Va. Beach Outfit Takes Fitness To Next Level
For 16 years, Don Mann has gotten paid to be cold and wet, physically exhausted and generally miserable.
But come June, those will all be strictly leisure-time pursuits.
Mann, a Norfolk-based Chief Warrant Officer in the Navy’s SEAL Teams, will retire in June and, if all goes well, spend his days colder, wetter and more worn out in his new life than he ever was in the Navy.
“It’s funny,” said Mann, who lives in Virginia Beach. “I’m retiring from the SEALs to do the things I joined the SEALs to do.”
Here, then, are a few of Mann’s favorite things: 20-mile runs over mountain trails with a 40-pound backpack. Six-hour mountain biking treks through knee-deep mud. Whitewater kayaking and rafting – at night. Technical mountaineering up 6,000-foot rock faces.
In a row. No sleeping allowed.
It’s a workload that SEALs might take on in the name of foreign policy, but for Mann and a small group of local ultra-endurance athletes, it’s just a fun weekend.
They call it Adventure Racing.
“I’ve tried a lot of sports,” said Mann, 40. “This is what I’ve been looking for all my life.”
Adventure races are ultra-endurance rallies covering all manner of outdoor skills, from running and technical climbing to kayaking and mountain biking. One-day races are exploding in popularity – much as triathlons did in the 1980s – while elite races can last a week and cover hundreds of miles.
The sport’s professionals are scattered around the globe. New Zealand and Australia have thriving communities, as does France, while a wave of elite Americans have begun popping up in places like Northern California and New England.
And now, thanks to Mann, they’ve arrived in Virginia Beach, where since 1995 he’s recruited SEALs, triathletes and other similarly minded souls with whom to train and compete.
One of his first converts was Mike Nolan, whom he met while both were competing at a local triathlon. Nolan, 35, had seen adventure races on TV and jumped at the chance to try them. Together, the two founded Odyssey Adventure Racing.
This June, Odyssey will host its own race, a five-day, 300-mile trek through western Virginia’s mountain country. Dubbed the Beast Of The East, it will be the first long-distance adventure race held on the East Coast. In May, the company will begin week-long racing “academies,” camps open to anyone with the fitness and guts to try the sport.
Knowing Mann, said Nolan, has been a wild ride.
“He called me in October begging me to do the Mt. Masochist race,” said Nolan. Mt. Masochist is 53-mile trail race through the mountains near Lynchburg. “That was on a whim. He couldn’t find anybody to do it with him. The farthest I’d run that year was 13 miles, and I’d just bought new running shoes. And you can’t run a race like that in new shoes.”
Still, he went, and the two slept in Mann’s car the night before the race. Nolan finished in about 12 hours. “Then we had to take this bus back,” said Nolan. “The heat didn’t reach the back, so we were shivering the whole way. That was the worst part, feeling your legs cramp up for two hours.”
Nolan, Mann and Team Odyssey made their international debut last year in the toughest adventure race of them all: the Raid Gauloises, a 10-day, 400-mile French-sponsored race. Team Odyssey, one of three American teams, finished 20th.
“The hardest thing we ever do in the SEALs is Hell Week,” said Mann, referring to the five-day portion of initial SEAL training in which recruits are put through nonstop savage physical conditioning rituals, sleeping no more than four hours all week. “Psychologically, Hell Week is tougher, because you have instructors who are pushing you to your absolute limit. They know how to get out of you what you didn’t even know you had. But just physically, nothing compares to the Raid.”
The previous Raid, held in 1995 in Argentina’s Patagonia mountains, was Mann’s introduction to adventure racing. He blindly agreed to captain a Raid team consisting of another SEAL, a woman known as an expert racer, and two Chicago businessmen hoping to become the first black Americans to finish the Raid.
Gung-ho as they were, the two Chicago men were woefully inexperienced in outdoor sports like paddling and climbing, and it took less than a day in Argentina for Mann to realize they weren’t going to make it.
On a first-day climb, one of the men kicked loose a rock that shattered his cousin’s hand. The injury forced him to be helicoptered out. The next day, high up a Patagonia peak, the same guy kicked loose another rock that hit Mann in the head and leg.
“I leaned forward to keep from passing out,” said Mann. “When I looked up, he didn’t even realize what he’d done.”
Two days and he’d almost been killed. That left eight more days to whittle away at the “almost.”
“It was awful,” said Mann. “We were in last place, a day behind the next team. We’d come through a checkpoint and they’d pull up the flags marking the course.”