte, which makes custom sports equipment for disabled and able-bodied athletes. He has created a prototype for quadriplegics in which they can sit upright and use their limited arm strength to pedal.
"This is totally brand new stuff," Weihenmayer says. "I love to be a part of that, and you hope you can keep people safe as you go forward in that way."
O'Connor's prototype will help quadriplegics make their way through the course, but their teammates will still have to assist them through the more treacherous stretches.
"The beauty of adventure racing is that you are with a team, so where technology can't come in to play, a team comes in," Weihenmayer says. "You problem-solve your way through these adversities that you face and you get through it together."
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The roster of racers is stacked with inspirational stories. Sarah Will, who is the most decorated Paralympian in history, with twelve gold medals in skiing and a 2009 inductee into the United States Olympic Hall of Fame, is one of Weihenmayer's teammates. Mark Wellman was the first paraplegic to climb Yosemite National Park's El Capitan, the largest unbroken granite cliff in the United States. Clarissa Pozgaj, just sixteen, suffers from arthrogryposis, a rare congenital disorder that results in stiff joints and abnormal muscle development and restricts her to a wheelchair. Her team finished the ATC last year in fourth place with the help of a custom-made chariot.
"I asked her dad, who is the captain of the team, 'Does Clarissa do adventures like this all the time?'" Weihenmayer recalls. "And he said, 'No, she's never been off pavement.' I said, 'That's freaking cool. That's what this race is all about.'"
Here are some pictures from last year's race.
More from our Things to Do archive: "Bike to Work Day photo gallery: Bill Vidal, Michael Hancock, John Hickenlooper... and you!"