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How to be an adventure racer

Adventures

HAVE YOU HEARD THE ONE about grown men screaming in white pain after thrashing their way through a forest full of the world's most poisonous foliage, their 'burns' sated only by more searing from hydrochloric acid poured on them at the nearest checkpoint? Or the little yarn about scooting the remaining 60km of a race with only one pedal on a mountain bike? How about the time an adventure racer puts out his hand to grab a wayward paddle and clasps a croc's head instead?
 
No? Haven't heard those anecdotes? Good. Best not be exposed to that until after you've done your beginner's course in adventure racing, because the take-note clue in this sport is most definitely the word 'adventure', more so than the word 'racing'.
 
I've selectively picked out juiced-up bites of mayhem, but it's not my fault there's an ocean of anecdotes out there. I mean, let's look at a quick little list of 'memorable moments' as reeled off by one of Australia's most accomplished adventure racers, John Jacoby: "Paddling in big ocean conditions off the Moroccan coast and having to land double sea kayaks through 8ft surf - that was good fun. And 24 hours later, sleeping in the mountains at 12,000ft in freezing conditions spooning together to stay warm. There was the time I fell asleep while mountain biking down a 6000ft mountain in the freezing cold in the middle of the night.

"Or racing in flooded tropical Brazil where every stream was a torrent of muddy water infested with pig crap and then having to drink the same water for days on end. No wonder my guts felt a bit average for weeks after that race."
 
John, a former world champion adventure racer who started competing not long after the very first competitive events kicked off in the late '80s, is what we'd call a watercooler man: his are the stories others repeat (without the need for exaggeration).
 
Yet the reality is that adventure racing is an egalitarian pursuit much more accessible and achievable - enjoyable, even - than such tales might suggest.

Even John - a man known to tell competitors in the adventure races he now organises to take some HTFU* pills- mellows to the point of hippidom when asked what those new to adventure racing should consider first up:
 
"Just follow your dreams and believe in what's possible because the human body can do a lot with a good head on its shoulders," John says. "Of course it helps to have a bit of tenacity, flexibility and adaptability along with a never say die attitude."
 
Thanks for the motivational speech, but where practically to begin? "Start racing. It's the only way to get good experience and know-how," says John.

All very well, but best you do a little schooling if you want to make it to that first checkpoint…welcome to adventure racing 101. 

CHOOSE YOUR STYLE

The term 'adventure racing' covers many different forms of event. Some are for beginners, others best left until you've got some experience under your hydro belt.

Urban AR: Checkpoint Charlie-type events that usually have more running and soft biking, sometimes a paddle. Less competitive, more fun, sometimes scavenger hunt. Easy map-reading navigation (non compass).
Get into it: Urban Max (www.kathmanduurban.com.au), Rat Race (www.ratraceadventure.com/australia).
Level: Beginner

Off-road tri: Triathlon disciplines (swim, bike, run), but all off road. Single day. Individual and teams. No navigation. If you're a triathlete, it's a good way to ease in. If you're not a triathlete - don't bother. I mean, no paddling?
Get into it: Tre-X (www.tre-x.com.au), Straddie Salute (www.weekendwarriorevents.com.au).
Level: Beginner to intermediate.

Sprint: Combinations of mountain bike, trail run and paddle, sometimes with novelty checkpoints or activities. Middling to no navigation (those without navigation are sometimes also called 'multisport' - a debate for a different article).Individuals or teams. Great intro to adventure racing, but often more reliant on pure fitness and technical skills than any strategy or bush skills.
Get into it: Anaconda Adventure Race (www.anacondaadventurerace.com),Kathmandu AR (www.kathmanduadventure.com.au), Paddy Pallin AR (www.arocsport.com.au), Adventure Race Australia Series (www.adventureraceaustralia.com.au).
Level: Beginner to intermediate

Multisport: Various combinations of paddle (generally flatwater), road and mountain bike, trail run, swim. No navigation.
Get into it: Coast to Coast NZ (www.coasttocoast.co.nz), Marysville to Melbourne Multisport (www.marysville2melbourne.com.au), Mainpeak Multisport (www.mainpeakmultisport.com.au), Upper Murray Challenge (www.uppermurraychallenge.com.au)
Level: Intermediate to advanced

12-48 Hour: Longer form of the sprint hit outs, tend to have more navigation involved and pass through wilder territory. And of course, overnight.
Get into it: Geoquest (www.geoquest.com.au), Kathmandu 24 HR (www.kathmanduadventure.com.au)
Level: Intermediate to advanced

Stage race: Teams, usually four including a female. Usually 5-7 days. Variety of disciplines including trail running, paddling, mountain biking, wild swimming and ropework. All sorts of extra activities including paragliding and rollerblading. Navigation not always compulsory or lessened by use of GPS. Set stop periods where athletes sleep and recover at the same camp location. Can include transport for athletes between stages to access the best terrain.
Get into it: The Quest (www.waet.org.za/quest.htm), WulongMountain Quest (www.wulongquest.com), Sabah Adventure Challenge (www.sabahadventurechallenge.com), Vanuatu AR (www.racevanuatu.com).
Level: Intermediate to advanced
 
