Thursday, October 29, 2009

GPS and Adventure Racing Revisited

My original blog entry 'Why the GPS Hate' generated much discussion, not only in the comments but also on Facebook and *gasp* in real life! I've since realized that I didn't communicate my position as well as I would have liked.

Allow me to make it perfectly clear that any race director should put together their race(s) in their own image so as to create whatever challenge they see fit. That means if Mr. / Mrs. Race Director wants to make a GPS and compass prohibited items, then by all means! Lets just hope the stars are visible through the clouds! Although I am an advocate of the GPS, I'm more of an advocate of living the experience that the race director has in mind.

I see a GPS as a tool, no different in essence than a compass. Give either one to a rookie navigator and they are still a rookie navigator. Both require learning, practice and experience. Arguably, a GPS requires more effort to learn since basic compass knowledge is required anyway. The usefulness of the GPS at an adventure race is directly proportional to the amount of effort that the navigator has put into learning the device. The people who will truly benefit by using a GPS are those who have developed significant skill.

Interestingly, those opposing my position keep coming back to the situation where you will always know where you are, and how advantageous that is. I think I might need ANOTHER blog on that issue alone as it's quite an animal on its own.

My goal with 'Why the GPS Hate' was to dispel the myth of the GPS being an instant savior to struggling navigators by explaining my theory that the GPS won't help anyone who doesn't put in significant work with the tool.

Keep on navigating.


  1. Agreed. What some people seem to forget about Adventure Racing or variations of it is that the race director/planner had something in mind when he/she put the many hours into the event planning and rules. If you come out to race then come out and enjoy the event. Try and see what we saw when we designed the course.

    Sometimes we don't always follow what are deemed to be the "purist" rules of Adventure Racing but try to keep in mind that we are trying to develop an audience. As a result we may change some rules, add some new ones and a weird event or two such as tire pull. We only do so because we are trying to get new people to come out and race.

    Great job at stirring the pot Andrew, keep it up, at least we are talking.


  2. Another myth: there are standard rules to AR. There is only one "standard" rule: if the director / rules don't tell you that you can't do something, that means you can!

  3. Some of these tangents are interesting enough that they could get their own blog posts.

    Andrew: if there are no standard rules of AR, then according to what reference would permitting GPS be "radical" and Vespa scooters and motorboats "ridiculous"? I'm quoting you in both cases, the former is from your original GPS thread, and the latter your reply to me when I expressed my intention to use motorized vehicles and a GPS at Storm the Beach when the gear list prohibited neither.

    Of course a race organizer is entitled to set whatever rules and course s/he likes, but that doesn't mean that there is no core of meaning to AR. That's why you didn't see anyone finish Storm the Beach and say "wow, that was a really great game of cricket!"

    I think Troy's point would make an interesting blog topic. On one hand, GPS and non-standard events such as tire pulling and beanbag tossing and trivia probably make the sport more fun and attractive to newcomers. Attracting new participants is necessary to grow the sport and in some cases make races viable. On the other hand, I think that the more those random fun events determine race outcomes, the less interested people who approach AR as a sport will be in participating. Once you're hooked on AR, a big part of its appeal is in improving your navigation, route selection, paddling, team cohesion, etc. to get better at it. To me, the tire pull at WYD is a great example of a non-standard event that works well. It's fun and different, but the time difference between a great tire pull and a crappy tire pull isn't enough that it's very likely to affect the outcome of the race. I imagine the same considerations come into play in course layout more generally. There's probably quite a trick to selecting mountain bike and paddling terrain technical enough to interest keen racers, but tame enough to be navigable by new folk.

    As for GPS... Racing with one confirmed my original view that it makes navigation skill relatively less important. I don't like it as much, but I'm not going to pass up a good local race over it.

  4. I respectively withdraw my radical and ridiculous statements, you're quite right that I contradicted myself!

    We're expanding this discussion exponentially, but something to consider is that ARs are unique in that unlike other sports, two races could be so completely different that there is little to no parallels other than the fact that both races are... well races. Admittedly it's arguable at best, but 'The Amazing Race' could be considered an adventure race. As is a Rogaine. Those two "adventure races" are completely different and have completely different rules.

    However, considering a typical adventure race consisting of running, biking and paddling I suppose that it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect certain rules... such as the prohibited use of motorized vehicles for example. That said, some top notch adventure races have incorporated the use of trucks and off road vehicles (they happened to be sponsors) in varying capacities. What I mean by there not being a standard rule set is that there is no criteria by which if it is not met the race is no longer an adventure race. Hockey for instance, is no longer hockey if a particular group decides they won't allow sticks in their league and instead players will kick the puck around.

