Sitting down to organise my 2015 racing calendar, I noticed a definite decline in the number of adventure racing event options after a bumper couple of years in 2013 and 2014. In south east QLD, while there is still the stalwart sprint options of the Kathmandu/Paddy Pallin and MDARA races along with longer format races including Hells Bells, Darkside and of course the Rogue24, there are a number of races which won’t be making a return in 2015. These include the Ridgeline Adventure race options of The Kick Off, The Step Up and the Culminator, along with iAdventure’s series of sprint races. I thought it a timely opportunity to look back at the evolution of adventure racing in Australia and reflect on why certain races stand the test of time, while others have a limited life span.
The Early Years.
Adventure racing in the format that we are now familiar with first hit Australian shores in 1997 with the Cairns edition of Eco Challenge. Prior to that, there were a number of wilderness events through the 1980s which spawned the rise of adventure racing including Coast to Coast in New Zealand (1980) and the Alaskan Mountain Wilderness Classic (1982). The first races employing adventure racing’s current format (that is, a team based navigational sport involving trekking, mountain biking and kayaking) were the internationally staged Raid Gauloises in 1989 (sponsored by a cigarette company no less) and Southern Traverse in New Zealand in 1991. However, it wasn’t until 1995 when Mark Burnett launched Eco Challenge with its large budget, massive prize pool and international television audience that Adventure Racing became more widely known.
Eco Challenge ran from 1995 to 2002 with a total of 10 races including the 1997 race in north Queensland. Prior to the arrival of Eco Challenge, there were a couple of multisport races in Australia including the Winter Challenge in Victoria from 1983 to 2002, the Gloucester Mountain Man (which has been running ever since 1991) and subsequently the JLL Challenge, a Victorian multisport race that ran from 1998 to 2002. Interestingly, when Eco Challenge folded in 2002, rather than spelling the death of the sport, it opened up a boom of new races across the globe which is no more evident than in Australia. While the first world championship was held in Switzerland in 2001 and Primal Quest with the largest prize pool ever hit the US in 2002, Australia held its first domestic race series. This was the GeoQuest 48hr Adventure Race held by Geocentric Outdoors (then Geocentric Adventure Racing). Amazingly, this race has been held every year since – a total of 13 times – cementing its place as Australia’s premier Adventure Race. At around the same time Max Adventure formed, launching a series of sprint races which are still running today. Their Max24 race ran a total of 11 times from 2004 to 2013 and represented Australia’s only opportunity to race a 24hr AR as a solo competitor.
Coinciding with the early growth of Geocentric’s and Max Adventure’s races were a collection of other races which have come and gone from the Australian Adventure Racing scene. These include the International Arrow races which were held in both NZ and Australia and wound up in 2006, the Red Yeti which was a 36hr race based in South Australia that ran for four years, the Quoll Adventuergaine which ran from 2003 to 2009 incorporating a multiday rogaine format and the AROC Adventure Racing series which were hosted by top level competitors Tom Landon-Smith and Alina McMaster. (Ed Note: I’ve since been informed that the Quoll Adventuregaine began in 1998 a year after Eco Challenge passed through, running under the name of the Cairns Eco Adventure).
Longer Format Races.
After the Eco Challenge in 1997, Australia had to wait until 2004 before hosting another expedition race. Exploring the Broken Hill region, the first XPD attracted 20 teams and since then has grown to be an important member of the AR World Series (hosting the world championships in 2011) with its 8th edition set to return to north QLD in 2015. Excitingly, in 2014 a new expedition race emerged for the first time in Australia since the introduction of XPD a decade ago. The Wildside Expedition race was held in the Forster region of NSW by Fully Rad Adventures who intend to host a 24hr race and expedition race on alternating years.
Australia has seen a number of other multiday races come and go. Aside from the previously mentioned 36hr Red Yeti and 48hr Quoll races, a 36hr race called the X-Raid ran for three years in WA from 2004 to 2006. Furthermore, Rapid Ascent held the Keen Adventure Race for three years between 2007 and 2009 and the Great Southern/Denmark AR in WA from 2008 to 2010. The Keen race incorporated a multiday stage race format over a five day period and has seen somewhat of a resurrection with the Falls Creek Mountain Raid, although this new stage race is only held over two days and requires teams of four competitors. The Mark Webber Challenge has also adopted this format, although it has only been held 7 times over an 11 year period, with the last race in 2013. Indeed, GeoQuest is Australia’s only annual multiday race which is a testament to its longevity.
