While 2019 includes my first foray into the world of Triathlon, its been a year of many firsts as earlier this year I discovered what might easily be my most favorite discipline of sport to participate in. Adventure Racing couldn’t be a more appropriately named sport, it combines the competitive nature of sport via racing against other competitors along with the fun, beauty and unexpectedness of exploring.

So what is Adventure Racing specifically? Wikipedia puts it best:

“Adventure Racing is a multi-disciplinary sport involving navigation over an unmarked wilderness course with races extending anywhere from two hours up to two weeks in length.”

My introduction to AR came about by chance. As mentioned before I started, and continue to be Race Director for, an annual Trail 10K/5K, and over the years have worked with different race timing companies to varying degrees of success. But for the 2018 event, we learned we had a new baby on the way and the due date was the same week of the event. I was doing 100% of the logistics, course setup, volunteers, promotion, sponsors etc. and I didn’t see how there could be a plan B if I went off the map days before the race so I originally considered shelving the race, but felt really bad letting a successful fund-raiser for local non-profits just go away.

Photo by Vlad Bukalo.

Around that same time I had just signed up for a local New Years Day trail run, and decided to reach out to the timing company for that race just to offer my race up to them to take it over cause I didn’t want it to go away. Turned out it was a husband/wife team who specialize in non-pavement events like mine, trail runs and adventure races. I told them my situation and instead of just handing things over, we quickly worked out a partnership deal for the race to become part of their schedule/series, they’d do all the event day logistics if I continued to do the sponsors and promotions, etc., all the stuff that could be done before event day.

Being part of their schedule meant I got to know about all their other events which included a bunch of adventure races that piqued my interest; however while I like to hike trails/waterfalls on occasion, I’ve kayaked before, and love being outdoors/wilderness; what I saw of Adventure Racing looked well beyond my ability. Most AR events I found involved multiple days in the wilderness having to way-find/navigate your way around giant parks and covering hundreds of miles, some had abseiling/rappelling and much more. It all looked very cool but I wasn’t sure how to take that leap.

Luckily, as with triathlons, I quickly learned that there are multiple levels in adventure racing, 2-5 hour events, full day events, and multi-day/week events all with many assortments of sporting disciplines; there’s also a national association (USARA) who keeps a nice calendar of AR events so I just needed to find one that was more beginner level and I found 2. Thankfully for me it appears most adventure races are a triathlon of rowing (kayak if solo, canoe if team), mountain biking, and trekking (trails on foot).

So I took the leap just a few months later; in April I did the Shenandoah Aquablaze (by Adventure Enablers), which was 12 miles rowing, 12 miles trekking in Shenandoah State Park; then most recently in early May did the Greenhorn Adventure Race (by EX2 Adventures) which took place in/around Lake Fairfax Park and was a more traditional AR with 2-3ish miles rowing, 10 miles mountain biking and 6ish miles trekking.

I started with, and highly recommend, the Shenandoah Aquablaze as it truly is an introduction to adventure racing. While you may look at the distances of 12m row and 12m trek and think there’s nothing beginner about that, I say it for a very specific reason. Your standard adventure races differ from your average 10k/5k, triathlon, duathlon etc. events in four specific ways:

  1. You do NOT get to see/know the course ahead of race day
  2. The course itself is NOT marked
  3. Competition/finishing place is not driven by time alone
  4. While there are solo categories, ARs entrants tend to be in teams with multiple classes of teams for competition
    1. Solo (male or female)
    2. 2/3/4 person teams (male, female and coed)

If you’ve ever watched “The Amazing Race” on TV and thought it looked fun, then adventure racing is probably perfect for you. Because AR courses are so large it isn’t feasible to mark an entire course with arrows, cones and volunteers; so in adventure racing, its all about finding and checking in at various Checkpoints (CP) to prove you did the course.

Checkpoints are clearly marked with bright orange flags or something like that, and each checkpoint has an electronic check-in box and a clearly labeled name/number that corresponds to the race map. Each team is given a small e-passport (a small RFID chip on a necklace) and you hold your passport up to each check-in device to digitally register/record when your team was there.

Checking in at Checkpoint. Photo by Brian W. Knight/Swim Bike Run Photo.

So for an AR, on race morning you are given a map of the area showing roads, trails, water etc. and with checkpoints clearly labeled: CP1, CP2, CP3… Your job as a participant is to get to all/as-many of the checkpoints the fastest, hence the sport/racing aspect.

Checking in/collecting each checkpoint is worth a pre-set amount of points, and each race will have “Rules of Travel” you must obey, breaking any of those rules results in being penalized points. Therefore the winner of the race is the one who has the most points, with time serving as tiebreaker when teams tie in points.

