adventure racing (ad·ven·ture rac·ing),
n. 1. A nonstop, multiday, multisport, team event of strategy where
competitors must travel without outside assistance in areas of remote
wilderness. 2. An equal-opportunity event for leeches, bacteria-ridden
water, foot-rot and other nuisances to attack the human body 3. The
original reason behind the question, “Why would someone ever want to do
that to themselves?”
During the running craze of the ’70s, marathon reigned supreme: a
26.2-mile ultimate endurance test. By the time the ’80s rolled around,
marathons held about as much appeal as the previous decade’s velour
jogging suits, and triathlon gained widespread recognition as the ultimate
in athletic challenges.
With the ‘90s, a whole new era of competition was ushered in with the
dawn of adventure racing.
“I think people like the challenge of [adventure racing],” says
John O’Connor, creator of Chicago’s Wild Onion, a 24-hour urban
adventure race that combines stair climbing, kayaking, running, cycling,
orienteering, canoeing, rappelling and in-line skating. “It’s the idea
of pushing yourself beyond what is a normal athletic adventure, like a
running race or a triathlon. It’s a deeper challenge.”
In the 2000s, adventure racing has emerged as the latest pinnacle in
both physical strength and mental stamina, and each year lures more
accomplished athletes into its grasp. Lately, however, the sport has been
opening to amateur athletes.
Marathoners train for Boston, triathletes compete with Kona in mind,
and now adventure racers flock to local events in preparation for major
races such as Beast of the East, Eco-Challenge and Raid Gauloises.
“Adventure races are a lot more accessible now,” O’Connor says.
“People see races like the Eco-Challenge on TV, and they want to do
Normally the mere mention of sleep deprivation, leeches, foot-rot and
dehydration would send people running in the opposite direction, but
adventure racers eagerly tramp through jungles, bodysurf rapids and
mountain bike over extremely dangerous terrain. And they keep coming back
“Anyone’s got it in them,” says Tom Tsatas, a co-owner of
Pathfinder Challenge, an adventure race consisting of biking, canoeing,
climbing, hiking, land navigation, rafting and trail running. “It’s
just a matter of if you’re gonna open Pandora’s box or not — and
most people probably won’t.”
Just as triathlons built on the discipline of marathoning, adventure
races utilize the multisport format of the triathlon. This inclusion of
several different types of sports makes it suitable for athletes from a
variety of backgrounds. Those athletes used to competing alone and for
themselves now must unify into teams that are then pitted against an
“There are hard-core athletes who can run miles and not even break a
sweat,” says John Yeast, race director for the Bog Dog Suburban
Adventure Sprint, a 40-plus-mile Chicago race that blends trail running,
orienteering, canoeing, biking, hill climbing and a Tyrolean traverse over
water. “You don’t expect these elite athletes to have to cope with one
of the other racers who has hurt themselves.”
Where mottos may once have been “Every man for himself,” athletes
must now collaborate. The team-building element is precisely why many
people have caught the adventure-racing bug. Corporations are even
starting to use the smaller races to train their employees to work
together. The only win is one made by the whole team crossing the finish
line together, and many participants grow to appreciate this joint effort.
“I like the variety in adventure racing … but I really enjoy the
teamwork part of it,” says Mike Pigg, a pro triathlete-turned-adventure-racer.
“I’m tired of being a loner. There’s some aspect of teamwork in the
triathlon training, but you’re a loner when the gun goes off.”
Besides the satisfaction of teamwork, many people are drawn to
adventure racing because they want a life-changing experience. Not only is
racing a test of the physical mastery of multiple sports, but it also
poses a mental challenge that has the potential to provide a great sense
of accomplishment (or the complete opposite).
“I was never an athlete; I was always, like, the fat girl down the
street,” says Sarah Boardman, a self-professed
couch-potato-turned-adventure-racer. “Adventure racing takes so much
more than athleticism; it’s about problem solving. It has helped me in
my daily life. It’s helped me make better decisions and helped me with
time management. And my people skills have gotten so much better. I’m
able to ask for what I need now.”
Adventure racing may have quenched a bustling world’s need for
existential challenges, but will it be able to stick around long enough to
be recognized as more than just another trend?
“Adventure racing is just beginning its curve upward,” says Mark
Burnett, creator of America’s granddaddy of the sport, the
Eco-Challenge. “People get into races like this because they’re
looking for self-discovery. Instead of sitting and frying on Waikiki
Beach, they’re out kayaking on Lake Michigan. People are looking for
that inner search, and it won’t be found in a building or on a laptop
but out in the great outdoors.”
Adventure racing, as we know it now, may fall by the wayside, but
evolution does not necessarily spell doom for the sport. Burnett and his
peers will keep their races going by expanding on the three main
variables: distance covered, variation of events and team format. By
making the races longer, combining different sports and tinkering with the
team element, race directors hope to keep the sport fresh and challenging.
Burnett refers to adventure racing’s design as “the thinking
man’s race” and plans to incorporate more problem solving into the
format. His main concern right now is racers who are simply getting too
good for the sport and are able to conquer the courses in record time.
“The next revolution will make it much more Indiana Jones, with the
whole evolution of navigating with maps that aren’t quite good enough
and building rafts and sailboats,” Burnett says. “Ian Adamson [a
prominent racer] may be a great navigator, but how will he do with maps
that aren’t good enough? With a boat he had to manufacture himself?”
While some race directors may have to brainstorm continually to create
trickier courses for the world’s top adventure athletes, others want to
bring the sport closer to home — literally. Because of the sport’s
burgeoning popularity, local adventure wannabes have only a matter of time
before they can test their skills at regional races that are popping up
all over the country.
“Anyone can race,” Yeast says. “If someone’s interested and
willing to put in the time for training, then they can have a blast
Right now there are three types of races: expedition, where teams race
against the clock; stage, where teams race by day, sleep at night, and
members have to hit as many checkpoints as possible in a set amount of
time; and short courses, or sprints, which can last anywhere from a few
hours to three days.
Technically, an adventure race can be any one of these three, vary
greatly in length and combine any athletic elements in any climate. Plus,
with the addition of urban adventure races such as the Wild Onion and the
NYC Extreme in New York, races can now take place from anywhere in the
thickest tropical jungle to the concrete jungle in a city near you.
“We want to take the Wild Onion worldwide to all major urban
areas,” O’Connor says. “People are seeing that they don’t
necessarily have to travel to Borneo to compete in a world-class adventure
Because there is no organization as of yet to set up guidelines for
these races, the sport may not have the same profitable future as its
cousins, marathon and triathlon. Race directors do not seem too concerned
about the outlook, however, because adventure races were created for the
specific purpose of getting people away from the jurisdiction of any such
So will adventure racing ever hold the same mainstream success as its
ancestor races? One thing’s for sure: The official recognition of races
has little to no impact on current competitors; they are more concerned
with the overall experience that the technicalities of the events.
“It’s just really, really cool,” Boardman says. “You’re up at
4 a.m. cruising across a moraine, and the sun’s coming up. Like in New
Zealand — we’d be on these mountain passes that maybe 15 New
Zealanders had ever been on.
“I was just telling my sister it’s like childbirth: Ninety percent
of it you look back on and forget how awful it was,” Boardman continues.
“But you remember that 10 percent that was just glorious.”