Adventure racing (“AR”) is the most addictive sport you will ever try and once you get sucked in, there's no going back.
AR is a multi-sport team event in which athletes navigate their way from checkpoint to checkpoint using a map and compass within a set time length. It typically involves racing for multiple days and nights across remote terrain whilst barely sleeping and carrying all your gear and food. Races can be from two hours up to ten days in length.
Core disciplines include trail running, trekking, mountain biking, all sorts of paddling on the open sea or in rivers on various types of canoes, kayaks, rafts, paddle boards, boats or crafts in some cases which you will build yourself from materials you find. While moving from point A to point B you will need to cross swaps, lagoons, and rapids, swimming or wading with all your equipment and similarly traverse gorges, canyons, and cliffs using rock climbing, rappelling, and other rope based techniques. If a peak or a waterfall is frozen you will be ice climbing and race directors love to throw in local customary modes of travel so don’t be surprised if suddenly you are on the back of a horse for a section.
Teams can be made up of two to five competitors, and typically the traditional format is a mixed gender team of four racers. The clock does not stop ticking during a race, and competitors must choose if or when to rest bringing a lot of race tactics into the timing and location on a race where sleep makes most sense to recharge. Wrong decisions with rest can lead quickly to downward spirals by taking less efficient routes or getting lost.
The rules can vary but virtually all races include these core principles:
- navigation using map and compass (no GPS);
- teams must travel together the entire race, usually within 50 meters of each other;
- no motorized travel;
- no outside assistance except at designated transition areas (assistance from competing teams is generally permitted);
- teams must carry all their mandatory gear
Racers are required to visit a series of checkpoints or passport controls (“CP”), usually in a specific order, and most races include one or more transition areas to replenish supplies and switch equipment as you change to another mode of travel (e.g. teams will end a trekking leg and transition to a mountain biking leg so bike boxes will be waiting at transition where teams have also left food, biking gear, fresh clothing etc.).
Shorter races often feature a single transition area that teams may visit numerous times during the event while the longer races feature multiple transition areas as you cover a much larger area of a country. Team gear is transported either by a support crew (provided by the team) or by the racing staff.
My first Adventure Race experience was Eco Challenge Fiji in 2019 where I was representing UAE. Eco-Challenge Fiji was the ultimate expedition race in which 66 international teams of adventure athletes were racing non-stop, 24 hours a day, across 671km of rugged backcountry terrain complete with mountains, jungles and oceans. It was the ultimate challenge of physical and mental endurance.
Prior to entering the race we were required to get certified in a huge amount of specialized skills which was a race in itself. Try and squeeze in land and jungle navigation, sea navigation, jungle travel and wilderness survival (we did ours in Nepal), wilderness first aid, bike maintenance training, abseiling, white water rafting and swift water rescue into a busy schedule when you live in a desert. When you get thrown into a white water rapid over and over again physically exhausted and just wanting to get through it you come out with more than a certificate for the races mandatory skill test and gear check, you come out knowing that you are ready.
Eco Challenge was a once in a lifetime experience and the training and preparation itself required a huge commitment and dedication. When the race is on you are tested physically, mentally and emotionally and only raw grit, determination and will power gets you through. I loved every minute of it even though we went to our limits with sleep deprivation, lack of food, and endless hours in the dark being cold and wet, and pushing through fierce stormy weather.
My experience in participating in what was named the “World’s Toughest Race” at Eco Challenge Fiji taught me a lot of lessons, but the most valuable one was feeling empathy for others.
Having spent years racing solo this was something new for me. In a solo race when you suffer you suck it up and push through knowing that the highs and lows come and go. In a team race you have a very special dynamic where the same highs and lows can be used to help each other get through a low point.
Everyone comes to a team with their own strengths (navigation, paddling, bike repair) and these are used as everyone takes their turn to lead where they are strong.
Strong performances in long distance races require relentless forward progress and in adventure racing you quickly develop a magical and somehow unspoken support structure where you have each other’s back.
Trust is built amongst the team and it gets stronger and stronger when you watch everyone support each other’s toughest moments. At some point you realize that when you’re feeling like you need a break you can go a bit easier because your team mates will automatically jump in and take on more load and you know that as soon as you are feeling strong you will take similar pleasure in taking on more load yourself. This could literally be carrying more gear, pushing harder in a boat, or preparing equipment for the next leg while you tell your team mate to take a quick 15 minute power nap to recharge.
Ultimately we were forced to pull out of the race after one of our teammates got hit by a car on a bike leg. As his teammate my first reaction was shock horror and unsurprisingly he wanted to go on regardless but with the bike beyond repair the race organizers pulled us off the course. It was a bittersweet ending to one of my most transformative weeks but we were all safe, we learnt a huge amount about ourselves and each other and two years on, when I meet Team ECO DXB it’s like the race was yesterday. The bonds we created in Fiji will stay with us forever just like my passion for adventure racing.
By Ivana Kolaric, Endurance Coach
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