Adventure Racing – A Beginner’s Guide

Friend: “Any big plans for the weekend?”

Darren: “I have an adventure race in <insert name of small Ontario town>”

Friend: “Adventure race?  What’s that?”

Darren: “My partner and I will canoe, trail run and mountain bike through wilderness terrain while finding our way to checkpoints using a map and compass”

Friend: “Ah, OK. Well how long will that take?”

Darren: “Anywhere from 3 to 5 hours to complete the 40km course”

Friend: “You’re insane”

Darren: *Smiles*

To some, the idea of trekking through the bush on a 40km ‘scavenger hunt’, sounds like a nightmare.  To other’s it’s heaven on earth.  Adventure racing is not only about your physical preparedness, it also taps into orienteering skills, mental focus and toughness, teamwork, preparation and in some instances a lot of luck.  If the adventurous type and any of these elements interest you, keep reading.

Different Types of Adventure Races:

While a lot of races differ in length and setup, they are generally made up of 3 different disciplines; canoeing (or simply paddling), biking and trail running.  The order of these actives may differ and you may be required to perform them multiple times in any given race. 

Further to this there are 3 styles of races; marked courses, unmarked courses and hybrid races that would include both styles. 

Marked courses are great for beginners as the orienteering element is removed.  As racers make their way around the course, there will be clear signage and flags directing them.  This allows racers to focus exclusively on the race elements and not worry about wayfinding. 

Logically, unmarked courses force racers to use their orienteering skills.  Note that most races DO NOT allow GPS devices so participants will need rely solely on their map and compass navigational skills. 

Finally there are hybrid races.  These races incorporate both a mix of marked and unmarked section.  Hybrid races are a great intermediate style of race for people looking to push their skills to the next level. 

In addition most race organizers will offer up several different courses of varied lengths.  Most often there will be a ‘short course’ and a ‘long course’ with an occasional intermediate distance option.  This again helps promote growth and will help continue to drive participates to improve. 

How To Prepare For Your First Race:

The obvious first step in preparing for an adventure race is to train.  If one were so inclined I assume that they could create a very detailed and ridged train program that equally covers off paddling, running and biking.  I don’t really buy into this philosophy and I much prefer the approach of going out and doing things that I love. 

Something else to consider is that even though you may be well versed with all these disciplines, it is not likely that you have done all 3 together.  I cannot stress enough how important it is to pair your training.  Transitioning from your bike to running (or vice versa) delivers a considerable shock to the body.  The more times that you put your body under this stress, the more your body will adapt.

Whatever approach you wish to adopt, proper physical preparation is important.

The next step is to read and familiarize yourself with ALL of the race materials.  You will usually be given a race package that will have vital information regarding directions, start times, mandatory gear etc.  It is called mandatory gear for a reason and there are often gear checks before, during and after the race.  If you do not have the proper gear, you may face penalties or disqualification. 

Some other things to consider are:

  • Food and water while racing: Will you want any and if so how do you plan on carrying this?
  • Proper attire: I like to bring LOTS of clothing to cover off all sorts of weather conditions.  You can be racing for anywhere from 2 hours up to 24 hours plus depending on the race. 
  • Race start times: Be considerate of when the race starts.  Coordinating bike drops, boat drops, registration, map reading etc. can take a fair amount of time.  These details should be in the pre-race packages.  Read it and plan accordingly. 
  • There are few things as refreshing as a cold beer after your complete your race.  Seriously…have some on hand.     

What To Expect For Your First Race:

I have mentioned above that on race day there are a lot of details that need to be coordinated.  This includes (usually) the staging of bikes and boats and your registration for the race.  Expect that things will be hectic to start the day.  I will stress again to read through your pre-race package and be familiar with where you need to go and when. 

If you are anything like me, you will get nervous before a big race.  This is pretty normal but don’t let it throw you off your game.  Make certain that you eat a hearty breakfast and hydrate properly. 

Races that involve mandatory gear will want you to provide specific items when you register.  I learned that the fastest and easiest way to keep your gear is all together in a large ziplock bag.  When you are asked to show your flashlight and first aid kit, you can just pull out that ziplock and show them what they need.  It saves having to sort through your race pack.

For races that involve orienteering and way finding you will be given a map when you register.  Take some time to review this map (repeatedly) and familiarize yourself with it.  Accompanying this map you will get a list of checkpoint locations with features that will help you find them.  Some helpful tips that I have learned are:

  • Plan out your checkpoints and determine the order to complete them (note that some races allow you to choose the order, but others require them to be completed in order.
  • Before the race use your compass, determine your bearings from one checkpoint to the next and write the bearing down on your map.  This allows you to simply set your compass bearing without using the map while in the midst of the race.
  • Write down the physical features of the checkpoint location on the map as well.  For example you might have the instructions that says “checkpoint is located by the big oak tree”.  Writing this detail on the map allows you to have your reference information all in one place. 

Adventure races attract all sorts of different racers.  Don’t be intimidated by the more hardcore racers (they are the one’s clad in spandex, stretching in the corners while eating bananas).  Focus on your own race and stick to your game plan. 

With large fields of racers, the start might be chaotic.  During the 2016 Storm The Trent race, we started with the paddle stage.  Picture 100 boats, lined up along a small river, all frantically racing ahead with the starting gun.  Chaotic is probably a nice way to put it.  If you’re not comfortable with this style of start, begin the race at the back of the pack.  You will have lots of time to make up for a slow start. 

Most races have a redundant system for tracking checkpoint completion.  There is an electronic system and a manual system.  Some people choose not to complete the manual portion but if there is a failure in the electronic system you will not be able to challenge the race results. 

You will probably be tempted to simply follow other races through the course.  This is a fine strategy, but remember that if you are on an open course, you are putting your race in their hands.  If you are simply following someone, if they get lost, you will get lost.  If they slow down or speed up, you will have to do the same.  Make certain that you know where you are at all times and know where you need to go next. 

A cardinal rule of adventure racing is that you stay with your partner at all times.  This means that you need to work together as a team and both partners weaknesses will be highlighted.  You can only run as fast as the slowest person.  Make sure that you communicate constantly with your teammate.  Finding a pace for both of you will be a major key to success.    

Adventure Race Links:

I have included below a few sites that have Adventure Race details. 

http://www.adventureracingontario.com/schedule/

http://www.stormthetrent.com

http://www.out-there.com/canada_adventure_racing.htm

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