An Ironman or an Adventure Race – Which Is Harder?
This is a question I have fielded quite a bit since my Ironman this past summer.
I have stood on the podium for both an Ironman and a multi-day adventure race so am equally competitive in both sports. The other element that makes this a fair analysis is that I am deeply passionate about both of them and I divide my training focus between the two. Choosing my favourite sport would be like choosing a favourite child.
I want to tackle this by explaining their key differentiators and similarities before I give my take.
How they are the same
Incredible commitment in terms of training time, travel and finances
I somehow managed to land squarely centred in the two most expensive and time-sucking endurance sports and although some days I wonder what I was thinking, most days I wouldn’t change a single thing. The gear requirements are off the charts for both sports and my little compact Prius is often filled to the brim with racing paddles, a range of bikes, and wetsuits.
I dedicate 15-30 hours a week of training when I am in my build and race seasons and I have flight tags on all of my training luggage.
The races often range from $800-$2000 depending on the race I choose and if it is a world championships event, you can often double that figure.
Require a deep love of suffering
Both sports require a profound aerobic base and a willingness to be in a certain level of discomfort for many hours.
Both races are essentially an exercise in problem-solving
Because you are out there for so long, you are almost guaranteed that something is bound to go wrong in some capacity. Whether it is losing a critical map while adventure racing or arriving at your bike to find all of your nutrition to have disappeared in an Ironman (both of which have happened to me), it is essential that you have an almost zen approach and have thought through anything that could happen and what your response will be to it.
How they are different
How long you suffer
I was wisely told before my Ironman that you should not really hurt until after the half marathon mark of the marathon and I found that to be true in my race this summer. It was really a downright enjoyable experience until then. When I toe the line at my adventure races, I have the understanding that I will feel pretty terrible for at least 50% of the race if it is 48 hours or longer. (Although, as I gain more experience in the 72-hour events, I seem to be able to push the time further and further. Last year was a huge achievement where I was able to race 62 hours straight without feeling that bad, but that is rare for me)
My Ironman pace, while “slow” compared to my mid-distance races is much faster than an adventure race. I am pushing around 70-80% effort while an adventure race is probably a range between 50-70% with the understanding that I know I need to go for days.
The Ironman was like ticking boxes in my head. Swim? Check. Transition? Check. Bike? Check. And so on. It required a deep focus and I found that I had tunnel vision for the almost 11 hours that I was out there. I barely saw anyone or anything. I knew my paces and I was simply executing a race that I had practised for hundreds of hours.
An adventure race requires a completely different kind of focus. I cannot remain completely locked in the whole race, at least not yet. I find I will relax and let my mind shut off for periods during a multi-day, whether that is being hypnotized by rhythmic paddling under stars in a night leg on the water or just close my eyes while I am eating at a transition area, I cannot reach the same level of focus I have in an ironman for a whole race. This disassociation often helps too if my team is lost. I can disconnect my focus in the race and assist with problem-solving. It is really hard to explain but you almost feel high. It may be the fatigue but when a lot of bad things happen in a race, you actually stop caring in the sense that you don’t strongly react. The mental state is focused on problem-solving but I do think if something happens in an Ironman, I feel it more acutely.
In my Ironman, I have a slow, measured pouring out of energy until the end. I know the paces I need to go and I push them. When I cross the finish line, I want nothing left. An adventure race, on the other hand, requires holding even more back because even if you happen to know the route you are taking, it could change due to a better route choice, a course obstruction or because you are lost. Something that is slotted to take 8 hours can take 20 hours and you need to budget for the physical and mental fatigue being more than you bargained for. That being said, I rarely perform an adventure race at the same intensity level of an Ironman.
How you feel at the finish line
When I cross an adventure racing finishing line, I have gone to that deep place of hardly caring about anything so it almost takes a couple days for me to fully celebrate the achievement. While you are on course, you need to forget that there is such a thing as not adventure racing so the finish line can tend to feel more like a mirage than anything. All I really want to do is shower to wash off days of grit and grime, brush the sugar off my teeth and sleep for 18 hours.
When I cross the line of an ironman, I feel like I have a flu. My body feels entirely out of balance as the adrenaline that I had coursing through my veins subsides and I find I pick at my food for a few hours before the colour comes back to my face and I feel like myself again.
I could continue to compare all day but I will get to my point.
The critical difference between an Ironman and a multi day adventure race lies between pain and effort. If you are asking me what race is more painful on a psychological level, I would have to say adventure racing. There is nothing that compares to the mental, emotional and physical depths of pain that you can tap into on the race course. Sitting on a male designated bike saddle for 25 hours straight with a 30 pound pack on my back or watching all hopes of placing in a race slip away as you spend an entire night looking for a check point that just simply isn’t there (both of which I have experienced) are unparalleled levels of distress that I haven’t experienced in any other race.
But doing an ironman and spending, in my case, almost 11 hours on the edge between emptying yourself and trying to burn all of your matches so when you reach that red carpet, you can barely cross the finish line is beyond any effort I spend on the adventure racing course.
I don’t think it is fair to say that one is harder than the other. Adventure racing prepared me for an Ironman because I was able to remain laser focused the entire race because 10 hours and 50 minutes just didn’t feel long, despite the increase of effort. And my ironman built an incredible base and continues to push me further into what I can accomplish physically in an adventure race.
I need to do both. I love to do both. And if either one of them were easy, I wouldn’t keep doing them. I love the type 2 fun and incredible accomplishment they provide. And how, by doing both adventure racing and ironmans, I become just a little bit better in both sports as a result.