Adventure racing is a sporting activity that includes at least two forms of endurance sports, such as running, hiking, swimming, paddling, and orienteering. Participants cover a designated course in some given period of time, typically in teams consisting of both men and women. Races may be sprints that last less than 6 hours, or longer races of 12 hours, a day, or multiple days.
The object of adventure racing is to find and reach a series of predesignated checkpoints on a course in a set period of time. The team that completes the course in the shortest time is the winner. A team's time is subject to adjustment, however, for certain specified infractions of race rules.
Adventure racing is a sport designed for individuals who are in much-better-than-average physical condition and in many cases have previously participated in other types of extreme sports such as marathon and ultramarathon runs. Many race promoters offer races for individuals who are physically qualified but do not have a history of extreme sports activities.
Many adventure racers point to the two-day Karrimor International Mountain Marathon (KIMM; now known as the Original Mountain Marathon) of 1968 as the first modern adventure race. KIMM was held in Muker, North Yorkshire, England. Participants in the race were required to carry with them all the equipment they needed for their two-day run and overnight camp in this double marathon race. Others have suggested that the first true adventure race was the Alpine Ironman (AI) event, held in New Zealand in October 1980. The race consisted of three sports, trail running, kayaking, and skiing. In 1983, AI race director Robin Judkins also organized the Coast to Coast race on New Zealand's South Island, an event that continues today under the sponsorship of the New Zealand beer company, Speight's. Still others argue that the first true adventure race was the Raid Gauloises, named after the French cigarette, also held in New Zealand in 1989. The race was inspired by and patterned after training programs developed by the British and American armed services during World War II. The race consisted of five sports (canoeing, horseback riding, kayaking, mountaineering, and rafting) that covered a 400-mi. (644 km) course over a period of two weeks.
The governing body for adventure racing in the United States is the United States Adventure Racing Association (USARA), headquartered in Welborn, Texas. The USARA has developed a system for sanctioning adventure races held in the United States and has established an Adventure Racer Code of Ethics and a Safety Compliance Committee. The organization also provides a ranking system for member teams that have participated in USARA-sanctioned events. The top ranking teams since 2005 have been ASM/Enduraventure, Atlanta; Mighty Dog, Cumming, Georgia 2006); Berlin Bike, Bloomfield, Connecticut (2007); Eastern Mountain Sports, Lexington, Massachusetts (2008); Alpine Shop, St. Louis, Missouri (2009); and Odyssey Adventure Racing, Alexandria, Virginia (2010); Rev3/Mountain Khakis, Jackson Hole, Wyoming (2011–2014); Tecnu Adventure Racing, supported by TEC LABS (2015); and Rib Mountain Racing, Rib Mountain, Wisconsin (2016).
Adventure races typically award recognition to first, second, and third place winners in each category included in the race. These awards usually consist of relatively modest prizes, such as shoes, trophies, or small cash prizes. Occasionally those cash prizes may be significant, as in the 2008 Eco-Games at Malaysia, when first prize in the adventure race was U.S. $50,000. In the great majority of cases, participants in adventure races say that they participate not to win an award, but for the sheer joy of taking part in such an exciting and challenging experience.
Activities required during an adventure race vary widely from race to race. Among the events that make up an adventure race are hiking and trail running, trekking, road and mountain biking, mountain climbing, horseback and camel riding, rope climbing and rappeling, mountaineering, Tyrolean traversing, paragliding and hang gliding, skiing, canoe and kayak paddling, inline skating, tubing, archery, snowshoeing, land navigation, and orienteering.
An adventure race typically begins on the evening before or the morning of a race, when race officials hand out directions for the race course. Participants then set out for the first of the checkpoints that make up the course. They obtain some type of verification at that checkpoint (such as having their race passport stamped) and then set off for the next checkpoint. Instructions for the next destination may be given in advance, or they may be available at the first checkpoint itself. Racers must find each checkpoint on the course using only a map and a compass. In most cases, aids such as global positioning systems (GPS) are not permitted on the course. Checkpoints may also have associated with them transition areas, at which participants change disciplines (e.g., trekking to biking) and can replenish supplies. Other rules are that a team must carry all the gear it needs to complete the course, and it can not obtain any type of assistance (except in case of medical emergencies) from outside sources. Also, team members must remain in close contact with each other throughout the race, never straying more than some designated distance (usually, 164 ft. [50 m]) from each other.
Most races impose a penalty on participants for violations of these rules. Some typical penalties are those imposed for unsportsmanlike conduct, not assisting another participant in need of medical assistance, not remaining with some specified distance or time lapse from other teammates, failure to have a checkpoint contact correctly verified, losing the race passport, not wearing identifying emblems like bibs or wristbands, not having an acceptable water-carrying container, and not wearing required safety equipment.
