Adventure Racing is an elite sport: stop apologizing about it and embrace it!

 


******WARNING ANNOUNCEMENT********

This article is provoking a lot of great discussion with strong emotions among the AR community. Before adding your voice to these conversations, I ask just a few things:

  1. Please read this article in its entireity. It’s over 3500 words, so I understand it’s not the quickest read, but I think it’s worth your time. Please digest the full concept of this post and the message we’re trying to convey
  2. Ask yourself what your own definition of elite is. Many people are equating elite to equal snobbish or exclusive. Others think elite means only elite fitness and people who finish on the podium. This article is a direct attack on those definitions, as I’m arguing that elite is a rare state of mind that adventure racers exhibit and it needs to be celebrated far more than it currently is. Agree or disagree, I ask you question yourself on what your own definition is.
  3. Finally, after points 1 and 2, join the conversation! There’s a lot of great points being made on this Adventure Race discussion group post. Get off the sidelines and into the fight! Maybe I’m right, maybe I’m wrong. Tell me and tell everyone else what you think! We need passionate, engaged racers in order for this sport to growth, not people on the sidelines.

Thanks, and without further ado, enjoy!

Cy


this one is going to stir the pot a bit…

There’s a number of tensions that exist within the AR community, a natural by-product of a sport that is both proudly and intentionally ill-defined. On most major AR-related debates, passionate racers split themselves over what looks like to outsiders like pointless minutiae, but to us who live and breath AR, are extremely important points.

So while it may seem a bit hyperbolic to say it, there’s an active battle being fought over the sport.

Not between two distinct camps like some kind of civil war, but rather a nebulous shifting back and forth between general concepts of what the sport should be, how it should be run, and who should be in it. It’s to this last point I wish to address.

Regardless of how you may feel about kayaks vs. pack rafts, pre-plotted maps vs. self-plotting, rogaine vs. sequential, if you’re reading this article, you probably like AR and thus want it to grow. Growth, which could be measured by a number of variables like # of races, # of race organizations, increase in races year over year, or profit of those race organizations, is ultimately best measured by race attendance. It’s the Key Performance Indicator (KPI) of a race organization’s health. If people aren’t showing up at the race, the sport doesn’t grow, end of the story, back your bags.

So while you may not think a race is a “real AR” unless it has a water leg, you probably still want people going to ARs that don’t have a boat section because if that race does well, that race organization will do well and their racers might come to your races!

That’s a critical portion of ARHub’s virtuous cycle and the fundamental reason we’ve published articles focusing on AR growth strategies like building great Facebook ads, targeting niche audiences, and putting out as much data about the sport as we can collect.

Within these articles, and out amongst the general AR community, there’s a near-universal maxim that “adventure racing is for everyone”. That no matter how old, how fit, how experienced, anyone can get a bike and some friends and show up to a race (or at least a beginner-friendly race), have a great time, and become hooked on the sport. This belief is repeated time and time again, from TA1 podcast interviews to Sleepmonster articles, to Attackpoint forum discussions.

Hell, it’s practically AR’s version of the American Dream – any man or women, regardless of position in life, can go on to become a great adventure racer.

It’s not just that we believe this to be true. For those of us fiscally invested into AR, we NEED this to be true. Because AR is a shadow of its former self, and with many of our best racers and race directors have come from the “Golden Age of AR”, they remember what the sport once was in the eye of the public and how big those winner’s prizes were. If the sport is to get back to some semblance of its former position, we need more racers and lots of ’em.

Which means that AR has to be accessible, it has to be an obtainable event for every Tom, Dick, and Sally, because if it isn’t, then just how the hell will we get enough race attendance to ever matter again? The thought that AR is for everyone isn’t just a feel-good inspirational concept, it’s a business necessity.

Hopefully not me… Credit FineDictionary.com

And you know what? I say it’s wrong.

