Digging around through the online history of adventure racing in Canada is a bittersweet exercise that is pleasantly nostalgic, but at times feels like a post-mortem.
First, some nostalgia... I found the results for the first race I ever did with my BFF: a 2nd place co-ed at the Adventure Racing Canada (ARC) Enduro at Hardwood Hills in 2004. This despite a 180° map-is-upside-down-dumbass error on my part, a pointless canoe capsize in the middle of a calm lake, a flat tire, and some epic cramping. Standard AR good times, in other words.
Now, the post-mortem... If one wanted to look back on the rise and decline of adventure racing in Canada, ARC is, fittingly, a good place to begin. They started in 1999 and grew rapidly: by 2001 ARC had 13 races, including a winter race and 4 overnight races. They were spread across Ontario, BC, Alberta, Quebec, and even Jay, Vermont. By 2007 they were down to 4 race weekends, all in Ontario, and had scrapped the overnight races in favour of the mini-sprint “Outventure” events. This format allowed pairs and solos, making it easier to enter, had no navigation, and was much shorter (about 3 hours). All to no avail: there would be no more ARC races after the '07 season.
The Golden Age
The pinnacle of AR in Canada was arguably the span from 2002-2004. Not only did we have more races than available weekends, but ARC had partnered with Mark Burnett to host the Eco Challenge North American championships in 2002 and 2003, and the 2004 AR world championship race was in Newfoundland, hosted by Raid the North Extreme.
Back in the heady times of the early 2000s, it was not only possible to race every single weekend, but I remember often being torn between which races to leave off my calendar. For 2015, unless I want to travel out of province or out of country, there are only 5 adventure races to choose from: Storm the Trent, ESAR, RockstAR, the South Coast Adventure Race, and Wilderness Traverse. I thought it a timely opportunity to look back at the evolution of adventure racing in Canada and begin to reflect on why certain races have stood the test of time, while others have come and gone.
2004 AR world championship race
Every discussion about the history of adventure racing pretty much starts with Mark Burnett's expedition race/reality show: Eco Challenge. It ran from 1995 to 2002 and rocketed AR into the international spotlight. There were a total of 10 races, including the 1996 race in British Columbia. Prior to the arrival of Eco Challenge, there had been a couple of multisport races in Canada, but nothing that could really be called an adventure race. Fortunately, when Eco Challenge folded in 2002, rather than spelling the death of the sport, it opened up a boom of new races across the globe which is no more evident than in Canada.
The multi-day races are, for me, the original, purest form of the sport. Coed teams of 4 challenging themselves against an epic and wild course, where finishing is as good as any win. Canada is an ideal place for such races, having more remote wilderness than any other country on Earth, with the exception of Russia. We didn't have to wait long, as 3 years after Eco Challenge BC, we had our very own.
Multiple Eco Challenge finisher David Zietsma brought his expedition race experience to the table when he started Raid the North in 1999. The company's flagship event was Raid the North Extreme, a full-on multi-day wilderness expedition race that drew some of the best racers in the world. RTNX peaked in 2004 when it was selected to host the AR World Championships in Newfoundland. However, after this nadir there would only be 2 more Raid the North Extreme races, in 2007 and 2011.
The other big player initially was Steve Menzie's Adventure Racing Canada series. While exclusively focused on sprint and overnight races, Steve did have the distinction of organizing the only non-Mark Burnett Eco Challenge branded events ever: the Eco Challenge North American Championships. These were held in Golden, BC and Sault Saint-Marie, ON in 2002 and 2003 respectively. Once Burnett discovered that he could make truckloads of money with Survivor, that pretty much doomed the Eco Challenge brand, and with it the ECNAC offshoot.
Finally, Canada played host to the only winter expedition adventure races in the world. The Ukatak races that ran in Quebec from 2001 to 2004 are forever ingrained in the annals of expedition AR. Nothing could be more Canadian than skiing and snowshoeing and ice-canoeing across a frozen wilderness for days on end. Ironically, in its final year Ukatak was the first leg in a series put together by the Expedition Racing League.
There was a brief flurry of hopeful activity in 2007-2009, when it was announced that racing legend Ian Adamson would be designing the course for a 6-day stage race in northern Quebec called Terra Traverse. Originally slated to run in October 2008, it was first postponed to 2009, and then quietly disappeared.
There has not been a traditional expedition adventure race in Canada since the 2011 Raid the North Extreme in the Kootenay mountains. With the consolidation of many international races under the Adventure Racing World Series umbrella in recent years, I think it's a great shame that there is no Canadian race on the circuit. Hopefully that will change in the coming years.
