Adventure Racing might just be the most bonkers (and funnest) sounding thing we’ve come across. It involves racing for multiple days and nights across remote terrain using a whole host of human-powered methods whilst barely sleeping and carrying all your own gear. Emily Rowbotham breaks down why she keeps coming back.
The topic of adventure racing seems to befuddle those unfamiliar with it. When it’s mentioned that I’m competing in one, I generally get similar responses:
“Good luck on your run!”
“Oh, like ‘Tough Mudder’?”
“Have fun on the obstacle course!”
Or my one time favourite:
“You signed up for the Amazing Race?!”
Similarly, people will ask, “How was it?” after the fact. I have seen other competitors at the finish line struggle to explain their experiences. It’s an impossible thing to answer. Most don’t really try.
It was everything! Good, bad, ugly. How will you sum up a week’s worth of activity, broken up briefly every couple of days with 20 minutes, maybe an hour’s worth of sleep? How will you explain to them that on Monday morning, when they were making their coffee, you were going, and when they went to bed that night, you were still going? Then on Wednesday when they were printing documents at work, you were still at it. Same deal later that night, and on Thursday… and Friday night. When they were asleep at 4.00am, why… where were you?
It was terrific and it was the hardest thing you’ll have ever done. It was incredible, breathtaking… it was fast and slow. You were sweating, lagging from dehydration, then you were wearing 3 layers on your head alone (never underestimate the versatility of a buff). It was everything!
“Yeah, it was good!”
Adventure racing is unlike any other sport.
What is Adventure Racing?
Adventure races (or ‘AR’ races) are multisport endurance races usually completed in teams of 4. Sounds simple, right?
Races range from day-long experiences to 10 day expedition events spanning up to 700km. Premier division teams must comprise both genders (ie. at least one female). Teams use compasses and maps to navigate to linear checkpoints using different sporting disciplines.
The main disciplines are trekking, mountain biking and kayaking, but expect to engage in any number of self-propelled disciplines – from snowboarding or roller-skating to abseiling.
Checkpoints won’t be easy to find. You can expect them atop mountains, hidden under rocks, in gullies or streams. Roads and trails can be considered a luxury as competitors navigate using terrain contours and natural features day and night.
Races are unsupported and competitors need to be entirely self-sufficient as courses are generally set in remote areas. This means carrying all food and water, adequate shelter, first aid supplies and anything else you might want out there. Racers should make nutrition plans and have sleep strategies to ensure they have adequate energy (without sacrificing time).
The maps are generally kept secret until the night before or the morning of the event. Racers are briefed by the race director and are given a small amount of time to route-plan before they are transported to their start location.
You’re mid race. You’ve just finished a monstrous 50km kayak and you’re now changing to begin a mountain bike leg. You’ve hauled your boats up onto shore. You’ve got two mars bars wedged horizontally in your mouth, dripping wet and shivering, and you just can’t seem to get your cycle shorts on. You haven’t slept since Monday… or was it Sunday? Oh, but you’re putting your shorts on over your shoes. Your compass is tangled in your head torch. Where’s your helmet? Did you leave it in the wrong box at the last transition?
Transition areas (TAs) are manned locations where participants change disciplines. These transitions are usually done at speed, as much time can be lost in the comfort of transition. Teams refuel, collect food and necessary gear for the next leg of the race and pack away their gear from the previous leg. Crates containing team gear, bike boxes and paddle gear are transported by the race organisers. Teams must assemble and de-assemble their bikes.
Depending on the race, teams must bring (or are sometimes supplied) 2-4 large crates. These are numbered. Teams receive a logistics plan prior to the race which specifies which crate will be seen at different transition areas. Teams must pack accordingly to ensure they have the necessary gear and food at each location. During the race, participants must also ensure they replace gear in the correct box to ensure they see it further down the track.
Adventure racing is as much about teamwork as it is about your skills and capabilities. In no other sport does one get so close to their teammates. Ever taken a squad bush poo with your local soccer team? That’s bonding.
Cooperation and communication are fundamental to a successful AR team. A bike mechanical or navigational error at 4.00am can be catastrophic without all team members pooling their problem-solving skills and cooperating to find a solution.
You need to be both physically and mentally capable to finish an adventure race. Realistically, the fittest team may be the least successful if they aren’t skilled in navigation. Similarly, adventure racing takes large amounts of mental grit. Battling sleep deprivation and exhaustion is taxing and all team members will endure ups and downs – teammates must be prepared to support others through those lows. Whether that be through carrying extra bags or weight, sharing food (there is nothing more exciting than someone else’s food on an endurance race) towing them, or letting them ride in your slipstream for a while.
AR is different to most races as for most participants, the race isn’t about winning or what place you come in, it is simply about making it across the line. While the winning teams may make it across the line in 2 or 3 days, those going at a slower pace may continue racing non-stop for more than double the time – an enormous feat in itself.
The Major Challenges Of Adventure Racing
There are a few quite self-explanatory challenges you’ll encounter when you begin adventure racing:
Number one: it will hurt. You will push yourself to your absolute limit, and then some. And likely you’ll cry – maybe tears of joy (but most likely not).
A lot of racers, especially in expedition-length events, experience what the sport knows as ‘sleep monsters’; essentially hallucinations induced by sleep deprivation. This challenge is offset by the incredible self-discoveries you will make.
My first adventure race I was completely out of my depth – the whole team was. We were inexperienced, lacking gear and just a general understanding of the sport. But through our pain and trials we kept refraining back to one conversation. “It’s incredible that my body can do this! I am still going!” We joked about how we would never complain about feeling ‘tired’ after a bad night’s sleep again.
Another hurdle to adventure racing is compiling the gear required to complete the race. Finding mountain bikes, bike boxes, suitable lights and torches, flares and glow sticks, paddles, poles, enough clothing and shoes (so many shoes) can be a challenge in itself. There are many online forums and Facebook communities filled with people willing to offer a hand to new competitors. One can normally beg, borrow, rent and steal most equipment, but there will always be some expense to finding all compulsory items.
Race registration can be pricey. This is one of the biggest barriers for young people wanting to get involved in the sport. Consider the type of event you want to get involved in, how many you might commit to in the AR calendar and plan ahead.
But don’t let these minor hurdles stop you. AR is for people who like a challenge, who can work well in a team and are willing to test their limits to the nth degree. So if your local road marathon isn’t quite cutting it for you and you think your old mountain bike is still in your mum’s garage, why not give AR a spin?
All photos by David Barlow unless otherwise indicated.
Anything is possible…