This Friday, while most of us are recovering from our Thanksgiving indulgence, Molly Housman will board a plane bound for Costa Rica, where she’ll compete in the Adventure Race World Championship. Over the course of about a week, she and her teammates will undertake a self-powered border-to-border journey, trekking, running, biking, kayaking, rafting, and climbing all the way across the country.
For a while now, I’ve been intrigued by adventure racing, but the idea of signing up even for a much shorter version of the race Housman will do blows my mind. Testing my speed on a marked course is all well and good, but how would I begin to prepare for the great unknown of adventure racing? Fortunately, Housman was kind enough to take time out from her intense training schedule to sit down and walk me through the basics of adventure racing.
Getting into adventure racing
You don’t have to be an expert outdoorsman to compete in adventure races. Housman was a member of this year’s third-place team at the U.S. Adventure Race National Championship and has become pretty comfortable over the past few years trekking through unmarked wilderness. But such adventures were not always her forte. Growing up in New Jersey, Housman was always a runner, and she took up biking in college, but she generally stuck to the roads. In fact, until she transferred colleges and moved to Boulder, Colorado, Housman was a self-professed “total roadie all the way around.” She started running trails in Boulder, but she didn’t start mountain biking until she moved to New Hampshire’s Upper Valley region in 2006. After that move, Housman also stepped up her trail running, completing her first ultramarathon, the Vermont 50k, in 2009.
Housman stumbled upon adventure racing by chance. She was talking to a fellow runner at a trail race when she found out Untamed New England needed a woman to fill in for an injured team member at an upcoming race. She admits that she had no idea what she was getting into. Fortunately, her teammates did. After the race, the woman recovered, but Housman was hooked and wanted to keep racing. Luckily for Housman, the adventure racing community is fairly small, and women, in particular, are always needed for coed teams, so Housman was soon invited to join other teams. She then found her way back to Untamed New England when an opening arose.
What skills do you need to sign up for an adventure race?
All you really need before signing up for your first adventure race is to achieve at least a moderate level of fitness, according to Housman. Basically, you need to be able to stay on your feet and keep moving for long periods of time. There are a lot of variations, but adventure races typically include multiple modes of travel—such as trekking, biking, and paddling—and competitors have to find their way around the course using a map and compass. (Orienteering races are similar and often grouped with adventure races but generally involve only one mode of travel.) The specific skills you need will depend on the race and whether you’ll be racing with other people already in the sport or trying to start your own team.
Housman is the first to admit that she can’t navigate. But in adventure racing there is usually one map and one person in charge of navigation. This means that if you’re starting your own team, you need to know how to use a compass or know someone who does. But if you’re joining another team with a more experienced navigator, that skill isn’t essential.
You will need some level of comfort on a mountain bike. The biking is not necessarily easy, but it’s also usually not super-technical. So don’t expect “huge rock gardens,” Housman says. She also points out that racers are generally wearing packs, so if the terrain gets too nasty, they get off their bikes. Also, because route selection is usually up to the team, it is often possible to navigate around the more technical trails or use dirt roads instead of trails. It might take longer, but if you lack technical prowess, it might be worth it.
Most, but not all, adventure races include some form of paddling. Before competing in her first adventure race, Housman had kayaked only twice. Again, that’s where teammates come in. Teams can often work together in a canoe or multi-person kayak. Of course, occasionally a race will make one person go solo, but you can divide your team according to who the strongest paddler is. While it might help to practice a little before your first race, especially if there’s a chance you’ll have to paddle solo, you aren’t expected to be an expert.
All courses vary, but other common obstacles you might encounter include rappelling and ziplines. Rappelling is one of the skills I lack, and I’ve worried that would prevent me from doing a race. Do I need to know how tie knots and harness myself in? Housman assured me the races have experienced crews to help with the rappelling.
“They hire a climbing gym,” says Housman. “They tell you how to put the helmet on. They put the harness on for you. They even clip you in. They tell you exactly what to do.” In other words, “your life is not in your own hands.” And for the zipline, she reassured me that no special skills are necessary. The biggest problem she’s encountered was getting stuck in the middle of a line because she didn’t weigh enough. She recalls with a grin having to pull herself across and the burn she felt in her forearms.