I know, I know, get the tar and feathers ready, we’re having ourselves some old-fashioned mob justice. But hear me out on this, because I believe a fundamental re-alignment of how AR positions itself to the general public is overdue. And this re-alignment will, in fact, be healthy for the sport.

Here’s my proposal: Stop saying AR is for everyone. AR is not for everyone, not by a long shot. AR is for a select few who meet a large number of qualifications. Our sport is a niche one, with a lot of requirements to enter it, let alone succeed at it. We have high barriers to entry, and that greatly restricts the pool of candidates to be good at AR (let alone interested in trying it out).

Adventure racing is an elite sport for elite athletes, and I believe we’re wasting time and money not admitting as much.

Reasons Adventure Racing is elite:

  1. The gear: AR takes a lot of stuff. Even for those racers who stay in the intermediate and beginner level races, you’re still coming to races with a big tub full of gear. While we make claims that you can show up with a mountain bike, a camelback, and some running shoes, that only holds true for races that are 2-3 hours
    so…much…stuff!!!! Credit ExploreCompeteLive

    in length and stay in safe and controlled environments. Good mountain bikes are pricey, their maintenance and upgrades are just as expensive, there’s a never-ending list of mandatory gear dependant on the specific race (example: I’m currently trying to save up to buy a pack raft), stuff always gets destroyed or needs replacing, and somebody always has some cool new thing that makes you want one for yourself. Carbon fiber paddles from Epic. Alpacka rafts. Moxie shin guards. Black Diamond collapsible trekking poles. To truly enter the sport of AR, you’re definitely putting a chunk of your disposable income to building an ever-increasing garage version of REI. Take the perspective of a newcomer to the sport. They see the veteran racers pull up in their spinner van, offloading bags and boxes of gear. It’s an intimidating sight to see other racers with a bunch of stuff you didn’t even know existed, let alone needed for the race you’re about to do! And we haven’t even addressed the necessity of being comfortable with all this gear so you can effectively use it in a race environment where you’ll be out in remote parts of the wilderness. Which brings us to..

  2. The environment: It’s an appalling fact that most people who enjoy fitness actually don’t like the outdoors all the much. There’s far greater attendance to competitions that are in safe, contained, well-defined environments, like road races, triathlons, and CrossFit gyms. Even obstacle course racing, despite occasional mystery challenges, have become “known” events, with the exact mileage and most of the individual obstacles well defined. People like knowing what they’re getting themselves into (more on this in the next point) and events that are clearly defined and measurable lends a sense of comfort to (most) people. So when an adventure race purposely doesn’t say anything about how far or how long it will take besides a rough estimate of “12 hours”, and you only know where the start and finish point is and nothing in-between, that gives a lot of people who fit the initial bill for AR’s target audience some serious anxiety. Then you start to throw in uncommon skills like navigation, rappelling, and bushwacking on top of not even knowing where they’ll be going and you can start to see why someone might not think AR sounds all the fun. And let’s not forget bathroom availability and the effect it has on whether or not someone will attend an event! The uniqueness of the AR environment cuts out a lot of otherwise fit and gear-equipped individuals.
  3. The mindset: This one is the granddaddy of all other reasons AR is elite. In an informal poll I ran on Facebook a little while back, the “adventurous mindset” was the clear winner of what the one distinguishable feature above all others that made someone love adventure racing. And, at the risk of expanding my grand-standing beyond the scope of this article to critique society at large, the adventurous mindset is an increasingly rare thing to find. That makes people who have it the most valuable to AR. We can get you the necessary gear and to enjoy a multisport outdoor environment. But being comfortable with going deep into the woods, not knowing what physical requirements you may have to do next but embracing whatever you happen upon, and keeping focused and determined when the food and sleep run out are all extremely rare traits in most people. The rise of obstacle course racing has revitalized a lot of chatter about how people who ride a desk all day are looking for opportunities to get a little more primal enjoyment back in their lives. But OCR has nothing on AR in terms of pushing yourself way out on the ledge of adversity and adventure. And just like a real ledge, there are only a few brave folks who are actually willing to walk up to the very edge. Most are content with getting somewhat close and snapping an Instagram photo.

