Dark(side) Rumminations

I sat on the fence for a little while about whether to pull a race report together for the Darkside 18hr race this year.  The reality is it would be easy to churn out another standard report about what happened during the race.  A stage by stage account of how Ray nearly slept through the bus departure to the start line, or Sloshy being hit by fish on the paddle leg, or my bike pedal breaking, or all the wrong turns we took or the countless times we traded the lead with team RoadPro Neverest.  And all of that did indeed happen.  Instead, however, I want to use this report to address a problem that I see creeping into the local adventure racing scene: mediocrity.

Team mates make the sport.

Team mates make the sport.

Upfront, let me start by saying my current feelings may be slightly tainted by the fact that on a personal level, I had a bad race on the weekend.  I came into the event extremely run down and not even keen to compete.  I was hoping through blind luck that things would come together out on the course, but there is no hiding over 130km of trails and I was on the back foot from the get go, making poor decisions with the navigation and dragging the chain on the run legs before we even hit the two hour mark.  It was the sort of race that makes me feel extremely grateful for the support of strong, caring team mates.  I’ve been truly lucky to race with some fantastic friends over the years, and Sloshy, Ray and Jodie are no exception.  To eventually lose by 22 seconds hurt even more, but not to take anything away from Gary, Todd, Kirk and Dan who are former team mates, good friends and well deserved winners.

But in despite of having a bad race, I feel a little let down by Darkside this year, and the general state of affairs for AR in QLD at the moment.  I think it is safe to say the sport is on a downwards trend.  This commentary comes from a history of having completed all six editions of Darkside.  I’ve also organized the Rogue Adventuregaine seven times, mentoring for two more adventuregaines and running another four foot only rogaines.  In addition I’ve competed in half a dozen expedition or stage races in four countries and countless other sprint through to 48 hour races in Australia over the last 10 years.  I have an opinion on what I think makes for a good race.  I’m keen to share those thoughts in the context of the most recent Darkside, but these opinions could easily apply to any race on the calendar.

What They Got Right

I don’t want this report to be seen as a criticism of In2Adventure (I2A).  I think they have the potential to put on some of the best adventure races in the country, and have done so in the past.  If you ever talk to Simon and Robyn in person, there is no doubting their enthusiasm as off-road event organisers.   The fact that they have secured the off-road triathlon world champs in 2016 is a testament to this.  There are many things from previous I2A races that keep me coming back, and that other event organisers can learn from.  These include:

  • Event sponsorship.  Through the support of Mountain Designs, Darkside has one of the best prize pools for any AR in the country.  One of the few times the winner will walk away with more value in their prize vouchers than the cost of their entry.  I don’t know anyone that races for the prizes in AR, but building solid sponsorship will give the sport the foundation and credibility it needs to at least survive, if not grow.
  • HQ Site.  This point is less in reference to actual location, but more to the infrastructure I2A put in place at their events.  They always try to generate a good vibe at race HQ.  This vibe was lacking a bit at this year’s race, but that is more of a reflection of the wet weather, small entry numbers and late race start than from any effort on I2A’s part.  They also put a unique twist to the start of most of their events, with this year’s “rolling lights” start one of my favourites yet.
  • Event Promotion and Website. I2A, along with Geocentric Outdoors, Max Adventure and Rapid Ascent have professional looking websites that do the sport credit.  None of their entry systems are super intuitive or easy to use, but at least they work.  I will note, however, that this year pre-race promotion for Darkside was very minimal – a couple of facebook posts in the week prior to the race and no HQ announcement until the 11th hour left me wondering if anyone would be turning up to race.
  • Mapping. In2Adventure are one of the few local event organisers that put time into producing their own quality maps.  Generally these are relatively up-to-date and accurate by adventure racing standards: kudos.  In the same vein, the use of electronic timing by I2A is to be commended.

What Needs More Work.

Whilst there is so much that the team at In2Adventure do well at their races, there are also a swag of elements that are broken and need to be fixed for the sport to be sustainable, let alone grow.  These are problems that aren’t just specific to the Darkside race, but could apply to many of the races I compete in.  I don’t highlight these just to be critical for the sake of criticism itself.  I love the sport of AR and I want to see it have a healthy future.  But when you only get 13 teams in the premier category of your premier race for the year, with numbers consistently trending downwards (a trend seen across other races as well), then changes need to be made.

Check Point Placement.

