by Ken White
Off-road triathlons and adventure racing is all the rage. And why not? You get to spend hours or even days (and nights!) out thrashing around in the woods on your bike, in a kayak, with a pack, on a climbing rope, with a fox, in a box…. These events combine the best of all possible worlds: beautiful settings, interesting people, sharp competition, and fast, efficient travel in the backcountry.
And if you're like me and you’ve never had the attention span (or talent?) to become really good at any one sport (and you’ve got a basement full of outdoor toys and clothing to prove it), it’s the ideal way to expand your horizons. Instead of grinding up yet another ski area access road at yet another NORBA race, you could be hopelessly lost in the woods at 3 am, with failing batteries in your headlamp and failing strength from lack of food—facing 16 miles of hiking before saddling up for a 50-mile ride. Sound like fun?
The biggest downside of multisport racing is buying and maintaining a lot of gear—and endlessly packing and unpacking the car. The upside is having a menu of physical activities—no matter what the weather or available time frame—that you can legitimately call training.
Multisport racing falls into two general categories: off-road tri/quad/pentathlons (relatively short (two- to four-hour) races most often held on closed courses with discrete segments); and adventure racing (typically longer events, held in the backcountry, which require a variety of disciplines spread out over long stretches). Some events are individual; some for teams of three or four (either relay-style or together from start to finish).
Hey, triathloning is no longer the sole province of anal-obsessive genetic freaks on 16-pound bikes. As triathlons move off-pavement, the hairy-legged crowd gets a chance to shine. Most of those tri-geeks couldn’t bunny-hop a curb, let alone handle 16 miles of single track. And trail run? Fuggedaboutit—they don’t like to get dirty! Want proof? In 2002, the XTERRA (off-road triathlon) series men’s champion was none other than former world mountain bike champ Ned Overend (of course it helps that Ned was a marathoner in his younger days).
Most triathlons are mass-start affairs. If the first segment is kayaking, it looks a lot like bumper cars with paddles. If it’s swimming, imagine a school of tuna trying desperately to escape marauding sharks. Utter chaos! Pretty quickly, though, the racers sort themselves out, and get down to the challenge of running through waist-deep muck and fording rivers (do you ever wonder if course designers just put markers on either end of a really ridiculous section without actually crossing it themselves?).
Some races throw in “special challenges”: for example, each team of three might be given three kayaks, but just two paddles. Others feature unique segments, like cross-country skiing. No matter which event you do, it’s usually over in just a few hours, and you’re never far from a course marshal or your ride home.
If you like your racing raw, consider getting back to nature the hard way. Adventure races extend the challenge over many more hours or days, and demand that racers do their own navigation (no handy little arrows at each trail juncture; in fact, no trails at all some of the time!). Most also require racers to be self-sufficient, carrying their own food, water, gear (except boats, climbing ropes, and bikes), and supplies. Instead of a mad aerobic frenzy, adventure racing requires planning, strategy, and good decisionmaking under adverse conditions.
Whether you compete as a team or an individual, you’ll receive a map and a course description, a radio to call for help if you’re stranded, and a hearty pat on the back. You race through a series of checkpoints, changing modes of travel as you go: running, biking, hiking, kayaking, hiking again, climbing, horseback riding, and hiking some more. Longer races (over two days) will have layovers where you can restock your food supply and wolf down a hot meal, but for the most part, you’re on your own. Most of these races involve substantial investments of time, energy, and experience—so start small and build your way up, or consider attending an adventure racing school.
No matter what kind of race you choose, be sure to try out different disciplines individually first. For example, orienteering (running through the woods with a map and a compass) will help you learn terrain reading and navigation, and paddling will help you become comfortable in (and perhaps more importantly, out of!) a kayak and canoe. And, think long and hard about team vs. individual entries—both are fun, but involve very different dynamics.
One piece of advice that always applies: when you're suffering the most, try to remember why you're out there and smile. It's amazing how changing your outlook can improve your physical and emotional state.
You can find Ken White out in the woods on his trusty IF, in his trail-running shoes, on skis, in a canoe,…or camped out in front of the TV watching Outdoor Life Network.
Originally published in Single Tracks.