Any one of these three attributes is enough to disqualify a large chunk of the population from being candidates for AR. The fact that our sport necessitates having all three of them makes us elite, no question about it. You simply can’t expect these many qualifications to be met by an individual and NOT call them elite.

Okay, we’re “elite”. So what’s that actually mean?

Elite doesn’t necessarily mean world class, but it does mean that it takes a lot to be a part of. If you’ve got all the gear, all the skills, the love the unique environment, and of course, the adventurous mindset, then hell yeah, you’re elite!

Amelia Boone, elite endurance athlete. She definitely fits the common definition of “elite”. But don’t confuse her type of elite with AR’s version of elite. Credit Spartan Races Inc.

Elite is a good word. I understand how it often has a connotation with unachievable or highly exclusive, and odds are most adventure racers aren’t swaggering around thinking about how elite they are because they don’t view themselves as such. But if you isolate out all the factors that make us so unique as a sport, I think it’s pretty clear-cut that elite is the right word of choice.

Now, before we get too enamored with the idea of ranks of super-fit outdoorsmen who go on 6-hour rides every day as the standard for the elite athletes who make up adventure racing, let’s not lose sight that adventure racers come in all shapes and sizes.

Nowhere in the previous description of why AR is an elite sport did I mention abs of steel or a monster cardiovascular system. You need gear, a love of the outdoors, and adventurous mindset. You can find these qualities in a mom of four or a teenager. And so while the mom or the teenager may adamantly refuse the label “elite” because it’s more commonly connotated with the type of people on the cover of Outside magazine or like the picture to the right, it’s still true.

We just need a shift in our collective mindsets about how to use the word. Don’t forget that many elite athletes from other sports have tried their hand at AR, only to say “oh hell no, these people are crazy” after one race!

Recently, I raced at a 8 hour AR where a father/daughter team also participated. This raced included ~4000 ft elevation gain and you had to twice ford a river that was over my height (6 ft) with your mountain bike. And the daughter, 10 or 11 years old, did the whole race and finished just a few minutes behind my team! How can we possibly not call her elite? Think of the impressive combination of skills, talent, and most of all, an adventurous mindset that she has at such a young age. Elite, no question in my mind.

Important caveat – Adventure racers are NOT elitist, making an exclusive “cool kids only” club, giving a newcomer the stink eye because we don’t know who they are. This is a fine line to walk and I’ll be the first to admit I’ve felt like an outsider at races when I see the majority of racers all laughing and joking with each other because they’ve been racing with each other for years, and then, after a few races, been on the inside of this group, unintentionally ignoring newcomers. It takes deliberate intentions to avoid letting the elite nature of our sport slide downhill into becoming elitist.

We MUST be a community with open arms, cheering on the newcomers and solo racers. That’s what brings them back, not a coupon to the next race. 

Exhibit A for “borderline bat-shit crazy”. Credit Legendary Randy.

Prior to starting ARHub, I was in the active duty US Army and a member of a Special Forces unit. Normally, I don’t speak about this, but I mention it because I want to help contrast just how elite adventure racers are. I was in a unit that was by definition, an elite one. The qualifications required to become a member was a roughly 2-year long course with an extremely high rate of dropout and failure. The men I served with were all physical specimens, the cream of the Army’s crop. They ran faster and longer, could out-navigate everyone else, were perfectly comfortable with periods of extreme sleep and food deprivation and were adrenaline junkies. Sounds like a damn good recruiting ground for adventure racing, right? Turns out, not so much.

Despite looking like perfect candidates on paper, I could never get a coworker to come to a race. The thought of doing something like an adventure race was repellant to all of them because “why on earth would you pay someone to do that?” They couldn’t fathom actually voluntarily doing an AR. Even amongst the Army’s elite, the adventurous mindset had its limits to doing just what was strictly necessary to succeed at work.