Expedition: Teams, usually four including a female. Five to 10 days of continuous racing. Athletes choose where, when and how long to sleep. Disciplines include trail running/trekking, mountain biking, paddling and plenty of navigation. Some include ropework and other challenges en route - caving, canyoning, paragliding, plus novelty legs. Camels and horses have been used. Usually super-remote wilderness, passing through checkpoints.
Get into it: Patagonia Expedition Race (www.patagonianexpeditionrace.com), Costa Rica (www.arcostarica.com), XPD (www.xpd.com.au) and other Adventure Racing World Series events (www.arworldseries.com), Ultimate Indo (www.ultimateadventureraces.com).
Level: Advanced

SKILLS ARE AS IMPORTANT AS FITNESS

No-one will come to adventure racing as an expert at all disciplines (if any!). There are just too many to be mastered. Often, people migrate to AR after having achieved in a single field - paddling, for instance - but their exposure to another - say, mountain biking - will be limited, if non-existent. The key is to figure out what your biggest weakness is and then be brave enough to tackle that as a priority.

"Get coaching and advice by experts," advises AR athlete Jarad Kohlar, who sees many AR wannabes join his weekly paddle-training session on Port Philip Bay (www.peakadventure.com.au).
 
Paddling in particular, he notes, is often a beginner's weakness. Jarad reckons that "if you put the word 'never' or 'can't' in the same sentence as any of the AR disciplines, then that's what you need to concentrate on. 

JOIN A TRAINING GROUP

Motivation is key. It's all too easy to peek over the doona on a winter's morn, feel the icicles forming on your nostrils, and decide, unsighted, that there's a squall raging in which your mountain bike session would turn life-threatening. But if you know there's a coach and 10 others waiting and cursing in the carpark for you to arrive, you'll drag your sorry Skins-clad butt outta bed and down to that training session. And enjoy it.

The best thing about training in a group, apart from the camaraderie, is you pick up skills much quicker and your own dodgy techniques will be highlighted and corrected earlier. There aren't too many pure adventure-racing training groups around (although they are popping up as the sport grows), but that shouldn't stop you joining paddling, trail running, mountain biking and orienteering sessions, all of which have group representation in most major cities and many rural centres.
 
Many of the event companies that put on AR outings also run training and familiarisation days: "We get nearly as many people rocking up at our Anaconda famil days as to the events themselves," says Rapid Ascent's John Jacoby.
 
Melbourne: www.peakadventure.com.au | www.melbourneadventure.org.au | jarasport.com.au  www.vigor.net.au
Sydney: www.addventuretraining.com Noosa: www.triadventure.com.au
South East Qld: www.phoenixadventure.com.au
Brisbane: www.uqtriads.net.au and www.explorefitness.com.au
Adelaide: www.adelaidevales.com.au

TRAIN IN-SITU, MIX IT UP

There's no need to go overboard with training, reckons experienced adventure racer, Alina McMaster, now a director of AROC, purveyors of the Paddy Pallin Adventure Race Series. "And don't wait until you think you are fit enough before you enter an event. Just get out and do it - you'll get better along the way and find out which areas you need to work on."

Alina offers this sample weekly program as a good base training regime:
 • 1-2 x 10km paddles;
• 1-2 runs (1-2 hours);
• 1-2 mountain bike sessions (2 hours);
• 1 longer session of any discipline (eg mountain bike trip, hike - try to aim for about five hours).
• Make time the measuring stick, not distance.

Adds Jarad Kohlar: "You also need to train on terrain and in environments similar to race conditions. If you live in Melbourne, there's no point riding up and down Beach Road or running a footpath around the Botanical Gardens - plan on getting into the hills, run some trails, mountain bike off road."

Interacting with your gear is important, too: "Refine the art of getting food from your pack while continuing to run and look at a map," says Jarad.
 
Sessions should be mixed in style, too, rather than all being drawn out slog fests.

"Those of you who abhor structure (a good sensibility to have in the world of AR) can take alternative inspiration from two-time winner of the XPD Expedition race, Damon Goerke: "There's no need to have a structured training program. Intervals, skills and endurance will be naturally built in, just by getting out and using the appropriate terrain. Do some long bike rides and runs. Get out and paddle. Get a sea kayak (beg, borrow or steal) and have a go on the harbour or bay. Also, try paddling in choppy water to improve skills and confidence. Make your own adventures, go hiking, just go play!"
 
Structured or not, all experts agree that you have to at least be disciplined enough to actually get out there regularly.

MIND OVER MATTER

Strength of will gets you through the darkest moments of any adventure race long after the body has given up. Fact. So, while in the shorter races fitness will come to the fore, in the longer races it will be your attitude and ability to suffer that determines your race outcome.
 
"Both mind and body are inextricably linked: both are genetically determined to an extent but they can still be fine-tuned to benefit the athlete," says John. "I almost think the mind is more important for AR. Without the willpower, and mental strength, a well-tuned athlete will fall apart if their head space is not ready. Guts and determination are definitely more important than talent."

