What to know and where to go. Welcome to the compellingly madcap world of adventure racing

“We were paddling down a river at night and my partner fell backwards onto my lap,“ says Kyle Peters, captain of US adventure racing team, Adventure Medical Kits, ranked third in the world. “Immediately afterwards a giant bat smacked me in the face. Turns out the bat had hit my teammate in the face as well – he was aiming for our headlamps.”

Adventure racing (AR) – sometimes also called expedition racing – is a multi-disciplinary, team sport where distances and duration vary from two hours to 10 days. The disciplines range from running, hiking and biking, to kayaking, climbing, white-water rafting and even horse riding. Races are often in unmarked wilderness areas and the only two certainties are that navigation will be involved and, as the clock is always ticking, you’ll get so tired you’ll almost definitely hallucinate.

“When we first started racing we had no idea what sleep monsters were,” says New Zealander Becky Law, who’s raced in several infamous GODzones (details here) in New Zealand.

“It was day three and we were coming down a creek into big open river flats. One of the boys looked up and said, ‘Oh sweet, there goes the CP hut’. We all saw it. But when we came out on the flats, the hut was gone and we spent a good 15 minutes looking for it. After a while, we each explained what the hut had looked like and realised we all had a different idea. The hut was an illusion. Our brain had tricked us into seeing something we really wanted to see. It was still four hours trekking away. At the time it wasn’t funny, but we all look back know and laugh.”

“Adventure racing answers all my outdoor interests,” says Kyle. “It combines a sense of adventure with fitness, discipline, organisation and speed. The change of sport keeps things interesting, as well as sustainable for the body. Plus the massive hours of training and racing means I can eat cookies without guilt!” (Indeed Kyle’s teammates nickname him the cookie monster.)

adventure racing

“I just love that you can spend endless hours out in the wilderness exploring some of the most beautiful spots in the world,” says Becky. “Spots you would never get to on holiday. You get to spend a week or so exploring a new part of the world. The scenery is just incredible: sunrises, sunsets, shooting stars, the wildlife, pushing your body to its limit. You don’t worry about anything else going on in the world. It’s the ultimate escape. My team are like my best friends and I get to spend a week hanging out with them on an epic adventure.”

“Adventure racing is a parallel for real life,” says New Zealander Tim Farrant, who captains Next Generation, one of the youngest teams at GODZone, which they’ve done all five times. “It’s a sport involving teamwork, perseverance, technical skills, communication and commitment. The stakes are always high and you have to bring the best of yourself to the race.”

“I love the fact the sport is more art than science,” says Warren Bates, adventure racer and GODZone race director. “It rewards those prepared to get outside and push the boundaries rather than those who prefer to sit on a bike trainer getting fitter and fitter (though that has its merits, of course).”

Surprisingly for a sport more testing than most, several of the top competitors don’t have traditional athletic backgrounds. “My mother worried about me as a child,” says Tim. “I wasn’t interested in traditional sports such as football, rugby or cricket. But when I was 12 she saw a classified notice in the newspaper about an orienteering event. She took me along and I’ve been hooked on adventure navigation ever since. I got involved in longer navigation races (rogaines) and a school adventure racing team – probably the most useful thing I ever did at high school.”

It was similar for Kyle. “I was more of an outdoor person who started to train for outdoor trips. Dog sledding, canoeing, rock climbing, backpacking, and combinations of them. I wanted to see more and go faster.” For him, training is a lifestyle. “I train for 20-30 hours a week of running, hiking, biking, paddling and weight training. The greatest thing about it is that a weekend backpacking trip with friends can be counted as great training.”

Becky’s training isn’t very structured either. “It’s lots of weekend tramping trips or hunting with my partner, long mountain bike rides and kayaking trips in the summer, getting out on the bike or running 3-4 days a week. It’s more important to build up a good endurance base when you start adventure racing, so you can handle the long events, and focus on the speed once you know what a race is like.”

adventure racing

Training for AR is probably the most enjoyable part of the experience, says Tim. “It’s weekends and months of exciting weekend missions and adventures with your teammates and friends. Training is about taking opportunities to get to know each other, perfect your gear, have a few laughs and go to scenic places. It’s all the fun of adventure racing without the pressure of racing.”

But despite good training, there’s every chance a multi-day, multi-sport race will involve some discomfort at some point. “One time in New Zealand two of us got a flesh-eating fungus on both feet,” says Becky. “The pain was excruciating and we could hardly stand. I’ve never been in so much pain. But we still had a 12-hour rogaine and a 15-hour mountain bike. After the ride I removed my socks and it was like peeling a centimetre of flesh off. After four days of racing we only had about 20 hours to go and then I could rest. I just had to keep thinking of the finish line.”

“There’s no avoiding it,” agrees Tim. “Adventure racing involves suffering and inevitably someone ends up hurting just a little more than everyone – I’ve been there a few times! The toughest experiences have been where one member of the team goes through hell to reach the finish. Suffering is painful to watch.”

So what makes a good adventure racer? “The races are won by making more correct decisions and less bad ones,” says Kyle. “Learning from mistakes, means gaining experience, which means winning races.” Becky thinks you need to be mentally strong to start with. “There are going to be a lot of things which annoy, scare, frustrate and hurt you in a race and you have to be able to put all that aside and just focus on finishing.”

“AR is about ingenuity,” says Tim. “Something will always go wrong, but strong teams find solutions to the problems.”

What advice do these experts have for anyone tempted by the idea of adventure racing? “Anyone can do it,” says Kyle. “Find a friend to race with who complements your skills and experience. If you can’t navigate your way out of a paper bag, race with a friend who can orienteer.”

“Just get in and enter a race,” recommends Becky. “Small local events require a mountain bike, shoes and a pack, which most people have. You will meet people to team up with and learn off.”

“Just do it!” urges Tim. “Adventure racing is great fun and you’ll learn heaps at your first event.” Get in touch with your local club and reach out to groups on Facebook. There are a number of adventure racing Facebook groups to join and adventure racers are a friendly bunch! Reach out to our team (teamadventuremedicalkits.com) and we can help you find training or racing buddies in your area. Joining your local orienteering club is a great way to meet like-minded people, and learn some handy navigation skills.”

“Email race organisers and ask if they know of anyone who need teams,” suggests Becky. “Join AR Teammate Finder group on Facebook. There are hundreds of people from all round the world looking for teammates. Just get out and try a race, you’ve got nothing lose and everything to gain. It makes you a better person, you see a part of the world many never see any other time. And you’ll have way better work stories than your mates!”

RELATED: Godzone – The world’s toughest adventure race