Where is Adventure Racing going ?

In recent times since the rather confusing Adventure Racing World Champs, there has been a lot of debate on the direction that the sport is taking. There have been in particular some strong attacks on the use of optional points (OP’s) otherwise referred to as rogaining.  A lively debate took place here on a Checkpoint Tracker blog by Sean Clancy.


The following is our African perspective on this debate and the reason why we believe Adventure racing has evolved in this manner.

Prospective race organisers: don’t get put off the idea of rogaine type elements in an Adventure Race. I say ‘rogaine-type” simply because in many AR events the concept is adapted from a true rogaine, and AR has evolved this way for good reasons.

I have organised the Swazi Xtreme in Africa for the past 10 years. It has typically been a 3-day event ranging from 180-450km in length. For many years it has been the largest adventure race on the continent, measured in participation numbers.

For our first few years we employed the A to Z approach: it was a brutal event with only 30% of the teams achieving official finishes and the rest DNF (Did Not Finish – mainly because of missing cut-offs or lost morale and withdrawal when cut-off’s are perceived to be out-of-reach).

Problems with this A-Z approach:
1 – no-one likes a DNF result… and we saw our numbers dropping.
2- the difference between fast and slow teams was too great – winning teams often blitzed the course 30 hours faster than the slower teams and quite often packed up and went home before prize-giving and the official cut-off.
3- the race often spread out over more than 100km of trail, making race logistics and safety management difficult. 100km on an AR course can mean up to 200km by vehicle especially in poor access areas. We would typically be forced (by the lack of resources/competent marshals) to re-cycle our transition and control point marshals during a race – but when a race gets this far spread-out if becomes unmanageable.
4 – the racing became boring. Teams typically got themselves into finishing order in the first 12-18 hours, then cruised to maintain their splits. Results became very predictable.
5- at first DNF teams returned to re-attempt the event for two or three years in a row, in the hope of getting a hard-won official finish, but when it became apparent that they had no hope, the debate that raged here in our AR chat groups was: why should we participate at such great effort and expense, when in effect all we are doing is subsidizing the event for a few elite teams.

We saw the writing on the wall and evolved to hold two events rolled into one. A shorter SPORT event for weekend warriors and a tough PRO event for elite teams. Our numbers shot up to record levels, but this approach added some difficulties too:

1- In affect, we ended up running two almost separate races over the 3-days, which despite the potential economies of scale, became an even greater organisational challenge. Even with attempts to have common transition points for both SPORT and PRO events, we were often forced into having separate transitions by simple distance constraints… which doubled set-up costs, pre-event organisation and race management.
2- the ratio of race returns to cost/time input by the race director became unsustainable, as designing two events that could run successfully side-by-side was incredibly demanding and complex.
3- SPORT racers still struggled with the event, especially the night legs where navigational skills were at a premium.
4- we still had considerable gaps in both the PRO and SPORT fields with some teams still finishing 24 hours or more ahead of the rest. Who in an elite team wants to hang around for a 4th day prize-giving, for an event that is completed in 1.5 days?

In recent years we finally solved these problems in two ways. First, our SPORT event became a staged race, racing predominately daylight hours only, whilst the PRO racers raced day and night. The PRO night legs would typically be a loop that brought them back to the same overnight transition used by the SPORT racers by daybreak.

Second, we introduced rogaine style Optional Points (OP’s) as an overlay for the Compulsory Point(CP)defined race route. Optional Points(OP’s)are in effect a voluntary short-coursing system that is much more flexible than traditional re-routing approaches. The Compulsory Points(CP’s) define the shortest A to Z route. Miss a CP and teams are marked unofficial finishers – full-stop. The winning team in both events is determined as the team that obviously had all compulsory points checked and had the most optional points collected, from zig-zagging on and off the A-Z route. If teams were tied on points – the final result was based on the shortest race time on the final stage.

For this approach to work, it requires more optional points than can be physically collected during any one stage. It creates a dynamic where teams that want to win have to stretch themselves from start to finish of each stage and to constantly make strategic changes to route choice. Teams may not collect a missed CP or OP in the next stage, but depending on race design teams could be allowed to mix the use of bike, foot and canoe to go back for missed points – if this adds strategic value to the race.

To ease the event’s logistical management we split the race into 5 days – Day 1, Day 1(night), Day 2, Day 2(night) and Day 3. Teams were forced to finish each stage within the allocated 12 hours 6am to 6pm, 6pm to 6am, with PRO races doing all 5 stages and the SPORT racers only doing the 3 daylight legs. This allowed us to open and close stages at designated times and shift marshals ahead on the course. Teams that stayed out longer than the 12 hours lost an Optional Point for every 10 minutes that they overshot the stage cut-off… a disaster for competitive teams. Really slow teams would be forced to stick to CP points for the next stage until back with the rest of the race field.

