How Does an Adventure Race Work? A Primer for a Beginner Racer

In this page, I will attempt to give you an understanding of what exactly happens at a typical adventure race. First of all, the term "typical adventure race" is a bit of an oxy-moron because no two adventure races are the same and in many cases they vary dramatically. Unlike in most sports, the race format is truly only limited by the imagination of the race director, and good directors will come up with ideas that will surprise even the most experienced racers. But having said that, there are common ingredients that are present in most races.

Unfortunately many race directors, being racers themselves, have forgotten what it was like to never have done a race, so they don't include on race websites information that would be extremely helpful for first time adventure racers. So here's a little FAQ about the general procedure of how a race is organized, and to answer the most common questions prospective adventure racers have.

Why is there so little information on the race page? What order do we do the individual disciplines in? What are the exact distances I'm going to have to walk/run/bike/kayak, etc.?

This is something that you will usually not know until the day of the race. It is part of the philosophy of adventure racing, in fact it's in the name of the sport itself - ADVENTURE! Consider the alternative in which you know prior to the race which order you will do everything in, what exactly you will be doing, and exactly how far you will be going. Where's the adventure in that? You might as well do a triathlon. If you want to do something that doesn't require any brain power or strategy or if you are some kind of stud athlete and can go faster than everyone else, then maybe adventure racing is not for you. Or if you hate surprises of any sort, maybe adventure racing is not for you. But in this sport, we thrive on adventure and surprises.

Bike Race on Marked Course
If this looks boring to you too then you've come to the right place.

So you will go into each race not knowing exactly what you are about to do. Fortunately, neither will anyone else you are competing against. There are some things you will know. First of all, you will know the length (in time, not distance) of the race. From that important info you can figure out approximate distances of each discipline. If you check the page on race lengths you will find estimated distances of each major discipline based on race length. Also, race directors will usually give you ranges for the distances of the major disciplines. After all they want to make sure beginner racers don't get in over their heads. In addition to distances, race directors will almost always tell you what other disciplines you'll need to train for, if any. This is especially important in cases where a race might have some swimming, for example, or anything else that requires technical skills that not all people have. So take comfort in knowing before you sign up for a race that you won't need any special skills that you're not aware of.

You will almost never know the order you will doing the disciplines in prior to the race day. In fact, in many cases you might not know what you'll be doing first right up until the start of the race. Many a time I've been in a race where all teams were handed a manila envelope at the pre-race meeting and given orders not to open it until the gun goes off. The envelope contains instructions for what you are to do first in the race. That's a good segue into the next question.

When and how DO we learn what we are actually doing in the race?

This varies. In some unusual cases, you will get some information about what you will be doing first prior to the race day. Sometimes it's just a hint or the information is incomplete. Some talented race directors purposefully mislead you by getting you to assume something that isn't actually going to happen. For example, in one race I did, we were given the information that the race would start out with a canoe portage to a river, then a paddling section. Knowing the race site, we knew that portaging from the start area to the only nearby river would be close to a mile long and over several hills which we knew would be very challenging. But knowing that information, we at least thought we had a good idea of how the beginning part of the race would proceed. However, the race director had tricked us! When the race started, buses picked everyone up and took us to another location where we had a much shorter portage to a river to start the race. Note that the race director never gave us any incorrect information - he just knew there was a good chance we would make bad assumptions based on what he did tell us.

Adventure Racers Getting Pre-Race Instructions at a Planet Adventure Race in Indiana
Adventure Racers Getting Pre-Race Instructions from the Race Director

Anyway, as I said it's fairly unusual to get this kind of information prior to the race day. Most commonly you will get your first specific information on the morning of the race. Different race organizations will do this differently. Some will give out a packet of information when you check in as a team, which is usually a couple hours before the race starts. Some don't like to do this because then the teams that check in first will have the information earlier and have more time to develop strategy. Some will give you the info at a pre-race meeting which might be half an hour before the race or so. And some will indeed make you wait until the gun goes off, but usually not.

So at some point you will receive an instruction sheet and a map which will have very specific information about where to go and how to get there (by bike, by foot, by boat, etc.). What these instructions leave out is up to the race director, but usually you will not know every single detail prior to the race start. You will usually have at least an outline but the fine points won't get filled in until sometime later out on the course. For example, you might have instructions to bike from checkpoint (CP) 4 to CP5, then bike from CP5 to CP6, all of which are marked on your map. However, when you get to CP5, you might find that there are race volunteers there and that they're requiring you to complete some kind of special challenge before moving on, or maybe even a ropes course, like a rappel that you have to do before moving on to CP6.

