Called the Subaru Primal Quest, the race takes place over 10 days, covers over 400 miles around Lake Tahoe and involves white water paddling, mountain climbing, road biking, scootering, trekking, rock climbing and rappelling – and with speed being of the utmost importance, racers often survive on as little as 1-2 hours sleep a night.
Copeland is the daughter of Irish tailor, Louis Copeland, who has been attracting publicity with a pair of JFK’s boxers hanging in his Dublin store window.
A relative newcomer to the sport of adventure racing, she first got interested last year by a snippet of television.
“It was New Year’s Day and I was at home, watching T.V. with my Dad,” said Copeland, speaking by phone from Nashville last week. “They were showing an adventure races being held in Borneo and I was immediately interested.”
Copeland emailed one of the top female athletes in the sport and asked for advice on how to get involved.
The Rathgar native had first moved to Nashville, Tennessee, three years ago to pursue a career in music. Copeland had plenty of experience in the spotlight, having been lead singer of McIntyre, a band known on the Dublin pub circuit.
She soon realized, however, that the city, famed for its country & western music, was populated by many hopefuls.
“Once I got there, I realized that everyone wanted to be a singer or a musician,” she said.
Fortunately, Copeland came prepared with a two-year media production course from the Dublin Institute of Technology, which she supplemented by completing a sound engineering training course in Temple Bar, Dublin.
Shelving her plans for a singing career, she started working behind the scenes and now acts as assistant to a music writer who has penned songs for such country and western luminaries as Faith Hill and Tim McGraw.
“The flexibility of the job is great,” said Copeland, “I am able to take time off to do this race and other competitions.”
Despite the new experiences Copeland had in Nashville, she needed an activity to replace the hockey that had consumed so much of her time in Ireland.
As captain of the Irish Under-21’s hockey team, Copeland was keen to get involved in sports again: the glimpse of adventure racing had her hooked.
Copeland investigated the scene in Tennessee and discovered a group of athletes who had their own adventure racing club.
“I got involved in that,” said Copeland. “Also, some of my friends were training for the Chicago marathon so I started to work out with them.”
On hearing about an academy run specifically to train athletes for the grueling adventure races that have become one of the fastest growing sports in North America, she decided to take her interest to the next level.
“I had not been running for so long, I could barely ride a bike,” said Copeland, laughing. “So I started to train and by the time I did the course in September 2002, I was one of the fittest there.”
The Odyssey Adventure Racing Academy is located in West Virginia. They hold 6-day long courses that cost $1725 per student where intrepid participants learn the finer points of rope work, river rescue, kayaking and navigation with map and compass.
With a four day training course and a two-day race at the end, the emphasis is on speed and accuracy – how best to do all these things while racing against the clock.
Steve Kirby is the administrative director of the camp. Last week, over the phone from West Virginia, he described how the Academy started.
“By 1998, there were lots of people who wanted to take part in these races but many of them were triathletes,” he said, referring to the discipline where athletes compete by swimming, cycling and running in one race.
“They needed to learn the new skills for adventure races where anything, as long as it is non-motorized, can be included.”
Kirby said that the Academy asks students to have a good athletic background.
Since training in the Academy, Copeland has taken part in seven races and has fast gained proficiency of the sport.
At some stage last year, she saw a chance to enter the Subaru Primal Quest Race. So many apply that a lottery system is used by organizers to chose teams, like the NYC marathon.
Copeland entered her name and was one of 70 names chosen in a lottery. As designated captain, it is up to her to round up a four-person team.
The rules of the competition ensure that there must be at least one female on a team. Copeland knew that she would have to choose people who were more experienced than she was.
Having stayed in contact with some of the instructors from the Academy, she approached them with an offer to be on the team.
So far, ‘Team Eireann/louiscopeland.com’ is comprised of Copeland, Joe Moerschbaecher, aged 22 and Ronnie Angel, aged 29. They are still looking for a fourth to complete the team.
Gordon Wright is the media director of the Subaru Primal Quest race. He described the growing popularity of the sport in an email.
“It has grown so quickly because it represents the current outer limits of human endurance, much like marathons in the 60s and 70s, and triathlon in the 80s and 90s,” he said.
He added that because the Primal Quest race will be televised on CBS, there are hopes amongst the racing community, that the sport will reach a new level and become more integrated into the American consciousness.
Wright said of Copeland, “she’s really something. Avril won a lottery spot in the registration and when we saw her
background we had some doubts. This is the toughest adventure race in the US, and it’s not for beginners.”
However, he added that with her natural athleticism, her ability and her prowess in training, she is in with a chance.
“Depending on her teammates and their fitness level, we expect her to do well,” he said.
Adventure racing does not come cheap and the entry fee for the Primal Quest is $6,500.
On top of that, the team must pay for flights to Lake Tahoe and accommodation for four nights before the race. This enables the organizers to do health and safety checks.
Added to that is the cost of a support vehicle which will be manned by a two-man crew and all the specialized equipment needed in order to prevent the aches and pains, like ‘trench foot’ that are associated with this type of rigorous race.
In order to offset some of these expenses, Copeland has secured sponsorship from Anglo-Irish Bank and hopes to approach other Irish businesses in the U.S.
In the meantime, Copeland and her team-mates will continue to train for up to two hours a day and eight hours at the weekend – no doubt spurred on by the constant reminders on the race website that a team is as fast as its slowest member.