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WANTED: Adrenaline Junkies

Maj. Dave Ashley, 5th Space Launch Squadron director of operations, kayaks an adventure race. Skills needed to complete the extreme sport's 50- to 200-plus-mile races may also include orienteering (land navigation with a map and compass only, no GPS), cross country running, canoeing, swimming, traversing on ropes, rock climbing and rappelling. Not only must participants be proficient in these areas, but they complete these tasks in environments with severe elevation changes, unforgiving terrain and extreme weather conditions. (Photo courtesy of Maj. Dave Ashley)

Maj. Dave Ashley, 5th Space Launch Squadron director of operations, kayaks an adventure race. Skills needed to complete the extreme sport's 50- to 200-plus-mile races may also include orienteering (land navigation with a map and compass only, no GPS), cross country running, canoeing, swimming, traversing on ropes, rock climbing and rappelling. Not only must participants be proficient in these areas, but they complete these tasks in environments with severe elevation changes, unforgiving terrain and extreme weather conditions. (Photo courtesy of Maj. Dave Ashley)

PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- As far as extreme sports go, adventure racing is beginning to gain notoriety. Some people have heard of this relatively new sport, but what is it all about and what kind of athlete do you need to be to complete one of these grueling races?

Maj. Dave Ashley, 5th Space Launch Squadron Director of Operations, is one of thousands of people who compete in these races in national and state parks throughout the United States.

The races can range in distance from 50 miles (6-8 hours) to 100 miles (18-24 hours) to 200-plus miles (three days or longer). The skills needed to complete these races includes orienteering (land navigation with a map and compass only, no GPS), cross country running, mountain biking, kayaking, canoeing, swimming, traversing on ropes, rock climbing, and rappelling. Events can be solo, where entrants compete individually, or they can compete in teams of two to four people.

Not only must participants be proficient in these areas, but they complete these tasks in environments with severe changes in elevation, unforgiving terrain such as sand, flooded trails, mud, thorns, impassible underbrush, mountains, and swamps; in extreme weather conditions which can range from below freezing to above 100 degrees, severe thunderstorms, high winds, fog, snow and ice. Meanwhile they are carrying 15-20 pounds of equipment and food they will need to sustain themselves for the duration of the race, including water purification tablets.

Ashley used to compete in triathlons, in which he swam, biked, and ran himself to the finish line. He was also an avid runner, completing marathons before being introduced to the sport of adventure racing.

Growing up in the military - his father is a retired colonel - Ashley was always an athlete, participating in football, cross country, wrestling and soccer. He attended the United States Military Academy, West Point, N.Y., where he played Sprint Football all four years.
 
Upon graduation, Ashley was commissioned into the Air Force as a Space and Missile Officer and later changed career fields to a Developmental Engineer.

Ashley's passion and dedication for the sport is unfathomable. He never felt the same unique challenge from triathlons and marathons that adventure racing presents.

"You have to use your brain to plot your route and to know what equipment you are going to use and when," said Ashley. "Fueling your body to withstand the race is also fine tuned over the years."

This steep learning curve occurred in his first solo race, when three hours into the 24-hour race, he experienced extreme heat exhaustion where he had to lie down for about an hour just to regain the strength to get back to the start line and drop out of the race.

Throughout the race, competitors each carry a cell phone in case of emergency, but each has the responsibility to get back to the start line if they feel like they are not going to complete the race.
 
"This sport is not for the faint of heart, but when you complete a race like this the feeling is overwhelming and you want to continue to test your limits," said Ashley.

Significant recovery time is necessary after a race due to the physical stress or injuries inflicted by the effects of extended exposure to the elements, sleep deprivation, and running, biking, paddling, climbing and swimming at high rates of speed in an outdoor environment where the variables are constantly changing.

Competitors continually run the risk of tripping, crashing, flipping, falling and sinking. Bites, scratches, punctures, breaks, sprains, twists, and allergic reactions are also factors throughout the race.

During a 48-hour race, Ashley does not stop to sleep; only after the 48-hour mark will he take a two-to-four-hour nap on the ground or on a picnic table before continuing.

"Picnic tables are hot commodities because they get you off the ground away from the bugs," he said.

His hard work, dedication, and the fulfillment from the sport earned Ashley first place male soloist as ranked by Checkpoint Tracker Adventure Racing, a national ranking association. Ashley's team of four is also currently ranked number one nationally by the United States Adventure Racing Association. His accomplishments in the sport are numerous.

Ashley's wife, Diane, and daughters, Julia, 9, and Brooke, 8, support his training schedule. He will devote about an hour a day during the week to running or biking or doing CrossFit and about six hours on the weekend going for longer rides or runs.

Since adventure racing is not really a "spectator sport," the family will participate in family adventure races where Ashley hands the reins over to Julia and Brooke to plot the course to get the family through the race.

"The girls are really into adventure activities such as hang gliding, kayaking, boogie boarding and hiking," said Ashley.

Currently, adventure racing is not an Olympic-, Armed Forces- or International Military Sports Council-recognized athletic event. Therefore, Ashley does not receive any of the benefits provided to officially recognized sports by the U.S. Air Force. He hopes in the future that this will change and his dream of wearing the Air Force logo on his racing uniform will come true. Until then, he receives outside sponsorships from the likes of Hammer, Under Armour, Camelbak and SideKick kayaks, among others.

"I want to expose people to mental and physical challenges of this sport, it is the ultimate adrenaline rush," said Ashley. "Maybe if there is enough interest, we can start our own team here at Patrick."