When left to one’s own device in an unfamiliar setting, anyone can feel petrified. But, it is here where NortonLifeLock India head Ritesh Chopra’s team playing skills shine through. In 2007, when Chopra and his colleagues took part in Eco Challenge in New Zealand, the team of five came together to navigate their way through an unmarked wilderness course. Of the 40 teams participating, their team finished 36th. Not an impressive score, admits Chopra, but it ignited his love for the little known sport of adventure racing.
For the uninitiated, adventure racing has three core elements — trekking, biking and paddling. Depending on the course, the organisers might add other activities such as horse riding or skiing. “The duration of the races can be anything between two hours to two weeks,” explains Chopra. And, the ultimate goal is to navigate your way through the wilderness to reach the finish line with all team members by your side. “So essentially, you are as strong as the slowest member of your team,” says Chopra, who has successfully completed four such expedition races, two in New Zealand (in 2007 and 2008), one in Hawaii in 2011 and one in Rishikesh in 2014.
His most memorable one remains the Eco Challenge in New Zealand’s South Island. “I had never experienced anything like that before,” he recalls. Seven months ahead of the event, Chopra started training. He biked 100 kilometres a day and also brushed up on his navigation and topography skills. “It is important to understand the map given to you or you’ll keep going in circles and the emergency team will have to rescue you,” he says.
The 65-kilometre day-long race started at 5:30 am and the initial challenge was to get to an island by kayaking. “The first splash of icy cold water wakes you up — physically and mentally,” says Chopra. In the team was a 59-year-old colleague whose knees buckled. Adjusting to the situation quickly, the team made changes to their strategy and helped the senior co-worker by carrying his bike and pulling him along for a 35-kilometre stretch of mountain biking. By the time they finished, they were all exhausted and had blisters on their feet, but it was all worth it.
“These situations teach you how different people react under pressure,” says Chopra. At that moment, the team could have easily given up. But, they chose to stick through and finish the race. In the subsequent races, over the next few years, Chopra discovered more about his colleagues and friends. Out of their comfort zones, some were extremely aggressive and goal-oriented while others were process-oriented and wanted to enjoy the race. “You learn about the life and personality of others in a single go,” he says.
It is this learning that Chopra takes to the boardroom. According to him, one adventure race can teach a person more lessons than 20 years of education. “It might sound cliché but the sport is truly life changing. Eventually, it is you against nature,” he says. For those keen on trying the sport for the first time, Chopra has one advice — building your endurance. “There is no concrete plan that will work; so you have to be prepared for the worst,” he says.
Navigating through tough terrain might not be for the faint-hearted. Fortunately, Chopra is not afraid of heights or water, which makes him the perfect candidate to take on such courses. If it weren’t for the lockdown, he would have been white water rafting in Ladakh’s Zanskar River. In the next two years, he hopes to go back to New Zealand and complete another expedition race. Till then, his daily routine of running on the treadmill incline, finding time from his busy schedule for biking and an occasional swim will have to suffice.