Adventure Racing Census Results

Howdy folks

As you may or may not know, in February of 2017, ARHub launched the first ever “adventure racing census”. Or at least the first one we know about. The census was a questionnaire with 15 questions designed to record the basic demographics, participation level, disciplines, and shared interests of adventure racers. The census is still slowly collecting results, so if you haven’t taken it, please do so here

Since we’ve now obtained 430+ racers’ answers, we’re publishing the initial results, as we believe that a “critical mass” has been obtained, with enough data points to make the analysis of the census worthwhile, with distinguishable trends worth extracting.

Census Callout – “AR is the BEST sport ever! But I think we need to try to appeal to younger ages to grow the sport.”

Why an Adventure Racing Census?

Fair question. We launched the AR census because, at its core, our sport really doesn’t know how to measure itself. Are we growing? Shrinking? What’s going right? What’s going wrong? All these questions keep getting asked across forums, between race buddies, and on podcasts. But it’s all anecdotal, no matter the quality of the insights gleaned. One person’s positive attitude that the sport is growing clashes with another person’s pessimism. And we can’t settle these debates because there are no definitive measurements that can at least provide a cardinal direction as to where the sport is headed. And oh Lord am I sick and tired of seeing the same points repeated over and over. It was high time that we shift from talking about what we think is happening to actually KNOWING what is happening. The census helps play a role in this.

Census callout – “To help grow the sport, I think organizations should create a “veteran/novice” program. This program would have more seasoned racers take out rookies and/or “middle of the pack” racers on 12hr/24hr races and help build their skills.  This would help those “middle of the packers” get to the next level, while also feeling more confident to bring first timers out racing with them to grow the sport. This would also hopefully create more podium finishes for other racers than the usual teams/individuals you usually see in the 12hr/24hr circuit.

Since AR doesn’t have a governing body, there isn’t a quick or accurate method to measure the health of the sport. One key metric is the number of races that occur, something I’ve tried to tackle in my article here. But the races are just part of the equation. We also don’t know much about the racers (at the aggregate level). Any race director worth their salt can tell you all about how their local market looks, but likely won’t know much at all about the sport as a whole. Our sport’s lack of governance and the subsequent regionalism that most races fall into prevents us from measuring the sport across the entire continent of North America. And that hurts everybody, even if most races organizations don’t realize it. The teenager who does adventure racing in Pennsylvania may end up moving to Colorado some day. Or they may enjoy themselves enough that they start traveling to big races. Given the niche nature of AR, an avid adventure racer is a hot commodity. As you’ll see in the analysis below, they aren’t afraid to spend money and travel long distances if the race is right. Which means that the healthiness of ARs in California impacts the ARs in Florida. We’re all in this together, friends…

Finally, the census will help move the sport forward. We hope. In an effort to move past the anecdotal to the quantified, we hope the data in the census will provide good directions to the members of the sport in terms of what racers like, don’t like, need more of, or would rather never see again. This way, the quality of the races can be improved, which will drive more race turnout, bigger smiles, etc.

First, a warning.

This census suffers from a high degree of selection bias. Essentially, the people who’ve taken this census are, by-and-large, hardcore adventure racers. Because the census was distributed across social channels, it was naturally broadcasted to those who were already interested in adventure racing and are, to one degree or another, active in the AR community. Therefore, the data reflects the opinions of people who are already “bought in” to adventure racing. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but we should caution ourselves from drawing too big of conclusions.

Census callout – “Allow GPS to attract new racers”

On the positive side, by recording the opinions of those who are most passionate about AR, we’re getting a good handle on what the sport currently looks like. It also helps us tailor our actions to serve our “best customers”, as the census takers are the people who are spending the most money on the sport. Obviously, a race organization that cares to stay in business for more than a year needs to identify their best customers and provide additional value to them. This census is a good poll of what these top customers want to see in their races.

