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On the Run:
NOLS Instructor Takes Skills To Adventure Racing

By Kerry Brophy
Reprinted from The Leader, Summer 2002, Vol. 17, No. 3

  John Grunsfeld
  NOLS Instructor Darran Wells (far right) takes a rare break during the 2001 Eco-Challenge in New Zealand.
When NOLS instructor Darran Wells arrives in camp at the end of a long hiking day, he sometimes turns around and does the route all over again—but this time he runs. And if he can’t fit in a run, either doubling back or scouting, he does pull-ups on tree branches, or rowing exercises with a make-shift pulley system. Wells’ life on and off the job can be described in two words: adventure and racing, and he fits in plenty of both as he takes on some of the world’s most challenging, adrenaline-pumping multi-sport adventure races.

Wells has found that his passion for teaching NOLS courses and adventure racing fits like a good pair of trail-running shoes: The things it takes to succeed on a NOLS course also make a good adventure racer, among them expedition behavior, leadership and honed navigation skills. A NOLS instructor since 1999, his fast-track to the world of adventure racing started that year and has already taken him to two Eco-Challenges—the most media covered, attention-grabbing race of all and one of the most difficult. Wells started training with an Austin, Texas-based team for his first Eco-Challenge, the 2000 race in Borneo, and hasn’t stopped since. “I was hooked right away,” he says. “I hadn’t pushed myself like that before. I think that’s what drew me to it.”

In Borneo, the team finished 26th and Wells learned a lot, including that his NOLS skills were invaluable. He knew what it was like to live and travel in the wilderness for longer than 10 days, and he also knew how to be comfortable out there and take care of himself and others. “I immediately discovered that everything we do on a NOLS course applies directly to adventure racing. I used everything, from communication skills, to first-aid and, especially, navigation. Since then, these are the things that have helped me do well.”

With his first big race under his belt, Wells returned the next year with a different team, ARGear.com, for the 2001 Eco-Challenge in New Zealand. Although Wells asserts that the media ‘plays up’ the race’s danger factor—in reality they have check points and support staff—it was still ambitious enough to make just about anyone cringe. The 12-day race covering over 300 miles included four sections; mountain biking, horsepacking, whitewater rafting and mountaineering. His team finished in six days. The winning group arrived at the finish line in just four and a half days. ARGear.com’s most difficult moment during the race? It’s a toss-up: Either a 10,000 ft. slog up a mountain that was so steep they had to push their bikes, or else the start of the horsepacking section, when 100 untamed horses lined up at the start and Wells was immediately bucked off and hurled into the air along with twenty other racers. And imagine all this on just three hours of restless sleep every 24 hours.

“Racing is probably 75 percent mental and 25 percent physical,” he says. “The mental side that makes people good is being goal- and team-oriented and having good expedition behavior. Teams that support each other finish and win.” Wells often found himself stepping up and using the NOLS lessons of leadership and expedition behavior, but he also found himself treating his teammates and others for dehydration, altitude sickness and foot problems, just as he does at NOLS. “It’s all stuff you see on a NOLS course,” he says. “Just throw in some sleep deprivation for good measure.”

A common misconception about adventure racing, says Wells, is that the NOLS lessons in Leave No Trace outdoor ethics get left behind at the start line. “The adventure racing community,” he says, “has come to understand that you can’t just say, ‘OK, everyone, be sure to pack it in pack it out and let’s go.’ There are some negative impacts to the environment from adventure racing, but that’s changing. The way to continue that change is for those of us who already have those ethics to get involved and make sure they’re not leaving a trace.” Eco-Challenge has begun these efforts by marking Power Bar wrappers with team numbers and penalizing teams if any are left on the route, and staff sweep the course and photograph the area before and after the race to monitor the impact. Adventure races, says Wells, also don’t take place in designated wilderness areas or in U.S. National Parks.

In skill areas like Leave No Trace ethics, first aid and navigation, Darran sees a good fit for the NOLS curriculum within the adventure racing community (see sidebar). And, because NOLS grads and instructors already have solid outdoor skills, know how to communicate as an expedition team, and can thrive for extended periods of time in the wilderness, Wells has set his sights on an all-NOLS team sometime in the future. In the meantime, his summer is booked with races, including the Subaru Primal Qwest in Telluride and the Canadian Championships. He’ll also be back at the 2002 Eco-Challenge in Fiji, this time with team Soloman-REI, a team that literally wrote the book on adventure racing. Wherever he goes in the world of adventure racing, Wells is sure to get there fast—he’ll probably be running.


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