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October 10th, 2001 Zach Dundas | Sports
 

Matt's Idea of Fun

     
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Matt Siegel seems resoundingly normal. The 27-year-old grew up in Maryland, "a nice Jewish boy from a nice Jewish family." He moved to Portland from L.A. to be with his girlfriend.

But then Siegel starts talking about the good stuff. Like how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention checked him out last year after he snagged a nasty set of chills, cramps and fever named Lepto spirosis while swimming down a river wriggling with 9-foot king cobras in Borneo.

How a trek into the Swiss Alps at the beginning of September left him so dehydrated he couldn't force his tongue to stay in his mouth.

How he descended an Alpine peak in the middle of the night, visibility nil, path entombed in three feet of snow, 4,000-foot drops on all sides.

How the Swiss mountain chill brutalized his feet.

"Yesterday was really the first day I could put shoes on," he says with a smile. It's the first week of October.

Siegel is an adventure racer. Basically, adventure racing is a lot like all racing: teams of four or five people (always co-ed) take off from Point A and try to beat all the other teams to Point B. Teams must get all members to the finish line together, in one piece.

Difference is, adventure racing demands that competitors traverse vast tracts of extremely hostile terrain in remote lands. Teams navigate sweltering jungles, frozen rivers and blasted steppes via a succession of disciplines. When Siegel competed in the 2000 Eco-Challenge in Borneo, his team paddled native outrigger canoes, biked muddy trails, swam said river, dropped into caves and down a limestone cliff.

All without real sleep. Adventure racers function on near-zero rest. During last month's Discovery Channel World Championship Adventure Race in Switzerland, the winners slept three hours of nearly 97 on the course.

"You have to know what you can handle," Siegel says. "You're in places you've never been, confronting situations you've never seen."

This creative torture is young. In 1989, a French mountaineer created the Raid Gauloises, arguably the sport's model event. In 1995, Mark Burnett (a.k.a the creator of Survivor) founded the Eco-Challenge, the other half of the sport's unofficial Big Two. Two new races--the Discovery Channel event and the Primal Quest, set to launch next July--are bucking for major-league status.

For his part, Siegel caught the fever (a figure of speech that applies more literally here than in most sports) while working for a film company in L.A. "I saw unedited footage from the first Eco-Challenge in British Columbia, and I said, 'Hey, I'm going to do that.'"

His background as a competitive athlete and outdoorsman helped, but Siegel says few would have picked him as adventure-race material. "I'm good at mountain biking and hiking, and I run, but I'm not the fastest at any of them. But I can last. For this sport, it works out pretty well."

Primal Quest, the richest adventure race yet, will split a purse of $250,000--peanuts by sports standards--among its top 10 teams. With entry fees, travel and equipment costs running into the thousands for each race, racers subsist on sponsors (Siegel's include adidas and Patagonia) and real jobs.

After participating in the 2000 Raid in Tibet and Nepal, the Borneo Eco-Challenge and the brutal Discovery Channel event in Switzerland last month, Siegel's skipping this year's Eco-Challenge in New Zealand. He has a business to build, as he tries to transplant his success as a personal trainer in L.A. to the Rose City.

"I know that some people hire personal trainers, basically, to sign up for punishment," he says. "I really believe that you can have fun while you're doing this."

There is his definition of fun to consider. Despite pain, illness, lack of sleep and expense, Siegel plans to compete in the Primal Quest next year.

"My plan is to win these races someday," he says.


During the race in Switzerland, Siegel fell desperately ill, forcing his team to withdraw. It was a fitting end to a run of bad luck that began when Siegel's luggage--including all of his equipment--was lost in transit. His travails are likely to be featured in the Discovery Channel special on the race, to air next March.


Siegel will lecture on his adventure racing experiences and coaching techniques at Pace Setter Northwest (1207 NW 23rd Ave., 525-2122) 7 pm Monday, Oct. 29. The event is free, but seating is limited to 50 people. If you're interested, please RSVP by phone or email info@pace
setternw.com. To inquire about Siegel's training services, call 936-7879.


Websites of interest:
www.raid-gauloises.com
www.ecochallenge.com
www.arworldchampionship.com
www.ecoprimalquest.com
 
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