Adventure racer Nick Gracie has been involved with adventure racing for the last 18 years. He's a former captain of GODZone Adventure Team, the UK’s most successful adventure racing team. So who better to ask for advice on how to get into the sport?
What is adventure racing?
Scratching your head and wondering what adventure racing is? Essentially, it's a multi-disciplinary group race. You grab some team mates, a map (for navigation), a mountain bike and your running shoes and head out to wild places to compete against others. Usually there's an element of paddling too, but in some events you might be climbing, abseiling, horse riding, white water rafting or even skiing. There will often be long days, hard slog and the occasional late night – but adventure is guaranteed!
Here's what Nick recommends to get started. Over to you, Nick...
1. Start small
There are different lengths of adventure racing. The shortest races are around two hours long, but the longest race I've done took me nine and and a half days – this was non-stop racing in Patagonia. My advice is to start off small and doing shorter races. Start off with those and then progress to 24-hour races, two-day races and then make the leap to four-day expedition races.
2. Build up your bum
Most expedition races last for days, so you need to build up massive endurance. Pick weekends and go ride your bike for 10 hours. Find a cool route, grab your mountain bike and cycle all around. Do those big lumps of training to condition your body. Little things like getting your bum used to sitting on a saddle for 10 hours is a skill in itself.
3. Get used to moving
You don't need to be able to run for hours and hours but you do need to be able to keep moving for a long period of time. Go on long overnight hikes. When you've got endurance, the beauty is that your body keeps it and you just have it. Then just top it up. None of my training sessions now are more than three or four hours. I just concentrate on speed and keeping myself fit.
4. Get into a kayak
Kayaking is more of a skill and it can be harder to practise in cold winters. Again, get used to kayaking for four or five hours at a time.
5. Embrace the race conditions
When I get close to a race I condition my body for that specific race. If I'm going somewhere cold, damp and gnarly I'll start walking through bush and forest and get used to going out into the cold and wearing layers.
If I'm going somewhere hot like the desert or South America, I'll go and do a bit of bikram yoga, or wear a lot of clothes, to get used to sweating a lot. The beauty of adventure racing is that the races are always in weird and wonderful places all over the globe. I've raced on every continent and in lots of different climates. I've raced in -15ºC cold and 45ºC heat. Plan for it.
6. Train in different disciplines
Do a bit of cycle training, running training, kayaking, strength work. Work on making your legs stronger and you'll also need a bit of upper body strength. I think yoga is great, it keeps you really supple and helps you avoid injuries. I do at least an hour or two of yoga each week and, touch wood, I've been injury free for about 10 years.
7. Pick up that map
Navigation is really important and I’m not particularly good at it, but over the years I've taught myself. Local orienteering clubs are really good at training people, so research and see if there's any in your local area and go along and learn with others. If you want a more lesson based route, there are hundreds of providers out there offering navigation courses, ranging from introductory level to advanced skills and refreshers.
8. Try a Mountain Marathon
Mountain Marathons are weekend events where you almost always compete as a pair. You start on a Saturday morning and run for six or seven hours in the mountains, carrying your stuff for the evening. Then you camp overnight and get up the next morning and carry on racing. These are brilliant ways to get into adventure racing. It's a great training weekend and you're constantly looking at the map – especially if the weather conditions are bad as you'll have to take bearings everywhere.
9. Use kit you know
Simple but useful advice: Don't use kit that you've never used before in a race! It's also important to check the mandatory kit list prior to the race, as you won't be able to start without all of these items. You'll usually be required to carry a basic first aid kit, a course map, survival blanket, a waterproof jacket, hat and a pair of gloves.
10. Plan your fuel
In an expedition race you're burning something like 12,000 calories a day. However, the most you can really eat in a day is around 8,000 calories – and even that's quite hard to do if you're constantly moving.
When you're running you can try to eat sandwiches or pork pies even – they're full of calories. But when you're kayaking you don't want to stop kayaking because every time you eat you're not paddling and the boat comes to a stop! That's the time to have energy drinks or gels so you can consume them quickly. Mountain biking is a bit different as you can eat bars.
11. Have a team goal
The beauty of adventure racing is that it’s a team sport. Find four like-minded people, ideally of a similar fitness level. The most important thing is establishing the same objective, be this doing it for fun, getting to the finish line, placing in the top 10, or winning. Normally, if you have the same objectives there are no problems. What you don’t want is someone who wants to win it and someone who wants to bumble along and see the views.
12. Remember the good times
On an expedition race you'll go through a rollercoaster of emotions. You’ll have amazing highs when you see incredible sunrises from a mountain ridge. Whereas, three hours earlier, at 2am, it may have been lashing down with rain, you were freezing cold, hungry and thinking ‘Why the hell are we doing this’?! It’s being able to manage this and know that there are always highs coming ahead.
13. Have a sleep strategy
Racing is non-stop in adventure races – you sleep when you want to. Some races have no rules on sleep, others might have a designated time that you need to sleep, this can be around six hours over the entire race.
I would recommend sleep. Physically you could do the race, but mentally your brain turns to mush and you can’t make sensible decisions about navigating and you fall apart a bit. I try and survive on around two hours a night. It’s amazing how you can used to it. In a four-day race, I don't sleep the first night but I’d sleep two hours on the second and third nights. Sometimes we’d push through the last night to finish in the morning. You’re really on the limits of stuff so when you sleep you really want to sleep in good places. Find a barn, put up a tent, and make it comfortable so that you actually get quality sleep.
14. Think smart, not fast
People who win adventure races aren’t always the fastest, or the fittest, they’re the smartest and race well as a team. You need to decide when to push on and when to take it easy, you need to pace yourself. My team try and take it steady the first day and push harder towards the end of the race. On the last day, that’s when we want to make a big drive.
15. Have fun
The nice thing about adventure racing is that it’s a really friendly sport, it’s not elitist. If someone has a problem in your team you help each other out, you swap kit if you need to, you trade food. People don’t look down on you, they’re really welcoming.