Ah special challenges - the X factor in adventure racing. Have you ever finished a 30 mile bike ride in grueling heat and all of a sudden arrived at a slip n' slide set up just for you, but only if you could answer a riddle first? Or have you ever done a long trekking section only to arrive at a firing range where you had to shoot a muzzle loading rifle at a tiny gong? Or have you ever physically acted out one of those silly thought exercises where you have to measure out (for example) 4 gallons of water with a 3 gallon and a 5 gallon bucket? Well if not then you're probably doing the wrong activities with your life. In adventure racing, events like this are the norm, and they're called special challenges.
There's not a ton you can do to train for specific special challenges. Part of their beauty is that you never know what's coming. That said, there are a few things you can do. Reading this page is a great first step. Knowledge is the key here - if you're familiar with something then you already have a leg up against the competition. There are a few skills that transfer to many special challenges. Often special challenges will involve some kind of balance activity. Doing lots of core work will help with this. Even doing some pilates/yoga workouts is beneficial. Another important skill is the ability to think critically about riddles and thought experiments. This can be trained with practice. Another key is good team communication and coordination. Often race directors will test your teamwork abilities in special challenges. In fact many special challenges are the same events you might find on a list of activities at a team-building retreat.
Special challenges are meant for fun and a change of pace, but you can gain or lose position in the race during one. There are several things you should do during every special challenge in order to maximize your benefit from them. First of all, remember to have fun and don't stress about it too much! Several years later, when the memory of that grueling hill climb has faded, you might still recall fondly the time you had to catch a greased pig in the middle of a race.
The first thing you should do is recognize when a special challenge is coming up. Sometimes you will know because the race director tells you so. Sometimes your instruction sheet will say, "Arrive at CP4, follow volunteer instructions" which is a giveaway that there might be a special challenge there. When there is a potential special challenge (or ropes course) coming up, it is in your best interest to get there before any other teams that you are racing with.
It doesn't usually make sense in an adventure race to expend a bunch of energy sprinting out ahead of another team that you know is just as fast or faster than you, but this is an exception to that rule. You want to make every effort to arrive ahead of as many teams as possible to a special challenge because they are often bottlenecks in the race course (this is just due to their nature which often means only 1 or a few teams can do the activity at any given time). It's not unheard of (though it is unacceptable and constitutes poor planning by the race director) for teams to have to wait upwards of an hour to get to complete a special challenge or a ropes course. Thankfully this does not happen very often though because it gives a major advantage to the teams that did not have to wait as long.
Failing a Special Challenge: Sometimes special challenges are a pass/fail activity, like attempting to hit a target with a certain number of shots or having a certain amount of time to climb a wall. Typically there is a minor penalty for failing such a challenge, like having to run across a field and back carrying your bike or just sitting for 3 minutes before getting to move on in the race. These penalties won't kill your race, but they can set you back a few minutes.
If you are in a race where you have different route choices or a race that is Rogaine-style then you'll have to try to gauge how many teams are going to beat you to a certain checkpoint where there is probably a special challenge. Often in these cases it makes sense to save a special challenge until toward the end of the race when most teams have already gone through. Also make sure you have your passport out before you get there! It's typical for race volunteers to take your passport right when you arrive and then use that as their method of telling who arrived in what order. My team has actually gained 10+ minutes on other teams several times in a race even though we arrived after them at a special challenge or ropes course. They were unorganized and fumbling around for their passport but we had ours out and gave it immediately to the race staff. Thus they had to wait for us to finish the activity before they could do it.
Usually it will be obvious when you arrive at a checkpoint that you have to do a special challenge. Sometimes you will know beforehand, but the presence of race volunteers and equipment involved in the challenge at the checkpoint will be a dead giveaway. The first thing you should do is immediately find the race volunteer who is keeping track of the order team's arrive and give them your passport or tell them your team number so you are in line. Then ask them what you are supposed to do and listen very carefully to what they have to say. Don't be fumbling around with your gear or talking to your teammates. I don't know how much time I've lost in races by having to ask race staff again and again details about the rules that they have already told me. Ideally each team member should listen carefully, but you need at least one member to so she can relay the information to the rest of you.
If there is a long wait at a special challenge, then you may have some options. If you are going to come back by that spot later in the race, then you may be able to skip it now and do it later when there's hopefully a shorter line. Ask race staff if you have any doubts. Or if you don't care too much about the experience, then ask if you can just skip the challenge altogether for a time penalty. Often race directors will give teams this option if the wait is extremely long. It might be in your best interest to take the penalty and move on, rather than wait even more time. However if it's just a short wait, then treat this as a golden opportunity! This is your time to chug water, eat a bunch of food, organize your gear, fix any bike issues, and plot out your exact course on the map. Rarely do you get free time like that in a race so take advantage of it as much as possible. Sit or even lie down if you can to give your body a rest. It will thank you when you get moving again. This also goes for any teammates that may be involved in the challenge if the entire team does not have to participate at once.
