Strategies to Grow AR

Here are some things Michigan Adventure Racing has been doing to grow adventure racing since its beginnings in 2011. Some of the challenges are lack of awareness about the sport, perception that AR is too difficult/fear of the unknown, amount of gear needed, and need to find teammates, among others. And because of the Great Lakes and real or perceived entry barriers with Canada, it’s very difficult to draw racers from out of state so we have had to really focus on effective strategies to draw in new racers. We’ve had some success with the strategies below and thought it was worth sharing with other organizations, regions or states. We’ve captured a lot of these strategies and tactics in an Adventure Racing Marketing Plan as well.

1. New race formats

A. Alter the format and location for appeal and to reduce intimidation (but stay true to AR). Michigan Adventure Racing began putting on races in 2011. In the early years, we started with urban and “barely wilderness” venues and also added Amazing Race-like challenges (nothing corny) but maintained the core elements of AR. As the years have gone on, we now have just one 3-hour, beginner-focused race with these fun challenges as a feeder to our longer, more wilderness-based races. The 3-hour race takes place in winter when there’s a lot of pent-up demand. This race draws 175-200 first-time racers each year (400-500 total) and many step up to longer races as they learn how to navigate and build confidence.

Use the Contact Form on this site if you would like a list of challenges we add to the beginner-focused race that you can add to your sprint race, winter or not, no strings attached.

B. Offer rogaines for those who do not own a mountain bike or are not yet comfortable racing on technical terrain. Lost Arrow Sports offers longer rogaines and the Southern Michigan Orienteering Club offers over a dozen shorter orienteering events. Consider positioning these events as “adventure runs” or “capture the flag trail runs.” Be truthful about what runners will be doing, but there’s nothing wrong with drawing them in with language they will better understand or get excited about.

2. Online promotion
We have found that with limited budgets and time, Facebook ads provided the biggest bang for the buck. We spend $300-600 per race but consider trying $50 if you want to test it out. We’re able to narrow the audience by geography, interests (adventure racing, orienteering, trail running, paddling, Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, etc.), and age so we’re getting the ads in front of people most likely to be interested. For a step-by-step guide to creating a Facebook ad for your next event, click here.

3. Media promotion
Local and regional media LOVE races that are unique. A standard adventure race may be unique enough to get coverage but if your race includes Amazing Race-like challenges such as launching eggs, paintball, word puzzles, giant mazes, etc, it will very likely get picked up by the media. Some media outlets will ask you to come in the studio to be interviewed, exposing your race to thousands of new people. Odds are that several viewers will be interested in your race or will share it with someone who they know would be.

It’s still valuable to send out a media release if you only put on traditional races. Create a list of media contacts gathered from their websites. Gather general newsroom emails as well as those of on-air media people and reporters. Ask your registered racers if they have a compelling story to tell and share that with the media in your release. The media is always looking for local human-interest stories; even better if it ties to a local race. They crave stories with good visuals and sometimes show up a race to film the action. Tens of thousands of additional people may then see what the race is about on the evening news.

We post all of our race photos to our Flickr photo albums. That way we can provide a link and allow media to look for images to go with their coverage online or on air. Even better, if you have “b-roll” video of a past race, let media know. Consider posting it to a YouTube channel so they can watch and grab it from there. When this video airs on television, it allows viewers to easily understand what an adventure race is all about. This is an example of a point-of-view video a volunteer made for us at a past race that we share with media.

Here’s an example of a media release from one of our races. When you send out a media release, make sure the text is in the body of an email, not an attachment. Consider sending it out when registration opens and again one or two weeks before the race when media would consider making one last appeal to racers to sign up, sending a reporter or camera crew to cover the race, and/or asking for photos from the race (be prepared, they will want shots right when the race is done for their evening or late night news).

 Clinics. Our navigation clinics and presentations have been helpful for teaching basic navigation and compass use along with 201 level strategies. An average of 30-50 people attend each of our 3-4 yearly clinics held 1-3 weeks before each race we put on. Feel free to borrow. Just credit Michigan Adventure Racing and Michael Boks who created some of the original slides. Consider partnering with a locally owned or national retailer (e.g., REI) to hold the clinic in their store, which benefits them as well and removes any personal liability risk of holding the event outdoors if that’s a concern – or ask the local store if they would hold the event with you as the lead organizer and educator.

5. Youth/Educational Outreach

A. School/youth initiatives, field trips, and curriculum. Local racer and educator Michelle Green has created curriculum tied to school/youth programs and field trips. Focus is on how navigation sports challenge the mind, the body, and the spirit, and build teamwork skills and an appreciation for the outdoors. Navigation experiences are tied to all curriculum: math, science, social studies, health, literature, and history.

B. Youth races. We offer to provide some race design guidance and flags and local groups do the rest. Other nearby townships have now been inspired to create their own races as part of their summer recreation activities. Getting kids involved in adventure races along with their parents and siblings leads to long-term adoption of the sport.

6. Balanced offering; baby steps strategy
Michigan Adventure Racing started out by offering races in urban and semi-urban areas and at 3-5 hour durations. Over the years, we added a few hours onto one or two races each year and as people realized they can handle it, added a couple more up to 24 hours. The longer the race, the more likely it will occur away from the main population centers to be able to access more wilderness, but racers are motivated to travel to the longer length races.

7. Reduce barriers to entry
Getting into adventure racing can be a timely and costly challenge. Here are some of the ways we make it a little easier for them.

  1. Gut the mandatory gear list. Remove everything except critical safety gear and equipment needed (e.g., bike, compass, hydration). This is especially true for sprint races or any race near urban populations where the first step in a medical emergency is likely calling 911 and flagging down help.
  2. Allow personal canoes and kayaks. Bargain with canoe liveries or pay extra for them to handle personal boats. We allow both types. One team may have an advantage over another with a speedy canoe or kayak, but that’s true with $6,000 mountain bikes compared to Craigslist specials too. It’s more important to get more people racing. Set stricter parameters in the longer races.
  3. If your race is 10 hours or under, try to fit it in during a single day so racers don’t have to spend money on lodging. Overnight racing is sweet, but better for 16+ hour races or in situations where lodging is available at the race site for low or no cost (but be wary of the time factor of a mandatory overnight stay)


Here’s a similar Top Ten list we put together. I’ll merge them some day when I have time!

10 Practical Ways Race Promoters Can Make Adventure Racing More Accessible
1. More sprint (2-6 hours) races. On their own or add a shorter version of your 8 hour+ race on the same day or weekend. It can share some of the longer race course/CPs (the easier parts/CPs ideally!). More sprint races will grow AR the best – and will eventually lead to larger/healthier endurance-level races.

2. Keep races affordable… not necessarily lower priced. Especially for sprint races. Reduce mandatory gear lists to only the essential items. Allow for a variety of bikes if the trails allow. Allow personal boats where possible. Offer youth discounts. Encourage gear loaning. Start races a little later in the morning so teams don’t have to get overnight lodging. Edit added: Racers – know that most RDs do this on the side for the love of the sport. It’s important that races stay financially sustainable (per hour, AR is about as cheap as any event gets) or races and race organizations will continue to disappear as they have for many years. Now (Eco II) is a great opportunity to stop the bleeding.
3. More races near tourist areas, large population areas, any place new racers are familiar with (our Michigan Adventure Races at Silver Lake and Ludington along Lake Michigan average 450-550 racers each primarily because they are popular, scenic venues)
4. Add more fun to sprint races if you are trying to get more newcomers. Add one or more short challenges like paddleboarding, sandboarding, bouldering, launching tennis balls, eggs, paint balls, etc at targets with giant water balloon launchers and slingshots, maybe even a mental challenge or two. I have a list of 70 special challenges (fun and badass, not dorky) we’ve used for sprint races if anyone wants ideas (once we got a large base of racers, we scaled back but it’s a valid strategy early on especially – we get 100 new racers at every winter race, the only race we do with these challenges).
5. Give sprint racers some grace. Optional checkpoints, pre-plotted maps, short course options, family divisions, list distances to counter intimidation factor of duration, adventure runs with maps but with CPs closer to the trail. Keep it challenging but fun and doable. But also give race directors some grace here. It’s challenging (but fun and doable) to find the balance of challenging but fun and doable. 🙂
6. Give help to newer and younger racers. Offer ways to join AR affordably, loan gear, nav clinics, orienteering clubs and racers (usually $10-30), permanent orienteering courses, online tools, detailed race updates, mentors, pairing veteran racers with first timers (and all the advice being given right now on this forum, e.g., recent video chat with AR Georgia & Rib Mountain).
7. More professional and promotional. Well designed website with lots of info on what to expect, photos, video. More media relations (free exposure to literally thousands of people) and promotion (e.g., targeted Facebook ads).
8. Add more winter ARs and rogaines (on foot). There are only a few ARs in all of northern U.S. in the winter when people are itching to get outside. Missed opportunity. It’s hard to paddle a frozen lake so replace with a snowshoe or fatbike leg (partner with a snowshoe manufacturer and/or local bike shops to get their demo fleet) or just all on foot.
9. Keep selling AR, telling stories, inviting friends. All of us. Do it until they finally agree to do a race if you’ll just shut up about AR. 🙂
10. Curriculum in schools and other education opportunities (see Clinics & Education link above).