On the downside, the voices of the newcomers aren’t well represented. I had to convince my wife, who has done an adventure race, to take the census, as she didn’t believe she qualified as an “adventure racer”. It’s this perception that if you aren’t a “member of the club” that you shouldn’t voice your opinion that keeps people from filling out the census. On top of that, our distribution of the census required that in some way you were already interested in staying up to date on AR  in order to even see the census was taking place. This cuts out of a LOT of folks. If AR wants to grow, it has to cultivate new racers and convert beginners into experts. The census fails to capture these peoples’ thoughts, and as a result only gives us insight into a part of the community, not the whole.

Be wary of making large assumptions from this data. This is a good measurement of the current AR community, but not the AR community of the future. Remember, we must support both current racers and the racers yet to come in order to grow the sport.

Let’s dive in!

Census Callout – “If AR wants to get more people involved, we have to lower the barrier to entry. More rental equipment, shorter & easier races, maybe some urban races, kids races, a way to make orienteering more friendly. The orienteering races are populated by seriously unfriendly people. I’m constantly amazed by how unwelcoming the other racers are during orienteering races. What a great way to kill enthusiasm for your sport. If you want to keep it a niche sport, you are doing it the right way by making newbies feel unwelcome. AR has to get people and their families involved and make them feel welcome. I would do more AR if AR races made my families feel welcome and if there was a spectator engagement. Short urban or close in AR events for newbies would be great.”

Section 1: Demographics

To the surprise of no one, Adventure Racing is popular amongst middle aged men. 75% of census takers identified as male, making the 3-male, 1-female make up of 4-person teams right on the money.

A little more surprising is the age distribution of adventure racers. 42% of census takers identified as being between 40 and 50 years old. The second largest contingent was the 30-40-year-old range, with 33%, and the third largest was the 50-60-year-old range with 14%.

I have a few thoughts on this (and I’m sure others have much more than I do).

  1. Many of the sport’s most dedicated belong to the “Eco Challenge Generation”. Introduced to the sport thanks to Mark Burnett and crew, they saw the sport at its best. Some are still suffering from the “Eco Challenge Hangover“. Nevertheless, Eco Challenge, Raid G, and Balance Bar all helped swell the ranks of the sport, and many of our current racers and race organizers are folks from that time that are still carrying the torch today.
  2. The 40-50 age range is usually around the peak time for disposable income. AR is a pricey sport, so having been in the workforce for 20-30 years helps people afford all the gear, travel, and entrance fees. A good thing to think about when you’re marketing your races!
  3. It’s cool to see that people can keep doing this sport for decades. And from an RD perspective, it’s great to know the lifetime value of an adventure racer spans decades! If you can build a base of racers who are in their 20s and 30s, as long as you keep producing quality races, you can effectively expect those people to keep coming back for years if not decades.
  4. We’re definitely in danger of losing a lot of talent and skill in the next few years. Look at the drop off from the 40-50 age range to the 50-60. Yikes. This means we’re looking at the potential mass exodus from the sport as the Eco-Challenge generation retires from racing and putting on races. The time to start recruiting and grooming the new set of racers and race directors is NOW. If we wait for the 20-30-year-old range athletes to find adventure racing, instead of bringing them onboard ourselves, we might run out of time. Now. Right meow.

Section 2: Race Participation Levels

Here we see the selection bias really coming into effect, as people who are already inclined to fill out an AR census are going to be the type of folks who do more ARs than the average bear.

44% of census takers reported doing 3-5 races a year. Another 31% said they only do 1-2. 20% said they do 6 or more. What’s interesting in this point is that even amongst the serious AR folks, nearly a third only do 1-2 races a year. Could it be they only do 1-2 big races? Or maybe their local AR scene doesn’t have enough and they aren’t willing to travel to do more?

Census callout – “Is there anywhere one could go to get instruction on how to host a race? I’d be glad to host a race but I’m intimidated by the permitting/permission needs and liability.”

To answer that, the following question asked how far they were willing to travel for a race. 34% said they’ll go about 100-200 miles for a race (a day’s drive, more or less). 32% said if the race was right, they’ll go however far it will take (I suspect a lot of these folks are the same people who race 6+ times a year…). 22% said an overnight trip is cool for a race (so more than 200 miles), and 7% said they stay local (100 miles or less).

