Larger Than Life

The incredible feats of five St. Louis endurance athletes and what drives them to this do-or-die way of life.

 

 

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Aaron Fanetti, the Adventurer

Age: 38
Software Architect, Protective Life Incorporated

Aaron Fanetti knew he was going to die. Not in the metaphorical sense‰ÛÓthe literal one. The tracks he had been using to guide his bike were gone in the whiteout blizzard conditions. His GPS was of little to no help with waypoints more than 50 miles apart. Fanetti stood next to his bike on the side of an Alaskan mountain, alone, and thought about his options. The temperature was negative 20 degrees and getting colder. “I did the only thing that I thought I could do,” says Fanetti, an experienced hiker, adventure racer and cyclist. “I built myself a snow coffin, curled up inside of it with my sleeping bag and waited for what I was sure would be death.”

Fortunately for Fanetti, the sun came up the next morning. He got back on his bike and continued the remaining 200 miles of the 350-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational, an annual trek along the same trail as the famous dog race. Each year, hundreds of adventure-hungry applicants apply and only 50 are chosen. It takes a person of a certain disposition to even consider that hundreds of miles through an Alaskan winter is a good use of vacation time. It takes a person of an even more peculiar nature to sign up and do it again after a near-death experience. But that’s exactly what Fanetti did in February of this year. In 2010, the race took him nine days. In 2013, he did the same 350-mile course in five. “You only remember the good stuff‰ÛÓall of the terrifying, exhilarating moments like feeling lost on a mountain or biking across a frozen lake…most people don’t get to have experiences like that.”

The Iditarod race is only the latest chapter in a history of extreme fitness challenges for Fanetti. His diversion into the ultra side of athleticism started several years ago when he became fed up with the way most people choose to live and train. “We are so padded as a society,” says Fanetti, who also tackles an annual 24-hour, nonstop summer cycling event through southern Illinois called the MFer. (Last year the group cycled for over 300 miles.) “We have fences, guard rails and safety nets. I guess I just wanted to revolt against that.”

Fanetti started this revolt in small ways. He stopped taking a credit card, spare tire and cell phone on long bike rides. When something went wrong, he had to rely on himself. There was no easy way out. For Fanetti, it’s his way of training his mind. “I don’t carry a sign and advise that others do this,” he says. “The world feels different when you’re wearing a pair of $160 running shoes versus standing barefoot in the mud.”

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Yusef Daneshyar, the Climber

Age: 37
Parks Dept., City of Webster Groves

In the high school cafeteria that is endurance water sports, Shane Perrin sits proudly at the freak table. Perrin, a stand-up paddler, has spent the better part of the last two years single-handedly popularizing a sport that didn’t even exist in the Midwest‰ÛÓand along the way, he has shaped himself into one of the country’s only endurance stand-up paddlers.

“I’ve always had a kind of restlessness and independence,” says Perrin, who constructed his first stand-up paddle board in his basement using an old canoe and a 1937 Popular Mechanics magazine. “I was married and had a kid and then I thought, ‰Û÷Is this all there is?’ That was about the time I saw a guy on the internet paddling in the ocean. I instantly thought that was something I wanted to do.”

Stand-up paddling, which is more popular on the coasts, is very much what it sounds like. Unlike canoeing or kayaking, the paddler stands on what appears to be a glorified surfboard. Perrin soon began entering river endurance races across the Midwest‰ÛÓsometimes having to beg organizers to allow him to compete. “I was told, ‰Û÷You’re disrupting the culture and tainting the sport,'” he recalls. “I turned a blind eye. I knew that if I could hold my own, then I would earn their respect.”

