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How To Get More Women Into Adventure Racing

It’s time to admit we have a “female problem” in adventure racing. And not a “For Pete’s sake, you broke another one?” problem (yeah, this has happened), but a bigger, systemic issue: there are not enough women in adventure racing. And without intentional intervention by all race directors, the problem is not going away anytime soon.

Just over half the general population is female, but within AR, it’s under 25%. How do we account for the dramatic decrease? And once we identify the reasons causing the lack of female participation in AR, what can we do to fix it?

they’re here to kick butt and chew bubble gum… and they’re all outta bubble gum!

Here’s why you should care:

  1. AR has a serious demographic problem – With many adventure racers in the 40-50-year age group, lots of our best and most dedicated racers’ remaining years of racing are probably in the single or low double digits. We need fresh blood for the sport to keep going, let alone grow.
  2. The low participation rate amongst women shows a huge opportunity for bringing in the new racers the sport needs.
  3. If you love AR and the incredible experiences it provides, finding better ways to market to groups of people who currently aren’t exposed to our sport should rank high on your list of priorities.
  4. Finding new ways to market to specific demographics helps professionalize our sport, elevating our collective skill sets and helping transform the AR community.
  5. We all suffer from unconscious biases, meaning we unintentionally design and market our races to suit the desires and needs of ourselves. No big deal at the start, as “scratching your own itch” is a great way to get started, but if you’re constantly just making a race to satisfy you and your friends’ interests, you lose out attracting a broader audience. Adjusting our efforts to account these biases helps improve the quality of our races and ourselves.

Why should you listen to us? Well, we have both been in AR for a while now—Michelle since 2005 and Liz since 2007—in every different capacity: volunteer, racer, soloist, team member, race director. We’ve also been involved with getting women into adventure sports: Liz started a women’s only mountain biking group in 2003 and ran it for several years; and Michelle has been producing the Buff Betty Women’s Adventure Race since 2012, which is the only AR in North America that is for women only. Our cumulative experiences provide us some valuable insights on women and AR.

(We don’t feel it’s necessary to go into why women are important to adventure racing teams. Suffice to say that each team member brings unique strengths, knowledge base, and point of view to a race. Diversity is good. And benefits to race directors of attracting and keeping an entire demographic are obvious!)

The Numbers

There are plenty of women in other endurance sports (mountain biking, ultra-running, long-distance triathlon, to name a few). Women make up more than 50% of customers in adventure travel. Cynthia Dunbar of REI Adventures was quoted in Condé Nast Traveler as saying “since 2010, women traveling with us has grown by 60 percent, and we continue to see this figure grow steadily each year. Last year alone, 58 percent of all our guests were women.”[1]

So, therefore, we can assume that women enjoy and participate in endurance sports and that they also enjoy and participate in adventurous pursuits. According to the American Time Use Survey for 2011 to 2015, the participation numbers for men and women in the components of AR, while weighted toward men, is not too far from the middle: cycling 54% men to 46% women; running 61% men to 39% women; hiking 59% men to 41% women. [2]

In the 2016 census compiled by Adventure Race Hub, out of 443 respondents, 335 were male and 108 were female. While these results admittedly suffered from “a high degree of selection bias,”[3] it’s a great start to aggregating data within the sport.  Women were 24.3% of respondents, though women make up 50.8% of the total population (according to the 2010 census). It’s our opinion that a higher percentage of adventure racing women answered the AR census since we’ve never been at a race or other AR event (except the Buff Betty) where 25% of the participants were women. It’s generally closer to 10-15%. So something is clearly amiss since women are participating in outdoor and endurance activities at a much higher percentage of the total than at AR. What’s happening to cause this disconnect?

So why not AR?

As with all complex issues, there’s not one reason for these rather dismal numbers. Here are some of the major factors that we see:

Societal: In the U.S., at least, cultural norms definitely play a part. For better or for worse, it seems to be more acceptable for Dad to run away for the weekend to play in the woods than it is for Mom to do the same. Women already have a balancing act between work and home life; just getting out to train can be difficult… and participating in a 3- to 5-day race a logistical impossibility.

The Bravery Gap: Outside Magazine’s May 2017 issue was titled “The Future of Adventure is Female.” Among other excellent articles, one discussed the future of Girl Scouts and included this:

“I think we’re overprotecting girls while encouraging boys to take risks, be tough, and learn sound decision-making,” said Caroline Paul, a former firefighter and white water competitor, and the author of Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic ­Adventure. “We are failing to prepare girls for life.”

Behind the outdoor-sports discrepancy lurks a worrisome chasm: the bravery gap. A 2014 survey of more than 1,000 girls by the Oakland, California, nonprofit Girls Leadership showed that half identified as brave, compared with 63 percent of boys.

“A boy is pushed to do things, but when a girl says she’s scared, an adult will often intervene,” Paul said. “Boys are taught to per­severe, and girls are told that fear will protect them. Fear has ­become a feminine trait[4]

Yes, adventure racing can be scary and fear is definitely a part of racing, particularly at the expedition level. We have had some scary “oh shit” moments out in the wilderness, from paddling down class 5 whitewater, rescuing teammates, hiking razor-sharp ridgelines in the dark, to being so lost we had to sit down to compose ourselves and figure out “how the hell are we going to get out of this one.” But we survived!

Getting back to the “taking risks” point: our perception of fear and risks starts at an early age. It is no coincidence that many of the female racers we know grew up in environments that fostered outdoor adventure. From backpacking trips with parents to learning to climb and ride a mountain bike. If you are a parent who loves adventure racing, get out there with your kids, take risks, use a compass, and show them just how fun the outdoors can be! Race directors – find ways to allow Moms and Dads to incorporate their families in the sport so they can help foster the “esprit de adventure.” From family races to spectator friendly TAs/courses, there are great ways to use AR to teach bravery.

Infrastructure: Women seem to be more risk-averse than men (on the whole) and infrastructure in the U.S. doesn’t exactly foster safe distance training. When we were traveling in New Zealand earlier this year, we were thrilled at the cycling and trekking infrastructure. It made it so much easier to be outside and active! And the numbers of female AR participants in New Zealand shows the difference. In the last Spirited Women All Women’s Adventure Race (held March 31 to April 2), 293 TEAMS of 4 women each participated. This is large for ANY adventure race in the U.S.![5] The Spring Challenge in New Zealand, produced by Nathan Fa’aeve, consistently brings in over 1000 participants.

Implicit bias: There is a casual sexism within outdoor sports, including adventure racing. Chicago Athlete Magazine recently reported on a week-long event exploring gender bias in endurance sports (specifically triathlon and marathon). At the event, participants “shared their own experiences with gender bias as endurance athletes. They also considered some of the barriers still facing women marathoners and triathletes, including a lack of social support and assistance with childcare responsibilities [a frequent answer to the question “what would let you race more often?” in the AR Census.] They also examined the underlying causes of these issues, like differences in media coverage and portrayal and sponsorship opportunities.”[6] We won’t bore you with numerous examples from our own experiences; but it’s out there, even in 2017. And we won’t be able to address it until we acknowledge that yes, it does exist.

