Koha Racing: An open letter to adventure sport athletes everywhere

By Andy Magness

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the publisher.

I think that adventure-based racing is too expensive. At least it is too expensive for me. If I were to sign up for a ‘full’ schedule of the type of epic events that I’d really love to do, I’d be paying nearly as much in race entry fees as I would in rent. And of course with all the training required, there’s no way I’d be able to make up that income by just working harder. And did I mention that I have a family?

Balancing big adventure-sport ambitions with everything else in life is a complicated calculus even if money isn’t an issue. But if you’ve got the very real complications of a limited income with plenty of demands being placed on it (I’ve got hungry mouths to feed! Babes to cloth! Birthday presents to buy!), then the problem becomes more than complicated. It becomes unsolvable.

I know pretty much right away that when a race excitedly trumpets about the possibility of paying the entry fee by installments, that I shouldn’t even bother bringing it up to my wife. And it isn’t her fault, it’s not as if she’s not supportive. But it can be pretty hard to justify spending hundreds of dollars for half a day’s suffering. Even more so if the instruments of suffering themselves cost thousands and travel and accommodation costs (and time away) are required parts of the bargain.

So when I moved to New Zealand two years ago, I felt pretty stuck. There were sooooo many races that had me salivating, but the price tags all caused sticker shock. The Coast to Coast? Looks AWESOME! But, OUCH, that day would set me back more than two weeks wages. GodZone? Man, adventure racing is so my thing...so much so that I did actually sign up. Yep, I forked over the nearly two grand for an entry fee--a year’s racing and adventuring budget--placing all my eggs in one basket. And then an unexpected funeral had my wife jetting back to the states and me playing Mr. Mom, watching the tracking dots crawl across the LCD of my laptop. OUCH.

I’m a decent athlete. I really am. I’ve sorted out the training thing--I have achieved that bit of the equation and manage to stay in really good shape while still keeping peace and harmony at home and managing to be a very present and wicked role model for my kids. I’m happy about all that. But I still want to race, and race big. I just can’t afford it. And that kind of sucks. At least I think it does.

I don’t think that super hard races have to be that expensive. And it’s not that I don’t know what goes into putting on these type of events, that I’m just naive about the cost of production. I spent nearly a decade in the states starting and growing a small, grassroots events company, and have nearly two dozen big races under my belt--all with the director’s hat on. And these weren’t little neighborhood 5k’s either. They included an off-road, iron distance triathlon (the first in the USA since 2003), a 36 mile long down-river swim (the hardest and longest pure swim event in North America), a winter ultramarathon, a multi-day lap style trail bike/run (with its coveted ‘undead hall of fame’), a 50km long mud run with over 200 obstacles, a winter triathlon, and a host of adventure races up to 36 hours in length (one of which served as the North American Championship event in 2014). These were all races I’d actually want to do myself. And I was able to put them all on for entry fees that were typically less than half of what races of comparable difficulty charged.

So what gives? This is a question I’ve considered long and hard and although I’m open to being wrong, I’ve come up with two possible answers, some combination of which probably provides the truth in most cases. One: races charge a lot because they have to in order to cover all the bells and whistles--t-shirts, media, staff, sign printing, vehicle decals, vehicles, equipment, fancy finish line arches, swag, medals, etc, etc. That cost gets passed on to you. And maybe to sponsors, too, but mostly to you. Two: races charge a lot because they are just following suit and are charging what they feel other races of comparable quality charge and/or are charging what they think people will pay (or will expect to pay) for the event.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with letting these two factors determine the participant cost of an event, it certainly does price me out of things in most cases. And because I hate to think of myself as being particularly unique (or uniquely poor), I like to think there might be others that share this financial pain.

The thing is I like pain, just not that sort. And suffering too. I like settling on a challenge and endeavoring to meet it--pushing through mental and physical anguish. Sure I could do this on my own. I could come up with massive adventures and see them through. And I do this often (Dusky in a day, anyone?). But it isn’t quite the same. The rewards of camaraderie on a large scale, of all those back slaps by fellow racers and spectators, that slight (or not so slight) swelling of the ego that comes from greater recognition of an actual finish line being reached. And I like the drive I feel to push just that much harder when I’m able to convince myself that the whole world is watching. These are all things that formalized events, even grassroots ones, add to a big undertaking.

To cut a long story short, I found myself in a dilemma, but one which I thankfully felt capable of at least trying to solve. Race directing is hard work, gruelling, and painfully inglorious work (the athletes tend to get the accolades, go figure). But I mentioned I like pain, right?

And so I decided to start Koha Racing. It was hard to get going--the number of race ideas I had in my head after a year and a half in Fiordland was mind-boggling. Each one of them would capture my attention and seem to demand to be organized first, but well, it is a long and hard road from concept to feet on a trail. It is also an expensive one, at least initially.

In order to narrow my focus I decided to start locally--events in and around Te Anau, where I live. But I didn’t just want to put on any event, remember I wanted to put on events that I would want to actually do, which means they have to be pretty epic. And I also didn’t want to really compete for participants--spending heaps of money on marketing is one reason why big events cost a lot! This meant not trying to grab a slice of the multi-sport pie, for example, but creating my own pie by offering something truly unique. Small is fine, though, better even. I’ve always liked more intimate events, where racers get a chance to know each other and feel more like part of a community than a race number. And organic growth over time--word of mouth type stuff, is perfect. So small, unique, local, and epic, what else?

Simple. Some of my ideas that have been (temporarily) shelved would be among the most epic races in NZ but would, like it or not, cost heaps of money to put on (helicopters are expensive!). Maybe if Koha Racing catches on and some big companies decide they want to throw some cash our way, we’ll reach up and bring these events back to the table. But to start with, if I’m going to be able to manage to keep production costs down and make the whole thing viable for me and the crew, then this one is key.

So that’s it--that’s the plan. Creating small, unique, local, epic, and simple races in Fiordland that are iconic and challenging enough to be bucket-list events, but on a budget a dirt-bag climber could be proud of. We’ll be putting our energy, time, and money into the experience between the starting gun and the finish line banner (assuming we’ve got the funds for one), not the surrounding hoopla. So if it’s that experience you’re after rather than the contents of the participant goody bag or the flash and splash of websites and media; if you want to feel like a bad-ass for just crossing the finish line; if you want to take your family on vacation and enter a big race or two; or if you just want to join us for what amounts to a low-key, friendly, and intimate uber-challenge, the likes of which isn’t on offer anywhere else, then we look forward to meeting you.


Andy Magness, Koha Racing.

About Koha Racing:

Koha Racing is a new event production organization based in Te Anau. Its three year plan includes rolling out a number of unique adventure/endurance events including swim races, swim-runs races, and SCAR (Self-Contained Adventure Race) events. There are no entry fees for events, rather the organization hopes production costs will be met with Koha offered by participants, fans, or sponsors. Koha Racing’s first event, a 12 km down-river swim, will take place in on Feb. 5th of 2017, on the Waiau River. Visit www.koharacing.com for more information.
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