Shari Hymes, Inveterate Trekker

Adventure racing is “30 percent fitness, 20 percent preparation, and 50 percent soul”
Shari Hymes’s favorite races thus far have been in Australia and Lake Tahoe. Mary Scheerer

Shari Hymes and Mary Scheerer, the Old Montauk Athletic Club honorees as its female athletes of the year in 2017, have adventure-raced all over the globe for the past 30 years — in Australia, Iceland, Lake Tahoe, Canada, and, most recently in Hymes’s case, New Zealand.

Adventure racing is “30 percent fitness, 20 percent preparation, and 50 percent soul,” Hymes said the other day as Scheerer was making her way back home to Sag Harbor from North Carolina. “You’re racing with your soul, you have to be fearless. Our checkpoints are in the middle of nowhere generally. No GPS’s, only compasses, though you have a button to push that will bring in the helicopters. . . . Yes, people get lost, even ones with experience.”

“I love the team aspect,” she continued. “There are four-person teams and at least one has to be a member of the opposite sex. Usually, there are three men and a woman, though there can be three women and a man. I just got back from a race in New Zealand, on the south tip of the south island.” Pete Spagnoli, a fellow Sag Harborite, was on her team. “Mary didn’t go. Unfortunately, she has to do races of shorter duration because of a hip problem caused by all those years of playing tennis.”

The New Zealand race — a 10-day one as is the custom — drew 100 teams, she said. “It was the end of the summer there — chilly. They get six meters of rain there a year, so we had a lot. There was a lot of trenchfoot. It’s considered the hardest endurance race in the world, according to Outside magazine.”

While she had probably averaged one or two adventure races a year since beginning them some 30 years ago, Hymes said, “I’d never done this one before. There were 650 kilometers of mountain biking, Class 2 and 3 white water paddling in pack rafts — they’re small two-person inflatable double-ended craft that weigh 13 pounds, but that’s still a lot of weight when you’re also carrying paddles, life jackets, and dry suits. They handle Class 3 water great. We used them on a river that has the longest drop of white water in the Southern Hemisphere. You paddle 40 kilometers out to the ocean, to the Tasman Sea. It’s pretty cool.”

“There was a lot of bushwhacking too, in the Fiordland National Park. There were very few trails. It was hard to find your way. Some of the toughest navigation I’ve ever done. . . . The whole point of navigation is to stay found, which is to say to always know where you are. Often, you can prove that by looking at different mountain peaks or at bodies of water, but when you’re in the middle of the bush you don’t have landmarks. You’ve got to go by the azimuth on your compass and trust in that — especially at night!”

She had taken a lot of courses in orienteering, she said, and had given such courses herself at adventure racing academies. “Unfortunately, we don’t teach it in our schools, as they do in Europe. There are no geography classes anymore.”

Asked which races are her favorites, Hymes named the Adventure Racing World Championships in November 2016 in New South Wales, Australia. “I turned 56 during it. . . . It had some really cool caving. You had to find checkpoints in caves, and there was a lot of paddling on all kinds of water — ocean, lake, river. . . . There was lots of wildlife too — we saw whales surfacing, dolphins, and a lot of kangaroos. We ran alongside them. There were lorikeets everywhere,” she said, showing this writer a photo of one on her iPad. 

“This is a wombat I hit with my bike at 3 a.m.,” she added, pulling up another photo. “I was going slow, he was okay. They’re marsupials too.”

She had a close call in that race, as the result of an infection that had set in after she’d hit her knee on a river rock. She demurred when it was suggested she see the treatment through in a hospital there. “As soon as I got off the plane, I checked into Southampton — they started an IV with antibiotics in Australia. . . .”

Stony Brook Southampton Hospital is familiar territory for Hymes, who, as a pulmonary technician, works there and at Southampton Pulmonary’s office nearby.

Her favorite race in the United States, she said, was “U.S. Primal Quest at Tahoe. A beautiful, hot, fun race.”

“A lot of teams don’t finish,” she said. “If you lose a teammate you’re unranked.” 

Any time she’s outside she feels great, Hymes said, whether it be stand-up paddleboarding here or snowshoeing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing, or fat-tire mountain biking in Vermont or Maine. . . . It’s a little different here. Here, on Long Island, you’re always close to a road. In 10 minutes you could be in someone’s house having a cup of coffee, and your cellphones would work too. The best part about adventure racing is that you don’t see your cellphone for a while.”

Eating, assuming one didn’t plan and pack gear that’s sent ahead correctly, could be a problem, she added. “Hopefully, you pack the right things — you have to be able to take your bike apart and put it together. . . . The people in Australia and New Zealand are great. You’re in these remote areas with hardly anyone around and you see sheep farmers setting up a barbecue for you. Oh yes, we ran out of food a lot. . . . I was begging.”

Anybody could adventure-race, Hymes said. “The biggest part is getting to the start line. That’s the biggest, hardest part. You have to set reasonable goals and be patient. It’s more fun, of course, if you have experienced partners. Patience is the key. Everyone’s going to be different. When you get frustrated, it sets a bad tone. There are people who race solo, but, as I always say, they’re solo for a reason. It’s for any age. A lot of kids are doing it — 18 and 19-year-olds are getting into it, and they’re good. As I said, in Europe they teach navigation and geography.” 

“It’s all about you and your surroundings,” she said in conclusion. “And laughing, and crying, and trying to find someone to give you beer.”