Women in adventure racing

In adventure racing, the standard four-person team format specifies that at least one member must be of the opposite gender; and usually this results in a 3:1 male-female composition. As a result, it is not uncommon to hear women jokingly referred to as ‘mandatory equipment’. But, in this male-dominated sport, women bring far more to the team than additional X-chromosomes.

From sprints to multiday

The number of women participating in sprint races (25-35km) has increased exponentially, especially in Gauteng. Where there were two women’s three-person teams and a few pairs last year at the Kinetic Adventure Series, there are close to a dozen teams and even more female pairs, plus an increase in mixed-gender teams and pairs, at each race this year.

This increase in numbers has not transferred to longer distance events. Instead, it seems that the fast-pace of sprint events, which Adele de Lange describes as “hanging on for dear life – not much time for us girls to show our real steel”, puts women off even attempting longer races. Yet, they are far better suited to multiday racing.

Keepin’ up

It can be very intimidating for a woman to join a team where the men are stronger and faster and, often, more experienced racers. Her greatest concern centres on being able to keep up and she usually fears letting the team down.

“When I first started racing this was my biggest concern,” says South Africa’s top female adventure racer, Tatum Prins, “but I got over that after my first race. Women are so nervous about not being able to keep up that these doubts prevent them from getting into adventure racing.” She explains that as the days go by, women are just as good, just as strong and, in a lot of cases, much stronger physically and mentally than their male team mates.

Amy Witherden sets her team’s pace. “I feel that there is a lot of pressure on me to keep up, although I am stronger than some of the guys in certain disciplines, particularly paddling. I find that it is my job to keep the guys in check so that they do not go out too fast or push too hard; I am (inevitably) the pacer.”

“Guys usually go out hard on the first day but once night falls you recover quickly and the pace calms down. This may be a male-dominated sport but if you ride, bike, paddle, enjoy the outdoors and have a strong head you will be a great adventure racer,” Prins adds.


“Guys racing together have too much machismo as no-one wants to appear to be the weakest in the team,” says Wiehan van der Merwe. “They will race so hard that they burn out the weaker guy because they won’t slow down or offer help”. Prins agrees: “Guys need the balance that women bring to the team. They may not realise it, but this is key to their racing success”.

Women tend to be sympathetic to a struggling male team mate. “As ‘the girl’ in the team it is easier for me to call for a quick break ‘on behalf of’ a fading team mate. Guys will rarely ask for a few minutes to rest; instead they push themselves into such an exhausted state that they’re not even aware how far gone they are. This compromises the entire team’s race,” says de Lange. “Girls have fewer ego issues around asking for a quick rest.”


A woman’s team roles are diverse. She may be captain, navigator, motivator and nurturer. “In my team I’m the motivator and the person who is constantly checking that everyone is alright. I am also a buffer in terms of the team’s dynamics; the guys come to talk to me about worries and concerns whether about themselves or a team mate,” says Prins.

Women tend to make sure that their teammates are eating and drinking regularly; she’ll keep an eye on the all-important race instructions; and chase her team out of the transition area. “I try to be the positive, motivational voice as well, especially when times are tough or tensions are high,” says Witherden.

Supporting women in AR

At the 2004 Mild Seven Outdoor Quest in Borneo, legendary Kiwi racer Nathan Fa’avae kept to the customary mixed-gender team format despite the race allowing all-male team entries. They won one of the five stages. At the prize-giving function he spoke out against all-male teams, slamming them for excluding women from adventure racing and in so doing removing the special dynamic that women bring to teams and the sport. He also mentioned how men ‘think’ that they will do better without women in their teams, yet his team proved that even in a flat-out, fast-paced staged race like Outdoor Quest, mixed-gender teams can still win.

Carel van Heerden has raced in all-male and mixed-gender teams. “We race differently with a woman in the team because the dynamic is different; but we don’t go any slower,” he says.

A bit of convincing

With all that has been said about how women excel in adventure racing, it is still incredibly difficult to convince them to jump into this multiday, multi-discipline sport. “I just want to shake some girls I talk to when they say that they feel they need to be some kind of  special athlete to do adventure races. ‘No, you don’t’, I tell them, ‘you just have to want to do it!’”, says Prins.

She’s right. The lady doth protest too much, methinks. Girls, get out there and race.

Published in Fin Out X-treme Lifestyle Magazine | October 2010 (Edition 9) – a free-to-public A5 format magazine available from dive and outdoor stores.

1 Comment

  1. I did my first AR this past weekend (8-9 April 2011 Ystervark Legend). Make no mistake: it was tough. Not the strongest athlete ever the injuries suffered before the race also did not help my overall fitness.
    Our navigators were good , for the whole race we were in the middle of the field. Until the last 20km hiking leg. I was not prepared for that. I pulled a muscle in and that made me even slower than what i was. Teams behind us started to pass. The three guys did everything they could to help keep me moving. I remember a tear or two running down my cheecks – pure frustration – i so did not want to be the weakest link!
    But my situation highlighted the importance of team members and team work on an AR. While I was struggling , they carried my bag , towed me, whipped out the Panado’s when i needed it , fed me , making sure i got enough to drink , gave me a moment to gather myself when i though i was going to loose it , all the while saying nothing , but to be supportive. True gentlemen!
    And that’s what will make me train harder and try again next time.
    I will not forget this first AR.

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