What is Adventure Racing?

The Sport

Simply put, Adventure Racing is the best-kept secret in the world, or at least we at Rootstock Racing think so! Unlike most other events in which participants follow a marked course on set roads or trails, adventure racing is a journey in which racers travel an unknown landscape. It is an exploration, an expedition, a scavenger hunt. It has its rules, of course, but this is a sport that rewards creativity, mental ability, teamwork, and experience. It’s not about who is fastest or who is strongest. Adventure Racing is about community and family. Rather than being one among tens of thousands, adventure racers start and finish each races with tens, or hundreds.

Adventure Racing is story-telling; it’s not about personal records or pace or heart-rate; it’s about the journey, the encounters along the way with people, nature, wildlife, and history. It is about perseverance, overcoming Mother Nature, understanding the land, confronting personal demons and mental challenges, and working together as a team so that everyone crosses the finish line together. Simply put, while adventure racing requires physical training and preparation, it is about more than the body. It is about living life to the fullest and bonding with your teammates and the world around you like you never have before.

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The Skills

Adventure is meant to be shared, and adventure racing, first and foremost, requires teamwork. At its core, adventure racing is a team sport in which all teammates typically travel together for the duration of the event. Originally, teams had to be co-ed, and the sport remains co-ed in its premier division, but many regional races now allow solos and single-gender teams to compete in their own divisions.

An adventure race is generally composed of four core disciplines

  • Foot travel: running, trekking, off-trail travel. It all depends on terrain and ability.
  • Biking: mountain bikes, but teams might be on pavement, dirt roads or single track trails.
  • Paddling: canoes, kayaks, rafts, packrafts. Whitewater, flatwater, ocean-paddling. You name it!
  • Navigation: one of the most unique features about the sport. Teams must navigate the course using map and compass skills, meaning that no teams follow exactly the same course. Strategy is one of the most important aspects of the sport.

Many longer races include additional disciplines. Basic rope work (ascending or rappelling) is common in 24-hour races or longer. Expedition races often have further challenges, including zip-lining, more elaborate and technical ropes courses, packrafting, river-boarding, roller-blading, caving, and much more.

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The Course

Like a triathlon or obstacle course, adventure racing is broken into stages, each revolving around one of the three physical disciplines (foot, bike, paddle). Each stage begins and ends with a transition area (TA), and racers must find checkpoints in between each TA using their navigation skills.

Some races require that teams visit all checkpoints, while others make checkpoints optional and teams are ranked by how many points they visit. In some races, teams must visit checkpoints in a pre-determined order while in others racers can strategize about the order they visit each point. Regardless of the details, adventure racing is about teamwork, strategy, and navigation.

The races themselves generally fall into three or four categories:

  • Sprint Races: generally in the 3-6 hour range, these races are ideal for beginners while serving as good preparation and training for more experienced racers.
  • One Day Adventure Races: for the majority of more seasoned racers, 12- and 24-hour races are the popular and most sought-out races each year.
  • Multi-Day Races: some consider anything over 30 hours to be an “Expedition Race”, but 2-3 day races are more of a bridge to a true Expedition Race than anything else.
  • Expedition Races: 4-10 day, non-stop wilderness race. Truly more of an expedition than a race, these events are the pinnacle of the sport.

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The People

The adventure racing community is remarkable – truly one big, extended family. It is not uncommon to find the best and most experienced athletes talking with and giving advice to someone lining up at the start of his first race. Since it is such a niche sport, returning racers tend to get to know many other participants. Not only do racers know other local racers, but more experienced racers tend to befriend others from all across the country and sometimes from overseas. The camaraderie of the sport is unrivaled, and while teams might be competitive out in the woods, they’re often close friends when the clock stops.

Adventure Races see an incredible mixture of people. At any given race you might meet a world-class athlete and someone who has barely trained. Elites, semi-professional teams, weekend warriors, families, children, and the retired: Adventure Racing has them all. Everyone brings with them different levels of experience, skills and physical prowess, but they all have fundamental traits in common: Adventure Racers have fun, they love the outdoors, they are passionate about sharing their adventures with other people, and they love to challenge themselves in new and evolving ways every time they cross the start line.

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Photo credit: Chris Radcliffe

The History

Generally, adventure racing enthusiasts cite the 1980 Coast to Coast race in New Zealand as the Mother of Adventure Racing. New Zealand is the crucible of outdoor adventure and has a long history with adventure sports, and the Coast to Coast and later Southern Traverse races introduced the elements of adventure racing to the world. Others contend that the Alaska Wilderness Classic, founded in 1982 and perhaps a wilder race than the first races across New Zealand, was more in the spirit of what adventure racing would become. Either way, these and other events set the stage for the real emergence of adventure racing in the 1990s.

The sport began to grow and truly emerged with the creation of the Raid Gauloises in 1989 and the Eco Challenge in 1995. Both were fully-formed expedition races, held annually in exotic locations around the world. Producer Mark Burnett (of Survivor fame) revolutionized the sport by filming the Eco Challenge each year and producing an award-winning mini-series, which aired annually on major television networks. Many current racers fondly remember these “glory days” of adventure racing and credit them as the initial inspiration for pursuing the sport.

Today, adventure racing has become more accessible than it was when major ten-day expedition races like the Raid or Eco were the only offerings. Regional races ranging from a few hours to multiple days run throughout the country, two national race organizations (USARA and NAARS) offer an organized race series and national championship event, and the Adventure Racing World Series (ARWS) includes many of the premier expedition races in the world, including a World Championship event each fall. New races emerge every year, meaning that the sport is increasingly accessible to veterans, weekend warriors, and people looking to move beyond obstacle racing, triathlon or other sorts of races.

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