A Family Affair: Racing With Your Spouse

Many endurance and multisport athletes are continuing to stay fit and race well into their 40’s and beyond. But with age comes marriage, children, a 40-hour work week and the challenge of finding the time to train and race. Finding a two-hour workout window can become a challenge, and going for the weekend on a destination race is dreaming the impossible.

For me, the solution to these challenges came unexpectedly when my wife and I decided to try adventure racing together. Long kayak sessions, mountain bike rides and trail runs served the dual purpose of fitness training and as well as catch-up time with my spouse. Here are some things to think about as you consider racing with your spouse.

Why Adventure Racing?

The simple answer is that adventure racing (AR) is a team sport. More importantly, AR emphasizes teamwork, skills and decision making above fitness.

Teams with the ability to think clearly under stress and combine their various fitness levels to go fast, along with strong navigation skills, are the ones that find success at the finish line. This sense of team accomplishment is something that is hard to describe and can only be experienced.

Fitness and Skill Levels

The most obvious challenge in team sports is the differences in fitness and skill levels among team members. With sports like mountain biking, kayaking, running and navigation, the skills equation within the team can get really complicated. Recruiting the best athletes for your team is one solution, otherwise, the fitness and skill levels your team possess is what you have to work with.

When training and racing with your spouse, you should first focus on skills development. Bringing your spouse along on a ride to a scary cliff-side single-track may not be the best first-day for a first time mountain biker.

The same would apply to developing kayaking and navigation skills. Instead, be sure to start at the appropriate level, practice, gain confidence and you will have fun and go faster as a team.

Second, focus on fitness. The gap in your fitness levels may seem impossible to close at first, but you will find that each of you will have strength and weaknesses that will compliment each other. Just give it time.

Roles, Responsibilities, and Respect

In adventure racing, you have clearly defined roles: captain, navigator, work horse (aka “The Mule”) and the “mother hen”. There are no roles for husband, wife, girlfriend, or boyfriend. When you race with your spouse, you need to understand what role they have and respect that role throughout the race.

If your wife is the captain of the team, her decisions are final. And if your boyfriend is the navigator and you are not happy with his navigation, you simply need to let him continue to navigate until the end. If he or she needs help, they will ask. Rather than relationship respect, offer one another a sense of professional athlete respect. Resume the relationship after the race is over.

Goals and Expectations

You may think that you are racing for the same reason, but I challenge you to ask your teammate/spouse for their goals and expectations. You may be surprised to find that your wife wants to go for a podium finish, for example, or that your husband is just looking to have a good adventure.

Whatever your goals are, be sure to align your expectations before and throughout the race. Talk about it when you are training and remind each other during stressful race situations.

Finding Your Alone Time

Part of training and racing has to do with getting away from your normal schedule and activities. Putting on your MP3 player and hitting the trails might be the therapy you need from a hard day at the office. Or you may want to get a ride in with your colleagues at work.

In either case, racing and training with your spouse does not mean you have to spend 100% of your time together. The advantage of doing activities with your spouse is sharing a love of sports, spending quality time together doing what you enjoy, and creating a family lifestyle that includes fitness and sports.

Getting Started

Sharing a family adventure together, when done right, can be a great way to spend a weekend with your spouse, but make sure to take these steps.

  1. Train together and get to know each other on the trails
  2. Treat each other like teammates when training and racing
  3. Start with the shorter events
  4. Talk about what is working and not working in your team

And if you are doing things right, you should be enjoying this added time together.

Passion, Compassion, and Lessons Learned at Norcal-ar Pacheco

Norcal-AR #1 demonstrated why adventure racing is one of the few sports that has heart. The day started as all AR events start. People getting ready, some socializing with old friends, and then the start. Everyone started on the bike section first with the leading competitors reaching the water in 2 hours. A strong wind was blowing to our back and you could see white caps on the reservoir. Not a good sign. You usual want the wind to your back when you are returning from the kayak. Fifteen minutes into the paddle, we started heading North and saw most of the lead teams on a beach. I was certain this was not the checkpoint. As we came closer, it was clear that the lead teams had stopped racing. They were rescuing and caring for other athletes that had fallen into the water. EVERYONE that was able, helped. I was never more proud of my friends, competitors and sport. And…, once the water was cleared, teams returned to racing.

Of course, this article is about learning. Here are some things to keep in mind for kayaking

  1. Kayaking is not just a physical activity. It requires skill and safety. You may not be able to control a wave flipping your boat, but you certainly must know what to do when that happens. And you need to do it quickly.
  2. Know your ability. If the conditions are beyond your ability. Abort the kayak before getting into the water. If you don’t know your ability or don’t understand the conditions of the water, abort before starting.
  3. Get skilled at kayaking. Contact your local kayak groups ( Ex. Aquan or Kayak Lake Mead) for instructions.
  4. If you are attempting to rescue someone, make sure you don’t become another victim. If you don’t have the skill to rescue, monitor the situation and go for help. It is a painful thought to paddle away from someone, but having one more person in the water does not really help a situation.

Grip Training for Adventure Racers

It’s hard to imagine an adventure race where you don’t use your hands.  The only instance you can safely tuck away those mitts is during the trekking section.  Even then, you may be using poles to help navigate the terrain and distribute weight.  So how do you go about training those hands and forearms to handle the demands of a long race of non-stop hand to handlebar, hand to paddle, hand to rope kind of activity?

One method of developing grip strength is to simply acquire it from racing.  It’s basically using racing as the training for more racing.  It’s not bad, it’s effective, but let’s look at ways to improve on this

One part of the adventure race that gets a lot of people is the portage.  The short-duration effort where you have to lug that heavy rental boat (the one you didn’t train with) over rocks, around trees and through parking lots.  Your arms are on fire and you are expected to then hop in and start paddling.  Burned out forearms are not ideal when you have 30 miles of paddling ahead of you.

There are a variety of training tools that can develop your grip:

  • Kettlebells are a great way to do this.  Swinging a bell through the air has a way of forcing you to hold on tight.  With consistent effort, the grip naturally develops.  So do callouses, you’ve been warned.
  • Odd objects are another way to develop grip strength:  sand bags, finger-pinch plate carry, these will definitely help with grip.  Hard to do, but they are effective.
  • Deadlifts – anytime you pick up a bar with weight on it (be sure you are lifting with correct form!!) you develop grip strength, if your goal is purely grip, go for the thickest bar you can hold onto, you won’t need much weight to get the benefit.
  • Newspaper – start with a piece of newspaper and crumple an entire sheet (USA Today size) into a ball.  Repeat.
  • Simulation – purchase a kayak carry handle and construct a “portager” with options for adding weight, build into your workouts and you will be getting sport specific training that you can measure.

Another thing to remember is that the grip is a system.  It’s not just your hands that are doing the work.  Forearms, shoulders, back, even glutes and legs are involved.  Select activities that will use your whole body (i.e. deadlift, kettlebells, portage training).  The other options are fine when you don’t have access to something like a thick-grip deadlift bar, but the more you can build grip training into a multi-functional, full-bodied approach, the better off you’ll be as a solid adventure racer.