BODY FUEL

Over the course of a five to eight hour race, you're probably going to be burning around 800-1000 calories per hour. No matter how much you take in, you won't be able to replace all the calories you'll be expending. That's why your training program is important - so your body can become efficient at using fat as an energy source. You are also going to require some kind of electrolyte replacement and energy bars to replace those calories. Use what has worked best for you in training; race day is not the day to try something new!
 
Specifically, Sports Dieticians Australia anoints carbohydrate requirements as being the highest for AR given the sport's endurance demands.
 
For a more comprehensive guide to AR nutrition see sportsdieticians.com.au.

NO TANTIES

Probably the most important thing to consider on team AR outings is your teammates. The golden rule is that you are only ever going to go as fast as your slowest team mate. Or as slow as your longest tantrum session.
 
"You need to be sure you all have the same goal (which should be to finish the race); no point one wanting to walk and just finish and the others wanting to go hard and win," says Damon, who has found dependability in Team Blackheart cohorts Rob Preston, Kim Willocks and Josh Street (www.teamblackheart.com).
 
"You should discuss everything beforehand and know what everyone's strengths and weaknesses are. Look after your teammates, lose the ego and accept help if needed," advises Damon.
 
"In a typical race you have to navigate, determine distance and speed and look for control points, all while you are running, biking and kayaking.
 
"Having a clear strategy of who does what in the team and communicating at all times is vital," says Henry van Heerden, operations manager at Maximum Adventure, the mob responsible for the Kathmandu AR series.

Henry has witnessed many AR teams fall apart during a race through lack of common understanding and expectation between team members.
 
"Pair up with team mates who have similar fitness levels. Try to train together as much as possible." 

KNOW YOUR NEVERS FROM YOUR SOGGYS*

Many AR events (but not all) involve navigation, a dark art that seems to scare off many punters - needlessly says Henry. "People are often put off by the navigation element of adventure racing, thinking that they might get lost during a race. The reality is newcomers often comment after they've completed their first event that the navigation was not nearly as daunting as they anticipated," he says. "By spending time reading a topographic map you learn how to relate the landscape in front of you to a two-dimensional map. You can be the fastest runner, mountain biker or kayaker but if you are going in the wrong direction you still end up with the wooden spoon."

Orienteering and rogaining events are great training grounds for adventure racing, teaching you to navigate accurately and quickly, equipping you with the skills able to make quick decisions on the fly, be organised and always moving - never stopping to read the map or decide where to go.

*Never Eat Soggy Weetbix - if you don't know what I'm talking about you may be reading the wrong magazine

ACQUIRE A DOSE OF OCD

"Being organised and prepared is one thing that will put you ahead," says Alina McMaster, who races with Team AROC. "We used to always be the last to bed in events where they gave you the maps the night before the start. We would spend hours preparing the maps and our gear. This meant once the race started we just followed the plan and our gear was all ready - so we didn't waste any time during the race."
 

THE WRAP

Think of adventure racing as a Buddhist sport: you have to deprive yourself. Of food, of sleep, of warmth, of comfort. You have to find your Zen Zone - a meditative equilibrium (it's the only way to manage the pain and exhaustion and keep going). You'll reach a higher plane. It'll still hurt, but a higher plane nevertheless. You'll contemplate - sometimes it'll be all you can do. You'll blank your mind. All you'll want to do is sit under a tree and stop the world spinning. You'll find a way. And if you don't, take John Jacoby's advice: take a HTFU* pill.
 
*Harden The F@#k Up

GEAR ADDICTS

"Adventure racers are notorious gear junkies, but I don't think it's that important, just fun," reckons Damon Goerke. It's true - outdoor bods love toys, but there is much less snobbery around AR than in the triathlon-scene: you won't be laughed off the pitch for turning up to tackle the course on your kick-stand clad Malvern Star. More likely, the bloke with his 10 grand MTB will saunter across and slap you on the back: "Goodonya fa 'avin a go, mate!"

Specialist equipment is more important when you start participating in 24hr or multiday adventure races, where you need to be super-confident in your gear, know its nuances, and preferably know how to fix it.

So what kit do you need? Here's a guide:

Runners: Use a good trail runner style, rather than your road runners.

Clothing: There are plenty of options but make sure its quick-wicking, quick-dry, and for colder climes, warm. Layers are best, lightweight rules, and think 'chaffing' (and how to combat it).

Mountain bike: Preferably a bike with suspension, your body will thank you.

Hydration pack: Stay hydrated at all times. You'll need it to carry all of your mandatory gear items. Even for longer races, keep it as small and light as possible.

Compass: A good compass will last you a lifetime and essential for expedition-style races.

Kayak, PFD and paddle: Often an event will supply as part of the entry fee or you can rent equipment. Owning your own is always preferable, but remember there are as many different styles of boats as there are styles of adventure racing. Owning your own PFD and paddle and just renting a boat is a good option - so long as you can access a boat for training, too (local boat clubs are good for this).
 
First-aid Kit: The essentials at least. Many races make these mandatory.

Map holder: Something to keep your maps dry at all times.

Miscellaneous: Including whistle, space blanket, pen/paper, locking-blade knife, bike tools, sunscreen.