What were the benefits of this approach:
1- we started achieving 90% and 100% finishing rates – our participants got what they wanted – to officially finish the event.
2- we could run the race with a small team of highly competent marshals rather than risk slip-up’s with a huge band of ill-prepared volunteers.
3- the event stayed within a focused area at all times making paramedic attention and Race Director problem-solving much more effective.
4- all teams arrived at the finish at the same time – sometimes the entire field within an hour of each other – great atmosphere.
5- novice teams got to race side-by-side with elite teams re-joining the A-Z compulsory route from time to time – a great morale booster.
6 – the fast teams in the PRO and SPORT events raced for 60 and 36 hours respectively to arrive at the finish physically stuffed but elated by the challenge of squeezing in extra OP’s under time pressure. Teams can never afford to cruise and “maintain position”, as the variable route options mean not knowing until the end of a stage if another team hasn’t collected extra OP’s.  The slowest SPORT and PRO teams would race for a similar length of time, arriving at the finish equally challenged by the same hours of effort, but spent on a lesser compulsory race distance.
7 – teams are able to recover from disasters and stay in the race. For example, a team with major mechanical issues on a cycle leg, could straight-line the CP’s to the transition towed or even on foot, and then start the next leg fast, still in contention, rather than being forced into a DNF by the sheer impossibility of completing an inflexible long leg with a broken bike. Or teams with a physically-ailing member could voluntarily short-course a stage by sticking to CP’s, finish the stage early, bank some sleep or get medical assistance in transition, then kick off the next stage stronger and faster.
8 – teams are able to specialise and make use of strategic strengths. A strong cycling team would maximise optionals on cycle legs, whilst a strong team on foot would aim to use this to their advantage instead.
9 – bottlenecks at ropework sessions can eliminated by setting up separate SPORT and PRO ropes – so fast teams would generally not be held up behind slow racers. Ropework has often been made a weighted optional point, i.e: an OP at the bottom and at the top of the cliff making it a worthwhile double point. One or neither points need be compulsory, so if an unforeseen bottleneck does occur teams can collect the first CP or OP – for getting there, but elect to carry on without completing the section if a queue is encountered and the second optional point is not worth the wait.
10 – OP’s can be set for any special skill activities or very extremely adventurous sections. This allows teams with hang-ups about ropework, scaling heights, big cliff-into-water jumps, claustrophobia or white-water sections to still enter the event knowing that they aren’t forced to do activities they don’t feel comfortable with. These very adventurous activities can be weighted with a cluster of OP’s to reward the truly skilled and adventurous teams.
11 – this flexible event design means that a race director doesn’t need to change the course mid-race if foul weather or other unforeseen impacts effect the race. All competitors will automatically stick closer to the CP’s and cut-out OP’s that will be too time consuming in thick fog, howling winds, torrential downpours, snow, excessive heat etc.
12. This approach allows organisers to keep it straight and simple. This CP/OP mix does not need any complicated time additions or subtractions. Teams/spectators can be easily kept updated on how many optional points they have – simple round numbers 24, 39, 70 etc… and this can be conveyed live to the internet-viewing public with simple and available technology. Its only on the last leg to the finish when teams are timed for tie-breaker purposes. Points collected can be updated against a stage by stage 12 hour count-down.
13. The simplicity of this system requires little translation. Foreign-language racers can focus on map-reading and not on rule interpretation.

This approach has really worked for us on the Swazi Xtreme and I believe from direct feedback from individuals who have raced all of our events – that this most recent approach is also the most successful.

So why do some passionate AR enthusiasts detest rogaining or optional points?

The challenge I believe for race organisers is to keep the spirit of adventure alive. Teams need to be adventuring and using the best means (cycle, foot, rope, raft, canoe) to tackle a particular leg or obstacle.  They also need to feel that they are going somewhere. There must be a logical flow to the route. Out and back tree-type branches from a single trunk is a painful and demoralising route design. Instead the optional race routes should appear like a multi-stemmed vine criss-crossing the CP-defined trunk route.

In planning an event, the race director should be looking for a main compulsory route first, then at numerous optional routes, and lastly selecting the optimum positions to place both CP’s and OP’s. The race should be about route choice and not points. The point scoring system can be so simple that a 10-year old can manage it. Let the beauty of the event be the translation of map features into successful route choice and forget any other hard to explain scoring or timing mechanisms.

…and finally: true adventure is unpredictable, optional points or routes introduce an element of luck, as some points may turn out easier and quicker to reach than others. However, this doesn’t mean route choice is a lottery – the best elite teams are consistently the “luckiest” ones too.

If racers want to race nose to tail down an almost similar A-Z route just to say they officially finished a 180km race, then my response is for them to take up Ironman or similar predictable triathlon events that are all about physical endurance or speed. Adventure Racing by its very nature requires the added value of elements such as uncertainty, risk and luck together with the strategic matching of physical and mental ability to the race environment.

Keep adding value! Keep the spirit of adventure alive.

Darron Raw
Race Director
Swazi Xtreme
2001 to 2010


~ by swazidarron on 15/11/2010.

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