In 2010 Outside magazine stated “Adventure Racing is the must do sport of the decade”
That claim has not been unjustified with the sport growing steadily since with an increasing amount of adventure racing opportunities for people to enjoy. Since the sport began in New Zealand in 1989, Kiwis have led the world, at elite level expedition racing, development of women’s and youth adventure racing and generally mastering of the sport. Iconic events such as GODzone and Spring Challenge have practically made Adventure Racing a household term throughout New Zealand, certainly in the South Island. The Absolute Wilderness Adventure Race has grown into one of the key events on the New Zealand calendar, with a capacity field of 120-teams racing in the 2018 edition, as well as the event being the final round of the prestigious A1 Adventure Racing Series.
If you’ve entered the Absolute Wilderness Race, or you’re keen to get into Adventure Racing, this blog covers the basics on where to start and what to do. It has been compiled by Nathan Fa’avae, New Zealand’s leading adventure racer, five-time world champion, and creator of the ultra successful Spring Challenge. He is also the Race Director for the Absolute Wilderness race.
We hope you find what Nathan has to say useful in your pursuit of adventure.
- Adventure Racing is a team sport so the first thing you need to do is think about people you could race with, maybe get some friends involved and make it a shared challenge. Teams are typically 3 or 4-person, with some events being 2-person teams. My first rule with team mates, is asking myself if this a person I’d like to grab coffee with.
- The core sports are hiking, mountain biking and kayaking / rafting. Navigation is a key element so at least one person in each team has to be a navigator. Most events will cater for beginners and welcome new people to the sport, so no one needs to be expert at anything, you just need basic skills to begin with.
- Gear, this is the fun part! you need to gather a plethora of exciting stuff. See below for a more detailed gear list, but the basics are a mountain bike, hike and paddle gear and wear. In many races the rafts and kayaks are supplied but it’d pay to check that with the event you’re interested in.
- Pick an event to train for and challenge yourself at. There’s no rules or limits on how much time you need to prepare for an event, but ideally about 12-weeks is a sensible lead in time to an event, allowing yourself time to prepare. Most adventure racers will say that the training and lifestyle preparing for an event is more value to them than doing the event itself, in many ways, the event is the excuse / motivation to be more active, healthier, work towards a goal and share the experience with friends.
- Most people can learn the skills simply by spending time doing the various activities. If you need more support or instruction, local clubs are the best starting point. In most cities, there is a mountain bike club, tramping club, orienteering club and a kayaking/canoe club. There are also commercial instructors teaching the skills that a google search uncover.
- Most events will have regular newsletters building up to the event, these will be informative and help you prepare. Some events will simply post all the information you need on the event website. If all that fails, there will be a contact for the event so you can ask them directly.
- MOUNTAIN BIKE: the biggest factor in choosing a bike is budget. A good buy on trade me for $500 will get you a bike you could participate in a race with, or you could spend $10,000 on the highest tech bike on the market. It’s worth noting that you will need to spend more on bike shoes, helmet, gloves and tools, plus be aware that mountain bikes are relatively high maintenance, things wear out. I recommend full-suspension, 29er wheel size for most people. A speedo for measuring distance is useful for bike navigation.
- CLOTHING: there will be a compulsory gear list for the event you have entered. This is a list of gear that you need to carry or wear during the event, for comfort and safety. It pays to get your gear sorted well ahead of your event and understand it’s function.
- FOOTWEAR: Shoes are very much personal choice and finding something that suits your foot shape. Anyone who claims something is ‘the best’ is just a salesperson. It’s important to find something that works for you. Obviously a trail shoe is what you need, good grip and some foot protection. Lightweight boots can be better for some races, especially multi day ones. Orienteering shin guards (Trimtex) can be really helpful for some courses and terrain - places where there is off track travel. Most events will warn participants if there is a need for body protection from vegetation.
- NAVIGATION: a quality compass is well advised. Cheap compasses have weak needles and can be slow settling onto magnetic north. A good compass will align faster to north with more accuracy. If you have a Silva or Suunto compass you can’t go wrong.
- PADDLING: For many races paddles and life jackets are provided. It pays to find that out before you enter. Helmets maybe provided also if there is whitewater rafting. It is advised that you get your own boat and paddle for training. An ocean surf ski and a wing bladed paddle is very practical for New Zealand preparation. Pack rafts are becoming very popular and a cool adventure toy to have in your garage. Anyone serious about learning to kayak should enrol in a course at the NZ Kayak School in Murchison.
- How much to train for an Adventure Race largely depends on how much time you have to train, and more importantly, how much training you can recover from, taking into account what other responsibilities you have in your life. Training is dynamic because you need to train for three sports, running, biking and paddling. In order to build fitness and skills, you want to be exercising 1-2 hours per day, 6-days per week. A good way to train is to do two sessions of each sport per week. If you don’t have your own boat to paddle train, you could join an outrigger club or go to the gym for an upper body workout. If you’re worried about doing two much, many elite level adventure racers will train each discipline 8-hours per week, a total of 24-hours, so if you’re doing more than that, be careful not to over do it. Elite athletes typically train two disciplines per day.
- Make sure you have plenty of adventure in your training, being active in the outdoors is what will mould you into an adventure racer, take all opportunities to do outdoor sports, skiing, caving, climbing, swimming, tramping, get out into the wilderness as much as you can.
- I think many people put get put off exercise because they associate it with hard training, a work out. Adventure Racing being an endurance sport, means that all your training can be done at a steady rate, a pace where you can still have a conversation but you are slightly out of breath. If you’re feeling tired you can easy back off to an easy pace, and if you’re feeling great you can pick it up, but most of the time, a steady rate is ideal.
- In your training, make sure to have some team training sessions where you can talk about the team goals for the race, it’s vital everyone agrees and buys into the goal.
Are you a competitive team, a social team, what is your team goal? Don’t wait until the race starts to find this out!
- Aim to train with the gear you will be using in the race as much as possible.
- Arriving at the event: Typically there will be an event registration where you check in and collect your race pack, this will have race bibs and other things you may need for the race.
- In your bags of tricks, take some highlighters, permanent ink pens, scissors, a roll of cover seal (in case the maps are not waterproof), and a map bag.
- Race briefing is where the course is announced, up until this point you are unlikely to know the route the race will take you. The race director will explain the course, any safety information, update the weather forecast for the event and ensure everyone knows where to be, when and what is expected. After the race briefing it’s time to study the maps and plan your route. You should also sort your gear and equipment for race day and ensure your support crew knows and understands what is expected of them. Get some sleep!
- Going to the start line make sure you allow enough time, rushing to the start often means things are not being done properly and things are missed. Triple check you have the right gear you need at the start line. Have a good breakfast and take extra gear with you to the start, snacks and drink, warm clothing, sun screen, insect repellent, toilet paper.
- The most common things that will create issues for teams in a race is pacing, poor team work and navigation. Most teams will start racing to hard at the start and subsequently someone in the team ends up in bad shape, and the team needs to slow down and start helping this person, by towing them, carrying their gear, or stopping and resting. It’s far better to set a comfortable pace and warm into the race. Team work in a functional team means they are strong communicators and willing to help each other. Putting the team before self. For a team to succeed, team members need to manage their ego and be honest with how they are feeling, telling your teams mates you are struggling is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. Many teams spend a lot of time making navigational errors or taking a long time on stages due to poor route choice. I can’t stress the importance of navigation. Most people will spend hours each week biking and running but don’t do anything to practice their navigation.
- Having realistic goals is also very important and focus on your own race, don’t get caught up racing other teams which will distract you from what is best for your team.
- After over 25-years of training and racing, with untold experimentation in diet to find the ultimate sports nutrition, I’ve come to the conclusion that a sound healthy diet is eating natural food, avoiding processed food where possible. My normal diet consists of plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, quality meats, nuts and seeds, rice, pasta, yogurt and ice cream. I drink water, non-alcoholic beer and coffee.
- The more racing I do, the more freeze dried meals I race with. I budget on a freeze dried meal every four hours, then fill in the gaps with snacks. In hot climates I race with Saltsticks to ensure I’m getting mineral replacement.
