The 50-metre rule

Adventure racing is a team sport and one of the primary reasons for the success or failure of any team in a race comes down to how well the team works as a cohesive unit, as opposed to being individuals doing the same route. In a running road race, or a mountain bike race and even in Ironman events you often find people racing together; in AR its not a choice to race together, it is part of the rules.

A key rule in AR is the ’50-metre rule’. Some races alter the distance to a ‘100-metre rule’. In the end every adventure race includes a rule that says that all team mates stay close together, “close enough to provide assistance if needed”. This rule is often ignored and teams can be found split across a large section of the route – too far apart to offer assistance to each other.

There are a few key reasons for the 50-metre rule.

Reason 1 – Safety

While AR itself is not a dangerous sport there are occasions in a race where accidents can occur; from a problem on an abseil to capsizing and being trapped in rapids to crashing your bike on a steep downhill.

During the AR World Championships in Spain a few years ago, our very own South African Team Cyanosis was on a cycling leg when they found a team member from another team lying unconscious at the side of the road. The athlete had fallen and knocked his head on a rock. Quick action by Cyanosis and South African Merrell Adventure Addicts, who were next on the accident scene quickly got the athlete to hospital. It took 30 minutes for the athlete’s team mates to come back to find him. The 30 minutes it took his team to find him could have been life threatening.

In 2007 we raced the Swazi Extreme adventure race and during a kloofing leg one of the team members fell off a three-metre ledge and broke their ankle. All the team members were very close together with one ahead (actually, they were landed on) and the other two waiting to come down the same ledge. The ankle was strapped, the injured person’s kit shared and the team was moving to get medical help within 15 minutes of the accident. If the other three team members were two or three kloofing jumps ahead they would not have been available to provide assistance.

So while AR in itself is not dangerous, accidents can and do happen. Being together as a team ensures the best outcome possible after any accident (and carrying all the required compulsory gear).

Reason 2 – Communication

In any team sport decisions need to be taken and in AR most decisions are made by the team captain or navigator with consultation with the rest of the team.

On a race with two novices, our navigator made a route choice that saved us about two kilometres of walking. It was a rough route with about 200 metres of bashing though swampy water and a river, but this choice saved the team about 10 minutes. As all the team were together the team captain just said “Route change” and pointed directly through the swampy part of the river.

On quite a long race one team mate got very sick. He was throwing up and ended up very dehydrated, probably from drinking some bad water earlier in the race. In this team structure the captain was also the navigator and he was very focused in choosing the right route. As the person struggling was at the back of the team and the captain of the team in the front, the captain was not aware of how badly the team mate was struggling until he basically passed out. One member of the team immediately took his backpack while the other two took his arms, offering immediate assistance. Although this team conformed to the 50-metre rule, their communication was still not sufficient. Imagine what could have happened if the struggling team member was 100, 200 or 400 metres behind when he collapsed. Learning from this, the team separates the roles of navigator and captain. If the regular captain is the best navigator in the team they assign the captain role to someone else.

During a race many decisions need to be taken, from assisting team members who may be struggling to route decisions made on the spur of the moment. If the team is not together then communication is very difficult to manage and will over the course of the race waste a lot of time.

Reason 3 – Morale

The sport of AR attracts a lot of different people with all sorts of different skill levels and even different physical needs.

In our team we have a member who cannot race for 24 hours non-stop; he needs to sleep for at least an hour each night. We also have a team member who cannot sleep the first night as his adrenalin levels are too high and they keep him awake. The first member has been known to fall asleep while riding, but when with the other members around him he can keep going until a transition is reached where it is safe and comfortable to sleep. In many cases the ‘awake’ second team member then takes the responsibility to sort out the other members kit for the next leg.

Last-minute replacements are no uncommon pre-race. Often this replacement is much stronger or much weaker than the existing team members. On one race we got a last minute replacement into the team and he happened to be a top class paddler and runner. My team is a solid back-of-the-pack team. While the team took 18 hours to complete the course, he could have done it in 12 hours. He spent the time with the team, chatting and assisting and generally using his extra energy in building the team morale, instead of rushing ahead and sitting and waiting for everyone to catch up while he showed the team how fast he really was.

