Published in Action & Fitness Magazine, Primer Issue
No matter how much I think about it, the words "adventure" and "racing" never sound too inviting when used together in the same sentence. Two words that I believe were never meant to complement each other, especially as a descriptive term for a reasonably amusing weekend pursuit. Each word represents a true test of physical endurance by itself, but put the words together and you have something that really starts to sound like an obscure and cruel tribal ritual of some kind. Strangely enough, despite adventure racing’s propensity for punishing the hapless innocents that stumble onto the starting line of numerous events each year, many more are flocking over in their Olympian best, lining up to try getting tired the hard way!
Sometimes, it’s confusing how people work so hard to avoid difficulties in their daily lives and then they sign up for something like adventure racing just to get away from it all? Some say that adventure racing came about because life has become too easy, others are also quick to add that people have just gotten tired of the ultra-convenience of everything and are now ready for something more challenging. “Challenging,” being a descriptive word that used to be the solitary domain of things like stuffing maggots into your mouth on national television, or maybe something like jumping from an airplane bound and blindfolded! Usually, the apparent fruitlessness of these activities should be enough to discourage anyone from engaging in them, but in the heat of our search for adventure and excitement, we choose to ignore the things that it does to the sanctity of our precious minds! In our continuing search for things that will give human fortitude a once over in the name of recreation, we have serendipitously stumbled upon the joys of adventure racing! In the standard multi-day adventure race format, competitors gather in the middle of a dusty plaza of some obscure little town where some locals have gathered, with their goats and assorted poultry, to wave off the bored city slickers on their quixotic adventure. It’s also interesting to point out that quite a few adventure races in the country also include witchcraft, food poisoning, and armed combat in its list of things to look out for. All this trouble, just so that adventure seekers can endure several days of excruciating competition that might include trail running, ocean kayaking, mountain biking, caving, abseiling, and open water swimming among many other things. Barring the consequences of unforeseen acts of god, these proceedings often end three to five days later. Usually with all the participants being able to walk across the finish line without the aid of any kind of muscle stimulants or emergency medical personnel, bathing in the full glory of about a dozen people applauding their survival er...arrival.
Did I also mention that multi-day races often deprive competitors of sleep for several days? Adventure racers refer to the lack of sleep and the ensuing stupor that hound them during races as the sleep monster. Not everyone likes the idea of being chased by the “sleepmonster” across several hundred kilometers of unfamiliar terrain. Apparently, the severe lack of sleep can be bad for the skin, which is why there is always an option to compete in day-races instead. Day races, or “sprint races” as they are sometimes called, are often conveniently organized around a city where man-made structures substitute for natural terrain that adventure races require. Structures like buildings, bridges, tunnels and even dams provide equal challenge to the natural obstacles of multi-day races. Make no mistake about it, day races readily engage participants in a thorough examination of the limitations of human fortitude, but in small candy-flavored doses that are easier to swallow for enthusiasts who are just beginning to catch the adventure racing fever.
Day races are convenient venues to experience pockets of adventure experiences without the complications of full scale racing. Figuratively speaking, short course racing allows competing teams to participate in a “real race” without having to lay down all their cards on the table. For one, day races have the benefit of being organized around the conveniences and relative safety of populated areas. Day races allow participants to either race competitively in an all-out campaign or coast along at a comfortable pace knowing full well that there is no jungle to get left behind in, or bottomless caves to climb out of in deteriorating weather. Day races are like ready-to-eat packets of full scale adventure races. Convenient and readily available for everyone, day races are exceptionally attractive for sponsors, the media, and they even actually attract crowds of spectators at the finish line. Day races are shorter and a little less harrowing but they do provide their own kind of adventure experiences that are just as hair-raising.
Urban day races in particular, are growing in popularity because of the ease and convenience of participating in them, especially for the beginner adventure enthusiasts. In fact, practically just about anyone who has suddenly felt the need for some excitement in their lives can sign up, and line up, for the next race. The biggest challenge for those who are making the big leap into the deep end of the adrenaline pool for the first time is how to convince potential teammates, often unwary co-workers, trusting relatives, and neighbors who just don’t know any better, that there is nothing wrong with voluntary physical agony; in addition of course to the ability to endure body odor very similar to badly-prepared smoked salmon. Sure, it sounds like cheap humor right now, but wait until a perspiring teammate throws a steamy armpit over your shoulder for the requisite finish line picture, then this particular piece of advice will begin to haunt you very vividly like a horrible childhood memory.