What Can Race Directors Do to Reach, Attract, and Retain Female Racers

Obviously, the issues listed above are too complex and ingrained to be easily solved, but there are some steps race directors and promoters can take to increase female participation in AR:

Meet them where they are. Women are more likely to join all-female groups, rides, and clinics because the atmosphere tends to be more supporting and less competitive than even a social-paced co-ed ride. (Liz can’t count the number of times some chucklehead, usually a newish rider, decided that his rightful place in the ride line was directly in front of her, despite repeated evidence to the contrary). Women feel more comfortable asking questions and taking chances when surrounded by like-minded women (based on our own experiences in leading women-only mountain bike rides.)

One effective tool we’ve used is scheduling women’s AR clinics prior to races. In the clinics, we cover the basics of adventure racing: gear and clothing, maps, rules, passport, race flow, basic navigation, transition, and scoring. We try to keep it to 1-1/2 to 2 hours, then we have a short exercise on using a map and compass to find a couple of beginner points in nearby woods. Our next clinic is 2nd week of August.

Another tool we use is to involvement with the local riding, running, and racing communities. In our area at least, there is no more effective marketing tool than personal communication. The groups don’t even have to be made up solely of women (though that does help). And being a part of the local community can have wide-ranging benefits for race directors, beyond just attracting a wider demographic than might be found online or in traditional media channels.

Communicate completely and frequently. Women like information, and the more information they have, the better they feel. Women need to feel comfortable with and prepared for an event in the time leading up to it. Race directors: try to over-communicate the information regarding the race. And there are NEVER any stupid questions. Answer questions quickly and completely. It’s shocking how many AR websites are devoid of very basic information regarding their races. Just because the course itself remains a mystery doesn’t mean that everything revolving around the race should be too. Error on the side of over-explaining yourself. Remember, just because you, the almighty Race Director, knows every intricate detail of your race, don’t assume everyone else, even your veteran racers, do. Communicate, communicate, communicate.


Plan races that operate on multiple levels:
There are as many different abilities and speeds in women racers as there are in male racers. So, don’t make your race shorter and easier thinking that alone will attract more women racers. Many women are up to both long distances and more challenging courses. In the Buff Betty, we have mandatory points that are appropriate for anyone who can read a trail map. Racers who get just those points successfully complete the race. We put in additional complex, off-trail points that are optional, for more experienced teams and those newer racers who want to challenge themselves. Be respectful. Everyone has to start somewhere. Respect the fact that each racer is getting out there, being active, and challenging herself.  Acting superior or patronizing will lose you customers for life.

some happy Buffy Betty racers

Which brings us to…

The Buff Betty… a women-only adventure race produced by Adventure Addicts Racing (us!)

Back in 2006, Michelle did her first Buff Betty with her sister in Cumberland, Maryland. Brad Hunt (a race director and promoter) put on the race; there was a series of Buff Betty’s across the country. They were very successful and he was often able to get top female adventure racers, such as Rebecca Rusch and Robyn Benincasa, to make an appearance and race. Brad continued the race for a few years, then closed up shop to move onto other projects. When Michelle and her Adventure Addicts co-founder Andy Bacon starting AAR in 2011, she specifically remembered the Buff Betty and how much fun it was. They thought, “Hey! We should be it back and make it our own!”  It fit perfectly into their goal of growing the sport across all demographic groups. They contacted Brad, who graciously released the name and rights to the race. Adventure Addicts brought back the race in 2012; we’ll be producing our fourth Buff Betty on September 9th in Front Royal, Virginia.

Are we going to get 293 teams of 4 participating like in New Zealand? Unlikely, but we sure plan to try!

Other RDs:  Do you have any suggestions on how to better engage specific audiences to help develop AR? Share your experiences in the comments and on the AR social media platforms to better inform the sport’s community!

Your authors and passionate “get more ladies to do AR” advocates, Liz and Michelle Faucher

[1] http://www.cntraveler.com/story/solo-female-adventure-travel-is-on-the-rise

[2] https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2016/sports-and-exercise-among-americans.htm

[3] https://adventureracehub.com/blog/

[4] https://www.outsideonline.com/2170791/we-are-next-generation-rippers

[5] http://spiritedwomen.co.nz

[6] http://www.mychicagoathlete.com/women-talk-it-out-about-gender-biases-in-endurance-sports/

Marketing for Adventure Races

We here at ARHub take our “virtuous cycle” seriously. We’re firm believers that adventure racing can directly benefit from harnessing modern technology to share best practices in order to help democratize our sport (translation: we help make AR gooder).

One of the least understood, and thus most poorly executed, aspects of AR is the marketing and sales cycle for adventure racing organizations. Given that success in sales is a rare talent, and the fact that many race directors skew towards the engineering mindset leaves a large gap in the community in terms knowing how to easily and expertly conduct marketing for race organizations. Enter ARHub and our favorite marketing guru, Mark VanTongeren of Michigan Adventure Racing.

Mark, before becoming one of AR’s few full-time race directors, spent years in the marketing business, giving him great insight. Mark’s races, besides being fantastic events by themselves, are well known through the AR community for their success in attendance. Mark is selling out all his races, with upwards of 500 (!!!!!) racers at some of his largest races. Mark graciously lends his voice and time to help share his best practices about how to market and sell adventure races. His previous article on building unique Facebook Ads has helped many race directors create targeted engagement to potential races. Now, Mark dives into the phasing and timing of marketing.

Enter Mark.


Making Good (and Frequent!) Impressions


How much of an impression do you need to make to prompt people – particularly active, outdoors people – to consider doing an adventure race? The oft-cited, never validated “Rule of 7” states that you need to get your product or service in front of a potential buyer through an advertisement seven times on average before they pull the trigger. I think an advertiser came up with that one. More likely, the average number of exposures required to get someone to seriously consider your race (as opposed to “impressions” which measures how often your ad appears on a page accessed by a viewer) is probably closer to three. “The first exposure causes consumers to ask, ‘What is it?’ The second causes them to ask, ‘What of it?’ The third exposure is both a reminder and the beginning of disengagement” (Lancaster, Kreshel and Harris 1986).

[Editor’s note – Mark is making an absolutely critical point. Whether it’s 3 impressions, 7, or even 20, the vital take away is that it requires repetition in order to accomplish the conversion, aka a sale for your race. You cannot simply make an announcement and think you’ve finished all the work in terms of marketing your races. That’s like plotting your route before the race starts then never checking the map again. Everything else in this article is icing on the cake in terms of marketing optimization, so if you don’t get the above point, don’t read the rest of the article. Sales is three things: persistence, persistence, and persistence.]

in AR, you must remember your ABCs! Always Be Closing!