Team morale gets a team around the course. A good team morale can conquer many problems encountered during the route. If your own morale is very high, you really feel part of the team and a few small (read ‘very big’) blisters are not going to stop you completing the race. You won’t want to let the team down, you won’t want to let yourself down. But if team morale is low, there would be little reason not to just stop and let everyone else continue without you.

Reason 4 – Team sport

AR is a team sport,. Four people from different walks of life, with different strengths and weaknesses getting together to take on a monstrous adventure through the wilderness is such a wonderful concept, but you need to work together to complete the route.

On a recent race we were hiking along and passed a lone athlete limping along. He had a full backpack and was obviously suffering badly from either blisters or ITB. About 100-metres later we passed two of his team mates. They asked if they could tag along with us as their navigator “is up ahead”. We slowed down to allow the injured team mate to keep up and about one-kilometre later we found the missing navigator lying down and resting near the check point. A navigator leaving their team in the middle of no-where without a map to find their way is unforgivable and leaving their team mates to the good will of another team is terrible.

In the same race three of our team members were suffering from blisters, but the navigator slowed down and travelled the same speed as everyone else, later taking some kit and carrying it for them.

On another occasion we were riding down a really fast rocky downhill, the sort where every few meters you are correcting because of stones moving under your wheels. We passed an athlete changing a tyre and about two kilometres later we met two of his team mates waiting at the top of a hill for him. Three kilometres later we found the fourth team mate lying under a tree.

AR is a team sport, the person who gets a puncture is not the only person responsible for fixing it. The team is responsible for fixing the puncture. Four people can fix a puncture in half the time it takes one person. In the race no one should feel responsible for their own technical problems, the team must work together.

In the same race one of our team members had a family member in another team and they are usually faster than us. But that day we knew they were having technical problems with one of the bikes and we had an opportunity to finish ahead of them. Unfortunately they got away on the last short cycle ahead of us and we knew that unless they suffered further problems they would finish ahead of us.

Riding up one hill we saw a team working on a bike ahead of us. Sure enough it was the team we wanted to beat. They were working as a team and all four team members were huddled around the bike trying to get the chain shortened so that they could continue. In the end they finished less than five minutes behind us. Their team work ensured that their downtime was minimised and they nearly caught us in the last few kilometres.

Good team work minimises the downtime experienced with technical issues, helps to find the optimal route and generally gets the team through the race much faster than people racing as individuals.

Understanding the rules

The “50-metre rule” is defined to ensure the safety of all athletes racing. But the rule is tempered by the scenario you are in. Most race organisers understand this and penalties are only assigned to teams that ignore the rule to the point that it is a blatant violation of the ability to help one another.

In our team we have one member who is not very good cycling uphill. This means he is often a little slow on the longer uphills and drifts further behind his team mates, and yes, this often exceeds the 50 metre distance. All  team members know that this happens and they automatically stop at the top of the hill to wait before continuing. At all times all four members of the team know exactly where the others are, even if they are more than 50-metres ahead of the slower one.

The same often applies to long technical downhills; some people love riding them at top speed while others find them scary and slow down a lot. The fast guys always check behind them that everyone is OK before continuing up the next hill. In both these scenarios a race organiser is not going to penalise you as each team member is close enough to offer assistance if needed.

Occasionally in a race it makes sense to split up for a short period. On one occasion we were looking for a reservoir that was hidden amongst a lot of thorn trees in the middle of the night. Our first attempt took us to a location and we had no idea where to look. We returned to the last waypoint and walked on a bearing for the correct distance. The navigator put his foot down and said that the check point was within 100 metres of where he was. While two team members stood on the spot the other two ranged out together in various directions until the check point was found. Once again all team members knew exactly where the others were and could offer assistance if it was needed.


In an adventure race the heros are the people that stick with their team members, even when they feel stronger. The heroes are the team mates that assist their team mates that are struggling, that take kit out of their packs, that change a puncture while the team mate gets to sleep. AR heroes do NOT run off ahead of their team because they are stronger.

The weakest team mate is a hero for digging deep and going as fast as they can. They are a hero for asking for help, for letting their stronger team mates carry some of their kit so they can go a little bit faster.

AR is for heros, not for individuals. AR is a team sport and team mates stick together!

Author: William Cairns