Browse any article, book or web resource on the sport of adventure racing and you’ll find the word ‘team’ spread throughout: teams, teammates, teamwork, team skills, team dynamics. You’ll also find other words like communication, compatible, together and success.

It’s this team ‘thing’, along with wilderness navigation and multiple disciplines over vast distances, that separates adventure racing from its multisport cousin.

Adventure racing’s evolution began in the 1980s and was cemented in 1989 when Gerard Fusil, the man who breathed life into the sport of adventure racing, organised the first Raid Gauloises. Fusil describes it as “an adventure competition for people who would only use physical and mental strength and no mechanics”. Building on the foundation of multisport, which was well established – particularly in New Zealand, Fusil introduced three new concepts:

  • mixed gender teams of five, including at least one woman;
  • the team must stay together throughout, finishing the race together; and
  • the race would last several days and cover hundreds of kilometres, where the course is guided by checkpoints that must be located by means of wilderness navigation.

Currently, the established standard for multiday adventure races is mixed-gender teams of four. Newer short distance and staged races accommodate all-male teams as well as pairs.

There is no ‘I’ in team

If teams are a defining element of adventure racing – sprint races included, why do we repeatedly see teammates waiting, one of them running off – sometimes separated by a few hundred metres – to punch a checkpoint? What don’t they understand about the word together? The written rules of adventure racing stipulate that teammates may not be separated by more than 50 metres at any time during an event – yes, every event no matter what the distance. Penalties can, and have, been applied for infringements.

Why teams?

Aside from being part of the sport, the team format is for safety. Remember that adventure racing didn’t grow from the bottom to the top in terms of distance. The first races were expedition-style and they covered anything from 600 to 1,000 kilometres, taking over a week to complete. Teams are fundamental. Sprints, which are 20-35 kilometres in distance, are an offshoot. And, just as you inherited traits from your folks, so have sprint races – from their expedition-race parents.

In the first book written about this sport, Derek Paterson’s 1999 ‘Adventure Racing: Guide to Survival’, the author says, “Personal success will only come with team effort. There are all too many instances of team members being abandoned, sometimes in dire circumstances. Other teams, perhaps with individually less-talented athletes, have succeeded beyond their own – and anyone else’s – expectations because of their commitment, compassion, respect for each other and ability to communicate”.

Adventure racing legend Ian Adamson similarly notes in his 2004 book, ‘Runner’s World Guide to Adventure Racing: How to become a successful adventure racer and athlete’, that the biggest reason why teams fail to finish a race is not injuries or equipment failure; it’s their inability to work together. But, he adds, that provided the team is cohesive, focused, organised, motivated and well-led, just about any problem a team encounters during a race can be surmounted.

Team dynamics

The key to a successful team? It takes time to get to know people and how they react and interact at 4am, in near sub-zero conditions after 24 hours of racing, and a night of no sleep will certainly be different to their ‘social bike ride’ and ‘let’s do coffee’ personality.

Look for teammates who are evenly matched physically, mentally, emotionally and competitively; and, in preparation for a multiday event, test them pre-race on all-day and through-the-night training activities.

Finding your ‘ideal’ team for multiday races can take a year or two and through regular participation you will meet people on course who race at a similar pace; you may want to hook up with them for other events. Teammate selection for sprint races is a far more casual affair as even a top-notch athlete should be able to tolerate the slower pace of midfield teammates at a fun two-hour race.

If you’re happy to abandon teammates, making them wait while you go ahead, or if you find yourself thinking, “I wish they would allow solo entries,” then consider yourself more suited to multisport and triathlon.

Teams are as much a part of adventure racing as navigation, mountain biking, trekking and water disciplines. Great teamwork and resulting friendships produce the most rewarding experiences of your life.

Author: Lisa de Speville | Published in Go Multi magazine,  May-Jun 2010, Volume 14.2