From Mud Sprints to Zip Lines: Adventure Racing Near You

by Bryan Schatz on February 10, 2011 · 31 comments

in Travel, Travel & Leisure

The very greatest things – great thoughts, discoveries, inventions – have usually been nurtured in hardship, often pondered over in sorrow, and at length established with difficulty.” -Samuel Smiles, Scottish Author (1812-1904)

No outside assistance except in designated areas, no motorized travel, no “civilized” pathways, and no GPS equipment. You are responsible for hauling all of the mandatory equipment, and you provide the endurance, the skill, and the grit as you navigate your way through a wilderness race that can last as long as ten days.

Though they vary from race to race, those are the cardinal rules of adventure racing-a sport that, not surprisingly, attracts the likes of triathletes, ultra-marathon runners, mountaineers, and adventurers of all varieties looking to spice up their normal athletic routine.

What is Adventure Racing?

The sport of adventure racing caters to, and reinforces, a disposition toward taking the hard way. It’s impossible to complete an expedition-level adventure race without pushing outward your sense of personal limits and truing your sense of what is actually needful.” – Matt Fitzgerald, Triathlete Magazine.

Adventure Racing is the puzzling lovechild of triathlons, wilderness exploration, and adventure travel. Depending on the race, a team will consist of two to five individuals in which the members must stick together throughout the course until the finish line. Adventure racing combines no fewer than two of the following endurance disciplines:

  • Mountain Biking
  • Trekking
  • Cross-country Running
  • Paddling
  • Swimming
  • Caving
  • Climbing
  • Orienteering and/or Navigation

And this list is not necessarily exhaustive. In any given event, those are the disciplines that can be expected, but part of the appeal surrounding the sport is the portion of the course where the race directors throw surprises at you. Anything from a “beast of burden” section (camels, horses, burros) to zip lines and paragliding are fair game-especially on the longer races where your endurance and sanity begin to unravel like loose twine the further into the race you get.

There are no dark periods, meaning that your team decides if and when to rest, throwing sleep deprivation into the mix as yet another obstacle to overcome.

Orienteering and Navigation

In an adventure race you are not given course markers to guide you, and travel along roads and any “civilized surfaces” is prohibited. This is where your navigation and orienteering skills come into play, making the sport not only one of physical prowess, but also a cerebral endeavor for analytically observant competitors.

Your tools include a compass, a map, and a clue sheet. Your goal is to find a series of checkpoints (tiny nylon boxes) in a specific order as you cover ground, making your way to the next transition area where you will switch to a different endurance discipline.

Expect to get lost.

Despite the fact that orienteering maps are extremely well-detailed, the checkpoints are hidden among acres of wild land, somewhere resting patiently in a course covered in woodlands, swamps, gullies, peaks and whatever other natural impediments may lie in your way. Think of it like a well-defined treasure hunt in which the treasure is a serious case of the glory and thrill of competition. Just remember to orient your compass to the map before you head out to find those nylon boxes, otherwise you may find yourself wandering in circles for hours.

Course Lengths: Something for Everyone

If all of this sounds a bit intimidating, fear not. Course lengths vary dramatically from sprint races (two to six hours) to expedition-level races (up to 10 days) in which the former are suitable for beginners and experts alike. The following is a rundown of common adventure race lengths:

Sprint: Two to six hours, they often involve surprise games of cunning or agility and feature minimal navigation.

12-Hour: Similar in make-up to the sprint races, but longer. They also feature minimal navigational skills.

Day-long: Between 18 and 30 hours. Your team should be adept at UTM-based navigation, proficient in rope skills (traversing/rappelling), and some races may require a support crew to transport your gear and supplies to the transition areas.

Multi-Day: Sleep-deprivation becomes an issue with these races that last from 36-48 hours. You will need advanced navigation skills for route choice, some ridiculous endurance, and a trusting relationship with your teammates.

Expedition: The granddaddies of adventure racing, expedition-length races are between three and ten days long. All of the previously mentioned skills are required but expeditions may also include mountaineering, beasts of burden, rope work, and technical paddling.