Startline at the 2003 Eco-Challenge
The 4-12 hour "sprint" races have been and continue to be the meat and potatoes of the industry. Let's face it: expedition races are crazy expensive in terms of time and money, and even overnight races can barely be squeezed into a long weekend. All of the companies that have survived to this day are almost exclusively offering sprint races and variations thereof.
In terms of longevity, 3 race organisations stand out: Mind over Mountain Adventure Racing (MOMAR) in British Columbia, Storm Racing in Ontario, and RaidPulse in Quebec. MOMAR has been holding races since 2001, with Storm and RaidPulse starting up just a year later in 2002. If one counts the Storm the North Shore races that Sean Roper started in 1999 as part of the Storm series, then he is the undisputed king of perseverance and survival in the uncertain area of Canadian adventure racing event management.
Honourable mention has to go out to Endurance Aventure, who are so busy I haven't been able to get a detailed timeline from them yet. Stay tuned.
An encouraging development is the success of some companies who have waded into the AR game at a time when it was shrinking. Swamp Donkey, Race the Phantom, and Wilderness Traverse, all started up around 2006-2007, which is when a couple of big players were going belly-up. These races have not just survived but in many cases actually grown and expanded.
This being Canada, it is only natural that we winterize adventure racing. Canoeing is sanely replaced with nordic skiing, and trekking is done on snowshoes. Instead of ropes, there are tobogganing or inner tube runs. Unreliable snow cover between about 2009 and 2013 killed them off, but weather/climate-wise the past 2 years have been ideal for the resurrection of the winter AR.
Or maybe not. Snowshoe-only races have begun to proliferate, including team events with orienteering, mostly done rogaine-style. It remains to be seen if there is enough room on the winter endurance sport landscape to support full-on adventure racing on snow and ice. Time will tell.
There are some encouraging signs of actual growth in the sport, I am happy to report. Swamp Donkey in the tiny and isolated market that is Manitoba has been very successful since starting in 2007, a time when most companies were either downsizing or disappearing.
Wilderness Traverse - the only overnight race in Ontario, by Canada's most successful international racer, Bob Miller.
Race the Phantom - an east coast staple is back after a 1-year hiatus in 2014.
BPMR - not an adventure race in the strictest sense, but close enough. Jack van Dorp's off-road multi-sport race showcases the spectacular Bruce peninsula with accessible yet challenging courses.
Off the Grid - This race for teams of 2 in Grand Prairie AB somehow manages to offer cash prizes. They have also been attracting a steady field of around 40 teams the past couple of years.
Raid International de Gaspesie - very media-friendly stage race with many international teams, put on by Endurance Aventure. They have recently confirmed the race through 2016.
SCAR - The baby in the current crop of races, SCAR's 8 hour race in SW Ontario is in only its 2nd year. They drew an impressive field of 44 teams, mostly duos, for their inaugural event last year.
Competitors pushing through the 2008 Coast Raid
There are undoubtedly a myriad of reasons why an adventure race series will wrap up. First and foremost is the fact that organising an adventure race is hard. The very nature of these events that make them so appealing also make them a massive undertaking to organise – that is, the fact that they explore new courses and locations for every race. This requires organisers to manage new permits (often through different permitting systems), land access, mapping and course setting for every individual event. Coupled with the fact that adventure racing is realistically still a fringe sport with only moderate competitor numbers means that it is hard for professional event organisers to turn a profit for the number of person hours invested into every race. Other factors including competition from other events (for example the boom in obstacle course racing), along with difficulty securing permits under tightening regulatory authorities and high insurance costs have also been cited as reasons for why events have folded over time.
In light of the inherent difficult nature of event organisation, it is even more impressive the longevity of adventure racing companies such as Storm, Momar, Raidpulse. This is in comparison to other big race promoters who have dropped adventure racing in lieu of other events including multisport races, trail runs and bike races which are significantly more straight forward to organise and attract larger competitor numbers.
Irrespective of the evolution of adventure racing event promoters in Canada, there are still a number of key races on offer in 2015. It would be an easy task to fill up every weekend with one form of event or another whether it be a rogaine, orienteering, trail run, mountain bike race or in fact an adventure race. If you are looking beyond Canada, then use our local races to train for one of the dozen expedition races currently planned world-wide listed here.
Author’s Note: I began adventure racing in 2000 at ARC's 8-hour Enduro race in Muskoka. I know this because I remember walking up to the parking lot post-race and hearing that Simon Whitfield had won the Gold at the Sydney Olympics. Our race did not go as smoothly, but we did manage to finish. booyah
Edit Note: Please feel free to get in touch and correct me if you think I have some dates or details wrong or if there is an adventure racing event/series that I have overlooked.