Brand Building AND Direct Selling


If you build it, they won’t come. You have to sell it. Whether three exposures is the magic number or not, zero or one exposure certainly will not sell a race to most potential racers, especially because adventure racing is such an unknown. You face an uphill battle to earn the dollars of any outdoor endurance enthusiast, as there are many other sports competing for that person’s disposable income. Race promoters must educate and promote, sometimes in the same message. In an ideal world, race promoters would craft some promotion as “brand building” of their organization and of adventure racing in general. However, there’s rarely budget or time to do that apart from promoting a specific race. Realistically, we are doing “direct selling” of a race at the same time as building our race organization brand and explaining what the heck an adventure race is and why it’s so awesome. That’s a LOT of information to get across to a newcomer, and thus repetition is key for success. Just because you’ve explained it once doesn’t mean they get it. Let’s be honest, AR isn’t the most straightforward sport and the complexities of racing against other teams, against the clock, and against the map doesn’t really click with a lot of folks the first time around. So you got to keep reminding them and keep explaining what is necessary to have a good time. Persistence!


Braided Channels


Inspiration-themed media can resonate well with the type of people who enjoy the “adventure” more than the “race”

We’ll focus on the direct sell of a race in this article. It’s important to engage potential racers with several different formats/tactics of a direct sell. Just like we sometimes encounter a braided channel in a paddle section of a race, marketing channels are also braided. A racer may initially hear about a race through one channel that piques their interest but it’s two channels months later that seals the deal on their decision to sign up. Some potential racers may be focused on Facebook, Instagram, and other social media networks. Others watch the news and see features that were generated by a media release. In-person “pitches” are also highly effective, as you directly engage a potential racer while handing them a promo flyer. Your most target-rich audience is obviously former race participants reached through e-promotions or e-newsletters using existing email addresses/mailing lists. All of these tools are then shared electronically and by word of mouth by interested audiences with their friends and racing community. Word of mouth is much more organic and we won’t cover ways to encourage it in this article, but it should be kept in mind, especially creating and encouraging easy ways to share with friends, family, potential teammates, and other like-minded individuals. Race promoters must engage through most or all of these channels to be really effective (along with other tactics such as event calendars, endurance/adventure race forums, clinics, clubs, sponsor and partner relations, and cross promotion with other races). Bottom line – Don’t rely on just one channel. You need lots of channels for your race to become “sticky”, aka adopted by lots of people who are exposed to it. Again, the theme of persistence is relevant.

 


Broad Reach, Broad Audiences


Of course, keep in mind your target audience for each tool you use. Are you pitching a race to an audience that has no familiarity with adventure racing? Weave the basics of what the audience would be doing into the promotion of the race. Focus more on the benefits of adventure racing and link them to the race for the details.

In most cases, there is no time or budget to try to craft to a narrow audience like a powerhouse brand would or a marketing class would instruct. Focus on a message and visuals that will draw attention, quickly convey the benefits and excitement of AR, and quickly share the basics of the race with a link to more information. With limited resources, you’re looking for broad reach to broad audiences. Where a tool allows you narrow audiences, such as Facebook ads explained below, certainly take advantage of this, but to break down your email lists into small groups based on interest is probably not worth the effort. 

 


Recommended Marketing Timeline


Facebook Ads
When: four to eight weeks before race

With limited budgets and time, Facebook ads provided the biggest bang for the buck. Consider Google Ad Words, Instagram, and other social network offerings but Facebook is generally considered the most effective. [Editor – Google is where you go to answer a question you already have, like “what adventure races are in North Carolina?” Facebook is where you go to discover questions you didn’t know you had, like “what interesting things are going on next weekend?”] If you’re on a tight budget, consider trying $50 if you want to test it out. You can narrow the audience by geography, age, and interests (adventure racing, orienteering, trail running, paddling, etc.) to get the ads in front of people most likely to be interested. For more on building Facebook ads, check this article out.

Timing wise, think about how much time it normally takes for a team to gather (especially a new one), train, and acquire gear. Work back from the race date and create your start and end time for your ads accordingly. At four weeks before a race, we see a drop-off in registration so we usually don’t purchase ads after that. And several months before a race may be too early, except for an email to your existing racers to get word of mouth going. Of course, it depends on the duration of the race too. The longer the race, the longer in advance you need to reach potential racers.

Facebook ads generate a lot of valuable data during and after campaigns. Ideally, submit multiple ads that are different from the others in one clear way such as a different image or a different message. This is called A/B testing. If you run these ads for enough time, you can clearly see which ads are most effective. Turn off ads that are not generating as much reach or a high cost per result (e.g., clicks to your website). A/B testing will also give you a good feel for your next campaign what will work best. One thing we’ve learned is hiring a good photographer can generate images that are worth their weight in gold in Facebook ads (and work great for e-newsletters, media requests, website design, etc.)

For a step-by-step guide to creating a Facebook ad for your next event, click here.


Email/e-newsletters

When: start of registration and four to eight weeks out as needed

Email lists obviously generate more impact as more participant email addresses are collected. Consider using an email distribution service such as MailChimp or Constant Contact which provide design templates and send emails in a way that limits them from getting relegated to spam folders. They are usually free to get started and won’t charge you until you hit a large enough mail list. Because email lists go to audiences that know you, you can usually spend more time focused on the details of a specific race rather than explaining adventure racing. Use email to announce open registration and for reminders as the race gets closer. Be careful not to send out too many emails as people will begin to ignore them. But at the same time, be sure to actually use your email list! Email lists aren’t meant to be collections, sitting on the shelf, always admired but never used. They are a powerful tool that lets you directly engage your most active customer base. Use it wisely, but above all, use it!

[Editor: ARHub uses Mailchimp (free service) to regularly engage our subscribers with the best content from our site and across the AR community. Interested? Sign up at the top of the page!]

Check out an example newsletter campaign here


Media Relations
When: start of registration, two to four weeks before race, and personal email a few days before race to seek interview or race coverage

Local and regional media LOVE races that are unique. The media is looking for stories that “cut through the clutter” and keep their viewers engaged and emotive, whether that’s a fun story or a story of triumph. Adventure races certainly stand out from road runs, triathlons, obstacle course races and “fun” runs that have saturated the race scene. Races that take place in popular locations such as state or national parks will particularly get the media’s attention, more so by local media in those areas. If you are doing a beginner-focused race and your race includes Amazing Race-like challenges or some other unique aspect (e.g. rappel off a downtown building, rafting down river), it will generate even more attention.

A race that runs through art exhibits? That’s news gold for local media. Credit Michigan Adventure Racing

The best way to reach media is through a good old-fashioned media release. Your goal with a release will likely be to get the media outlet to do one or more of the following: invite you to their studio to be interviewed for a taped or live broadcast; interview you in person or over the phone about an upcoming race; interview one of your registered racers as more of a human interest, pre-race story; and/or cover the race with a crew or report on it after the fact. Whether you achieve one or more than one of these coverages, your race has the potential to reach thousands or ten thousands of people. Odds are that several viewers will be interested in your race or will share it with someone who they know would be. Whether or not they actually do the race, you are building the adventure race brand, your company’s brand and the brand of the race and future races. It’s a gold mine at no expense to you, just time.

