Adventure Racer/ Director of the North Face Adventure Team

Ryan S. Blair

Perhaps you have heard the name of the sport, adventure racing, but do you happen to know what kind of sport it actually is? As an educated guess, you might rightly assume a kind of outdoor event like a decathlon, the playing field of which is nature, the mountains, rivers and sea. Usually adventure races are a combination of at least trail running, mountain biking and kayaking, with navigation and ropes skills also often included. Depending on the format, races can be a few hours to a number of days, and the racer may have to carry all of his or her food, shelter and clothing to the finish line.
Ryan is perhaps the most experienced and successful adventure racer in Asia. Adventure racing is his life, his raison d'être. Presumably, he finds something attractive, something enthralling about this challenging sport.

A pioneer in Asia

Though he may be considered a key player in the outdoor sports scene in Asia, Ryan was in fact born on the West Coast of America. During university Ryan spent a year living in Hong Kong and exploring China and Vietnam while also studying International Business at Hong Kong University. After returning to the US and graduating from Santa Clara University in California, he was on a flight just a few days later back to Hong Kong.
"I was attracted to explore Asia so much more. Hong Kong was the ideal base, with its abundant ocean and mountains, and how its nature and the city are so close to each other…. so after living in Hong Kong in '92-3 for a year I came back in '95 and went straight to the Himalayas in Northern India and Nepal for a year.
Later, after returning to Hong Kong and managing a few music and extreme sports events, I joined with new partners to organize the first Adventure Race in Hong Kong and later Asia's first international series of Adventure races.
There were no adventure race events in Hong Kong back then. Ryan had competed as racer in his first adventure race in the US in 1995. "Immediately, I was captivated and I thought, 'This is what I want to do!' "

"So in '98, we organized organized the first Hong Kong adventure race, "Action Asia Challenge." We soon had National Geographic as our broadcast partner, and things blew up regionally. My Race Director role expanded to Managing Director as we launched events in Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan, and developed it into series of races. We also developed a charity to help underprivileged youth and raised money through the events. Adventure Racing became my life."

Later, Ryan and a new partner started a group of outdoor companies, APA Group, involved with outdoor education, corporate teambuilding, adventure film production, athlete management and more, with adventure racing most often playing a key theme in programs and events. APA's Athlete team, The North Face Adventure Team, soon became the leading adventure sports team in the region with adventure racing one of the key focused sports for the team.
In the world of outdoor sports, there are cases of leaders in the field who have achieved a lot as participants, later, getting involved in the operation of events to help develop the sport. Ryan did it the other way around though. As a racer, he would end up winning numerous titles, but his career at first was as an event organizer. He is a pioneer of the Asian adventure sport world and a fascinating story.

The charm of Adventure Racing, where "1+1" does not always equal "2"

