Adventure Racing 102: How to Prepare In Order to Have a Great Race That Might Just Change Your Life

by Bill Gibbons, D.O. President GOALS Adventure Racing Association

Adventure Racing

As the saying goes, “Everything old, is new again.” Adventure racing began about almost 40 years ago in the lands of Middle-Earth. New Zealand was the location of some of the first events. Competitors came from across the globe to travel by foot, mountain bike, sea kayak, whitewater rafts, and rope over terrain that was unknown to practically everyone. The original races were for individual participants, but quickly they transitioned to small teams, especially useful for paddling. The sport really took off when it crossed the oceans to the U.S.A. with Eco-Challenge and the rest is history.

Racers and teams are often rooted in their love for the outdoors. We are outdoorsmen first, who just happen to like to cross all kinds of terrain quickly! But, we also look out for each other while we’re there. If another team is injured or has a mechanical problem, Teams are required to stop and assist. Time will be credited to the team that assists. It happens to every team at some point, both giving and receiving assistance. Teams that are unsportsmanlike will be disqualified.

Mother Nature Can Be Cruel Enough
Unlike obstacle course events, adventure races keep the course a secret until the very last minute. Our obstacles are, for the most part, nature itself. The course is not marked, but teams are given a map. Each team must choose the best route that allows them to reach as many checkpoints as possible within the allowed time. For bigger, multi-day races, there are time cut-offs where teams will be removed from the competition if they’re late. In smaller races, we will start deducting points from teams that are late. So…the ability to tell time and estimate distance is vitally important.

Our events are never cancelled due to inclement weather! The race director may adjust segments that may become too hazardous. That’s why only very experienced people should design races. Teams may not even know that the course was changed.

Teams will have to negotiate everything else that Mother Nature decides to throw at them. There is no bad weather, just bad gear choices! Read on for more on gear.

Protect Your Map
As I just mentioned, the teams choose their route by looking at a map. The ultimate goal is to run the shortest race possible to get the most checkpoints. Topographical maps will show where the terrain is easier to cross compared to steep, wooded areas. It does not account for thorny bushes, but I’ll get to that shortly. Become familiar with various types of maps. If you get lost, your race could be more of an adventure than you planned!

Adventure Racing

Get Yourself Physically Ready
These are demanding physical events. While the shorter “Sprint” races are designed for newbies, we mean newbie adventure racers, not couch potatoes. You can gauge your fitness level before you sign up.

The elements involved in adventure racing are: trail running, mountain biking, paddling (canoe or kayak). Based on the planned distance/time, half the race will be on mountain bikes. The running section will be 30%, and the paddling will be 20%. During your training, you should be able to complete the foot distance while running, non-stop. At the same time, if you are already running endurance events, half-marathon or marathon, you’re good to go for stamina. But this equation works well for people who might be new to long-distance events.

Goal-Oriented Training
Build your training workouts to include “bricks”, not masonry, but two elements in one workout. Typically, most adventure racers will combine running and biking. Some days it will be bike 10 miles with a 5 mile run, other days it will be reversed.

Always train outside! I guarantee that you will never find an indoor adventure race. Besides, you will get to know how well your gear works if you are training with it.
Practice transitioning from one segment to the other. Changing out of bike shoes to trail shoes and putting on brush pants or gaiters (thorny terrain) can take all day if you let it. It has been said that you can do everything, but defecate, while moving. If one team member has to water a tree, they can run ahead and then quickly catch up. The team never has to stop.

Typically, racers stay in their bike shorts for the entire race, even 24-48 hour events. In shorter races, transition times can make a huge difference in your final placement. The compression shorts also reduce chafing, so at least you have that going for you.
When practicing map and compass, successful teams learn to make decisions quickly. On the race course, there can be a tendency for multiple teams to gather and “navigate by committee”. While we do look out for each other for safety, we are not responsible to correct a team’s navigation error. Make your own decisions that work best for your team.

No one should delay entering the sport because they don’t have the lightest mountain bike or a specialized pack or hydration vest. The best bike ever, is the one you’re on! Improvements will come with time. There are lots of experienced racers who started out with department store bikes and school book backpacks.