I would say this is where adventure racing truly splits from traditional running/tris/obstacle course racing, because each team is forced to come up with their own directions/course to achieve the checkpoints; teams are forced to think and to come up with a race strategy, not every team will do the same course/distances. I’ve never done a 10K where I had to even think, let alone plot my course an hour before the race, you just follow course volunteers and marked signs and cones.

This strategy/planning element is really where I enjoyed adventure racing. Two main elements in adventure race rules are often that finding all the checkpoints are not necessarily required but also that there is a time limit for you to return to the finish/final check-in, whereby you are penalized a number of points for every X minutes you are past the limit for final check-in. So you as a team have to figure out how to maximize points: are some checkpoints clustered together, or easier to navigate to etc.

That’s where more strategy can come into play because in theory you could gamble and only find 20 checkpoints and beat a team who found 24 if that team got penalized for a late check-in… This actually happened in one of the races I did, where someone was the fastest in his category but received penalties for breaking some race rules causing him to end up in 4th place.

So in the end time/speed/being fit are still very important so you can get to things quickly and have stamina to do a lot of disciplines as you need to get as many checkpoints as you can in the time allotted, but critical thinking is just as important so you don’t get penalties, get lost etc.

Photo by Vlad Bukalo.

So this brings me back to: why was the 12-mile row/ 12-mile trek Shenandoah Aquablaze made for beginners? Very simply, in the Aquablaze, you got to see the course ahead of time AND the map told you exactly how to get from each checkpoint to the next with step by step instructions and 100% of the checkpoints located on the primary park maintained trails. In addition to that I was able to get 2 friends to join in (for the race they only allowed 2-person teams so we were a 2-person and 1-person team officially but the 3 of us just stuck together the whole time).

For the Aquablaze, there was was one checkpoint on the starting shore before you got in the boat, and the next checkpoint wasn’t even until the start of the trek, so you didn’t have to get out of the boat that whole time.

The trek for this race was 100% on park trails with the map laying out exact instructions and mileage for you on when to make turns at forks in the trail etc. So while this race didn’t have full on wayfinding, it did allow us to get used to rowing among other teams, finding checkpoints, and trekking (trail running/using a map to navigate). Not to mention some of the views in the park were amazing!

This stunning view from one of the Aquablaze checkpoints

The race was also good for folks who just wanted to trek around and see the park (see pic above), so not everyone was being overly competitive, including my team as we went into full walk early on in the trek because in adventure racing you can’t split up, you finish as a team. We had only some basic rules for the Aquablaze: go in CP order, stay on the trails, no worries if you miss one (which is good cause somehow we totally skipped 2 of the first three checkpoints.

What intrigued us was that there was another race going on at the same time, the Shenandoah Strong which started alongside us on the Shenandoah River but at the end of rowing they went into mountain biking and then trekking but had another distinct difference; they were not only allowed but encouraged to go off the trails as needed and they also had both mandatory and optional checkpoints. We ran into many of their competitors while doing our race and they seemed to be having a great time.

I want to try out a full on AR but couldn’t wait a whole year for the next Shenandoah Strong so after some quick searching, I ended up in the Greenhorn just a month later…

Greenhorn (put on by EX2 Adventures) was a true adventure race, no maps beforehand, no turn-by-turn directions, 3 disciplines, but it was billed as a good race for beginners because it was just a 4-hour limit event and because Lake Fairfax Park is located in the middle of the well populated Reston, Virginia which means you can get cell service in the case of emergency and also in case you truly get lost and need help to get out. That said it is still a large park, and the course is still unmarked, and having never been there before it was definitely all sorts of adventure for me.

Greenhorn Adventure Race, the after picture 🙂

It probably wasn’t one of the harder races I’ve ever done in my life physically, but mentally, easily one of the most challenging. Its one thing to just try to bike, run or row fast, that’s just training and pushing yourself physically; its another discipline to master to need to consult a map and make sure you’re not running, biking, rowing fast in the wrong direction. I really enjoyed this new challenge.

