Carrying an adaptive athlete to the river

Training and Strategy for Wilderness Adventures

Ian Adamson, a former program director for World T.E.A.M.‘s Adventure Team Challenge Colorado, offers some useful advice on teamwork strategy for wilderness adventure programs. He is one of the most experienced and successful adventure racers in the world. A three-time Eco-Challenge champion, he is also the only athlete in the world who has won the Raid Gauloises, Southern Traverse and Primal Quest. Adamson is the author of “Runner’s World Guide to Adventure Racing: How to Become a Successful Racer and Adventure Athlete.”

The following content is adapted from Adamson’s book with permission of the author.

The biggest single thing that stops teams from finishing a challenging wilderness course is not injuries, illness, equipment failure, hypothermia, worn-out feet, or fatigue. It’s their inability to work together. Just about any problem a team encounters during a wilderness adventure can be surmounted, providing that the team is cohesive, focused, organized, motivated, and well lead.

The Adventure Team Challenge Colorado is an adventure course that is designed to test the very definition of teamwork. Every athlete will encounter their own set of challenges and it is up to the team to respond and develop a strategy to overcome. The point of communication cannot be overstated. From clearly established goals before the race, to simple check in’s such as, “how’s everyone feeling?” and “is this pace okay?”, good communication will either make or break the effectiveness of your team. However, good communication and leadership from all racers requires honesty. Start today by asking your teammates what their goals and expectations are for the race.

Inevitably the stress of the race combined with fatigue will put every individual in a vulnerable emotional state. Many competitors will be nervous, perhaps even fearful, at the prospect of undertaking certain course elements. Or, they may be simply anxious about potentially letting their team down. Some competitors will even get fired up and are in perpetual race mode wanting to charge unabashedly forward. The Challenge is designed as the ultimate TEAM event – it is not a place where egos reign. Keeping personal motives and egos in check will help you and your team to work toward the bigger goals and purpose of the Challenge. With such a wide range of emotions on the line, good communication to understand where everyone is at before, during and after the Challenge will help facilitate a positive and impactful experience for all.

Good teams are well managed, but great teams are well lead. In any challenging or problematic situation, a first-class leader will be able to guide the team in the right direction. Good leaders have the poise, objectivity, and sensitivity to maneuver through the minefield of human emotions, thoughts, and feelings that affect a team’s dynamics.

A skillful leader make the difference between success and failure. A group of extremely fit and talented athletes is useless unless they work together and this doesn’t happen spontaneously. It takes leadership. One of the all-time great leaders in adventure racing was New Zealand’s John Howard. John was a very accomplished athlete, but the qualities that made him such a successful individual was his ability to lead. He could diffuse stress, head off conflict, motivate, and make good decisions on any team and at any time. As a result he won every major international adventure race, including three Eco-Challenges, three Raid Galois’s, two ESPN X-Games, the Southern Traverse, and the Elf Authentic Adventure.

John often used humor to distract people from a conflict situation. Despite displaying a contrary attitude to just about everything, he endeared himself to people with open honesty and dry humor that was positively disarming. On one occasion in the 1996 Eco-Challenge in British Columbia, our team arrived at a transition area and learned that we had to carry our whitewater rafts a significant distance. This requirement had clearly been put in place after we arrived, since we were ahead of the organizers expected fastest time estimates and they had not had time to bring the rafts to the river. John simply refused to collect a raft when it was the organizers job to do so, and, using his considerable charm and logic, was able to have the raft brought to us.

If you sense a conflict escalating, you need to take immediate action to head it off. Sometimes a teammate becomes unmanageable, but, regardless of his or her actions, no one else should react. Create an environment that absorbs the barbs and anger and deflects accusations and attacks in a positive way. I know it can be hard not to defend yourself when a teammate yells, “It’s your fault. You lead us into this mess, so you need to get us out!” Rather than react with, “Well if you weren’t always harassing me and pushing so hard we wouldn’t be here,” say something like, “I know, I apologize, I am really doing the best I can. Perhaps you can help me with the navigation so we can get back on track as fast as possible”

The energy expended in conflict and argument wastes time and precious reserves the team needs for rapid forward progress. Unsuccessful teams inevitably spend more time arguing than moving and end up missing time cut offs and hating each other. Of course, if you find you are the one leveling the accusations, then you need to immediately check yourself and apologize. This is the part where you swallow your pride and relinquish your ego for the good of the team.

You can avoid escalating conflict by using a code word to warn each other of the approaching situation. Code words are useful because you don’t want to let other teams, the presenting organization, or the media know you are not a perfect harmonious group. The team needs to decide on the word before the start of the adventure and agree that anyone should use it if they feel the team is in danger of conflict. You should use words that are innocuous and preferably misleading to anyone who happens to hear what is going on. Our team has used words such as “Kiwi!” which sounds like we are urgently alerting the team to one of the rival teams (which in a way we are) and “Food Fight!” which breaks the tension with some oblique humor.

You must resolve conflict quickly to prevent permanent damage to the morale and integrity of the team. If you find your team is in conflict and you are one of the participants then purposefully and obviously disengage yourself from the situation. With any luck this will dissipate the argument. If this doesn’t work you need to take more direct action by breaking into the dialogue with an assertive but level statement of what is happening. Establish a protocol or system to resolve conflict before you start the Challenge. This will make it easier to raise the issue and give everyone pause for thought and recognition.

Examples of effective conflict breaking statements include:

  • “GUYS! Stop! We need to focus on what is important.”
  • “STOP! We have a race to run/finish/win.”
  • “LISTEN UP! This is important. Unless we focus we aren’t going to get anywhere.”

Deliver the message even-handedly and with authority. Essentially, you are making yourself the leader and taking the opportunity to guide the team in a positive direction.

Synergy can be defined as the power of the group exceeding the sum of the parts. In the context of teams completing adventure courses, this means that a team that develops synergy moves faster, more efficiently, and makes better decisions than the individual athletes could do alone. Many people believe a team is only as fast as its slowest member, but this is only true of bad teams. A good team, especially one that develops synergy, can and should move considerably faster than the slowest teammate.

A very basic example of synergy in the physical sense is a pace line or drafting on a bike. The limiting force on any person riding a bike on flat ground is wind resistance. If four people ride so that a few bike lengths or more separates them they each have to overcome their own wind resistance. On the other hand, if the team rides close together, one behind the other, only the front person has to overcome the wind resistance and the other three riders can rest. By rotating the lead so that each person breaks the wind for a short period of time, the team can maintain a much higher speed than each individual rider could alone.

In additional to the synergy accomplished by assisting one another, a more powerful form of synergy can be developed when a group of people synchronize their motivation, mental energy, and emotional states. This intangible synergy is a state that poor teams never experience and good teams only occasionally do. Obtaining this level of performance is something that can’t be practiced, but it can be attained if every individual wants it badly enough. For this type of synergy to develop, each team member must:

  • Agree to and support the team’s goals
  • Be highly motivated to perform
  • Be physically and emotionally prepared for the challenge
  • Be willing to relinquish ego
  • Put the team ahead of themselves
  • Be able to put aside personal differences and suppress emotional outbursts
  • Focus all his or her energy on moving forward
  • See problems as challenges waiting to be solved
  • See mistakes an opportunity to learn, not to blame
  • Want to develop synergy

Teamwork is a critical element of the successful completion of any adventure course, but will be particularly critical in the Adventure Team Challenge Colorado. One simple strategy is to employ is a simple towline system created with a heavy duty bungee cord (found at your local hardware store) and two carabiners tied to each end. The bungee allows stronger teammates to effectively aid others while still allowing for some stretch to accommodate varying speed and terrain. This technique is especially effective to help pull one-offs and hand cycles which are notoriously difficult to crank up steep and loose terrain. Further the towline systems will help to keep the team together and provide an added element of safety for the one-offs/hand cycles on uneven and off-camber trails.

You may want to bring two tow lines to attach to either side of a one-off or from the back of one teammates pack to the front of another. A ten-foot section of bungee should be sufficient; you can always knot it in the middle if it becomes too long. Just make sure to tie secure knots into the carabiners at either end. Also, remember that using a towline requires good communication, since the person following may not be able to see obstacles ahead, or know when to stop and start. In the end, effective distribution of energy will help keep your team together and move much faster.

Often referred to as orienteering, navigation is one of the most critical parts of completing an adventure course. Even the best teams can easily find themselves off track and heading in the wrong direction, a costly mistake.

Navigation can be very complicated and seem overwhelming. However, if you and your teammates hold to the basics and assess and confirm your position early and often you will stay out of a lot of trouble. For the Adventure Team Challenge Colorado, there are two critical pieces of navigation equipment, a topographic map (which is provided) and a compass. GPS devices are allowed but can add confusion in the hands of an inexperienced user.

Navigation takes practice, so getting your hands on the necessary equipment and practicing your skills beforehand will pay big dividends on the course.

Unlike a road atlas, a topographic map includes contour lines to portray the shape and elevation of the land. Hence, a topographic map defines the topography or lay of the land. Maps come with in a variety of scales. On some, one inch represents one mile or on a more defined map one inch may represent only a quarter of a mile. At the bottom of the map, there is usually a scale that you can use as a reference. Depending on the scale of the map the contour lines represent varying distances from 100 feet to maybe 40 feet or less. As an easy rule of thumb, the closer the lines, the steeper the terrain.

Once you have the correct map, the first step is to orient it to the terrain. This is where your compass comes in. A good compass can be very simple with a magnetic needle and a bezel (the dial with markings for 360-degree increments). We recommend a compass with at least one flat or right angle to line it up on the map. The compass can be used for many navigational reasons, but primarily it helps you to align the map or “orient” it in the appropriate direction, i.e., the top of the map to North. A map does little good if you have it slightly off, let alone upside down. Here is where the compass gets a bit complicated. The needle in the compass does point North, however, it points to magnetic North. The map however is drawn to true North. This difference is called declination. Because of a variety of issues declination can be off 10 degrees or more depending on where you are in the world. For example, Eagle, Colorado is nearly plus 10 degrees from magnetic north. As you might imagine, this small oversight can lead to big navigational mistakes.

Although the terrain may be very rugged, maps are drawn to right angles for a reason. Step one is to align the compass so that it is parallel to the grid lines drawn on the map. In western Colorado, you must then turn the map so that the needle on the compass points to +10 degrees in the compass bezel. Your map is now adjusted for declination to true North. When you finally look up from the map to the field, or the terrain around you, features such as rivers, mountains and gullies will be directly in line to how the map is laid out.

For more information and a more detailed description of navigation, check out REI’s navigation basics.

Additionally, an introductory course at a local outdoor shop will really help to improve your understanding of maps and navigation.

Gearing Up: Words of Advice from Course Director Billy Mattison

Billy Mattison

Congratulations on signing up for the Adventure Team Challenge … you have taken the first step! I am sure that the Challenge will be one of the most exciting and challenging things you will do this summer, and something you will think about until next year’s adventure course!

The intent of the Adventure Team Challenge is to challenge participants and teams physically and mentally while exploring and experiencing a mini-expedition. At its core, adventurers are challenged to navigate their way through wild terrain and to find a pre-determined number of checkpoints in order to complete the journey. A variety of disciplines are encountered during the Challenge, with hiking/running, mountain biking and rafting being the most common.

The course is going to challenge you. But, mostly, it will be exciting, adventurous, fun and a great opportunity to complete one of the “coolest courses on the planet.” Completing the journey and crossing the finish line is a great triumph and provides for a lifetime of experiences. It’s going to take desire, drive and determination.

Prior to the Challenge

Read over published materials, including the Gear List, F.A.Q., course description and all suggested reading materials. All information is available on this website.

Check out the venue at Rancho del Rio, the area terrain, weather conditions and forecast, etc.

Review the gear list on our Program Logistics page. Gather all the items you will need. Make sure your helmet and bike fit properly. Take unnecessary items out of your pack … the lighter and well-fitting your backpack is during the race, the easier it will be to carry.

What do you like to eat when you are suddenly very hungry, but still have to continue to your destination? Many athletes eat gels/gus, energy blocks, bars or homemade goodies. What is small and easy to carry? Where will you put it during the Challenge so you can get to it easily? Will you take the wrapper off beforehand so you don’t have to do that while you’re out on the course? Athletes are encouraged to eat every 30 to 45 minutes during an extended wilderness adventure.

Prior to the Challenge is the time to practice your skills and test your gear. Use the gear that you intend to use on the course, especially shoes and bikes. Test your bike brakes if you are bringing your own bike or hand cycle. Make sure your helmet fits well, so it doesn’t annoy you while you are out on the course.

How you can best carry your pack? Think about how you are going to keep the map dry but also handy so you can show it at checkpoints easily and quickly. How can you help your teammates along the way?

Stay healthy! Now that you’ve done all this work preparing, we want you to be at the start line. Get plenty of sleep, rest, and remember to hydrate prior to the Challenge.

During the Challenge

Keep going despite negative thoughts and feelings, such as you are cold, you are out of breath, it’s hard. Focus on the task at hand and your goal to reach the finish line. It will be well worth it!

Push or pull your teammates along if he/she is having a hard time and remind each other to drink some water. Joke to keep it fun and don’t get mad at a slower teammate. Help them be faster.

This is where you will change from one skill to another, such as biking to hiking or biking to rafting. Move quickly through these areas. It is easy to linger in these zones, but doing so will waste time.

Make sure your shoes are tied well and that you can get to your water easily. Make sure your map is easily accessible for reference.

Be in a light/easy gear when you start the biking leg, use your gears to make it easier to pedal uphill and easier to go faster on downhill or level stretches. Know that it is okay to walk your bike in certain areas if it is steep and/or scary.

Have fun with rafting. Listen and follow the instructions of your raft guide.

Just keep moving along and if you’re tired, know that it’s okay to walk and not run. It’s better not to stop but to keep moving, even slowly.

If you have a team in front of you when you come to an obstacle, watch how they handle the challenge and see if their method worked. Copy their actions if it did, and do it differently if it didn’t. First come, first serve on obstacles. So it is best to try and overtake other teams before you reach an obstacle.

Following the Challenge

Be proud when you finish the Challenge. This wilderness course is not easy. It’s a real adventure course with real obstacles. You are one of just a handful of athletes who have had the opportunity to undertake the Adventure Team Challenge – it’s an amazing accomplishment.

You have just completed a one-of-a-kind adventure course in an amazing place. Feel fortunate as you relax and remember, our team is thrilled you joined us on this journey.

You’ve met some new friends from different states along the way. Share this sense of achievement with your fellow athletes. Share your stories with each other and how you enjoyed the same adventure.

Towing an athlete at the Challenge