Nine Lessons Learned During My First Adventure Race

I recently competed, along with a superb teammate, in the Competition Dynamics 24 Hour Sniper Adventure Challenge. The event consisted of hiking 30 miles over mountainous high desert terrain in a period which was roughly 24 hours long – my team took 27. Total elevation gain along the route was approximately 10,000 feet, and a number of intense physical challenges were placed before the contestants as they hit various checkpoints. In addition, as the name implies, there was some shooting involved.

A view from approximately 7000ft MSL of the terrain encountered during the race.

It was a hard day and I had not slept very well the night before, nor had I really eaten very well before the course began. I learned a few hard lessons, some of which I will share here.

Lesson #1 – Know Yourself

It is inadvisable to enter an adventure race without knowing what your limits, skills, and capabilities are. The only way to find out these things is to get out and test yourself. A number of the individuals who attempted 24HSAC were out of shape, and a few were medically obese. One team appeared to quit/drop out of the race within 50 yards of the starting line. The course description was very clear, and why out-of-shape people thought they could safely participate is beyond me.

I won’t say that pushing yourself the way I do is a good idea – the things I do are actually not very smart at all – but they have helped me learn my limits.

Prior to this event, I have undertaken hikes, runs, and walks in remote areas involving difficult terrain and a lack of food, water, or sleep. None were as difficult as 24HSAC, but I have gone 48+ hours without food while walking 20 miles per day at sea level with a 25lb backpack, gone 12+ hours without water or other fluids while walking over 12 miles through soft sand in 95-100 degree temperatures, and covered long distances with large amounts of gear – 15 miles at altitude while wearing full body armor (soft armor and plates) and carrying a 50lb pack.

I have come so close to the failure point of my mind and my body during these “walks” that I know exactly what I am capable of. Near the end of the 24HSAC course, a staff member asked me if I was okay, because I apparently didn’t look so great. I replied that I was, because I knew exactly how far I was from mental and/or physical collapse at that point.

Lesson #2 – Know Your Equipment

For all the time I have just spent talking about how well I know myself and how much I have pushed myself, the main equipment choice I made for 24HSAC was pretty foolish. I bought a new rifle and hurriedly zeroed it the morning before the event. I had never fired it past 50 yards and didn’t even know the exact muzzle velocity of the ammo I was using (acquired at the last minute thanks to the guys at TheGunVault) from my rifle. As a result, all of the holdover decisions I made were theoretical.

Accurate rifle, outstanding optic. But without sufficient experience with them as a system, I might as well have been carrying a 10lb log. Yes, I did ensure that the bore was clear before shooting.

Not surprisingly, I did not do well at all on the rifle shooting portions of the course. I missed the vast majority of the targets – often only by a foot or two at 600-800+ yards, but a miss is a miss. I can’t really say anything more about this: know what your equipment is, what it does in certain situations, and what you can do with it. In contrast, the pistol I carried was my usual Glock 19, which I have shot tons of ammo through at various distances and from various positions. We had the third fastest time to clean the pistol only stage.

Lesson #3 – Hydrate Or Die

This seems really obvious. Heck, maybe the other two points I’ve made here seem really obvious as well. But if I heard correctly, the medical support team for 24HSAC went through three to five cases of IV bags during the event. There were numerous heat casualties who were apparently not getting enough fluids. Water was supplied at numerous points along the course, and all competitors were required to bring electrolyte replacement tablets or powder from the start.

Here I am relaxing at a water station (background) during the route. I replenished my water supply (camelbak, foreground) as often as I could.

As with the second point, there’s not much to say here. Learn to recognize the signs of dehydration and stay well ahead of that point. Bring enough water and do not hesitate to drink it. Clean drinking water is the most valuable thing you can have when you are in a remote area and your life is at stake.

