Harvard Studies Adventure Racing

Last summer while racing in Utah, I met Daniel Gray Wilson, a doctoral fellow from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education who studies the psychology of teamwork.

He was at this race to conduct research on how teamwork is affected during times of great pressure and duress. (The event was a 10-day-long adventure race called Primal Quest that included a 450-mile course through the desert; more than 90 teams of four people each raced head to head, day and night on very little sleep.)

Wilson believes the sport of adventure racing provides a unique look into the human psyche. Indeed, he has committed much of his academic career over the past three years to analyzing the sport, including on-site monitoring where he raced with teams in the wilderness; pre- and post-race competitor surveys; and, most importantly, the analyzation of thousands of hours of close-up video taken during adventure races of teams trying to make decisions while lost or battling physical and mental hardships in the wilderness. (This is the kind of footage you saw on ESPN last October if you watched the broadcast of Primal Quest Utah.)

He hopes to apply his findings for use in “real-world” scenarios like high-pressure business deals, military situations, and politics. Team dynamics in these extreme conditions, Wilson says, give insights to everyday team situations like crisis management teams, military teams, emergency rooms or other high-pressure groups.

Meteorologists study hurricanes and tornadoes to understand the forces and conditions that affect every day weather patterns. Wilson applies this same formula of studying an extreme scenario (in this case human psychology in an adventure race) to glean insight into how people behave on an everyday or work-situation basis.

Wilson’s doctoral dissertation, which he finished two weeks ago for Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, looks specifically at the phenomenon of team behavior during adventure racing. This is the title of the dissertation:


Stay tuned for more on Wilson’s quest. I plan to soon write a full story on this man and his unique study on why adventure racing might be the perfect storm in which to study the human psyche under stress. I can certainly attest to that myself. . .

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Stephen Regenold

Stephen Regenold is Founder of GearJunkie, which he launched as a nationally-syndicated newspaper column in 2002. As a journalist and writer, Regenold has covered the outdoors industry for two decades, including as a correspondent for the New York Times. A father of five, Regenold and his wife live in Minneapolis.