Monday, November 2, 2009

Atypical Adventure Racing Challenges and their Promotional Effect

Typical adventure races consist of trekking, cycling, paddling and rope courses though other disciplines frequently are incorporated. Often race directors include unusual challenges and many adventure racing advocates are of the impression that they will attract new racers to our perpetually struggling sport. Though these inclusions can in fact do adventure racing well by creating excitement, it's unfortunate that many ideas don't do justice to our sport and can subsequently damage the race and future attendance at said race. The atypical challenges that I'm referring to are those that don't necessarily directly reward speed, conditioning or adventurous skill. The popularity of the reality television shows Survivor and The Amazing Race do indeed compel a race director to consider some of their challenges or similar challenges for their race(s.) However, it's important for the race director to realize that Survivor replaced Eco-Challenge for Mark Burnett because it was significantly more popular with viewers. While fans of Survivor and The Amazing Race may try an adventure race, we want to attract those who were interested in Eco-Challenge, even though the former outnumber the latter a hundred-thousand-fold.

Consider first that adventure racing is a horrible spectator sport; that is, there aren't any spectators. Further, participants rarely, if ever, know what they will be doing at a particular adventure race. Thus, unless there is significant media coverage of the race, no one is going to hear / know about these quirky challenges unless one of the participants informs them. When hearing the tale of an adventure race, if the most attractive portion of the recap is this quirky challenge, then the person considering adventure racing is likely better suited to make their audition tape for a reality show.

One of the elements of adventure racing that I love is that you never do the same thing twice. Even though ten races might have the same four typical disciplines, each race would be considerably different. However, I do appreciate the unusual. The idea of adventure racing suggests that most of us do appreciate the unusual to some degree. Including some reality show type challenges can work very well at an adventure race if the challenge is delivered properly. In planning an atypical challenge the race director needs to recognize that once the race starts, everything that the racers are required to do will effect their placing. Adventure races are long, some very long and in excess of several days. It's easy to forget that every second counts! Still, even a fraction of a second is all it takes to decide a winner. If an unusual challenge is going to be implemented into a race then it's paramount that the challenge doesn't contradict the nature of a race.

Natural Selection Adventure Racing host an 8 hour race, Who's Your Daddy, every year in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. One of the most heralded parts of the race is a tire pull. Racers are required to drag a large tire for 1000 m, and in addition to the race winners, perhaps the equally coveted titles of 'Daddy' / 'Mommy' are awarded to the male / female with the fastest tire pull time.

The first two people in the video are myself and my teammate for the race Kelly Murray. Neither of us were that fast at the tire pull, but we did finish second overall!

What makes the tire pull acceptable is that the fastest and strongest racers are rewarded; it's a challenge that's very much within the image of a race. What makes the tire pull a success is that it has a huge macho factor. People train to be the 'Daddy' / 'Mommy' and they talk smack about who is going to succeed! People make a specific effort to attend the race in order to be the 'Daddy' / 'Mommy.' It's a challenge that generates enthusiasm and is a fine example of an atypical challenge that will do adventure racing well with respect to increasing our numbers.

An example of a poor challenge would be if racers were required to complete a Rubix's Cube. This type of challenge does not reward the fastest, strongest, fittest or the most adventurously skilled. Though there may be some reward for logic or general knowledge, it's not a direct correlation to who would presumably be the best adventure racer. A Rubix's Cube challenge might generate some laughs from the more light hearted participants, but the likelihood of it frustrating a veteran adventure racer is more probable. When you've discouraged a regular adventure racer, said racer is less likely to attend / hype the event or other events from the race director, thus the sport may suffer from the poor choice of a challenge.

Creativity does have it's place in adventure racing, but not at the cost of the race.


  1. Good points Andrew, I would agree with them all.

    I am especially pleased to hear your opinion of our Tire Pull event in our "Who's Your Daddy" race. It was our intention to have something a bit different to offer our racers. We choose a distance (1000 meters) that wouldn't be so long that it would greatly impact a teams overall position in the race, but it is long enough to offer a challenge to participants.

    The most important question your article raises is....."How do we grow our numbers?"

    I guess that all we can truly do is put on good solid events and continue to promote them the best we can....and of course BEG racers to bring a friend to the next one.

    It is as important for racers to promote the sport and events as it is for race directors, we can't do it on our own.

  2. "How do we grow our numbers?" I'll probably blog about that, but I'm afraid I don't have any definitive position!

  3. More praise for the tire pull would be that it is especially appealing to the Fredericton market on account of the local's large number of people who do CrossFit.

