Adventure Races: Fun, Healthy Community Programming

March 1, 2016, Department, by Nick Menchaca and Dr. Jo An Zimmermann, Ph.D., CPRP

Recreation agencies often find themselves brainstorming for new ideas or events that will include a variety of participants, regardless of age, body type, fitness level, and so on. Recreation can be used as a tool to bring communities together, and our goal as recreation professionals is to become a resource for safe and healthy fun! To that end, programming an adventure race is an excellent option for creating a safe, fun and healthy event for your community.

Adventure races can be designed to encompass many skill sets in addition to the challenge to compete for the fastest completion time. Most racers are satisfied with just completing the race, but there are some who train prior to the race, and compete at a high level. The race director can manipulate the overall structure of the race in any way and customize it to best fit the environment. For example, the adventure race known as Tough Mudder is a worldwide event where teams work through an intricate military style obstacle course. 

The Tough Mudder adventure race values comradery, with the goal of all teammates finishing, over posting the fastest time. It began in 2010 with three races across the United States and 20,000 participants and raised more than $500,000 for the Wounded Warrior Project. Tough Mudder has grown every year: In 2014, 57 races took place across eight countries, raising $2 million for charities. 

A Customizable, Self-Sustaining Program

Adventure races have also become popular on college campuses. The University of Maine hosts an obstacle course-style adventure race that is limited to 300 participants in costume and is 3.5 miles long. Participants are required to complete tasks such as run through woods and swamps, climb walls, move tires and crawl through mud, to name a few. After the race, awards are given for first place and the best costume. The University of Florida’s adventure race involves running trails, mountain biking, canoeing and climbing a rock wall. Rice University’s adventure race also involves running and canoeing but mixes in mystery challenges. 

Other adventure races involve partners and orient participants to checkpoints where they must complete a challenge. Challenges can exercise mental, physical and/or teambuilding abilities, or can be as simple as getting a punch card stamped at the checkpoints. It is up to the race director and his or her crew to come up with fun challenges and surprises that will make the event special. 

Adventure races are a good option for recreation agencies because the races can become a self-sustainable program without the need to be subsidized. At the University of Maine, individual participants can preregister for $15 or pay a day-of-race fee of $25 dollars for students and $40 for nonstudents. The University of Florida’s race has an entrance fee of $20 dollars per person and is completed in teams of two. Rice University’s race also has an entrance fee of $20 per person but requires teams of three. 

A Learning Experience

The Recreational Administration Program at Texas State University wanted to start a campus-wide tradition that would be highly anticipated every year. The growing popularity of adventure races worldwide gave rise to the idea of a local adventure race in the university’s hometown of San Marcos. Since 2012, a group of undergraduate students in the recreation program development class has been putting on the Texas State (TXST) Turkey Adventure Race the Saturday before Thanksgiving. 

Students in the programming class gain experience and learn about campus life by seeking out and creating partnerships with 12–15 student organizations. These student organizations each host a checkpoint challenge for the race. After evaluating the first race, the crew began charging the student organizations a small fee to host a checkpoint. The fee encourages the student organizations to be punctual on race day and avoids having any no-shows. Many student organizations will either choose an activity that represents what they do or promote within their organization, or that’s a silly or fun challenge. Some of the favorite stops this past year included paddling in the San Marcos River on canoes to retrieve numbered targets, bouncing balls into different containers, spinning in circles before throwing a mini field goal and locating countries on a world map. 

The TXST Turkey Adventure Race is set up throughout campus, and the location of each checkpoint is unknown to racers until race day. Racers are allowed to complete the stops in any order and receive a wristband upon completion of each challenge. Once the racers cross the finish line, their time is recorded and their wristbands are counted to document how many challenges they completed. Prizes are awarded based on the most stops completed in the shortest amount of time. Any teams that fail to return within the time limit are disqualified from prizes but are eligible for drawings. In 2015, TXST’s race had the most participants yet and generated around $500 toward student travel for professional development. The race also provides students with the opportunity to learn how to approach sponsors for prize donations and gain professional experience by creating partnerships with local businesses.

Adventure races are a flexible platform that recreation professionals can use to reach the community and to reflect the goals of their agencies. They can unite the community and provide opportunity for people to work together and practice healthy habits. Any group or organization can create an adventure race and contribute to their surroundings by utilizing the environment in which they live. If you’d like to learn more about starting an adventure race email me at the address listed below. I’d be happy to share our experience with creating one at Texas State University. 

Nick Menchaca  is a graduate student in the Recreational Administration Program at Texas State University. Jo An M. Zimmermann, Ph.D., CPRP, is an Associate Professor and Undergraduate Coordinator, Division of Recreational Administration, Department of Health and Human Performance at Texas State University.