Perrin has done more than just hold his own. Over the last two years, he has paddled the La Ruta Maya Belize River Challenge, a four-day, 179-mile race. He completed what’s regarded as the world’s toughest canoe race, the 264-mile Texas Water Safari, and he also tamed Missouri’s MR340, the world’s longest nonstop river race. But it was one of his first endurance races, the 2011 WaterTribe Everglades Challenge, that was of particular significance. Ten years prior, Perrin had received a kidney transplant from his mother. So, after he finished the 300-mile race across the Florida Everglades, Perrin continued for an additional 100 miles out of gratitude to his mother and in an effort to raise awareness about organ transplants. He also saw it as a good way to increase the visibility of stand-up paddling as a bonafide sport.

To train for events, Perrin is up every morning at 4am doing strength training, and he’s back at it again in the evening. On Saturdays, he gets in four hours of paddling. In his “spare time,” Perrin founded SUP St. Louis, an organization aimed at increasing the popularity of stand-up paddling. “I like it when people tell me, ‰Û÷no,’ or that something is impossible,” he says. “It inspires me to work harder and do it…I hope my kids learn from me that you don’t have to let people tell you that something is impossible. The only limitations that exist are the ones you put on yourself.”

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Emily Korsch, the Racer

Age: 29
Civil Rights Compliance Manager, Alberici Construction

It’s hard to get Emily Korsch to admit she had a good day. She’s the kind of person who, after finishing in the top 25 of her age group at the 2011 ITU Long Distance Triathlon World Championships in Las Vegas, describes her performance as “a B-minus.” Her finish of sixth in her age group at the Coeur d’Alene Ironman, she says, was “not her best day.”

“I’m a competitive person, and I like to win,” says Korsch, who played soccer at Washington University and began competing in triathlons a few years after graduation. Her competitiveness, however, is balanced with a healthy desire for connectedness and teamwork. So, when she had the opportunity in 2010 to jump into adventure racing‰ÛÓa multisport, off-road cousin to the triathlon‰ÛÓshe jumped at the chance. “With adventure racing, you don’t know the course until close to race time,” she says. “Sometimes it’s the night before or the morning of the event. You have to be on your game all the time and rely on your team. With a triathlon, some people will train for that specific course. It feels like some of the athleticism is taken out of it with that much planning.”

Adventure racing generally includes trail running, navigation, mountain biking, paddling and off-road trekking. Most of the races last 12 to 24 hours and involve geotracking certain check-in points across mixed terrain. Teams consist of four people, and coed teams are three men and one “bad-ass woman”‰ÛÓa role that seems made for Korsch. Since she started adventure racing, Korsch has been drafted by a handful of competitive teams, including Pfoodman and Alpine Shop. Down the column of the detailed spreadsheet she keeps on her race blog (silkychrome.blogspot.com) you’ll see a multitude of first-place finishes. Since February of this year, she has had some kind of competition nearly every weekend.

“I’m choosy about the kind of team that I want to be on,” says Korsch, whose Alpine Shop team is eyeing competition at nationals this year. She’s also a die-hard trainer, who can be found running, cycling, paddling and even roller blading to keep her endurance up and skills sharp. “I’m a volume hog; I train 15 to 20 hours per week while most adventure racers are at 10 to 15 hours,” she says. Camaraderie amongst competing adventure racing teams is part of the gig, but at the end of the day, “You still want to beat them‰ÛÓand beat them when they are having a good day,” Korsch says.

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Shane Perrin, the Paddler

Age: 37
Parks Dept., City of Webster Groves

In the high school cafeteria that is endurance water sports, Shane Perrin sits proudly at the freak table. Perrin, a stand-up paddler, has spent the better part of the last two years single-handedly popularizing a sport that didn’t even exist in the Midwest‰ÛÓand along the way, he has shaped himself into one of the country’s only endurance stand-up paddlers.

“I’ve always had a kind of restlessness and independence,” says Perrin, who constructed his first stand-up paddle board in his basement using an old canoe and a 1937 Popular Mechanics magazine. “I was married and had a kid and then I thought, ‰Û÷Is this all there is?’ That was about the time I saw a guy on the internet paddling in the ocean. I instantly thought that was something I wanted to do.”

