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.

Place Team Member Total Points # of Races Power 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!

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