Local team masters terrain in adventure racing

Published 11:25 am Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Standing 5-foot-8 and weighing 150 pounds, Doug Cousineau hardly looks like the type of guy who can scale tall mountains in a single day and tame the wildest jungles.

And, truth be told, he doesn’t — at least not every weekend. Those sorts of adventures are saved for special occasions.

These days, the 51-year-old Vicksburg resident is more likely to spend a weekend kayaking on the mighty Mississippi River, swimming through alligator-infested swamps or navigating his way through a dense patch of woods.

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Cousineau, along with his 22-year-old nephew Jack Oliver, also from Vicksburg, is part of the five-member Massey’s Professional Outfitters Adventure Race team. The group competes in multistage races where teams must mountain bike, run trails, kayak or canoe, climb rocks and perform other outdoors skills while navigating through a series of checkpoints. The races can last anywhere from a few hours to several days and cover dozens of miles of terrain.

Massey’s is among the best teams in the country. It’s 20th in the latest U.S. Adventure Racing Association national rankings.

“I was into cycling, I’d run, do all of these things. I would always do good, but could never finish first or second. Then I found adventure racing, where I could mix all these different events,” Cousineau said.

Cousineau’s life has been one long foray into adventure.

As an employee for United Airlines, he lived all over the world and soaked up culture and competition wherever he went.

Growing up in Oregon, he was an avid skiier and windsurfer. While living in Guam and Asia, he got into kayaking. In Alaska, it was mountain biking, running and cycling. Cousineau narrowly missed the cut for the 1984 U.S. Olympic team in road cycling.

Eventually, Cousineau found adventure racing, which allowed him to combine the various skills he’d acquired over the years. He said he’s competed in “a couple hundred” races over the past two decades, in dozens of different countries.

“It was a way to experience local culture,” Cousineau said of his various pursuits. “Running, biking, you could immerse yourself in the local culture without cutting yourself off from it. Then after a while you meet other people in those areas that have like interests and you get even more into it. I wouldn’t trade anything. It’s been a load of fun.”

Cousineau, the owner and operator of Baer House bed and breakfast on Grove Street, joined the Massey team in 2004 and moved to Vicksburg in 2006. His business offers kayaking classes on the Mississippi River, and he said the area around Vicksburg is an ideal training ground for adventure racers.

“Most places don’t have the different terrain that we have,” he said. “It’s great training. We’ve got the water, the hills, the weather is good. It’s perfect.”

Cousineau is squarely in his prime as an adventure racer. Unlike most sports, where speed and stamina decline with age, his sport rewards experience. Learning how to handle fatigue, when and when not to take risks or attempt difficult trails, and working together as a team are all as important as being able to blast through a course.

“Usually, the more experienced people do better, and the more you race the more experience you get,” Cousineau said. “Usually, the age of the winning teams in the World Series events is 45 to 50 years old.”

That makes Oliver, at 22 years old, a literal babe in the woods.

Oliver, who runs the YMCA’s aquatics program, moved to Vicksburg from Oregon last year. Already an outdoorsman, he was drawn to adventure racing by his uncle. “I knew he raced around the world and was interested in it. He introduced me to training and I took to it and enjoyed it,” Oliver said. “I helped at a race in New Orleans, and right then I knew I wanted to do it.”

The race Oliver “helped at” was the Backpacker Bushwacker 5-hour race outside Ville Platte, La., in March. Oliver served as a fill-in team member for Massey’s — three of the five team members are used for races — and helped the team win the event’s three-person co-ed division. They covered the roughly 25-mile course’s 13 checkpoints in 5 hours, 17 minutes and 18 seconds.

The victory qualified Massey’s for the U.S. Adventure Racing Association’s National Championship in New York’s Catskill Mountains in October. Oliver’s performance earned him a permanent spot on the team.

“I felt like I had something to prove because it was my first race. I didn’t want to be THAT guy that sucked and didn’t come back,” Oliver said with a laugh.

As a regular member of the team, Oliver will be called on frequently. As part of the contract with Massey’s, a store that sells outdoors equipment, the adventure racing team is required to compete in seven races per year. Cousineau said the actual number of events the team enters is closer to two dozen, about two per month.

The Massey’s sponsorship defrays some of the racing costs, but not enough to make a career of it, Cousineau said.

“We don’t do it enough to pay all our bills. We can’t quit our day jobs,” Cousineau said with a laugh.

The bigger rewards come in the small moments, like seeing dawn break over a cypress swamp or crossing paths with animals.

“The areas we get to see are absolutely beautiful. You get to see it at times of day people normally don’t,” Cousineau said.

There’s also the reward of pushing yourself beyond your limits, to places — mental and physical — that few ever reach.

“Because team members are counting on you, it pushes you further than you ever thought you could go,” Cousineau said.