Michael Tobin Interview

Mike TobinMention adventure racing in Idaho, and it is likely Michael Tobin's name will come up. The Boise resident is a world-renowned endurance athlete. After making a name for himself in the endurance running, mountain biking, triathlons and road cycling fields, Tobin entered his first adventure race in 2000. Since then, he has traveled with Team Nike to races on nearly every continent. Together, their team has won four world championships, six Primal Qwest titles, and several Eco Challenges.

Retired in 2009, Tobin met with Idaho Public Television Producer Thanh Tan in the Boise Foothills to discuss his career — and to reveal the secrets of surviving and winning an adventure race.

Thanh Tan: Tell us a bit about what the focus of your life has been the last several years before you retired from adventure racing? What was your life like on a daily basis?
Michael Tobin: Adventure racing has taken me all over the world really. But one of the pleasures of it is daily living here in Boise and running in the foothills. Part of the training is going exploring and getting lost in Idaho and running the rivers. So this is a great backyard for me to prepare for adventure racing.

Tan: Describe this sport. For those of us who don't know it, what is adventure racing?
Tobin: It's quite flexible and malleable. It generally involves being in the outdoors. Finding your way from one checkpoint to the next via either foot travel or mountain biking or paddling. And you're traveling with a team, so it's a team sport and you're trying to do it as efficiently as possible because you're racing other teams. There's different formats. Some will take a day or a few hours. Some will take multi days or through the night. Some will take a week long. So adventure racing can have many different formats.

Bicycling in the desert during day 5 of the 2007 Abu Dhabi Adventure ChallengeTan: What's the key to being a successful adventure racer?
Tobin: I think attitude probably. One of the great things about adventure racing — it's really designed to challenge your patience and your personality I suppose. And because you go out into the outdoors to a place you've never been before. You're bound to make mistakes. Get lost. Get tired. Get exhausted. Have conflicts with your teammates. So it's a matter of overcoming those obstacles and having a good attitude about it — which helps your teammates and helps yourself.

Tan: Talk about the teamwork aspect of this sport.
Tobin: Everyone in every team has their weak points. You can be the strongest mountain biker, but all of a sudden you get really tired and you need help from your teammates. So it's important to remember that you work together and you help each other. And being negative and getting down on somebody doesn't help you progress forward. Doesn't make it very much fun, either.

Tan: How do you train for an adventure race?
Tobin: It's nice to be consistent in endurance activities, because that's how you improve. So if you can go out daily or 3, 4 times a week. And go running in the foothills or mountain biking. That's really the foundation because then you have good cardiovascular foundation and your legs are toughening up for the rigors of adventure racing. But it's also important to take advantage of the weekends and I think Idahoans know all about that. Either run the rivers or go hike in some mountains.

Mike Tobin rapels with a teammate during an adventure challenge.Tan: What's the key to making a team work aside from attitude?
Tobin: I think it's important for each team member to work on each individual discipline during their training. But there's also individuals naturally gifted at orienteering or navigating. Someone who's the expert paddler. Someone might be the best mountain biker. And those people become leaders during those sections. Other people lean on them for advice or guidance.

Tan: Explain the orienteering and navigational part of adventure racing?
Tobin: Almost all adventure races, most of the segments are you start with a map and they don't tell you how to get there. So you have to navigate the most efficient way to the next checkpoint. So a lot of choices, a lot of map and compass work. Anytime you get to practice is very beneficial.

Our team (Team Nike) has always been known as being very fit. So we can go places fast. But we often make mistakes because we go places fast that aren't the right direction. So it's the scenario that we've really had to work on and become proficient in. It's a great equalizer. Sometime the smartest people are the ones who persevere in adventure racing. Those who are rushing about like a rabbit, darting around trying to find a checkpoint, aren't necessarily the top teams.

Tan: You really don't know what to expect in these races, do you?
Tobin: One of the rules of adventure racing is you don't know what's ahead of you. So you have to have a fairly relaxed attitude, because you've never been there before. So much can happen. Breakdowns or getting lost in terrain you've never been in. That's half the draw. That's the adventure. You're going out into something raw and something new.

Mike Tobin and teammates compete in the running portion of the 2006 Team Nike PowerBlast Adventure Racing in Vail, CO.Tan: When you go through this, another aspect is kayaking. People paddled along Tobin: Lake Pend Oreille for two hours at least. There was lightning overhead. What is that usually like?
Tobin: Paddling is one of the key events in adventure racing. Almost all adventure races have paddling sections. It might be paddling across a lake or back and forth across the lake. There might be some whitewater on rivers, which Idaho is perfect for. There's sea kayaking often in the oceans. So there are lots of different boats. Perhaps rafts; perhaps sea kayaks; perhaps dingys. So a good adventure racing team has become proficient at steering and paddling different craft. And there's generally people who are good paddlers and not so good paddlers. So there's always ways to help the weaker paddlers by putting them with a strong paddler or have one boat tow the other boat. There's plenty of strategy involved.

Tan: What's the difference between a team like Team Nike and another team that's just starting out and isn't that advanced? What's the difference in technique or skill?
Tobin: Team Nike's been out there a long time. And the athletes not only have a huge endurance background and have been professional in mountain biking or running or something, it seems. But other than that, you know we line up with everybody and we go out into the unknown with everybody and we deal with the same things. We've probably dealt with a lot more mishaps over time so we've gained more experience. That's probably the biggest advantage Team Nike has had over the years.

