By Brent Freedland
So, you want to be an adventure racer!
If you haven’t already heard, adventure racers have a mantra. Well, we actually have a number of mantras, but that’s for another article. The relevant one here goes like this: “the hardest part of adventure racing is getting to the start line.” As you ponder jumping into the amazing, crazy, inspiring, roller coaster world of AR, keep this saying in mind.
As is true of any new endeavor, the biggest hurdle is getting started, and adventure racing, as you likely know, offers some unique challenges. In addition to picking a race, new racers often feel the pressure or need to acquire new skills, add to their gear closet (or start one from scratch), coerce some friends or strangers into joining them, and then figure out how to train for an event that, even at its shortest, might be hours longer than any other event they have completed. This basic list doesn't address the endless details of adventure racing such as foot care, sleep deprivation, and nutrition. It can be daunting, overwhelming, and even downright terrifying.
The good news is that the AR community is one of the most welcoming groups of athletes out there. There are few, if any, sports that sees new racers rubbing shoulders with the elite on the start line. The AR community is small and well connected, and we all are always happy to talk gear, training, and experiences with new racers.
So, welcome to our first article in our series aimed at helping newcomers dive into the adventure racing. Throughout the fall, we will be creating resources to help acclimate you to some of the foundational questions facing new racers as they find their way into the amazing AR family. Keep an eye on our blog for future articles and more, and welcome to AR!
Set a goal - find a race
First, there tend to be two primary types of rookie adventure racers: those who dive into the abyss and sign up for a multi-day expedition race like those in the AR World Series, and those who decide to start small, test the waters, and build up - whether the ultimate goal is a multi-day event or mastering the six-hour sprint. There is no right way to do it, but unless you are an experienced endurance athlete with a well-established aerobic base and strong skillset in mountain biking, bushwhacking, paddling, and other wilderness skills, there is something to be said for finding a local sprint or half-day (12-hour) adventure race to determine whether AR is for you. It will be considerably more affordable, the stakes are much lower if your teammates don’t work out, and you will have a much higher chance of success (more on this later).
Where do you begin? USARA publishes a calendar of USARA sanctioned races, but you can find many other local races on the Adventure Racing Cooperative’s comprehensive calendar. This resource includes adventure races great and small; it also lists AR-adjacent events like rogaines and other single-sport navigation based events. These races tend to be foot-only events and can provide a taste for what AR is like without the hassle of all the gear and usually with lower entry fees. Most importantly they can introduce you to navigation-centric events.
Likewise, local orienteering meets can serve as a terrific portal for adventure racing. These groups host events periodically throughout the year, and some of the bigger clubs often organize courses on most weekends, spring to fall. Usually only $5-10 to enter, o-meets offer a range of courses, from beginner to advanced. While the maps are distinctly different from those typically found in an adventure race, these meets often include hands-on instruction and offer terrific practice when it comes to basic and advanced navigation. Other than some snacks, water, and a positive attitude, all you need is a compass!
Ultimately, think about what feels right for you and then explore your local options. Many new racers find a six-hour event to be daunting enough. Others feel ready for a whole day in the woods. And a few feel confident they can take on a ten-day expedition like the World's Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge. You know what feels doable for you.
Find a teammate or two
While there are those in the adventure racing community who race solo, AR is, at its core, a team sport. To truly get the whole experience, try to build a team. Many new racers find this to be a challenge. While you may think six, twelve or twenty-four hours in the woods, without sleep, in the rain, heat, or snow, covered with mud and blood sounds fun, don’t be surprised when friends, family members, and colleagues laugh you off as mildly insane.
Again, this is where starting off small can make breaking into the sport a bit more manageable. It will be a lot easier to convince your partner, childhood friend, or coworker to join you for a four- to six-hour event than a 24-hour one. Once you knock off that six-hour sprint, the twelve-hour will feel more manageable. After realizing that your body and mind can do more than you expected, going overnight won't feel so daunting. Building this experiential memory with a teammate or two will increase the chances that you find your place in the sport.
