By Brent Freedland
OK! You've done your homework, you've signed up for a race (or two!), and you've found a teammate. Now you'll want to study up a bit on some of the terminology that you might come across pre-race, during registration, and during the event itself. In an entry-level sprint race, you will only be exposed to a portion of the following terminology, but if you are entering the sport through a longer event, especially a multi-day one, you have a whole new language to learn! There are countless variations of terms, plenty of additional slang, and more nuanced terminology unpack, but these are some of the most common words and phrases you will encounter in adventure racing:
Bushwhacking – You guessed it! Say goodbye to the comfort and ease of trails and roads. Even the shortest adventure races tend to include a bit of off-trail travel. These segments can be purely for the experience, requiring little more than a good attitude and basic navigation, but many adventure races (especially one-day events and expeditions) ramp up the navigational challenge when they tempt or require teams to travel overland. Such sections can be daunting, and they often separate the teams with more experience from those with less. Bushwhacking can be anything from wide open, big-sky, spiritual trekking to soul-crushing jungle bashing.
Clue Sheet – Before the race begins, teams are provided with a set of instructions and a detailed clue sheet. The clue sheet describes the precise location of each checkpoint (see below). Rookies and seasoned vets alike constantly make the classic blunder of not reading these crucial documents closely enough. It’s easy to miss important information, and when this happens, teams lose valuable time or face stiff penalties, sometimes even disqualification.
CPs/Checkpoints/Controls/PCs – All refer to the checkpoints that must be located using map-and-compass navigation. Typically, CPs are three-dimensional orienteering flags, but they can be just about anything. RDs (see below) usually make it clear before the event starts what you should be looking for. Sometimes checkpoints are permanent objects like monuments, plaques, or signs. In such cases, racers are asked to record a number, word, or phrase. Read the instructions and clue sheet carefully before the race, and make sure you listen to the race director during the pre-race meeting. If they don’t tell you what you are looking for, ask!
Dark Zone – When a section of the course is too dangerous to undertake in the dark, RDs impose a “Dark Zone” and stop teams from proceeding. These sections tend to be related to water, especially paddling sections that include whitewater. Some RDs give teams time credits for the stopped time in a dark zone. Others do not, though teams stopped in a dark zone benefit from extra rest.
Full Course – This term is more prevalent in expedition racing, though it can be applied to any race. Teams finishing the “full course” complete the entire race course as designed. Contemporary expedition courses tend to be very difficult to complete for most teams, and many RDs design “short-course” options so that more teams can finish officially.
Passport – Lose your passport when you are overseas and you might never go home. Lose your passport in an adventure race and you might be out of the event. Passports are generally slips of paper or small booklets. Volunteers sign your passport when you arrive at a staffed CP, and racers “punch” their passports at remote CPs, generally using a small stapler with a unique pattern matched to that specific CP. Some races also rely on electronic punching (see below) and dippers in lieu of paper passports. Passports provide proof that you found CPs and completed the course. Keep your passport safe and dry. Lost passports typically lead to disqualification or significant penalties.
RD: Race Director – Pretty self-explanatory! At most local events, the RD does it all. They plan logistics, design the course, handle the communication, etc. Sometimes (usually in bigger events) multiple people take on specific roles, dividing up the course design, logistics, etc...
TAs/Transitions/Transition Areas – These are staffed locations along the course where teams change disciplines. In longer races, especially, teams have access to team or personal gear bins, bags, and bike boxes with gear, food, and clothing you'll need for the next section. Sometimes RDs provide food, drink, and facilities at TAs, but sometimes it’s nothing more than a bike drop or an empty boat ramp with a fleet of canoes.
Bikewhacking – See “Bushwhacking.” Add a bike to the mix. Yes, bushwhacking with a bike.
Boatwhacking – See “Bushwhacking.” Now, add a boat. You read that right. This is not the most common discipline in adventure racing, but it will leave you with some of the most vivid memories of your racing career if you are 'fortunate' enough to do it.
Clearing – When a team completes the “full course” (see below), they have “cleared” the course. While many teams seek to clear the racecourse, few teams without experience and a certain, relatively high level of endurance fitness can expect to clear the average adventure race course (at least one-day and expedition events).
Cutoffs – All races have a time cutoff: the finish line. Many have additional embedded time-cutoffs. Such cutoffs are typically designed in conjunction with short-course (see below) options to give all teams a better chance of completing the course. While most RDs allow racers to continue on a modified, short course if they miss a cutoff, some disqualify teams for missing these cutoffs and remove them from the event.
Deer Trail/Goat Path – While not usually a term used by an RD, it’s worth storing this one away. Such routes are created by animals and are commonly found when traveling off-trail. While you are at the whim of the animal, if these paths lead in your general direction of travel, they can make bushwhacking faster. Just be careful that you know where you are heading!
