The 1-and-Done Problem – How Customer Retention Is A Serious Problem for Adventure Racing

My fellow adventure racers, we have a serious problem.

Our sport has a lot of challenges that are restricting its growth, many of which we’ve talked at length about on this website and across various social media forums. You know the most common issues:  Complexity of the sport, equipment requirements, fierce competition with other sports for racers’ time and money, permitting, insurance, relative obscurity, people not willing to go bushwacking or read a map, etc. The list goes on.

There’s a lot of good, rational reasons why adventure racing faces a steep uphill fight to gain credibility, stability, and growth. But at least we’ve got one thing going for our sport that most other sports don’t have – once somebody does AR, they are hooked. There’s something so awesome about crashing through the woods, switching between disciplines, getting hopelessly lost then landing precisely at the CP all within the same hour that somehow just works.

Adventure Racers are passionate and loyal to their sport. The trick is just getting people to try the first race and then they are hooked. Right?

Maybe not.

Maybe we’ve got a serious problem that isn’t appreciated yet. What if our assumption that getting someone to do just one AR is all that’s needed is wrong?

Maybe it actually takes a fair bit more than just one race to make somebody become an adventure racer. And if this is true, then getting people who do their first AR to come back to their second and third race would be an absolutely CRITICAL action every race organization must take.

As you might have guessed from my tone in this article, the common assumption is wrong (at least as far as I can measure). Adventure Racers don’t get hooked after one race, it takes on average three races for someone to become a regular racer at their local race organization.

So what happens to all those people who do just one or two races? Great question, glad you asked! Turns out, the sport of adventure racing stinks at customer retention. We’re about as good at getting racers to come back to our races as paper bags are good at holding water.

In other words, poorly.

How bad is it? According to my analysis, 70.9% of all adventure racers are “1 and done”, meaning they do one adventure race and don’t return. Let that sink in for a minute. 71% of all racers don’t come back after experiencing their first race. There goes that “just race once and you’ll be hooked” idea, right out the window!

That’s no bueno.

Making matters worse, 15.5% of racers do just 2 races. That’s a total of 86.3% of racers doing just 1 or 2 races. The remaining 13.7% make up racers who do 3 or more races with a race organization.That meager 13.7% make up the dedicated core of race organizations’ racers. The rest are essentially lost customers. This is a big problem! We are hemorrhaging racers!

Let’s throw back the curtains and see what’s going on!

Before going into greater detail, let me talk a bit about how I got to these numbers. Over the past few months, I partnered with 6 race organizations who volunteered to send me their race registration data from every race they had ever conducted. These race organizations span the US, from east to west, north to south. 5 of the 6 organizations held races for 3 or more consecutive years and at least 2 races each year.

Out of respect for not divulging individual organization’s customer retention data, the 6 will remain anonymous, but you can take my word that these 6 were chosen in part because they represent some of the best AR organizations in the sport. All this matters because I wanted to make sure the measurements accurately reflected the “best case” scenario for our sport. Established race organizations should generally have better customer acquisition and retention systems in place vs. new companies just getting started. Or so we hope.

This model has tons of flaws. While I hope these 6 organizations fairly represent all of AR across the US, that doesn’t make it so. Despite my efforts, plenty of data errors still exist at the individual racer level. But with 6,717 unique racers, I hope that it’s both statistically significant and large enough that any data errors can’t impact the averages.

So let us charge forward, knowing that this is far from perfect, but still a significant step forward from what we had previously, which was just individual race organizations MAYBE knowing their retention rates. I hope this can serve as a benchmark metric for all organizations to measure themselves against and keep the conversations focused on data-driven decision making for the sport.

Relentless Forward Movement, my friends.

It took a while, but I scrubbed the registration data of all races (a total of 187 unique races), removing duplicate entries, cleaning missing data points, etc. Boring, tedious work, but oh so necessary to ensure accurate analysis. At the end, I had 11,692 unique racer/race entries for 6,717 unique racers. This ranged from 1-hour family races to 72-hour expeditions. I then summed the total number of races and race hours for each individual racer. Finally, I pivoted out the number of racers by the number of races attended, which gave me the percentages listed above. Here’s the full bar graph of # of racers by # of races. I cut it off after 13 races attended, as it went on for a while in the single digits. 

