Put a couple of kids together and almost instantly they’ll ask: “What do you want to play?” Maybe you can remember posing that question in your youth – and even recall some of the wild and wacky answers – back when adventures were limited only by neighborhood boundaries and dinnertime curfews.
Many fitness enthusiasts still act like kids. They ask themselves what they want to play, and for the adventuresome, the answers can include in-line skating, kayaking, orienteering, parachuting, camel riding and even blackjack – all on the same weekend. Those athletes have gone beyond the traditional multisports of biathlon and triathlon into a challenge that could be called a quadrathon, septathon, or even an octathlon: It’s called adventure racing.
Adventure racing is technically a multisport event; that is, it combines two or more single sports. Traditional multisports include the bike-run combo of duathlon, and the swim-bike-run trifecta of triathlon. But the sport of adventure racing goes further, adding intriguing challenges that can best be described as social, psychological and intellectual. That mix draws a variety of enthusiasts – from hardcore pros to weekend warriors – looking to test their hard-earned fitness, and their mettle.
The Other Multisport
What makes adventure racing so different? First, unlike other multisport events, adventure racing is a team effort, and in most races, a coed team effort. Teams of two compete in single-day sprint races; two-day weekend races and relay events may require a team of three, four or five.
Second, in races that are two days or longer, the course is not marked. At all. “Teams must navigate their way with only a map and compass between the start and the finish line using only nonmotorized forms of transport,” says Ian Adamson, a three-time winner of Eco-Challenge and top-three contender at other well-known adventure races.
In the multiday races, the race isn’t suspended because of darkness. Teams often keep moving throughout the night, catching naps whenever and wherever they can.
The exact combination of wheels, paddles, hoofs and footwear that gets the team from start to finish depends on the whim of the race director – “whim” being the operative word. “A general rule is that there are no general rules,” says Adamson. “Anything goes.”
Sprint races often include an obstacle course, if not a tricky kayak or canoe portage. Last year’s Wild Onion Urban Adventure in Chicago included a 16-mile scooter ride and a stair climb up the Sears Tower. “It can involve anything: parachuting; sailing; even large, cantankerous animals,” says Adamson, who found himself astride a camel in one event.
Race directors can toss in any kind of challenge to throw the participants off balance. The Life Time Fitness Desert Dash in Las Vegas even includes a round of blackjack. But if your casino and camel-wrangling skills are lacking, don’t turn the page. While the events can seem wildly different, they do share a basic structure of certain common activities.
Adamson says the basic skills that adventure racers need are mountain biking, trail running and paddling. “The core sports typically include something on foot; something on bike; a paddling discipline, like canoeing or kayaking; and climbing or rope skills,” says Adamson.
Most longer, multiday races require wilderness navigation and rappelling skills, which Adamson says you can acquire through a few sessions at a local orienteering club and climbing gym. “If you have those skills, you can tackle most weekend races,” says Adamson.
Training the Body
It’s daunting to think of training for two, three, or even five different sports at the same time. But if you’re efficient, it can be done, even on an amateur’s schedule. “It doesn’t take as much time as people think,” says Gale Bernhardt, author of Training Plans for Multisport Athletes (Velo Press, 2000) and a USA Triathlon team coach. A couple of workouts each week in different sports will do, she says: “People don’t have to give up their lives to train.”
The key is to optimize your workouts. Instead of taking the time to train for each sport, design your training so that each workout builds strength for several activities.
“I suggest people focus on training that works the large muscle groups of the body,” Bernhardt says. For example, swimming and rowing work the upper body and will build a foundation for all paddle sports and climbing. Running, cycling and skating build strength and endurance in the lower body, readying you for hiking, horseback riding, and road or trail bicycling. “In general,” she advises, “choose aerobic activities that utilize as many large muscle groups as possible and include strength work.”
There’s no need to train alone; beginners especially may benefit from coaching. Jim Delaney from Milpitas, Calif., turned to a race promoter for help when he wanted to enter an adventure race – and he has since finished three sprint events.
Delaney works out twice a week with his coaches. One of Delaney’s sessions is a two-hour track and strength workout that may also include a mountain-bike ride. The other workout is a three- to six-hour session done on weekends. The entire time could be spent on a kayak paddle, mountain-bike ride or a run; or it could be a combination of all three. Delaney’s coaches also recommend two to three additional weekly cardiovascular workouts to build endurance.