Ideally, it helps to race with people you know, who you trust and with whom you have a good rapport, but it’s certainly possible that you won’t have any luck convincing someone you are close with to join you for your first adventure race. If you can’t build your dream team from within, look to the AR Teammate Finder on Facebook, or reach out to your local Race Director (RD) to see if they can help you team up with someone. If you're racing with strangers, try to meet up with them first, perhaps go out for a training day or two. You won’t know for sure until you are lost for the first time in the woods or dealing with a nasty bushwhack, but try to team up with people who you are compatible with and who you trust when AR becomes more adventure than race.
Finally, remember that AR is also unique for being a mixed-gender sport. Few other sports join male and female competitors on the same team. Embrace this aspect of the sport if you can.
Wander around the pre-race happenings of any established adventure race and you are bound to find the rookie team confidently predicting victory. I’m sure it’s happened somewhere, sometime. But in over a hundred races, I’ve never seen a rookie team atop the podium, and it’s rarely been close.
AR is a sport that uniquely favors skills and experience; those things vastly outweigh speed, power, and athleticism. Time and time again, the overconfident rookie team marvels at and wonders how the wily, seasoned AR veterans finish hours and hours ahead, at how the winners are able to “clear the course” (complete the entire course as designed) while the less experienced teams struggle to finish significantly modified and shorter courses, and at how efficient those top teams are with navigation, strategy, and transitions.
While training and physical preparation are important components of the sport, it’s other things that truly set the more successful teams apart: navigation ability, team chemistry, experience with sleep deprivation, strategy, and the knowledge and experience that comes with racing over and over again. Unlike more traditional races like marathons or triathlons, adventure race courses are always different year-to-year. They are constantly changing, sometimes literally evolving during the race, as unexpected circumstances force Race Directors to adapt and modify section by section. Being able to adapt to rapidly evolving conditions, poor mapping data, unforeseen obstacles, and inter-team dynamics in both art and science; it is a set of skills that can only be refined and developed through racing, and racing with an established team with whom you build a racing and adventure rapport.
So, find your people and then set some expectations. Many of the most successful adventure racers started off with modest goals: don’t finish last, finish mid-pack, or simply finish. Once they started to build their experiential toolbox, find stable teammates, and fine-tune their skillsets, then they started to set higher goals: finish in the top third, complete a full-course, shoot for their divisional podium, and then, perhaps, shoot for the overall mixed-gender podium (FYI: despite what some new racers expect, the premier mixed teams often are the strongest teams at a given event, especially when events are twelve hours or longer).
watch, read, learn
Research. Watch AR videos on Youtube, Vimeo, and Amazon Prime. Even if you aren’t planning on competing in an expedition race anytime soon, watching films of these events can provide valuable insight into how adventure races work, what sort of gear people invest in, and how team dynamics can shape a team’s experience. Sleepmonsters also provides international coverage of adventure races and other related sports that hosts invaluable information as you start your journey.
More valuable for shorter events is the near-ubiquitous “Race Report”. Many adventure racers write them, blogging about their experiences, sometimes in checkpoint-by-checkpoint detail. Others log their adventures on training platforms such as Attackpoint (make sure you are on the AR branch of AP, rather than the orienteering site). The AR Cooperative has built an impressive collection of these accounts, so you might be able to find a report from the last edition of the race you have circled on your calendar. If you can’t find a report there, try googling reports from that event, or read some accounts of other races that are comparable in length, difficulty, style, and terrain.
There are also a handful of good books about adventure racing that will help you get started. Some are more relevant than others for the first-time racer, but they all will inspire. A selection of AR-specific books:
Finally, reach out to your local RD with questions, or post on discussion groups like those hosted on Facebook or Attackpoint. Odds are good that someone reading your post will have done the race and will gladly volunteer to chat.
Once you have watched what there is to watch, read through various race reports, and googled your heart out, you probably will still have questions. You might still spend a sleepless night before race day, nervous, excited, scared, or some combination of it all. But you will be as ready as any new adventure racer ever is to toe the line on race day, and experience suggests you will already be hooked!
Future Articles in the New to Ar series
If you haven't already, like or follow USARA's Facebook page, join the AR Discussion Group, sign up for our newsletter, or consider becoming a USARA member to stay up to date on everything AR-related. And stay tuned for future articles in the "New to AR" series including:
A space for AR musings from the USARA team and guest authors. Ready to race? Check out the rest of our resources on the USARA homepage.