Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Unconsidered Case for the Required Team Format

It seems counterintuitive that a team format requirement could help promote our sport. But those of us who have been playing the game since the beginning, or at least close to it, remember an aspect of team format requirements that might present an old tactic to new race directors that will indeed boost attendance.

It was six years ago in Spring of 2005, and it was a pivotal time for adventure racing in Atlantic Canada. At that time, the two major players in Atlantic Canadian adventure racing had both removed their hat from the scene and there were no scheduled events for that year. Some individuals recognized the problem and set to work organizing grass-roots, unsanctioned and basically free races to help save the community. It worked, that year saw several small scale events that kept the sport alive. Meanwhile, Nova Scotia was witnessing the birth of two companies: Velocity Adventure Racing and Outdoor Quest who would often work together on events. Likewise the next year in New Brunswick a couple of boys were getting their feet wet adventure racing and would continue on to create Natural Selection Adventure Racing.

There are many significant differences in adventure racing before and after 2005 locally, and on more or less the same time-line globally. To name a few: race formats, racer turnouts, media interest and support crew requirements. Notable in that list is racer turnouts, or basically the size of the community. Prior to 2005 there was a considerable decline in attendance at races in the Atlantic Provinces. This decline wasn't specific to adventure racing, as cycling, rock climbing and many other fringe sports saw a similar decline. Given that, it's not a poor argument that the decline was independent of the actions of any race director or community. As a response to the declining numbers, post 2005 race directors began taking measures to make racing more accessible. One of these measures was opening the team format requirements.

In the Atlantics, prior to 2005, it was largely required that participating teams have three members. A premiere category of co-ed threes was typically created versus the secondary category of the many same sex teams of three participating. Rarely, teams of four would be tolerated, but not required as even at this time numbers weren't sufficient enough to have such a format. Note that the typical international premiere category is a co-ed team of four. During and after 2005, teams of two, three or four all of any gender were welcomed. Some races still held the premiere category for a co-ed team of three, but others let the entire field compete together.

The underlying fear of the race director was that they would lose a team because they couldn't find a third member. It's a logical fear, and most race directors have probably experienced a team loss if they exercised team format requirements. In the years following 2005 numbers were insufficient for race directors to refuse entry to teams who couldn't meet a particular format. However, local racing attendance has started to increase. Natural Selection Adventure Racing leads the way in the Atlantics with annual events. Race the Phantom, their flagship event, had five teams participate in 2007. Nine teams in 2008, 15 teams in 2009 and an impressive 18 teams in 2010. Their beginner friendly Who's Your Daddy race entertained eight teams in 2008, 11 in 2009 and an incredible 31 teams in 2010! That is progress! Trail Running has begun to take off in Nova Scotia as well. Jodi Isenor, formerly of Outdoor Quest, hosted a trail running race in November of 2010 that saw over 80 participants. Just a few years ago other people attempted to host trail running races here with virtually no return.

With the recent success it's important that our community doesn't take anything for granted. We need to ensure that we continue to grow as opposed to plateau or even see another decline. So I present to you the unconsidered case for the required team format. There was a period in my racing career when I didn't have a regular pool of teammates from which we assemble a squad for each race. I was a journeyman racer, picking up with whomever would have me. And at that time, there were team format requirements. It wasn't always easy to find a team of three, but I made do; notably without missing a race. The race directors, my colleagues, even local outdoor retail shops would help play match maker. It was quite an experience to meet someone the morning of your 36 hour journey into the wilderness together!

So how does a poorly matched group of strangers thrown into a team help promote adventure racing? By the process from which they arrived at the start line and the resolve following the event.

When I was shopping for teammates with the help of my colleagues we were in effect doing the best advertising possible, pier to pier notification. People were hearing about the race from their friend as opposed to a poster barely visible on a shop bulletin board, or a glanced over mass e-mail. They couldn't always participate for whatever reason, but they heard about it form the mouth of a trusted resource. And if the seed was already planted, this would certainly help it grow. And in the desperate days before a race, would be teams bent on racing would often beg, trick or kidnap someone into joining them! The necessity for that third teammate would bring in people that otherwise wouldn't have raced.

It does sound like a recipe for disaster! Often teams would be mismatched with respect to ability and fitness. By and large though, the beggars were understanding of their rookie teammates when they couldn't keep up... and when they were too fast! After the mud and blood was cleaned off teams were either made or divided. One thing was always consistent, those bold enough to try their first adventure race with strangers were hooked on our sport! In the event of a bad match, the regulars would go back to their usual teammates who's injuries had subsided, or continued on in search of the best match. The important thing was that the new racer was now on the hunt for a team, and for the next race it'd be them breaking in some rookies.

Having a requirement for team format isn't a sure bet to increase numbers. And further, as always, I'll add that it's of course up to the race director to present whatever experience they want their racers to have. My intentions with this piece were to simply ensure that the case for the required team format was indeed considered.