I had the pleasure to chat with Kyle Bondo from the Merchants of Dirt podcast. Kyle is a “reckoneer”, a word he’s created that is short for “recreational engineer”, meaning he’s a creator of high-quality recreational events. Besides being awesome at naming things (Merchants of Dirt? Reckoneer? I wish I had half this much creativity!) Kyle has been pumping out A+ content on his blog and podcast. If you haven’t had a chance to read his articles or listen to his podcast, stop reading this and go to his site, because he is providing incredible insight and transparency into all aspects of transforming run o’ the mill outdoor races into runaway successes. Seriously. Stop reading this. Why are you still reading this? Go to his site. Go.
Oh good, you came back. I was worried there for a moment. Since you checked out Kyle’s site, you know what he’s up to – providing his audience all the tools, tactics, and procedures possible to make their race a success. While Kyle covers pretty much all sports that have races out in the woods, he’s definitely a fan of adventure racing and discusses it quite a bit. Kyle and I had a great conversation about where AR is headed, what the sport is succeeding at and where it’s failing, and what all passionate adventure racers need to do to help growth the sport. I really enjoyed speaking with him, he’s got great insight coming from the “heartland” of AR in the mid-Atlantic and tells it like it is, calling out the sport’s shortfalls. He lays the smack down on those of us still refusing to change our methods and manners. Let’s listen to what he has to say!
ARHub: So Kyle, every good hero needs an origin story. What has driven you to create Reckoneer and Merchants of Dirt?
Kyle: I’ve always been a fan of solving other people’s problems, I like event planning, and always been a fan of outdoor sports. Mountain biking is the sport I’m most passionate about, but I love orienteering and adventure racing too. Reckoneer was the combing of these hobbies into something that would provide a platform to help as many other race directors as possible.
ARHub: Let’s talk about adventure racing. You’ve voiced strong opinions about the sport, both in terms of how races are being put on as well as how the sport isn’t growing like it should be. What is AR as a sport doing right and what is it doing wrong?
Kyle: Here’s what I see AR is doing that’s right: Race organizations are adapting to the new marketing forces like social media, smarter and friendlier websites, and general marketing savviness. There are some races that have definitely figured out how to be media savvy (read about the Mind Over Mountain race, who’s knocking it out of the park when it comes to media) and are building easily digestible media products that are great promotional content, making their marketing efforts far more effective. On top of that, there are races that are making the right moves to tap into the obstacle course racing (OCR) marketing, recognizing there is always a subset of people who always need their next big thrill and want to be challenged (read about a successful marketing effort to pull in OCR athletes). And then some race directors are seeing how critical it is to lower the barrier to entry for new racers, and redesigning courses that make adoption of the basics of AR (multi-sport, navigation) as easy as possible so not to dissuade beginners.
Now, unfortunately, there’s a fair bit that AR is doing wrong. A lot of us are stuck in the past.
ARHub: Like how all us answer the question “how did you find out about AR?” with the same answer of “so I saw this show Eco-Challenge back in 1999…”
Kyle: Ha! Exactly! That was 2 decades ago! 2 decades! Mark Burnett has moved on, so the sport needs to let go of that too.
ARHub: I get it. I hate that I’m as guilty as the next guy because that’s my answer too. Eco Challenge has left such a massive imprint on the DNA of AR that it’s proving to be a blessing and a curse. It’s a wicked hangover, going from massive cash prizes, national brand sponsorships, and network television contracts to next to nothing. We’re starting to see rejuvenation at the expert level, as the ARWS championship in Australia had 80+ teams and great media coverage. But because there are so many adventure racers who cite Eco Challenge as their reason for being in the sport, it’s become very hard for us to collectively let go of races that occured more than a decade ago.
Kyle: Exactly. Like I was saying, there’s a fair bit of the sport that’s stuck in the past. And not just with “Eco Challenge nostalgia”. We have no industry standard despite being a sport for nearly 30 years. There are no agreed-upon set of rules for scoring an AR, no certified officials that can judge an AR or handle a dispute, no centralized repository for results collection. AR is a decentralized sport with no headquarters element and no broader validity. Look at AR’s cousins, like cyclocross or OCR. For years, cyclocross was this fringe sport loved by just a few, but eventually, USA Cycling took control and then its growth exploded. Why? Because people could show up to a race and be guaranteed their experience would be a professional one. Because all the races under USA Cycling had to follow a set of standards. AR is this bizarre mix of a few professional races series that make up about 20% of the sport and the other 80% are “mom and pop” style races. And the discrepancy between those two groups are slowing the sport’s ability to mature.
ARHub: Yeah, the median number of races that a race organization puts on is 2. Besides FLX, Michigan AR, and Rev3, there really aren’t any “big” players in the industry. But because the sport is so decentralized, isn’t this sort of consolidation impossible?