As you can see, there is a HUGE drop off between the 1st and 2nd race and then again from the 2nd and 3rd race. Then essentially tells us that we have three clusters of racers: “1 and done”, “2 and done” and “3 or more”. Let’s break down each of these clusters for greater insights.

1 and Done

It’s breathtaking (not in a good way) to see that 71% of racers don’t come back. That’s 4,761 out of 6,717 racers.

Let’s brainstorm for a minute why the numbers could be so high.

For starters, any business will naturally have customer loss. There are valid reasons for folks never returning to race again with a specific race organization. Maybe they loved the race, but don’t live in the area, and are actively racing elsewhere. Maybe they were invited by a friend, had a good time, but AR just doesn’t make it to the top of the priority list. Maybe they had a bad experience and don’t want to return (just ask my wife, as she’s a 1-and-done racer!). Or maybe they just had their first race in 2017 and are super excited for their next one in 2018. All these will take place, no matter how great a race is. No sense crying over spilled milk, we do the best we can with what we’ve got, knowing you can’t win over everybody every time.

From the other side, many race organizations aren’t really businesses in the true sense. We’ve got full-time organizations like Adventure Enablers or Michigan Adventure Racing, but most race organizations are side gigs for their RDs, more a pursuit of passion than a serious income stream. So expecting them to operate like a business run by full-time employees is a stretch. But for the good of the sport, I’ll assume that every race organization is motivated to bring more racers back, regardless if they are doing it to make more profit, fundraise for a good cause, or just for the fun of getting more folks into the great outdoors. Regardless of the reason, I think we ALL want more people to adventure race.

But with such a high number of lost customers, some things MUST be done. There’s plenty of great writing about the critical importance of customer retentions (here’s a great article by Harvard Business Review), but the short version is that it costs anywhere from 5 to 25 times as much to acquire a new customer than it costs to keep an existing customer. I suspect AR is close to the 25 times, as the well-documented difficulty of finding someone who has all the gear, skills, and mindset to do AR is like finding a needle in a haystack of endurance athletes.

Don’t believe me? Think about it for a second. To get a new adventure racer, you’ve got to:

  1. Find a someone who might be interested. This likely means they are already doing outdoor endurance sports, but not always.
  2. Get them the necessary gear if they don’t have it. Maybe they have a mountain bike, or maybe they can easily borrow one. Kayak or Packraft required? Good luck finding someone with those lying around the house!
  3. Get them comfortable with map reading and navigation. Maybe they join with some more experienced racers, maybe they attend an orienteering course or clinic. But 99% of the population doesn’t have this skill
  4. Get them to come out to a race, prioritizing that event over whatever else they might have done that day/weekend.

My $.02 – if somebody makes it to an AR, they have already overcome significant filters and we need to pull out the stops to bring them back.

Undoubtedly, there are a lot of variables that affect if someone will come back for their second race. But at least one variable that we can actually measure is the race length. Let’s take a look at the count of 1-and-done racers by the race length of their only race.

Not surprisingly, the 1-and-done racers are heavily weighted towards the beginner lengths, with 3 hours being the most popular race length (28% of total). 73% of all 1-and-done racers are clustered around the 3 to 6-hour length, and this makes perfect sense to me. You go out to your first AR, only sign up for the short length option, and that’s all. No big deal, thanks for coming, hope you had a fun time, be sure to tag yourself in the race photos, and hopefully, we can convince you to come back.

Note that the 11-hour length in the graph actually represents 11 hours or longer, all the way up to 72 hours. So while technically, someone in this data set is considered a 1-and-done if they only do a single race with a race organization, that could include doing a 72-hour race. I highly doubt those who do a 72-hour race and are 1-and-done have actually stopped doing ARs. More likely they are racing somewhere else and came into town for that big race, not returning to race in that specific organization’s shorter races. But this is a pretty small number of overall customers, hardly making a dent in 4.7K 1-and-done customers.