Section 3: Race Types and Disciplines

Now, we hear folks talk all the time about what the “best” length of races are, or which disciplines should be in a race. The census helps provide us some cold hard facts about what the AR community really wants to see.

31% said they like 24+ races the most, followed closely by 29% who said 13-24 hour long races, then 25% who said 7-12 hour long races, and finally just 9.5% saying 2-7 hour long races. I doubt any RD is likely to take this data and shut down all their beginner races! But this data point, coupled with the others about how far racers will travel and how many races they’ll do in a season provide good insight that if an RD is on the fence about putting together a 12+ or 24+ adventure race, there’s a dedicated population of racers who’ll gladly sign up. The trick is just getting them aware of the race and then getting them to sign up! Good thing we’ve got a handy guide to advertising your races, huh 🙂

We also asked census takers what disciplines they liked to have in their races. Obviously, the “big 3” of trail running, mountain biking, and paddling were all above 90%.

In 4th place was rappelling/climbing, which was surprising, given some folks fear of heights and others’ dislike of the pause in race intensity caused by the safety requirements in rappelling. But I guess the cool factor overrides those issues for more folks than not.

46% said they like ropes course and/or obstacles. However, there was a lot of passionate callouts from racers when they answered the follow-up question of what they like and don’t like in terms of disciplines. Many said they hate standing in line at ropes course or dislike OCR-like obstacles. This particular discipline has definitely got the AR community divided into camps!

37% said they like whitewater rafting. 33% said they enjoy puzzles/mental challenges. Like ropes/obstacles, some folks really do NOT like puzzles, and others really DO. Go figure.

26% said they like swimming (so people can’t swim, so no surprise they aren’t a fan of this discipline), and only 7% said they like sailing, which truth be told, you almost never see in races anyway.

The follow-up question asked which discipline they didn’t like. As mentioned above, ropes/obstacles (waiting around, don’t think it’s proper AR), climbing/rappeling (heights, waiting around), swimming (can’t swim), SUPing, and roller blading (WTH? Is this 1992??) were prominently mentioned.

Census callout – “Races that have mandatory cut off times vs everyone finishes whenever they finish are much better –you feel like you’re in the thick of it no matter what place you’re in and that’s what makes them feel fun and inclusive. AR is great because all levels of racers can compete together.”

Section 4: SWAG

Surprisingly, even amongst the hardcore AR crowd, people still want their swag and parties, even if it costs a little bit more. 50% said “yes”, to being willing to pay more for a race if it got them race swag, post-race parties/bbq, etc. 35% said “no thanks, keep your stuff and keep it cheap”, and 14% said Other.

Census callout – “Would like a rating system for each race. Think about the simple, 5 star Uber approach or the more complex Trip Advisor (maybe call it Race Advisor). Give them a chance to give feedback. Will force RDs to do it right or else people won’t race.”

Section 5: Race Design

I asked the question “do you prefer complex designed courses or simple ones?” but I now realize that was kind of a throw-away question due to the selection bias. Of course adventure racers like a complex course. 80% said complex, 9.5% said keep it simple.

Frustratingly, 52% of racers said they want courses that have a mix of “choose your own adventure” style CP selection and “predetermined, sequential order” CPs. 32% said races should just be “choose your own adventure”, and just 13.5% said “predetermined, sequential”. Makes sense – adventure racers like adventure, including route selection. One of the key attributes that help distinguish us from other endurance athletes is our love for “racing outside the lines”.  So I guess RDs need to sprinkle in a bit of both or work on designing races that can accommodate both types of courses.

Census callout – “There is a vacuum on the internet for a centralized team mate finding service. I also look forward to where there is a standardized platform for online tracking, with tracking updates as frequent as every few seconds (eg the recent X-marathon race in Australia).”

