By Brent Freedland
OK, so you have a race on the calendar, and you've roped a friend or willing stranger into running around in the woods with you for a few hours. Or days. Maybe you've binge-watched World's Toughest Race, Expedition Alaska, and all the old Eco-Challenges you can find on youtube. What comes next?
We’ll touch on skill-building, the basics of training, and the pandora's box of gear in future installments of this “New to AR Series.” Today, let’s make sure you really understand the nuts and bolts of how a typical adventure race works and some of the basic terminology you will hear. Supported, unsupported, sprints, expeditions, clue sheets, passports, CPs, TAs, RDs, TACs, ABCs! It can all be a bit overwhelming.
The good news: most races have a lot in common. True, every race course will look different in AR, and each race director may have their own spin on a particular discipline, but the components and language are generally quite similar. As noted in the first installment of this series, AR is a sport that really benefits experience. Unlike a running event, you can’t just show up at the start line and follow the markers. You need to understand how a course is laid out, what those complex instructions mean, and how to speak some basic language.
Type of Race
The first thing to figure out is what sort of race you are getting into. Adventure races tend to fall into one of three primary categories: sprint races, one-day events, and multi-day expedition races. Ask ten adventure racers what constitutes a sprint race or how long a race must be to be considered an expedition, and you will likely get ten different answers. One of those racers will also insist that it’s not an adventure race at all unless it takes ten days to finish, includes leeches and flesh-eating bacteria, and is situated in the jungles of Fiji.
Don’t get sucked into this banter: pick a race that feels manageable to you. If six hours is enough, seek out your local sprint. If twelve feels manageable, visit the USARA calendar to see what's in your region. You’re an adventure racer regardless of the length of the event! As you figure out what makes the most sense for you, consider these key differences:
Typically, these tend to be shorter events, usually with a maximum duration of 6-8 hours. (Adventure races tend to be defined by their duration rather than distance, since navigation, route choice, and strategy can radically alter the length of any given team’s race compared to what the race director intends.) Many sprint races are billed as beginner-friendly events, and some have special divisions to encourage families to come race as a team. Such events are usually hosted in local parks that are more accessible to beginners. Odds are good that you’ll never be far from a trail, there won’t be any massive climbs, and you could jump into one with relatively little training.
Don’t be deceived, though. Teams coming to compete are FAST, and racing at the pointy end of these events can be harder than competing in a longer event. Navigation can still be quite tricky, and mountain biking can be technical. Still, the challenges tend to come and go before you know it, and a good attitude is usually all you need.
Twenty years ago, these sorts of events were hard to find, and many adventure racers jumped into the deep end with Eco-Challenge or another major expedition as their first race. Now, sprint races tend to be a great way to enter the sport; they are more affordable, much less gear intensive, and unless you want to take a shot at winning (go back and read "New to AR: How to Get Started" for my thoughts on that), these races really can be completed by anyone with the basic skills and the right attitude as long as they have a basic level of endurance fitness.
One Day Races:
While some purists still will argue that you are not adventure racing until you are five days in, a 12- to 36-hour event really will give you more of a “true” AR experience. Stages will be more than a rapid fire run around a local park; race directors can take you to more interesting, wild, and challenging environments; and in most events, you will at least contend with dusk or dawn, if not outright nighttime racing. Your body will be taxed, and you will have to contend with more of the mental challenges that make adventure racing unique.
Of course, once you cross that 12-hour threshold, you are typically faced with a night of racing and the hurdles that come with sleep deprivation, prolonged nighttime navigation, and the challenges of managing your team. At some point, someone will likely bonk, slow down due to the normal aches and pains that accumulate over 12-24 hours of racing, or struggle with sleepmonsters (see below for an extensive glossary of AR lingo).
While these events can feel daunting, they are more accessible than you might think. Fewer people can jump off the couch and get through them as is possible with a sprint AR, but the fact that you are changing disciplines and that the pace tends to be slower means that you still don’t have to be a professional athlete training 10-20 hours a week to complete a one-day event.
Anything over a day and you are entering into the realm of expedition races. It should be noted that defining races that are in the 36- to 48-hour range is challenging. They are unique as they provide additional challenges beyond the one-day event, but they do not quite fit into the expedition race category either. Some would even argue that a race is not a true expedition race unless it is a minimum of three days long, or even four.
Regardless, expedition races are the pinnacle of the sport. Most participants never experience a true expedition race, but for those who make this final leap, they get to experience adventure racing as it was originally conceived: epic courses, covering massive swaths of terrain, complete with varied ecosystems, additional disciplines like caving, advanced ropes work, mountaineering, or horseback riding, and unique strategic considerations including sleep-strategy, dark zones, and body and gear management that transcends what is necessary to complete a shorter event.
Expedition races tend to be less accessible to the less experienced competitor with steeper entry fees, significant travel expenses and logistics that can be daunting to say the least, more robust gear requirements, and a need for more expertise to remain safe and simply finish. Whereas anyone can get off a couch and complete a sprint race, and most competitors can work their way through a one-day event, it is considerably more challenging to finish an expedition race, at least those at the level of an Adventure Race World Series event or an Eco-Challenge. It is not unheard of for a rookie team to finish these races, but more often, less-seasoned teams end up on significantly shortened courses or fail to reach the finish line.
This isn’t to say that less-experienced teams shouldn’t consider signing up for one of these epic adventures, but this is where setting realistic goals, doing your homework, and gaining as much experience as possible through one-day racing can really impact your experience.
into five stages or fewer. Occasionally, stages are designed in such a way that they require teams to participate in multiple disciplines within a single stage. There might be an embedded foot section within a bike stage, a detour off the water to complete an ascent and rappel, or a caving section within a long trek.
What tends to be true regardless of the layout of the event is that each stage will include checkpoints that need to be found while on that stage. In between stages, teams usually check into a transition area, and there you usually have access to your gear. Once you have completed a stage you rarely can return to that stage to find a missed checkpoint. Whatever the format of the race, this is one of the characteristics of adventure racing that makes it so fun and exciting: with few exceptions (the local race director that uses the same park year after year and doesn’t mix the course up much), every race feels like a unique, unexplored adventure.
Next time, we'll dive into some of the sport-specific lingo that comes with AR. There is a lot to learn, and some of it will have to wait until you actually start racing in person. But we'll get you started next time with some of the basic words, slang, phrases, and acronyms that you will come across as you dive deeper into the sport.
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