Lesson #4 – Take Care Of Your Feet

In an adventure race, you’re probably going to be spending a lot of time on your feet. If you’re not wearing the right shoes/boots or you’re allowing your feet to stay wet for too long, your ability to keep going will be severely limited. You should wear shoes or boots that are in good condition – not worn out, but not brand new and unknown to your feet. And you should regularly change your socks. I changed socks four times in 27 hours – each time, the new, clean, soft pair made me feel a little better, and helped me go farther.

Comparing blisters with a friend while enjoying post-race pizza.

The shoes I wore during the event were Skechers Olympias Trekkers. I bought them about a week prior and spent a good bit of time hiking up and down hills in Seattle with them. I didn’t see any blisters at that time, and decided that they would be suitable for use during 24HSAC.

Only a few tiny blisters showed up on my feet, and those appeared at the very end of the event. Some other people weren’t as lucky. Keep in mind that the fit of a shoe to your foot is just as important, if not more, than the features of the shoe itself.

Lesson #5 – Have A Good Partner

I can’t say that this goes for all adventure races, since I’ve only been in one. However, I can say that getting along with your teammate, if it is a team event, is absolutely critical. In addition, you need a partner that makes up for your deficiencies, and whom you can support in other ways.

My teammate and I at the finish line.

My teammate/spotter for this event was Paul, an outstanding individual who is a fellow Eagle Scout and genuine outdoorsman. He’s in outstanding shape and definitely motivated me to keep going throughout the event – not verbally, but simply by setting the example and keeping up a good pace that I was able to follow…for the most part.

He’s also a really smart guy, but he got a little frustrated during one of the challenges of the event, which involved decoding a message from a book using a series of numbers. We had been awake for 30+ hours at that point, were exhausted, and not really able to think clearly. However, I was able to recognize the code immediately and we were one of six teams (out of 35) that got a perfect score on that event.

Lesson #6 – Suffering Is Inevitable, So Ignore It

The race began with every team filling a duffel bag with 100lbs of rocks and carrying it for an unknown distance – it ended up being three miles – using one or two 2x4s. This was not an easy task. In fact, it just plain sucked. At least one team, as mentioned above, quit early during this challenge. Some others elected to drop the rocks for a huge loss of points which essentially made it impossible for them to win the race.

These events are not easy. You will encounter pain, hunger, discomfort, exhaustion, and a number of other unpleasant factors. If you focus on them, you will start circling the drain and might quit early. Of the thirty-five teams that started the event, only 24 crossed the finish line in one form or another; of those, only 7 actually completed the entire race and didn’t turn back early. We certainly encountered unpleasantness, but did not allow this to stop us from hitting every checkpoint and finishing third in the race.

My teammate learns just how uncomfortable I was during the low crawl portion of the event.

This is the most mental lesson I will list – I cannot simply tell you to suck it up. You must be willing to suck it up on your own. If you don’t think you are mentally tough enough to keep going when the true unpleasantness begins, you should avoid entering these types of races until you have built up the requisite toughness.

One thing you might try Рand this will sound a bit clich̩, but oh well Рis to enjoy the view. Most adventure races take place in attractive locations, and if you can get your mind off the major suckage you are facing at any given time, you might be able to go farther than you think.

I also had a Taylor Swift song stuck in my head for about nine hours. It was annoying, but a welcome distraction.

Lesson #7 – Pack Light

Many competitors brought far too much gear. A number of teams brought over 60lbs of gear, plus rifles! My backpack (with water and ammo) weighed 19lbs and my rifle weighed almost exactly 10lbs. I also had a Glock 19 in a Praetor Defense holster on my waist, a Surefire E1B and a Benchmade Griptilian clipped to my pockets, a Casio Pathfinder watch, and a Canon S95 in an arm pocket. That’s all I brought.

When you're hiking at over 7000ft, you will regret every ounce of unnecessary weight.

Even though some of the other competitors were in better physical shape than I, they were unable to go uphill or downhill as fast as we were, and many ended up skipping stages (which cost them a lot of points) or turning back early due to the tons of gear they were carrying.

