Adventure Race Metamorphosis: The Juxtaposition

by Josh Merlis

It all began as a joke. Three years after we began making an annual early December pilgrimage to the Dippikill Wilderness Retreat, for some reason I unfortunately can’t recall, I decided that I’d create an opportunity for the 2 dozen of us there for the weekend to try something a bit different.

Then again, as I now think about it, perhaps it was inspired by a trip there some 6 months earlier than that first ARE Adventure Race in 2006, when a small group of us stayed in Collins Lodge – in the winter – having to drag our belongings on sleds the half mile to the primitive cabin, across deep snowpack. (There are plenty of cabins you can park next to, and they also have electricity. #Luxury) It was on that Collins Lodge trip, perhaps inspired by our raw environs, that a few of us ended up running for over 3 hours, without any idea of what we were setting out to do when the run began. After running up and over Dippikill Mountain, we descended down the access road to the Hudson River, crossed the river on Route 28, and then immediately began bushwhacking up the side of a mountain. That looks fun, let’s go that way! We had no water or food, just an abundance of youthful vigor and a desire to explore.

Nine months later, barely 3 months into my first year as a high school teacher, a few of my then students who were on the XC team joined me early on a Saturday to mark the course for the first ever ARE Adventure Race, which began later that afternoon.

Shortly before the start, in most spontaneous fashion, I directed all the participants to crowd themselves into the bathhouse (restroom facility) and await the sound of the horn. Once they were all in there, I had my students pile up benches and picnic tables in front of the exits of the men’s and women’s rooms. Upon sounding the horn, our competitors rushed out of the doors, only to encounter a small maze of wooden furniture that they had to climb through before chasing after the pink flags through the woods, wherever they may lead. And so it was born.

The first year of the Adventure Race was strictly for those who were on our weekend trip to Dippikill. There was no registration form or publicizing of it; it was much more of, “Hey, if any of you want to do this in the afternoon, give it a go!” The first edition of this event was held in the same year as the birth of ARE Event Productions, although at the time it went by “The ARE Timing Services” and our client list numbered two. While ultimately the summer of 2008 would herald in our Trail Running Camp and the Froggy Five Mile, in many ways I nostalgically cherish the birth of the Adventure Race as the fourth and final race that ARE would create either while I was still in college or teaching full-time. (Dodge the Deer in ’03 and then Brave the Blizzard and Hairy Gorilla/Squirrelly Six in ’05.)

In addition to this event connecting me to our early days, it’s also been the most insulated from all of the advances in race production and implicit expectations that one might have when attending an event. Plainly put, this event is barebones in experience and horrifically difficult. The only thing you get, if you’re lucky, is just a small number of scrapes and a hot dog. There are no giveaways, no awards, no nothing other than a chance to truly test yourself on a course for which you don’t even know the distance you’ll be running.

Indeed, that’s another charmer that makes this event so unique – NO ONE knows how far it is. For the first couple of years, a few of us marked the route together the morning of the race, but again, this was before GPS watches and we simply went wherever we felt like, while alternating between ‘real’ trail and bushwhacking. After a couple of years, John Kinnicutt emerged as my primary co-marker of the course, and to increase the experience (and distance), we started marking the course separately. Dividing the property into two sections, the instructions to one another were simple: don’t go on the other person’s section – and do whatever you feel like on your own section. From then forward, not even John or I knew the whole length of the course, even if we had a loose idea of what we had marked individually.

By the fall of 2009, AREEP was my full-time job, and so both to combat the issue of dwindling daylight impacting the 1 p.m. start (some years it has taken participants over 3 hours to complete the course) and to simply make for a less chaotic race day, we began marking the course on Friday, affording ourselves ample time.

The streak would continue of doing something very random to start the race (i.e., chopping wood, hanging upside down, starting with your shoes off your feet, held in your hands, etc.) along with always being a different course.

In 2019, the Adventure Race celebrated 14 years at Dippikill. It also marked ARE’s 17th Annual December weekend getaway there, with countless memories formed here connecting many of us who had been attending for at least a decade for the trip.

While we were able to use Dippikill to hold our Froggy Five Mile (and Hard as Hell Half Marathon) in the summer of 2020, by that fall, the property, owned by the University at Albany, was temporarily shutting down its use due to COVID-19, and so the Adventure Race had to find a new home. Thankfully it did, on the sprawling Altamont wooded property of a friend to and member of our running community. After about a decade of marking our respective sections separately, John and I were back at it, at times knee deep in muck as we explored this new to us property. The 2020 race also marked us finally doing something we’d thought about for years: when the participants reached the finish line, they were told they had only just finished the first lap – and had to go back out again. Some vulgarities were heard, but it was all in good fun as our racers took it in (muddy and painful) stride before returning to the bonfire near the finish to warm up.

I’m writing this at 4 a.m. on the morning of the 2021 Adventure Race, while laying on a couch in White Pine Lodge, the same room in which I was married nearly exactly three years ago. Yesterday, for the first time ever in producing the Adventure Race, I came up here and marked the course – alone. With John out of town to run a marathon and the few others that I would have assist either working a different race for AREEP or unavailable, it was a solo mission on gorgeous Friday, December 3, 2021.

As I would have free rein for this year’s event to go onto “John’s” side, I decided to mix things up a bit, and, most enjoyably, ended up bushwhacking through parts of the property I had never seen before. There was a particular tranquility that accompanied the solo outing on the windless day.

When I set out to mark the course, I knew well enough that I was starting “too late” and there was no way I’d finish before sunset. (A combination of purposeful and unavoidable factors delayed my departure from Albany.) For the first time at this event, I made sure to have my headlamp packed, and indeed, while still very much deep in the woods, out it came, as I marked the final near hour only guided by the light emanating from my forehead.

Most strange was arriving back at an empty lodge. For the first 14 years(!), I’d return to a cabin booming with energy, noise, and excitement, with food cooking, a fire roaring, and a palpable state of happiness of being in a group. Somewhat peculiarly, I didn’t think much about the reason (i.e., what’s completely upended life as we know it for nearly 2 years), rather I called my wife to check in and chat for a bit. Then it was off to Warrensburg to find food, for of course, the food I had packed for myself I had left in a bag on our porch. The original ARE white van was my mode of transportation for the trip; it’s eerie to think that she’s been with us for 14 years and is now old enough to drink. How quickly time passes!

By 8 p.m., I was back at White Pine Lodge. As mentioned earlier, this was the very room in which Michelle and I were married. It is the exact space in which our Trail Running Camp has operated from for a dozen years; the very location of nearly two decades of countless experiences, emotions, and a lifetime of memories. And I was alone.

I do not mind being alone. I suppose the irony is simply that the visible part of my occupation makes that an impossibility; putting on and working events is, by its very nature, a group affair, involving working with a team to make the race happen for typically at least a couple hundred, if not thousands of people. And here I was, at the very location of an event, barely 12 hours before its start, listening to the still of the night.

I slept from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m., which is somewhat decent for me; I definitely need more sleep but am rarely successful in that quest. Sometimes, when I wake up earlier than I need to on the day of an event, I immediately leave for the event site to get a jump start on what remains to be done. Ironically, I am at the event site – but it’s also 15 degrees out and I don’t really have all that much to do right now, so I’ll just wrap up this article and enjoy the final couple of hours in silence.

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