Why Adventure Racing?

Develop Teamwork: Adventure racing is a team sport, and its unique qualities require a skill set that parallels the recipe for success in life itself. The best teams in adventure racing are made up of individuals who have patience, strong communication, and leadership skills. You have to trust your teammates, and they must trust you–which brings us to our next point.

Learn Skills: No, you don’t have to be an expert at every endurance sport that may make up an adventure race, but you do need to be competent. Many teams assign specific jobs to each of their teammates who excel in any particular discipline. But to be safe, competitive, and have fun, teams spend significant time training together and developing a well-rounded set of skills. It is the perfect opportunity to finally learn how to actually use that compass you’ve had sitting around for years, or to improve your paddling technique for efficiency and speed.

Have a Goal to Work Towards: Pedaling mile after mile on the stationary bike at the gym with the vague goal of getting in shape isn’t very motivating or fulfilling. Pedaling a mountain bike through the woods with the goal of finishing an adventure race is. Working towards a goal gives you an unmatchable sense of purpose and satisfaction.

Adventure Close to Home: In the responses to many of our travel and adventure articles, we have found that some readers have reservations and restrictions when it comes to seeking adventure. Many of us have families and career responsibilities and lack the free time and flexible schedule required for international wandering. Luckily, the sport of adventure racing need not require expensive flights or months away from home. Adventure races exist in every state in the U.S. and even urban hybrids have developed in many areas. A quick google search of your home state and the words “adventure racing” will likely turn up something relatively close to your residence.

It’s Hard: There’s no way around that. But it can serve as an expression against the common cultural prejudice that claims: “easier is better.” If we agree with Samuel Smiles’ remark above regarding hardship, then the participation in a sport that is both mentally and physically grueling can be seen as a step taken towards the expansion of one’s limits. Hardship is a thing to embrace; it is a constant reminder of your attempt to better yourself and move forward. As Casanova famously wrote, “The best feeling in life is when one is climbing the stairs.”

While we often admire the men of the past, it is not as though they were made out of a different substance than we are. Rather, they were refined through great hardships and challenges. These hardships were an unavoidable part of life for our forebearers. These days, modern conveniences and technology have made our lives a lot easier; great challenges are no longer inevitable. So we must go and seek them out for ourselves. Adventure racing is a great way to do that.

Below we have provided a sampling of 2011’s upcoming adventure races to give you an idea of what is out there.

2011 Events

Sacramento Adventure Race March 6, 2011

Granite Bay, CA

Orienteering 3-4 miles, Kayak 4 miles, Running 6 miles, MTB 8 miles and obstacles

Wild Canyon Games June 3, 2011

Antelpe, OR

Swim 1 mile, MTB 10 miles, Cyclocross, Zip Line, High Ropes Course, other

Steamboat Pentathlon March 5, 2011

City of Steamboat Springs, CO

Alpine ski, Snowshoe, Cross-country Ski, MTB, and Trail Running

St. Patty’s Revenge Urban Adventure Race March 26, 2011

Pittsburgh, KA

Cycling, Running, Challenges, and Mystery events

Border to Border Triathlon July 26, 2011

Luverne, Minnesota

500 miles – Canoeing, Biking, and Running (4 Days!)

Lyme Adventure Triathlon August 7, 2011

Chaumont, NY

Paddle 3 miles, Bike 17.6 miles, run 4 miles

For more race information, check out the Adventure Race Events Calendar at TriFind.

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Brandon February 10, 2011 at 12:21 am

Good stuff. I’m doing Toughmudder in Pennsylvania this April. Its a 7 or 9 mile obstacle course basically. Looks like a lot of fun. Unfortunately I’m taking the FE exam the day before so its going to be a hellish weekend for sure..

2 Deb February 10, 2011 at 1:42 am

Or visit India. You’ll have hell of a time & great adventure for your mind & body waddling through traffic, cows & chaos!

