An Introduction to Adventure Racing

I have been meaning to start a blog for a long time. I love to talk, and going back through my external hard drive over the last few weeks, I’ve discovered that I wrote race reports for far more races than I can remember, in addition to some general (and sometimes quite random) bits and bobs on training, travelling, and all sorts inbetween. So, I thought that I might as well put some of these reports up. Some of them are from races a few years ago, but to me they all represent something special, mostly my first attempt at various challenges, or trying something new. This post in particular is all about my first attempt at adventure racing, something that I’m hoping to do some more of! As a bit of fun, I’d taken a disposable camera with me, just so we could get some photos for posterity. It was such a fun day (and such lovely weather) that I’m glad I lugged the extra weight around :)

Whilst rowing at University, I was lucky enough to be part of the same crew for the best part of 3 years. As anyone who has competed in a sport whilst at University will know, this is pretty rare. Normally the pressure of exams and revision, or too much partying takes its toll, not to mention the fact that people start and finish their degrees at different times, often meaning changes to a team each year. We managed to train and race without too many arguments over this period, with almost all of our training sessions done with each other. Since finishing our various degrees (One Geography undergraduate then Coastal Engineering Masters, one medical student, and two Marine Biology and Oceanography Undergraduate Masters), and heading off in our separate directions, we’ve tried to keep in touch, with varying levels of success. Jobs on opposite sides of the country (and sometimes the world), student-esque finances, and hectically busy social and sports lives have all done their best to hinder our meet-ups along the way. Two of us were rowers from the age of 14/15, whilst one was a gymnast, and the other a 400/800m runner. All very competitive people….. So what better way to get us all together as a team again, by entering our first adventure race?! I don’t remember whose idea it was, but we duly entered the Questars Adventure Series Cotswold Race in Pershore, in 2011. Initially as a pair, and then later as a novice team of 4 (once we convinced the others to do it as well!), we all organised ourselves with mountain bikes (two of us only owned road bikes), and one of us did some very last minute training to make sure she was fit enough! A combination of mountain biking, running and kayaking in the north Cotswold Hills over a five-hour period was the name of the game, visiting as many checkpoints as possible in the allotted time.

Fortunately it was not too far from my hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon, making for a comfy night in beds, with homecooked-by-Mummy carbo loading the night before! An early-ish start got us there in plenty of time for pre-race briefing, and getting all of our stuff reading in transition.

Alex and Lucy ready to race!

Alex and Lucy ready to race!

Jo and I equally excited pre-race

Jo and I equally excited pre-race

Ready to go, and armed with multiple packets of jellybabies, we were given a map of checkpoint locations (and points values) at the start of the race, to enable us to work out our route. Up until that moment, the exact location and values of the checkpoints had been kept secret.

Carefully (but quickly!) planning our bike and run routes to maximise checkpoints

Carefully (but quickly!) planning our bike and run routes to maximise checkpoints

We were given a kayaking slot in the middle of this 5 hour period, nicely splitting up the time on the bike and the time running. The years of rowing training paid off in one form or another, and, never being ones to shy away from a challenge, we chose the toughest section of the bike from the word go – straight up into the Cotswold hills.

A very dark and grainy photo of a very steep foresty hill. Alex got the furthest up it still cycling, but even she had to get off and walk. We all managed to chick two guys on the lower slope though!

A very dark and grainy photo of a very steep foresty hill. Alex got the furthest up it still cycling, but even she had to get off and walk. We all managed to chick two guys on the lower slope though!

Happy we made it to the top of the hill in one piece, we let the guys we’d pass catch up, so we could ask them to take our picture

We were rewarded for this by getting the highest value checkpoint at the top of the hills, and it quickly became obvious that choosing the tough sections paid dividends in terms of check-point values. The weather behaved perfectly, and the scenery up on top of the hills was fantastic. Lots of different terrain for cycling over – some rocky tracks, some gently sloping single-track through the woods, and rolling grassy Cotswold Hills.

One tyre blow-out later (obviously mine, mid descent), and we were heading back down the hills at high speed, to make sure we made it to the kayaks in time to at least get the mandatory first kayak checkpoint. Instinctively we divided into our stern pair – bow pair setup (just like rowing!), with the lightweights in one kayak, and the heavyweights (me included) in the other kayak. It turns out that although we were the most experienced pair in the rowing boat, us heavies weren’t so good at kayaking. So we gave the lightweights the checkpoint dibber, and tried valiantly not to crash into passing kayaks (or the bank), as we tried to keep up with them (whilst stopping for the occasional photo!).