Stand-up paddling, which is more popular on the coasts, is very much what it sounds like. Unlike canoeing or kayaking, the paddler stands on what appears to be a glorified surfboard. Perrin soon began entering river endurance races across the Midwest‰ÛÓsometimes having to beg organizers to allow him to compete. “I was told, ‰Û÷You’re disrupting the culture and tainting the sport,'” he recalls. “I turned a blind eye. I knew that if I could hold my own, then I would earn their respect.”

Perrin has done more than just hold his own. Over the last two years, he has paddled the La Ruta Maya Belize River Challenge, a four-day, 179-mile race. He completed what’s regarded as the world’s toughest canoe race, the 264-mile Texas Water Safari, and he also tamed Missouri’s MR340, the world’s longest nonstop river race. But it was one of his first endurance races, the 2011 WaterTribe Everglades Challenge, that was of particular significance. Ten years prior, Perrin had received a kidney transplant from his mother. So, after he finished the 300-mile race across the Florida Everglades, Perrin continued for an additional 100 miles out of gratitude to his mother and in an effort to raise awareness about organ transplants. He also saw it as a good way to increase the visibility of stand-up paddling as a bonafide sport.

To train for events, Perrin is up every morning at 4am doing strength training, and he’s back at it again in the evening. On Saturdays, he gets in four hours of paddling. In his “spare time,” Perrin founded SUP St. Louis, an organization aimed at increasing the popularity of stand-up paddling. “I like it when people tell me, ‰Û÷no,’ or that something is impossible,” he says. “It inspires me to work harder and do it…I hope my kids learn from me that you don’t have to let people tell you that something is impossible. The only limitations that exist are the ones you put on yourself.”

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Teri Griege, the Ironman

Age: 51
Inspirational Speaker

When Teri Griege crossed the finish line at the 2011 Ironman World Championship in Kona, HI, there wasn’t a chance she was going to play it cool. She had, after all, conquered the toughest Ironman course in the world with a time that was in the middle on an elite field of competitors. And she did it all with stage 4 colorectal cancer.

“I was overwhelmed with a feeling of gratitude,” says Griege, who qualified for Kona as an inspirational athlete. “My family and my oncologist were at the finish line. As God would have it, no one else finished for five minutes; it was like being a rock star.”

Griege didn’t qualify for Kona the way she thought she would. In 2008, she nearly made the cut from an Ironman in Louisville with a finish time of 12 hours and 30 minutes. Then when she attempted to qualify for the same race the following year, she finished slower. She noticed she had injuries that were not healing, and she had blood in her stool. A colonoscopy and CAT scan later, she sat down with the doctor to hear the news‰ÛÓshe had colon cancer and it had spread to her liver. Within moments of her diagnosis, “stage 4 colon cancer” was a search term in Griege’s Google bar. She learned that it had a 6 percent, five-year survival rate. The timeline that is generally given for a person’s life is two years. “At first, I thought I was basically doomed; those are not good odds,” she says. “Then I thought, ‘Why can’t I be part of that 6 percent?'”

Over the next two years, Griege underwent radiation treatments and chemotherapy. She had portions of her colon and liver removed. Through all of it, she never stopped training. Her faith and team of caretakers are credited with strengthening her mind and giving her the perspective she needs. “You can survive for years without your cancer actually being in remission,” Griege says. “I go in for one week of treatments and then I have two weeks off. It just keeps things at bay. When it stops working, there will hopefully be a new [solution]”

Griege‰ÛÓwho claims that she no longer competes, just participates‰ÛÓrecently completed the London Marathon. She’s on pace for several Half Ironman competitions and potentially another Ironman this year. Over the last two years, she’s dedicated her time to sharing her experiences and being an inspirational coach to others facing cancer. Her inspirational memoir, “Powered by Hope,” is due out before the end of the year. “I think it is either in your DNA or it isn’t,” she says. “You have to have an inner grit. I think that everybody has a cancer in their lives and everybody has a dream.”

 

Photo credit: Attilio D’Agostino, assisted by Pei Heng Zeng

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