3 Darren February 10, 2011 at 2:52 am

Huh-I didn’t know something like this existed. Sounds like exactly what I’ve been looking for!

4 Matt February 10, 2011 at 6:26 am

Everyone who likes adventure racing should try MedWAR. Adventure plus survival skills at its best!

5 Bryan Lee Sammis February 10, 2011 at 7:55 am

Loose some more weight, and I may try one of them. Looks like fun! Win or loose!!

6 Scott N. February 10, 2011 at 9:11 am

Three great additions for day races:

Run Amuck – – An individual race, 3.5 miles, with 10 obstacles and mud pits at Quantico Marine Corps Base

Muddy Buddy – – A 10K team race combining mountain biking, running and obstacles. Locations around the country.

Spartan Run – – A 5K obstacle run, so tough you have to sign a death waiver. Need I say more…

7 Harry February 10, 2011 at 9:20 am

Warrior Dash is a short one I did last year. Lots of fun, and they probably have a dozen across the US. I want to do a bigger one, need a team.

8 Pedro February 10, 2011 at 9:45 am

I did the race in Pittsburgh, Kansas (KS) last year, it was a blast.

9 BallsDeep13 February 10, 2011 at 11:58 am

Great article. for those less experienced or for those who are just getting started (amatuer trail runners like myself) check out I recommend this for beginners in training, 3 mile course, obstacles, good old fun in the mud, fire, and outdoors

10 Thomas February 10, 2011 at 12:13 pm

That one in Minnesota sounds great–too bad I live in Texas. I need to do some Internet searching, it seems.

11 Pittsburgh Rich February 10, 2011 at 12:48 pm

This reminds me of Army Basic Training without the GI Bill!

12 Marc February 10, 2011 at 1:12 pm

Sounds GREAT! .. but I live in Switzerland :(

13 Kyle February 10, 2011 at 1:34 pm

that’s Pittsburg (without the ‘h’), KS (Kansas).

I remember seeing a similar race advertised for Pittsburgh, PA though more of a traditional triathelon.

14 Brucifer February 10, 2011 at 2:19 pm

I wish our schools would push this sort of stuff instead of insipid “sports” games. Running around chasing stupid balls, prepares you for nuthing but running around chasing stupid balls. Adventure racing and such, can prepare you for REAL-LIFE challenges!

My buddy and I usta do this type of stuff on our own, back in H.S. When we went into Basic Training together, the dreaded Obstacle Course, was a piece of cake! We sailed-through, and not even winded, asked the Drill Sgt. if we could please. please, please, go through again. What fun! He let us, then shook his head as we actually lapped past some of our guys who were *still* going through their first round.

15 Josh February 10, 2011 at 3:42 pm

“Running around chasing stupid balls, prepares you for nuthing but running around chasing stupid balls. Adventure racing and such, can prepare you for REAL-LIFE challenges!”

Exactly. Sports teaches a man nothing about commitment, diligence, selflessness, the benefits of hard work or how to deal with adversity.

Adventure racing certainly does prepare you for real-life challenges, like when you find yourself faced with a cliff wall you have to scale with ropes in order to get to the Starbucks at the top. Or how to manage your way through a slip and slide to get to the ATM. Moron.

16 BallsDeep13 February 10, 2011 at 4:12 pm

@ josh….Sports teach a lot about real life and what type of character a person has. If you have a 250 lbs. linebacker in your way and you need to get to the end zone you have to quickly problem solve. Sounds just like your rock wall on the way to your starbucks. It teaches you about team work and socialization or if its an individual sport like wrestling or tennis it teachs resiliency, self determination, and confidence. Personal traits and qualities can be developed or even refined in something as simple as building a model, sports or adventure racing.

17 Evan February 10, 2011 at 4:46 pm

@Ballsdeep13, Josh was being sarcastic.

@Josh, We don’t need that kind of trash talk here. The amount of endurance and skill required to win one of these races absolutely carries real-world benefits.

@Brucifer, No, sports DO teach you skills that have real-world application, although I agree with you about one thing; Adventure Racing sounds way more fun!

