The early history of adventure racing

Though adventure racing has exploded in popularity and increased public awareness in the 2010s, its history can be traced back to the 1980s. Going slightly further back, the nascent origins of adventure/expedition-style racing may be seen in the early Ironman Triathlons of the 70s.

Like most other organized sports, in adventure racing we cannot know when exactly adventure racing evolved into the pastime of today. We can trace literal dates of possible (if disputable) first *official* contest, however, and for most adventure racing devotees, the game starts with the 1968 Karrimor International Mountain Marathon.

The Original Mountain Marathon

Née the Karrimor Mountain Marathon, this proto-adventure race gained a reputation among enthusiasts soon after its first running in 1968; by 2004, the event was strong enough financially to continue on without sponsorship and thus was justifiably rechristened “The Original Mountain Marathon.”

That first running 50 years ago today represents something of a missing link between the ironman races and modern adventuring racing, far simpler in concept than the grandiose course designs of the 2010s: Two-member teams in ’68 “merely” had to run a double marathon, broken by an overnight camping session, through mountainous terrain of the North Pennines. Since its first running, the OMM has added several classes to each race, not to mention sporting events.

The Alpine Ironman

Despite the “Ironman” in the title of this event, this Alpine adventure race held in New Zealand in 1980 expanded the retinue of the already-classic three-sport event to include skiing. The inclusion of skiing opened up a world of possibilities, and Alpine organizers went on to establish the New Zealand-hosted multi-discipline Coast to Coast Race and the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic in the 1980s.

1989: Modern adventure racing begins

Most sports historians will tell you that the 1989 Raid Gauloises (imagine an adventure sports event sponsored by a tobacco company – ah the 80s!) is the seminal adventure racing event. Creator Gerald Fusil envisioned adventure racing as did early organizers of sports such as rodeo and the modern biathlon, i.e. sport as a sublimation of a moribund lifestyle. In the case of adventure racing, the to-be-replaced lifestyle was that of the wilderness explorer, a vocation fairly well dead for at least a century.

Reportedly inspired by the Paris-Dakar rally, Fusil wanted to make a grueling competition more exotic; he saw locale as a vital part of adventure racing. The race of 1989 carried the backpacking element of the Karrimor/Original with the multi-sport concept of the ironman’s sequels in a five-disclipine event played out over days on a 400-mile course.

Born from Fusil’s vision immediately was the Southern Traverse race of 1991, which attracted 23 teams of five for its initial running. Since then, New Zealand adventure racing teams have become even more dominant than the country’s All Blacks and remain undefeated on this Southern Island course.

The “Eco-Challenge” of 2005

Of course, an overriding philosophy in international entertainment is that one must make it in the United States for global legitimacy. MGM TV producer Mark Burnett (whose credits now include producing Survivor and Shark Tank, plus bagging 12 Emmy awards) started thinking about bringing a Raid Gauloises-like event to American televisions after competing in two Raid events. After buying the rights to organize a US-hosted race, the Eco-Challenge was first held in 1995.

Though not extremely successful among American TV audiences – in its eight years of TV production, the annual televised event bounced from MTV to ESPN to Discovery Channel to USA Network – the ’95 event was highly influential on both the sport and American pop culture in general. Burnett’s work on the 1995 Eco-Challenge ultimately landed him the gig on Survivor, a show that in turn launched 1,000 reality shows. And the second Eco-Challenge event was presented as an event within a burgeoning new annual sporting event called The X-Games. Last and certainly not least, within media coverage of the Eco-Challenge may be found the first usage of the term “adventure racing.”

American organization and the world championship

Naturally, US interests were immediately interested in organizing and standardizing adventure racing – all the better to market the sport with – in addition to strengthening American teams. In 1998, the United States Adventure Racing Association (USARA) was founded, quickly introducing stuff like ranking tables and a national title for which to compete; 2000 saw the first

USARA Adventure Race National Championship held in California

By 2001, the Americans and European organizers had gotten together to plan the 2001 World Series of Adventure Racing, a tournament-like event with play-in races held in the US, South America, Europe, East Asia and Australia leading to the finals in Switzerland.

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