By its very nature, adventure racing requires preparation in a wide variety of fields. A participant must have some basic skills in each of the specialized sports included in a particular race, usually running, trekking, hiking, or some related skill; paddling; and cycling. A course that involves mountain climbing, as an example, also requires that a participant be familiar with various rope and climbing skills, while knowledge of riding a horse or other animal may be necessary for some types of adventure races. Command of orienteering skills is critical, since a major feature of adventure races is that participants have to find their way through a course entirely on their own, using only a map and a compass. Some background in basic wilderness medical skill is necessary because accidents are common in adventure races. One of the greatest concerns among adventure racers is the serious hazards that participants face in such events. A number of fatal accidents in the last few years among adventure racers has even raised questions about the possibility of imposing more severe restrictions on conditions under which races are carried out.
Some experts recommend that a person coming to adventure racing for the first time take a course that introduces the sport to prospective participants. These courses may last a single day or multiple days and sometimes conclude with a short demonstration race for those enrolled in the course. As an example, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's Team in Training program offers instructions in a variety of activities designed to improve a person's strength and endurance, such as marathons and half-marathons, ironman competitions, and adventure racing. These programs provide training in the large variety of skills needed in adventure racing that one can also learn individually with a personal trainer, or in small training groups.
The equipment needed for an adventure race is dictated by the specific events that make up a race. It also depends on the length of the race. The bare minimum for most sprint races (those that take six hours or less) include a mountain bike and helmet; hydration pack; a signaling device, such as a whistle; multiple pairs of socks; and high-energy snacks. Canoes and kayaks, with oars and life jackets, are usually provided by race organizers. Beyond this basic equipment, other specialized gear that may be necessary includes:
Because adventure racing involves so many different skills, it is beyond the scope of this entry to provide a complete list of the entire range of steps one should take in preparing for a race. Some suggestions offered by a current adventure runner with the New York Adventure Running Association, Steve Fleisig, including the following:
Risk is an inherent and probably unavoidable part of adventure racing. Research shows that one reason adventure racers participate in the sport is to be able to “look death in the face and overcome it.” Certainly, the conditions under which adventure racing takes place expose a participant to a wide range of physical damage, from blisters and bruises to fractures and death. For this reason, every organization that sponsors an adventure race in one way or another requires participants to complete a waiver that renders them not liable for any accident that may occur during a competition.
Adventure racing has had its share of personal disasters that have raised questions about the risks to which participants should be exposed in a competition. In June 2003, for example, Dominique Robert died when she was pinned underneath her canoe during the Raid Gauloises. A year later, Nigel Aylott was killed by a falling boulder during the orienteering section of the Primal Quest race. In February 2005, Eduardo Delgado Rosas drowned near the completion of the swimming portion of the Extreme Adventure Hidalgo.
Adventure races are subject to any number of other health problems, many depending on the specific environment in which an event takes place. For example, races in cold climates may expose a racer to hypothermia and races in hot climates, to heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Bacterial diseases may also be a problem. In the Malaysian Eco-Challenge of 2000, for example, at least 44 participants developed leptospirosis, a bacterial infection that can lead to serious complications including meningitis, renal failure, and liver failure. The participants apparently contracted the disease through cuts and bruises on their bodies when canoeing through a local river.
Individuals who choose to participate in adventure racing expose their bodies to some of the most extreme stresses that one can imagine. The best approach to meeting this challenge is to engage in a carefully planned regime of training and preparation that focuses on the specific skills needed for the events included in a specific race. This type of preparation provides a person with the best chance of completing an adventure race safely and successfully.
See also Blisters ; Heat exhaustion ; Hydration ; Marathon and half maarathon ; Running .
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Mann, Don, and Kara Schaad. The Complete Guide to Adventure Racing: The Insider's Guide to the Greatest Sport on Earth. New York: Hatherleigh Press, 2001.
Marais, Jacques, and Lis De Speville. Adventure Racing. Champaign: Human Kinetics, 2004.
Stiff, Barry, and Liz Caldwell. Adventure Racing: The Ultimate Guide. Boulder: VeloPress, 2001.
“About Us.” USARA. http://www.usara.com/default.aspx?ReturnUrl=/ (accessed January 25, 2017).
Bean, Garrett. “Adventure Race Training Plan: Step One.” Active.com . http://www.active.com/triathlon/articles/adventure-race-training-plan-step-one (accessed January 24, 2017).
David E. Newton, AB, MA, EdD