The expedition adventure races, which go non-stop in nature for multiple days, are well known in Japan, but there are various other categories in the sport, such as staged races, where each day has a designated goal to race to, and then return to a hotel. There are also one-day races, which usually last for a limit of 24 hours, and shorter races, which are over in a matter of few hours. In all cases, the level of difficulty is a far cry from everyday urban life. So what makes it so special?
"Adventure racing is characterized by its division of several disciplines used to travel or race through nature. Trekking that sometimes requires navigation, trail running, mountain biking, rafting, kayaking, etc… the variety of skills required makes it such an interesting sport. Even within one discipline you can have so much variation. For example, with kayaking there are many different types of boats that require different skills, and the type of water and paddling conditions in an ocean, river, lake, etc. effect things considerably." No motorized machines are used; you must compete out in nature using your own and your team's strength alone. For every single aspect, you must rely on your body and your mind. The settings are in wild backwoods where most would never set foot in everyday life. Recent locations have included places you would never expect, like in the Wulong mountain region of China. Ryan further reveals, "Team endurance sports also have a very special dynamic, with teams comprising two to four racers you are only as fast as your weakest member so at the elite level you are always helping each other with towlines and other go-faster team strategies. In the longer multi-day expedition races its amazing how so much more can be achieved as a strong team compared to strong individuals. If the race covers several days, then each member will have their highs and lows and good teamwork and race strategies can dramatically reduce the impact on the team when one or two team members are suffering. "1+1" does not simply equal "2."
When, where and what equipment the racer will use for sleep is another factor that can mean the difference between success and failure in the expedition adventure races. Average sleep time can be just two to three hours a day for elite teams. Troubles are sure to occur, and not the kind that can be avoided by prior training either. It is important that you deal with problems as they occur. Getting angry at other racers is useless. Ryan adds, "You have to think at all times how to support one another to progress onwards and stay positive. Races can be difficult when high speed, challenging weather or lack of sleep but there are many moments you can enjoy also during a race. I love to explore new places on Earth and the satisfaction and sense of accomplishment after successfully completing an epic challenge is everlasting. It is also my hope that wilderness events and races will bring outdoor tourism or at least add more value for locals to encourage them to preserve what's left of their beautiful natural locations."
The experience Ryan has gained from adventure racing is fed back to children through the company that he runs. APA holds regular lessons in kayaking, rock climbing and other outdoor activities, and many youth programs end with a fun and challenging adventure race. "There are so many life lessons to learn from adventure racing, like how to cooperate well with people, maximizing your potential in a team environment, sharing leadership, and discovering ways to extend each other's strengths or limit a weakness."

Teammates from all over Asia and beyond

Teammates are essential for tackling an adventure race. The North Face Adventure Team, captained by Ryan, was formed in 2006.
"Our core team members are from or based in countries throughout the Asia Pacific region, such as the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia, Hong Kong, and even Australia. When we started the Asian adventure racing and Ultra-trail running scene was so much behind those of Europe and America, than today. I really wanted to help raise its level by helping local Asians with potential get the sponsor and other support they needed while creating more global opportunities for them and our team to travel and race. One of the most rewarding parts has been seeing how the team can help provide members not just with race opportunities but life opportunities.
More recently the team has also had guest athletes join from Brazil and South Africa. Ryan reveals, "It's interesting now we have had athletes race on the team who come from 5 different continents…I suppose the team now is evolving to more of a global team."

Once more, unto the World Championship stage

20 years on from the first "Action Asia Challenge" held in '98, Ryan has helped achieved a certain level of recognition for adventure sport in Asia. Adventure racing has rapidly grown in visibility and standards, with increasing numbers of events in neighboring SE Asia countries such as Thailand and Malaysia. Now in China you have 4-5 international events each year with the highest prize money in the sport globally. Ryan explains, "It can certainly be said that in the past decade the Asia region has seen the sport develop the most in the adventure racing world. But now Ultra running and obstacle racing has become so big globally so it will be interesting to see how this ultimately effects adventure racing. Hopefully, it will grow in numbers by being the next step up in adventure for some of those racers. "
"Due to my age, I do not know how many years longer I can race near the front line. But at 45 and holding the yellow jersey and getting on the podium for a day in Wu Long Outdoor Quest last year has kept me motivated and wondering what's possible. Perhaps just a few more of the bigger stage races and one more World Championship expedition race. But the key is to keep moving anyway. My good friend always says, "Use it or Loose it" and its so true. He's 86 and still creating new age brackets in triathlons and is the oldest finisher of Hawaii IRONMAN World Championships…so think good advice!


Ryan S. Blair

From the West Coast of America, he first moved to Hong Kong in 1992. He organized Hong Kong's first adventure race and in 1998 and Asia's first international series of races in 2000. In 2002, founded the company, Asia Pacific Adventure. He serves as the company director and also to APA Group, and manages an athlete team that competes in world-class races, and of course has taken many titles as a racer himself. He is the captain of the North Face Adventure Team.

Ryan Blair