Tuesday, January 27, 2009

New Forest Dynamic Challenge race report - 4th!

My first Adventure Race, and I got 4th in my category! w00t! And 8th overall including the teams, 12th person home out of 80. Pretty chuffed with this as a result, after all the faffing about, nervous preparation, list making, fretting, etc. And particularly as I've been recovering from a knee ligament strain for the last 3 months. But more on that shortly...

So what's this all about?

Here's the lowdown on the Dynamic Adventure Race Challenge. Basically it's an intro to Adventure Racing (AR hereafter) that anyone with a modicum of fitness and navigational awareness can attempt. 'Real' AR's such as the Southern Traverse often span days, teams traveling hundreds of kilometers by foot, bike, kayak, attempting challenges set by the organisers along the way. Sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion are essential factors. Strategy and cunning are watchwords. Organisation and teamwork under intense pressure is critical.

Ans so to the New Forest...

After quite a few days of preparation the big plastic bins were loaded into the car, each according to discipline: one for the first run, one for the bike, and one for the last run at night. Overpacking on clothes is a boon, as coming back after each event to a dry change of kit was lovely. The thought of climbing back into wet thermals or - shudder - socks after getting nice and dry doesn't bear thinking about. The extremely helpful Russ Mockford at Hargroves Cycles, Winchester was critical to my success. I popped in on Friday to pick up some GO bars and some NUUN isotonic tablets, and ended up getting a 30 minute sports nutrition consultancy for free. Russ advised taking along 2 prepared meals of rice or pasta to scoff during the 1hr transition between events, as well as nibbling a GO bar and squeezie every hour. And a sort of turbocharged Milo for bedtime, plus - oh joy - having a Snickers bar stashed away for a rainy day...and boy did it rain....

Departing home at 7am on a Sunday is always lovely. Very few others about, some rather loud Neil Young, and the anticipation of a day's adventure ahead.

The race HQ was in the Thorney Hill community centre, on the southern edge of the New Forest. The infectiously-enthusiastic Simon from Dynamic Adventure Racing was on hand in a raincoat to welcome arrivals. For someone who does this in his spare time (Simon's a university business lecturer by trade) the level of professionalism from him and his team was outstanding. I could not fault the organisation or atmosphere, and I've organised a few large events myself in the past. Inside to the registration desk, and all my stuff was ready to go - a pre-marked map showing the control points for all 3 courses, plus race number, plus punch card and descriptions and points for each control. Oh, and loads of safety pins, rubber bands and free sponsor's squeezies for those who forgot to pack enough. A few of these tucked away were to be a godsend some 5 hours later.

The kitchen (run by Flossie) was already open and doing a good trade. Tables were laid out, and teams were trucking in their gear bins and staking a claim. I opted to base myself out of the boot of the car, partly because I couldn't be bothered shifting everything, and partly because I like to mutter and curse when under pressure and didn't want to put others off. A must for the next event will be a gazebo to go over the back of the car, to provide more shelter than Volvo can. Plus a decent square of waterproof carpet. There's nothing worse than trying to keep your feet dry, in the rain, in a muddy field, with cramp setting in, in the boot of an estate trying to contort yourself (in a seemly fashion) out of a pair of wellies/thermals and into a change of cycling shorts/socks/shoes.

After changing into running gear and throwing on a lovely, lovely new down jacket to ward off the chill (usual disclaimer on toys) it was back to the hall to do some planning. The accepted wisdom with AR is that speed is not everything. Strategy counts for much, and the hare/tortoise analogy was never more apt (assuming tortoises wear Lycra and like pain). A study of the Run control points (CP's) showed a pretty obvious circular route, and being human it's pretty hard to avoid the desire to do them clockwise. Simon had been advising everyone to avoid an area of swamp, so that got marked onto the map using a waterproof pen - the single handiest thing I took along. Also marked onto the map were the points that each CP was worth - the farther away / harder to find being worth more than the closer, easier ones. This is where the strategy in AR comes to the fore - which ones do you go for, in which order? Your strategy needs to be flexible as well, to allow for changing conditions / the realities of terrain / how you feel / mistakes you make. Having a few judicious 'outs' is essential.

Here on the map you'll see the red circles - they are the Run course CP's. The start/finish is the red triangle at the bottom. Beside each CP in black are the points for each one, added from the description card handed out 30 minutes before the start.

