Written by Sean Clancy of Team Dart-Nuun
Lately there has been confusion about what “Adventure Racing” IS and IS NOT. The popular sport of Obstacle Course Racing (OCR), where up to 10,000 individuals run through a 3 to 20 mile obstacle course in waves of 500+, on clearly marked clearly trails at ski resorts, has grown larger than even marathon running in the USA. It is mistakenly categorized as “Adventure Racing” by some in the media. While these OCR events can be quite an adventure for most folks, calling OCR an “Adventure Race” is a misnomer.
Adventure Racing is actually a completely different sport, pre-dating by decades today’s OCR events as England’s “Tough Guy” or the USA’s “Spartan Race” and “Tough Mudder”. Adventure Races attract a very different, highly-skilled ultra-endurance crowd obsessed with pushing the limits of human performance, on the most grueling terrain imaginable, while navigating with map and compass…as a team. Adventure Races are actually more similar to a top secret special operations mission than an XTERRA triathlon or OCR, and they count their entrants by the dozens, typically. Adventure Races make OCR events seem quite short, tame and even “cute” by comparison. OCR finishers can explain their race to their co-workers at the office on Monday morning. Adventure Racers, on the other hand, might not even bother. The story would be hard for the average person to believe; it would sound like a wild exaggeration, far beyond what most consider even possible. in “just” 24 hours.
So, what is “real” Adventure Racing?
The sport of Adventure Racing (or “AR”) was born in New Zealand in the 1980s. Traditional Adventure Racing is a multi-sport off-road endurance race, with teams of 3 or 4 (including at least one woman) navigating across a race course using only a map and compass to reach sequential checkpoints (usually placed in difficult to reach spots) on and off-trails in wilderness-type areas. Race courses vary, and can range from less than 100 miles to 600+ miles in length, or 24 hours to 10 days. Typical Adventure Race courses send competitors across mountain ranges, deserts, jungles, rivers, lakes and the ocean. Racers transition along the way between running/trekking, mountain biking, paddling, mountaineering, and sometimes riding animals such as horses or camels. Race courses are kept secret until maps are only revealed the night before a race at pre-race meetings with the race director.
At the pre-race meeting, teams are given maps and a list of coordinates (the checkpoints teams must visit from start to finish) to plot using their map-reading skills. Racers might also receive a briefing on hazardous flora and fauna (local stinging plants, poisonous snakes, bears, crocodiles, etc.). While plotting the checkpoints and intended routes, teams must decide the fastest path between checkpoints A-Z. Savvy race directors design courses to challenge teams to “gamble” on the best navigation choices. Is it quicker to bush-wack through shoulder-high dense manzanita up a steep slope, shredding clothing and skin, and possibly damaging bikes…or should we take the flat & fast fire road for 5 extra miles? The fastest teams do not always win; it is the team that picks the smartest route between the checkpoints, avoids wrong turns AND moves well as a team that usually wins.
Each member of an adventure racing team is highly trained and proficient in the disciplines of mountain biking, trail running, kayak/canoe paddling, rafting, climbing/technical ropes, and most important: land and sea navigation with map and compass. Teams typically have a “lead navigator” but route-finding is best done while communicating as a team. 4 pair of eyes is better than one, when looking for difficult terrain features or un-manned Checkpoints, which are typically just tiny orange flags in the woods.
Due to the multi-sport nature of Adventure Racing, fast transitions are absolutely critical. During a 24 hour Adventure Race, teams might transition between sports 5 or 10 times. The team that can transition in ~5 minutes vs ~25 minutes will save two or three hours! Two or three hours can easily be the difference between 1st place and 5th.
Unlike many relay events, in AR teams must stick together from start to finish. Even while searching for checkpoints in the deep woods, teammates must stay together or risk disqualification. If a team member can not continue, due to injury for instance, the remaining teammates may continue “unranked”.
Every team member has relative strengths or weaknesses, so smart teams share their loads to keep the team moving as quickly as possible across the course. Common tactics include stronger runners wearing a teammate’s backpack on top of their own while climbing up a mountain, or a stronger cyclist towing a teammate uphill using a retractable dog leash. The team is only as fast as it’s “weakest” member at any point in the course.
The teammate struggling during an early 40 mile mountain bike leg in the mountains might very well tow his or her teammates on a 20 mile river paddle later in the race. Energy highs and lows are common, and overcome with proper hydration and fueling. Teammates constantly remind each other to drink and eat, and typically share food on the trail. Anyone who has “bonked” knows that you not only slow down physically, but also mentally when this happens. In an Adventure Race, you need a strong body and mind to make good strategic decisions along the way.
In the sport of Adventure Racing, communication and teamwork are paramount. There is no room for machismo or ego. Every team member will have highs and lows over the course of a 24 hour to week-long non-stop adventure race. Races are often held in the wildest places on earth, where conditions can range from below freezing to well over 100 degrees fahrenheit. Proper fueling and hydration are absolutely critical for racers to complete – let alone compete -in an Adventure Race.
Dehydration is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome when racing for 24 hours non-stop. Many teams either forget to bring electrolyte tablets, or they over-do it, using inappropriate extreme doses that throw the body out of equilibrium. In either case, their bodies shut down with cramps, nausea and even the dreaded “projectile vomiting”.
Professional Adventure Racing teams such as DART-Nuun eliminate that risk by using Nuun in their water bottles. As an extra “perk”, Nuun also masks the flavor of iodine purification tablets. Racers in expedition adventure races typically are required to find their own natural water sources on the course, which require purification treatment to avoid giardia. These tablets kill the bacteria, but leave an awful taste. Adding Nuun to purified water improves the flavor dramatically.
Team DART-Nuun has used Nuun tablets in their water bottles and hydration packs successfully since the product was first launched, with great success. They have won dozens of races, while competing on several continents, including a USA National Championship. Now in the team’s 2nd decade of racing together, much of the team’s success has been attributed to learning from mistakes, and taking advantage of “the little details that make big differences”. Dehydration is an Adventure Racer’s worst enemy, and one that DART-Nuun doesn’t have to worry about any more.