Dotwatcher – Most expedition races, and some shorter events, utilize satellite tracking during their events. In these events, teams are equipped with a satellite tracking device that is used for safety management, first and foremost. In addition, most of the time RDs share their tracking maps with viewers at home, allowing spectators to track their favorite teams as they progress through the course. “Dotwatchers” refers to those spectators who follow along, tracking the dots or “breadcrumbs” of teams, displayed on the tracking map, showing viewers at home a given team’s route of travel. Dotwatching gets intense, with people across the globe joining discussion forums to analyze how the race is unfolding. Many experience sleep deprivation to match the racers they are following.
Linear Course – Linear courses are the most traditional style of adventure race. Teams are required to visit all TAs and all CPs. Teams failing to visit all the checkpoints are pulled off the course or are ranked as unofficial. During these events, teams tend to spread out significantly, and more teams do not finish. Some RDs design “short courses” that still allow teams to finish officially, though these teams are ranked behind anyone finishing the “full course”.
Portage – Portaging requires teams to travel with their boats overland during a paddling section. Various factors determine whether RDs will include portaging in an adventure race: dams, shallow water, dangerous rapids, private property, geography requiring teams to travel between water features, strategic decisions, and occasionally a sick sense of humor. Most of the time, teams simply carry their boats, either as a team or individually. In expedition races, some RDs communicate ahead of time to let teams know that they will benefit from using a portage trolley/portage wheels. Sustained portaging is not common in shorter events.
Prologue/Separator – Most adventure races, sprint to expeditions, start with some sort of short event that is designed to spread the teams out. These stages can be anything: a relay run, an orienteering loop, a mini multi-stage adventure race within a longer race. In a short race, a separator is typically anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour in duration. In expedition races, a separator might be a few miles of running or it could last for several hours. Some RDs wait to provide teams with their maps and other course information until after the prologue, and others hand racers their maps and ask them to plan their route on the clock, transforming the prologue into a mental and strategic challenge. You get the point; prologues can be just about anything!
Rogaine – A Rogaine is class of event associated with orienteering. These events have a central start/finish and dozens of CPs. Racers/teams have a pre-determined amount of time to find as many checkpoints as possible. Typically, rogaine RDs set more CPs than can be found by any team, which forces teams to strategize and decide which CPs to skip. Adventure racing RDs sometimes rely on this approach to course design, making some or even all CPs optional. Typically, adventure races are designed as a “modified rogaine” or a “linear course.”
Separator – See “Prologue”
Short Course – RDs tend to design “short-course” options at most expedition races and many one-day events to accommodate teams unable to complete the full course. Different than “rogaine” style or “modified rogaine” style events, teams are still required to find all the CPs they are tasked to find. Typically, teams are given time cutoffs. If they fail to make a time cutoff, they will be re-routed, bypassing part of the course and its corresponding CPs. Once back on the official course, teams then must find all the remaining CPs to be ranked as official finishers (unless they are short-coursed more than once, which is possible). They will be ranked behind all “full-course” teams, however, regardless of whether they finish ahead or behind of such teams according to time. These design decisions make adventure racing more accessible and allow more teams to compete and finish events officially.
Sleepmonsters – Sleepmonsters come out at night, usually two to three nights into an expedition race. Because adventure racing is a non-stop event that welcomes and often necessitates significant sleep deprivation, the human brain starts to play games with exhausted racers. In short, hallucinations are not uncommon, though most racers only experience this phenomenon in multi-day racing. Ask any seasoned expedition racer and you will be regaled with stories of castles in the woods, buffets of mouth-watering meals on a lonely moor, or terrifying encounters with animals that certainly don’t exist. Sleepmonsters are not necessarily monsters, but they never are real… even when two teammates see them at the same time. This does happen!
Supported vs. Unsupported – Typically expedition races are described as supported or unsupported. Decades ago, many expedition races were supported events, but most multi-day races today are typically unsupported. Supported events require teams to provide their own support crew. These support crews are responsible for moving a team’s gear and may assist their teams in TAs. In an unsupported event, teams are not allowed this outside assistance. The RDs transport teams’ equipment for them. Unsupported events require teams to be more self-sufficient and considerably decrease expenses, as teams do not need to rent vehicles or support their crews financially. Supported events add additional elements of strategy, as the support crew can influence how the team performs and makes TAs “easier” for the racers.
UTM - Universal Transverse Mercator…It’s a bit of a mouthful. Everyone calls them UTMs. In short, the UTM system is a coordinate grid system found on some topographic maps; it’s an alternative to longitude and latitude. Occasionally, an RD will ask racers to plot CPs by providing them with numerical UTM coordinates. Teams must use a small mapping tool with UTM measurements to plot the points. This adds a different sort of navigational mapping skill. Being adept at UTM plotting also allows teams to provide an RD with coordinates in case of an emergency. This skill is becoming less common, and most RDs now pre-plot their maps for racers.
Of course, there is plenty more to learn. Endurance athletes have their own slang and lingo, and you’ll slowly pick it up. For now, this should give you a good reference point to the common language used to explain the sport. For further insight into the language of AR, check out this terrific, and hilarious, discussion thread on the Adventure Racing Discussion Facebook Group.
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