Women in AR

article011Women are an integral part of adventure racing and not only as ‘mandatory equipment’ – a phrase coined, in jest, by Team Mazda. While female team-members are sometimes only deemed necessary only to classify a team as ‘official’, women are definitely not to be considered the weaker gender, especially over multi-day events.

Three + One = Four
Unlike most sports where separate categories for men and women exist, adventure racing sees women and men competing as equal members in a team. In shorter races where speed is essential, the woman may feel added pressure to perform at the same level as her male teammates but in the longer, expedition-length races, the athletic differences between men and women are neutralised. Sonja Otto confirms this. “Women have a natural endurance because of the way we were put together. We always get stronger as the race gets longer.”

Women are smaller
It stands to reason that the smallest and lightest member of the team should carry less than the others. Michelle Lombardi agrees. “I carry all my own stuff like food, water and clothes but I don’t carry any of the extra weight. I believe that in order not to slow the guys down, that is how it should be.”

Tugging and towing
Almost without exception, at some stage in the race each team-member will go through a phase where their performace is decreased and they may need assistance from their teammates. Assistance could mean handing over your backpack to a stronger teammate for a while or hooking up on a bungi cord over a hiking section or being towed on your bike.

Leave your ego in the transition area (men included)
Adventure racing is about the team, not the individual. Being towed or having your backpack taken from you for a while is an effective way of increasing the team’s overall rate of progress. If you’re offered assistance, take it. Your teammates are trying to help and are not condemming you for being a little slower than them. And guys, don’t refuse assistance from your female teammates. Otto recalls a time when she was able to help Hano, her husband and teammate. “Sometimes we are stronger than the men, especially later in the race. It has happened to me where I was able to help Hano. He’d assisted me many times before this so it really felt good to help him. But Hano was not worried about the fact that I had to help him, in fact he was quite proud of it. If you are insecure about being helped, you are not in the right team.”

Stronger than the guys?
Physically, women (at the same level of competition) are not as strong or as fast as men even though they have exceptional endurance. While it does feel good to be stronger than your teammates Lombardi advises, “If you are stronger than the guys – Go girl, and find yourself a stronger team.”

Supreme Athletes
In 2001, Mark Collins was living in Spain, taking part in the many adventure races. In an email to Mark I’d enquired about the women taking part and the issue of towing and assistance. He replied, “All the top teams tow their female member on the bike legs. A misconception is that the female member gets to ‘rest’ by being towed. On the contrary, the person in tow works harder than ever. This system serves to increase the overall speed of the team considerably, especially on the up-hills. This technique is also adapted for the sections on foot and for sprint finishes. Most of the women in these teams are supreme athletes and would be by far the stronger team members in the more ordinary teams further back in the field. It is a testament to the pace of the race that they are towed.”

Girl Power
While the number of female racers is starting to increase, far too many women doubt their abilities. Girls, you’d be surprised. In this game mental strength counts and while your male teammates may have a physical strength advantage, you can compete – and excel.

Author: Lisa de Speville | Photo by Jacques Marais, Swazi Xtreme 2009