And why would we even want to do this anyway? The majority of the sport is amateur, both in terms of racers and race directors. There’s only a handful of people in North America that earn their paycheck primarily from adventure racing. We’re totally dependent on amateurs to run the sport. “Consolidation” is typically a dirty word in most markets, it means things are unhealthy and need to reduce. If anything, we need more races!
Kyle: Not impossible. Very hard, and would take a while, absolutely, but not impossible. The tipping point would be once enough RDs could see the immediate value that would be provided to them by agreeing to follow a set of standards. Look at the OCR world. There are millions and millions of dollars in revenue being made by the big 3 OCR race series – Spartan, Tough Mudder, and Warrior Dash. These guys are in much fiercer competition than any AR race series are. Yet they’re working together to help establish international standards in order to make a bid for obstacle course racing to become an Olympic sport! You can’t become an Olympic sport without a tremendous number of people already doing the sport to begin with. How I wish AR had this problem! So to say that all the race directors in AR can’t come together and build a proper governing body is total bull. It is possible to compete in the same geographic market for racers and simultaneously cooperate to help advance the sport nationally.
Kyle: Oh, there’s more. AR needs more visibility. The expedition ARs have got it figured out, now it’s time for all the shorter races to make their presence known. I get that it’s not possible for every race, but for those that can, the races should make sure to pass through population centers and be aligned with other events. If the local city is having some outdoor festival, or the park the race is held at is near a city, make sure the race takes the racers through somehow. Attract spectators. It can’t work for every race, because sometimes you gotta go pretty remote to get to really good racing terrain, but when you can, show your racers off. AR is horribly unfriendly for spectators. But if you can drop a TA or a CP somewhere that will get folks to want to take pictures, do it. It generates buzz, gets people to ask racers what on earth they’re doing, and makes the racers feel like badasses because they look so hardcore. Especially for the beginner friendly racers, it’s a great way to help make sure your first-time racers have a good time.
ARHub: There’s certainly no denying the effectiveness the OCRs have gotten in their marketing campaigns that show people jumping over fires while wearing Viking helmets, or disabled athletes participating in races, or a bunch of super buff folks covered in mud. It’s cool, it sells.
Kyle: Yeah, for sure. What we can’t let AR become is what has happened to orienteering.
ARHub: I’m not following. How’s that?
Kyle: Basically, orienteering, and its governing body, Orienteering USA, have closed ranks and intentionally stifled innovation and change. Instead of embracing modifications or evolutions to their sport, they’ve drawn a line in the sand and said: “it must be this and nothing else”.
ARHub: Isn’t that kind of the job of a governing body? Set up rules so there’s no debate on what constitutes a “right” race and a “wrong” race?
Kyle: Yes, but it’s not supposed to do it at the cost of innovation. Otherwise, it’s not a governing body that is growing the sport, it’s a governing body that is killing the sport. Here’s a wild idea: Why not allow GPS devices? We’re in the age of the smartphone, where at least 95% of the population can’t plot on a map and have no intention of learning this antiquated skill. And we expect them to learn this new (and somewhat challenging skill) as a minimum to participate in our sport?
On top of all the gear, time, and money required? Don’t get me wrong, I’m talking about beginner races only. But if we’re serious about lowering the barriers to entry, to attracting new racers in a competitive market, then we need to innovate. But when you look at some folks, they are hell bent on not changing their ways because it isn’t proper. The “adventure racing bureaucrats” who insist on standards that no one agreed to because that’s how it was at their race.
ARHub: Ahh, so like when you see someone ranting about a race that isn’t a “real” AR because it’s got rogaine-style navigation?
Kyle: Ha! Totally! Like, who the hell cares? Honestly? What’s a real AR? I don’t know because there certainly isn’t a governing body to tell us!
ARHub: Kyle, I gotta say, this has been phenomenal. I’ve really enjoyed speaking with you, it’s great to talk to someone who’s not afraid to call out their own sport on its failures, and it’s clear you’re a force for good within our community. Keep up the great work, let’s speak again soon.
So there you have it folks, Kyle Bondo, star of the Merchants of Dirt podcast and Reckoneer.com. If you’re not listening and reading his content, you absolutely should be, he is dialed in and pushing out A+ stuff. To recap our conversation, Kyle believes:
- AR needs to convene some sort of governing body to help provide the sport standards and a solid foundation so that it can start to exponentially grow.
- Race Directors need to keep innovating and embracing the demands of the marketplace. Innovate or Die. Well, not really die, but probably not stay in business.
- AR can’t let itself get stuck in the past because “that’s just the way things are”. We’re in danger of being trapped by our own nostalgia of past years, romanticizing about Eco Challenge and Balance Bar and other former races at the cost of not seeing new opportunities right in front of us.