Trust me folks, adventure racers are elite, even when compared other populations of athletes who are considered elite. We’re double elite; Meta-elite. Granted, our version of elite is borderline batshit crazy, but that’s just part of what makes us such a fun group o’ folks.

So what’s a race director to do?

Hopefully, I’m not depressing anyone too much. My intention isn’t to tear down anyone’s beliefs that adventure racing should be as accessible as possible. Far from it, I’m 100% in favor of increased accessibility and helping newcomers join the ranks of AR. Instead, I’m trying to formulate a strong justification for a re-framing in the marketing and advertisement of what adventure racing is to the greater population so that we are getting a higher return on our efforts. If AR were to re-position itself to take an approach of “this sport is not for anyone, but for a select brave few” then I believe we’ll be on much stronger ground for the future.

Why? Because it’s a losing strategy to try to be something for everyone. It’s a house built upon the sand.

Instead, I want a house built on the rock. And the rock is having a dedicated group of racers who always prioritize adventure racing over other sports because their relationship with the sport is so strong there’s no question what they’ll do on their weekends.

I want a future with adventure racers wearing their team jersey to the office, stickers on car bumpers proclaiming their finishing at the sport’s best races, and sponsors fighting to get their brand and gear into the hands of the best teams. We won’t get to this future if we keep puttering around, trying to make everyone happy. A small but highly mobilized group can accomplish far more than a large but disorganized community. And one of the necessary steps to making this future a reality is improving how we define ourselves so we’re attracting the right people.

A favorite article of mine that’s about how to build a business or a product that appeals to just a few folks, but connects deeply with those few, is Kevin Kelly’s 1000 true fans. It is an excellent manifesto for owners of a business that serves a niche audience, AR being a perfect example. In the article, Kevin explains how trying to build a project that’s for everyone is a fool’s errand, as trying to please lots of different types of audiences will result in a product that is mediocre, ill-defined, and sure to fail. A successful business is one that has a laser-focus on it’s most passionate and dedicated audience and goes to extreme lengths to make that core audience happy by consistently over-delivering on value. It’s those 1000 “true fans” of the business who propel it to greatness because the business has earned the loyalty and dedication of its fans.

As a marketer for an AR organization, I know the frustration of appealing to target audiences but still not seeing the boost in attendance I expected. But as I reflect on my own efforts and the efforts of other RD’s efforts I see, there’s a lot of waste. Money and time are thrown away trying to convince audiences that aren’t actually interested in doing an AR to come out and try it because they look at the skin surface to be the right type of people. As a passionate racer who just wishes to spread the joy I feel from AR to others who I’m sure will love it as much as I do, it hurts to see my own biases thrown back at me because I don’t see how truly intimidating AR is.

I loved this shirt, but many did not. A good example of how our individual biases affect our marketing efforts.

What’s more effective for running a business? Trying to coax people to come out to your race because they fit the general bill of what an adventure racer should be, or having a group of people who will register the first day you’ll allow it because the words “adventure race” gets them salivating? A consistent base of dedicated racers is what provides a race director the fiscal stability to improve their races, invest in more equipment and programs, thus improving their race quality. And you don’t get that running around to every 5K fun run or boot camp fitness class, trying to convince people who aren’t attracted to the idea of an elite sport to come out to your race.

Better to zero in on a select few athletes who are “ripe for the picking” because they’re looking to level up, like this guy, Super Mark.

So the question we must ask ourselves is “how do we attract the right people?” What kind of marketing content and advertisements resonate best with the type of people who are adventure racers (but may not know it yet)? Different messages resonate with different people.

Remember the Checkpoint Tracker shirt with the warning that adventure racing is dangerous and it might kill you? I bought that shirt IMMEDIATELY because it resonated with me. Yet so many others didn’t like it all. The kind of messages the works on me won’t work for that previously mentioned mom of four or the teenager. So we need transcendent messages that are universal to the right kind of people.

