Adventure Racing for Geeks

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I'm going to talk about adventure racing. Yes I'm talking about getting outside and abusing your body, and that doesn't sound very geeky at first. I had a whole list of juicy geeky topics to talk about but Ashley liked the sound of adventure racing, and one thing I have to say is that if there is a geeky form of exercising, adventure racing must be it.

For starters, I used to play Dungeons & Dragons when I was a kid, and it has a lot in common with adventure racing. Adventure racing is basically a combination of endurance sports - biking, hiking and bushwhacking (which is hiking off-trail), paddling, rock climbing, whatever - and that's the point, it always has an unpredictability to it. And this is the perfect analogy: the race planner is your dungeonmaster. And this person is always out to surprise you with unexpected adventure. I've only been on two races, and I've swam across a lake, done a ropes course a couple stories above ground, and gone whitewater rafting at the man-made Olympic training grounds. And there's tons more of crazy challenges out there as well.

One thing that defines adventure racing is the length of time. The races are long! The two I've been on were 8 and 10 hours, but there's a lot of variation. But don't think that this is just for people that are super-athletes. I have never run a marathon or done a triathon. I used to ride my bike to work but hadn't done anything for a year or more when I got tricked into my first race. The name of our team is the thirsty turtles, and that's because we hardly ever run. Slow and steady wins the race.

The trick is to fuel your body as you go. It is absolutely amazing what it can do if you keep it fueled with carbs and hydration. You're going to want to bring Gu packs and Clif shots. These are little packs of... basically... flavored high-density carbs. You should down one every couple hours to keep your body fueled.

For hydration, one element of essential adventure racing gear is called a camelbak. That name, as well as the look, are pretty dorky, but this thing has real tangible benefits to get you through 10 hours or more of racing. You definitely want to put some water in there. But there's another secret hacker ingredient to add to the mix. Caffeine keeps your mind energized, and it works for energizing your body too. I like to spike my water with an energy drink or two. My brand of choice is Sobe life waters, they've got guarana and other caffeine sources depending on the flavor but not enough to kill you and they taste great.

Wearing the camelbak and biking and bushwhacking through the woods can make you look like a real nerd. (demonstrate) But with just the right gear to keep you going, you'll hit this point where you feel a primal connection to what's around you, taking you back to the days when we were out foraging through the woods every day. You really feel alive. Or it may be that I just put too much caffeine in my pack.

The flavor of adventure racing that I'm familiar with includes orienteering. At some point in the race, sometimes more than once, you'll be given a map, along with a set of coordinates to plot. These are called the checkpoints, and there's no telling where they are placed. You'll have to navigate to the checkpoints and punch a card with the puncher at the checkpoint. Some races set up the points in a linear path, but for me, the more fun races are in a format called "rogaine", where the checkpoints are given different values and you have to decide which ones to go for and in what order. Usually they set up enough points so that no one can clear the course in the alloted time, so it's a real challenge. Maybe it's called rogaine because it makes you pull your hair out, not sure... but it really adds to the excitement.

Someone on the team is supposed to have a cellphone. You have to leave your smartphone off and rely on the map and compass to navigate - very old skool and very fun! The map has contour lines and you need to get good at reading them. Anyone familiar with them? Basically a line is plotted for each particular elevation. For example, one line snakes around the landscape at all the points where the eleveation is, say, 500' about sea level or whatever. A big hill looks like a small circle at the top, with concentric circles expanding outward as the slope drops off. I'll pass a map around to give you the idea.

So let's talk big gear. Primarily, you are going to need a mountain bike. I have no desire to particitate in a sport that is all about spending money on gear. The focus has to be on getting out and having some fun. But this is the big ticket item. You can slum it in most ways, but you're going to want a bike that's strong and isn't going to fall apart on you. The week before my first adventure race, I took out what I thought I would use, a 25-year-old urban commuter bike, to some nearby mountain bike trails, and it literally fell apart on me. By the time I finished the bike loop, I had no brakes and was doing the Fred Flinstone to stop. I ended up blowing some cash on a new bike just as the bike shop was closing the night before the race. And that is definitely in the spirit of adventure racing!

Bikes come in a few flavors, as you might guess. The first big choice is whether you want front or full suspension. Standard mountain bikes all have a hydraulic front fork to absorb impact. A full suspension bike has some form of suspension on the rear as well. This can literally save your ass. You can stay in your seat more with a full suspension bike without giving yourself a rectal exam. With a hardtail bike, where there's no rear suspension, you do not want to ricochet off of something solid while you're in the saddle. Most guys have a natural intuition about this. It's not really something you have to explain.

The other very-real advantage to a bike with more suspension is similar to the advantages you get in any other vehicle. You get to hold on to more of your momentum. Without suspension, when you hit a bump, the direction of travel of the center of your mass is redirected up and your forward motion is reduced. With suspension, you can glide over the bumps and hold on to more of your forward speed.

The counterpoint to full suspension is that a hardtail bike is more rigid. You'll probably be able to crank hard on straightaways a little better on a hardtail. They are also typically lighter, and cheaper, which is always good!

If you can afford it I would go for disc brakes. These things can lock up your tires any time you like, which is good when you've careened off the trail. They just rock. Again, more expensive. Up to you.

Another major difference in bikes is the tire diameter. Most are 26" but some newer bikes are 29". The bigger diameter lets you roll right over most stuff, while the 26" lets you navigate the "technical" elements better. Technical elements - that basically means lots of shit to navigate. On good trails, you'll hit a thousand big roots and bumps and you'll jump logs and navigate rocks and skinny bridges and you might want the smaller-diameter tire to help you turn on a dime. But there's something really fun about powering straight through the stuff too. Up to you how you want to attack it.

One thing that's been really fun to get a handle on is jumping logs. You can jump MASSIVE logs on a mountain bike. The trick is to pop a wheelie over the log, and stick your chain ring into the wood. And KEEP PEDDLING hard and you'll roll right over some amazingly large logs. Lots of trails intentionally drop logs across the trail for your enjoyment. Good stuff.

That covers mountain biking on trails. But with adventure racing you'll be all over the place. On the races I've been on, we always ended up travelling some distance on major roads. To give you an advantage on this terrain, I would recommend you keep your tires inflated well. It's worth the extra bumpiness on the trails.

Additional gear requirements are pretty minimal, but there are some essentials that help a lot. You must have a compass and a whistle. Take a spare tube for sure. Gloves. Chances are very good that you're going to get very wet at some point. I've tried to pack extra socks and shoes, definitely not worth it, just wear shoes that you can take through all types of terrain. Maybe a ziplock bag with extra socks... but chances are you'll be too busy powering through on adrenaline to change. If it's a night ride, definitely invest in a light on your helmet. I went for my first night ride last night, and I was frantically weaving all over the trail trying to light it up and find my way. With a light on your helmet you can point the light to where you WANT to go, not just where you're going, which is often the wrong direction!

A final note: I got tricked into my first race. Basically a good friend of mine who knows me well got me excited about it enough to sign up for a race, far enough in the future that I could convince myself I'd get in shape for it. Of course the day came without me doing anything to get prepared, but we threw ourselves into it and had a blast. So try that trick yourself, go to checkpointtracker.com, set up a team and sign up for a race in the spring. You'll probably get scraped up. You'll definitely be exhausted. But most likely of all, you'll have a blast.