Adventure Racing: A Way of Life

Local adventure racers hike, hike, paddle and orienteer—on an unpredictable course—testing their bodies and brains
WAY FINDING (Right) Charles Mixer, Murray Kirk, Rhonda Mixer and Chris McKee of Team TFJG. (Below) Mark Montague.

At 2 a.m. on July 18, 2021, four adventure racers from Coastal Virginia agreed: The tree in front of them—deep in the woods of Maine—was indeed the tree they had spotted 45 minutes earlier. And they were indeed walking in circles.

“We said ‘holy crap,’” Chris McKee, president of Virginia Beach’s The Franklin Johnston Group (TFJG), remembers.

PHOTO ABOVE: WAY FINDING Charles Mixer, Murray Kirk, Rhonda Mixer and Chris McKee of Team TFJG.

His teammates—Rhonda Mixer, Charles Mixer and Murray Kirk (this writer’s husband) – burst into laughter as he recounts their first adventure race, a 24-hour test of orienteering, hiking, biking and paddling skills. No cell phones allowed.

“The laughter you hear now,” Chris continues, “was about the same out there. You can laugh at just about anything that’s happened to you if you have good partners.”

Hatching a Crazy Idea
Eighteen hours earlier, race directors at the starting line handed Murray maps of mid-coast Maine, the location of Maine Summer Adventure Race 2021. Twelve maps, 10 more than he anticipated.

“I remember your face when you saw those maps,” Rhonda says to Murray. “I asked you, ‘What? What’s wrong?!’”

Murray’s unexpressed thought: We’re in deep doo-doo.

The team had celebrated TFJG’s eighth anniversary in mid-May. At the party, work talk turned to the personal, and Chris mentioned he was watching World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji, about a multi-day adventure race. Murray shared he had completed a 24-hour adventure race on the Eastern Shore seven years earlier.

Mark Montague, an electrical engineer from Portsmouth, was the race director.

“Adventure racing is a way of life,” Mark says in a rare free moment during a phone interview.

He’s conquered more than 100 races—on top of working, being married, umpiring baseball games, playing softball, teaching Scouts orienteering and planning races. Mark’s busy ways aren’t surprising, given he was a four-sport athlete in high school. Football-wrestling-track-baseball turned into running-biking-swimming in triathlons, a goal Mark set for himself after a motorcycle accident put him in a wheelchair and rehab for a year.

Adventure racing gear packed by Mark Montague
Adventure racing gear packed by Mark Montague

Needing a New Challenge
Soon enough, though, Mark got bored. Xterras, a rugged, offroad sibling of triathlons, kept his attention next—but only for a few years.

“I was looking for something more,” he says.

Friend Don Mann, a former Navy SEAL commander, author and motivational speaker who was living in Virginia Beach at the time, understood.

“He said ‘adventure racing,’” Mark says. “It’s kind of what you’ve been doing, but on steroids. You’re using maps and compasses, and there’s no set course. They’re a few hours to a few days long.’”

Mark volunteered in races Don organized and started competing in 2001. Success came quickly, with Mark and teammates winning. He directed races, too, loving the creativity. Some years, Mark spent more time directing, others racing. Either way, he felt he was amongst family.

“You go to a race,” he says, “and know more than half the people. Adventure racers are a close-knit group.”

Mark is a proud “papa.” In May, he traveled to a Delaware race. Two groups of his students—people he coached in navigating to checkpoints (hidden orange and white flags) with not much more than hiking shoes, a map, a compass, a bike and a kayak—placed on the finishers’ podium. They stood high up, second and third, out of 50 teams.

Mark espouses a tried-and-true race philosophy when teaching others: Go slow to go fast.

How Slow Equals Fast
Once racers receive the maps (usually an hour before the race), they will—if Mark’s magic words are stored in their head—study them and plot their routes perfectly. They want to be efficient in hitting three key route components:

  • The (mostly) optional hidden orange flags to earn points
  • The required transition areas
  • The required biking, hiking and paddling sections

By slowly and carefully thinking through each step first, racers are better prepared to speed through the course.

The first time Murray raced in 2014, he received two maps.

“The small area we covered had three roads,” Murray says, “and one was closed. That was easy.”

When in Maine, with 12 maps covering many counties, Murray didn’t yet know Mark’s magic. He and the team would learn it months later when they would attend a clinic.

It was unsettling to overhear teams confidently picking routes, but Murray was grateful that Chris had wisely shared maps of Maine weeks earlier. Some areas looked familiar. Also helping: Murray was a strong paddler, having been a member of Mid-Atlantic Paddler’s Association for 10 years. Chris rode bikes; Rhonda and Charles hiked.

“They sat with Murray and me at our work anniversary party,” Chris says. “I thought, ‘they’re outdoorsy.’ We all said adventure racing together sounded like a cool idea. Whenever I hear something like that, I just run with it.”

Group texts pinged the morning after. Chris entered them in the 24-hour race known as “the hardest day in Maine,” covering up to 100 miles. TFJG offered a generous sponsorship. Company vendors did, too. The four teammates trained riding mountain bikes at York River State Park and False Cape State Park. They practiced orienteering at Windsor Castle Park. They upped their skills on sea kayaks at First Landing State Park.

The 10 weeks to prepare were enough: With more than an hour to spare, in the pouring rain, after making more wrong turns and more memories, Team TFJG rode across the Maine finish line.

The team has completed three more 24-hour races together. Chris and Murray joined one of Chris’ friends in a 72-hour race across Florida, and Rhonda and Charles have entered one-day races. Being allowed in usually-off-limits wilderness, after dark, testing their physical limits, whipping through a forest on a bike, maybe seeing the first peek of daylight from a mountain top, keeps them coming back for more.

“I know they call it a race,” Charles says, “but you can take your time and just complete the course. You don’t have to go super fast. Just try to finish it. Just try to enjoy it.”


Upcoming Adventure Races

Buff Betty Adventure Race
Sept. 9, 2023
A 10-hour race for women in Shenandoah River State Park. Learn more at

Shenandoah River Adventure Race
Sept. 16, 2023
Choose from 4-, 8- and 12-hour races for beginner to advanced levels. Learn more at

Conquer the Mountain
Oct. 14-15, 2023
Featuring a 24-hour race for advanced racers and a 6-hour race for beginners. Learn more at

Fall Foliage Adventure Race
Oct. 14, 2023
Paddle and trek in a 4-hour race or add in biking and climbing (if you like) in a 15-hour race. Learn more at

Local Adventure Racing Resources

Individual and Group Training
Learn from expert racer Mark Montague and other local big leaguers. In addition to offering one-on-one training, Mark is planning an early fall 2023 group class with Chip Dodd. Contact or visit

Team thisABILITY
Headed by Chip Dodd and Andrea Anderson, leaders of Support Services of Virginia, Inc., this team comprises 20 racers competing worldwide. In May, select members raced for four days in Croatia. In October, some will head to Africa for a nine-day challenge. Read their blog and listen to their podcast. Visit

Central Virginia Orienteering Club
Practice map- and compass-reading skills at monthly events on the Peninsula and in Williamsburg and Richmond. Visit

Windsor Castle Park Compass Courses
Download the guides, grab a compass and navigate the orienteering courses. Visit

Kristen De Deyn Kirk
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