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PUERTO MONTT, Chile (Reuters) - A narrow escape from death in a freezing river has not deterred Frenchman Bruno Rey from setting out this week to defend his title in the Patagonian Expedition Race, one of the world's toughest sporting contests.
"We have planned another strategy for river crossings this year," said Rey, who fell into glacier-fed water in the middle of the night during last year's race. "That's what we call 'experience', don't we?
"It was close last year. The water was big and I was thrown into a very strong current, getting myself stuck on a tree in the middle of the river with the current taking me slowly down under.
"I was thinking of one of the most experienced French adventure racers, Dominique Robert, who died in the exact same conditions. Water was pushing me down but my team mate got me out just in time. He saved my life, for sure."
Back with Team Easy Implant, Rey, a 46-year-old dentist, is one of 40 athletes who set out Tuesday to battle the elements in a 600-km endurance race to, as organizers put it, "the end of the world."
Last year, just four of the 15 four-person teams reached the finish due to the extreme challenges of wild weather and strength-sapping terrain.
This year's is the seventh Patagonian race and competitors, with no outside assistance, are trekking, climbing, mountain biking and kayaking through Chile's southernmost region.
The event began in the spectacular Torres del Paine national park and will end at Cape Froward, the southernmost point of mainland South America, on February 19.
Competitors from nine nations are taking part, in mixed-sex teams, with the field made up of professional adventure racers and part-time adrenaline junkies.
Lucy Eykamp, a 29-year-old environmental scientist, grew up on a remote cotton farm in Wee Waa, Australia, trained in the military and has competed in the 'Canadian Death Run', an adventure race held in the Rocky Mountains.
Eykamp, who now lives in Vancouver and will race for Spirit Canada, said: "My sister has been short-listed for the Olympics in eventing and I did consider the Olympics but not until after the event (in Sydney).
"I'm interested in too many different sports and activities to concentrate solely on one. I would consider cross-country mountain bike racing now -- but I'm getting too old.
"The real difference between adventure racing and the Olympics is that we have to train for lots of different sports -- and also training for this is just fun because you can do just about anything."
Adventure racing is recognized as a professional sport with some races offering athletes significant prize money, although the racers in Patagonia compete for nothing more than honor.
"The motivation to compete and to continue forward each day is not trying to win a monetary award but is rather the goal of exceeding one's own limits, of facing indomitable Nature herself, of discovering and exploring one of the most pristine and isolated regions on our planet," race organizers say on their website (www.patagoniaexpeditionrace.com).
Rey, who was awarded a wooden medal last year, said: "I have done most of the most famous adventure races and this one, for me, is the only international-class adventure race nowadays.
"Through the years money has damaged our sport, encouraging some athletes to use drugs to run and bike faster and to paddle stronger to win the prize money.
"But this race is very close to the original spirit of the early times of adventure racing, when there was not so much money to win -- and it offers competitors the real unexpected."
For many in the field it will be their first experience of unpredictable Patagonia and Rey's American team mate Jari Kirkland, 32, knows it will be tough just finding the way.
"I do four or five big expedition races each year, a few smaller one-day adventure races, triathlons, mountain bike races and randonee (a form of skiing)," she said before the start. "But this is my first time here and I've never met my team mates.
"I don't know how we are going to cope with it. I never like to get lost, so I will be thinking about strategy and the course but we have no idea what we have to do because they haven't given us the maps yet."
To make the race even more challenging, officials do not provide teams with the route maps until 24 hours before the start, leaving them little time to prepare.
Organizer Stejpan Pavicic said: "The route will run between the southern latitudes of 49 degrees and 56 degrees, but that is about all the competitors know in advance.
"The natural terrain and features on the route mean that predicting weather is always a challenge and strong winds can blow up to 200 kph. It will, as always, be a wild race."
Editing by Clare Fallon