Iron Woman

Santa Cruz’s Terri Schneider brings a lifetime of extreme adventures to life in her new book.

By Odile Bouchard
While recovering from a crippling sports injury, extreme endurance racer Terri Schneider found a way to experience life through her heart, rather than her head. She shares this perspective, along with stories from her athletic adventures, in her new book, Dirty Inspirations: Lessons From the Trenches of Extreme Endurance Sports.

She will be reading from and signing the book at Bookshop Santa Cruz next Wednesday, Feb. 3.

Santa Cruz born and raised, Schneider, like most people from this town, is not your average Plain Jane. “My mom told me I dropped out of her womb ready to take off,” she says. She was born to run.

This endurance athlete has tried and excelled in just about every sport—running, biking, swimming, kayaking, hiking. Not only has Schneider done it all, she keeps her multi-disciplinary need for speed nurtured with something called adventure racing.

“I grew up at the beach,” she says. “I knew how to swim, I rode my bike for transportation. I sort of did it all. It was just a matter of putting it all together as a race.”

Adventure racing is a relatively new sport. It started with the French “Raid Gauloises” in 1989. “This type of race is not for the faint of heart,” Schneider says.

Taking long-distance endurance races to the next level, “The Raid” was team-oriented. Five teammates—the rules decree that each team be composed of both men and women—work as a unit at the whim of mother nature as they trek, bike, climb and paddle through unmarked terrain and changing weather.

This immediately sparked Schneider’s interest. “It’s natural for me to want to try new things,” she says. “I am a very curious person.”

When it finally showed up in the US in 1995 under a more easily pronounceable name, The Eco-Challenge, Schneider signed right up.

“It takes an unflappable personality to push you and your team through to the end,” Schneider says. The competitors are required to confront unforeseen challenges as they pave their own path through checkpoints. This requires, adaptability, good judgement and a certain level of intellectual ability, qualities that make adventure racers unique.

These qualities can only develop with something Schneider specifically looks for in her teammates—experience. “There’s a sort of knowing of how to be an effective teammate in an adventure race,” she says, “and, generally that comes with time.”

“Team dynamics are a chemistry, like anything else,” she says. Often, she can’t know how the concoction of individuals on a team will react until she tries it out.

As an individual, Schneider brings a powerful practical streak to the table. “I am a very pragmatic person,” she says. “I am also very driven and disciplined.” She knows what she wants, what she can do and what she has to do to make that happen.

Schneider is clearly very good at running her own show; maybe that’s why she has never needed a mentor. As an athletic counselor with an MS in sports psychology, Schneider says there’s one thing that every marathoner, triathlete, adventure racer and human encounters at some point in life—fear. Fear of open water, fear of heights, fear of the unknown. These fears have hindered Schneider at some point, until she figured out how to deal with them.

“When we’re afraid of something we fight it,” she says. “You need to learn how to be in the fear. That doesn’t mean embracing it, nor does it mean confronting it or pushing it away, but just being present while it’s there.”

“If we can just be in it, and not react, we’ve won the battle. Fear is, rationally, kind of silly.”

All Over the Map
I wondered how someone who enjoyed so many sports was able to focus on one goal at a time.

“Doing a big event is a project. You don’t wake up one day and decide to go to Bhutan to do a 160-mile one-day mountain bike race. There’s a lot of training and planning that goes into making it happen. I have to feel strongly compelled to want to do that.”

Schneider made mountain biking a focus of her season last year. The year before that she took on fast-packing in the Sierras. “I don’t always know what’s going to be the next thing,” she says, “I just follow what my gut wants at the time.” This year, Schneider is planning some summer trekking in Bhutan and Nepal, and then maybe some mountain-bike packing.

Like anyone else coming out of winter hibernation, Schneider says she’s laid off her routine a bit. I guess swimming two or three times a week, running and biking three or four times a week, and lifting weights a couple times a week doesn’t cut it. One could only imagine what a busy bee she is once spring hits!

After a 45 minute interview I felt like I had lived through some of Schneider’s amazing life. However, sometimes The Terri Schneider Show doesn’t run so smoothly.

An athlete’s body can be her biggest limiting factor. Schneider tore her Achilles tendon two months before a race in Antarctica in 2008. “It was a turning point in my life,” she admits, “but not one for the worse.”

“I couldn’t run and that was a bummer,” she recalls, “but a suicide bomber didn’t show up at my doorstep and take me out.” She hit a rough patch, as well all do at some point, and like anyone else she had options—she could still swim, bike and hike: “It wasn’t as if I was sitting on my ass eating bonbons all day.”

Schneider traveled to Bhutan to immerse herself in the culture of what she heard were “happiest people in the world.” This is where her soul-search as an athlete was sparked. It’s been burning ever since.

In Dirty Inspirations, Schneider adds an intellectual and philosophical twist to adventure/travel writing. In some chapters, the story is front stage, in others she takes her readers behind the scenes as she examines what it’s like to be a human going through tough experiences. “You don’t have to be an athlete to get that,” she says.

She inspired me and she might inspire you, too.

Terri Schneider will hold a book-signing at Bookshop Santa Cruz on Wednesday, Feb. 3 at 7pm.

Photos from book Dirty Inspirations: Lessons From the Trenches of Extreme Endurance Sports