Alex and I failing spectacularly to kayak in a straight line, or with any kind of speed and control

Alex and I failing spectacularly to kayak in a straight line, or with any kind of speed and control

Due to a slight over-run on the bike section, we didn’t have as much time as we’d planned for the kayak within our allotted time slot, so we only collected the first kayak checkpoint before having to turn around and head back to transition for the run.

Heading out of the Kayak zone, into the run

Heading out of the Kayak zone, into the run

Sadly…. Somewhere along this run from the kayak to transition, we lost our map, with our carefully drawn route on it. Not the end of the world, as we did have a spare (unmarked) map, but annoying nonetheless, and off on the run we went.

Jo and Alex leading the way  into the Cotswold countryside

Jo and Alex leading the way into the Cotswold countryside

Starting out with a nice gently plod along the riverbank, we knew that the run would be the toughest in terms of operating speed. Lucy was born to run, and Alex was fresh from her first Ironman earlier in the summer, whilst Jo had been busy with her F2 year as a junior doctor and hadn’t been able to squeeze in much training. I was still recovering from a leg injury, so was perfectly able and fit to plod, just not at any great speed. We went for a 3-pronged approach….. I just kept running no matter what, at my slow steady pace, whilst Luce ran on ahead at any important navigational junctions, or to collect checkpoints that were slightly off the track, whilst Alex and Jo did the stop-start, stop-start of dibbing at the checkpoints, and helping Luce check the map where necessary.

Alex and Lucy check the map, whilst Jo dibs the dibber, and I just plod on past!

Alex and Lucy check the map, whilst Jo dibs the dibber, and I just plod on past!

The route we chose took us through orchards, along hedgerows dripping with blackberries, and past damson and plum trees laden with ripe, juicy fruit – needless to say I might have deviated from my “keep running no matter what” action plan.

I *may* have been stopping to eat hedgerow fruit instead of running. It smelt like cider running through the orchards!

I *may* have been stopping to eat hedgerow fruit instead of running. It smelt like cider running through the orchards!

It also took us past a field with an Alpacca in it (although it might have been a Llama, but for the sake of a good story we decided it was an alpaca). The main reason this amused us is that we have always called Alex “Alpac”. I’ve no idea where it came from, but it stuck.

Just chilling out in the field

Just chilling out in the field

Our original teamname when Alex and I registered as a pair was the Beastie Alpaccas, going from our nicknames. Naturally this meant we had to stop by the Alpacca field and try and entice one of them over so we could take a photo. The several minutes we spent happily doing this would actually have been quite precious to us nearer the end of the race!

Team Beastie Alpaccas with our newest Alpacca (maybe a Llama) friend

Team Beastie Alpaccas with our newest Alpacca (maybe a Llama) friend

Our running approach actually worked pretty well, until we realised we were rapidly approaching the 5-hour cut-off time, risking time penalties if we got back late. A bit of an increase in pace was needed, and some enthusiastic encouragement for Jo who was starting to flag a bit. By my watch, we made it back with one minute spare, and then all promptly lay down in the grass to recover (followed very rapidly by an enormous portion of chilli-con-carne that was on offer!).

Chowing down on post-race chilli con carne. Om nom nom!!

Chowing down on post-race chilli con carne. Om nom nom!!

Forcing ourselves to work hard was not only rewarding in the usual post-pain-endorphin-rush satisfying way, but was made even more rewarding when we discovered that by taking the hard way up the hill on the bike, and by pushing ourselves that little bit further to collect that last run checkpoint, we’d actually won the novice ladies’ category. Not bad for a day of running around in the countryside! To make things even better, our prize for winning the event was a £50 voucher to spend online at the Likey’s store.

One thing that I’d learnt just from a day of adventure racing, was that I needed a new backpack. I had a suitably sized one, that I was happy running to the gym and back with, but nothing that really lived up to what I needed for a whole day. After a lot of careful consideration, I went for the Raidlight Endurance Backpack (14L) with my Likey’s voucher, as I thought it would probably be big enough to get everything I needed into as a daypack, but also small enough that I could run and bike with it comfortably. I love new kit. Due to the fact that I’m such a penny-counter (and good sports kit is generally so expensive), it doesn’t happen very often, unless I can totally justify it. I’m still using the same rucksack three years on!

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