If Lewis and Clark were alive today, would they be considered professional or amateur level adventure racers?
Knowing their well-documented history on how they “stumbled” their way through the American west, it is possible that their Native American support crew would have been hard pressed to get these two adventures back on the path before Team Nike or Team Seagate left them in the dust.
Especially if they had just run out of spare wagon wheels for their mountain penny-farthing, stopped to replace yet another wood-bottomed boot sole, and still needed time to hunt for their food prior to leaving checkpoint nine.
In comparison, today’s Adventure Racer is light-years ahead of the Lewis and Clark style of exploration.
They carry ruggedized shoe designs, concentrated nutrition supplements, bacteria-free hydration packs, state-of-the-art mountain bikes, precision topographic maps, and the training that would rival that of any Ironman triathlete.
All this gear that would have made Lewis and Clark’s journey westward more about endurance than raw survival.
However, there is something to admire about how Lewis and Clark signed up for Thomas Jefferson’s Memorial Adventure Race (Expedition Level – Rogaine Style) without all of the fancy outdoor gear, endurance training, or even accurate maps.
They stepped into the challenge without really even knowing where they were going, what dangers awaited them along the way, and what to expect when they arrived (if they arrived).
And every single checkpoint was manned by angry American Indians who never had any ice for their Camelbaks.
But why would two grown men attempt something so daunting?
Was it their sense of patriotism and duty to their President?
That might have played a role.
Was it their desire for fame and fortune?
Possibly. But then they would have had to know in advance if they were going to return alive long enough to enjoy it.
No, the real reason Lewis and Clark signed up for the Thomas Jefferson’s Memorial Adventure Race was their unadulterated sense of adventure and curiosity for the outdoors.
It is the same sense of adventure and courage that brings thousands of new Adventure Racers into the sport each year.
The Problem: Too many of the current assortment of adventure races are geared towards advanced racers, not amateurs.
If you’re a greenhorn adventure racer, the idealism of the Lewis and Clark style expedition has been lost among today’s adventure race promotion companies.
No longer are they looking to create events to act as gateways to the harder races.
Why is that?
Some think it is a connection to the golden years of adventure racing when Mark Bernett was producing races like the Eco-Challenge.
Or maybe it’s a belief that short easy adventure races are just not adventure races.
They might see newbie adventure races as tough to produce in an era that is seeing the meteoric rise of obstacle course racing.
Whatever the reason, it has to stop.
Adventure racing will not survive without a new base of racers to carry it on.
It is this new crop of Lewis and Clark style adventure racing idealists that needs to be cultivated with events geared towards their new found “Lewis and Clark” style of exploration; not with events that take them out of the fantasy.
By producing short and interesting beginner level adventure races, newly created adventure race athletes can do something even some of the advanced racers need to do: learn new skills.
And cannot hone these skills after only one race.
Newbies and amateurs need time and experience to do this, instead of throwing them into the sport and demanding that they cease being amateurs.
This is exactly why obstacle course racing is stealing all of adventure racing’s beginner level customers.
Where obstacle course racing has thrived is in training, group activities, and team building.
While adventure racing has started to go back underground, with more and more attention being directed towards expedition races suited for the more advanced level adventure racer.
These styles of big production AR’s leave the beginner adventure racers forced with a decision to either sign-up for a race beyond their capabilities, or go do an obstacle course race where the atmosphere is more inviting.
Ask any adventure race promoter what choice these amateur level customers are choosing.
The big money is not in adventure racing.
And the gap between beginner and advanced adventure racers is increasing.
Ironically, most sports with a professional level have this problem.
All the money, fame, and energy are spent pandering to the professional athlete in World Championship like events, with little emphasis placed on the beginner.
Some might say that beginners are a dime a dozen while professionals are truly unique individuals.
Others may say that professionals attract more media interest, which in turn brings in more sponsors and money.
However, the trend fails to acknowledge a simple truth: without a strong base of up-and-coming beginner athletes, adventure racing will die.
Promoter enthusiasm and tightknit racer communities do not bring the same amount of new racers into the sport as are leaving or ignoring adventure racing altogether.
Think about it.
The NFL does not exist without the NCAA, the NCAA does not exist without high-school football, and high-school football would be hard pressed without organizations like Pop Warner or pee-wee football.
If you take a look at the USARA calendar, you’ll notice a lack of non-beginner level adventure races, and a abundence of only NFL and NCAA level events.
And the obstacle course race promoters are happy to take all your high school and pee-wee level adventure racers away.
The hard truth is that there will come a day when too many race promoters cannot afford to put on an advanced adventure race with only 20 racers in it.
Are you one of these race promoters?
Then it’s time to stop ignoring the 5,000-pound warm elephant in the room.
The solution is simple: make adventure racing accessible to newbies again.
Right now, there is a unique opportunity within the obstacle course racing market that adventure race promoters can capitalize on.
What is that opportunity?
It is the popularity of obstacle course racers.
Some might go “Ewwww” or hold their nose at that thought.
But if you consider this for a moment, obstacle course racing is doing something that adventure racing is not.
It is getting people — customers — interested in off-road endurance sports again.
But obstacle course racing is only getting those beginner level racers half-way there.
By producing beginner adventure races, you now allow these newly minted newbie endurance racers a new challenge.
One that is just different enough to be attractive.
This, in turn, acts as a conduit, channeling beginners to bigger races over time.
However, this cannot be done alone.
Adventure race promoters have to know that their biggest challenge to adventure racing is not the endurance, but the navigation.
Navigation is the #1 thing that scares beginners away from the sport.
This is why there should be an effort to cultivate a relationship with local orienteering clubs.
In fact, if Orienteering USA wanted to solve it’s budget problem, it would embrace adventure racers — TODAY!
But that’s a rant for another time.
Helping beginners become better navigators by teaching them real orienteering skills, will shorten the learning curve dramatically.
No more expensive clinics, or adventure racing schools either.
These don’t scale when it comes to expanding the sport.
Instead, you should be making an effort to teach adventure racing navigation and strategy for free in Meetup.com like formats.
And if you haven’t already tried it, you need to go to an obstacle course race and see for yourself what adventure racing COULD be like.
Don’t ignore the change in the endurance racing trends and cling to the past that calls any short or beginner adventure race, something other than adventure racing.
Otherwise, you will soon see a day where only 20 racers show up to your advanced adventure race.
While 5,000 beginners show up to the Spartan race down the street.
And now you know.