In the exciting sport of adventure racing there are a small amount of women out there toughing it out right up there with the men. Where do these amazing women come from? And how did they get themselves mixed up in the crazy world of adventure racing?Well, it seems, they come from many walks of life to end up in this wild, and generally untamed, sport.
Being an endurance sport, it makes sense that some women might cross over from sports like triathlon or marathon running when they get bored with pounding the pavement, day in, day out, and former triathlon age-group world champion, Kim Beckinsale, is a classic example here. Almost 10 years ago she was hit by a car whilst riding her bike to work on a busy Brisbane road. With a stint in hospital and a few months of rehab to mend a fractured back, she was ready for a change after 15 years of triathlon. She made a very successful move to adventure sport – multisport, mountain bike racing and adventure racing, and now, at age 46, is still one of Australia’s top females in the sport. Her team, Mountain Designs, has just won XPD, Australia’s only expedition-style adventure race, and a round of the AR World Series. During this event, which took the team 5 continuous days to complete she was the driving force within her team and motivated them to keep going against all odds in the harsh Australian outback. Kim now runs a coaching business in Noosa to help promote adventure racing to the un-initiated…coupled with a full-time job as a PE teacher at the local high school.
There are other elements of adventure racing that demand carefully honed skills from many other sports, and areas of life as well. The navigation aspect is a big one. Map and compass navigation is an integral part of the adventure racing phenomena. Basically, you don’t get off the start line in an adventure race unless someone in your team has this one important skill. Smatterings of women have made the move over from orienteering and rogaining to be very successful adventure racers in their own right. One woman who has done just that is Australia’s Thorlene Egerton, currently on a 2 year working exchange in Norway. Thor, as friends fondly call her, was not even ‘sporty’ as a child, but took up orienteering at the age of 29 and found it was a sport she excelled in. Fast forward 19 years and she has now just completed the 2013 AR World Championships in Costa Rica which, according to the top teams, was the longest, hardest, most gruelling event they had ever put themselves through. Thor is in her late 40’s and with her team of 3 guys from the US, they successfully completed the event where many other teams were short-coursed or pulled out. Under the expert navigation of this amazing woman, Thor’s team just kept on moving, slow and steady, pushed themselves to the limit for over 9 days, non-stop, and finished a very credible 25th out of 60 starters. Thor has completed many expedition-style adventure racers throughout the world over the last 10 years and has never been near the pointy end of the field, but she keeps coming back for the challenge, year in, year out, with the enthusiasm of a 12 year old on a mountain bike!
Another important aspect of adventure racing is the art of riding a mountain bike. You won’t find an adventure race taking the highways, so getting down and dirty on the trails is an important factor in training and there have been some very skilled female mountain bikers who now hold their own in some of the highest ranked adventure racing teams on the world circuit. A wild, crazy dreadlocked Scottish lass named Francesca Sanders (aka Frankie) is new to adventure racing as of the last couple of years and she has come right out of left field from years of competitive hockey, climbing and, more recently, the world of Single Speed mountain biking. This, in itself, is a sport of extremes….and Frankie not only now competes successfully in adventure racing, but has just snared the title of female World Champion in the 24 hour Mountain Bike Single Speed category. Frankie has just relocated to Wanaka in NZ to train for and race in the 3rd edition of Godzone Adventure Race which will be held in March 2014. In her team of 4 there will be equal amounts of males and females. This is an unusual combination, but it just shows that some teams really, really value their female team members…and have faith in their ability to complete the event with the many varied strengths they possess.
Paddling is another basic AR skill and a girl with a strong paddling back-ground is likely to be sought after to fill the elite teams. Many forms of paddling also apply and often there is a white-water section in the big events. This not only requires the paddler to be competent, but also have the bravery to tackle the extreme situations that white-water paddling presents. A woman who is confident with this type of endeavour is an asset to any team! Melbourne veterinary surgeon, Angela Harris is one such person. Ange started her sporting life as an equestrian but after moving to Albury in NSW was coerced into kayaking – having the mighty Murray River as her training ground. With her new-found sport she went to state and then national level paddling a K1, but it wasn’t until she moved to Melbourne and joined an ocean ski paddling group that she got the bug for adventure racing. In Ange’s own words: being a strong paddler does help in adventure racing, I think that’s where people are most nervous, especially if you are out on the water at night. Ange now competes in one of Australia’s top AR mixed teams and all the other facets of adventure racing have just fallen into place for her. She had become competent riding a mountain bike, learnt to cope with sleep deprivation, dabbled in the art of navigation and has lifted herself to another level with support from her team.
Besides having physical skills to grab their place in a team, the most important part of a female’s contribution to an adventure racing team is her mental toughness. Women, in their design, are built for endurance, multi-tasking, and possess the underlying strength that gets them though childbirth, child rearing and juggling modern family life which currently seems to be more stressful than ever. Many women, these days, combine family life, career and sport….and do this without too much fuss or bother, it’s just the way they roll.
An all-women’s adventure racing team is, however, another set of dynamics. There is a sense of calm and nurturing when women race together, and while lacking some physical strength, the greatly multiplied mental strength is very evident. I had the pleasure of racing with two of the above-mentioned women when we won the Geo Half, outright, back in 2005. With the great Thor as our navigator, Kim with the physical and endurance skills, then me and Susie, our 4th team member, having a plethora of skills stemming from motherhood to triathlon, we combined our mixture of talents extremely well, did a good job of recognising our individual strengths and weaknesses and, boom, we hit the lead during the night and never looked back, charging across the finish line in just under 24 hours. It was my greatest victory, not just because of the win, but the magic of the teamwork that gave us the winning edge and ultimately that highly-prized first place!
So, research shows that whether women are racing in mixed teams or with other females, they hold a very important role in the adventure racing team structure. They have plenty to give to their team-mates and are not just there as the ‘token’ female. It also seems that female adventure racers can be moulded from many other sports and walks of life and just because you haven’t even run, paddled, navigated or mountain-biked before, doesn’t mean you can’t slot yourself into the wonderful and very exciting range of events that Adventure Races have on offer.