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Adventure Racing 101

Never done an adventure race? Here's some advice and inspiration to get you started.

Perhaps you've seen a race on TV. Perhaps your friend has told you about the races he or she has done. Or maybe you're a triathlete, runner, mountain biker or just a good all-around athlete looking for your next challenge. Whether you're 18 and just getting started in outdoor sports or a 45 year old looking for athletic rejuvenation, now is your chance to get involved.

On one hand, it's the excitement of testing yourself during a multi-sport event that might last three or four hours, or even three or four days. On the other, it's about the fun and camaraderie that comes with overcoming challenges big and small with your teammates. Combining several sports and unique tests into a day (or several days) is only part of it. There is also variable weather, fatigue and team dynamics to endure. But it all results in overwhelming euphoria when you reach the finish line with your 'mates.

Although the sport traces its roots back more than two decades in places like New Zealand and Australia, it's really just getting started in North America. Six or seven years ago, you could count the number or races on two hands. Now there are more than 500 races here, with more being added every year.

And that's good news, because it means there are probably several races nearby for you to enter. (See Page 70 for a calendar of spring events, and visit www.asmagazine.com/calendar for a complete 2024 calendar.)

If you put off doing your first adventure race this year, it only means you'll be another year older when you actually finish one. Get started and see what everyone is talking about. (If you're already involved in the sport, pass this guide on to someone who's just getting started and help them catch the bug.)

-- The Editors

Adventure Racing 101: What You Need to Know

1. Plan to have fun. That's what this is about, right? Otherwise, you wouldn't spend countless hours every week training and getting ready for your first race. Your first races might include blood, sweat and tears, but as long as you can smile when you cross the finish line you're on the right track.

2. Choose your teammates wisely. The key to having fun is selecting good teammates. One basic key in picking your 'mates is choosing people who have similar athletic abilities. If you've never run longer than a 10k, it doesn't always make sense to recruit your neighbor because he's an Ironman triathlete. Likewise, be careful about racing with your spouse, co-worker or siblings; some have had great success that way, others haven't fared so well.

3. Ask questions. If you're new to the sport, seek advice from seasoned veterans and race directors at pre-race clinics. Most are eager to share their experiences, and there's no better way to get answers to your questions. If you can't find a clinic, seek out a local adventure racing club, or surf your way to an online forum. (See Page 36 for resources on the 'net.)

4. Start with a sprint race. No matter who you are, a three- to five-hour race is the best place to start. It allows you to get used to combining several sports in one day and gives you a tiny taste of the team dynamics involved in longer races. Sprint races are relatively inexpensive, usually costing $75 to $300 per team.

5. Surpass your limits. Completing an adventure race, regardless of the length, might seem like a tall order. But with teammates there to help encourage you along (and vice versa, of course), you'd be surprised what you can accomplish. If nothing else, adventure racing can teach you that you're better than you think you are and you can do more than you think you can.

6. Go to camp. If you really want to get more involved in the sport, consider going to a weekend adventure racing camp. It's a good way to learn from experienced racers, meet new teammates and improve your skills and training habits.

7. Don't fear the gear. If you're intimidated by the cost of all the gear you might need for a race, chill out for a second. It's not as bad as you think. You can always borrow, rent or buy second-hand gear to get started. Aside from a good pair of trail running shoes and a good pack (See Page 54 for a review of all the best new packs.), the next most important thing is a good attitude.

8. Train right. Training for adventure racing can be loads of fun because you get to do all the sports you love and work on the ones you need to improve. But it can also be complicated -- how do you fit it all into one week? Elite racers suggest first developing a good fitness base, then training for the specifics of a race. For example, if you'll be in an event with a section of flat water paddling, don't enter the race with only one paddling session under your belt. Likewise for a race that will have a rappel section or a technical mountain bike course.

9. Try a 24-hour race. Here's where the real fun begins. Racing through the night adds new challenges, including more difficult map and compass work, dealing with sleep deprivation, a thorough test of your physical limits and all of the mental and emotional battles that go along with it. Once you get the hang of 24-hour races, then you can consider trying a multi-day race.

10. Get others involved. The best way to enjoy the thrill of adventure racing is to get friends involved. If you're new to the sport or if you've been racing for a while, encourage your friends, neighbors, co-workers and relatives to experience what you've discovered. It will be the time of their lives, too.

