3 Life and Business Lessons From Adventure Racing

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I set my bike down, peeled off my helmet and grabbed a handful of peanut butter M&Ms, my go-to fuel during outdoor adventures. 

As I ate in this suburban St. Louis park, I looked to my right toward a hill that sloped down to a wooded area. Two men walked out from the trees. Their body language was unpleasant, their behavior even worse. One yelled at the other, “Would you let me just look at that map for one second?!”

We were only a few hours into the Castlewood 8-hour Adventure Race, and already that team was at odds with each other. 

I went into this year’s race expecting to write about business lessons I’ve learned in adventure racing. I did not expect “don’t be a jerk” to be near the top of the list, though maybe I should have as that was the chief lesson I learned this year. Adventure racing, which features canoeing, orienteering and biking, offers ample opportunities for jerks to reveal themselves. 

Business lessons from adventure racing

Race directors spread checkpoints all over the woods, or, in this case, all over suburban parks. Competitors have nothing but a map, a compass and their own sense of direction. Whichever team finds all of the points and gets to the finish line first wins. 

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That simple description leaves out how frustrating it can be and how frustration brings out the worst in us. That’s just one of many lessons I’ve applied in four years of adventure racing to my career. And I’m not alone. “The crossover is enormous,” says Gordon Wright, founder of Outside PR and former adventure racer who founded an underground event. 

Wright and countless other adventure racers have gained valuable experience on concepts as wide ranging as plotting your own course versus following the pack, risk versus reward and being a member of a team

In addition to “don’t be a jerk,” here are the three most important life and business lessons from adventure racing I’ve learned.

1. Have the right gear, tech and equipment—and know how to use it

I have had more gear issues—good and bad, big and small, serious and silly—this year than the rest of my career combined. 

Up until this year, if I was reporting on a long-distance hike and something happened that I wanted to write down, I had to stop, fish my notebook out of my backpack, find a pen and write it down. Then I had to return my notebook to my backpack and my pen to my pocket and resume the hike. My hiking mates would have to either wait for me, which is frustrating for them, or keep going, which is frustrating for me. Either way, I would be wasting a ton of time.

On a hiking assignment in April, I noticed a friend had laced cord through the spiral wires of his notebook, tied the end of the cords together and hung it around his neck like a gaudy yet imminently practical necklace. 

This innovation left me gobsmacked. 

He was gobsmacked at how gobsmacked I was, but all I could think about was the hours—yes, hours—that little piece of genius would have saved me over the years.

I immediately stole his idea. As silly as it sounds, that simple “technological advancement” has already been extremely helpful on four assignments. During the adventure race in December, I took notes while walking and canoeing and barely slowed us down, if at all. 

2. View obstacles as opportunities

Adventure racing is nothing if not a constant battle against challenges—which is exactly the same as running my own business. It’s only the nature of the challenges that are different. 

In any given race, competitors face harrowing bike trails, massive hills to climb and frigid (or soaring) temperatures. One lesson Marco Amselem, of one of the world’s top-ranked pro adventure racing teams, has learned is that some obstacles aren’t obstacles but opportunities. The key to overcoming them is to reframe how you think of them. 

If you view them as opportunities to learn, grow and think differently, you will attack them in a different way. To illustrate his point, he used an example familiar to every adventure racer (and business owner)—what to do when one person slows the team down. It’s frustrating only if you allow it to be. If you instead think of it as an opportunity, it can be a positive.

“If someone is really struggling, sick, it doesn’t mean that the team needs to be affected negatively by that,” Amselem says. “Maybe it’s time for all of us to rest, so we can get stronger and move faster.”

3. Make tough decisions on the fly

Like any stressful endeavor, adventure racing magnifies your strengths and weaknesses. You learn a lot about yourself and your teammates when you’re lost deep in the woods. It’s not about avoiding mistakes. They are inevitable. It’s how you react that matters—loudly demanding to see the map, as I overheard in December, is a recipe for more fighting and getting even more lost. 

So is not admitting you’re lost.

Wright tells two stories that demonstrate this issue. The first came in a multi-day adventure race in Maine. His team guessed it would take 17 hours to complete a trekking portion of the event. 

“After 30 hours, it was increasingly, blindingly clear that we were not only lost, but also our navigator had no point of reference to get us unlost,” he says. “Navigating, like business leadership, is a two-way road of trust. My other teammates and I supported our navigator until it was apparent they were overwhelmed.”

After 46 hours, Wright and the other teammate finally gave up and convinced the navigator to radio for help, which disqualified them from the race. “But it was the right thing to do,” he says. “We got rescued and likely saved our lives in the process.”

Another time, Wright and his team were mountain biking in the dark. They were cold, exhausted and not thinking clearly. “Our navigator, a far more experienced and humble one, gathered the rest of us around him and said, pointing at a map, ‘This is where we are, I think. But I’m wrecked, we’re near a cliff and I’m not 100% sure where to go next. I think we should bust out our space blankets and grab a half-hour nap. It’ll be light enough then to make a better route choice—what do you guys think?’”

That moment of clarity amid confusion helped the team collect their wits, and they ultimately finished second in the race.

“And you can guess which person I’d like to work with,” Wright says.

Photo by TORWAISTUDIO/Shutterstock.com

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Matt Crossman is a writer based in St. Louis. He writes about sports, travel, adventure and professional development. Email him at [email protected].

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