You’ll need to write a media release and gather a list of media contacts. There are hundreds of examples of media releases online. The basic framework should be to first give the basic What, Who, When and Where information as briefly as possible. Then include the Why and expand on the other categories, especially the format of the race as this will be unfamiliar to the media and viewers/readers. Include a quote from yourself or even better from a local racer who has signed up or who did a previous race. You can even have a friend who has raced before providing a quote as long as it’s their own words and genuine. Provide a link to photos or video.

Rather than attach photos, consider posting previous race photos to an online photo album like Flickr so you can provide a link and allow media to look for images to go with their coverage online or on the air. Even better, if you have “b-roll” video of a past race, let media know. Consider posting it to a YouTube channel so they can watch and grab it from there. When this video airs on television, it allows viewers to easily understand what an adventure race is all about.

Here’s an example of a media release from one of our races. (link to PDF) When you send out a media release, make sure the text is in the body of an email, not an attachment. Consider sending it out when registration opens and again one to three weeks before the race when media would consider making one last appeal to racers to sign up, sending a reporter or camera crew to cover the race, and/or asking for photos from the race (be prepared, they may want shots right when the race is done for their evening or late night news).

The easiest way to gather media email addresses is from their website. Look under Staff or Contacts. Media like to be approachable so most include their on-air personality and reporter emails, but still gather the typical newsroom/release general email they provide. Ask your registered racers if they have a compelling story to tell and share that with the media in your release. Ideally, built a question in your race registration to capture these stories and racer contact information so you can determine whether to include this story in your release or forward it on to a reporter. The media is always looking for human-interest stories; even better if they involve a local racer in a local race. They crave stories with good visuals and sometimes show up at a race to film the action.

Send the media release out when registration opens. Some media will post the registration opening news. Most will not but you now have your first exposure. Follow up one to four weeks before the race or whatever timeframe allows teams to still recruit and prepare for a race but close enough to the race that the media will find the information timely. That’s the balance you must strike. Consider following up with key media a few days before the race to see if they would be interested in an interview or race coverage. It may not help your participation numbers, but the long-term awareness is still very valuable.


So that’s it, folks! Some proven tactical applications of marketing principles tailored specifically for adventure racing! Get out there and make it happen!

10 great Father’s Day gifts for adventure racers!

It’s not like adventure racers need an excuse to buy themselves more gear. Between the constant new releases of great stuff, the inevitable breakdown of cherished equipment, and, frankly, losing lots of gear out on the trail, we’re always on the hunt for more stuff. But for those who aren’t die-hard racers, it can be totally overwhelming to buy for adventure racers. That’s where this handy list comes in. With Father’s Day right around the corner, there’s no better time to surprise your racer (or yourself!) with something they’re bound to love (and use!) Let us be your shortcut to Father’s Day gifting excellence!

look at all the stuff adventure racers need!
  1. Some seriously high-quality sunscreen. Adventure racers are exposed to the elements for hours and days on end, with rarely a spare minute to think about the long-term consequences of their efforts. This means they can get some nasty sunburn. Not with sunscreen like the Isdin Fusion Gel Fotoprotector. Pricey when compared to your drugstore Copperblock? Yeah. Worth it? Oh yeah. [AMAZONPRODUCTS asin=”B00ID51M5Q”]
  2. A reliable bike light. Nothing induces some panic on the race course like losing your only source of vision. This Fenix is trusted by some of the best in the sport. [AMAZONPRODUCTS asin=”B01ACHGGQW”]
  3. This handy hose attachment works wonders once you get back home from a race with gear that’s completely covered with crusted mud and who knows what else. Serious time saver for weary racers who just want to lie on the couch but know they need to take care of their gear first. [AMAZONPRODUCTS asin=”B013TK3EMS”]
  4. A durable and flexible bike stand. Yes, I’ll admit there are cheaper versions. But none of them have 123 5-star reviews. Bike shops around the world trust the Feedback Sports bike stand. With this, you can easily conduct just about every necessary maintenance action on your bike without having to constantly re-arrange the bike while having to fight for space or dealing with the bike flopping all over the place. [AMAZONPRODUCTS asin=”B001F2S824″]
  5. Some serious protection for the legs. Adventure racers have to constantly trek through the woods off trail (this is called bushwacking) and let me tell you, it can be very hazardous to our legs. Thorns, nettles, sticks, rocks, and all sorts of random things that can inflict some pain will happen. In comes the Moxie shin guards with their solution. Similar to soccer shin guards but made for bushwacking, lots of teams trust the Moxie shin guards to protect their legs during long races. [AMAZONPRODUCTS asin=”B01HC9LAN2″]
  6. A lightweight bike pump. This little guy fits both types of bike tires, weighs practically nothing, and is super cheap. [AMAZONPRODUCTS asin=”B016JEOVOG”]
  7. A thumb compass. Every adventure race requires orienteering, and this compass is one of the most popular due to its weight and comfort. It can’t guarantee you won’t get lost, but it will help as much as it can! [AMAZONPRODUCTS asin=”B003JYVMJC”]
  8. Tailwind Electrolyte Powder. This is a personal favorite of mine and you’ll almost never find me out on the trails without it. Tailwind powder is “liquid calories”, allowing a racer to dump a scoop of powder into their water bottles and drink their food. I’m a huge fan because I hate carrying around lots of bars and gels in my pockets, and can instead just slowly hydrate myself and feed myself simultaneously. Specially formulated for endurance activities, Tailwind’s nutritional content helps prevent cramping, muscles soreness, and keeps racers competitive for hours and hour. A must-have for any adventure racer. [AMAZONPRODUCTS asin=”B01IRDLJAG”]
  9. A kickass adventure race shirt. Okay, full disclosure. Shameless self-promotion here, but if you want to get your adventure racer something unique and not just another piece of gear (not that they don’t love their gear), head over to AdventureRaceHub.com’s shop, where you can check out the unique apparel my wife and I have created for the adventure racing community. You may have noticed that many adventure racing shirts are junky quality, with poorly printed logos and ill-fitting. Not our stuff. Trust me, they’ll love it, and if they don’t, I’ll send you a refund!
  10. Okay, these are pricey for some bike shorts, I get it. But do the math. If you’re doing a 12-hour adventure race wearing these shorts, that’s about $10/hour. If you do 2 12-hour races, that’s $5/hour. When it comes to providing the support and protection needed for our most…ahem…valuable locations…it’s worth spending a bit more money. These shorts provide are made for triathlons, so they’ve got built-in chamois lining for riding the bike, as well as performance enhancing compression. [AMAZONPRODUCTS asin=”B01IE8A33S”]

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!

 

Venues

Organizers

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!

Conclusion

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!

 

Who’s the Best Adventure Racer in the World?

***UPDATE as of Sunday, March 26*** Some sharp-eyed racers have helped me spot some errors in the data. Scroll down to the Best Racer section to see the new “World’s Best Adventure Racer”

Okay, first off, I acknowledge that the title of this article is click bait. But you’re reading this, right? And that means you’re probably interested to find out if there’s an answer to the question “who is the best adventure racer in the world?”  I bet you’ve all got opinions already: Ian! Rebecca! Cy! Ok, not that last one.

