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WomanOf the Month 10-02: Liz Caldwell

How does racing in the Columbia Volcanoes Challenge sound for a New Year’s resolution? That’s what Liz Caldwell, 46-year-old mom and breast cancer survivor, has planned for January 2003 as she plunges into another year of adventure racing. Her four-member, REI/Salomon-sponsored team will cross the Andes along the "Volcanoes Road" in Patagonia, moving day and night. They’ll trek along volcanoes, ride bikes and sail lakes in canoes, winding up in Chile.

For those who don’t know what adventure racing is or have yet to catch coverage of an Eco-Challenge race, the events feature four-person teams competing in non-motorized sports such as running, hiking, paddling, mountain biking, and ropes. Adventure racing has taken Caldwell to such exotic locales as Borneo, Tibet, China and Fiji. And as co-owner of Ft. Collins, Colorado-based MountainQuest Adventures, a company that produces adventure races and training camps, Caldwell hopes to introduce others to the sport’s rewards.

"The challenge is not just physical," she says. "The mental challenge is the biggest piece of the puzzle. You learn a lot about yourself. You dig deep and recognize when to let things go; when to help and compromise; when to ask for help. That’s hard for a lot of people. There is great growth."

Racing didn’t catch Caldwell’s eye until 1996, when her husband called her into the TV room to see an Eco-Challenge race. Growing up in Pullman, Washington, there were few sports open to women. She graduated from California State University in Los Angeles with a degree in microbiology and after a stint at a research lab moved to Salt Lake City where she worked for the City and County Health Department. There she ran her first race. "The governor wanted to have a 5 K run, and no-one wanted to organize it. So I did," she says. She began biking and took up triathalons after moving to Colorado, where she earned her MS in Health Physics from Colorado State University in Ft. Collins. Meanwhile, "the distances were getting longer and longer," she laughs. While in Tennessee working at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and earning her PhD in environmental toxicology, she met her husband and had a son, now nine years old. In the early ‘90s, the family moved back to Colorado.

"When I saw the Eco-Challenge race on TV, I thought, ‘Wow, that is so cool. I’d like to do that.’ Then I picked up a local magazine and saw a five-to-seven-day race in Colorado, from Durango to Taos, New Mexico. I jumped in." The race involved horseback riding, paddling flat water and whitewater, running, and mountain biking. "It’s a great team effort, like nothing I’ve ever done before. You stop and sleep, but not much. You just sort of lie down and sleep until you get cold."

Caldwell recognized that many people couldn’t afford to take the time to participate in a seven-day race, which led to her idea to stage shorter races. In 1998 she and her partner, Barry, launched MountainQuest Adventures and started racing more competitively. They assemble team members for different races by taking into consideration personality synergies—the number one key—and the athletes’ various strengths. In the end, however, "you have to have people you can get along with and who will have the same goals," says Caldwell.

She notes that some 60% of the camps she hosts are made up of women. "A lot of women don’t do much outdoors," she says. "I think one of the aspects of adventure racing and multisport training that appeals to women is that you have people with you. Women are drawn to the team aspect of it, and women are particularly good at that. We are good negotiators. The longer races are not so much about going fast as they are about endurance. Women get stronger as the race goes on—men start losing massive amounts of weight, and we tend to hang on and get stronger. The longer races are more about walking and talking and enjoying yourselves."

Caldwell has been able to drawn upon her background in science as she organizes and puts on races. "A lot of what you do is work with the National Forest Service and emergency personnel, helping them determine environmental impact and assessments," she notes.

When diagnosed with breast cancer last year, Caldwell stayed as active as possible throughout her treatment. About five weeks after her last treatment, she took on a five-day race in Switzerland that proved "hard." A month later, she joined an Eco-Challenge adventure race in New Zealand and felt fine. "I had goals I wanted to reach at the end of my treatment, some races I planned on doing," she says.

Caldwell will travel to REI stores in a number of large cities in the U.S. in 2003 to give clinics, meet people interested in racing and help introduce them to the idea of having fun while getting fit. Because despite the work involved, racing is fun.

"My favorite race was one several years ago in China," Caldwell recalls. "It was the most beautiful landscape I have ever seen. We were running along the Yangtze River and the Tiger Leaping Gorge. Everywhere thousands of people came out to see us as we passed. They were dressed in the most beautiful costumes, dancing and singing, cheering us on. It was phenomenal."

In fall 2003, Caldwell will race in the Eco-Challenge once more. Still not inspired to get up off the couch? Check out her book, Adventure Racing: The Ultimate Guide (VeloPress 2001). For more information on MountainQuest Adventures, go to mountain-quest.com.