My plan was 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 30 then an assessment of 29, 28, 27. 27 had a question mark over it, as being the last one, and quite a detour, it would be the most likely to be dropped in favour of getting back on time and avoiding penalty points being deducted. Note the indicative distances marked in km, for sections where there are few visual clues to indicate proximity to a CP.

So: plan made, sneakers on. On the back goes the CamelBak MULE, stuffed with the following: first aid kit, survival blanket, mobile phone in waterproof case, compass, whistle, drink bladder with 700ml of NUUN, plus a GO bar and a squeezie. Suunto T6c alarms set to go off at 1hr (eat), 1:30 (30 minutes left) and 1:50 (Be Home Now). 10 minutes to go, and Simon is calling for people to start lining up. I'm 107, meaning I'll start at 7 minutes past the hour along with others ending in '7'. This means people are spread out at the start, giving an opportunity to do your own thing instead of following the crowd.


From the outset, it was grim. It had rained just a tad the night previously, so within about 100m everything was squelching up nicely. The first 3 CP's were a doddle, it being rather hard to avoid the long train of runners all going the same way. From 21 to 22 got interesting. Having subconsciously decided "How wet can it be?" I was soon re-enacting Frodo and Sam's trek through the Dead Marshes, albeit with fewer Nazgul and more swearing. Not for the first time would the mantra "No Shortcuts, No Shortcuts" be chanted between snatched lungfuls. 24 was a poser, confusing more than a few. The veritable plethora of tracks made by wildlife made discerning just which track junction the CP was near a challenge. This lead to a few fellow competitors asking if I had found the CP. Etiquette demands a fudged answer along the lines of 'tricky bugger isn't it' or something similarly nondescript. Neither an informer nor a questioner be.... From 28 I made a call to go straight across the valley to 27, thinking (almost correctly) that if a pine tree was growing on the valley floor then it couldn't be too boggy. Finding 27 was frustrating though, as I didn't aim off enough to pick up the track leading into the area. This made confirming I was on the right track tricky, and some 10 minutes were wasted circling gorse bushes before finding the right one. Then a quick run back to the finish, a few minutes late but very chuffed at having 'cleared the course', meaning got all the CP's. Here's a Google Earth display of the GPX track file as logged by Nokia Sports Tracker on my N95 8GB mobile. Always nice to confirm afterwards how/where you cocked up.

The next hour went by in a blur of changed clothes, pasta, drink, marking maps, more pasta, dry socks (Joy), then somehow it was time to go again. Next AR I shall be much better organised. I think you can only prepare so much for your first time.

On yer Bike

Exactly 5 minutes before the start of the MTB stage the heavens didn't so much open as disgorge a torrent of freezing rain. It was like cycling into a carwash. Fortunately the fine lads at Ground Effect invented the Storm Trooper for occasions just like this. Seal Skinz Merino waterproof socks and some wetsuit-material overboots kept the feet dry and warm, however no glove known to (this) man would have worked in these conditions, short of a full-on Goretex mitten.

The plan for the MTB was to head clockwise again, straight up to the valuable CP's, then wiggle back down as time/legs allowed. 16, 15 & 14 were easily had, 13 was a detour south on the dotted bike route then north again. A fair number chose the logical (but naughty) sort-cut, the faster going on the gravel roads meant no difference all up. CP17 was handily located under a bridge, requiring a leg in the stream to get it. Sock/overboot combo performed perfectly, dry feet all round. After 18 there was a glorious downhill in top gear and a quick bagging of 12 & 11.

The Miry rotating mapboard performed flawlessly. A truly beautiful execution of minimalist form and function.

By 10 the legs were starting to flag, and the bars, squeezies and Snickers were going in at a heroic pace. After 2 unforgivable cock-ups trying to get to 9 (turning left too soon - twice), I realised fatigue was catching up mentally as well as physically. No way was I going to clear the course, so plan B was a straight line to home via 8 , 2 and 1. This also allowed a wee bit of scouting for the night run to follow. Turns out that the area used to be a WW2 airfield, now a caravan park in more clement weathers. Getting back 15 minutes ahead of time gave me an extra 15 minutes to relax.

Yeah right.

