Adventure racing is a sport that a lot of people compare to triathlons, except that adventure racers typically go off-road and into the woods, with no access to aid stations or course markers to keep them on the right path. Teams often have zero idea where they’ll be roaming or in what order they’ll be doing the various disciplines (usually orienteering, mountain biking and paddling). A favorite of race directors is to give not only the maps, but sometimes the coordinates of the hidden checkpoints, moments before the race starts…and even throughout the race; keeps racers on their toes and prevents using bystanders to give an edge on the competition.
Typically the objective of an adventure race is to collect as many checkpoints in the least amount of time. Teams of 2-4 (solo racers are rare due to increased safety of having teammates when you’re off the grid) navigate their way through a race course, nabbing as many checkpoints as they can before the race cutoff. A team can come in five minutes before the race cutoff time, and if they have even one more checkpoint than a team that finished three hours before them, they still win. The most amount of checkpoints in the least amount of time.
Having a strong navigator and/or knowledge of orienteering is what wins races, hands down. You can be the fastest team out there when it comes to trail running and mountain biking, but if you haven’t studied the fundamentals of map/compass work, it will be very difficult to find the needed checkpoints to put you at the top of the pack. Carrying you own supply of food and water, an extra layer of clothing, a first-aid kit…usually adds up to an extra 15-20lbs or more in longer races. Another factor that can lead to a general “wow I’m uncomfortable” feel is long pants and sleeves. Depending on route choice (topic for another discussion), you can be going through some thick brush (called bushwhacking) and it is very important to wear the appropriate attire, even when it’s 90 degrees and muggy outside.
Road bikes aren’t usually allowed in an adventure race because you never know if you’re going to be doing single-track at 3am…and you have to keep people on a relative playing field. Also in the paddling sections of the race, race directors like to have one canoe/kayak outfitter to prevent some teams from using very lightweight watecraft and others using aluminum…big difference in performance there.
There are quite a few more details about adventure racing, its uniqueness and why I love it…but I don’t want you falling asleep on me just yet!