Adventure Racing 101
Now that thousands of regular folks compete in adventure races each year, the once exclusive sport may finally be graduating from the made-for-TV controversies of the Eco-Challenge and the unshaven, cigarette-dangling image of the Raid Gauloises. Citizen races feature trail running, mountain biking, paddling - and the occasional curveball, such as mud-pit leapfrog. To get started, all you need are sweat-loving teammates with compass skill - plus some creativity with surgical tubing. Let's race.
WHAT TO BRING
Flyweight Pack The goal: Move fast, stay hydrated, don't waste time digging out gear. The perfect design: Skip the thick foam padding and aluminum stays. The ideal racing pack is a nearly weightless confluence of grab-it-quick convenience and hydration efficiency.
The Everything Watch The goal: Stay on course, and pace yourself. After your map, compass, and eyeballs, an altimeter watch is your handiest navigation tool. Elevation readings can make the biggest difference when visuals are limited - as in, "If we're at 1,400 feet right now, we must be just below the ridge...whew!" The perfect design: Big buttons, big readouts, water-resistant construction - and easy-to-understand programming.
Fast-Drying Clothing The goal: Bring the fewest, most versatile, quickest-drying duds you can find. The perfect design: The wardrobe for races of just a few hours includes bike shorts, a moisture-wicking T-shirt, and a cap, with lightweight rain gear and a pair of tights in reserve. For a 24-hour event, add a spare top and bottom layers.
Wait! You Still Need Tough but nimble shoes, which provide plenty of grip and protection underfoot, along with mesh sides for drainage a powerful headlamp, which combines a halogen bulb for high-beam, where-the-heck's-the-trail illumination with five battery-saving LEDs for map reading a simple compass, which includes a handy built-in declination adjustment a waterproof map bag, which beats freezer bags because it's durable, voluminous, and easy to clip onto a shoulder strap. Before leaving home, delve into Adventure Racing: The Ultimate Guide, a must-read manual by racers Liz Caldwell and Barry Siff.
HOW TO DO IT
Make Training Real. Don't wait for race day to experience the dubious pleasures of riding singletrack while wearing a full pack. The more closely you simulate race conditions in your workouts, the better your chances of doing well - and staying safe. Twisted ankles are for rookies: If you get used to running scree slopes with a load on your back, you'll train your ankles and knees to survive real-world torquing and twisting. In the same vein, practice running and riding with a headlamp on shadows are disorienting to the uninitiated.
Pull Your Weight - Plus. "Teams that support each other well can beat teams that are physically superior," says elite racer Barry Stiff. That extends from choosing the right companions to offering a well-timed pat on the back, right up to hauling your buddy's gear - or even your buddy. During a running segment, you can tow a struggling teammate by rigging surgical tubing and carabiners from his backpack hipbelt to a stronger athletes'. (It's a trail runner's answer to short-roping.) A mountain biking setup may be more complex: Thread surgical tubing through a rigid PVC tube that extends from under the seat out past the rear wheel and tie a five-inch loop in the end. The tired rider snags the loop and either hangs on to it or connects it to a hook attached to his handlebars.
Navigate Your Backyard. Orienteering is part of most races. It helps to know your team's pace under varied conditions (uphill biking, flat-water paddling, night running). But the real key is map reading. To practice, get the topo for a local park, and match the land's every wrinkle with the markings on the map. You'll soon become a pro on foreign turf.
WHERE TO RACE
Goal 1: The Sprint
Main event: Run, paddle, and bike about 25 miles in three to six hours. Bonus points: Offbeat tasks at the popular Balance Bar Adventure Sprint series have included passing mountain bikes through a bungee maze. The races: Clubs have details on local races (check with the U.S. Adventure Racing Association http://www.usara.com/). Get ready: Strategy, training, and navigation skills are taught at the National Adventure Racing School http://www.ga-adventures.com/racing.html.
Goal 2: The Daylong Race
Main event: Cover, typically, 40 to 50 miles in up to 12 hours. Bonus points: Look for more challenging paddling (such as open ocean kayaking), singletrack mountain biking, and rappelling - in some cases at night. The races: Clubs have details on local races (check with the U.S. Adventure Racing Association http://www.usara.com/). In the East, New England Adventure Races ($615 for a team of three http://www.racingahead.com/) take place in June to September. Get ready: Strategy, training, and navigation skills are taught at the National Adventure Racing School http://www.ga-adventures.com/racing.html.
Goal 3: The 24-Hour Challenge
Main event: Typical courses range from 70 to 120 miles and can take 36 hours to run. Bonus points: Racers may face long rappels. The races:  Four Winds Adventure stages races through December (http://www.4windsadventure.com/index1.htm). Odyssey Adventure events are held in the southeast with their "Beast of the East" finale in New York's Adirondacks (http://www.oarevents.com/home.asp). Get ready:  Strategy, training, and navigation skills are taught at the National Adventure Racing School http://www.ga-adventures.com/racing.html.