Yet more pasta, and praise the lord for dry running clothes. At this stage had someone offered me a pair of warm dry running shoes in exchange for our dog it would have been one too many leads hanging in the hall...

Hello darkness my old friend...

The Night Nav Run section begins with a sprint on the MTB from the start down to the run start (the green triangle). Thankfully the rain had stopped by now, having done its worst. The transition from bike to run plays havoc with sore, tired legs, and many were nigh-on hobbling away from their bikes into the darkness. A counter-clockwise plan was to hand, and I knew if I could sustain 10kph I could clear the course and get back in time. After 38 the legs felt OK, but the uphill to 35 was a walk. 35 itself was a real poser, with about 20 people hunting around for the reflective post marking the CP. Here technology was on my side in the form of a Petzl Ultra, the megawatt-beam showing up the CP's reflection from about 100m away. A slow, 'confused' sidle in that direction didn't draw the attention of the others, and I was away into the dark. Unfortunately, I'd forgotten to turn off the red flashing light left on from the bike ride, which was as good a signal that "it's over here chaps" as you could ask for. Thus by 36 I had been rejoined by the crowd. Around this time the furtively-stashed squeezies came out, 2 in quick succession. Hello fast carbohydrates, it's been a while. 34, 33 and 32 were easy, then the hard call whether to dive down for 35 then back up to 31. The trail down to 35 was the boggiest yet, and a real fight to get back up in such a state.

All over bar the shouting / wimpering

Just after leaving 31, thinking, "it's all over, that's it" my knee said exactly that. No way was I running out of there, so a brisk walk back to the bike it was. The next pleasant surprise was instant, debilitating cramp in both adductors (inside thighs) within making 2 pedal strokes down the road. The subsequent attempts to dismount the bicycle whilst stretching whilst avoiding colliding with other road users would probably have caused some mirth among fellow competitors, had they not been having such fun of their own. Luckily the cramp settled down, allowing a gingerly remount and easy / high RPM ride back to the finish, a few minutes late (again) but having cleared the course (again).

One really helpful discovery was the 'lap distance' function on the Suunto T6c watch. At least I had a rough idea of how far I'd gone since the previous CP. Not that it prevented me from overshooting several very easy CP's, thus proving that technology is no match for nav skills. Not only is it something else to go wrong, if you trust it implicitly you will suffer. He who lives by the gadget, dies by the gadget. I guess there will always be purists who will swear off stuff like pedometers, devices like the T6c and others (and GPS systems - I'm thinking real-time display ones as opposed to loggers like Nokia Sports Tracker - are already explicitly banned).

The AR component sports are getting ever-more technical, the slow steady creep of innovation in hydration, nutrition, clothing, footwear, lighting systems and load carrying systems means there will always be someone who has an edge because of new kit. However the maxim "All the gear, no idea" holds strong, and there's still no substitute for time in the field and training.

Bringing a big pink plastic bucket along was a master stroke. Everything was peeled off and binned, and warm dry stuff gotten into.
Everything resembling food was eaten, and the bike put back on the car. There was no way I could have jumped in and driven straight away - getting cramp while doing 70 on the M3 in the dark is not my idea of being a responsible road user. So into the hall for a slap-up bowl of Bolognaise, white bread, a huge slice of cake and a hot cup of tea. Simon did the prizegiving, thanks all round to the helpers (big clap) and that's it. The first of hopefully many AR's. With a tad more preparation and training they should get more enjoyable, even.

Home for a hot bath and a mug of Nocte, which worked a treat - cheers again Russ. Thanks for the advice on preparation - you do need an eggbeater to mix the stuff up. No spoon in the world could do that job. The next morning soreness was bad, but nowhere near as bad as I'd feared. The knee wouldn't even allow a gentle jog to catch the train, so it's no exercise for a week on the Physio's orders - following an eye-watering session today involving elbows and needles to get to the offending muscle tissue.

Already looking forward to 15th March in the Dorset Hills.

*edit* the 3 competition images were taken by Nathan at Lipsquid. I purchased 3 downloadable versions for a tenner. Not bad value considering he had to stand around in a swamp for 5 hours in the rain. I mean, some weird people pay for that sort of privilege...Oh, I used to dream of standing roun' in a swamp...would have been a palace to us...

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