This difference was in fact huge – we were the second to last team to leave the starting point, but the third team to reach the second checkpoint. That first “hill” was a real challenge.

This is a lesson I have learned the hard way in the past, and is a mistake I wasn’t about to repeat. I brought little more than what was on the required gear list for the event. I would strongly advise that you carefully consider everything you want to bring with you on an event like this. I took a serious look at everything I wanted to bring and honestly made decisions based on 2-3 ounce differences in weight.

Even the weight of your pack matters. I have a lot of packs, and they are all good for different things. My Gregory G pack is superlight and nice for short day trips. The North Face backpacks I have are pretty rugged, but look like school backpacks and don’t stand out much in urban environments like those I’ve encountered in Europe and North Africa. My Kelty MAP 3500 can hold a good amount of weight and distribute it properly – it’s seen use in North and South America, as well as Asia. And my HSGI TRASH pack – well, it weighs 12lbs or so empty, so I only take it when I really, really need to carry a LOT of weight.

Lesson #8 – Quality Gear Is Nice To Have

I took a lot of name-brand gear with me on the race. Most of it was purchased, some of it was loaned, and some was given to me. Most of this stuff was pretty expensive. For example, I bought a Leica CRF1600 rangefinder specifically for use during this event, and found it to be an outstanding and accurate product. I was loaned a USO scope, dropped it in the dirt a dozen times, and never saw any real signs of damage.

Could I have cut myself free from the tree I was duct taped to during the E&E phase with a cheaper knife? Sure, but I like my Benchmades, and the one I brought has served me well in extremely harsh places for a long time. That’s what you pay for with expensive gear sometimes – not just initial quality, but quality that lasts.

Here I am relaxing in my expensive Arc'teryx attire.

I was also given about $700 worth of Arc’teryx LEAF clothing for use during the event. I was initially skeptical of the items simply based on cost and made some related Facebook comments which upset some people, but which the Arc’teryx reps I showed them to found quite funny. They then proceeded to give my teammate and I a solid breakdown of what makes Arc’teryx gear expensive. We were impressed – not only with this breakdown and their knowledge of the gear, but the performance of the clothing during the event. I feel that this gear/clothing deserves a separate article, but for now I think that it is sufficient for me to say that I could actually see myself spending money on this clothing if I intended to use it in a harsh environment.

Lesson #9 – When You’re Done, Relax And Enjoy Life

It was really nice to finish this trip and be done with everything. Really, really nice. But what it gave me – and what many of my other trips give me – is an appreciation for life. From hanging out and eating pizza with my friends Jim and John (the other Deliberate Dynamics/Arc’teryx LEAF sponsored team) after the race to the flight back with my teammate and friend Paul, I just don’t take things for granted after something like 24HSAC.

Some of the scenery I enjoyed while flying home in the 182.

 

I will definitely be looking to participate in similar events, and I think Paul will be, too. For all the pain and suffering that we encountered, the event was truly rewarding.

53 thoughts on “Nine Lessons Learned During My First Adventure Race”

  1. Fantastic article. I would like to do something like this at some point. I know I have the mental toughness and the *will* to continue. What I don’t have is the physical fitness and endurance. That’s something I’m working on. Thanks for the great article and the inspiration to myself and others.

  2. I’ve found humming/singing a simple pop song to be most excellent for morale, especially if you and your friend both know the lyrics. Other than that: great writeup.

  3. Good write up. Sounds like I’d need to do a lot more long term exercise to be prepared for this thing. I’ve done 7 mile long run-n-guns before over relatively flat terrain at lower altitude, but this sounds about 10 times harder.

    Perhaps a guide to physically training for one of these events would be good blog entry.

    1. Problem is, I don’t work out much. I just disappear into the desert for several days at a time, and if I live, I consider it successful training.

  4. Good job on the competition, and good write-up.

    I really want to do one of these, but I don’t long range shooting/racing happens too much out here on the East Coast. Definitely want to get some experience like that before it’s my occupation in a land far away.

