Getting into Adventure Racing

Photos by Doug Nurock/Nurock Photography

By Gordon Wright 

One of the most common questions people ask adventure racers is, “How do I get into adventure racing?”

The short answer is: Keep hanging out with adventure racers. They’ll suck you into the sport eventually. The even-shorter answer is, “If you’re reading this, you can probably do it.” Todd Jackson, who runs 7th Wave Productions, the biggest local event organizer in adventure racing, says that anyone who has ever done an off-road triathlon has what it takes — athletically – to get into the sport.

“Any reasonably fit recreational athlete can get into adventure racing,” says Jackson, who also promotes off-road tri’s and trail runs. “But there is a learning curve. You should start with a sprint race, and as you develop proficiency you can move up to longer races.”

No matter if you’re considering a three-hour race – considered a “sprint” distance in adventure racing – or a multi-day epic, certain essential elements are paramount to consider:

Teammates

At its core, adventure racing is a team sport. Many races accept solo racers, but the real reason to sign up for a race is to have fun and suffer with friends. Choosing teammates wisely is perhaps the most important strategic decision you’ll make, because the heat of competition and the emotions brought to bear with sustained suffering can bring out the weirdness in people. I once raced with a woman I didn’t know well, a great athlete who held herself out to be a crack navigator. She wasn’t (and wouldn’t admit it even in the face of painfully obvious reality), so we spent 41 straight hours hiking in circles in the woods of western Maine before withdrawing from a race ignominiously. We’ve never spoken since.

Mark Richardson, a top regional racer and one of the organizers of Team Karma’s Gold Rush races, maintains that the biggest negative characteristic a teammate can have is “a big ego.”

“Anyone who is too proud to allow another teammate to help them should stick to triathlons,” notes Richardson. “I have had too many teammates whose pride didn’t allow them to accept help, and this has proved especially true of racers with less experience. Nothing frustrates me more. Individual pride and ego have no business in the sport, because it is a team endeavor and teamwork is the single most crucial aspect in adventure racing.”

Mountain Biking

Mountain bike skills are an absolute requirement in adventure racing. Even sprint races can present up to 25-plus miles of rigorous off-road riding. You need to know basic bike repair, you need to enjoy climbing, and you need to be able to descend tricky terrain
with confidence.

And have you ever tried to eat during a mountain bike ride? You should probably figure it out before you enter a race, because maintaining your energy levels on the fly is a crucial element to even the shortest race.

Hiking and Running

With the exception of sprint races, you won’t be doing much high-aerobic running work in adventure racing. A common tactic of most races longer than six hours is to run at moderate speeds on flat land and downhill. As for the many uphill pulls you’ll see at any race, a moderate-to-vigorous hiking gait will keep you near the top of any competition. Your training should include at least half as much strenuous trail hiking as flat-land running. And always, always wear a backpack in training. This habituates your core muscles to deal with the load you’ll be bearing during a race, and gets you familiar with accessing your food and equipment on the fly.

The most essential thing to remember for foot sections is to maintain a relentless forward motion. A team that sustains consistent forward movement usually will beat a team that surges forward only to stop repeatedly to eat, futz with gear, decide on directions or tend to minor physical ailments. And yes, peeing without breaking stride is not only possible but a highly-prized ability.

Paddling

Paddling of some sort – be it flat-water canoeing, ocean kayaking, or downriver running – is a central feature of almost every race. Much like the swim leg in any triathlon, being a poor paddler won’t necessarily lose you the race, but you’ll have a difficult time being competitive.

Like swimming, paddling is relatively easy to gain adequacy, but difficult to gain mastery. The more time in the water you spend, the more comfortable and competitive you’ll be. That being said, even completing a one-day paddling course from a local outfitter is enough to see you through an entry-level race. Paddle shops and outfitters that offer classes include California Canoe & Kayak (Oakland and Sacramento), Outback Adventures (San Jose and Marin), Aquan Sports (Peninsula), Sea Trek (Sausalito), Current Adventures (Sacramento), REI’s Outdoor School (Bay Area and Sacramento), Kayak Connection (Santa Cruz), and Monterey Bay Kayaks.

Navigation

Hiking, mountain biking, even paddling: these are the core sports of ASJ readers. But navigation can be the great stumbling block, the great barrier to entry for many aspiring adventure racers.

The good news is – it isn’t as hard as it looks. The bad news is – you can’t fake it. You have to know how to use a compass, and you have to know how to plot Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) points on a map. Those are the two basic skills, and attaining them should take you about 10 hours, a bit of practice and a good book or two.

Keep in mind that the difference between a good race experience and a bad one is all about navigation. The better you are, the faster you go. Being able to read terrain features and translate those onto your map is critical. Having a good sense of direction and a healthy dose of common sense are pretty key as well. And remember – you’ll be navigating at night for any race billed as a 24-hour event, and that is a true navigation challenge.

Gear

Doug Giles, a beginner racer whose first attempt at the sport was in last fall’s Tahoe Big Blue 24 Hour, failed to finish his inaugural effort. It wasn’t his fitness level, or his lack of proficiency in the basic skills. Rather, it was his unfamiliarity with apportioning his gear and food to account for the race’s dramatic length and disparity of conditions.

It is the simple things that will undo you. The lack of a dry, warm layer for cold nighttime sections. The bonk you get when you forget to eat on the run. The unattended hot spot that develops into a debilitating blister. The dehydration that sneaks up on you in the heat of battle.

Thankfully, every race organizer posts or distributes a gear list prior to your event. You need to assemble that list, and test it during your training to dial in your equipment, food, and hydration needs, or you’ll be pulling out of the parking lot long before the winners cross the finish line.

Attitude

A good attitude is one shared by all team members. However, that attitude can be different for every team. I would fare poorly on a team like DART-NUUN, a fantastically fast team based in Seattle. They are relentlessly competitive, speed-oriented and wholly intense. My teams tend to resemble auditions for the Improv. We like to laugh, solve marital woes and tease each other about how bad we look.

Whatever attitude you carry into competition must be the attitude carried by all of your team members, or else you’re bound for team discord and dysfunction.

In short, adventure racing is a real, but attainable, challenge. It is a glorious chance to hang out with friends. But perhaps what is most appealing about the sport is its transformative potential. It may not change your life, but finishing your first race may recalibrate your knowledge of what you are capable of.

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