    The hockey stick is fundamental to the sport. There is no fundamental element to adventure racing in the sense that even when you eliminate one of the typical disciplines like trekking, biking or paddling or add an atypical challenge it's still very much an adventure race.

  5. Talk about hot topics! In our community, mini challenges like trivia, tire-pulls, conservation projects etc. are widely debated. It's a common theory that Amazing Race type challenges will attract new people to the sport. I'll probably end up blogging about this one as well, but in short and blunt form... I hate that Amazing Race shit. Bring on the tire pull, it's physical and versus the clock in the nature of the race. Bring on the conservation projects, they do some good, they are physical, versus the clock and if laid out properly the amount of effort is the same for everyone. (At Storm the Beach each team had to build a section of trail of equal length, width and depth... to the inch! At Untamed NE, we ended up with a section of brush to clear that was significantly thicker than most other teams, we spent 90 minutes there while other teams were out in less than 30. Not such a big deal in a 70 hr race, but it was still annoying and like Kelly mentioned, such a discrepancy could cost a team a placing.)

    The little trivia bits, puzzles, blindfold games... sure they are cute and they are worth a laugh. Maybe it will even look cool to someone watching, but one's ability to decipher a word puzzle reflect little on their adventure related skill set nor their overall physical condition.

    Perhaps what bothers me most about the idea is that the kind of people that stuff attracts aren't the big players we want. In the Maritimes our numbers are so poor that any given race might get canceled at the last minute due to lack of interest. We'll take every racer we can get, but I theorize that we should be targeting the hardcore racers who want nothing more than to punish themselves and achieve new limits. I'll take one hardcore racer who is going to show up to every race they can until they are old and crippled over ten racers who casually participate in a race every other year. Right now there are hundreds of people in the Maritimes who are these hardcore type AAA folk, but they've never even heard of adventure racing. Can't say too much more without spoiling my (apparent) next blog!

    But I can't agree with you more that disciplines that aren't directly related to covering distance as fast as possible shouldn't dictate the outcome of a race. I'll go one step further and say that the duration of said exercises should be proportional to the overall length of the race as well... without giving it too much thought, maybe ~5% of the race? Might have to research that one for the blog!

    Back to the topic at hand... what I think you're missing my point that being able to use a GPS during a race exhibits navigational skill rather than negate it. Maybe ANOTHER blog should be some demonstrations of how I'd use a GPS. From our discussions I gather that although it may have helped you guys out a bit at Storm the Beach, you certainly didn't use it to the extent that I would have. I have the ability to use it to that extent because I've put in a hell of a lot of work into it!

    If you were to only say "I don't like it as much" then the discussion is over... some people don't like road biking in adventure racing... hell some people don't like pavement at all! Not liking something can't be helped, that goes back to the race being the race director's child. But I'll debate against the statement that "a GPS makes navigation skill less important" until the earth's magnetic poles reverse.

  6. Well then. Since you're going to blog further on other interesting topics, I'll save those comments for then.

    As to the GPS... I'd be interested in hearing exactly how you'd use one in AR, but I don't think that
    would change my view. The reason people keep coming back to "always knowing where you are" with a GPS is because it's really important. It means that you don't need much skill to get where you want to go. I barely know how to operate my GPS, but I can very easily see when its "you are here" arrow wanders off the course I intend to follow. Sure, there are all kinds of things that can go wrong - e.g. selecting a bad route and getting cliffed out, out of date maps, etc. - just as with map and compass navigating. Sure, there's skill to fully exploiting the many features of a GPS. And sure, a GPS will occasionally fail, just like any other gear.

    But the point is that AR is basically a series of opportunities to deviate from the route you're trying to navigate. With or without a GPS, a good navigator will continually track the team's progress and correct errors. With a GPS, that's trivially easy most of the time so navigational skill doesn't come into play. Without a GPS, a more skilled navigator will detect errors and self-correct much more quickly than a less skilled navigator, and the difference can be many hours.

  7. So now I just need to figure out whether to blog about "How O9Man would use a GPS at an adventure race" or "The Amazing Race won't increase our numbers so give it the eff up!" I've got a few other numbers up my sleeve that aren't mentioned above too.

    I think I need another bottle of scotch!