What also really surprised me was the relative consistency between the 6 race organizations in terms of their 1-and-done rates. Some of these organizations have been putting on races close to a decade, others just a few years, but they all had about the same rate. This is an additional point in favor of using this study as a benchmark for the whole sport, given the diversity of the organizations that all same the (mostly) same return rates. Check out this table:

Race Org. 1 Race 2 Races 3+ Races
1 65% 17% 18%
2 69% 17% 14%
3 69% 16% 15%
4 79% 17% 5%
5 55% 15% 30%
6 86% 14% N/A
Total 71% 15% 14%

They all are generally around each other, especially for “2-and-done” racers. This goes to show that regardless of organization age, geographic location, type of races or race length, we see the same numbers.

Hey! A quick interruption to give everyone a sneak peak on a new shirt I’ll be launching soonish. It’s my parody of the famous John Muir quote we all love, “the mountains are calling, and I must go”. Sometimes, when I find myself staring at my computer screen after being at work for 8 hours that the mountains are calling, but I’m just not hearing their call. So I had that idea sketched out and will be making it into a shirt (and coffee mug) soon.

Want one? Email and I’ll give you early access to the shirt AND a discount. Only for the cool kids.

Back to our originally scheduled program…


Now to our 2-and-done racers. What stands out to me is the shift to the right in terms of the average race length. In my mind, this is good, as we want racers to gain confidence and sign up for longer racers as they do more races. Some of these folks only just did their 2nd race in 2017, so I suspect we’ll see them continue to sign up for longer races next season. But nevertheless, there are still lost customers in this cluster of racers, we can’t just hope that people will come back. There has to be outreach efforts to make it happen!

Note that this graph reflects the average race length of the 2 races these racers have done, so it’s not quite an apples-to-apples comparison to the first chart.

3 or More

Once a racer attends 3 or more racers, we can essentially call them a loyal customer. These folks have decided that they enjoy the sport and keep coming back for more punishment fun. While there is a ton of variance within the 3-or-more customer cluster (some people just do the same single race three years in a row while others do multiple expedition races within a calendar year), we can use the 3-or-more measurement as a benchmark to identify the core customer base that a race organization relies upon. This is both a good thing and bad thing.

It’s good because identifying your loyal customer base lets you better craft experiences for them. You no longer need to market to these folks – they have your website bookmarked, open your emails, and take advantage of your early bird registrations. More important is to keep making your races a great time so they continue to get the same positive experiences they had that made them a loyal customer in the first place. New race locations, new challenges, cool trophies, etc. are ways to keep these loyal customers coming back and recruiting others. They are the best way to build brand ambassadors and smart RDs mobilize them to become recruiters and marketers for their races.

It’s also bad because it can skew an RD’s efforts to over-emphasize the types of experiences and events that cater to a dedicated elite instead of ensuring their marketing and operations continue to target new racers and the 1-and-done or 2-and-done racers. When RDs get accustomed to having a core crew at their races, work done to bring in new folks may diminish. It’s an easy trap to fall into, as the above data shows just how tough it is to find new racers and then convert them into loyal customers by getting to three or more races.

As an example, one of the 6 race organizations saw 73% of their 2017 revenue come from the 3-or-more customer cluster, despite those racers making up only 30% of the total number of racers to attend their events that year. That’s a classic case of the 80/20 rule in action – 80% of the revenue coming from 20% of the customer base (with some rounding).

Great, because you know who your best customers are, and they are rewarding your good work with their loyalty. Bad, because you risk losing sight of serving the other 80% of the customers, as they make up a considerably smaller percentage of your revenue.

Sooner or later, those 3-or-more customers will move away, retire, find a new sport, etc. You have to keep a steady inflow of not only new customers but also an additional flow of converting less loyal customers into loyal ones. Otherwise, your business is on shaky ground.

