The multiday, multisport team events known as adventure races make for high drama on television. Groups of three or four race across exotic landscapes--often complete with leeches, steep mountainsides and nearly impassable, wild overgrowth--by foot, bike, boat and sheer willpower for up to 10 days.
But you don't have to be an extreme athlete or travel to a remote, bug-filled jungle to participate in this fun team sport. These days, sprint-distance adventure races, lasting anywhere from two to five hours and covering 10 to 50 miles, are popping up all over the U.S. You can find races in city parks, on urban streets or in remote backcountry. (To find a race near you, search sites like active.com and usara.com.)
Generally, races consist of hiking or running, mountain biking and some form of water travel, like kayaking or canoeing. Sometimes, rappelling, or lowering yourself down a rock face by rope, is involved. You change gear between sports in transition areas, like you would during a triathlon. On a team of two to four, you travel with your group at all times--you may even have an assigned role. One person, for instance, may need to use a compass and serve as a navigator.
In an adventure race, there are no course markings to guide you. No more than 24 hours before the race, teams get a map and instructions that explain the order of events. The map may be pre-marked with points between the start and finish lines, but you must choose the best route to get there. Or you may have to plot the points on the map with coordinates given by a race director.
Sound complicated? It can be, but it's also extremely rewarding to use your mind, work with a team and push your athletic abilities to blaze through an elaborate course. Here are some tips to get you started.
Before the Race
Select your teammates wisely: Choosing people with similar goals and skill sets--and people you like even in tough conditions--makes all the difference. Pick one person who knows how to read a map, or is willing to learn. If you're on your own and looking to team up, check the race's website for a "team finder" function.
Train together: Run, bike and paddle with your teammates regularly to learn each other's strengths and weaknesses. That way, you'll know how to best deal with the challenges that may occur on race day. To learn how to navigate, consider taking a course or signing up online for a local orienteering meet (called an "O" meet).
Get organized: Make a list of everything you'll need before the race. Organize all your gear carefully so you know where everything is and can access it quickly.
During the Race
Pace yourself: Even for sprint races, don't go out too fast. You'll tax your body in all kinds of ways, and it's easy to hit the wall if you're not careful.
Help and be helped: Part of the fun of adventure racing is helping your teammates and being willing to accept help. If you're feeling strong, offer to take a teammate's backpack or give her a little push up a hill. If you're feeling tired put ego aside and ask for assistance.
Eat and drink constantly: Staying fueled and hydrated is vital, so always carry food and water or sports drinks.