Greenhorn had some easy to understand rules that they walked competitors through an hour before race start:

  • Bike checkpoints had to be collected in sequential order, and there were clearly marked areas on the map that were off limits (mostly for safety reasons).
  • 5 of 6 Rowing checkpoints had to be collected in order (forcing you to do a minimum amount of rowing), the 6th you could collect at any time, so it was up to you to decide when you felt it might be most advantageous to get that one.
  • Trekking checkpoints were open season, collect them in any order you wanted.
  • One discipline at a time. Meaning if you happened to find a trekking CP while doing the bike, you couldn’t check it in. Also, once you finished a discipline you couldn’t go back to it.
    • This actually came into play for me as I ended up finding CPs for other disciplines by total accident, but had to just pass them up and try to commit it to memory for when I’d actually be doing that discipline.
To soon be frosted / filled with Root Beer

I don’t know how but even though I’d never been to the park before, I didn’t know the area at all, I’d never done a true adventure race, part of the trails were a mess from a big rain the night before, and to top it off I couldn’t convince any friends to try it with me so I was doing this solo… but somehow I still managed to finish 5th in class and 18th overall (out of 50+ teams). I can definitely say it was easily the MOST FUN I have ever had doing a race/competition.

To cap off the enjoyment, the race (and maybe more ARs do this?) seemed to understand that there’s only so much (nothing) you can do with useless race place/finisher medals. I can’t even tell you what I’ve done with the majority of race medals I’ve received over the years. Greenhorn/EX2Adventures awarded 1st-5th in each class with glasses, which I can say has been put to immediate and multiple use, put it in the freezer for a nice frosted glass for your beverage of choice 🙂

Race Maps and Rules of Travel handed out race morning

I don’t want to gloss over the Greenhorn and what it really entails to do an adventure race though, so here’s some tidbits from the race, specifically my lessons learned that I’d love to pass on should you be trying adventure racing out for the first time:

Make sure to get familiar with and truly study the map(s) before the race start.
Greenhorn had 2 primary maps, one for the bike course and another for the row/trek, I spent about 30 minutes looking at them and getting familiar enough with the overview of it, but then went on to getting my bike ready, and just checking things out trying to pass time until race start.

Photo by Brian W. Knight/Swim Bike Run Photo.

I noticed a lot of teams had pens/highlighters and were really in detail marking their map and writing down notes and I didn’t fully understand it until I was in the race. Once you are on an unmarked race course, the map is the only thing you have, and the more you know the map the more you know where the hell you are going.

If you’re in a park with several trails that intersect, its a very good idea to try and memorize those things (turn left, then right, then right, then left, arrive at stream/bridge, then left). Getting lost is a thing and especially while mountain biking, any time you need to consult the map is a lot of time lost not to mention mentally getting discouraged over getting lost will get to you.

Pace Yourself and Being Prepared For Whatever

Photo by Brian W. Knight/Swim Bike Run Photo.

This goes without saying in just about any race you need some proper pacing, and need to be prepared for those transitions, which means prepping your stations ahead of time so you can get there and go.

One curveball we got in the Greenhorn is that in order to help us not be so stacked/traffic jammed on the trails, they split teams into 3 groups with each group starting on a different discipline. So it meant at all times there were teams on all the different disciplines. Luckily I got to start on the bike and end with the trek, which I think worked to my advantage, cause the bike was the hardest to navigate so I could get that out of the way first.

Don’t expect to just follow others.
This one was hilarious, but early in this race I overheard a 3-man team behind me debating a turn and one said “he’s going that way” referring to me. It was funny because they were essentially just following me… what they didn’t know is I was just following a 2-girl team in front of me because they seemed to know what they were doing.

I’d overheard those girls earlier and they seemed very familiar/confident with the park/area so it felt ok following them and turns out they never took a wrong turn. So that worked out ok for me until… when you get to the checkpoints other teams aren’t waiting for you to check in so eventually at some point I lost them… by the time this happened I’d lost count of turns and while I had a rough idea of where I was I wasn’t exactly sure where to go and made a couple wrong turns after that costing me time.

That’s 4 different teams going in 4 different directions…
Photo by Brian W. Knight/Swim Bike Run Photo.

Later on in the race during the trek I ended up jogging next to one of my solo-male competitors when we came to a 3 way fork in the trails; I decided to stop and consult the map, while he stopped for all of 1 second and then just took off to the left… After looking at the map I went to the right and found my checkpoint maybe 500 feet later. I don’t know if he went the wrong way or just a different way cause during that trek (and part of the row) you can get checkpoints in any order. I do know I ended up beating that guy though 🙂

Be prepared to get lost AND be able to easily access the map.
You’re going to get lost at some point, just know that now, its part of it; you’re not meant to be perfect out there. I doubled back a few times, I even just stopped and studied the map a few times while I was out there; I’m also fairly certain I did half a mile more biking than I needed to cause of wrong turns.

The most important thing when you’re on the course is to be able to access the map. If you’re on a bike I recommend tying it to the handlebars in a way that you can grab it without dismounting but also so its not hitting wheels etc. If you have a backpack/camelbak etc. Make sure you can get to the map easily.

Photo by Brian W. Knight/Swim Bike Run Photo.