Delaney found his coach through The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training program, which coaches thousands of endurance athletes around the country. The U.S. Adventure Racing Association and the Balance Bar Adventure Race Series also offer training clinics. Adventure-racing schools have popped up across the country, offering another good way to submerge yourself in the disciplines. (See “Start Your Adventure” at the end of this article for Web addresses and other resources.)
Hit the Trail
Your next step: Choose an event from the approximately 350 adventure races in the United States each year. The majority are sprint races that take anywhere from three to six hours to complete, ideal for someone just starting out. If you don’t have like-minded friends or training partners whom you can cajole into being teammates, contact the race director. Adventure-racing clubs and coaches may also know of other racers in need of a team.
You can also gain experience without dipping a paddle or running a step just by volunteering on a support crew. The crew meets the team at designated points, supplying gear and food. It’s a great way to see up close how the race works, explains Jeannine Freeman of Novato, Calif. “As a crew member, I drove to each checkpoint in a truck filled with bins of bikes, paddles and other miscellaneous gear for each racer,” says Freeman. “I would get the gear ready for the next leg and cook hot meals or prepare cold drinks, depending on the weather.”
In races that last several days, the support crew is vital to the success of any team. Volunteers receive the same race goodies as participants and have adventures of their own. “I once waited a full day for my team to return to a checkpoint that only should have taken several hours to reach,” Freeman recalls. The 90-degree day had turned into an evening thunder and lightning storm with a search-and-rescue team on standby. “The team’s navigation led them astray, and by the time they arrived, the cold sports drink and snacks had to be replaced with hot tea and instant soup,” says Freeman.
Freeman thinks that crewing is the very best way to learn about the sport. “You’re really part of the team when you crew,” she says. “The pressure is on you to quickly get your team in and out of the checkpoint area with the information they need to continue in the most efficient fashion.” Crewing can be physically and mentally challenging. “It can be hard to wait – ready to help at a moment’s notice – only to end up standing there for hours on end,” says Freeman.
If you don’t know of a team needing support, check with a race director who can put you to good use during an event. Or you can contact an adventure-race club if you want to crew for a seasoned team.
Whether anyone can be completely prepared for an adventure race is questionable. Often race directors throw in “mystery events,” special challenges that test the mind, body and a team’s ability to work productively with their teammates. Participants must rely on their strength and wit to get them through. Teammates may have to scale a wall using only each other as props, for example. During one race, one team member had to put together a jigsaw puzzle, blindfolded, while teammates gave spoken directions.
But it’s exactly those unknowns that often end up being the reason adventure racers go back for more. Solving problems forces you to work as a team. “The best part is bonding with your teammates,” asserts Freeman. “You survive amazing, scary and awesome experiences with your teammates. You rely on each other for emotional support and come to love them.”
Adventure racer Delaney agrees. “You get to strategize with your teammates for the best result and do it in a mutually supportive way,” he says. Sure, it’s nice to win, but the real satisfaction comes in working with others to solve problems and endure. As Delaney puts it: “It’s not so much about the speed with which you get through the event as it is about the style.”
Kara Douglass Thom is a triathlete and fitness writer. She is the author of Becoming an Ironman: First Encounters With the Ultimate Endurance Event (Breakaway Books, 2001) and a children’s book, See Mom Run (Breakaway Books, 2003).
Resources: Start Your Adventure
You can find races, trainers, training schedules and even training partners on the Internet. Here’s where to start:
www.worldar.com – At World Adventure Racing, check out the international teammate finder and race schedule.
www.usara.com – The U.S. Adventure Racing Association is a for-profit company that sanctions events in which members can race. The Web site also lists adventure-racing clubs across the country.
www.adventureracing.org – This listserv for adventure-racing enthusiasts can help you find a club, training partners, teammates or an adventure-racing school.
www.adventuresportsmagazine.com – The Web site for USARA’s magazine association lists races and has advertisements for training clinics.
www.balancebaradventure.com – This company sponsors races and clinics around the country.
www.teamintraining.com – The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society has hundreds of coaches around the country who hold clinics and weekly training sessions. The Web site has online coaching and lists of endurance races.