Close up of Chelsey Magness on black background.

What Adventure Racing Has Taught Me About Life

We talked to Chelsey Magness from Bend Racing about how her sport has taught her lessons in patience, parenting, and getting out of your comfort zone

“You can get too comfortable, and you take a lot of things for granted. If you don't take yourself out of that cocoon and go feel the strong wind on your face and get blown around on the top of the mountain peak or get lost along the way and hit that edge or find that fear, then it's really hard to grow.”
Chelsey Magness is one of those women who give new meaning to the word badass. The Columbia Sportswear athlete has navigated across 372 grueling miles in Patagonia six times. Not only that, she has trekked, mountain biked, and rafted thousands of additional miles across New Zealand, Ecuador, Belize, Costa Rica, and Brazil. Together with her husband she runs Bend Racing, an adventure racing company in Oregon that hosts America’s Toughest Race. We sat down to talk to the fearless adventure racer about how she prepares for races and what they’ve taught her about life. Check out the interview below.
Two people walking on a stony beach carrying kayaking equipment.
Q: First of all, what exactly do you do at Bend Racing?
Chelsey Magness: We basically put on races that we want to race. We want to create more racers and more people that love this. We live in this amazing place—Bend, Oregon. Anybody can come and race our races. Teams from all over the world apply. Right now Bend Racing puts on about seven to 10 races a year, ranging anywhere from three to 36 hours. We also train people and teams. Our main thing is to inspire people to get outdoors, get into the sport, and test their limits. To go beyond what they ever thought that they could do.

Q: For people out there who don’t know, tell us what an adventure race typically involves.
Chelsey Magness: Well, there's a huge variation. Our team specializes in expedition races, but we also compete in races from as little as three hours and, at most, to 10 days long. But for shorter one-day races, the first leg might be a six-mile trek/run up through the mountains and then down through all these ravines. Then you'll get to the transition area, which is where your bikes will be. You'll go for, say, a 20-mile bike ride. Then you'll get to the next transition area where your boats will be. You'll blow up your pack-rafts and put on your PFDs and get in the river and find set points along there. Then you'll get back to a trekking stage where you’ll have to carry your boats for a while to the bikes again. Then bike back to the finish. And then at the finish, it's a party.

Q: How is adventure racing different from marathons or relay races?
Chelsey Magness: In adventure racing, everybody does it together. You're a team of four on the pro circuit, but for the smaller races, you can do it as a team of two or three. On the world circuit, which we do, you do everything together and you have to stay within a hundred meters of each other. So it's not a relay. If one team member falls behind, you just put them on tow, or you have to stop for a while. Or, if it's really bad and one person has to drop out, then the whole team has to drop out. It’s also different because in a marathon there’s no navigation involved. There are big flags everywhere and markers on the ground and checkpoints. In adventure racing, you have to navigate to all the points with a map and compass. A “checkpoint” is just a tiny little orange flag hanging on a random tree, five or six miles from the finish. It’s all of these people going at their own pace and trying to find this random tree in the middle of a deep valley. People get spread out really fast. Checkpoints are not markers. In adventure racing, if you get lost, nobody cares.

Q: What are you carrying?
Chelsey Magness: You'll start with all of your mandatory gear, which for shorter races is usually a little first aid kit—typically just ibuprofen and duct tape—and then you have to have a rain jacket, puffy and a buff. For the longer races, you need to carry a tent, bivy bag and other survival gear.
Four people huddled around a map on a high rocky ridge.
Q: How do you manage your food and nutrition, especially on the longer races?
Chelsey Magness: Adventure racing is an endurance sport. So you want to feed yourself like you're doing an endurance event. Especially because there are so many unknowns. In a marathon, you know your pace. You know when you're going to finish. In adventure racing, you can finish in a wide range of times and you can be lost for hours. But you don't want to carry that much food either. A good rule of thumb is to eat about 150 calories per hour. Dan Staudigel, who weighs a lot more than me, he usually does about 200 calories an hour. But that's the range, because you constantly want to be fueling yourself.
Q: What about hydration?
Chelsey Magness: With water, it really depends. If there are transition areas, you can get water. You can store your water there and your food there too. That way you don't have to carry the whole load with you a lot of the time. And we carry water filters so we can drink straight out of the river. That's how we keep things really light. But for people who are just getting into this, we (advise them to) start training with food and water. Start going on longer missions, like a two-hour hike, a three-hour hike. And practice eating every hour because a lot of people don't eat during exercise. You have to know what your body can take during exercise. Then the other thing is, the longer the race, the more variety you want in your food. For expedition races, when we're racing seven to 10 days, even three days long, we do crackers, gels, gummies, cookies, fruit. A big variety of stuff, because your mouth can get sore or your belly can get just sick. So you want to have a lot of variety in your food.

