What is Adventure Racing?

What is adventure racing? It's a question I am asked a lot when I tell someone I am an adventure racer. Much to my chagrin, the sport is not yet as much a part of the public consciousness as triathlon or The Amazing Race, the TV show. In fact, half of the time when I mention adventure racing to someone who hasn't heard of it, they ask me if it's like The Amazing Race. And of the other half, even the people who have heard of adventure racing still consider it to be similar to a triathlon, but with more of an off-road focus. Neither is entirely accurate, though now that I think of it adventure racing could be considered a weird bastard child of triathlon and The Amazing Race, but clearly far superior to both.

Trekking Through River
Teams of racers splashing through a river with bike helmets on? Must be an adventure race.

Anyway, assuming you have zero knowledge of what adventure racing is, let me give you the key elements. It's essentially a team sport that is a combination of several disciplines or events, which usually consist of at least running or hiking, biking, and paddling (usually kayaking or canoeing). The key element of an adventure race that makes it an entirely different animal from a triathlon is that there are no course markings. Instead you have something much better - a map!

Trekking Through River
This doesn't look so hard, right?

Therefore when given your map and instructions, you must find your own way to various checkpoints using not only your legs and arms, but your own brain power, rather than dumbly following a dotted line from start to finish, as is the case in a triathlon. Adventure races also vary dramatically from race to race unlike a triathlon where if you sign up for a sprint triathlon, you know the exact distances and order of events no matter where it is. In an adventure race, part of the fun is NOT knowing exactly what lies in store until the race starts.

Usually in all but the shortest adventure races, there is also some kind of rope activity involved. Most commonly this is either rappelling or a zip-line, but in more advanced races can sometimes include a Tyrolean traverse, ascending a rope, or some form of rock climbing. I go into this in another page, but suffice it to say that in shorter races, the rope events are often meant more for the fun of the racers rather than as a real competitive part of the race. No special skills are required.

Another activity most adventure races usually have is a "special challenge." These can take any form the race director likes, but are often intended just to add some fun to the race or to challenge teams mentally. There's nothing like a fun special challenge to make a race memorable or to boost your spirits if you're tired from racing. I once finished a long hot biking leg and found out that my next event was a slip and slide. I've also shot a muzzle-loading rifle at a target during a race. Sometimes they're more mental challenges like figuring out a riddle, or having to put a puzzle together blindfolded while your teammates who can see the pieces give you verbal instructions, or using a 5 gallon and 3 gallon container to measure out 4 gallons of water. Or sometimes they're just fun activities that you may not have tried before like paddleboarding or disc golf. Here is a whole page devoted to special challenges.

How long does an adventure race take, you say? Well this can vary dramatically. Some races can last many days but those are intended for expert racers only. The vast majority of adventure racers get started in "sprint" races which are usually between 4 and 8 hours in length. Sprint is probably not the best term there because no one can sprint for 4 hours but compared to a week long expedition race it might seem like a sprint. When talking to prospective adventure racers, one of the things that seems to scare them off the most is the fact that the races do last several hours. But trust me, it's not as bad as it sounds. You don't have to be an amazing athlete to do an adventure race. When you are switching between disciplines and reading a map, you are not going all out the whole time and there's plenty of opportunity to rest.

So there are probably a million questions running through your head right now which I will attempt to address in the rest of this series. Questions like: