Adventure Racing's Dysfunction and 'Dueling National Champs'

By STEPHEN REGENOLD

One sport. Two national championship races. In the same state, in the same month. That is the strange and somewhat absurd situation U.S. adventure racers face this month when the sport’s two main overseeing entities, the United States Adventure Racing Association (USARA) and Checkpoint Tracker, will each host its own year-end “national championship” race in Kentucky.

First up, USARA hosts its National Championship Race starting this week, on October 6, in Cumberland Falls State Park, Kentucky. Two weeks later, a couple hours’ drive west in the same state, is the Adventure Racing Championship by Checkpoint Tracker. Both are 24-hour races, and both will likely feature the same disciplines, similar race distances, and — because of their geographic proximity — feature mirroring terrain and topography for teams battling for the “national champion” crown.

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The glories of adventure racing! Canoes, shoe-sucking mud, and disassembled bikes on the course

“Our team is currently signed up for both national championships,” said Justin Bakken, captain of Team WEDALI, the 2010 USARA national champs. A handful of top teams like WEDALI will do both races, including Team ImONPoint, the defending Checkpoint Tracker national champions. Most squads will pick between USARA and Checkpoint Tracker, not do both.

Confusion over “national championship” status is a new phenomenon. Until last year, when Checkpoint Tracker hosted its inaugural Adventure Racing Championship in Moab, Utah, the USARA had a monopoly on the championship event, which it has hosted for more than a decade. But Checkpoint Tracker, an organization that provides a widely-embraced national team ranking system, quickly gained a name for itself as it was affiliated with a nationwide series of events.

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Racers line up with riverboards at 2010 Adventure Racing Championship in Moab, Utah

Paul Angell, president of Checkpoint Tracker, and USARA director Troy Farrar both maintain the dueling Kentucky races were a coincidence. Apparently, neither organization knew until it was too late. “It is a shame that both events are in October in the same state,” Farrar said.

Coincidence aside, the occurrence will serve as an interesting flashpoint for the adventure racing community. The two organizations have locked horns, and this month the adventure-racing public — by attendance to one of the Kentucky events or the other — will validate the legitimacy or relevance of each organization. So far, Checkpoint Tracker is ahead on that front with about 180 registered racers versus about 105 for USARA. (Teams must qualify in order to attend the USARA Adventure Race National Championship by placing in the top-three spots at a USARA race; Checkpoint Tracker’s race is open to all teams who have competed in a CPT series event.)

Beyond the championship races, USARA and CPTracker carry similar weight in the domestic adventure racing scene. Both provide ranking systems that award teams points during the season. Teams accumulate either USARA or CPTracker points while racing in events throughout the spring and summer before heading to the championship in the fall.

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Racers strike out of the gate on a bike leg

Some teams favor one race series over another, but most teams do not care — it comes down to what races are in your team’s region and which you want to do. For most racers, affiliation with USARA or CPTracker is secondary, though squads vying for national recognition may travel to earn USARA or CPTracker points during the regular season. “We could hardly find any USARA races to do in our region [the West] this year so we default to Checkpoint Tracker,” said Jason Magness of Team GearJunkie/YogaSlackers, a team sponsored by this website. This year, Team GearJunkie/YogaSlackers will compete in the Checkpoint Tracker national champs race only.

The dueling national championship events is the latest snag for the sport of AR, which has withered in some respects in recent years. Since its rise in visibility more than a decade ago, adventure racing has been the little outdoors sport that can’t gain a critical mass. The national championship races are healthily attended, but participation numbers are down in many regular season races. Entire AR series in states like Minnesota have been cancelled, and the big domestic races that used to warrant TV coverage and national attention, notably Primal Quest, are infrequent and skimmed back significantly from just five years ago.

On a cultural scale, the sport is all but invisible. Ask a member of the general public, even an outdoorsy person, what adventure racing is and you’ll most often get blank stares. Even mainstream outdoors publications largely ignore AR or get it wrong. Outside magazine’s October feature on “adventure racing,” written by Whitey Dreier, includes no wilderness events and no races in the Checkpoint Tracker or USARA series. Instead, Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash, and Muddy Buddy were highlighted in the article, essentially mis-categorizing the whole sport.

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Scenes from the sport: Varying disciplines, maps, complex rules, and long wilderness courses make AR a tough sport for the general public to digest

“Honestly, the sport is a complete mess in the United States right now,” said Jason Elsenraat, director of Bonk Hard Racing LLC and the race director of one of this year’s national championships. Elsenraat has directed more than 60 races in his career and is one of the most respected men in the business. He has directed USARA Adventure Race National Championships in the past, but this year he will run the show at CP Tracker’s championship event in the Land Between the Lakes wilderness in Kentucky.

Elsenraat agrees that the doubled-up national championship events confuses racers, not to mention the general public. But dysfunction extends more into the entire AR scene, he noted. “In order for AR to grow in the United States, everyone needs to be on the same plan to organize, regulate, promote and ultimately grow the sport,” Elsenraat said. “Rules at each event are completely different, distances and time frames can vary from one race to the next — one part of me says all of this is a huge disadvantage to the growth of the sport.”

Beyond the lack of congruency Elsenraat notes, quality is an issue in the sport as a whole. Rules can be confusing, vague and random from race to race. There are few standards in the sport and despite USARA’s claim to it there is no excepted governing body. Race directors often change rules, cut-off times, and other variables while the race is live, frustrating participants.

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Racer punches at checkpoint flag on course

Basic logistics frequently fail, even at major races like this year’s Raid The North Extreme, an expedition race in British Columbia where teams waited for hours for their food or equipment to arrive at designated gear drops. Raid the North, a week-long event in July, was a low point for Magness in the sport. “We were dumbfounded by the mess of that race,” he said. (Read Magness’ report on the event here.)

Misplaced checkpoints are a problem at races across the country, from sprints to multi-day expeditions that cost thousands of dollars per team. Race directors from Georgia to British Columbia this season alone have been called out for misplacing checkpoints, a catastrophic whoops that can wreck a race. (On GearJunkie, last year we wrote on these issues extensively in an article, “An Open Letter To Adventure Race Directors,” which generated dozens of comments online from racers and readers on frustrations and ideas on how to improve the sport.)

Even national championship events suffer from poor course design and planning errors. One racer, who wanted to remain anonymous, rattled off a list of “offenses” at USARA championship events he has attended from 2004 onward, including mis-marked maps, mis-placed checkpoints, poor pre-race communication, and confusing rules that caused top teams to lose points. “I would say the issues were more the fault of the race directors [hired independently] than the governing body [USARA],” the racer said. “Even though the governing body is ultimately responsible for the race.”

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On-the-clock lines were unpopular at Checkpoint Tracker’s 2010 Adventure Racing Championship in Moab

Last year, at the debut of Checkpoint Tracker’s champs race in Moab, Utah, a race organized by Gravity Play Sports, there were long “on the clock” lines and bottlenecks at ropes sections, frustrating many teams. Rules were not clear for one section of the race, causing teams to employ varying strategies to accomplish a trek. Some teams, including Team Osprey Packs and Team YogaSlackers, which finished the entire racecourse respectively in first and second place, received huge penalties that added hours to their “official time,” ranking the squads below teams that finished much later. Justin Bakken, who captained Team WEDALI at the Moab event, said the mess-ups yielded “an awkward awards ceremony and a lot of heated post-race debate.” (See the comments section on our article about the race last year.)

Will the “dueling Kentucky champs races” change things in the sport this month? Will past errors, notably at the championship events, be forgiven or have dedicated racers hit a limit to what they can take? Kyle Peter of Team Tecnu Extreme/StaphAseptic, currently the No.2 team in the nation as per Checkpoint Tracker’s rankings, said frustrations are boiling and that the limit is close to being reached. “The CP Tracker race had some major issues last year,” said Peter. “Things have got to go off smoothly [at this year’s champs race] or the nationals won’t have any top teams or maybe not even exist in 2012.”

—Stephen Regenold is founder and editor of www.gearjunkie.com and captain of Team GearJunkie/YogaSlackers, currently ranked fifth in the nation. Regenold has written on adventure racing and covered the sport as a freelance journalist for the New York Times, Outside magazine, and other publications since 2003.

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Is the sport of AR in crisis? Not according to this happy racer at an Odyssey Adventure event

Posted by Earring Doug - 10/03/2011 12:06 PM

No pressure on you at all Jason. : ) I know you will pull it off for Yak. We have done several of your AR’s and you rock, and things are dialed. I am sure it will NOt be like last years debacle in Moab. Sheesh! nice to end the season on a high note this time versus a cluster!$%@^&*@%#$!# See you soon. Tecnu Extreme/StaphAseptic adventure racing team!

Posted by sean clancy - 10/03/2011 12:56 PM

Will we see a return to real AR…a-z RACING? Or another RIDICULOUS “optional cp” rogaine “event”?

Posted by andy magness - 10/03/2011 01:01 PM

As a race director and racer, i know that because of the challenges in setting up a new course for each event, even well run races can have things go wrong. One of the main issues, and what i feel is really a problem in the sport, is how a race organization reacts to these inevitable problem. When mistakes are made, the promoters or event organizers need to take responsibility for them. Decisions about technicalities and infractions need to explained and made with absolute transparency, and when possible (especially at something like a national championship) by a group of people who don’t have financial interest in the event or outcome. And as racers we need to accept the fact that there are going to be issues – after all thats the nature of the beast – the sport is all about embracing the unknown – new locations, new challenges, different and difficult logistics. Those who want the same rules for every event, etc, would perhaps be better off with xterra type events.

Posted by andy magness - 10/03/2011 01:16 PM

In response to sean – i understand your opinion – point to point races are where it all began and have a special kind of charm – but they are also tremendously more difficult logistically because of the major speed differences between competitive and back of the pack teams. From an organizers standpoint when trying to create an experience that challenges top teams and is accessible to slower teams, there are two choices – short courses or some type of optional CP format (whether as part of a pt. to pt race or on a rogaine section). And honestly, at least in this country, there is no way for an organizer to break even without the more ‘average’ teams. Even big races at the height of the AR (primal quest 06 for example) have so many short courses that late in the race you’re physically behind teams that you are ranked ahead of. And the problem of ‘knowing where you’re at in the field’ during a race, which is really what i think is important for many top racers, can be accommodated in a well run race by simple good ‘bookkeeping’ at strategically placed manned CP’s or TAs.

Posted by Leiza Morales - 10/03/2011 01:27 PM

I set up races for 10 years and loved doing it, but dealing with usara a private for profit corporation at the time was a night mare. Jim and I came up with the idea of keeping points for a year and having a series run like nascar. Glad to see that seems to be catching on, but as long as usara is around it is my opinion that AR will never become a mainstream sport. First and foremost in my mind it is entertainment with an element of competition and experiential learning. Until race directors realize that, and they stop catering to the elite athletes, it will never take off. Look at Tough Mudder, entertainment first and competition second. I do not promote races any more, but I believe Rattlesnake Racing helped move the sport in the right direction while we were around. And yes it is possible to design and host races with no missing CP’s and no misplaced ones. I have done it many times.

Posted by Jason Elsenraat - 10/03/2011 02:07 PM

My thoughts in this article are as a Race Director, but I have differing views as a racer in the sport. Personally, I’m not sure if adventure racing would be better off with huge numbers of racers. The sport is just not designed in a way to have a lot of racers (say, 600+ racers) at an event. It would really take away from the “adventure” aspect of the race, because it would be a whole lot of following the herd around (especially at shorter races like 24 hours or less). I hear a lot of talk about growing AR to the size of a Warrior Dash, but could an AR really support thousands of racers? Where would a RD get a 1000 canoes / kayaks, and the canoe put-in point / take-out point would have to be huge to accommodate all of those boats. What about lodging before the race for that many people? How could you find a REMOTE location that could accommodate that many racers? This is just one of many reasons why AR is destined to stay a smaller, niche sport. And, AS A RACER, that is just the way I like it.
I feel like adventure racing is a small fraternity of like-minded people, and I personally enjoy being a part of that fraternity. If everyone and their brother and sister knows about adventure racing and has competed in a race…we would simply be a part of the Warrior Dash / Tough Mudder / Muddy Buddy crowd that Outside Magazine incorrectly called adventure races. Those races are fun little races, but it doesn’t tell you anything about a racer that has competed in one. If someone says they are an adventure racer, I feel like I instantly have at least a little bit of a connection to that person, because it’s such a small crowd.

Anyway, as a race director, it would be nice to maybe have 400 racers at every event, but as a racer, I definitely wouldn’t want that. Part of the fun of participating in AR is not seeing anyone for hours while we’re racing and being out in the middle of nowhere with no one around. The “adventure” drew me more to the sport than the “race”. Just your team vs. the course. Not follow the herd.

For years there has been talk about if AR is still growing, and if not, why AR isn’t growing. I have personally stayed away from those discussions, because I am one of the very few people in the world that likes it just the way it is. A small group of like-minded people out to have a good time in the middle of nowhere. And I absolutely love it when I tell someone, especially an “outdoorsy” person, that I’m an adventure racer, and they look at me with that blank stare telling me instantly they’ve never heard of it…I get a smile on my face and explain, for the 1000th time, what an adventure race is.

Posted by Sean Clancy - 10/03/2011 02:55 PM

teams should never wait in a bottleneck behind lower-ranked teams that have skipped CPs. Never. Especially not in a “championship” race/event.

for newer teams, why not sprint races? maybe a 12hr? a 24 is a lot to chew for any team.

RDs: look at the success of HiTec/Balance Bar sprint races, with OVER 200 TEAMS in places like Sacramento! Why? It was accessible. 2.5-3hrs for winners, maybe double that for slower teams, and everyone did The Course. This was a Gateway Drug to longer races for some teams, but for the vast majority this was a huge accomplishment, a la Warrior Dash or Tough Mudder (which had 16,000 at Squaw Valley a couple weeks ago).

24hr races aren’t for everyone. They never were, and never will be.

At any race there may be a couple teams that blitz the course in 13=15 hrs, but WHO CARES? They are there to WIN, not to be out there for 24hrs. Create courses that take the thick of the bell curve 24hrs to complete, not the winners. If a race has 20 teams, and 2-3 are duking it out off the front, I can assure you the last thing those FOP teams are thinking is “gee I wish we could tack on an extra rogaine to make this longer”.

There is a market for entry level races for entry level racers, a la HiTec, that elite teams can still do as well (how many “elite” teams are there?Not many)…For 24hr RDs: build your race for MOP teams, with a JOURNEY, an ADVENTURE..with real navigation. A-Z format is totally doable if designed for MOP. If there is a “skippable section/short course” make it the LAST section, not one of the first. The debacle at last year’s Moab ropes section should never happen again. For Championship events, forget all that and make it a true championship course to challenge the country’s top teams.

My .02

Posted by Shawn Jeppesen - 10/03/2011 09:22 PM

I’ll give my two+ cents on this and say why I quit doing adventure races. First off I’m pretty competitive. When there is a stopwatch I am competing. If you aren’t there is no reason for a stopwatch. This isn’t entertainment. Entertainment is seeing Pixies at First Avenue and seeing Conrad lock the doors at 2am so they keep playing and still having two full pints sitting there because you planned ahead like adventure folks do. I’m also lucky in a way that for some odd reason am able to walk out of a bar after drinking a case of beer and smoking a pack or two of cigarettes and I’ll still be able to run a marathon two hours later. Stephen you have seen me show up like that. The other thing was the “activities” at check points. I’m an outdoor adventure sports nut with a fair amount of endurance. I’ve been on mountains in the winter and have considered the necessity of my toes. When I get to a checkpoint and someone tells me I have to run across the U.P. with an egg on a spoon and not break it I get annoyed. (you want me to run with an egg? what is my time penalty if I throw it at you?) I’m a climber and a mountain biker and during the day I do construction work and beat on things with hammers. I’m not a bird. If endurance is indeed the art of suffering all the books I’ve read missed the part where they talked about stupid things non-adventure type people put into races for endurance minded people that gave them migraines. It’s like asking Ned Overend to bunny hop a beer can.

There was also a lack of communication between race directors and volunteers. It seemed that some (many) of the volunteers didn’t actually understand that we were actually racing. When I got to some checkpoints I felt like I was talking to my old fumbling and over protective grandparents who had no clue about what kind of people we were. That’s on the RD’s. It’s not on the volunteers and it seems because these things were not communicated it cost us time. You can’t have slogans like “ounces = time” and then have bottle necks and fumblers who get annoyed that we’re in a hurry because we want to win. I’ve volunteered for many races. I take that seriously. People are competing for standings and prizes and it is serious to them. They all paid at least $100 to win the prize. Even if they are here for entertainment I still need to be serious and apparently the RD didn’t make that clear.

There was also a lack of planning with the race directors for watercraft and bikes at checkpoints. We did a race in Quetico where we waited for over two hours for our canoes and all of the sudden got shoved out on to the course with about 25 canoes onto a river that was so narrow that only one canoe could go through at a time and the people that got there before us and actually got canoes right when they got there were far gone. Their race was hours ahead. Our race was over. Had there been canoes for us we could have finished hours earlier and possibly beat them because it would have been daylight navigation as we had planned but instead we got bottle necked and ended up sleeping on some island lake. Our race was over. If I remember right our entry fee was around $1,000. Really? We get that for $1,000? At that time I could have gone to the UK for a week for $1,000….probably spent a fair amount of time in Amsterdam too and visited the Anne Frank and Van Gogh museum between coffee shops.

The final straw for me was the prizes. In a race we took first in for a $600 team registration we got four t-shirts. None of them fit us and two were for women and there was only woman on our team. One of us said, “I’ll give it to my wife” but it didn’t fit her either because it was for a little girl. So for $600 we got four t-shirts that looked like they came from a clearance rack from the sponsors store. So, $40 total worth of shirts for a $600 team registration fee and none of us could even wear them. Mine is still hanging in my closet because I can’t wear it. I go to Alley Cat races in my town and if you win at some for a $5 entry fee you can win a $2,000+ custom handmade frame set. A first place prize should at least be on the level of pull tabs where the lowest possible prize is a replay or in this case free entry for the team into the next race. If not you haven’t given me any reason to come back. And that’s how it went.

And…especially if you have those yellow rubber kayaks. Listen, they suck. We hate them. I could blow up a waterbed mattress and paddle across a lake faster. Never use those yellow kayaks. Not ever and especially don’t give our team one when it has a hole in it. For $600 a kayak with a hole in it?
Race directors need to be on the same page. Is this entertainment or is it a real sport? Are RD’s and thier volunteers going to take it seriously like the people that really come there to compete or are they going to go the direction of having it be entertainment? If it’s the former then it’s like a reality show muddy buddy circuit and having nationals is a joke.

Posted by Brandon - 10/06/2011 03:32 PM

As long as AR has “private” organizations supposedly governing it, it will never be able to gain mainstream status. Private entities like the USARA and CPT will always do what is best for them. This is just a fact of running a for profit business.
It’s time to form a Non-Profit governing organization similar to USAT, where the body actually regulates the members of the organization for the promotion of the sport as a whole. Its time to start thinking of the sport that we love and its future.

Posted by Josh - 10/06/2011 04:06 PM

I personally am thrilled that there are two National Championship races in the US. I would just like to see one west of the Mississippi, haha.