  4. Hi Andrew,
    I think that I'd be in the niche that you want to expand into. I'm just a guy who likes being in the woods, orienteering, running, biking and swimming. Storm the beach was my first adventure race and it was fun. It wasn't abnormally hard to do.

    The bad news is that I don't know where you'd reach more people like me. Maybe promote through Orienteering NS, triathlong clubs, mountain biking clubs, hunting clubs (is there such a thing as a hunting club?) I'm sure these are not new suggestions though.

    If you were going to add an oddity event like the Rubiks Cube, I think you'd have to advertise that early on so that competitive teams can recruit people or train to do the event.

    These are a few of my thoughts about race promotion while I should be working. :)

    PS - I'd kick ass in a Rubiks Cube competition

  5. Hey Andrew,

    I completely agree with you about adding what I would consider "trivial" events to an adventure race, that is, those things that do not directly reward the strongest or fastest teams.

    One thing that has been appearing more often lately in multi-day races, particularly in the US (Untamed New England is a great example) is a "conservation project" leg of the race in which the race organizer teams up with a local group to help them with a conservation project. This makes for a fantastic relationship in which the local organization gets tons of man/woman power to complete a task, and we, as adventure racers, get to give something back to the community and wilderness that we are racing in.

    Four examples of "conservation projects" in which I've participated in races involved:

    1. each team had to stack 400 pieces of fire wood that were dumped in a huge wood pile at the chalet for the local conservation group who maintained many of the trails we were mountain biking on. This was their wood supply for the entire winter and would have taken their small membership weeks to do. We did it in a few hours.

    2. Each team member had to carry 2 plastic garbage bags with them during the race and on the conservation leg we had to fill the bags with wood chips from a big pile and carry them down the trail and dump them out to continue building a new trail around a pond at a local camp for children with disabilities.

    3. The local trail building association had recently cut down a lot of tree branches along a stretch of trail that they were improving. Each team had to move all of the downed brush off the trail and into the forest where it could decompose naturally. We each had a 100 metre section that was flagged. This was the final step in improving the trail for the local riders, hikers, and skiers.

    4. When we arrived at another conservation project (in the middle of the night), our team was issued one hand saw and one pair or pruning scissors (for a team of 4) and we had to clear all of the smaller trees and bushes from a section of dense bush along a waterfront trail, leaving only the larger trees and a more open and safe pathway for the locals. Some volunteers from the group we were helping out made us burgers and hotdogs as a thank you... It made for a great 2:00am snack!

    My point in all of this is that I think these race organizers have found a great way to connect the race to the communities in which we race, add an interesting new twist to the race, and maybe generate a little more interest among the locals, who see us helping to improve their community and often stop by to ask us what the heck we are doing! I think this is also a great way to connect with the local outdoor community and potentially peak the interest of a few people for adventure racing in the future. I can say for certain that we always come away feeling better about helping out the local community and it's always exciting to go into the race not knowing exactly what you'll be doing in that section. But we always know that it will be physical in nature, where speed, strength and team work will make the difference, and we know the work will be appreciated. It's a small task for each one of us as racers, but it makes a huge difference for these local volunteers who dedicate so much of their time to creating and maintaining the trails we use.

    This may be something to consider for your future races, as it seems to have been a win-win situation in all 4 races that I've done with a conservation project in them.



  6. Hey James,

    Nice to hear from you! May I ask where you caught my blog?

    I did Untamed NE in '09 and I was definitely intrigued by the conservation project. So much so that we partnered with a Wildlife Refuge a few weeks ago at "Storm the Beach" and I had my racers build a gravel path.

    You highlighted all of the good points, which I agree with, but there is potential for trouble. For example, at Untamed NE this year I felt we got a raw deal in that our plot was much thicker than other team's. We spent 90 minutes there while other teams were out in 30. It seemed as though some plots were significantly smaller than others as well. It wasn't much of a factor in such a long race, so we didn't worry about it.

    But while this wasn't really a problem in a 70 hr race, in shorter races I think race directors will need to take extra measures to keep things even. At our race for example, it was only 16 hours long, a few minutes could mean the difference for some teams! Thus we had teams lay down gravel to within an inch of a pre-determined length, width and depth. While it's possible expedition races could be settled by a few minutes, it's much more likely in a shorter race under 24 hours.

  7. I enjoy a bit of novelty or a good conservation project, but I wouldn't like to see those determine race outcomes. A huge part of the fun of AR is in learning, training, and improving, and I'd find a race less attractive if random factors teams can't prepare for were prominent. With that said, I think a novel challenge can probably make a race more interesting and memorable for newcomers, who haven't discovered yet what they need to do to improve at AR and therefore aren't getting as much of that sort of enjoyment in racing. In short, I basically think you're right on this one.