Once you are there and you have your place in line, if there are no teams ahead of you or if it's the type of activity that many teams can do at once then you can go ahead and do it. Before you start, unless it's a no-brainer type of activity, remember to think outside the box! Often there are loopholes in the rules (sometimes planned by the race director to reward smart teams) that will save you lots of time. See the "burn a hole in a string" challenge below for an example. This is doubly difficult in an adventure race because your body is in "fight or flight" mode so the creative, critical thinking parts of your brain that are usually active are mostly turned off. You have to tell yourself to stop, take a deep breath, and think for a second before starting. Ask a race volunteer (quietly, so other teams don't hear you if you did come up with a time-saving strategy) if you think you might be circumventing the rules of the challenge.
Here's a list of some special challenges I have done or heard about in races, along with some tips about how best to accomplish them if it's not obvious.
- Having to hit milk jugs with a slingshot. This was fun but challenging. My teammate was much better at it than I having never used a slingshot. It seems the key was to pull the slingshot back as far as possible so your bullet flies in as straight a line as possible toward the target.
- Having to walk across a lawn with all team member's feet strapped to two 2x4s. All of your left feet will be on the same board and all of your right feet on the second board. This is hard with bad communication because if not everyone takes a step in sync, then you will most likely fall. You will only get anywhere fast if you have just one teammate yell out "left, right, left, right" and have everyone take each step at the same time.
- Firing a muzzle loading rifle at a small gong target. This was fun and easy. The race just happened to go by the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association so the race director decided to have a little fun with us.
- Climbing up a climbing wall then ziplining down. This is a pretty standard special challenge that is lots of fun and also a bit of ropes action too.
- Having to solve a puzzle blindfolded while teammates give verbal instructions. In this fun challenge, one team member is blindfolded and has to put together a puzzle make of large blocks of wood while the other team members give verbal cues, but can't touch the puzzle. Usually the puzzle would be trivial without a blindfold. The key is developing a specific vocabulary around how to move the piece. Don't bother telling the blindfolded person what's on the puzzle, just tell them "rotate left 90 degrees, move right, place down, slide left against other piece" etc.
- Having to find a clear full water bottle in a pool.I've never done this but it sounds hard.
- Having to solve a riddle.Always a good standby, it's hard to get the brain thinking outside the box in the heat of a race.
- Getting to do a slip n' slide.This was awesome after a long hot biking leg.
- Playing a course of disc golf.
- Stand up paddle boarding on a lake out to a buoy and back.
- Walking across a wire blindfolded while teammates gave instructions on where to put feet and hands. Usually the wire zigzags between wooden posts and there might be dangling ropes to hang onto. The teammates have to tell you where to put your hands to find all of this stuff and how far away from it you are.
- Getting one teammate over a tall sheer wall. The key is to have a strong team member put their back against the wall, bend their legs, and cup their hands. Then another teammate can step onto their cupped hands with one foot, get a boost and step onto their shoulder with the other foot. This should be enough height to get over the wall unless the race director wants to get sued for discriminating against short people.
- Having to fit your bike through a small opening in a plywood board.Something some race directors do just to be a jerk, usually you have to take off the front wheel and sometimes even the pedals (they will specify a pedal wrench in the gear list if this is the case). This is less something to do for fun and more a test of your bike wrenching skills.
- Burning a hole in a piece of string. This is a fun one. The race director provided magnifying glasses and a string and said you had to burn a hole through it. What most teams forgot was that a match was on the mandatory gear list for the race and the rules did not specify that you had to use the magnifying glass. So you could either spend 5 minutes trying to hold the magnifying glass just right and hope for the sun not to go behind the clouds, or whip out the match and get it done in 10 seconds.
- Measuring water with the wrong size containers. Like the classic thought exercise but with actual water, you might get a 5 gallon and 3 gallon container and have to measure out 4 gallons worth of water. This can be made harder than this depending on the container size, but for this example just fill up the 5 gallon, pour it into the 3, dump out the 3 gallon, pour the remaining 2 gallons from the 5 gallon container into the 3 gallon, fill up the 5, then pour enough from the 5 to fill up the 3, since there's only 1 gallon of space left, you will have 4 gallons in the 5 gallon container. This can obviously get much more physically draining than writing it down on paper.
- Moving increasingly large rings from one pole to another. Again this is like another classic thought exercise where you have 3 posts. 5 rings start on one post, largest on the bottom and getting increasingly smaller. You have to move all 5 rings to another post so they end up in the same position as they started in, but the catch is that you can never put a ring on top of another ring that is smaller than it. This just takes some methodical, analytical thinking and you'll have to move a lot of rings all around to complete it. I won't bother writing the solution here but feel free to work it out on your own in case this ever comes up for you in a race.
- Tossing lawn darts
- Kicking a short field goal on a football field