The Rise Of Virtual Racing And Is It Here To Stay. Rob Howard Investigates.

Rob Howard / 26.05.2020
The Austin Family during their Lockdown race / © The Austin Family

It took a global pandemic to shut down adventure racing, the most wide ranging, adventurous and creative sport on the planet, but it wasn’t long before race directors were coming up with virtual events for frustrated adventure racers to try.

Adventure Racing wasn’t alone in this, the Covid crisis has seen the world switch to virtual/digital work and meetings and in the world of sport there have been all sorts of virtual events.  These include everything from 100 year old Captain Tom Moore walking in his garden to raise 20 million pounds for the NHS, to people running ultra marathons on their balconies.

For regular running and cycling some kind of online event was relatively easy and in the world of endurance sport some big name races have stepped up with virtual challenges.  The BC Bike Race ran a Zwift event with former winner Geoff Kabush riding and the prize was a fully paid trip to the 2021 race.

Australian events company Rapid Ascent are taking their trail running series virtual in June and July and have taken it a step further. Their ambitious plan is to have everyone start their race at the same time and connect before/during/after with a mix of Facebook Live, ZOOM, Strava and Race Map Live Tracking.

There are lots of other examples, but taking Adventure Racing digital is a bit more complicated than running around the garden or clocking up the miles on Zwift.

Virtual orienteering screenshot
Virtual Orienteering

You could of course concentrate on one particular skill and a new addition there is the Virtual Orienteering website set up by Mark Lattanzi (TANZ Navigation).  The aim is test your map recognition skills against the clock and it’s a good way to keep you ‘map eye’ in.  Racers from around the world are using it and so far he has posted over 20 courses. There is a regular Monday Map Madness competition with prizes too, and Tim Buchholz commented on Facebook, “Monday Map Madness has changed the feeling about Monday’s from one of despair to that of Christmas morning excitement!”

‘Virtual’ Adventure Racing

Of the more complete AR experiences available one of the most successful to date is ‘The Lockdown’ event set up by Rootstock Racing in the U.S.  This challenges racers to set their own course and cover a total of 21 hours of racing over a 96 hour period, which is apt as the company tagline is ‘Make your own adventure’.

The requirements included multisport, run, ride and bushwhack stages, strength activities and some geocaching for navigation, with photos and tracking for verification. There are also specific locations and features to find, and one exercise activity which isn’t usually in AR.

There is an entry fee to receive the full race pack and instructions, and all those completing get a race T-shirt, with all proceeds going to charity.  So far the event has had 362 registrants from 46 US states, in addition to Canada, Hong Kong, Japan, Australia, Finland, Great Britain, Germany, and New Zealand.  The money raised after T-shirt and shipping costs is about $10,000 so far, split between the WHO International Covid Relief fund and the US charity No Hungry Kid.

The Lockdown T-shirt design
The Lockdown T-shirt

Entries are still open until the end of the month with the challenge having to be completed by the end of June. (While the US lockdown allowed long rides/runs and overnight activities the national lockdowns elsewhere were much more stringent, so the competition was extended to open up the opportunity to more international racers as their own lockdowns are eased.)

This has meant racers planning their own courses (which vary on circumstances), recording what they do and in many cases sharing it on the event Facebook page.  Abby Perkiss of Rootstock commented; “We're finding that many folks are making it harder for themselves than the instructions and guidelines require, which strikes me as an interesting - if not surprising - phenomenon. And the feedback we're getting is that people are really enjoying it as an escape from covid, but also that they're appreciating the challenge of "playing RD" and getting to design their own courses.”

The race includes a non-AR challenge and some of the choices so far have been bouldering, dancing, Frisbee golf, ping-pong and juggling!  A lot of family groups have taken part and courses have been in all sorts of terrain, with one couple racing around the streets of London and visiting old pubs – 24 in all.

On the other side of the world the Kaikoura Adventure Race went virtual and took a slightly different approach.  Race organisers Tim Farrant and Tane Cambridge pulled apart a race and set challenges for all of the skills involved.  These included race prep, with teams preparing a logistics planner and packing their gear boxes, course planning on a rogaine map, route choices puzzles, a quiz (to keep you awake through the night) as well as physical challenges, one of which was kayak simulation. (You can still find and download the course books on their Facebook page.)

The event was free to enter and Cambridge said, “The response we had was pretty overwhelming to be honest! We expected maybe 10 or 15 people would give it a go, but at the final count we had 98 entries (teams and individuals) across the easy and hard courses. People from all over the world were able to take part and there were even some multi-national teams.”

He added, “The idea was to have a window open for 3 days, and people could do as much or as little as they liked when and wherever, which appealed to a lot of people and especially a lot of families. We had a range of people take part from complete beginners to complete experts. People really enjoyed it.”

Overall the whole format turned out to be pretty successful and we generated a lot of interest in our Adventure Race by doing it.”

Here to Stay?

There are other virtual AR’s being organised, but from these two examples some things stand out and the question comes up ... Why not continue with them when regular racing is back on?

The races we’ve featured here were popular and successful and a lot of families and young children took part, as well as some complete beginners who had never done an adventure race before.  (See the link at the foot of the article to the Lockdown report from the Spangler family, including 3 year old Daisy and 5 year old Lucy.)

Family racing The Lockdown
The Spangler family Lockdown race

Being able to race in their own way, in familiar places and in their own time took away many of the barriers to entry AR suffers from, and many of the newcomers have said they are looking forward to a real race now.  One comment on The Lockdown Facebook page is Mom, that was an awesome day. Could we do it again, even if we are not doing a Lockdown?”

It seems virtual races could be a good way of reaching out to newcomers to the sport, and removing the initial obstacles of them having to find a team and a nearby race.  The fun challenges made getting involved more accessible and the format encourages them to start out thinking like a Race Director and explore their local area.

Cambridge commented; “Beginners found it quite educational, and it gave them an insight into what goes into an adventure race from the planning beforehand, to the race itself and the tidying up afterwards.” 

He added; “It does leave me wondering if this is a format that could be used again or as successfully, outside of the current restrictions. A lot of people lead pretty busy lives in normal circumstances and it appears this type of race appealed and allowed them to take part in between everything else.”

There are over 200 posts on the Lockdown Facebook page with hundreds of photos and videos taken by participants. Having to document what they are doing in order to take part makes these races a valuable PR exercise for the race brands.  The posts will engage many more people, who can see firsthand their friends having fun ‘doing adventure racing’.

Adventure film maker Jeff O’Connor is even making a feature length documentary film of The Lockdown, using footage and stories sent in by the participants.

In one of her posts on her own Lockdown race Abby Perkiss said, Thanks, everyone, for the support and encouragement this morning. It feels good to know we’re all doing this together, even if we can be together while we do it.”  There’s another advantage – the Race Directors get to take part!

She said, “We're wondering if there’s a place for these virtual events even when traditional racing gets underway again and we may try another, shorter, one over the winter, to see if it holds traction.”

If they do it will be interesting to see how it goes, and whether virtual races (either stand alone or run alongside real races) can work outside of Covid 19 restrictions.  Could they be a good marketing approach for event companies and an effective way to spread the word about Adventure Racing?


The Lockdown Facebook Page 

Rootstock Racing

Spangler family Lockdown report 

Kaikoura Adventure Race

Kaikoura Adventure Race on Facebook

Virtual Orienteering on Facebook

Virtual Orienteering

Rapid Ascent virtual trail races

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