As you look to advance your racing experience, lighter gear will become a requirement but not all at once. We often lend or borrow special equipment that might only be required for a handful of races.
With that, you will see elite racers with some of the lightest and most efficient gear known to man. Sometimes you’ll even see prototype gear. Adventure racers don’t carry anything that they don’t expect to use. We can, in a busy race season, burn through a couple of packs, one or two Gore-Tex jackets, a couple pair of sunglasses and goggles. We never seem to lose our compasses though.

Zip-lock bags are simply a necessity from day one. I typically have a box of quart-size and gallon-size freezer bags in my car at all times. Anything that you consider valuable needs to be protected from moisture. You will be wet! You will either sweat through everything, cross a body of water or slip while crossing, or get your pack soaked in the bottom of the canoe. Zip-lock bags will protect your map, passport/control punch card, cellphone, wallet, keys, extra socks, and first-aid kit.

Every race director will publish a required gear list for each race. Make sure to have everything on the list. Most of it is safety items like lights for your bike, bike helmet, and first-aid kit. Don’t try to save weight by ditching that stuff. You might find that you really need it or you could receive a penalty for not having it. And that’s just silly!

Your team will often have a transition area that you will return to between race segments. In other cases, your team will be allowed a TA box or bag that will be moved or dropped off at a designated location. You can keep extra food, clothes, or gear in it. Rarely, some races require you to carry all of your gear from the beginning, 4-piece paddles come in handy when that happens.

You must eat 100-200kcal per hour of racing/training. You should replace 80% of the water that you lose through sweat or urine. In hot weather, it is possible to lose 500-1000ml of water/hr. You will need to replace 400-800ml/hr to prevent decreased performance, organ damage, or even death.

During your training, try every type of gel, bar, and electrolyte replacement there is until you find what works for you. Gatorade will not replace electrolytes at the same rate that you will be losing them. Besides, the amount of sugar in it will actually slow down gut motility, reducing absorption. You can choose additional foods that are designed for endurance athletes that have a more optimal concentration of sodium, potassium, and magnesium.

During your race, eat on a schedule. In my early days, I was guilty of being so focused on the next checkpoint that I forgot to eat, and I suffered. As a team, now, we are constantly reminding each other to eat. If you end up cramping, the whole team suffers.
It is that loyalty to your team that makes this the great sport that it is!

Adventure Racing

You have already figured out that adventure racing is, essentially, moving through the woods with stuff from every department of an outfitter store on your back! And, you would be right. Now, knowing what to do with all that gear will take some planning and practice.

There are groups and training events that can help with each of the individual skills you might need from map and compass, first-aid, bike repair (no SWAG wagon), and paddling, to ropes, knots, and rappelling or ascending. Once you’re tapped in to the adventure racing community you’ll find an endless number of resources.

Some big, multi-day races will require that you prove your proficiency in those skills prior to the start of the race. For the races that we organize that are qualifiers for championships, we review navigation skills for any racer who might be new or need a refresher.

Now, the only thing left to do is convince a couple of friends to join you in this crazy little adventure! The vast majority of amateur adventure racers are long-time friends or family members. They see racing as a way for them to have fun in the outdoors for a day or a weekend. They get to work as a team, conquer challenges, and down a few cold ones when it’s over.

We also see individual racers who are looking for a team. We can help make that connection. There are local groups that train together year-round and they’re open to making new friends. When there’s a race, they will divide up and field multiple teams or perhaps some will show up as support. Either way, there’s plenty of racing for everyone!

Training weekends alone are the stuff of legends! I guarantee that when you go back to work, maybe a little scratched up, and start to describe everything that you did, just as a workout, people will not believe you.

“We staged a car with our canoe on it at Valley Forge, drove to Philly and then rode our bikes through Wissahickon Valley Park on the way out to Valley Forge. We went past the canoe in order to run the hills on the far side of the park. We came back to the canoe, locked the bikes to the car and paddled back down the Schuylkill River to Manayunk, where the other car was parked.” That is one of our workouts.

So, pick a race that fits your fitness level, find some friends and come on out for what could be a life-changing experience!

Bill GibbonsBill Gibbons, DO, FAWM, along with his wife, Anne, founded the GOALS Adventure Racing Association in 2003. GOALS-ARA, a 501c3 organization, conducts training clinics, organizes competitive adventure races, and fields an elite team that travels nationally and internationally to compete. Dr. Gibbons is an invited lecturer for topics in wilderness medicine, endurance nutrition, sports-related injury, and osteopathic manipulative therapy.