Aaron Freedman doesn't think of himself as an "extreme" athlete, even though he has hiked the Grand Canyon from rim to rim and run the length of the Florida Keys.
"I pretty much think I can do anything if I put my mind to it," said the 52-year-old St. Petersburg resident.
Freedman was an average high school athlete, captain of his soccer team, a solid player but no Olympic contender. He spent three years in the Army and then embarked on a career in the air-conditioning business.
"After the service I needed a way to stay in shape," he said. "So I started off doing road races — Bay to Bay, Gasparilla — but never really improved. Then I hooked up with a Monday night training group and I started to learn what running was all about."
After he had a dozen or so 10Ks under his belt, Freedman left the blacktop behind and hit the trail. "That took it to another level," he said. "Running through the woods has an entirely different set of challenges."
Off-road running events attract a lot of adventure racers, hard-core endurance athletes who combine trail running with mountain biking, paddling and orienteering.
"My first race was brutal," said Freedman, whose friends call him X-Man. "It was called the Swamp Stomp and it lasted 30 hours. The hardest thing to get used to when you first start out is dealing with the lack of sleep."
A few years later, Freedman found himself part of a team that was 68 hours into the Coast to Coast, a cross-Florida adventure race where competitors sleep just one or two hours a day.
"We had just come off the Withlacoochee River and were on our bikes, but I was so sleep-deprived, I couldn't keep it straight," he said. "I had to tell my teammates to steer clear so I didn't crash into anybody."
Freedman had to keep riding for six more hours in near freezing temperatures until the sun came up and he got a second wind. "We ended up finishing about 11 a.m. that morning," he said. "It is rough but that is adventure racing."
Race organizer and former U.S. Kayak Team member Kip Koelsch said Freedman is the ideal teammate.
"First of all, you want somebody who is not going to complain," Koelsch said. "You will never hear a peep out of Aaron even when you are cold, wet and tired, and want to give up. He keeps on going no matter what."
As you might expect, it can be hard finding people to race with. Adventure racers are virtually off-road triathletes.
"You have to find people who you can get along with," Koelsch said. "Sometimes we are out there for 72 hours or more. Not everybody is willing to do that."
So to keep occupied, Freedman started embarking on solo challenges, like the Leadville Trail 100 Run, also known as the Race Across the Sky, a 100-mile ultramarathon through the heart of the Rocky Mountains.
"That was my first big solo race," said Freedman, who finished in 29 hours and earned the coveted Leadville belt buckle. "Looking back, I guess it was kind of ambitious. But I don't think you should let anything hold you back. Live your dream every chance you get."
He followed up with another extreme challenge: the Keys 100, a punishing run that starts in Key Largo and ends in Key West. "Runs like that can really take their toll on your body," he said. "So this time around, on May 21, I'm only doing a 50-miler."
Freedman tries to cross-train — he also paddles and swims. He has done long, open-ocean crossing and extreme kayak races, including an ultramarathon from St. Petersburg to Boca Grande. He's currently training for the WaterTribe Everglades Challenge, a 300-mile paddle race from Fort De Soto to the Florida Keys. And that's just a warmup for his ultimate extreme adventure: Florida to Cuba in a dugout canoe.
"But as with anything, you have to start out small," he said. "You want to do an adventure race? Start off with a short trail run then just work your way up from there. Just keep challenging yourself. Set goals. Keep moving. That is all there is to it."
Contact Terry Tomalin at [email protected]