How Do You Grow A Sport That Is Supposed To Be A Secret?

It’s long been a tradition in adventure racing that the race course remains secret until the maps are handed out shortly before the start (1 hour prior to start, the night before, etc.) RDs generally try their best to keep all but the broadest concept of where the race takes place under wraps. This tradition is kept because it’s seen as a critical component in keeping the “adventure” in adventure racing. By not letting racers know where they will be going, the playing field is leveled as much as possible and RDs are better able to give their racers the experience of “newness” that so many crave.

I even struggle to get some RDs to indicate where their race’s starting cities are so we can put them on ARHub’s calendar, they’re so worried about giving away intel on their race!

 Veteran adventure racers LOVE newness. They love seeing new locations, racing on trails and over mountains they’ve never seen before. We’re always jonesing for that sweet, sweet fix of novelty. If we know the grounds we race on, then where’s the adventure, right?

Well, the veterans at least. But if you’re relatively new to the sport, just about every race location is new, even if it’s your local stomping grounds, due to the nature of the sport of AR.

The problem I’m starting to see is maybe this need to keep race locations under wraps isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. We recently learned that a shocking 71% of adventure racers don’t come back after their first race. While there are a ton of variables that influence if someone comes back to race a second time, one common refrain is the discomfort new racers feel when coming to a park they aren’t familiar with, given a map (which they may not be prepared to read and understand), expected to navigate (also may not know what they are doing) to places they don’t know, all the while possibly crashing through the woods instead of staying on designated trails.

the face you make when you find out 71% of adventure racers only do 1 race then don’t return

I think sometimes we lose track of just how crazy this sounds to most people.

The other 99% of endurance athletes do not go crashing off trail through the woods in places they’ve just come to for the first time. Whether you’re a triathlete, an obstacle course racer, a trail runner, mountain biker, ski-mo’er, or whatever, your sport has conditioned you to follow the dotted line from point to point.  Often times, you’ve trained or scouted the course you’re racing on.

I know that sounds like a form of torture to many adventure racers (myself included), but let’s also acknowledge that this difference in mindset is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, obstacle for people to do adventure races. People like knowing where to go. They like familiarity with where they are. That stability allows them to better focus on the event they are doing.

Bonkers, right? Who doesn’t enjoy getting hopelessly lost deep in the woods of some forest they have never been to before??

I call that a regular Saturday.

A portion of that 71% of 1-and-done adventure racers cites this discomfort with the unknown as to why they haven’t adventure raced again:

“I just felt so confused, and saw these other people running around knowing precisely what they were doing and I felt like ‘what do they know that I don’t?'” – Jessica S.

How do we tackle the issue that so many of our new or inexperienced racers just aren’t comfortable with facing so many unknowns when racing?

At the recent Race Director Summit hosted by Adventure Enablers, this issue came up multiple times.

If our new customers are leaving their first race feeling like they didn’t know what was going on, then we’ve failed to provide them a quality experience and we won’t see them again.

So what to do?

What’s the line between remaining true to the spirit of AR vs. ensuring every racer has a positive experience?

Mark the whole course with a recommended route and put arrows on the ground? Ridiculous, then we’re just an off-road triathlon.

Well, actually, if it’s a beginner friendly 1-to-3 hour race, that doesn’t seem entirely absurd. You certainly aren’t going to offend me that you’re making your short races more accessible, and I doubt many veterans will mind either (in part because they aren’t coming out for a 1-to-3 hour race!)

Remember that we saw the large majority of 1-and-done racers clustered around short length races, so it makes total sense that RDs break some of the “AR norms” to make their short races better for newcomers and less concerned with pleasing the AR Illuminati.

Give map-and-compass clinics prior to the race in order to teach navigations skills and make racers more confident? Great idea, works sometimes, attendance can be iffy. It’s definitely a good long-term investment on developing future serious adventure racers. But for those who can’t make it to the clinic?

With 71% of racers not coming back after their first race and another 15% only doing 2 races, we HAVE to do a better job of listening a little less to the best customers and more to the rest of the race crowd.

And I fully recognize this article will only be read by those who are in the AR Illuminati, so this is a plea to those of us who care about the sport growing, even if it comes as at a personal cost of some races being a little less ‘adventurey’.

Golden Handcuffs

Let’s take a minute to discuss the biases impacting the veteran AR community. Another term that surfaced at the RD summit was “golden handcuffs”. Golden handcuffs typically refer to benefits that cause an employee to not make changes to their employment status. In AR, golden handcuffs can happen when a small core of racers make up the large chunk of an RD’s revenue, impacting the when and where of an RD’s schedule as they try to serve their best customers.

In the race retention study, we saw one race organization get 70% of their 2017 revenue from 30% of their racers. While this is great to know who your best customers are, it can be a slippery slope to forgetting about everyone else.

It can be tough in our small community, as many of an RD’s best customers are his/her friends and possible race buddies. It’s entirely too easy to build an unintentional echo chamber, where Jim, your long-time fellow adventure racer, can make an off-hand comment about “racing at that park again” and have significantly more influence than the many less experienced racers.

Are we really that adventurous?

I also think those of us who are dedicated adventure racers may not be quite as open to the unknown as we claim. Many of us say we’re okay with not knowing the venue, but we’re not okay with other things. There are unwritten rules that RDs must comply with to be in good standing with the AR elite. A CP who’s description is a little off or that’s plotted on the map a little wrong? Forget about it, get ready for some of your veterans racers to lose their shit.

