Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Dorset Hills Dynamic Adventure Race Report

Some days just couldn't possibly be better. Everything just clicks into place, you feel great, and achieve something quite unexpected. This Sunday was one of those days.

The event was the second in the Dynamic Adventure Race Challenge series, held in the achingly picturesque village of Sydling St Nicholas (hereafter SSN) deep in the Dorset Hills. The nearest landmark is the giant man at Cerne Abbas in the next valley, memorable to me from childhood in New Zealand as an often-featured shot in Arthur C. Clark's Mysterious World. Some say he represents a fertility symbol. Others, Oliver Cromwell. Me, I reckon he's a lost multisport-fetish competitor who was caught out at night without enough kit (actually, with no kit at all). He is brandishing a floorpump, and recently the hidden outline of a bedraggled, unreadable OS map was discovered draped over one arm. Despite these hardships he's obviously enjoying himself.

Once again my organisation was left too late, requiring fretting and list-making late into Saturday night. As parking was at a premium I decided to base myself in the hall instead of the car boot, so well-organised boxes were the order of the day. One for the run, one for the MTB ride, and one for 'other stuff'. As the only item requiring preparation on the day is two pasta meals in thermoses (Thermii?), there's no reason all this gear couldn't be organised and packed days before. This is my quest. Maybe for the 2010 series I'll have it sorted.

The morning could not have been better for a drive into the West Country. Turning off the road to hell A303 is always a welcome change, and the road leading down to SSN was a stunner. The view over the valley set high expectations for a day's racing. On arrival Simon was out directing traffic to the wee sidelanes, there being no parking at the hall. The first thing you notice is the utter silence - the nearest A-road is miles away over a ridge. Into the hall and the same professional setup greeted competitors - maps, numbers, clip and route cards all laid out. Disappointingly for the organisers only a fraction of previous entrants chose to attend the event - 15 teams, down from 43 at the New Forest race in January. Speculation as to why ranged from going the extra distance west to a major 10k road running race nearby. That the weather couldn't have been more perfect compared to the New Forest deluge only further confounded the logic of low numbers. Regardless we all appreciate the DAR crew's enthusiasm and dedication.

I camped out at a table, soon joined by Toby, Rachel, John and Jo - two of the day's three couples living every racer's dream of having a partner as engaged in adventure racing as they are. Such an arrangement can only make the justification of fruity AR kit purchases easier. Possibly even achieving a bulk discount.


Analysis of the run stage gave two options: clockwise or counter-clockwise. The nature of the terrain and control point (CP) location gave few options for an opt-out, should you find yourself nearing the 2-hr time limit with a long way still to go. Once over into the next valley there's no way back except over the hill again. This race was always going to keep everyone exceedingly honest. Most people opted for the counter-clockwise option, which started off with an 80m climb out of the valley on a farm track so steep it was paved with scoured concrete to afford vehicles traction.

The red line on the map is the GPS track, as recorded by the Nokia Sports Tracker logging software on my Nokia N95 8GB. NST is a very stable app that can run for 8hrs on a full battery, plus being able to take photos using the N95's 5MP camera cuts down on things to carry. Even handier is that once the photos are uploaded onto Flickr, the site GPSTagr will take the GPX file and use it to place your piccys on the map!

Enough geekery, back to the action...

Several CP's lead over the ridge and down into the next valley, then a long slow 135m climb to the highpoint of the run looking over Cerne Abbas, now running with the leader and feeling good. At CP24 my first error came in, as I incorrectly identified a set of buildings to the right, then ignored the control description card in favour of believing the OS map (and following the bunch, which was still very close after an hour). The route of footpaths across fields change easily, fenclines and gates rather less so. Don't always believe the green lines. Only 200m of backtracking and I had it, but I had lost the bunch. Preferring to run alone anyway, this was no bad thing. A fast run down into Cerne Abbas, through the village and past the Giant Man, crossing the valley toward what looked like a rather steep hill.

(No, Sydling St Nicholas is not an underwater colony. Note to self: calibrate altimeter *before* starting out).

The climb out of the Cerne valley was a bent-double knee-pushing wheeze of an affair, with an increasingly nervous eye on the clock ticking down to the 2 hour limit. Thankfully after cresting the summit the ridge was flat, meaning legs could stretch out on the way to CP29-30. From CP30 the path lead straight down the hill to the finish. Nothing motivates like being out of time, looking down a steep hill and having scoffed 2 squeezies, and the subsequent headlong career held ample opportunity for serious injury to self and other footpath users. Thankfully I wasn't the first runner-freak down the hill, and the God-fearing dogwalkers of Sydling St Nicholas gracefully made way with expressions of amusement at what constitutes a Sunday's relaxation to some.