Q: What do you need to know about navigation to be successful?
Chelsey Magness: The main thing is to practice. Put down your phone when you're going out on a run or hike or mountain bike ride. Take out a paper map and circle some checkpoints. Look for the top of a hill, or a knoll, or a creek, and circle little features on the map. And then practice navigating to those places. You don't even have to use a compass at first. Just mark out those features and see if you can find them. Make them pretty obvious at first. It also helps to take a small course. You can even do them online. YouTube is amazing right now, especially to learn the rudimentary things. From there, I would suggest calling us up, emailing us to meet up, or go to an orienteering club to learn more in-depth stuff. And remember that getting lost is a part of it in the beginning. You start out small and then you’re crawling, then walking, then running.

Q: Any specific pro tips for someone just starting out in navigation?
Chelsey Magness: The number one thing too is to stay found. When you go out, try to always know where you are. If suddenly you're like, “Oh, I'm a little bit lost here,” stop and try to figure out where you are. Sometimes it takes us a little while, sometimes hours, but then we figure out where we are and then we can start going again. So make “staying found” your main thing when you're starting out.
Three people hiking in forest.
Q: What kind of gear do you need?
Chelsey Magness: Gear is extremely important. It makes being outside so much more fun. Choosing the right gear is really important. When it's on your body, you want it to be breathable because you are working nonstop. We don't use waterproof shoes because they don’t dry out after you submerse them (in AR you cross a lot of rivers) instead they keep the moisture close to your foot causing bigger problems. You want to be wearing sunscreen or light layers that cover your body—because you don't want to get burnt—and a good sun hat. Eye protection is really key. And when you're (in rainy climates), you want to make sure that your rain gear is really good and durable because in adventure racing, there are no trails. So a lot of the time you're bushwhacking. Our backpacks and outerwear has to be really durable. Or durable enough to last a seven-day race at least, to go through all the bushes and tromp around.

Q: How do you physically train for these sorts of things?
Chelsey Magness: Adventure racing is 95% mental and 5% physical. With the challenges that you will face, you have to be adaptable. You have to be able to take on those challenges that come—emotionally, physically, and mentally. You can be completely sleep deprived and not know where you are on the map. But then you're like, “OK, we have to sleep.” So you bed down and then two hours later, you're up and running again. And now you know where you are because you've slept a little bit. So it's a big mental game. But on a physical level, we do a lot of base miles. A lot of people think we’re high intensity all the time, but we do a lot of zone training, which is lower heart rate, where we can talk the whole time and have a conversation. About once or twice a week, we'll do a really hard high-intensity workout. And then every other week we will go out on a big mission which is all about adventure, teamwork and fun!

Q: What are some of the mental hurdles that people are going to face out there?
Chelsey Magness: All humans are different and so different emotions come up. A lot of stuff comes up when people are feeling uneasy or uncomfortable and it's all about being uncomfortable and hitting those walls. The best way is to go out with your team or whoever you're wanting to do this with. Go out on a long mission—whatever that is to you. It might be three hours, 12 hours, or 24 hours. Do a big hike or a big bike-packing trip, whatever you want to do, and guess at your best gear choices and your food and make it to your goal. Do it and hit those edges and see what happens. Process them. Get through them. Because the best way to do it is to practice. Don't quit the first moment it gets hard. Don't drop out, because that gets imprinted on your brain. You want to do something you will succeed at, so make it easy the first time. Like a trail that you know, but go a bit further. The goal is to hit some edge and then have that success and learn from it.
A man helping a woman jump over a stream.
Q: What kind of qualities do you need to succeed at adventure racing?
Chelsey Magness: The main word that comes to me is adaptable. That’s really huge. And you need to be able to express your feelings and communicate well, because if you hold stuff in, that's really hard on the team. It's a team sport. It's not just you on that start line, it's your whole team. So if somebody is not feeling well, you don't want to ignore that and be like, “Oh, you should have trained harder.” It doesn't matter. When you're in the race, you're dealing with all of that together. You're all going to go down at some point. Everyone on the race team is going to feel horrible at some point. It’s like, “Oh, it's their turn now,” and you've got to be like, “What can I do for you? Can I take some weight?” The sooner you do, the sooner you're all going to be back on track as a team. You want to do everything for that teammate because in an hour, it's going to be you.

