Question & Answer with Race Director, Mark VanTongeren
1. What is your background? How did you get into races?
I’ve been a fairly serious backpacker since high school, exploring many national parks out west. From there I got into mountain biking. So I’ve always loved the outdoors. We found out about Grand Rapids Area Adventuring Racing (GRAAR), run by Michael Boks (now a good friend), about six years ago and did our first little event at Bass River Recreation Area. I do two or three races a year with my wife at the 6-12 hour level and race with some guy friends in races that are 12-24 hours. I got hooked by the combination of brains and brawn required. There’s no sport that provides a balance of strategy and quick decision making with demanding physical challenges, endurance and mental toughness.
2. Describe the process and ideas you went through to create this event.
We knew we wanted the core elements of adventure racing – navigation by map, a mystery course, running, and biking. But races with these elements held away from urban environments don’t draw a lot of people. So we moved the course into downtown GR, which can attract people from a population of about 1 million throughout West Michigan. But even moving it into downtown wasn’t enough. We needed some sizzle. So we added Amazing Race-type challenges that either were mental, physical or both. And they had to be fun of course. This isn’t a race to show how tough you are, although endurance and speed are both part of it.
3. What are your goals and desired outcomes in bringing an event like this to Grand Rapids?
First, we want to grow the sport of adventure racing. Crazy as it may seem, adventure racing is the fasting dying sport and the fastest growing sport. A real oxymoron. At 12 hours and above, the sport is dying. A 24 hour race used to draw 150 people no problem. Now it can’t even draw 50. Many have been cancelled. It’s fastest growing at the short, crazy formats – urban adventure races, mud runs, obstacle courses. We want to get people addicted to the adventure race format, use clinics and encouragement to help them get comfortable with a wilderness race that involves compass use and canoeing, and hopefully equip some courageous ones to take on a 24 hour race, which are very doable at a slower pace.
We also want to pitch in with making Grand Rapids and West Michigan a better place to live. Hopefully some young urban folks will decide to make it home because of how much fun they can have here. Maybe we’ll build a little community too – people will become friends through racing our event.
We also like the charity aspect of this event. We pick a human services charity partner and a recreation/outdoor charity and often integrate what they do into a race challenge.
4. Describe the race itself.
Two person teams are given a map, passport and instructions 45 minutes before the event. That’s the first time they’ll know what they are doing. The mystery is a huge part of the fun. They’ll have to plan their route quickly and often teams will have to figure some of it out on the fly. In this race, teams can either do the bike half of the race or the on-foot half first and then they switch half way through. Using the map and instructions, they look for hidden flags and punch their passport to prove they were there. There are forty flags and it takes about 7 miles of running and 18 miles of biking to get all the points. Unique about this race is that many of the locations and challenges are related to ArtPrize. Teams will have to do some art-related challenges or hunt for the flag in an ArtPrize venue. It’s a fun way for people to see some great art, especially in out-of-the-way locations which don’t get a lot of viewers.
5. What are some of your future plans for events in the area?
We have a winter race scheduled for February 11 at Cannonsburg Ski Area. It will likely be the largest winter adventure race ever put on (at least from what we can tell online). We will use a snowcat to create some absolutely monstrous obstacles and other challenges.
Beyond that, we expect to put on a spring race, a summer race, and the ArtPrize race in the fall. We’ll likely hold a race out at the lakeshore next summer since Lake Michigan and the dunes are such a great asset. We also want to hold a night race sometime soon.
6. Where did you get your inspiration for this type of race?
Adventure races have been quietly going on since the 1980s so we’re definitely getting inspiration from that. When Nate Phelps, a partner with our group, Michigan Adventure Racing LLC, approached me about an urban bike race, we just morphed it into a race that has biking, running and crazy challenges. The credit goes to the Amazing Race for those of course.
7. Why Grand Rapids?
All of us in Michigan Adventure Racing live here and we love it here. But the reason it’s so successful here is a combination of several things I think. First, Grand Rapids is big enough to draw a lot of people but not too big where there’s a sense of disconnectedness. People are so well networked here. Second, we have great urban and natural assets. Fun places to run and bike, and a growing networks of trails. West MI Mountain Biking Alliance is building nearly 40 miles of mountain bike trails in the area so we’ll be taking advantage of that. And one of our charity partners, Grand Rapids Whitewater, will offer us whitewater kayaking on the Grand River by 2014. And third, there’s a level of enthusiasm here that I’m not sure is as common as we might think. A lot of our racers are not athletes, many are not in great shape, some may not know downtown very well, but it doesn’t stop them from signing up and jumping in cannonball style, big smiles on their faces. ~Kristin M. Coppens, Regional Director
Facebook: GR Urban Adventure Race