Heck, at the recent World Championship in Wyoming, Seagate, the defending world champs and undeniable best racing team in the sport, went off about a CP that was supposedly plotted on their maps incorrect (it wasn’t, they just hadn’t slept in 3 days…) In their minds (and an opinion shared by many veteran racers), a map error, even if it’s an imagined error, is an absolutely unallowable travesty. But not knowing where the race may even take place until an hour prior to your start? Well, that’s perfectly normal.

Even our most experienced veterans still want a little bit of firm ground to stand on. This is a fundamental part of being human. Adaptability and comfort with the unknown have their limits, even in the hardcore AR crowd.

Even adventure racers like FKT, setting PRs, and just testing themselves against the same set of variables. Just not as often as trail runners or OCR athletes. But we still like it.

One of my favorite races is Bend Racing’s 8 hour Spring Sting. Why? Because the venue, Smith Rock State Park, is an awesome place to race at. I look forward to returning each year to not only test myself against the same landscape but to see what kind of craziness the RDs have cooked up. This is decidedly anti-AR, because each time I race there, it’s a little less of an adventure, as the park can only be so big.

But you know what? I still love it.

your author, thoroughly enjoying his 3rd appearance at the Spring Sting. Still pretty adventurous to me! PC Dirty Little Runner

I like the tradition that I’m establishing.

I like racing against the same folks, joking around at the starting line about what horrors the RDs have in store for us.

I like testing myself against the same mountains, to see if I’m better than last year.

Does this make me some off-road triathlete instead of an adventure race? Perhaps. But I don’t care because there’s plenty of other races in my season that are in new locations, so I’m still getting my novelty fix. The RDs are able to keep the race fresh, eliciting positive responses from even the local racers, who say things like “I didn’t even know there were trails back there!”

As for the Spring Sting race, well, it’s been featured in magazines, has a large crowd each year, and is an extremely well-executed event. So who’s losing out here, besides a few cantankerous veteran racers so claim it isn’t a “real” AR.

Okay, fine, you win. It’s not a real AR. So go set up your own race organization and start putting on races that are “real”.

No? Ah, didn’t think so.

Hold up, aren’t you the clown who said adventure racing was an elite sport??? Now you’re arguing for easier beginner races?

Why yes, I’m am that clown, so kind of you to remember.

I stand by my previous opinion piece, where I stated that AR was an elite sport due to its high barriers to entry. I see no conflict between wanting to make beginner adventure racing easier and the sport being elite by its very nature.

We’re not changing the nature of the sport by keeping beginner races in the same location for a few years in a row. We’re trying to build a stable launching platform for people to dip their toes into the sport, build confidence in their abilities, then join the more advanced races out there.

No sport is immune to necessities of building a marketing and sales funnel, and our beginner races must serve as the entry point for educating the new blood for the sport.

All these people still need to overcome a large number of hurdles to join the sport, and even getting folks out to a beginner AR is far more difficult than getting people out to a MTB or trail race.

This makes it all the more critical to improving that horrible 71% retention rate.

Elite doesn’t mean elitest. In my previous article, I argued that it meant a rare state of mind that embraces the extreme ambiguity that is the basis for all of AR. Oh, and having lots of gear, disposable time and money, and a moderate amount of sadism.

Some folks agreed, many didn’t. The word “elite” is tainted in many people’s minds, but I’ve yet to find a better description. It still takes someone awfully special to do an AR, when there are so many simpler, easier, and safer opportunities out there. I call that elite.

So yes, I consider beginner adventure racers elite athletes, even if the norms of the race may not be fully in line with most advanced adventure races.

So what are you proposing?

I say it’s time that RDs embrace a modest amount of transparency and stability for their beginner races.

A smidge.

Turn your beginner-friendly races into a race that builds a tradition, rather than jumping from venue to venue, weekend to weekend each year.

By locking down the same location and same weekend each year, you can reinvest the time and money saved not having to scout new places by building an even better experience for your races. Because THAT is what gets 1st-time racers to come back a 2nd time. Pay for a drone videographer. Buy one of those blowup finish line arches. Get a sweet logo made and printed on quality tech t-shirts that people proudly collect each year. Invest in the experience of the race.

photo from the 2016 MOMAR. This is just the long course heat of racers! PC Bryan Tanaka

Case in point: The Mind Over Mountain Adventure Race (MOMAR). The MOMAR runs once a year in late September. Same location every year and is now in its 35th (HOLY COW) iteration. It’s not just a race, it’s a full weekend experience. When I raced there, I was floored by the massive crowd, the giant after party with a rock band that went until 2 AM and listening to the RD award 2nd generation racers their medals. Seriously – kids who grew up watching their parents do the race were now winning their own medals in competitive categories.

The MOMAR sells out to 700 racers nearly 9 months prior to the actual race.

Is it particularly adventurous? No, there’s only so much the RD can do with a course that lasts 6 hours and takes place at the same location each year. But do the 700 racers care? Clearly not.

I urge all RDs to take a good look at how the MOMAR is doing stuff and see what they can apply to their own learnings. Read the in-depth interview I did with Bryan Tanaka, MOMAR’s RD, to learn more.

And yes, his logo is great and each year has a collectible t-shirt.

Nobody is saying to abandon making races at new and exciting venues. That would be heresy.

But this “all-or-nothing” mindset being carried by some has to go. It’s 2018, not 1998. Eco-Challenge is a distant memory, GPS is prevalent, and like Bob Dylan said, “the times, they are a changin’.”

So change. Or fade away.

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