6 Tips for a Successful Urban Adventure Race

Expect the unexpected in an urban adventure race. From navigating city streets to diving down a slip 'n slide, anything goes.

I'd just run up 14 flights in a downtown Denver staircase, and burst into an empty ballroom with my two teammates. We dashed across the room to windows overlooking the city. Skidding to a halt, we scanned the landscape for our next location. One of my teammates, Adam, spotted it and we bolted back down the stairs. I had no idea what he saw, but trusted that we were on the right track, and that I'd be able to handle it. Whatever it was.

Adam led the way across a grassy field and hopped a chain link fence. Then I saw what he had spied from on high: a sudsy slip 'n slide set on a city park knoll. Two grinning volunteers waited at the bottom. No sense in belaboring things, we were about to get soaked. We dove onto the slide and collided in a heap at the bottom. I giggled so much that I almost forgot this was a race. Almost. We leapt to our feet and ran a mile back to transition to regroup for our next task.

Urban adventure racing is a gentrified version of Primal Quest, an expedition-length race combining endurance sports, like running and biking, with navigation.

Popularized in the early 2000s, adventure races like Primal Quest became known as the most hardcore sporting endeavors in the U.S. The challenge was not only the length (up to 11 days), but also the sleep deprivation and an "expect-the-unexpected" mentality. Tasks like tubing, canyoneering, rappelling, hang gliding, and even riding a camel were all fair game.

Like its predecessor, the urban version prides itself on unusual tasks (hence the slip 'n slide), but the race takes place in the city, eliminating some of the scarier tasks, and lasts about four hours--making it doable for the average Jane. Tasks typically include running, biking, some form of swimming, floating or paddling, and climbing, with a few surprises in between. According to Jason Ornstein, founder and executive director of the Oyster Urban Adventure Racing Series, the most successful newbie in an urban adventure race is a runner.

"Endurance levels are typically higher for runners. Plus, it's much easier for a runner to jump on a bike and pedal 15 miles than it is for a cyclist to run five miles," Ornstein says.

Choose Your Team

Teams are traditionally groups of three, with all team members completing all events. Compete in either the coed or same sex category. Coed is the most popular, a carryover from adventure racing where the most winning combination is two men and one woman. This may seem counterintuitive, since men are stronger, but the woman provides the brains behind the operation, keeping the team on track and ensuring they don't take unnecessary risks. "A woman provides the cerebral ability that men tend to lack when their testosterone gets flowing," explains Ornstein.

Run with a Tow Rope

Since running will be your primary mode of transportation, be prepared to hoof it all over town. At the Denver race last summer, there was about 13 miles worth of running total. You will most likely have a stronger runner and a weaker runner on the team. It's legal to connect the two with a towrope, which can be as simple as a race belt and a bungee leash. Practice once or twice before the race to get a feel for it, and then pair the two for all running segments. Remember, you're only as fast as your weakest link.

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