What To Do

Tons of great content out there about how to increase customer retention rates, so no reason to reinvent the wheel. Let’s focus instead on what makes AR unique vs. regular business concerns about customer retention. A few tactics:

Post-Race Surveys:

In my ten years of adventure racing, I have only received 1 post-race survey. In my (admittedly anecdotal) experience, race organizations stink at follow-up. It’s a stressful experience to get the race properly executed that after the race is spent mostly trying to catch up on sleep, get back to the regular job, etc.

I get it, the last thing most RDs want to do is spend even MORE time doing AR things in the days following the race. But that’s the BEST time to keep up the engagement. Racers are still high on the great times they just had, they are getting their race photos put up on social media (so your website and social media account traffic is spiking), and they are telling family and coworkers about the crazy thing they did over the weekend. The iron is hot, it’s time to strike.

NOW is the best time for keeping the flame stoked by continuing to engage the racers and one of the best ways to do this is a post-race survey/questionnaire. Ask them to fill out a simple form that records their thoughts and opinions about the race. This gives you valuable feedback to incorporate, helps spot errors and omissions in your operations, and most importantly, reinforces your organization as a professional event company in the minds of the racers.

As a bonus, you can do a raffle or a discount code for people who do the survey.

The fact is, many of your racers will be willing to come back and pay even more the next time, but unless you identify the pain points they have, you’re flying blind. Let your customers speak their mind, and you, in turn, must listen.

Sounds great, right? So why aren’t RDs doing it?

You can actually do all of it before the race. Just write the email, and schedule it for delivery 3 or 4 days after the race ends. Make the post-race questionnaire a line on your race checklist, removing the obstacle of remembering/finding the energy to follow up after the race is done.

Boom, done.

Enhance Loyalty:

It ain’t easy, but it must be done – growing a race organization past the point of being a thing on the side to the catalyst for a strong community of adventure racers. Racers in VA or PA are lucky, they have a strong community that reliably attends races. But for most other race organizations, they have to put in serious sweat equity to build themselves to be the type of event company that puts on experiences so great that people prioritize their races over other activities.

You want racers to come back? Then you better out-plan, out-execute, and out-deliver everything and everyone who is competing for your racer’s time and money. Only then can you start to attack that 71% 1-and-done rate.

This means mastering email marketing instead of just sending 1-2 emails prior to a race.

This means actively engaging your customers across social media accounts to build a robust community instead of 1 Facebook post each month and no Instagram account.

This means building great content so people share your course setting videos, memes, etc instead of just posting what the weather on race day will be. Little wonder that videos from 361 or Adventure Enablers goes viral.

This means developing mechanisms to cross-sell and upsell your products. How many RDs have an established system that takes all racers who’ve done their beginner race and try to persuade the racer to try the next level race?

This isn’t just about making sales (though that is about 90% of any business) – it’s about growing our sport and each race organization within it. Customers vote with their wallets – selling your races is a direct reflection that you’re doing something great.

So whether your race is a fundraiser to help protect endangered wildlife, or helps you afford to let your spouse stay at home to raise the kids, or is an excuse for you and your crew of friends to spend the weekend in the woods is irrelevant, because without those racers coming back, none of these equally valid reasons for putting on a race will matter.

It’s go time folks. Who’s in?

Depressed? Nah, don’t be. Every adventure racer can stare up at an imposing mountain and think to themselves “this looks like fun”. It’s long past time that the sport’s passionate start to embrace some of the traits and characteristics of more professional sports in how we operate. We just need to recognize that there are other mountains to be climbed outside of the physical ones, and for the sake of our sport, I sincerely hope the few folks who read this article embrace that challenge.

Relentless Forward Movement, my friends.


  1. Michael F White says:

    I’m knew to the sport and really like the multi-discipline sports combo coming from triathlon. The most frustrating part for me is the map. It is absolutely terrible compared to Orienteering competitions. The information is wrong a lot. Roads aren’t there or are there and not shown, same with trails, buildings etc. In orienteering this is not a problem, why is it for AR? Another area is the enormous gps cheating. I would suggest going to more like orienteering mapping. That way you would reduce frustration and pull orienteering competitors too

Leave a Reply