  • My number one gripe with all I2A races has always been their check point placement.  I imagine a straw poll of other experienced racers who have competed in Darkside or even the MDARA series would agree with this.  More often than not, a check point at an I2A race will be “hidden” making it less about good navigation and more about a treasure hunt.  I’ve lost count of the times I’ve arrived within the check point circle at an I2A race only to have to hunt around for the check point as teams catch up and join the random grid search.  And I acknowledge it does go the other way where we close down on a team hunting for a control.  As such, all results feel like a lottery.  Navigation should be about making a good choice of route to get to a CP location and not making mistakes in executing this route.  It shouldn’t be about a treasure hunt to find a faded orange and white piece of cloth hidden in a non-descript lantana thicket.  As an experienced racer, the randomness of control location removes a large element of the competitive nature of the race.  If I were a novice competitor, I would despair that this navigation business is impossible when I can’t find a check point even when I’m in the CP circle.  I’m sure it is turning people off the sport.

How to fix the problem:

  1. Hang the control on an actual feature that is shown on the map and exists on the ground.  Put it on a particular creek junction, knoll or spur at a certain altitude that can be readily identified.  It is still possible to have controls that are away from view of the public, but on real features that can be navigated to.  I love going off-trail in a race, but I hate bush bashing: and there is a difference.
  2. Vet your control locations.  Visit the spot you want to hang controls before putting them into your race.  If it is too overgrown, not consistent with the map, too vague relative to the description, don’t use it.  Better yet, pick a spot that you want competitors on the course to see (a beautiful view, a rocky creek line, an abandoned mine, whatever!).
  3. Make the control visible from 20m in all directions.  If you are in the centre of the CP circle, you should be able to see the flag.  This is almost never the case at an I2A race.
  4. Use visible controls.  The flags were so faded and old at Darkside, they were extremely difficult to spot (particularly in the dark) even when you were right on top of them.  Some of them weren’t even flags but were just pieces of laminated cardboard chained to the back of a tree.
  5. Draw the centre of the CP circle on your map where the flag is.  If the CP is 50m SW of the track junction, don’t draw the circle on the track junction, draw if 50m off to the bottom left.  It’s a common sense, easy adjustment to make.

Event Calendar

  • Holding two of the three longest adventure races in QLD (the other being Hells Bells) within 5.5 days of each other was poorly planned.  The Rogue24 has a long history of being held around the closest weekend to ANZAC day and was advertised as such a year out.  It has always managed to sell out and was always going to attract big numbers.  With an entry price at half the cost, the proximity of the Rogue24 was always going to hurt the numbers of competitors at Darkside.  I appreciate that I2A have a full calendar of off road events all over the eastern seaboard, but they really should have looked to hold Darkside at a different time of year.  I can’t see why they would move it to the front of the year and have their sprint MDARA QLD event on in second half of the year.  Surely you would want your smaller events to build up to your bigger race through the year.

How to fix the problem:

  1. Liaise with other event organisers.  I believe all events in QLD could do with a bit more communication and oversight.  It would be great to see some logical flow in the calendar with smaller events building up to bigger races in the second half of the year.  There are only a limited pool of events for competitors to pick from, even taking rogaines into account, so structuring a logical calendar should be an easy task, and a job that other race organisers including myself would be happy to be involved with.

Tokenistic Paddling

  • Adventure racing is a sport of running, mountain biking and kayaking.  So why in a 13hr race were we only paddling for 1hr?  Indeed the most paddling I’ve ever done in a Darkside is 2 hours in one race (which took us 17 hours in total).  I love that I2A let us use our own boats, despite all the additional logistical hassles it entails.  Exploring the waterways is one of the things I love most about the sport.  When Coochin Creek was announced as the boat drop location, I held a glimmer of hope that we might be able to paddle out into Pumicestone Passage.  Navigating our way through it’s open tidal channels at night on a paddle rogaine would have been an amazing challenge.  Instead we were tasked with another boring 9.3km paddle up and down a mosquito infested creek that was truly a token leg for the sake of it.  What is the point of training for kayaking when, outside of Geocentric races, it is always an under represented discipline.

How to fix the problem:

  1. Set multiple paddle legs in a race.  Even with the logistics of bringing your own boat, you could have us paddle out somewhere, trek/bike and paddle back, possibly by a different route.  Alternatively, let us use our boats for the big paddle leg, but use the hire fleet for an additional smaller paddle leg later in the race when the field is spread out.
  2. Go to the trouble of securing permits for interesting paddling.  As an event organiser, I know paddling is the toughest discipline to secure permits for, but that is why I’m paying my entry fees.  Similarly, work towards putting the safety measures in place for more interesting paddling like ocean paddles, whitewater kayaking or open water night paddles where possible.
  3. Have kayaking represent close to 30% of your course time.

Team Size

  • As anyone who has done a lot of racing will tell you, getting a team together for a race is half the battle.  I see no reason why Darkside had to change to a compulsory team of 4 format for this year’s race, when in the past it has allowed teams of 3 or 4.  Getting four fit and healthy people together is a major undertaking usually restricted to GeoQuest and expedition racing.  Indeed, I see no reason why Darkside, like other similar length races couldn’t be run with just teams of 2, competing concurrently with a team of 4 option for those who want to race in that format because they don’t have the navigational depth.  My gut feeling is that if you halved the number of people required on each team, you would get more than double the number of teams turning up.

How to fix the problem:

  1. Return to the teams of 3 or 4 option, or better yet, open the race up to teams of 2.  Some Australian races in the past, and many US races, have allowed solo racing.  I’ve changed my opinion on solo racing over time to be less in favour of it, but having a kalidascope of options at races is what makes this sport great, so ultimately I’m not opposed to it.

Event Format 

  • Darkside, starting in 2010, has run six times over the last seven years.  It started off as a 12hr race in its first year (with a 6hr half course) but grew to an 18hr race for every event after that.  In a review of the history of events in Australia here, I noticed a trend for races to often reach a natural expiration date at around this period in an event’s history.  Whether this is from organiser fatigue, the natural ebb and flow in competitor numbers or some other force, I’m not sure.  Darkside offered up something novel with its midnight start, however I’m wondering if the event needs a re-invention. The problem I have with the Darkside format is exemplified by this year’s race.  I worked all day Friday (some of my team mates needed to take the day off work to race).  I left work and struggled through peak hour traffic to do the bike/boat drop and arrive at HQ for map hand out.  After map handout, I lay around HQ, waiting for the bus to the race start, which was scheduled for midnight, but didn’t happen until well after 12:30am (not the only time this has happened).  I raced for 13hrs, waited around HQ for my gear box to arrive back, drove back to the boat pick up and arrived home at 8pm on Saturday.  I was away from my family for over 36hrs, in which time I did a total of 13 hours of racing.  When time is an important commodity, this is poor return of value.  Ironically too, for a race that is purported about being in the Dark, we were only racing at night for around 5.5 hours – much less than many “day” races that I do, for example the 12hr rogaine.

How to fix the problem:

  1. Consider returning to a 12 hour format.  With Hells Bells and the Rogue24 being legitimate 24hr options, and MDARA and Paddy Pallin the only consistent sprint race options, there is a gap in the market of a race of this length.  The Mojo-Rogue-12 may fill this gap a little, but there is plenty of scope for another 12hr adventure race in QLD, particularly with the unique “Dark” racing catch.  And a half course of 6 hours is definitely more appealing to a rookie team.  The first Darkside I did was a 12 hour race which we finished in fourth place in a time of 11:59.  The clever use of bonus legs at the end kept us out for the full time and the race was no less rewarding or tough for its 12 hour moniker.  And you may see a higher retention rate of competitors sticking around for presentations.
  2. Consider starting the race earlier.  If race briefing and map mark up is all done, by 10pm, why not just start the race then?  It would mean teams are out racing in the dark longer and would also get home earlier.
  3. Consider moving the race to a Saturday.  I get that I2A want to run the race on a Friday night so that competitors get all day on Sunday with their family.  But I don’t think it would hurt to try and mix it up and see if it results in a change in the entry numbers.

Logistical Barriers to Racing

  • We all know that AR is a gear intensive sport.  Combined with the navigation, there are a lot of elements that are enough to turn new people off from the sport.  So organisers need to stop putting up unnecessary hurdles for teams to jump through for racing.  Examples are the mandatory kit.  I know that much of it is required for safety, but practical consideration needs to be given to each course.  Did we really need 4 pairs of tweezers to run trails around Beerburrum?  Twice during a Darkside race (2013 and 2016) I’ve carried my shoes through the whole bike leg when we wouldn’t have needed them if the organisers had only just been a bit more explicit in their instructions about what we would be doing at the transition areas with gear boxes.  Marker pens and maps covered in rain, sweat, blood and tears are a useless mix: there is an obvious alternative to having competitors draw additional CPs on their maps mid race.  And anyone that did the event starting with a paddle at Brunswick Heads in 2012 will never forget the nightmare of bike/boat drop off/pick up.

How to fix the problem:

  1. Put yourself in the racer’s shoes and think how you can make it as simple for them logistically in terms of the gear they need to bring and how they need to prepare for the race so that the challenges presented to them are all from the course and not from getting to the course
  2. If you are going to give us additional check points to collect during the course, give us a new printed map with CPs marked on.  It is almost impossible to add them to a wet, laminated map during an event.  I come up against this problem all the time, and even being prepared for it with 4 marker pens carried by the team, it was nearly impossible to do during Darkside.  A tip for novice teams reading this: take a photo of the check points and their descriptions with your mandatory phone as a backup.

Event Location

  • The genesis of Darkside began with an event in the Uki region of northern NSW.  Racing a new location of varied terrain was outstanding and worth the trip down.  The second Darkside in 2011 in that region was spectacular and was one of the best sub-24hr races I’ve done.  After a third year at the same HQ location, the event needed a change, which it had.  But since then, two of the last three events have been in very uninspiring locations.  I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve dragged my bike through the sand and mud of Beerburrum State Forest.  And whilst the location may be new and exciting for many of the teams there, I didn’t think the course setting used the area to its best potential.  An out and back paddle on Coochin Creek, riding bike to collect CPs from the previous foot leg in reverse and little in the way of route decision between CPs made for a mundane course.  The area, while frequently visited, does have a lot of potential for good course setting.  A great example is the 2012 Hells Bells course.  I appreciate that it takes a lot of work to organize a new course in a new area every year.  But in 7 years of running the Rogue24, I’ve had very little overlap in the course areas we’ve visited, and I have a list of a good half a dozen areas I want to take the race to in the future. And this does not take into account event locations I have no interest in running a race at due to their overuse (for example Beerburrum, Ewen Maddock Dam and MacDonald Dam).  At a push, I think I could come up with 15 – 20 event locations within a three hour drive of the Brisbane CBD that would be capable of hosting a race up to 24 hours in length.

How to fix the problem:

  1. Liaise with other event organisers about where you are going to take your big races.  Between the three big events in QLD – the Rogue24, Darkside and Hells Bells – surely we can come up with a rotating schedule of locations that covers those 15-20 areas I allude to above to avoid location fatigue.
  2. Be more inspired about event locations.  As an experienced competitor, racing 24 hours now is less about the challenge and more about the experience – the experience of the competition, racing with friends, but also exploring new areas.  I get that it is a lot of work visiting a new race location in terms of mapping, course scouting and permit applications, but this is what excites me as a competitor and what I feel like I am paying my money for.

Live Reporting

  • Outside of the big expedition races, not many of the smaller events use live GPS tracking or live news blogging of the action.  I believe for the sport to grow and reach a wider audience, events in the 24 hour length region need to have live reporting with tracking, news, video, updated leaderboards and photos that teams can share with family, friends and sponsors.  The more visible these races are, the more new competitors they will attract.

How the fix the problem:

  1. GPS technology is improving, but still has a way to go in my opinion.  On a linear course like Darkside though, it should be easy to tell the story of race in terms of placings using an integrated approach of news feeds, updated leaderboards, electronic timing systems which relay real-time results and GPS software.  I’m excited for the day when a universal system for doing all these tasks is in play, although to be fair this is probably outside the scope and specialty of any one particular course organizer.

Again, every criticism about Darkside above comes from a place of genuinely wanting to see the race improve and grow.  Many of these comments could apply to numerous other races I’ve done.  And I’m fully aware that as a race organizer myself, I open myself up to being a hypocrite.  No doubt there are aspects of my own race I could improve in terms of accessibility, difficulty, professionalism, etc.

I have genuine respect for Simon and Robyn – I don’t know how they have organized so many races for so long and not burn out.  How they run it as a profitable business is a mystery to me.  If they were to adopt absolutely none of my suggested changes above, would I still race Darkside?  Probably as I love this sport so much.  But I’m very hopeful for change.  In2Adventure have proven capable of reinvention.  The move from the Teva series with its obscure challenges throughout the course (Sudoku anyone?) to the MDARA series was a welcome one for me.  And other than the purchase of new check point flags, none of these suggestions cost money, just a change in policy, attitude or direction of effort.  Hopefully the next time I cross the finish line of Darkside, it will be with a deep sense of satisfaction on finishing a rewarding, scenic race that challenges in all the right ways.  And hopefully next time I cross the finish line of Darkside, it won’t be on the back of a tow rope again: it hurts too much.

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