Q: Any other qualities that are helpful?
Chelsey Magness: It’s good to be resourceful. Things break all the time. Knowing how to fix things on your bike and using, for example, a dollar bill to fix your flat or a candy bar wrapper. Because your bikes are going to get flat tires. Your backpack is going to get holes in it. Knowing how to think outside of the box is huge because you're not on a trail, you’re adventure racing. Anything can happen, anything can go wrong. And that's what makes it so fun. You don't know what's going to happen.

Q: How do these skills you’ve learned from racing translate into other areas of your life?
Chelsey Magness: These skills infiltrate through my everyday life and vice versa. Life infiltrates and informs my adventure racing. In 2017, I lost one of my twin boys at birth. That was the hardest thing I have ever had to deal with in my entire life. But I fully believe that what helped me get through was getting back into adventure racing. I did a small race three months after that, just a 6-hour race (which is short for me), but just like getting to the checkpoints, getting to the top of the mountain, looking out helped me process that. It helped me change my story around it so that it was healing rather than just this thing that was suffocating me. And bringing me into fear and grief and shame.
Chelsey Magness breastfeeding and holding a sandwich.
Q: Where else do you find yourself using these skills?
Chelsey Magness: I see it when I'm parenting my boys. Patience and thinking outside of the box and being fully present. In adventure racing, you have to be fully present. You can't think of the finish because you don't know when that's going to come. I credit adventure racing with a major part of who I am right now. Every race I’ve learned more and more about me. It's the thing that brings me out of my comfort zone, out of bed, out of my warm house. You can get too comfortable, and you take a lot of things for granted. If you don't take yourself out of that cocoon and go feel the strong wind on your face and get blown around on the top of the mountain peak or get lost along the way and hit that edge or find that fear, then it's really hard to grow.

Q: How have you grown from it?
Chelsey Magness: I've found a lot of growth over the years with adventure racing. Even with the missions we do, we always learn from them because you see the dark places in yourself. That's where we find our edges and our uncomfortability. We get into those dark places where we want to stop. But we don't. Sometimes we get to a spot where we ask the question, “OK, we know what it's gonna feel like to stop and to go get that burger. But is that really what we want? What's it like to keep going?” Because we don't know what that's like. We know what it's gonna be like to drop out and go back to the hotel. It's going to feel great for maybe 15 minutes, but then it's gonna feel really bad. Because we know—we've been there before.

Q: Aside from these specific skills, what have you learned about life in general?
Chelsey Magness: Every day you go through ups and downs and they become magnified when you're adventure racing. You don’t see them every day because you do them every day. You walk the dog. You feed your kids. You play with your kids. You go to work and come home. And throughout that, you have all these ups and downs, but they're kind of dull, right? In adventure racing, you're doing something that you're really pushing yourself, your ups and downs, they're right in your face. And you gotta look at them. You gotta go through them. Me and my teammates really see that in ourselves—that life is going to bring you a lot of things. It's going to be down and it's going to be up and everything in between. And you're going to get through it. How you process it is what’s going to help you through your adversity in life.

Q: Does it give you perspective on a lot of things?
Chelsey Magness: Yeah. Both with adventure racing and with losing my boy—we call him Spirit B—it has just helped us gain tremendous perspective on life and how beautiful it is. And how the little things that happen are not so bad at all. They're actually great training for us. We have this quote. Like we're on our way to the cabin and we're almost out of gas. We say, “Well, this is great training.” When things come up, we often say that. “OK, this is great training for us.” Everything is AR training for us.
Crowd celebrating the end of a race.