We’ve all played the game of “who’s your dream team?” or “who would you want to race with if you could pick your team?”, so I’m pretty sure there’s an underlying curiosity about which racers are the best. While we can debate what “best” means from now until eternity, we’ll get nowhere unless there’s a definitive method to measure it. And I think there is, in fact, a way to measure who’s the best (or at least one version of “best”). It’s not magic, I assure you.

The AR World Series recently published their “Athlete Vault” which has the race results for all ARWS races in the past 2 years by team. This lets them build a ranking for who the best teams are in the ARWS, which is super cool. However, if you’ve read any of my other articles that analyze the AR sport, you know the sight of an excel file with race data makes me salivate. I know, it’s weird, but stick with me, there are some pretty great things to uncover.

There’s a hidden diamond in the rankings – they have every racer who has raced on those teams. This gives us the ability to do something I’ve been hoping to do for quite some time – analysis of individual adventure racer performance. And since the ARWS rankings tell us who the best teams are in the world, we can, in turn, find out who the best individual racers are.

However, there is one critical omission that prevents us from having a truly accurate measurement of individual performance. The data from the ARWS vault, as it currently stands, doesn’t tell us who on the team’s roster raced per unique race. So if someone were to race on a top-tier team like Seagate at a race like Godzone in 2015 and then on a different team at the 2016 Godzone, they’d get Seagate’s points for Godzone 2016 allotted to them as well. No bueno.

As you can imagine, the more teams you’re on (and the better those teams tend to be), the more points you’ll end up getting. This causes some inaccuracy at the top of the listings, as the very best racers will be on multiple teams over the years and sometimes those teams will be at the same races.

To bridge this gap in the data, I reached out to ARWS and all the race directors involved in hosting an ARWS event. Thankfully, I was able to get about 90% of the team rosters for the races. After a considerable amount of “data cleaning”, I was able to know precisely who raced on which team at what race and how many ARWS points that team earned at said race.

Directionally, the model is accurate. But as with any model, it’s only as accurate as the data lets it be. If somebody registers themselves under different names at different races, it’s hard to track them. If you spot errors, please let me know!

The Basics

There are 327 teams ranked by ARWS, meaning they’ve scored at least 1 point. That’s everybody from two-time world champions Seagate with a total of 700 points to “Impossible Dream”, a team with one point (might be an aptly named team…). Including all the non-ranked teams (teams that raced at an ARWS race but DIDN’T score points), there are 399, meaning 72 teams either raced in a non-scored category or failed to complete a course.

Most teams are “one and done” – a group of racers who assemble for a single race and don’t come together again (or at least not under the same name).

There are only 9 teams that have raced at 4 ARWS races in the past two years. These 9 teams also happen to the top 9 teams in the rankings. You know, teams like Seagate, AMK, Yogaslackers, Columbia Vidaraid, Biovouac Inov8, etc. They make up 2.8% of the 327 scored teams.

The next group is 15 teams that have raced at 3 races (4.6% of total), followed by 75 teams that have raced twice (23% of total).

The remaining 227 teams (69.8%) are the “one and done” teams, groups of friends trying something crazy or a hodgepodge of racers who band together to do something awesome. This makes sense to me, as the vast majority of teams at an ARWS event are locals that will never hop on a plane to another continent when there are others good races in the same time zone. Most teams that are reoccurring (2 races) are teams that compete in the same race 2 years in a row.

Across those 327 teams, there are 1,543 racers. Most teams have the standard 4 individuals, but some teams that are more frequent in their appearance at ARWS events have deeper rosters. The team with the largest roster is ARHub’s friends the Yogaslackers, with 12 participants racing in their black and yellow jerseys across the 4 races they’ve gone to. There must be something in the water in Bend, Oregon that lets them build such a deep pool of talent.

 

Vagabonding

One of the more interesting facts is identifying the racers who are the “vagabonds”, hopping from team to team. These folks are typically die-hard adventure racers who live for the thrill of the sport and are often on the hodgepodge teams. A great example is JD Eskelson, who has raced with 4050 Adventure, SORB,  and Owwwp Merica. The man loves adventure racing, no doubt about it.

Erik Sanders, one of the brightest lightest in the next generation of adventure racers, has raced with Yogaslackers, Adventure Medical Kits, and Monarx. That guy is seriously benefiting from racing alongside the best in the sport. I can only imagine the level of “on the job” training and education he gets from being beside Jason Magness and Kyle Peter during expedition races.

But the award for “biggest vagabond” is a tie with 3 racers who have been on 4 different teams: Urtzi Iglesias (Columbia Vidaraid, Fairis, San Juan Aventura I, Walhalla Expedicion Guarani), Kevin Stephens (Afterwork Athlete, Endurancelife, Endurancelife Tiger Adventure, Godzone Adventure OOM), and Natali Andrea Rosas Orellana (Chile AR, Sportotal, Sport HG – Head, Raid Gallaecia Fridama).

Racing Addicts

Similar to vagabonding, racing addicts are the people who just can’t get enough expedition adventure racing. While mere mortals would be content with doing one ARWS event in a year, these folks go a different direction… Leading the pack of addicts are Kyle Peter and Mari Chandler of Adventure Medical Kits, Stuart Lynch of Seagate, and our vagabonding friend Urtzi Iglesias in a 4-way tie of 7 races a piece. That’s 7 expedition level adventure races in 2 years. What the hell. How? Seriously, how??

So if anybody has an open slot on their team and needs somebody, I’m pretty sure Urtzi, Kevin, Stuart, Natali, Kyle, or Mari are interested…

I like to imagine all these folks as retired millionaires who have tons of free time on their hands and lots of frequent flier miles.

That’s a TON of dedication to the sport and willingness to suffer. Y’all are straight gangsta, I hope to never see you on the opposing team.

Enough chit chat. Who’s the best?? 

Now, for the main events. Who’s the best adventure racer in the world? To get this answer, I analyzed each individual racer against the total number of points their team(s) had accumulated in ARWS’ scoring system. Only teams that were awarded points in ARWS’ ranking system counted, so even if a racer has gone to every single ARWS race, but failed to finish or not raced in the 4-person mixed category, they earn 0 points. Essentially, the more you race, and the better the teams you race on are, the higher your score. Drum roll, please…

 

****UPDATE**** 

The best adventure racer in the world is… Stuart Lynch.  Stuart (or Stu) is a long-time member of ARWS Champions, Seagate. He’s scored at 6 ARWS races while racing with 3 teams, Seagate, Tecnu, and Swordfox (badass team name). Every time Stu races with Seagate, they win (4 races, 1st place every time). With Swordfox, he’s come in 2nd place, and with Tecnu, another 2nd place. I’m told Stu is exceedingly humble and a fantastic teammate, so Stu, if you ever read this, I apologize for any spotlighting I’ve done, but honestly, your work is incredibly admirable. I hope to toe the start line against you someday.

