What is Adventure Racing?
The simple answer: All of our adventure races contain mountain biking, trekking, and paddling. At the beginning of each race you are given a map with checkpoints on it and an instruction sheet with clues to help you find each checkpoint. The instruction sheet also tells you the order in which the checkpoints must be found and how you will travel to each point (e.g., by mountain bike, foot, or canoe). The goal of the race is to find as many checkpoints as possible in the allotted race time using only the map, instruction sheet, a compass, and your brain. We’ve heard AR described as an adult Easter egg hunt and an outdoor scavenger hunt…however you describe it…it’s awesome!
The more detailed answer: Adventure racing (AR) is a combination of two or more endurance disciplines, including cross-country running or trekking, mountain biking, and paddling (e.g., kayaking or canoeing). Occasionally, races also have repelling or other related rope skills, but this has become less common in the past few years. Additionally, adventure racing requires orienteering and land navigation skills using only a map and compass to navigate the race course and find marked checkpoints. The goal is to find all the checkpoints in the shortest amount of time. The navigation element is one of the race elements that separates AR from other multi-sports like triathlon. In AR, there isn’t a set course which racers follow, but rather, racers use the map, compass, and their brains to determine which path they will use to get from checkpoint to checkpoint. Competitors typically receive their topographical (topo) maps several hours prior to the race so that the team can devise their route through the course. In addition to the map(s), each team receives a clue sheet, which describes each checkpoint and the discipline to travel to and from each point.
Adventure racing is primarily a team sport, with team size varying from 2, 3, or 4 people, although some races do allow solo participants. Throughout the race, the entire team must stay within 100 feet of each other. The most competitive category of AR team consists of 3 or 4 coed racers. This team aspect is the second element that makes adventure racing truly unique.
The length of adventure races range from short sprint races to long expedition-style races. Sprints can be completed in a few hours, while expedition events can last several days. Racers are required to be fully self-sufficient throughout the course of the race, and they must provide themselves with adequate hydration, nutrition, and medical care throughout the race.
A Not-So Brief History of Adventure Racing
Adventure has been a driving force in the history of humans. Think of all the things we have achieved simply because someone wondered, “yeah, but what else is there?” That same spirit of adventure, as well as a competitive nature, has driven the evolution of adventure racing and sports in general. Adventure racing didn’t just happen out of the blue.
The roots of adventure racing are deep and people debate the origin of the modern adventure race. Some point to the two-day Karrimor International Mountain Marathon, first held in 1968 as the birth of modern adventure racing. The Karrimor Marathon required two-person teams to traverse mountainous terrain while carrying all the supplies required to support themselves through the double-length marathon run.
In 1980, the Alpine Ironman was held in New Zealand. Individual competitors ran, paddled and skied to a distant finish line. Later that year, the Alpine Ironman’s creator, Robin Judkins launched the better-known Coast to Coast race, which involved most of the elements of modern adventure racing: trail running, cycling and paddling. Independently, a North American race, the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic debuted in 1982 and involved six days of unsupported wilderness racing (carry all food and equipment, no roads, no support) over a 150-mile course. It continues today, changing courses every 3 years.
We pride ourselves on testing our physical & mental limits. While the marathon was the standard of the 1970’s and the triathlon was the endurance choice of the 1980’s. In all cases, we pushed ourselves to go longer, farther, & faster. Many feel that the great car rallies such as the Baja 1000 & the Paris-Dakar are among the toughest endurance events in the world — as hard on the human drivers as the vehicles which propelled them. In 1988, however, Gerard Fusil created an event which would ellipse all others — the Raid Gauloises — “The Challenge of the Warriors.”