Returning just a few minutes over time having cleared the course was reason enough for a celebratory scoff of rice pasta. What was unexpected was the state of my middle toes - on both feet they were dark red with bleeding under the nails. Possibly an unavoidable side-effect of prolonged fast downhill running, possibly due to some podiatric genetic anomaly, but disconcerting all the same. The Control Description cards were handed out, and the plotting - literally and figuratively - began. The spread of CP locations and values over 3 valleys posed a real challenge trying to pick the optimal route, factoring in time, points attained and the need not to be found whimpering in a ditch having run out of food/water/legs.

The organisation of everything velo into the 'Bike' box made the transition quicker, allowing more time for plotting, replotting and 'oh sod it just go' plotting.


As the start of the bike section loomed time was short. I overheard someone say "Don't panic, it's 3 hours so 3 minutes at the start isn't a big deal, just check everything's right", and I agree. Getting an hour into a ride to find that you've left crucial kit behind in a rush is not good karma.

From the hall I opted to head over the Cerne Abbas on the road - and what a climb. Granny gear all the way, heart rate hovering at 95%, moving just fast enough to keep balanced. But the descent the other side into Abbas was a blast.

From there up Piddle Lane to CP9, then along a very busy B-road full of England's obligatory future organ donors spring idiots on motorbikes. Passing at 100MPH doesn't exactly endear motorcyclists to their human-powered brethren. From CP11 the bridleway was slow, brambly going back to the main road. After CP17 (70 points!) I decided to detour right and come at CP18 via the Byway, not the Bridleway - good move, as the surface was much better with a similar distance. After CP18, Mintern Magna echoed to hoots of delight as a fast grassy downhill opened up. Through CP13, then two quick detours for CP14 and CP8, then on through CP15.

At Wardon Hill the bridleway passed a politically-incorrect comestibles storage and clay pigeon shooting ground. It's disconcerting to see bits of clay pigeon littering a public path, and it was even more upsetting to feel lead shot fall on one while cycling past. I can't believe that this was legal, and feel a stern letter to someone coming on.

From CP16 the way south was fast and smooth, meaning I returned to the hall with over 45 minutes to spare. A very leisurely spin 3km south to get CP5 where Toby and Rachel tried to convince me to get CP4. Thinking finishing with legs in one peice the better part of valour I declined, and ambled back for food and a stretch.

Along the way I noted the high-velocity bullet holes in the village sign. A bit disconcerting, seeing as the houses of the village lay along the likely trajectory. Maybe someone was taking the Village Of The Year competition a bit too seriously. Still, so long as you drive carefully, eh?

Night Run

Arriving back with plenty of time to spare meant a nice, leisurely stretch, scoff and study of the night nav section. The rapidly changing daylight meant that this would be lit for most of the way, so headtourches were surplus to requirements (but were carried regardless). The 8 CP's were all clustered within 1km of the hall in a more or less circular pattern, so the question again was which direction and which one to start with. I opted for the nastiest climb up to CP34 first, then clockwise finishing with CP35. Coming in 13 minutes early having cleared the course meant 35 bonus points. Thankfully my knee held up for the final event and only minor twinges of cramp were apparent, easily stretched out.


After going for 6 hours, covering 62km and collecting some 1200 points, the difference between second and third in my class came down to just 4 points -that's being 3 minutes early (having clearing the field) or 3 minutes late. I'd been joking with John all through the day, my lead on him last time being a paltry 16 points. One minor mistake at a CP. One wrong turning, quickly corrected. This is what makes Adventure Racing fun for me - the continuous mental effort required to stay on top that masks the thoughts of fatigue, discomfort and bloatedness when you can't fit more food in but your legs are crying for energy. If you removed the navigational distraction it would be a 6 hour drag, albeit through some pretty scenery. Maybe this is why some people don't like SatNav - programming in a relative's address in Aberdeen and the display telling you there's 13 hours of slog ahead is much less enjoyable than 'consulting' with your spouse over which is the best way to avoid Birmingham at 5pm.

Special mention was given at the prizegiving for the father/son team of Phil and Lewis Holland, not a bad effort for an 11-year old. Then it was into a large bowl of Bolognaise sauce and some unseemly quantities of carrot cake. Hopefully the turnout will be larger for the next event, which is on the Isle of Purbeck (not actually an Isle, BTW).

Many, many thanks to the DAR team for yet another fabulous day's racing. If you weren't there you truly missed out.

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