MAPS AND COURSE NOTES
Different events have different methods of giving the maps out. It’s normally at or before race briefing, but sometimes it can be at the start line, or even drip fed as the race goes on, stage by stage.
Having good map bags is important, even waterproof maps can be damaged. Putting cover seal over the maps ensures they last. Having a map bag provides another layer of protection and makes it easy to carry and manage. On the bike, it’s highly recommended to have a map holder (nordenmark). You will also need to take the ‘course notes’ or ‘race handbook’ with you through the race, so having a way of protecting them is needed.
2-people is a good number for support crew. Their job is to help you throughout the day, by meeting you at Transition Areas (TA’s) where you swap from one stage to the next, changing discipline. They will have the equipment you require. Most events permit one vehicle per team, and it’s best to have 4x4.
What Nathan Fa’avae races with:
- BIKE: Santa Cruz Tall Boy
- FOOTWEAR: inov8
- CLOTHING: I wear RAB clothing and gear for hiking and paddling, and Tineli cycle wear for biking. The RAB clothing is the most functional gear I’ve used, it’s also lightweight and stylish.
- SOCKS: I race with Bridgedale socks, I tend to use a wool blended sock for comfort and warmth. In hotter climates I race with a Bridgedale coolmax liner sock.
- BACKPACK: I have two Lowe Alpine Eclipse packs, a 35L and a 45L. I’ll take what pack best suits the load I need to carry. I like the look of the Klymit race pack also.
- LIGHTING: For both biking and hiking I use Gemini-Lights. I have a 950 lumen lamp for hiking and a 1500-lumen for biking. For a full night of racing I take 1 x 4-cell battery and 1 x 2-cell battery.
- MAP HOLDER: If I’m navigator I’ll have a Nordenmark map board on my bike. It’s essential if you’re navigating whilst riding that you have a map board fitted so you can read the map effectively while moving.
- PADDLE: For pack rafting I’ll use a Werner 4-piece pack raft paddle, I don’t like using a wing blade for pack rafting, it’s to limiting. For kayaks I race with a Legend Fluid and for ocean surf ski I use an Epic blade.
- COMPASS: I prefer a thumb compass that just orientates the map to north. I rarely use bearings so I don’t find a field compass that practical.
- FOOD: The more I race the more freeze dry food I carry. It’s ultra light, energy dense and offers a variety of food you couldn’t otherwise carry. I’ll budget one Absolute Wilderness Meal every 4-hours. A massive advantage of Absolute Wilderness meals is that rehydrate with cold water, which is essential for adventure racing. In between I’ll snack on other things, I really like Pics Peanut Butter slugs, the oil and savoury flavour makes them easy to eat and high energy.
- BIKE PACK: I have a full set of Revelate bags. For long bike stages in races, I aim to get most of the weight out of my back pack and onto my bike. It’s far more comfortable and therefore I ride better. It’s also easier access to food and items whilst riding.
- WATCH: I use a Suunto Core (no GPS). It has a loud alarm, an accurate altimeter and tells the time, all I need.
- HEALTH: I make sure I have a good supply of READY SET GO Antichafe, to prevent chafing and blisters. Having a basic but practical first aid kit is important too. I always make sure there is antibacterial cream or liquid, strapping tape and sports bandages. It’s worthwhile having pain relief and anti-inflammatory medication. Summer racing in New Zealand can have high risks with wasps in the forest so medication for allergic reactions is recommended.
Adventure Racing has been a major part of my life since 1999. It’s enabled me to travel the world, to have raced in 28-different countries, in all climatic zones, sea level to high altitude, experienced cultural diversity and observed a range of wildlife. I’ve raced over 100-events and plan to participate in more.
Adventure Racing is an exciting sport because it is so varied, dynamic and complex. Every race is different as new courses are used for every event. The number of different sports involved means that training is always different, new skills and new equipment needs to be mastered.
For many people, the sport is more a lifestyle change rather than a sporting competition. It’s a simple fact, Adventure Racers have to be motivated, organised, interesting and adventurous.
Be inspired and get into it!
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