Gerard Fusil, a renowned French journalist & adventurer conceived the Raid to reflect both the grueling aspects of ultra-endurance racing & the remote terrain of the great car rallies. Moreover, the Raid would reflect Fusil’s keen awareness of the environment as not only would competitors use only natural forms of transportation, but also Mother Nature’s most untamed wilderness would serve as the athletes’ field of play. To be sure, Fusil created a race which would invariably test the limits of both body & mind. Check out the video from a Raid:
The Raid Gauloises was held in a different country each year. To reflect the race’s location, Fusil often incorporated native modes of travel whether they be horses, camels or canoes propelled by sail. The inaugural Raid was held in New Zealand in 1989. 1990 saw the Raid move to the jungles of Costa Rico; in 1991 new Caledonia was the site; 1992 crossed the deserts of Oman; 1993 conquered Madagascar, the world’s fourth largest island; 1994 visited Borneo & 1995’s Raid was held in the mountains of Patagonia.
Mark Burnett and Eco-Challenge
The first American team to compete was Team American Pride in 1992’s Oman Raid. Mark Burnett would captain that team as well as teams for the next two Raids. Burnett’s crew was the first American team to ever complete the Raid – they finished ninth in 1993’s Madagascar event. Burnett caught the adventure racing fever and all the while he was competing, his ideas for an adventure race of his own were taking shape.
An entrepreneur by nature, Burnett was determined to bring adventure racing to America & his dream came true with the inaugural 1995 Eco-Challenge in Utah. From its inception, the Eco-Challenge set new standards of excellence for adventure racing as not only the largest group of competitors ever assembled, but also well organized, extensively covered by network television & print media, & totally committed to preserving the environment & promoting ecological awareness.
The Utah race was followed in June of 1995 by an Eco-Challenge held as one of the events of the 1995 ESPN Extreme Games. Burnett realizing that he was on to something big, has already secured British Columbia as the site of the 1996 race, with other countries in North & South America clamoring for the privilege of hosting the race in subsequent years. The last Eco-Challenge was held in 2002. By this time, Mark Burnett had moved on to produce the hit series “Survivor.”
AR grows…Odyssey Adventure Racing, Hi-Tec and Balance Bar Series To Name a Few
The success of Eco-Challenge led to an explosion of adventure races in the United States in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Odyssey Adventure Racing based southern Virginia became one of the premier adventure racing companies in the US, and produced several expedition races each year including the Beast of the East, Endorphin Fix, and Mega Dose. Also during this time, shorter adventure races became increasing popular. The Hi-Tec Adventure Racing Series and Balance Bar 24 Series both attracted thousands of participants from around the country.
The Rise of Primal Quest
Probably the second most well-known expedition race behind Eco-Challenge was called Primal Quest. The first Primal Quest was held in 2002 in Telluride, Colorado. In 2003, the race moved to Lake Tahoe and 2004 featured a course on San Juan Island, in the State of Washington. During this race an unfortunate injury resulted in the death of racer, Nigel Alyott. CBS broadcast highlights of the race in 2003 and 2004, the first expedition adventure race to be featured on network television.
Primal Quest was not held in 2005 but returned in June 2006 to the Utah desert after addressing safety concerns. Here the racers faced a course of approximately 420 miles and temperatures exceeding 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Returning to the roots of adventure racing, no support crews were permitted for the racers, requiring teams to carry more gear and up to three days of food. Disciplines included mountain biking, trekking, horseback riding, technical rope skills, mountaineering, kayaking and white water swimming. Primal Quest Utah was broadcast internationally as four one-hour episodes on ESPN2 and a one hour recap and finale on ABC Sports. In 2008, PQ was held in Montana. Both Adventure Addicts Racing founders competed in this race. The last PQ was held in South Dakota in 2009.
Adventure Racing Today
Today there are well over 50 adventure race promotion companies spread across the US…from Florida to California to Minnesota. Many of these promoters are a part of the Checkpoint Tracker Adventure Racing Series. While a few expedition races remain, over the past few years shorter races have become much more popular.
The next chapter of adventure racing history is still being written, but our hope is that the sport stays true to its roots…coed teams, true navigation, preservation of the environment and ecological awareness, epic journeys of self-discovery. We hope you join us and help keep the sport of adventure racing alive!
Portions of this history were taken from the following: