Keen Vail Kids Adventure Race

Adventure racing requires teamwork. What happens when serial squabblers (kids, that is) compete?

Before the mud, sweat, and soaking.

My children bicker incessantly over the most inane things.

Who goes first at piano lessons. Who gets the blue water bottle. They argue over cupcakes, radio stations, pizza slices, hunks of watermelon, stuffies, lacrosse pads, and ski poles. It’s all a competition to see who can get the most, biggest, best. Whoever comes out with the short stick—perceived or otherwise—cries foul. “It’s not fair!!!!” Well, if I hear that one more time, I may pull a King Solomon and start ripping Pooh bears in half.

According to parenting experts, conflicts between siblings is normal childhood behavior and the ensuing conflict resolution—mostly theoretical from where I see it—will help arm children with valuable skills for later life. You know, for when they grow up to be high-powered divorce attorneys and ruthless contract negotiators.

When I saw that Vail was hosting an adventure race for kids that required teamwork, I started to wonder if my kids could possibly rise to the challenge. Might they actually collaborate? Could the usual string of conflicts cease for a few hours of peaceful cooperation? Challenges would include mountain biking, hiking, rock climbing, Tarzan rope swinging, slack-lining, river tubing, zip-lining, and more.

My boys, Quinn (12) and Aidan (9) formed a two-man team. The pre-race shopping for bike jerseys did not bode well. At first, I found only a single very flashy (and expensive) shirt from our local bike shop. You would think by now I would know not to buy one of something cool. Ever. Aidan whined and begged for the shirt. The shirt went back to the store. Next I found two non-matching previously owned jerseys from a sports recycler. (Again, experience would dictate a strict policy of buying only identical items, but I’m a slow learner.) The boys quickly agreed on who would get which jersey based on, get this: sizing. Gadzooks! Logical and cooperative decision making. This was progress.

Team Fire Monkeys, not in matching shirts but ready to roll at the Keen 2012 Vail Kids Adventure Race.

Next they agreed on a team name: Fire Monkeys. They would compete against the Flying Meatballs, Bombinators, Nasty Honeybadgers, Heavy Metal Unicorns, Doodlypoos, and the strangely named—but ultimately podium-worthy—Chicken Nuggets.

We arrived at Vail at 8 a.m. to listen to the safety spiel and get the boys outfitted in climbing harnesses, which they would wear for the whole race. One defining element of adventure racing is that the course and specific challenges are kept under wraps until the morning of the race. The kids only had a vague idea of what they’d be doing.

Emerging from a dark tunnel during the Mountain Biking leg of the race.

Just prior to the 9 a.m. start, each team was given a map of the course to share. They were responsible for keeping the map intact and dry and getting it stamped at each challenge checkpoint. The boys decided Quinn would carry the map in a Ziploc inside his backpack and Aidan would pull it in and out of the pack.

At the pre-race meeting, more event details were revealed: the first loop would be mountain biking; a second loop would be on foot. They would cross slack-lines suspended over a mud pit filled with rattlesnakes, and a cargo net was hidden in the aspens above a giant inclined slip-and-slide. They were just kidding about the rattlesnakes, but everything else—including hanging prone from a wire high over the Eagle River—was for real. Bike gloves were to be worn for the entire race, which was especially important for negotiating a dark underground tunnel filled with rushing water. Race organizers reinforced the idea that teamwork would be critical to finishing with a good time.

If it weren’t for the adrenaline of adventure racing, you’d get cold feet.

After a short mountain-bike ride up a trail and through a tunnel (inside of which the kids had to hoist their bikes over a pile of mats), Aidan crashed on the first downhill, bloodying his knee. Here’s where I started to think this might be a failed experiment in solidarity. While Aidan pulled the first-aid kit from his backpack (all competitors were required to carry a few essentials) and fumbled with the Band-aid, Quinn stood nonchalantly by, staring at the map. I silently implored Quinn to help his brother. C’mon, help him. Help him, you stinker! But we parents were told not to coach the kids in any way, so I kept my yap shut.

Happy Fire Cheetahs, just after the slope and slide.

Next they threw darts at balloons (a dubious approximation of archery, I think), chugged up a dirt trail to the cargo net in the woods, and ran back downhill to the “slope-and-slide.” This was no backyard toy, mind you. An enormous sheet of plastic was draped across the flanks of Vail. The kids zinged down the thin layer of polyurethane at warp speed, water spraying high in the air. Organizers shortened the length of the run after the first competitor sustained a race-ending  injury hitting the crash pads at the bottom. Sometimes it pays to register late and go last.

The kids looped back to the start, dumped their bikes and packs, and took off on foot to the Tarzan swing and the slack lines. The Fire Monkeys watched the team in front trying to walk across holding hands, and falling into the pool of mud continuously. The next team crossed quickly and without incident by going one at a time in a bear crawl. Clearly it was the way to go.

Aidan checks for rattlesnakes while crossing dual slack lines suspended over a mud pit.

Safely across the mud pit, they ran down a bike path to a second cargo net. This one was hanging underneath a bridge and over the river. Quinn kept the map safe and dry in the plastic bag inside his jersey. They splashed across the river on foot to the Tyrolean Traverse, which is like an uphill zip-line. Volunteers clipped the kids’ harnesses onto a wire, the kids leaned backward and pulled themselves hand-over-hand across the river.

At the zipline, tragedy struck. Quinn had been so careful with the map, but because the Ziploc had ballooned with air, one of the volunteers “helped him out” by poking a giant hole in the bag. Problem. There were two more river challenges ahead.

After the zipline, they sprinted down the riverbed for about a quarter mile, seeking out the shallow areas, but mostly just splashing right through the frigid water. That brought them to the tubing leg of the competition. The low water, barely inches in spots, made tubing a considerable challenge. The kids couldn’t just sit and float lazily downstream. Instead, they took turns pushing and pulling each other. They yanked, they hauled, they tugged, they shoved.

In the Tyrolean traverse, it’s advantageous to weigh less than 50 pounds.

Eventually, they settled on a technique of Quinn riding and paddling with his hands while Aidan hung off the back doing a powerful flutter kick. It was innovative and it was cooperative. From the banks of the river, we cheered them on: Go Fire Monkeys!!!! Then the tube caught on some rocks. Aidan was kicking so darn hard he upended the tube, fully dunking his brother.

Quinn was fine, but the map, it got wet. At the next challenge—climbing a 30-foot-high rock wall in Vail Village—the volunteer said the map was too shredded to be stamped. The Fire Monkeys spontaneously burst into tears. It was not their fault. The volunteer quickly changed tack and said not to worry. She would stamp their forearms. It would count. As they dashed to the finish, Aidan lagged behind. Quinn stopped and waited for him so they could cross the line together.

Between the blood, sweat, and tears, they were at once exhausted and elated. I was sure they’d crumple in a post-race heap. Instead, after a fortifying Larkburger, Quinn and Aidan rallied to cheer on their sister, Anya, and her partner, Riley. a.k.a., The Fire Cheetahs.

Okay, now just crawl through the dark, spooky tunnel. Don’t mind the rushing water…

On the first uphill from the start, Riley fell off her bike and landed in a ditch. Anya hopped off her bike, ran over and pulled her out. The teamwork thing seemed to come more naturally to the girls. Or maybe they’d learned a few things having watched the boys’ race. After the short mountain bike, they crawled down a boulder-covered riverbank to a stream for the tunnel crossing. Anya could barely reach the rope strung through the tunnel that competitors used for balance. It was a display of bravery for two six year olds to climb through a subterranean culvert filled with rushing water.

The Fire Cheetahs ran up the trail to the cargo net and emerged from the woods at the top of the slope-and-slide. The trepidation on their faces as they crawled onto the giant plastic sheet turned to pure joy once they crashed into the pads of the bottom. The slope-and-slide, probably the event’s most dangerous component, was everyone’s favorite challenge.

In adventure racing, you can’t just go with the flow: You need to pull your partner down the river.

The girls continued through the course with a steely determination and grit unexpected from the Barbie-doll-playing, princess-dress-wearing, nail-polishing set. They never whined for a moment. Not when they were running down the riverbed, water and mud splashing in their faces. Not when they were suspended from a wire high over the Eagle River. Not when they plunged armpit deep into the icy water during the river tubing. These were two tough chicas!

I was brimming with pride at the girls, who finished the course in nearly the same time as the boys. But really, I was even more delighted at the boys’ show of support. Despite having run the race themselves already, they ran the entire course—wet, muddy, and red-faced—a second time, running alongside Anya and her teammate, encouraging them the whole way.

The adrenaline rush of the race has long since flushed from their systems. My kids continue to squabble relentlessly. Over who gets to sit in the back of the van and what DVD to watch. Over seats at the dinner table, the top bunk, the last rainbow-flavored fruit rollup, The Ranger’s Apprentice, Book 3. At least they’ll never forget this one near-harmonious day of sibling camaraderie on a bluebird summer day in Vail. I won’t either.

For more info on the Keen Vail Kids Adventure Race, go to the Vail Recreation District’s website. The 2012 event was held in mid August and the registration fee was $150 per team. The registration fee also included a swoopy goodie bag, including a Keen Grasshopper Backseat Pack. (My kids have been using it on hikes and they love flipping out the built-in seat for trailside pit stops.)  Teams can be boys, girls, or co-ed. The day prior to the race, skill clinics were offered for $10 each, or three for $25. The 2012 race sold out, so be sure to sign up early next year.


  1. What an adventure. My kids will give this a go next year. Thanks for the great article!

    • Helen Olsson says:

      They don’t call it an adventure race for nothing, that’s for sure. We have it on our calendar for next year, too. It’s not to be missed!

  2. Mad Dog Moms Rock!

  3. This is so over the top for kids.. love it!! next year want to be there.

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