Tan: What would be your advice to other teams if they wanted to be as good as Team Nike?
Tobin: You know, you're doing it because it's fun and it's challenging and just keep that in mind. Go out there and enjoy every day of training. Appreciate what we have here in the Idaho lifestyle. Keep at it. Keep entering events — and you're going to improve.

Mike Tobin and teammates cross a fast-moving stream during the 2006 Team Nike PowerBlast Adventure Racing in Vail, CO.Tan: What do you think is Idaho's potential as a place for adventure racers?
Tobin: I feel Idaho is ideal for adventure racing. Sometimes adventure racing sounds like it's an aggressive way to interact with the land, but really the impact is minor. There aren't that many people and they're not all blazing a trail through virgin alpine wilderness. People are spread out. They can be funneled in different ways. So I think adventure racing is a low impact activity that really attracts people who want to go out and explore an adventure. That's certainly what got me into it. Idaho has so much — open space, unpopulated maze of mountains, and endless rivers — that it's really an ideal location. And we've got a great public land system that I think can support it very well.

Tan: What will it take to grow the sport in this state?
Tobin: I think the Idaho Tourism Board is really behind the sport. So it's a matter of getting race directors from around the world to look at Idaho a little more. Several have already. We've had some pretty big adventure racers here. The big expedition style adventure race has yet to come to Idaho, but I think it could very soon. What I mean by expedition is the week-long event where teams set out one day and come back seven days later.

Tan: What's up with these multi-day races? Talk about the role of deprivation.
Tobin: One of the challenges of adventure racing … I mean, people have seen the Eco Challenge on TV. That's what we call expedition adventure racing. Fatigue and lack of sleep become big factors in those events. We've done some races that were seven days long and we got about seven hours of sleep — total. That's not recommended. I think getting a little more sleep helps you perform better, but sometimes the competition is so fierce, you really don't have that option.

Members of an adventure racing team compete in the kayak portion of the race.Tan: That seems really extreme and unhealthy. What would make somebody like you want to deprive yourself?
Tobin: You know, when I first started with my team, they invited me to an event that was about a week long in Switzerland. They said we'd probably sleep only about eight hours in a week. And I thought, 'Is that possible? How is that possible?' Then here I was at a starting line with 200 other people; all smiles on their faces and looking forward to it! I thought, 'These people are nuts!' But, one of the things that has impressed me most is it has expanded my limits of what I can do as a person. The challenges that we face in adventure racing has opened up my mind about what I can do. I don't complain about waking up early anymore or getting a poor night's sleep, as examples. What the human body is capable of — its really amazing. It's a treat to be able to go out and explore those limits.

Adventure racing is all about endurance. What does endurance mean to you?
Tobin: Technically, I consider endurance as being able to go hard for lack of a better technical word for an extended period of time. I think there's so many people here in Idaho who love to go mountain biking or running. They're working on endurance or just going out to enjoy the outdoors, moving, and breathing. To me, it's just being alive. And to me, endurance is just a component of playing.

Tan: What's the draw, though? Why?
Tobin: I think the draw to endurance activities is diverse as there are people out there. Everyone gets something out of it. I know I grew up in Idaho and what attracted me was all these mountains over my head. And I wanted to climb them and go see what's over that valley and over that ridge. I've realized my perspective of the world changes just seeing the space and the wildlife. And so that became really rewarding to me. And then also came the challenge component. To see how fit I could be to go to the places I wanted to go. And then I did some racing also as a way of personally challenging my fitness. So there's different elements to endurance.

Mike Tobin and a teammate compete in the mountain biking portion of the race in the 2007 Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge.My involvement in endurance sports is probably due to growing up in Ketchum, Idaho — a town where the whole reason the town was there was for recreational activities in the mountains. So that became the value system. That's why we were there. So exploring mountains and doing sports was what it was all about. So I started competing in you name it … endurance wise. But professionally in running and then running and cycling, and triathlon, mountain biking. I did a lot of road cycling. Adventure racing for me was coming full circle, that's what I did when I first started just by hiking the mountains.

Tan: Is there an appeal about going for a sport that's on the fringe?
Tobin: You know, yes. These sports are on the fringe if you look at the mainstream us sports, but the population of the U.S. is so large. The amount of people who do these sports is pretty extensive. There's probably hundreds of sports that won't compete with baseball and football and basketball … and I don't think anyone has a problem with that!

Tan: Can the average person really consider being an adventure racer?
Tobin: Every sport I know has an entry level. A way to get involved in the activity where you don't have to go off into a training school in order to do them. So, there are running events every week. There are cycling events. You don't even have to do that. You can just run the foothills to get fit. That creates a foundation upon which you can look at many of the events out there. That's really what it is. What events capture your imagination? And say hey, this really excites me. And we're fortunate in that we've got a lot of creative adventures out there.

Mike Tobin and teammates compete in the rafting portion of a race.Tan: What is it like for you to go and compete in all these places around the world?
Tobin: One of the big attractions of adventure racing for me to get involved in it is many of the marquee events were overseas in exotic places. And not just major cities, but we're talking really remote places around the world. And it gave me an opportunity to really go off the beaten path. So it's been extremely rewarding, whether it's China, Malaysia or Africa. The list goes on. So that's another thing that attracted me to adventure racing, is that it's something you can do everywhere.

Tan: You've never felt a desire to leave Idaho permanently? You can get your training here?
Tobin: Yes. I spend a lot of time heading to the Boise Airport. Getting on a plane, I always ask for a window seat, and I look out and see my neck of the woods. If I was destined to live in the western U.S. for the rest of my life, I'd be happy as a clam. There's so many great places to explore. Such a diversity of mountains, canyons and rivers.