In short, beyond basic fitness, “if you’re not looking to win, but you just want to find some checkpoints and have fun, you can figure it out,” Housman says. And if you’re really worried, find a team.
What gear do you need?
Feeling reassured that I might have the basic skills required for an adventure race, I next wondered what actually happens at one of these races. But before Housman could explain that, we first had to discuss the gear list and the prerace preparation. Before you show up to your first race, make sure to check the list of required items. Generally, there will be two lists—the team items and personal items. The items may also be broken down by sections of the race. For example, there may be required personal biking equipment, such as a helmet, in addition to more general items, such as a whistle or waterproof jacket. The gear list will also generally show recommended items and prohibited items. A good example of a gear list can be found on the U.S. Adventure Race website. It’s important to go over the list carefully, because before the race there is often a gear check to make sure you have the required items.
Although races with biking tend to require competitors to bring their own bikes, events usually provide any boats needed for paddling, whether that means kayaks, canoes, or rafts. Often teams are not even allowed to bring their own boats. Check specific gear lists for details.
What exactly happens at an adventure race?
Once you arrive at the race, you check in with your team, sign liability forms, and get your race numbers (and, at some races, have your gear checked). Usually there’s a meeting to go over rules and details of the course. The check-in and meeting are most often held the night before the race, but that might vary for shorter or smaller races. At the meeting, race officials will go over safety issues, general guidelines for the course, and the schedule. There may, for example, be areas you can’t enter or blackout periods for certain activities, like paddling. Once the meeting is done, it’s back to your room to go through your gear with your teammates and pack your bags. By the time you get up, you need to be ready to go.
In the morning, after dressing and eating, it’s time to get your course map. The moment when the maps are handed out might be one of the most exciting moments of the entire event. Teams study the map and start planning. At some races, the order of checkpoints is chosen for you. At others, racers can choose the order in which they travel to checkpoints, so much of the planning centers on choosing the order and plotting a course. There will also be a clue sheet and instructions. The clue sheet describes checkpoints, and it may also tell racers the discipline to use to get to the checkpoints (bike, trek, etc.). Housman admits this can be a stressful time, especially if teammates disagree about how to attack the course. But there is little time for disagreement—soon after the maps are handed out, racers put them into waterproof map cases and head to the starting line.
Once you get on the course, Housman says, it’s all about keeping your energy up. While she generally tries to go lean on her eating during an ultramarathon, during an adventure race she eats and drinks pretty much the whole time to ensure she can keep moving and pushing herself for such a prolonged period of time—24 hours, 48 hours, sometimes even more. At the World Championship, Housman will have to think about this for a week. “It’s all really attrition,” she says. “Just try to survive, keep up, take care of your feet.”
On the course, teams travel from checkpoint to checkpoint. At each checkpoint, they stamp their “passport” to show they’ve been there. Some races will have one passport per team, while others have bracelets that require each team member to physically check in using an electronic dipstick on their bracelet to prove that each person went to the checkpoint. With the bracelet, it’s not enough to see the checkpoint and have the least tired team member go get it. Everyone must go. Most checkpoints are unmanned, although larger ones may have race officials. Some of the checkpoints also serve as transition points where racers change mode of travel (for example, switching to bikes that are there waiting for them) or pick up drop bags. Those checkpoints generally have crews.
Scoring depends on both time and the number of checkpoints you reach. For example, if there are 20 checkpoints in a race with a total allotted time of 24 hours, and Team 1 gets them all and gets back to the finish in 22:10 and Team 2 gets them all and arrives back in 22:53, Team 1 wins. If, however, Team 1 got only 19 of the checkpoints and Team 2 got all 20, Team 2 would win under most scoring systems even though they arrived shortly after Team 1.
Teams that come in after the time limit lose points very quickly and are very unlikely to win. And this is where course design becomes important. Housman says the best courses are those where it’s a challenge to clear the course in the allotted time. It’s most fun when teams have to be really smart about their navigation and make tough decisions at the end about whether or how to go for those last checkpoints.