Tenderfoot Tales

Tracyn Thayer

Tracyn Thayer, 35, has competed in and directed more than 30 adventure races and is the co-owner (with husband Norm Greenberg) of Racing Ahead, an adventure race company based in Bethel, Maine.

I remember the day like yesterday; a female friend of mine (already on a military team) called up and said she knew of another military team looking for a woman for the 1996 Eco-Challenge in British Columbia, Canada. She took less than two minutes to explain it, told me I'd have no problem and asked if it was OK if she passed on my name. A few weeks later I was in Montana "trying out," and soon joined Team Red Wolf for the race. A few months later I was standing amongst a crowd of horses and several hundred racers in the wilderness of British Columbia, watching Mark Burnett poised on top of a yellow Land Rover with a megaphone in his hand, counting down from 10. The adrenaline still flows just thinking about it.

Unfortunately, our team captain had to drop out on Day 2 of the race. The rest of us carried on, finishing seven days later -- only moments behind the fourth-place team. Our finish was "unofficial," but as novice adventure racers we didn't even know what that meant. We were heartbroken at the party when we didn't even get an "A for effort," as teams that finished days after us, and skipped over huge sections of the course (but were still five members intact) were recognized.

At the time, I had no idea how that first Eco-Challenge experience would be the start of countless highs and lows in the sport of adventure racing, nor did I have any inclination that I would become a race director. I wouldn't trade a single painful, glorious, sleep-deprived moment for anything.

Cathy Tibbetts-Witkes

Cathy Tibbetts-Witkes, 49, is an optometrist who lives in Farmington, New Mexico. She's a record-setting ultrarunner whose race finishes include Marathon des Sables and Eco-Challenge Boreno in 2024.

It was so long ago that I don't even remember how it all came about, but through a few e-mails, I ended up at a weekend race in Arizona with two guys from Massachusetts. We'd never met until race check-in, where I gave them each a hug and they gave me a gift. It was the first adventure race for all three of us.

With a background in ultrarunning, I wasn't worried about going the distance. Instead, I was terrified of forgetting some crucial piece of gear, like my climbing helmet or ATC, after my teammates had gone to all the time and expense of getting to the race. I kept checking everything and repacking it in the weeks before the event.

They were good mountain bikers, I wasn't. I crashed a few times, struggled with my new clipless pedals and suffered an endo. They were nice to me, but I knew they were disappointed. Justin started vomiting from an electrolyte drink and we made the mistake of not bringing plain water. Then we had a flat. Life was starting to suck. And I was starting to rethink adventure racing.

The guys were powerful in the kayaks, and we started moving up. Then came an all night run/hike. They started to fade and it was my turn to pull them.

We passed most of the teams ahead of us as the sun rose over the Saguaro cactuses. It was a magical morning as we bonded as friends in the Sonoran Desert, knowing we had each done something to help the team.

Going Big: Your First Expedition Race

Proper physical and mental training are necessary to achieve success in expedition-length adventure races. But equally important are the logistics involved in getting to the race. Here are six tips to get you to the starting line from veteran racer Barry Siff.

1. Organizing your perfect team is critical ... you must love and respect each other without hesitation. Be true in your training, knowing your teammates are relying on you.

2. If you're spending a lot of money and vacation time, selecting a race should include consideration for a beautiful location, a race that involves your strengths and one that is run by experienced people.

3. Before you leave for the race, be sure your entire team talks several times about what each of you are packing. You can never be too organized.

4. If you're racing in a Third World or underdeveloped country, consider bringing lots of your own food to eat before the race. Also make sure you have plenty of iodine to purify water as well as a kit bag full of meds. And be sure to get your shots well before traveling.

5. Even if you are traveling to a hot climate, bring some cold-weather racing clothes ... they are almost always needed.

6. Lastly, if you are wondering whether you are ready for an expedition race, don't worry. Even experienced racers get nervous or anxious in the days prior to a race. Trust in your training and know your teammates are there to help you. So much of expedition racing is mental; you must have the confidence to know you will reach both the starting and finish lines.

Barry Siff has competed in expedition-length races in Canada, Malaysian Borneo, Nepal/Tibet, New Zealand, Brazil, Argentina, Fiji, Chile, Switzerland and the U.S.

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