  5. Thanks so much for sharing and I really enjoy your blog. No disrespect so please do not take this the wrong way but what was there in these lessons learned did you not already learn while on active duty?

    Perhaps you are really sharing this with the overweight, out of shape bozo’s that showed up but I find your nine lessons learned an exercise in obvious for any rigorous activity whether combat related or just endurance competition.

    But thanks for sharing!

    1. The article was more of what I would consider my advice for those looking into adventure racing, or the biggest/most important things to consider on the topic.

      But to answer your question, one of the competitors was young, fit, and had very recently spent four years in a Ranger battalion. He packed too heavy and wasn’t able to hit all of the checkpoints.

  6. I don’t even think my numerous backpacking trips in the grand canyon could prepare me for something like that!!!!

  7. Andrew,

    Awesome write up. It simply amazes me you got your pack so light and I thought I was doing good getting my rifle down to 10 lbs 15 oz. Agreed on the Leica. I have the 1600, loaned it to my partner to use as he was the AR shooter and I brought my new 1600-B which I dearly love. Alas, at my age, I may have just competed in my first and last adventure race but at least I finished and with a respectable place though not as good as yours. Congrats on 3rd.

    Alan

    1. Alan

      Were you in the blue shirt with the 1911? If so I saw you up at 7 and was like “How did the ‘old guy’ beat me here?!” 😉 Good race, and glad you didn’t fall out.

      Andrew

  8. Outstanding review of the whole event….. I really wish I could have competed in this event but I am not in good enough shape to do so, Maybe next year….. ROing the event kicked my ass. Congrats and it was a pleasure meeting you.

    1. Thanks, Dave. It was nice to meet you as well, although our introduction didn’t go down exactly the way I would have preferred, haha. I’ll be reviewing the scope, by the way, unless you guys need it back right away.

  9. Great write up.
    I think it was directed at the those individuals that are not physicaly capable and lack some degree of “Common Sense”.
    Your 9 lessons Would seem a “No Brainer” for any one attemping such a physically demanding event.
    Well Done on your Finnish and placing.

  10. Andrew,
    Congrats on the race! Could you outline all of the gear you used during the event, and how much the “required” gear ended up weighing in? Did you end up taking anything that wasn’t required, and if so were you happy that you had it with you during the event?

  11. I was really hoping you’d stay away from being sponsored by gear companies. How can I trust your reviews when you’re getting free. Stuff from the manufacturer?

    1. You haven’t been paying attention – I get lots of stuff for free. But my honor costs a lot more than $700.

    2. He came out to do the event with us (deliberate dynamics), we as a team were supported by Arc’teryx, among other brands, Andrew just happen to be one of the guys shooting with us because we are friends, not that he has any interaction or affiliations with any of the brands that were supporting deliberate dynamics. Hopes that makes sense.

  12. I’ve never competed in something like this but it seems pretty cool. If I wasn’t a college student who just blew a lot of money on stuff I shouldn’t have (never buy a dog, or a Harley for that matter) this definitely looks like it would be up the alley of a bunch of my friends and myself.

    The one thing I will say is I love the advice on “enjoy the view.” When I was up at Bridgeport MWTC even though the Marine Corps was doing an exceptional job of wearing us down (I lost over 20lbs in 2 weeks), I was able to look out over the mountains whenever there was a break and it was truly breathtaking.

    People don’t realize how big of a kick in the balls altitude can be, especially without a proper acclimation period. If you are in good shape, it makes you feel like you are in terrible shape. Also, my guess is you saw a bunch of people who were out of shape because the gun culture in this country has turned into the fatter you are the more special forces you think you are, and therefore you must prove yourself having never had the balls to actually serve in the armed forces, as a cop, etc.

    Mike

  13. Andrew, i am very curious what made the cut and ended up in your pack.

    additionally, i’ve spent a fair amount of time in the back country. some with arc’teryx gear with me. so far, every piece of arc’teryx i have used has been about as good as it gets at what it is suppose to do. let me help you with your pending review of the gear – if you have the money for it, buy it. its well worth it.

  14. This was a neat post. You showed us a lot of good things. For instance, I am pleased to learn that Arc’teryx clothes have lots of gratuitous quality to go along with their very high prices. (I’ll still never be able to afford it though.)

    1. Wait, what the hell am I saying? “Gratuitous” means “given away for free.” They’re not giving it away, they’re charging lots of money for it. Feel free to execute tactical facepalms in response my poor diction.

      1. It isn’t free, but you don’t hear too many people that have bought something from Arc’teryx say “this is the last time I will ever buy”. It is the people that don’t get it that hate the prices, I am just glad we were able to put hard miles and on the gear and use it for its intended purpose.

        The last couple hours during the event, I couldn’t wait for it to be over. Less than 24 hours later, I was itching to do another one.

  15. I have a buddy doing a survival trial in September. He appreciated your article and tips, but was curious as to which bag you were using during your outing.

    Thanks again,
    Cheers

  16. Thanks for the article, my friend and I are planning on doing at least one of these races next year and found your 9 points helpful. I’m looking forward to your more indepth review on the Arc’terx clothing and the difference you felt it made in the race. If you have any other advice/reviews on gear from the race I will look forward to those as well.

  17. Just a somewhat off topic question but what Casio watch is that, it looks great!

    I also enjoyed the article but I’m a fat bastard so I can only remember hiking 5 years ago, interesting seeing your perspective though.

  18. I heard your rule #6 put another way by an adventure racer. “Pain is mandatory, Suffering is optional”. Pain is a fact of life. Suffering is in your head. You can endure the pain (physical) without suffering (mental).

  19. What a fantastic article. Your expression in the third picture is piercing. It sums up the whole mentality: focused, perceptive, and purposeful. Thank you for making such a powerful statement, in words and pictures.

  20. Guys, thanks for doing the match, most importantly, posting reviews like this for us who could not make it. The human spirit brings a top of strength to each of us when needed, usually beyond what we think can do. Keep up the great work.

  21. I know this is long after your write-up, but I just heard about this event. I have a question about women there. Were there any? I would like to do this with my wife, but let it be known that she is an absolute stud. She has done more than 12 marathons, 3 Half-Iron-Man tri’s, more regular tri’s than she can remember and many, many other things. We have run numerous obstacle races and are more than fit by virtually any standards. We are also gun people and love to shoot whenever we can. I am former military, as well.

    But I just wanted to ask if you thought there was anything that you really thought was just not doable by even a fit woman. Even with her physical endurance, there are certain upper-body things that are definitely harder for any woman.

    Thanks.

    1. There was one woman there. I think a fit woman could definitely finish and perhaps even win, if she kept her gear proportional to her body weight. Too many people brought way too much gear (my gear weighed about 20-22lbs, plus rifle). I saw the male/female team shortly after reaching the first checkpoint – the male was carrying her gear as well as his own and I think he might have been carrying the bag of rocks by himself earlier in the event. They dropped out before the second checkpoint. If a strong and determined woman showed up and didn’t quit, that would be very cool in my eyes.

  22. Excellent writeup. I’m interested in completeing the challenge this year and stumbled across this. What kind and caliber rifle did you use?

  23. I apologize this is late and appreciate if it isn’t being monitored anymore. I’ve been looking into the SAC and reading everything I can find. You mentioned a Casio Pathfinder watch (which I think is/has a GPS in it) but my understanding was GPSs aren’t allowed or, if you take them, they have to be sealed.

    Just wondering. Thanks

      1. Ahh. You didn’t mention orienteering much in this post and it got me to wondering if GPS had been allowed in past events. Thanks for the write-up and reply.

        1. Shooting a back Azimuth was one thing that saved our bacon in a particularly difficult time. I competed the following year and observed the year after that and land nav is a vital part of it. If you are good at land nav and can walk a long ways without stopping you’ll probably be in the top 5.

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