Finding the right team
Choosing a team and a race requires some consideration of both skill and personality. “When it comes down to being really hungry and tired, you have to be with the right people,” says Housman.
If you haven’t been invited to join a team, there are a few other ways to get started. First, you can find the race you want to do and contact the race director. Often races have message boards where people looking to join teams can describe their skills and background and seek other teammates. And even if the race doesn’t have a message board, the race director might hear from another team looking for a teammate and help match you up.
If the thought of putting yourself out there is terrifying, you could create your own team. If you do this, make sure you have a navigator. At least one of you should be able to use a compass, and you’ll want to have a teammate with some competence in the different modes of travel at the race.
It’s also worth considering your level of skill in relation to your teammates’ levels of skill. If you are just out there to give it a go, get a few checkpoints, and have some laughs, you may not want to join a team that is out there for the win. Ultimately, adventure racing is a team sport. If you quit, your team quits. “It’s the worst feeling in the world to be the weakest link,” Housman says. “You never want to the be the person that’s slowest on the bike, can’t make it up the hills fast, everyone’s waiting for you.”
Okay, now I’m a little intimidated again. But just like every other team sport, while there is some pressure not to let your teammates down, it can also be a lot of fun to be out on the course with others—both your own teammates and the competition. One of Housman’s favorite race moments was at the 2012 U.S. Adventure Race National Championship. It had been a very cold night on the course and the racers were feeling weary. As Housman’s team was trying to find one of the last checkpoints on the course, they found themselves surrounded by group of about 50 people, all looking for that same checkpoint. The sun broke through the clouds as they stood on top of a mountain, and suddenly it felt less like a race and more like a mountaintop social. Housman recalls with a laugh being distracted by the friendly chatter when her teammate Dave Lamb began shouting “Race mode! Race mode!” in an effort to remind his team that this wasn’t a social event, but a race. So while the idea of racing with others can be intimidating, it is balanced by that sense of camaraderie.
Finding the right race
The Green Mountain Adventure Racing Association offers beginner-friendly races. The 2014 schedule includes races in March, June, and August. The March race has a 10-hour cutoff and is for teams of two or three. That race will mix things up by focusing on winter disciplines, including snowshoeing and skiing. According to the website, “This was the first adventure race for about a third of the participants the past four years, so don’t be intimidated!”
Another good place to start is with the New York Adventure Racing Association, which offers a series of races, including Housman’s first and favorite race, the Longest Day. Housman says NYARA is good at putting together races that are both physically and mentally challenging. There’s always some type of surprise, like a checkpoint in a cave, and the navigation can be really interesting. NYARA is hosting a six-hour event in New Jersey in April that can be done solo or in teams of two that will be another great way for beginners to get a feel for what this sport is all about.
If you aren’t quite ready to give up your loner mentality and join a team, you can always sign up for one of the shorter races by yourself. In 2013, for example, Untamed New England offered a six-hour short event that required only the most basic understanding of orienteering. This event gave racers a chance to practice finding checkpoints on foot using a map and compass. Scoring was individual, though individuals were, of course, allowed to travel the course together if they chose. Both GMARA and NYARA, as well as a number of other organizations, offer solo events.
How to train and prepare for an adventure race
As with any endurance event, training depends a great deal on your current level of fitness and the specific event. But if you fall in love with adventure racing, as Housman did, prepare to making training your social life. In a high mileage week, Housman trains 25 to 26 hours. She runs, putting in many tough trail miles, often on the Appalachian Trail, and bikes, alternating dirt roads and trails. In the winter, she cross-trains by Nordic skiing. She also trains carrying a pack to mimic the race, which is “such a different type of suffering,” she says.
But in the end, to be able to say you’ve traveled across a country under your own power, or even attempted to do so, seems worth it. After talking to Housman, I’ve decided that maybe it’s time to get out that compass I’ve been carrying in my pack for years for safety reasons and actually figure out how to use it.