A fairer view

In the days leading up to the start of Expedition Africa the all-woman Russian team Red Fox Arena sent out a request for a teammate when one of their own was injured. Pretoria-based adventure racer Francois Jooste gallantly offered to be their fourth. Just before leaving he sent me an email asking, “Any advice? It’s kind of scary going into a non-stop expedition race not knowing the people and racing with three women”.

Following the publication of Francois’ race report on www.AR.co.za, in which he mentions the basic handbook that I sent him, I received an email from Debbie Chambers from the Kiwi ‘three plus one’ team, Macpac GirlsOnTop New Zealand. She asked for a copy of my ‘handbook’ and explains, “We have recently added a guy to our team. He struggles to understand us and I struggle to get my point across. I’d be interested to hear your take on how women race”.

Well, here it is – and more.

Racing all-women or ‘three plus one’

My first women’s team experience came when I was offered an opportunity to put together an all-women three-person team for adventure sprint races. We mixed it up swopping different people for each event to race in 15 sprints over a three-year period. I’ve also done a six-day staged foot race in a women’s pair as well as rogaining events. These very positive experiences contributed to my decision to field a ‘three plus one’ team for the final edition of the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge in 2010.

Debbie’s motivations behind creating her GirlsOnTop team include wanting to “show a couple of good friends what an awesome experience a multiday race can be. I wanted to race with friends focused on finishing and supporting each other rather than a group of top athletes focused on winning”.

She also desired more of a decision-making role and wanted to race at a more comfortable speed to appreciate the environment and soak up the atmosphere. “I found I was racing in the most incredible places around the world but it all passed by in a blur. I realised that I wanted to do this sport for the experience of participating rather than the chance to win,” she adds.

Just as competitive

That isn’t to say that women-dominant team combinations are not competitive. Competitiveness is linked to personality, skills and experience – not gender. Like men, women also strive to minimise mistakes, focus on navigation, keep moving and improve the swiftness of transitions. It’s really their approach to racing that marks the difference between men and women.

Women tend to be more conservative, especially in the early stages of a long race. “We focus more on the course and the team dynamics rather than on other teams and placings,” Debbie explains.

Nadine Nunes describes the difference in attention on results as follows: “In an all-girls team the vibe is about enjoyment and working hard with good results a bonus. In a mixed team it is ‘let’s go hard, then we will enjoy the results’.”

Traditional teams tend to blast off from the gun and it takes a good 24 hours for the pace to settle. Until then, the female team member is hard worked. That said, if a woman is racing in a team where she is faster than the men, then the team is too weak for her and she should move on to a stronger team. But this means that women will feel as if they’re fighting to keep up with the men in her team. But, in a women’s team, where the members are well matched, she can race hard and enjoy the event more because she’s not always be at full throttle.

Debbie’s team aims to race within their limits and to do their best to make sure they are all comfortable with the pace. They focus too on efficiency as they strive to get good results. “We prefer to build into the race and once we are into the rhythm of it and through the first couple of days then we push our pace a little more,” she adds.

When racing with men, I am generally just trying to keep up. With women there is often chatting going on, which makes it so much more pleasant!” Team Olympus’ Vicky Wirsam affirms.

Included, part of the team

Women’s teams spread the load and divide up responsibilities and gear between all team members. Women work together.

Lizelle Smit competed in the 2010 Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge in a ‘three plus one’ team format. “Though we raced competitively there was a sense of working together and actual communication in the race. It did not feel as if I was just necessary equipment that had to be carried but that I was actually part of a real team,” she says.

In a traditional-format team Jackie Cronk is not expected to contribute much, which, she says, is good and bad. “As the ‘weakest physical link’, I focus on surviving and when I have a view it is often intuitive, which is hard to justify or explain.”

Nadine feels that women’s teams are more committed to moving as a whole, not competing with each other within the team and that they identify problems – like suffering team mates – faster than guys do and that they sort it out quickly.