In terms of 24hr races, there are very limited choices currently in Australia for 2015. The Rogue Adventuregaine will be returning for its 6th year with a race based in the township of Somerset. Hells Bells will be hosted for the 12th time after changing hands from Geocentric Outdoors to Dare You Adventure in 2012. I’d even go as far to say that Darkside qualifies as a “24hr” race given its midnight start and long courses – we may be lucky enough to see two Darkside races in 2015 after postponement of the 2014 race. However, aside from these three options (all in Queensland) plus Wildside in NSW, there are a number of 24hr races which are no longer running. These include the aforementioned Arrow and Max24 races, the AROC 24hr race which ran for four years and culminated in a 50r race in 2008, the Espresso race which ran for six years in Western Australia, the Europa 24hr Race which ran once in 2011 in the NT and X-Marathon by the Adventure Junkies which is taking a hiatus in 2015 after a four year run.
While the history of adventure racing is couched in the expedition format, it didn’t take long for “sprint” version events to take hold, opening up the accessibility of the sport to a broader competitor base. Impressively, it is Geocentric Outdoors/In2Adventure and Max Adventure with their set of sprint races that have stood the test of time. The original Teva series hosted by Geocentric was sold to In2Adventure who ran the event for another 5 years before it evolved to the MDARA series which is currently still Australia’s only truly interstate adventure racing series. Whilst Dare You Adventure will host two Wild Women events in 2015 and Adventure Junkies a number of shorter races in Victoria, other sprint series that no longer run include those held by AROC, iAdventure, Ridgeline Adventure , Boundless AR and Geocentric Outdoors’ ARQ series.
There are undoubtedly a myriad of reasons why an adventure race series will wrap up. First and foremost is the fact that organising an adventure race is hard. The very nature of these events that make them so appealing also make them a massive undertaking to organise – that is, the fact that they explore new courses and locations for every race. This requires organisers to manage new permits (often through different permitting systems), land access, mapping and course setting for every individual event. Coupled with the fact that adventure racing is realistically still a fringe sport with only moderate competitor numbers means that it is hard for professional event organisers to turn a profit for the number of man hours invested into every race. Other factors including competition from other events (for example the boom in obstacle course racing), along with difficulty securing permits under tightening regulatory authorities and high insurance costs have also been cited to me as reasons for why events have folded over time.
In light of the inherent difficult nature of event organisation, it is even more impressive the longevity of adventure racing companies such as Geocentric Outdoors, In2Adventure and Max Adventure. This is in comparison to other big race promoters such as Rapid Ascent and AROC who have dropped adventure racing in lieu of other events including multisport races, trail runs and bike races which are significantly more straight forward to organise and attract larger competitor numbers. It should be noted that even these big three event companies have a diverse portfolio of events including management of the world series and the track-me-live system by Geocentric, a number of mountain bike, urban and obstacle course races by Max Adventure and the popular TreX off-road triathlon series by In2Adventure.
Irrespective of the evolution of adventure racing event promoters in Australia, there are still a number of key races on offer in 2015. It would be an easy task to fill up every weekend with one form of event or another whether it be a rogaine, orienteering, trail run, mountain bike race or indeed adventure race. A full calendar can be found here. Or indeed, if you are looking beyond Australia, why not use our local races to train for one of the 17 expedition races currently planned world-wide listed here.
Author’s Note: I began adventure racing in 2006, and didn’t get into the sport in a big way until 2007, so my information on dates and races prior to this time is a little hazy. Please feel free to get in touch and correct me if you think I have something wrong or if there is an adventure racing event series I have overlooked.
Edit Note: Since originally posting this article, I’ve made a number of corrections to dates and updates including reference to races such as the Winter Challenge, Gloucester Mountain Man, Europa 24hr and X-Raid.