Or one item in your instruction sheet might tell you to bike to CP8 and do an orienteering course on foot. So in that case you actually know what you will be doing, but you won't have the map for the course until you get to CP8 and a race official hands it to you. So you will have no ability to strategize for the checkpoints in the orienteering course ahead of time. Speaking of checkpoints...

What is an adventure race checkpoint? How are adventure races scored?

In adventure racing, checkpoints are the primary scoring mechanism. Instead of traveling along a marked course as in a triathlon, you will receive a map with a bunch of checkpoints marked and labeled on it. Each checkpoint is worth 1 point, and your goal is essentially to compile as many as possible before the race cutoff time, or if you get them all, to get them as quickly as possible.

Usually the way adventure races are scored is that the team with the most checkpoints wins, and time is treated as a tie-breaker. This is key to remember because no matter how fast you travel through the course, if you miss a checkpoint you will be ranked behind every other team that got that point (in addition to the rest of the points that you got). So if you finish with 25 points in 4 hours, then you will lose to a team that finishes with 26 points in 8 hours.

How do I know what to look for at the checkpoint? How do I prove I was there?

To start to answer the second question first, in any adventure race you will receive a passport/punchcard before the race starts. This is a sacred item that you will carry around with you for the entire length of the race which you will use to prove that you visited each checkpoint on the course. Protect your passport! It will be the record of each checkpoint that you visited in the race. If you lose or destroy it, you will be a DNF! Sometimes passports are helpfully printed on waterproof material, sometimes they are just paper or cardstock and you are responsible for keeping them away from water yourself.

Adventure Race Passport
Your passport might look something like this after punching it a few times.

There are three common types of checkpoints - manned checkpoints, punch-based checkpoints, and clue-based checkpoints. When looking for each checkpoint, your instruction sheet will tell you which type to look for. In the case of a manned checkpoint, there will be someone from the race organization waiting for you there. Usually the reason for a manned checkpoint is that there is some kind of activity that you will have to do at the checkpoint before moving on. There's really no reason race organizers would have a person stand in the woods just waiting for teams to go by unless there's something else that the teams will be doing there that the person needs to manage. Anyway, usually in the case of a manned checkpoint, the race official will sign or initial your passport when you get there or when you complete whatever else you might be doing.

Punch-based checkpoints are the second and most common type of checkpoint in an adventure race. CC image of Mountain Bike OrienteeringThese are the points that are actually going to take real navigation to find. Often they are orienteering-style flags hung from a tree or other object in the woods (see the image to the right). Some race organizations have their own style of checkpoints that they use rather than the orienteering flags - just be sure the race director shows you an example before the race starts of what it is you are actually looking for out there! Some are more visible than others, but you can often spot the flags from several hundred feet away if nothing is blocking your view. Some checkpoints will have reflective tape on them to make them easier to find in the dark, some won't. Again it just depends on the preferences of the race director. In any case, in addition to the flag, the checkpoint will have some way to prove that you visited it, usually a unique hole punch attached to the flag which you can use to punch your passport before moving on.

The third type of checkpoint is clue-based. These are often what race directors will use to avoid having to put physical checkpoints out in public areas. Since it's every redneck's dream to have an orienteering flag hanging on their wall, physical checkpoints that are hung in public areas often end up mysteriously disappearing in the middle of races. Indeed not only does this happen in conspicuous areas but occasionally in wilderness settings as well. So the alternative that the race director uses to prove you were at a location is to give you a clue which you must solve based on objects at the spot that are unlikely to move. Usually they are simple. For example you might have to read a plaque and record some key word from it or count the number of No Parking signs in a given location. You will then write the answer on your passport before moving on, using a permanent marker that you carry around with you.

Will I be able to resupply during the race?

There are different race styles, but usually the answer is yes, you will be able to resupply at least once during the race. If not the race director will specify this well before the race so you can prepare because obviously food and water strategy will be heavily affected. If there is no resupplying, then you are doing an expedition style race. A term you'll often hear in adventure racing is Transition Area (TA). This is the area where you have all of your gear and extra food and water.

Adventure Race Transition Area
A typical transition area (TA) usually has gear strewn around all over the place.

Often in sprint races, the start/finish area and the TA are the same area. The race will take the form of multiple loops, and you might return to the TA 1 to 3 times during the race to switch disciplines and refuel on food and water. Note that the longer the race, the longer the individual race segments will be between TA visits. Read more about food and water strategy.