Once past the recruitment phase and a team have been formed, the concern usually turns to getting the team up to par in preparation for the race. The biggest hurdle in starting a training program is the difficulty in finding common ground where team members’ availability is concerned. A team can forego the complexities of group training and have everybody go it alone to make things more convenient. However, the convenience that individual training allows may greatly undermine the team’s ability to work together during the actual race. Group training provides the team members an opportunity to get to know each other and give them time to acclimate to each other’s attitudes and tempers. This period is especially helpful in identifying possible conflict points among the group that can simply devastate team dynamics later on during the race. In the excitement of trying to remain in contention, even the simplest disagreement among teammates during a competition has the potential to escalate into a race ending war of attrition between team members. A team’s weariness and sheer physical exhaustion also adds to the fuel that ignites the fires of discontent that are just waiting to be fanned. Often, its not really the team’s intention to self-destruct, its just really hard to have a logical discussion when everyone would rather fall down in a coma rather than endure another blistered step.
Team dynamics is just another complicated sounding term that plagues adventure racers on the go. It’s nothing to worry about as long as everybody in a team understands what they expect from the race and themselves. The best way to keep a team’s body and soul intact throughout a race is to come to the race prepared. There are certain skills that every law-abiding adventure racer must possess before showing up for his first adventure competition. The best thing to have is a vast reserve of endurance and a piston-pumping-action heart. Although it’s absolutely alright not to have Herculean qualities, a good level of fitness is a good way to assure that your team can actually get to the finish line. Hence, a good place to start is the pavement, or the treadmill, if you prefer the convenience of a gym. Just keep one thing in mind if you opt for the gym, the real world doesn’t have shock absorbers and it doesn’t have attendants to hand you a fresh towel and a cup of cold water. Sometimes, it really helps to just go for the real thing and prepare your body, as well as you mind, for the physical challenges that lie ahead. Running is not something that you have to do, it’s also a skill that needs to be learned to help your feet deliver a comfortable ride throughout your first race.
Mountain biking is another skill that is good to take up before offering up your earthly existence to this cult of self-inflicted physical tribulation. Mounting a bike after a really bad and lengthy cross-country run is a divine respite that feels like nothing on this earth can possibly surpass. Therefore, taking the time to condition your bike, and actually learn how to ride it like an adult who is in possession of all his motor skills, will have its benefits later on in the race. It would also be a good idea if you can tell the difference between a headpost and a chain suck.
Many people don’t think about it too much but mountain bike riding sections cover a large distance of the total race course length. It doesn’t necessarily mean however that champion cyclists have a better chance of winning an adventure race. The beauty of adventure racing is that it puts everyone on a level playing field at the starting line no matter their physical attributes. Many experienced adventure racers view the mountain biking section of a race as a chance to get off their feet and recover, if they’re lucky maybe even catch up on a few lagging teams who aren’t as good on the bike as they are. Adventure racing has so many aspects to it that there are simply no guarantees for anyone that they will be able to dominate a race. Adventure races, both short courses and multi-day races, often start with a run section (although not necessarily) that quickly leads to other disciplines such as paddling, swimming, and technical rope events. Rope sections regularly require participants to plunge down heights of up to a hundred feet or more using a harness and a descending device (usually an eight-ring). Understandably, some disciplines that touch the inner phobias of some racers (such as a fear of heights, spiders, falling into outer space, and other such things) become the “Achilles heel” of even some of the strongest teams. Then, there is still the matter of being able to navigate with a map and a compass that racers have to contend with. In an unmarked adventure racecourse, even if you put together a team of well-rounded athletes, but if they don’t know the first thing about land navigation, they have no chance of getting very far. Adventure racing, by nature, is for everyone. It is a sport that does not discriminate on age, gender, or even physical ability. Its only demand is complete teamwork and the ability to enjoy the many twists and turns that it throws on even the most well-orchestrated pre-race planning, and wishful thinking.
Most importantly, it’s a good idea to have some kind of a plan before shoving off from the starting line. One good advice for newbie adventure racers is to leave the kitchen sink at home. Many first time adventure racers are so keen on being well-equipped that they end up portaging stuff that would be better applied to an invasion of Troy than an adventure race! An important fact to keep in mind before stuffing a race pack is to seriously consider if you’ll really need an entire cow just to keep you nourished for a six-hour race, which is most likely going to be in the middle of the biggest city in the country anyway! Usually, it doesn’t really make any sense to lug around a water filter for example; no matter how handy it is, if you can’t get yourself to draw drinking water from a city drainage ditch. A plan on how your team will run the racecourse is also a great idea to have in your pocket before scampering off from the starting line like a crazed gazelle. It’s a competitive race after all, not a soccer match stampede, you don’t win any prizes by simply running away as hard as you can from the confused mob that’s trying to run you down. Adventure racers like to call this preparedness thing “being strategic.” In fact, adventure racers are probably the most “strategic athletes” in the entire sporting world! Unlike Olympic swimmers for instance, who just show up at the competition venue well-rested and refreshed for their event, adventure racers are willing to lose a night of sleep just so they can saw the handle off their toothbrushes just to “strategically” shave off weight from their race pack! Lastly, don’t be afraid to come in last, simply crossing the finish line of an adventure race is already an act of gifted physical will. The experience of starting the race with friends, and accomplishing the entire experience together, is the real lesson and the true reward of adventure racing.