It's hard to imagine this petite, well-spoken schoolteacher running through a jungle plucking leeches off her skin.
But that's part of multi-sport adventure racing for Louise Cooper, 51, of West Hills. She's run more than 60 marathons, finished the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon seven times, raced in the Raid Gauloises four times and completed eight Eco-Challenges.
Expedition-style events like the Raid Gauloises and the Eco-Challenge are weeklong team races in remote areas that can include trail running, mountain biking, kayaking, rappelling and navigation tests. And biting insects, exotic diseases, poisonous snakes and, of course, the leeches.
But bone-weary fatigue and blood sucking leeches were small-time obstacles compared to Cooper's biggest challenge — overcoming breast cancer. After discovering a lump in her breast in 1998 Cooper was told by doctors that she had an especially virulent form of cancer that needed to be treated aggressively. Three operations and months of radiation and chemotherapy stopped the cancer.
Cooper credits adventure racing with helping her in her battle with cancer. She assembled a team of doctors, medical technicians and friends who treated and supported her.
“It was another race for me,” Cooper said.
A month after she finished radiation treatment Cooper ran a marathon. Five months later she ran the 135-mile Badwater ultramarathon from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney in little over 40 hours and was the second woman finisher. Temperatures during the race peaked at 124°F.
“There's nothing I can't deal with at this stage,” said Cooper.
Cooper grew up in South Africa in an athletic family. Her father encouraged her brother to compete in sports like rugby and water polo. “I was the little sister schlepping along,” said Cooper. “But I was the one that excelled at sports. I seemed to enjoy it more.”
Cooper moved to the U.S. in 1978. A teacher a private elementary school in Agoura, she started running competitively and racing in triathlons, including the Ironman. But in 1989 she was banned from competing in triathlons because of her South African citizenship and went back to running.
In 1994 she was watching the Raid Gauloises — one of the original expedition-style team races — on TV and thought, “Oh I have to do that.” Cooper didn't know how to kayak or climb, but that didn't stop her from signing up for the Eco-Challenge adventure race in Utah. Racing with teammates drawn from a group who ran together at Birmingham High School in Van Nuys, Cooper was soon hooked on adventure racing.
“It was the most exciting time in my life — learning new sports and overcoming some serious apprehensions,” said Cooper. Adventure racing is a team sport, and the sense of companionship and belonging are an added benefit for Cooper, who lives with the four dogs she's adopted.
She teaches at racing clinics and is on the advisory board for the Primal Quest adventure races. Racing has taken Cooper to many interesting places, including Patagonia, Nepal, Vietnam, Australia, Fiji, and New Zealand.
“Borneo was the most beautiful,” said Cooper. “Although there were areas not made for human visitation. The competitors provided a smorgasbord for the leeches.”
Cooper spent a week in the hospital after the Borneo Eco-Challenge, recovering from leptospirosis, a sometimes-fatal bacterial infection that half the competitors contracted during the race. She's also come back from a race with a staph infection, but dismisses these hazards.
“If you aren't prepared to take these risks you miss out on all the incredible adventures,” she said.
WANT MORE ADVENTURE IN YOUR LIFE?
Information about adventure racing and help in finding teammates is available from Southern California Adventure Racing Buddies at www.scarabs.homestead.com.
Outdoor retailer REI is sponsoring the Desert Rage Adventure Race Series this year and will hold informational clinics before the races at local stores. The Women's Adventure Race in Los Angeles will be on June 17 and the Desert Rage in San Diego will be on Oct. 21.