Excellent article! I found AoM around July last year, and you guys keep me coming back. Keep up the good work!!

18 Balls Deep 13 February 11, 2011 at 8:12 am

@ Evan i also was being sarcastic. I have a nephew, he really loves tractors, rock crawlers, and four wheel atv’s. Cole belongs to the boy scouts, and has to gain patches. Well one of the patches is to be able to throw and catch a baseball 10 times in a row. This is a simple hand and eye coordination test but because of his father influences his child in motorsports he failed. The more skills we develop the better off tthe human race will be.

19 Tim February 11, 2011 at 11:05 am

There are two international series of adventure races that are a great way to test your mettle and your manliness…and both donate proceeds to injured veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. and

Both are worthwhile challenges for worthwhile causes!

20 Tim February 11, 2011 at 11:16 am

There are two great adventure race series out there that run in the U.S. and Canada (both are looking to expand). Even better, both benefit the combat veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. They are the “Spartan Races” ( and “Tough Mudder” ( races. Both series will test your manliness and your mettle without going to extremes. You will need to do some physical training for both…but it is worthwhile training for worthwhile causes! The “Spartan” series has 3-mile “Spartan Sprints” (great for beginners) along with 8-mile “Spartans” and a few “Death Races” a year (you have to qualify for Death Races by finishing high enough in a “Spartan” race). The “Tough Mudder” series is usually in the 9-12 mile range. The best thing is you can go to just try it out and do your best to test yourself (without worrying about competing) in each of these series.

21 Bernie W. February 11, 2011 at 2:15 pm

I’m signed up to compete in a Tough Mudder this summer. I’ve done a few 5K races before and just completed my first 5 mile race. Adventure racing has held a certain attraction for me since I came back from Baghdad.

22 Carter February 11, 2011 at 5:00 pm

This is definitely on my life list. I just recently got into triathlons and these seem like a natural progression. Plus it would be an excuse to travel some more.

23 William P February 14, 2011 at 3:21 am

I’m surprised no one has heard of, or mentioned, Death Race (

It changes ever year and they only allow 200 people to participate. It seems REALLY intense.

24 Robbo February 15, 2011 at 4:09 am

The big one here in New Zealand is the Coast to Coast Adventure Race. It’s a run/kayak/bike from the West coast of the South Island to the East coast and on this article’s scale it’s somewhere between sprint and 12 hour. The terrain is RUGGED and is very challenging.
I’m doing my first half marathon this year, and I’m already looking at the Coast to Coast as something to do in the next five years.

25 Uri February 15, 2011 at 3:12 pm

Fantastic read!

You forgot to mention the GORUCK Challenge:

26 Brian February 15, 2011 at 3:20 pm

Another (though shorter and individual instead of team) race series is the Warrior Dash. Three of my coworkers and I will be competing in April here in Phoenix. I haven’t been to one before, but I hope it’s as fun and challenging as it appears to be. On a side note, I just discovered AoM today and have happily read a few articles so far. I look forward to adding this to my daily read.


27 Claude February 15, 2011 at 6:24 pm

Just wanna say thank you for this one. I didn’t know things like this existed. This afternoon I did some reasearch and found there’s a warrior dash near me this year. Im going to train and participate in it. And i’ve already convinced a friend to join me.

28 Kent February 17, 2011 at 9:35 pm

If you are looking for an absolutely insane race check out the Canadian Death Race in Grand Cache, Alberta. Probably not the race to start with, but something to work towards.

29 Jonathan February 17, 2011 at 11:44 pm

Or you could just try hashing, invented by the British Marines in Malyasia. There’s a kennel with a weekly trail in most cities around the world! Google hash house harriers + your city’s name!

30 jeff November 4, 2013 at 10:11 pm

what shoes will hold-up to adventure racing ?

31 Ed November 6, 2013 at 1:05 pm

Another challenge worth looking into is the GoRuck Challenge. They also have a GoRuck Selection Phase – only 10% pass rate. This challenge is led by legit Special Forces Soldiers.

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