Adventure of a lifetime

Who says there is nothing good on television?

While the merits of television’s influence over children remain subject for debate, Thomas Bastis says lazing in front of the tube changed his life – for the better.

Bastis, superintendent at The California Golf Club of San Francisco, credits watching a broadcast of “Eco-Challenge: The Expedition Race” in 2002 for leading him to competing in what are known as adventure races. Eco-Challenge was a series of televised races developed by reality show producer Mark Burnett (“Survivor”, “Rock Star”, “The Apprentice”) in which co-ed teams competed in a variety of events such as hiking, kayaking, horseback riding and mountain biking.

Bastis already was a dedicated cyclist, having ridden for his college team at the California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo, and his friend and fellow superintendent Scott Bower, now at Martis Camp in Truckee, Calif., was an accomplished mountain biker.

“(Burnett) put together these races in faraway lands like Morocco and New Zealand and Fiji,” said Bastis, 37. “It just looked cool, going through all this insane terrain. I said ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to do that, Scott?’ ”

Today, Bastis, Bower and the rest of their team compete in adventure races of varying lengths, including Primal Quest Badlands 2009, scheduled for Aug. 15-24. In that event, about 75 four-person teams from around the world will bike, trek, run, kayak, swim, climb, rappel and spelunk some 600 miles through the Badlands and Black Hills regions of South Dakota.

In some ways adventure races are similar to the daily routine faced by golf course superintendents in that both carry an element of surprise. Just like walking into an irrigation line break first thing in the morning, the route of each race is not disclosed until minutes before they are scheduled to begin, with supplies stored in stations throughout the race layout.

“It’s not until then that you get a map and directions,” he said.

Both also require the ability to adapt and change to your surroundings. The team goes hours or sometimes days between stations, so sleep, water and food often are in short supply.

“It’s not just a matter of carrying enough PowerBars,” he said. “If you eat too many, sometimes you feel like hitting someone with one if you have to eat another one. There is a lot of thinking involved, and you are rewarded for thinking things out. It’s not just you against the clock.

“You have to be resourceful; there isn’t just one way to do things. And you can’t make decisions with emotions because that rarely works out. It’s the same in business.”

He points to a recent golf course renovation at Cal Club as yet another example of adventure racing and his job as superintendent mirroring each other to a degree. Heavy rains washed away large areas of new turf, forcing him and his crew to start from scratch in several locations throughout the course.

“You kind of bare your soul in these race,” he said. “People will see you at your absolute worst out there, and you can’t hide it. You can’t always just suck it up. In some cases you’re going to cry, you’re going to hurt. And after that you are going to rally and take another step. During the renovation we were washed out big time. We had huge amounts of work to do over again on nine holes. You have to be able to say ‘so what? Let’s do it again.’ Then you’re going to rally and move forward. One step forward is better than no step at all.”

Although some no doubt will cringe when thinking about climbing the face of a mountain, exploring a cave or running for hours on end, such tasks are therapeutic for Bastis.

“There is a certain amount of danger involved in these events, and I found that appealing,” he said. “I’ve since found it to be the greatest vacation ever.”

Each member of the team has a specific role – Bastis serves as his team’s cartographer/navigator, another is the bike mechanic, another is the first aid/medical expert, etc. And just as in turf maintenance, each member of the team must rely on the others for its overall success.

“One of the rules is you can’t be more than 100 yards from any of your teammates at any given time, so you’re only as fast as your slowest person,” he said. “You can help them if you have to. You can carry their backpack, carry their water or even tow them if you have to.

“Ultimately, navigation is the greatest equalizer of all. If you’re going fast, but you’re going in the wrong direction, well then it’s sort of a tortoise beats the hare kind of thing.”

Bastis has competed in some 40 events of varying lengths, including 30 “sprint” races (12 hours or less in duration) and 10 24-hour races. Each is a testament not only to the physical prowess of the participants, but to their mental toughness and organizational, team-building and social skills as well. And that makes choosing the right teammates critical given the amount of time spent together under less-than-favorable-conditions.

For example, during an event in Moab, Utah, Bastis said he slept a total of 17 hours in eight days. Despite the grueling conditions, he and his teammates managed to finish 22nd among a field of 95 teams.

“How do you go on that amount of sleep?” Bastis asked rhetorically. “You don’t; you rely on your teammates to keep you awake.

“I’ve fallen asleep walking, I’ve fallen asleep kayaking, I’ve fallen off my bike because I fell asleep. Your body goes through sort of a rhythm. It’s the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. You can train (for events), but you can’t train for sleep deprivation.”

Preparing for these events takes a great deal of determination and dedication.

Bastis and his teammates train throughout the year, with the various components to their regimen increasing in intensity or distance and time as an event draws nearer. His weekly routine typically includes running three-four days, bicycling three-four days, one or two days of kayaking and three days in the gym.

“It’s not all super-high intensity, but that’s a lot of stuff,” he said.

All that training takes time from his wife, Wendy, and their children, Colin, 4, and 2-year-old Lindsey. Ever since he and Wendy were high school sweethearts in San Diego his affinity for biking and now adventure races has required some give and take from both sides.

“She knew what she was buying when she started dating me in high school,” he said.

“My workouts begin at 5 (a.m.), and I’m at work by 6:30 or 7. One of the perks is that I’m done about 2:30, so I can get in a two-hour run and still get home at a decent time. I don’t have (kids) soccer and other stuff to contend with – yet. And Saturday and Sunday I reserve for my family.”

The cost on his family time that is associated with such a schedule is matched if not surpassed by the financial burden. Aquan Sports, a water sports outfitter located in San Carlos, Calif., sponsors the team, and that helps offset the cost of equipment, which will run about $12,000 for the upcoming Badlands race. Teams also can win prize money depending on how they finish.

The organizational skills needed to coordinate training and race schedules not only for himself but also for his teammates serve Bastis well as a superintendent. He has his management program at Cal Club down to the Nth detail, and were he not surrounded by exceptional help in assistants Grant Johnson and Josh Smith, nine-day races would be merely a dream.

“Grant is my right brain. Josh (who is an accomplished painter) is my left brain,” he said.

“I have to be so organized that everything is laid out, and I surround myself with good people. I couldn’t do things like this if I had to stay at the golf course all the time and baby sit.”

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