As an amateur, non-sponsored racer, who used to have use vacation time to get to a race, I love to see more races occurring. Even now, I have to carefully budget and chose the races I want to hit.

Inconsistency of races, even within the same series, makes the race more fun. You never know what to plan on. Hence the word “Adventure.” Winning teams should need to use problem solving and creativity to get to the checkpoints faster. More rules belong in sports like triathlons and the Olympics. And if you don’t like waiting in lines, be sure to get there first (kind of like real life…).

Is it entertainment or a “real sport?” Why does there need to be a line drawn? I did the “Tough-Mudder” this year. I didn’t realize that it was a fun run rather than a race, and was a bit disappointed. But I still had fun. But when I need my competitive fix, I know where to go.

I like the status of adventure racing as it is.

Posted by Rich Brazeau - 10/06/2011 04:30 PM

I agree with you 100% Jason. Adventure racing is not for everyone and was never intended for the masses. Let’s face it, it is a niche/fringe sport and there is absolutely no shame in that.

Stephen’s article is dead-on in saying the sport is a mess with dueling organizations trying to stake claim to a fictional “National Championship” moniker. Yet, does anyone outside the sport really care that much?

What was most alarming to me was reading the Outside Magazine article that Stephen mentioned and seeing non-adventure races featured as “adventure racing”. To compound the miscategorization, we had the USARA quoted in the article (as a de-facto governing body) and not clarifying, at a basic level, that adventure races include multiple sporting disciplines and navigation — therefore, none of those fun events mentioned are actually adventure races! Then again, maybe USARA thinks that including treasure-hunts, obstacle courses, mud runs, crossfit, geocaching, etc. will help broaden the reach of the newly defined “adventure racing”.

Posted by Hani - 10/07/2011 11:58 AM

Great article. And I am really surprised by the number of racers doing these championships. Having been raised in the triathlon era, I have heard all these arguments. Ironman was it. There was no half, olympic, or sprints. Ironman was the same as ECO challenge. People watched it and would never imagine to do it. And for some on this comment list, that would be perfectly ok. And when we added Sprint, olympic, and Half, people complained that we were killing the sport of Triathlon. That we were watering it down. But today, the sport is exploding and the Hawaii Ironman is still as hard as ever. Why not make the sport more accessible at some level. Or is the goal to keep it exclusive to 200 athletes. http://arcalifornia.org is a non-profit trying to grow the sport locally. You can still have you 8,12,24+ hour events and I am sure the same people will come to support you.

Posted by Brian - 10/10/2011 10:47 AM

I also agree with Jason. The sport is not intended for everyone. Try to make it appeal to a broad segment and it would lose the adventure, as well as many existing participants. On the other hand, I’m more concerned about our sport dying than being overrun with new partipcants.

I don’t mind explaining AR to the uninitiated. But I cringe at the thought of someone visualizing a muddy buddy when they learn I adventure race. Too bad there wasn’t a real governing body that could have protected our sport’s name.

Posted by YK - 10/13/2011 12:43 AM

Hey guys. I just did the Berryman. And Jason’s course rocks! We were the Hong Kong team. Absolutely loved the mix of navigation and multisport and the unknowns of weather and water management. I would never equate AR with ironmans. ARs are about skill, adventure, endurance, facing unknowns, teamwork and comraderie. I’m actually happy with the race format. I like the fact that incoporated in most race rules is that you should always help fellow racers in need. But I can understand how it would freak out elite atheletes who want to win. Just sad to hear that Jason is leaving the world of RD to be a racer. Jason I still have my 25% off for that bonk hard race!

Posted by Wade - 10/18/2011 07:02 PM

Hani, You have a great point. The Huntsville Hammer race in Texas has been growing the last few years had nearly 300 racers last November. The format is much as you suggest with a 2 hour sprint , 6 and 12 hour race. The numbers run 150, 100, and 50 respectively. Adventure race directors should provide for people to have a first race, a good race and fun race. Nothing like a sprint with a shared start alongside a 6 and 12 to give them a glimpse of the addiction that waits.

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