Inside the World of Adventure Races In Australia

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Behind The Scenes of Australian Adventure Races

Organising a successful adventure race is more than just setting up a great course and firing the starting gun. It takes months or years of planning, dealing with unhelpful bureaucracies, and organising an effective marketing campaign to attract racers. After all the “T”s have been crossed and the “I”s have been dotted, even the best organised event can turn to crap with unfavourable weather.

Iain Lygo shares the experiences of race directors, and looks at the pitfalls of a very difficult industry to financially succeed in.

The concept for my race was simple: A 17km 1000 vertical meter climb up a dead end road to an Australian ski resort in the middle of the off season. The race was open to road bikers, mountain bikers, and fixie riders. Planning started nine months before event date, and it wasn’t nearly enough time.

Every other feature for the biking festival ran smoothly. The short film festival was getting supported by film makers, and the local tourism industry and ski resort were brilliant. Social rides had been organised, sponsorship packages had been provided by local businesses, and a mountain bike skills camp had come on board.

The sticking point was the road permit for the race. Vic Roads wasn’t issuing a permit until the local council had signed off on the event. The local council wasn’t signing off on the event until the local police had approved it. The local police officer wasn’t approving it until Vic Roads, the council, plus a long list of other organisations had given the event their seal of approval. It was a classic Catch 22 situation.

Getting Country Fire Authority approval from a volunteer firefighter in the middle of winter is like wrestling jelly. Finding the grey nomad CFA chief on his travels was no easy matter. The hours chasing officialdom, and filling out forms, was supposed to be spent on promotion. The human road block that was holding everything up finally relented 1 month from race day and the online booking page was finally switched to live. By that stage it was all too late for effective marketing and low racer numbers meant the event was a one off. At least the participants gave the beers at the film fest a bit of a nudge, helping to recoup some of the costs.

In a world saturated with adventure events, attracting paying competitors is getting harder and harder.

Rapid Ascent is Australia’s premier adventure race company that runs mountain biking, trail running, and multisport adventure races across Australia. The company has been operating for 12 years and have hundreds of serious races under their belt. Rapid Ascent owner and adventure racing legend John Jacoby knows the industry better than anyone.

Jacoby argues that iconic events can be the most profitable, are the most enjoyable for participants, and best events to run, but they do come with increased costs and increased financial risk.

Rapid Ascent’s iconic WA event, the Act-Belong-Commit Augusta Adventure Fest is the biggest adventure race in the world.

“We like to keep events fresh with new courses and new features, but that increases the costs and we never know how successful the changes will be until race day” said Jacoby.

Rapid Ascent have leveraged the success of the Augusta Fest with the new Dunsborough X Adventure off-road triathlon. Jacoby hopes the combination of professional event management in a stunning location will see numbers continue to increase. If Rapid Ascent gets it right, the annual event will be financially sustainable and provide great experiences for racers for years to come.

Other iconic races are no longer run. The Lorne Adventure Fest had ten editions starting with 900 racers and peaking at 1,500. It was hit with a perfect storm two years ago. Race entries were slowly dropping, event costs were going up, and the naming rights sponsor pulled the pin. Dangerous winds and surf meant the short course race had to be rescheduled. Rapid Ascent handed back entry fees for all racers who couldn’t make the new starting time.

The decision to pull the event was not an easy one to make. With 800 participants, it’s not like the numbers were dire, but the unsustainable financial trends were pretty set. It was a blow to a region that has no shortage of athletes wanting to race.

The Lorne Adventure Fest is not the only race on the Surf Coast that no longer runs. The Surf Coast 6 Hour mountain bike race, organised by Southern Exposure was pulled due to the same reasons: increased costs and falling entrant numbers. Water rescue and medical support costs are increasing quickly.

The race industry is full of people willing to have a crack and Adventurethon are doing a great job in trying to fill the void left by the other two major races on the Surf Coast.

The chances of a new iconic point-to-point race, like the Buller to Melbourne or Marysville to Melbourne, appearing on the race calendar is very slim. Point-to-point races are logistically much more difficult and expensive to organise. The nearest regular point-to-point adventure race for Melbourne athletes is now in NZ.

“The race industry is saturated, and it would be good for everyone if the number of events was halved” Jacoby said.

Social events like Tough Mudders, Colour Runs and Neon runs are also impacting the adventure racing scene. While they get the potatoes off the couch, social events are also dragging athletes away from serious timed races. Huge mass-participation foot races that have been run for decades are experiencing big declines in numbers. It’s hard to be social and run with friends when there’s 40,000 other runners.

Adventure races will always have a core following but it’s long term future requires getting the colour runners to strap on a timing chip for their first actual race. Keeping existing athletes enthusiastic with amazing locations, new courses, and perhaps a more vibrant social scene at events is also vital to keep races on the event calendar.

Happy racing.

Photos by Rapid Ascent

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Iain Lygo

With a double degree in accounting and finance, Iain Lygo has successfully avoided an office job all his life. He has just launched Big Adventure Club. This adventure travel club has 6-8 epic tours a year including motor bike trekking in the Himalayas, surfing in Indonesia, back country skiing in BC, Mountain biking from Colorado to Utah, and road biking in France.


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