 

hey Stu, whatcha up to? Oh nothing, just winning everything. Credit Kaoriphoto.com

In second place is Chris Forne, Stuart’s teammate on Seagate. Chris is an unstoppable adventure racing beast, racking up a total of 800 points on the ARWS circuit. The man simply doesn’t lose. Seriously. Every single race Chris has participated in the previous two years, he’s won. Back to back world championships with Seagate. Back to back Godzone champions with Seagate and Yealands, and a Raid In France championship to boot. Every race is a first place, five times out of five. Unbelievable and terrifying.

Not exactly the face of a stone-cold adventure racing machine like I expected. Seems like a decent bloke.

In third place is Stu and Chris’ teammate and captain of Seagate, the one and only Nathan Faavae, with 700 points. Like Chris, Nathan simply doesn’t lose, scoring only first place finishes. Unlike Chris, Nathan only raced in 4 ARWS events, whereas Chris has knocked out 5.  These New Zealand fellows sure know how to race, huh?

So if you’re keeping track, that means the podium is entirely made of Kiwis who race primarily with Seagate. So for the sake of trying to highlight at least one non-Seagater, let’s look at 4th place.

In fourth place is the most popular man in this article, Urtzi Iglesias, a regular member of Columbia Vidaraid with 616 points. Urtzi, as mentioned above, has raced with 4 different teams, making him co-champion of the Vagabond award. On top of all of that, he is tied for the record for the number of ARWS races that a racer has participated in and scored points, with 6 (ARWC Championship 2016, ARWC Championship 2016, Expedition Africa 2016, Godzone 2015, Huairasinch i, and Tierra Viva 2016). His seventh race was Expedition Alaska, where Columbia Vidaraid had to withdraw due to injuries. Had they completed that course, Urtzi may very well have been in 2nd place over Nathan. That is a LOT of expedition racing. Urtzi, what on earth is your day job?? Can you hire me?

Going down the list, there are a lot of familiar names from the world’s best teams, with AMK, Seagate, Columbia Vidaraid, and other dominate teams all supplying the best racers.

Obviously, my model favors high amount of participation and rightfully so. If you’re flying around the world to do expedition-length adventure races in the most extreme environments, you’re damn right doing it more often then others gets you more points. But it raises the question, who’s the “most effective” racer? Who is able to generate the most points per ARWS race?

Dividing the total number of points scored by the number of races participated gives us the answer, what I call the “power ranking”. It’s a two-way tie for first place, with Nathan Faavae and Sophie Hart tied with 175. Both just happen to be members of team Seagate. What a surprise… basically, when someone from Seagate decides to race, everyone better watch out because here come’s the pain train. And as Chris shows, even when a Seagate team member is racing with some other team, they are still a force to be feared. The country of New Zealand has adventure racing locked down. 

Conclusion

So what does everyone think? Total BS? Or valuable insight? I’ll be the first to admit the model is inadequate. There are 19 races in the data set, and with the most frequent racer attending just 6 of them, it’s tough to spot trends or insights. The ARWS scoring system is a great place to start, but what about races that are expedition level but not associated with ARWS? Right now we exclude them because we don’t have a way to score those races. And don’t even get me started on trying to scale this out to all adventure races. I wish! I’d just need every single race result and team roster….

But just because the model in inaccurate doesn’t mean it isn’t useful. It starts discussions. It gets people fired up and engaged. And hopefully, it helps push the sport forward.

Adventure racing is a team sport. Any of the aforementioned racers will likely protest that they only earned the points they did because they were on great teams with great teammates. Rightly so. We have no idea what happened during each of these racers and to what degree these top ranked racers had to rely on their teammates to get them across the finish line.  Stu, Chris, Nathan, and Urtzi’s teams crossed the finish line ahead of most other teams more often than not, so they didn’t earn their points by themselves. So what’s the point of measuring individual performance?

And since 99% of us won’t compete at this level, shouldn’t we just focus on enjoying the races and not worry about who’s best?

Let me take a stab at offering a few reasons why some kind of ranking like this is useful despite the inherent contradiction of measuring individual performance in a team sport.

Firstly, at the elite level, there’s sponsorships and money on the line. Racers can use analysis like this to help support their future endeavors because they can provide data-driven quantification to companies that they are worthy of sponsorship and funding. These folks go out there and sweat and bleed to win and produce results and companies love backing winners. We’re a long ways past the good ol’ days of monster cash purses for the winners of expedition races that bring out every elite endurance racer in the world. But if evidence-backed analysis like this supports some of the best current racers getting support, that helps everyone, because it gets more companies interested in the sport and more racers vying for that sponsorship.

Secondly, quantification and measurement is a mark of professionalism. It allows us to provide to outsiders the kind of measurements they are accustomed to in other sports that we compete against, like Xterra, OCR, triathlons, etc.

Thirdly, for newcomers to the sport, this kind of data helps them more readily digest the sport. Instead of seeing or hearing folks talk about which teams “look strong”, they can have an accessible measurement so they can quickly learn who in the sport are the best. Typically, it wasn’t until an adventure racer attended a couple ARWS events that they learned who was who and could really participate in conversations about top performers. Now, some mediocre schlub of a racer such as myself can better size up a team and know what the competitive field of an ARWS race looks like.

PlaceTeam MemberTotal Points# of RacesPower Ranking
{{Place}}{{Team Member}}{{Total Points}}{{# of Races}}{{Power Ranking}}

Takeaways for all races

From a macro perspective, I hope this article examining who the best adventure racer in the world gets everyone more interested in measuring and analyzing adventure racing in order to discover valuable insights for themselves and their own local adventure racing community. Every adventure race organization and racer can benefit from this sort of analysis.

Imagine you put on 2 or 3 adventure races each year, as is the average amount for an AR organization in North America. You probably know who your most frequent racers are. But have you ever taken the time to actually calculate their attendance?  Because that way you can find the tipping point for someone going from casual racer to hardcore adventure racer.

Have you engaged those racers as your race ambassadors?

Can you get them to help you advertise?

Can you sell season passes to them for your races at the start of the season in order to secure capital so you can pay for additional race expenses in order to improve your races and improve free cash flow?

Can you find out what the demographics of your racers are in order to maximize targeting the correct population for your facebook ads? Is it an 80/20 split between men and women? Or a 40/60? Does it vary dependant on the time of year of the race or the distance?

All these things are possible if you start to record and analyze your race results and start to generate basic business intelligence. It’s not just about seeing who’s at the top of the sport (though it’s super cool and I’m going to keep doing it if everyone likes it). It’s about helping professionalize the sport in order to grow. And even if you don’t agree with all the other stuff in this article, I’m pretty sure you agree with that.

Parting thoughts:

Want to see how you or your friends ranked? Here’s a shareable spreadsheet with all my work. Feel free to spread it around!

Be sure to signup for AdventureRaceHub’s newsletter at the top of the website and like our Facebook page in order to get more content like this!

I look forward to the next “dot watching” party that happens on AttackPoint. I’m hoping this data helps shape predictions of which teams will be the best.