Section 6: Growing the Sport

The final section of the census holds the most valuable insights for our race directors, as we asked the census takers what they needed in order to race even more.

First, we asked what was holding people back from doing the race even more.

51% said other commitments in life holding them back (stupid kids and their need for food, water, and shelter. Ugh, get a job and move out already!)

36.5% said races are too far away (RDs – maybe think about moving races every few years to new parks?)

31% said the cost of races (RDs – are you pushing early bird discounts? Season passes? Referral discounts?)

27% said there weren’t enough races

22% said they couldn’t get race partners. This is a problem I think we can leverage technology to solve. I know there’s a FB group for finding race partners, but I’m going to brainstorm on how else we can generate a way to linking racers together and helping build teams using the internet as a mechanism. Thoughts?)

And then there were a couple more reasons all around 10% (other sports, not ready for more racing, cost of gear, etc.) Again, remember the selection bias!

Census callout – “Provide better access to a pool of racers to race with. Whether that be a dedicated area/community board with racer bios, think a “LinkedIn” for AR community or similar. Also, local organizations providing better access to their racer pool or facilitating more opportunities for racers to sync up”

We left an open-ended question, asking what could be done to get racers to race more. Answers reflected many of the results above, with a strong trend of wanting child care at races!

Next, we asked what sports besides AR the census takers did. The reason being we wanted to 1) help identify target audiences that would be worth spending advertising $ towards and 2) see what linkages we could identify.

77.7% said trail running, which makes sense as it’s relatively cheap and probably the most important discipline in AR, making it an important training effort

64% said orienteering (duh), 57% said mountain biking, 48.5% said paddling (surprisingly high, I thought. I guess I’m just one of the guys who doesn’t paddle until race day!)

38% said road running (boo! lame!), 22% said “other”, 21% mountain climbing, and on down.

What really caught me off guard was the low percentage of people who do OCR (10%) and off-road triathlons (aka Xterra, 11%). I’ve always thought these 2 sports to be the best “feeder” sports for AR, and as we know from Kristin’s great article about targeting your niche audience, there’s a proven track record for using them to attract new racers. Is it a case of OCR and Xterra athletes become adventure racers and then never go back? But some AR organizations help put on Xterra and OCR events. By the logic of this census, we should be focusing all our efforts at trail runners. Yet all my experience has taught me trail runners are long ways away from AR, as most don’t have the gear, desire to navigate, etc. A lot of food for thought with this one. I’d love to know what others think!


That about wraps up the major insights I was able to distil from the census. If other folks spot additional linkages between data that I haven’t, please chime in the comments below!

To me, here are the biggest takeaways:

  1. We (the collective AR community) need to become systemic and disciplined in mentoring and grooming the next set of racers. It’s not enough to say you race with some 30-year old every now and then. If we don’t start pulling younger folks in right now, we are looking at a significant drop in participation levels in a few years which may threaten the existence of the sport. I’m challenging everyone who reads this article to do something about this. Start grooming your replacement.
  2. For good races, there are a committed group of racers who’ll spend just about anything and go just about anywhere. But these races have really got to “bring it” in terms of race quality and be 24+ hours long.
  3. You’ll never please everyone. One racer’s favorite discipline is the next racer’s most hated. So double down on what your races can do better than anyone else and ignore the complainers. Use the data collected from the census to gauge the value of adding specific disciplines or race lengths.
  4. There’s still some gaps in the community that can be filled by websites like ARHub, FB, Attackpoint, etc. We need a good solution for “find a teammate”.

So what are your insights? And more importantly, how are you going to use this data to help grow the sport?


Want to review all the raw data? Here’s a spreadsheet with all the responses. I encourage anyone who really wants to examine the data in order to inform their team or race organization’s efforts to pay special attention to the open-ended questions that let racers type in their personal thoughts. There are some real gold nuggets in there!


One comment

  1. Adventure Racing is more similar to trekking, cyclotouring/backpacking and mountaineering than to triathlon or obstacle races. Maybe Outward Bound and NOLS Alumni are great sources of newcomers to AR.

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