Make sure you can easily extend your e-passport
Rather than going necklace style I had my e-passport connected to my backpack straps, it was easy to get to while biking and trekking, but it was a bad idea during rowing. many of the rowing checkpoints were above my head which meant I needed either take the backpack off or stand up and balance in the kayak to get the passport to reach…

Shortcut and speed at your own risk
I covered this slightly above but in adventure racing you’re allowed to “shortcut” trails because the only requirement is to check in you e-passport at the checkpoints. If you want to skip a switchback trail and go straight up/down an elevation change, go for it. I got hit with this in two ways. One competitor caught up to me by short-cutting, he appeared out of the woods from nowhere hit a checkpoint (T5) at the same time as me and then took off back into the woods…

I was ok at that point but then I saw him coming back against me as I struggled to find T8, I knew he found it already… At that point the trails were intersecting like crazy and I got disoriented and the map didn’t seem to be making sense… but I eventually found Trek CP T8 (and ran into a cycling team!?). But I wanted to catch that guy, so I went too fast and missed a turn and lost a few minutes needing to backtrack, when I suddenly noticed I was about to cross a stream and wasn’t supposed to be near water.

Wrong way after T8, from my actual watch activity tracker GPS data

Then I found T7, my final trek checkpoint, and that’s where it got bad… I really wanted to make up the gap I lost to that guy. T7 was all out on a point by its lonesome, it wasn’t part of any kind of loop trail back to the finish. I’d need to do a ton of backtracking on the trails before I could make a run for home… if I was staying on the trails…

Basically it looked like I needed to go south a half mile before the trails turned northeast to the finish. I figured the finish was directly to my east so I started scrambling directly east off the trails… and pretty soon got lost, through a bunch of brush and then found an impassable river… doh. All-in-all I probably wasted 20 minutes before backtracking to that last T7 checkpoint and then doing the big L-shape on the trails anyway…

Fun with Data – One very cool aspect of the Greenhorn was that after the race they shared an excel spreadsheet with all the checkpoint data for everyone. Remembering the above faux pas, I decided to go check out my navigating disaster, and sure enough; I started the trek portion of the race with an 8m14s lead over the guy that would eventually finish in 4th place. We were a dead heat by T6, which showed the advantage of his short-cutting. While I still got the final trekking checkpoint 3m44s behind him, my shotcut disaster resulted in me finishing the race 19m6s behind him…

Time differences between eventual 4th place and myself (5th)

In the data I quickly learned it wasn’t just me; the person who finished 2nd was a good 10 minutes behind the guy that finished 3rd coming out of the row. Turns out I was only 5 min. behind the eventual 2nd place finisher when I finished the row too so anything can happen out there, its as much a brains/mental race as it is a physical one…

I’m not saying stay on trails only, just going back to the start tip, know the map, so that when you shortcut you are confident and correct with it, don’t decide once you’re out there that you want to shortcut and do it on the fly.

Don’t forget to have fun
I could go on about how and where I lost time and could have done better competitively but the reality is I was essentially given a treasure map and managed to find my way to all the points and the finish line and truly felt like I accomplished something more than just a race.

Not a sad person in the bunch. Photo by Brian W. Knight/Swim Bike Run Photo.

Its one thing to just run, bike, row, swim, but being asked to use your brain for critical thinking during a race is an element was all the more fun. I understand how it might seem daunting for some but there were competitors of all ages, and there we multiple moments where teams were lost and helped each other out, it was a very encouraging environment out there.

That said, if it still feels daunting this is where being on a team might help, allowing you to work a problem together. Of course a team is only as fast as the slowest team member, but when you’re all alone, you have no brain power to combine with unless you make an alliance to work with another team.

But you gotta be having fun, it is a competition but it truly is just a day of adventure, so its a good day no matter where you finish. I say that because I found myself trying to get real competitive at one point and trying to cut time only to have fate put me in my place… I’ll leave with with this:

During the rowing, some CPs were up on the bank meaning you had to get out the boat on shore run to the CP and run back and I decided to cut time by running and jumping into the boat in one move to go fast and give my row a big boosting start, and it worked great… until it didn’t. The 3rd time I did this I ended up flipping and capsizing the kayak… Which meant I had to slosh my way back to shore and flip it over to pour all the water out… All I could do was laugh at myself, and really that put me in a good place for the day, have fun, don’t take it too seriously… and thankfully no photographers were around to document that particular mistake 🙂

2019 Greenhorn Adventure Race produced by EX2 Adventures. Lake Fairfax, Reston, VA. Saturday, 11 May 2019. Photo by Brian W. Knight/Swim Bike Run Photo.