I hope some day, we can build a scoring system like this, regardless of race affiliation, for all of North America.

 

See you out on the trails!

Better Adventure Racing, Part 4 – High Intensity Intervals

Remember how everybody went totally nuts for Sriracha for a while? And then we went nuts for everything with bacon on it? Or the whole artisan donuts phase? I freaking love Sriracha and bacon and donuts. But we humans have the tendency to take great things and overdo it, ending up ruining the thing we once loved by overdosing on it. We forget that Sriracha, bacon, and donuts are great because they are so uniquely satisfying and by using them too much, they lose their uniqueness. Observe some monstrosities born of our hubris:

bacon-toothpastediet-coke-flavored-with-bacon1523119-980x

To quote Dr. Ian Malcom from the movie Jurassic Park, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Just where on earth am I going with this? I’m reminding all of us of the dangers of going too far with something we love because that’s exactly what we’ve done with the trend of High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT).

HIIT came onto the scene with the rise of Crossfit. While Crossfit popularized their “metcons”, which were intense circuits of weight training, gymnastics, and conditioning, and one of their most popular workouts was “Tabata Something Else”. Named after Dr. Tabata, the Japanese research scientist who invented the precise training method used in the workout, Tabata Something Else was the application of the Tabata Method through a couple bodyweight exercises. The Tabata Method is 20 seconds of an exercise at the highest possible intensity, followed by 10 seconds of rest, and then repeated 5-7 more times. The Tabata Method spread like wildfire, with strength coaches throwing Tabata Method programming into everything. I remember one particularly gruesome workout was the Tabata Method with barbell front squats. The experience was…devastating. The Tabata workouts weren’t just impressive in their brutality, they were also impressive in their ability to elicit improvement. The Tabata Method was hailed as the cure-all for just about everything an athlete might want. Need to shed those stubborn last 5 lbs? Tabata kettlebell swings! Need to improve your top-end speed? Tabata sprints! Hate yourself and want to die? Tabata burpees! The Tabata Method was supposed to be the end game, no new discoveries in sports science needed. And then we went overboard. Tabata for everything, all the time. And we broke ourselves.

HIIT carries with it a heavy price tag. The Tabata method calls for every round of 20 seconds to be conducted at maximal effort. That means “pedal-to-the-floor, turn it up to 11” type of exertion. The kind of output that human beings simply cannot reproduce. And as readers know from my previous articles, that requires writing a very big check with the hopes that your body can cash it. If you do HIIT frequently, you won’t be able to pay up. HIIT is extremely taxing on the body’s musculature and energy systems. We simply aren’t designed to go at 100 mph day after day. We’re endurance athletes by nature, which means our bodies are built for cruise control. Even the best anaerobic athletes spend only a limited amount of their training efforts in the max anaerobic zone because they know that a little goes a long way and a lot takes you out of the game. Exhausted muscles are more easily injured, take longer to recover, and spike your body’s hormonal response. These are in direct opposition to what we need to do as adventure racers. We need to train frequently at low intensity, pushing ourselves only moderately so that workouts are 1-4% more challenging than the last time. HIIT workouts demand a lot of us, and to make gains through HIIT workouts, you have to spend a LOT of time recovering, which is time spent NOT training.

To keep with our analogy of bacon, Sriracha, and donuts (is anyone else starting to drool?), HIIT can get addictive. There’s a powerful rush of endorphins released after a strenuous workout, that great feeling you get when you’re dripping with sweat and can barely catch your breath, but man, you feel so ALIVE. That rush is so sweet because all your senses are screaming at you, telling you that you just accomplished something significant. Contrast that to yet another long, slow run at your MAF threshold, and HIIT starts to look like not just a cure-all for your physical efforts, but a cure-all for the mind too.

Now, you may think at this point that I’m totally opposed to HIIT. Not at all, I think there are a number of great benefits that HIIT brings to a well thought out AR training program.

  1. It trains your body to have gears. Plodding along at the same speed week in and week out can be detrimental and is one of the pitfalls found in the base endurance training if you aren’t diligent and tracking your progress. But if a set of high-intensity hill sprints are mixed into the program every now and then, you not only break the monotony, you also shock your body a bit and prevent it from settling on a single, default speed. Forcing yourself to run as fast a possible for 10-20 seconds up a hill sends a very powerful signal to the cardiovascular and muscular systems that they can’t get complacent and it teaches them how to rapidly recruit additional motor units when necessary. Sometimes during a race, you’ll find yourself in need of a quick, hard push, whether is the final sprint to the finish line, a neck-and-neck race to a CP or you’re pushing 2 bikes up a hill because your teammate is about to collapse. HIIT serves as a useful method to prepare for those “known unknowns” that always appear in adventure racing.
  2. The psychological benefit of “maxing out”. HIIT exposes you to the pain cave, no doubt about it. Normally, that’s something you want to avoid, but as any seasoned adventure racer will tell you, the pain cave is where you’ll end up sooner or later. It’s best to know what you’re capable of doing so that when it comes time to give everything thing you got, your body and mind aren’t screaming in rebellion. HIIT helps you find out what you’re made of in a short period of time. A workout that consists of 100 burpees for time is a quick way to measure your grit.
  3. Great physiological benefits. HIIT, when properly conducted, can trigger a number of excellent physiological responses from the body. HIIT workouts are great fat burners, as the high intensity of the exercise sends signals to your body to burn tons of calories as you’re 100% in fight or flight mode. It sends a cascading set of signals to the thyroid and other hormone-producing organs, raising testosterone and dopamine. To be frank, it’s a GREAT workout.
  4. It’s short. When you have only 20 minutes to spare, you can spend 10 minutes warming up to make sure you’re limber, your muscles are warmed up and your heart rate is elevated, then launch into a 5-10 minute HIIT workout that will clean your clock. And then boom, you’re done. Training effect achieved, wrap it up and hit the showers.

So at this point, you’re probably totally confused as to whether or not HIIT belongs in your adventure racing training program. I’m here to emphatically say that it does belong. For the reasons listed above, a nice sprinkling of HIIT workouts across your program will accelerate growth and provide much-needed variety. The trick is making the inclusion of HIIT actually benefit your overall training goals. Here’s how I do it:

  1. Respect HIIT: If a HIIT workout is in your program, treat it with the respect it deserves. You don’t just make it up what you’re going to
    effective HIIT demands you crank it up to 11

    do the morning of. You don’t place it the day after a strenuous resistance or endurance workout. Recognize the amount of stress you’re going to introduce on your body and make sure you’re prepared for the task.

