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Veteran claims adaptability helps at adventure races

Spokane resident Jeni McNeil
Spokane resident Jeni McNeil

Getting in shape for an adventure race is fairly simple, if you have the time.

“Pretty much any vigorous activity you do outside can be considered training,” said Jeni McNeil, 40, the only Spokane woman on a team entered in Expedition Idaho.

“If you like hiking, that’s great training. Add that to mountain biking and trail running and that’s probably 80 percent of what I do.”

The difference between McNeil and the rest of us who like to do outdoor activities is that she’s been doing those sports vigorously for 4 hours a day and easing up to 10 hours a day before tapering down to rest for the Aug. 14 Expedition Idaho start.

“The intensity is basically determined by the terrain. If I want a really hard day, I go find the biggest hill I can to go up and do it – over and over.”

McNeil, a veteran of more than a dozen adventure races, says the most physically fit people may not be the best in a race that has no defined course and deprives competitors of sleep for six days.

“The biggest thing is having the attitude to adapt,” said McNeil, who suffered knee injuries as a competitive gymnast. “People who want to know what to expect should not be in adventure racing. You have to be adaptable.”

Every team member is going to have a vulnerable moment during an expedition length race, she said. Cracks show up in even the strongest-willed people.

“That’s a big part of the team aspect. You have to get each other through it.”

Despite her experience, she still hasn’t figured out a way to train for the lack of sleep she’ll suffer while being on the go for 20-22 hours a day for six consecutive days.

“A lot of competitors use caffeine or vitamin B supplements, but you have to work them into your training. You have to know how to handle them over a long period. You don’t want to start playing with them for the first time during a six-day race.”

McNeil, who’s signed up with three men on Team Gramicci, tries to mentally adapt to being motivated despite being sleepy.

“I know I’m going to hallucinate and I know I can work through it,” she said, noting that the tricky thing, and the tactical angle, is how the team deals with sleep.

“Should we take a 10-minute nap, a one-hour power nap or just keep going? Trying to get four sleep-deprived people to agree on a strategy can be difficult.”