This is the big one that all the women brought up during our conversations. As a generalisation, women are communicators and thus the main element of my advice to Francois included, “Remember to communicate. Very important! If you’re battling, if you need to get a stone out your shoes or adjust a sock, say something. Girls are way more accommodating than guys and they see the advantage of dealing with things now to prevent a worse situation later. Women are communication-based animals so you have to match your mind to theirs.”

Girlsontop communicate a lot when racing. “Our navigator is constantly talking us through the map and we are all focused on finding the next checkpoint or keeping each other efficient. We often ask questions like ‘What number are you? [a rating system used to gauge how someone is feeling] or ‘What can I do to help?’,” says Debbie.

Guys only say what needs to be said,” Nadine adds. “They will keep things to themselves, things that they worry about or are unsure of (navigation or injury). Girls tend to get issues out in the open and say how they feel about it like, ‘I am not sure where we are’, ‘I am hurting’ or ‘I need a break’.”

Women need to remember that should be a balance in all that communication. “Guys speak a lot less than the ladies and sometimes this is actually perfect and refreshing. I don’t always want to analyse how I’m feeling or over-think something; I just want to put my head down and get it done,” says experienced expedition racer Lauren Goulding.

Expedition racing

We need a lot more women in the sport before female-dominated teams become common at multiday events. Two men and two women (50/50) formats are a bit-of-both option.

Lizelle van der Merwe has raced 50/50. “The team format was excellent and team morale was great. We were still very competitive and we pushed as hard as we could. As two girls at a similar level we never felt that we were holding the team back. We had lots of fun!

But, it totally depends on the personalities,” Lauren contributes. She captained an all-women team at Bull of Africa in 2008, she raced ‘traditional’ at last year’s 250km Double Moon and then as a 50/50 combination at Expedition Africa 2011.

Safety is another factor that is considered. As captain of a team of less-experienced women Lauren a felt an enormous responsibility; from being lead navigator and not wanting to get lost to the team’s safety. “During Bull I just could not get my mind to settle and I battled to sleep. It is a worry when you’re in the middle of a rural area, in the middle of the night, riding past a shebeen… We had a rule that if we were approached and it felt ‘dodgy’ only one or two of us would do the talking and the others would avoid eye contact, grunt or respond in a deep voice to not ‘give away’ that we were four ladies. With a guy in the team I immediately feel safer. How’s that for stereotyping?” she says.

A man gets a word in

What does the guy who started this all have to say? Would Francois race with three women again?

For sure, if they are as strong as those girls. They were much faster than the usual guys I race with, especially in the expedition racing format,” he says. “The only bad thing is in transition where they take too long; they’re too careful and systematic. Also, decision making takes forever as everyone wants to give input. Other than this, there’s no ego conflict and they take more suffering without moaning. An all-girls team can be really competitive.”

Whether you race in a four-person team or enter a staged single-discipline event as a pair, men racing with women and women racing together is different to an all-male or male-dominated format. But, more than being a difference-between-men-and-women issue, successful racing with minimal frustration is a choosing-the-right-teammate thing. Personality, skills and experience counts more than gender. 

We wish guys would realise that [compiled from the girls’  comments]

  • My sports bra chafes!
  • You will make me cry if you give me a hug when I am taking strain
  • I’ll be fine again a few minutes after a fall
  • I can stand pain longer than you can
  • I will carry you through the race if you treat me like a friend
  • It takes me a little longer to pee than it takes you
  • If you feel crappy, speak up before you’re toast
  • It really is ok for me to carry your backpack for a while
  • Sharing information and asking for assistance and validation has huge value and is a strength not a weakness
  • Regular communication is important; it makes me feel part of the team and not like ‘compulsory gear’ when I’m the only woman in the team
  • Women are also part of the team and our views should be taken into consideration where decision making is concerned.;
  • I have pretended to be tired just to force the team to slow down because one of the guys was exhausted and taking strain but he wouldn’t say anything and the other guys weren’t paying attention

Author: Lisa de Speville | Originally published in Go Multi Magazine, July/Aug 2012