  2. Do it Right: A correctly executed HIIT workout should provide a massive stimulus to the body to grow, so long as it’s done correctly. That means you go into the workout ready (fully warmed up, not nursing any lingering injuries). You make sure the workout is going to actually benefit your training goals. Hill sprints are always great. Assault Bike for 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off. Ski or Rowing erg Tabata. Kettlebell circuits. 10 minutes of sandbag getups. These are examples of HIIT workouts that directly support making you a better adventure racer. 30 barbell power snatches for time does not, unless you’ve got evidence that your local RD is planning some REALLY weird mystery events at the next race. Phil Maffetone, endurance coach and exercise physiologist extraordinaire, states that high-intensity efforts don’t give any benefit once they exceed 90% off max heart rate. While he may be correct from a purely physiological perspective, I think the added benefit of pushing to 100% comes in the form of the psychological training. Whether to hit 90% or 100%, the point is you need to hit the red line, and then immediately back off.
  3. Do it Hard: A real HIIT workout turns it up to 11. If you go out to do 6 hill sprints and only turn it up to 7, you not only failed to achieve the maximal training effect you could have, you actually hurt your overall effort by just mucking about in the gray zone of mildly anaerobic. Always remember – Minimum Effective Dose. Just because you’re going hard as you can don’t mean that you keep going until you throw up or pass out. That doesn’t train you for anything and just teaches your body to shut down. HIIT workouts are brutal, which means by their nature, they HAVE to be short. If you’re on your 10th hill sprint, there’s absolutely no way you did the last 9 sprints as hard as you should have.
  4. Recover: The day after a HIIT workout should be a total rest/recovery day. And no, not a “recovery day” where you go out on a 10-mile “recovery run”. A recovery like restorative yoga (the nice and easy stuff), a leisurely walk with the dogs and kids, or lazy swim. If you truly turned it up to 11, you’ll want this day to be off. If you’re itching to train the day after a HIIT day, you didn’t achieve the training effect you should have.

We need to bring HIIT back to correct balance in our programs. What does this look like? For the first 5 months of the AR season (generally October through February), there’s no reason for HIIT. Your focus is 1) Base Endurance and 2) Maximal Strength. Once you make the transition to relative strength training around February, you can start to sprinkle in some HIIT. This takes the form of some hill sprints or similar workout every other week. Make certain you re-position your other training efforts around the HIIT day. The preceding day should be an easy day, usually in the form of a base endurance, “slow ‘n steady” workout, and the day afterward should be total rest. Make absolutely sure you aren’t doing anything hard the day before a HIIT workout or you’ll never reach the intensity of the training you want, and be sure to rest the day afterward so you actual absorb all the training you just went through. Don’t do a HIIT workout the week of a race either, it’s too draining.

Like Sriracha, artisan donuts, and bacon, HIIT is a wonderful enhancer to an already well-rounded endurance training protocol. Just don’t go overboard, programming in HIIT because you can’t think of anything else or have gotten addicted to the rush it provides. Remember the pitfalls of too much of a good thing. We don’t want HIIT to be like Sriracha lip balm or bacon-flavored Diet Coke.

just sprinkle a dash of HIIT into your training program and it’ll be wonderful

 

What is Adventure Race Hub?

A question I’ve got asked quite a few times since I started this site is “just what IS adventureracehub.com?” It’s a valid question, as the site is a constant work in progress and as such, doesn’t really have a solid answer. The closest I’ve gotten is it’s a site for the adventure racing community writ large. Racers, race directors, fans, amateurs, professionals, volunteers, you name it. Just about every website out there that is AR-related is tied to an event or series. From major sites like USARA, ARWS, and NAARS focus on promoting the events that occur within their series and providing updated rankings. Social sites like Attackpoint.org and the various AR groups on Facebook make for useful forums where a free exchange of ideas can happen. These are our meeting halls, best for telling stories and swapping advice, not for organizing efforts. There are a few new-focused sites like Explore!Compete!Live! and Sleepmonsters, but those are more for alerting people to what’s interesting. All these sites are great and provide useful inputs to the sport. ARHub is a little different. We’re a site dedicated to making AR better however we can. To use a little Silicon Valley vernacular, ARHub is a “growth accelerator” for our sport, with the intention of touching as many points along the spectrum of adventure racing that we can in order to help pour a little fuel on the fire. If we can help, we plan to do it. Obviously, as a website, we’re a bit constrained to the realm of the digital. There’s no intention of an ARHub race or ARHub racing team. I’ll leave that to the veterans. Instead, I’m trying to leverage my own skills and use the vantage point that I have, one of a relatively unknown amateur with no strong ties to the “golden age of AR”, to help spot the omissions in our industry and add whatever support I can. And because we’re all visual learners, here’s a pretty picture to make sense of all of that! I call it “ARHub’s Virtuous Cycle“, modeled shamelessly off the famous Amazon Virtuous Cycle.

Let me break it down a bit. As I see it, there are 4 major points along the cycle of growing the sport of adventure racing:

  1. Adventure racers, both serious and amateur, want to find races. These races need to be easy to find, accurate, and painless for the racer to access
  2. Racers who easily find races that interest them are keener to attend those races, thus increasing attendance
  3. Increased attendance at races lets race directors make more money, helping relieve the financial burden of conducting races, and hopefully, incentivizes the race directors to invest in the sport, adding more races to their calendar and improving the quality of existing races.
  4. The increased quality and quantity of races encourage adventure racers to stay in the sport and recruit others to share in their great experience. The racers are naturally going to be on the look out for their next race, bringing us back to #1.

Undoubtedly, there’s a lot more to it than just this. This is the ideal state, ignoring the 101 problems that can arise to defeat this virtuous cycle. But that doesn’t stop us from striving for the ideal state. And to help meet that ideal state, here’s what ARHub tries to do:

  1. In order to help adventure races find their next race, we maintain the most comprehensive and accurate database of adventure races in North America. Never again should an adventure racer have to sort through the 6th page of google results, trying to find out if the race that happened 4 years ago in their nearby city is going to happen again. We’ve got a one-stop shop to find any adventure race.
  2. To help the race directors who are trying to attract racers, we put out a series of articles called “Growth Strategies“, where some of the most successful race directors offer up their tips and tactics to help raise awareness of their races. This helps spread best practices and eliminate “silos of excellence” so every race director isn’t getting pulled in 100 directions, trying to learn the minutiae of marketing, sales, etc.
  3. To help inspire and continue to spread best practices, interviews with race directors who are doing something special worth broadcasting are conducted. Hopefully reading about someone from across the nation who many of us will likely never met will help light a fire of imagination across the sport to help grow it.
  4. To help all members of our community better understand how the sport is doing and spot trends that can be capitalized on, an industry-wide analysis is conducted using data collected from our site. In a sport that’s 80% amateur and without a governing body, this analysis helps inform everyone what adventure racing looks like.
  5. Finally, to the individual racer, a way to make themselves better. Speaking from my own personal experience, I’m tired of just completing races, I want to compete at them. I want on the top of the podium. And why other readers may not share that same level of desire, the fact is, that if the sport is to grow, poor racers need to become good racers and good racers need to become great ones. The Better Adventure Racing series of posts is about my own struggles to become better, while also laying out a template and path for anyone to become better through diligent and intelligent training. The better a racer is, the more likely they stick in the sport and recruit others, so it’s an everyone’s interest to help coach and train racers, ARHub included.

That’s the model, for today at least. I fully expect it to morph, change, and evolve as our community does.