Pushed to the Limit

South Carolina adventure races

The final challenge of the Palmetto Swamp Fox Adventure Race encompasses a climbing wall by the finish line at the McClellanville Town Hall and Boat Landing.

When stepping up to the starting line, there are miles of terrain that could be rocky, swampy or anywhere in-between. There are obstacles to traverse and avoid, boats to paddle and bikes to peddle. There are coordinates to orient and checkpoints to find. Sometimes the highest hurdle to clear is the first one, the seemingly easiest one.

Adventure racing in South Carolina is growing in popularity, and each race has its own unique set of challenges. Different groups host them — and they have different levels of difficulty, but at the end of them all, there is always immense satisfaction upon completion. 

“Showing up,” Janine Delman says was the biggest step in one of her latest endeavors. Janine played ice hockey at the University of Pennsylvania and a half-dozen other sports growing up. Before college, she had sponsorships doing X-Games types of sports, like in-line skating and half-pipes. Her latest thrill-seeking kick is in adventure racing, which incorporates every challenge imaginable from mud runs to orienteering. These races incorporate so many different outdoor skills that everyone from former military personnel and athletes to everyday citizens are seeking them out for competition. 

Adventure racing typically involves an individual or a team navigating through a wilderness course that can have natural or man-made obstacles between the starting point and finish line. The races can last just a few hours, or could go as long as a few days. 

Even though the challenges are many and push people outside of their comfort zone, Steve Morrone, owner of KanDo Adventures, says that’s exactly why more and more people are signing up for his events. People want to push themselves to the limit. 

“A lot of people are intimidated by the sport itself,” Steve says. “Some people think they can’t do certain things, like they can’t orienteer, don’t know how to read a map, or whatever, but it’s a challenge people are starting to accept. Younger people are especially attracted to these races. I’m hoping and believing that participation will increase even more.”

Lexington resident Matt Netzel has run different types of adventure races in several regions of the country, recently competing in the GORUCK Selection event in Bellbrook, Ohio. It was a 48-hour, 80-plus mile race in October that saw less than half of the 77 people who signed up for it actually show because of the intense challenge it brings. 

“All types of these races are growing in popularity,” Matt says. “While you’re asking someone to physically push themselves, you’re seeing a growing number of people who want to see what they’re capable of mentally and physically. As they push themselves outside of their comfort zone, they see how far they can go, and they’re learning a lot about themselves.”

While showing up is sometimes the hardest first step to take, there are some events that are easier than others. They are all challenging in their own ways, but they’re built for fun as well. They can be team-building exercises for groups of co-workers, or friends who just want to spend a Saturday getting a little dirty. 

“You can be an elite level athlete by going out there and trying to crush the course, or you can be someone who goes out there and thinks it just looks like fun,” Janine says. “You see people from all different backgrounds who aren’t necessarily runners. They’re not all even athletes, per se, but even as an adult, it’s fun to play in the mud sometimes.”

Steve has organized four different yearly events across South Carolina, but the most popular is the Swamp Fox, which is run in the Francis Marion National Forest. The next Swamp Fox is set for March 18 and will span between 55 and 60 miles across the land, swamp and water. There is an orienteering component, which involves plotting UTM coordinates, kayaking or paddling, mountain biking and trekking. 

The 12-hour race will begin at 7 a.m., and the race can be run either solo or in groups of teams up to four participants. Steve judges each team upon completion based on times and team makeup. 

“We promote ‘never say never,’” Steve, 58, says. “Sign up, try it –– and you’ll be amazed that you can do anything that you put your mind to. We try to get across to people that they can miss out on a whole lot in life if they say no.”

In the Swamp Fox, participants don’t have to hit every checkpoint in order to complete the race. Crossing the finish line at the 12-hour mark is a must, but then Steve will rate every group on their times. He says that nearly every group in his 16 years of putting on events has finished.

Steve estimates that around 80 percent of the people who participate in his events are returning from previous years, and the age range is broad. Participants as young as 14 have completed his course, and those as old as 76 have been in under the 12-hour mark.

Some of the events that Janine runs aren’t necessarily considered adventure races. She’s competed in triathlons at the national level and run with a group in the Palmetto 200 but has also competed in what she termed “crazy” events. The one that best tested her mentally was a 24-hour event in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

“I knew going in that I can’t be beaten physically, and that was my mindset,” Janine, a nutritionist, says. “I knew no matter what they do, I was going to be able to do it physically. But I have never been challenged mentally the way I knew I was about to be challenged, so that was appealing and scary. Who wants to be broken down mentally? Once I was there, it was incredibly difficult, but I knew there was no way I was going to quit.”

The 24-hour GORUCK Heavy events can be an extreme mental challenge for even those who are experienced in being in adverse, uncomfortable and uncharted situations. Matt was in the Marines for almost seven years, joining the most challenging branch of the military following in the footsteps of his uncle and grandfather. His father was in the Navy and served with the Marines in his role. 

GORUCK was founded in 2008 as a way to bridge the military-civilian gap. The events are run by cadres, who are all decorated combat veterans and have served in the United States military. GORUCK events — scaled in difficulty from Light to Tough to Heavy to Selection  –– can be team-oriented. The organization was in Columbia in November 2014, July 2015 and November 2016 to put Matt’s F3 group to the test. 

A Navy Seal and two Green Berets were the cadres for the event, which started on the steps of the State House and included a group of about 100 people around Columbia. The three teams of 30-plus had to hit certain checkpoints while carrying a rucksack loaded down with 20 or 30 pounds, depending on each person’s weight, along with other heavy items like sandbags and logs. 

“It was great watching our group come together and watching these men grow to become better leaders,” Matt says. “It was fun watching people overcome adversities and challenges put in front of them. We all did things we didn’t know were possible at the time. The physical and mental demands make it good team building and continued to help me grow in leadership skills.”

While the primary focus for GORUCK are team events, they also do one individual event, the GORUCK Selection, that is designed to test even the ultimate adventure racers. It is the event where only 37 people showed up for … and only one finished.

“It’s supposed to somewhat mimic a Special Forces selection and what they have to go through,” Matt says. “That was a lot of training, but mentally, getting ready for that event is taxing. The cadres’ goal is to get you to quit. They don’t want you to quit, but they’re there to push you physically and mentally to your breaking point. It’s a different environment.”

Any person can find an adventure race in South Carolina that fits their personal goals for pushing their own limits. Adventure racing is about pushing people to challenge themselves in ways they haven’t been before. Expect to have fun, build camaraderie and discover there’s no obstacle that’s insurmountable. At the end, there is a satisfying reward –– the feeling of accomplishment. 

“I wanted to see what I was made of. It was the next crazy thing,” Janine says after completing her 24-hour event at Fort Bragg. “It’s validating knowing that I have yet to find anything I can’t do; that made me feel pretty good.”