I think there are 2 significant actions we as a community can take to get the right people to the sport.

  1. Branding and marketing the sport with a focus on the adventurous mindset. From my seat, that’s the difference maker and the biggest obstacle. We need images, catchphrases, content, and copywriting that capture the adventurous mindset. That’s the lynchpin to attract the elite people who yearn for something “more” but don’t know what that is yet.
  2. Direct person-to-person recruitment. Nothing tops direct interaction with people who might be interested in AR. Giving a flyer to someone after a trail run or XC race and when they ask “what’s this” and then you spend the next 10 minutes in a rapturous discussion about the wonders of AR is a proven conversion tool. Nothing spreads excitement and passion like an interaction where the other person can see just how enthusiastic you are about AR. How do you do this at scale? Well, that’s another article, but the short version is:
    1. Hire people, either with money or referral bonuses or free races. If you’re an RD and you have don’t have someone doing your marketing, get one. Get ambassadors who race at a discount in exchange for passing out your marketing material at other races. Start a referral program so people get lower racing costs for every new racer they bring in.
    2. Attend races with your target population. Set up a booth if you can, if it’s too much money, then go guerrilla style, passing out flyers at the end of the race (just be sure to do the race to make sure you’re advertisement is authentic!)
    3. Have AR-like races with a super low barrier to entry. Plenty of races series have easy, 2-4 hour races in or near major cities where the navigation is incredibly easy, there are fun challenges/obstacles, and the gear/equipment is low. Think about creative ways to capture people looking to engage their adventurous mindset but at minimal cost in terms of gear and environment. If you can isolate the most important component of being elite and grow that seed in people, you’re effectively developing your own sales funnel system and a set of future adventure races.

Thoughts on my proposal on re-branding? Are we actually elite or is that the wrong word choice? Suggestions? How have you or your local race organization managed to capture the adventurous mindset? Leave your comments below, and let’s see some creative advertisements and images!

 

Comments

comments

4 comments

  1. Bob Heady says:

    I couldn’t disagree more. The idea of AR as an elite sport for elite athletes is one reason it has declined since i started AR 15 years ago. No one is going to grow AR with that business model. Why? Because there are not enough elite AR athletes to sustain the sport at the level suggested here. If you want to look at a successful AR model, study the old Hi-Tec or Balance Bar series. Their sprint races would regularly have 200+ three person teams at a race. They also had all the elite teams present. As a wannabe AR how fun was it to toe the line with Epi, Nike, Seagate and the like. Their 24-hour races also had a large number of entrants. These races fed the expedition series like Eco-Challenge and Primal Quest. As for the “elite sport for elite athletes” tag I’m calling you out on that. Any weekend schlub with basic fitness and beginning skills can do an adventure race. They just can’t do it at the elite level which, if you have ever seen someone like Team Nike race, is other worldly. But that’s why the Balance Bar model works. The everyday athlete challenges themselves to do something extraordinary. Whether they finish, short course, DNF or whatever they have accepted a challenge and given their best. The benefit for the elite athlete is there is a funding source for a race director to be able to put on events and attract the “elite” teams with prize money. Everyone has a different experience. My introduction to AR was crewing for Primal Quest Tahoe (Yikes!). Every one I met at the event was friendly and willing to offer help, advice, etc. Once I started racing that inclusiveness was evident in all the AR people I met. Every racer I met recognized and appreciated the fact that you showed up to race (at whatever level). I do agree that OCR is a different, lesser activity but you have to ask yourself why are they getting huge numbers of participants. And why are there now, what, a half dozen series out there. I am not as knowledgeable about the AR scene since I stopped racing but I’ll guess there aren’t more then twenty-five elite teams kicking around. I just don’t see how those one hundred people are going to be able to finance a resurgence of AR and sustain it going forward. Trust me, the elite teams are going to show up regardless. You’re going to need the wannabes to foot the bill and you need to work on getting them involved.

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