Executives set to find out what the competition is really like

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BUSINESSES always claim to be in fierce competition with each other. This week, some of them will be finding that uncomfortably real.

On Wednesday, 500 people, representing more than 80 companies as diverse as ICL, the computer company that has dominated the event since its UK inauguration in 1990, Lloyds Bank, British Coal and United Distillers, will gather in the Wye Valley on the Welsh border for a four-day test of mental and physical agility.

The contest pits small companies against large in making snap decisions while taking part in exhausting runs, negotiating river crossings, riding bikes up hills, climbing rocks and canoeing. Participants do not even get any respite at night: they sleep in stables at the Chepstow racecourse.

Outdoor courses for executives have been criticised because they often put middle- aged or out-of-condition executives under extreme physical pressure and threaten to humiliate them if they fail to perform.

Organisers of the Mitel Telecom Challengers Trophy - which is claimed to be Europe's largest inter-business event - say that participants do not have to be Olympian. But the strong competitive element means that only the fittest are likely to sign up.

Andrew Bentley, a member of the ICL men's team going for a fourth straight win, said all his team-mates were regular runners who trained every day. 'But the running and riding are trivial compared with the challenges that are thrown at you every day,' he said.

Mr Bentley, a software designer/implementer at the company's Manchester operation, added that the contest was not all about physique. 'If you try to brute-force it, you won't stand a chance.'

The origins of the event go back to 1985, when its creator, Belgian businessman Michel Malschaert, took part in the Paris-Dakar car rally. He found that competitors in that event discovered mental and physical skills they never knew they had.

'I couldn't stop there. I had to develop other ideas with the same spirit, but without engines to pollute and use up the Earth's resources,' he said.

The first contest was held in Spa, Belgium, in 1986 and France and the Netherlands set up versions in 1987 and 1989 respectively. Since the UK took up the challenge in 1990, Scotland (twice), Wales and Cornwall have played host to teams of fired-up business folk.

Each group is four-strong. But a senior executive from each company is asked to take part for one day. During the four gruelling days they go through a 'prologue', or warm-up, and eight or more stages. The exact details are closely guarded until each morning.

Although not every stage requires travel, competitors will be expected to cover up to 70km over the four days, using various forms of transport. The start time is 8am, but there is no set finishing time. Last year, one team did not finish one stage until 3am the following day.

For ICL, which has a strong commitment to training, the attractions of a demanding contest that aims to build teamwork and spirit are huge. A women's team is hoping to repeat last year's win, and the company is also fielding a foursome in the mixed event. As Mr Bentley said, it appeals to a company that is 'looking to portray a winning image'.

But the competitors will not just be helping themselves and their companies. The Spastics Society will benefit from funds raised through sponsorship.

(Photograph omitted)