The dark art of adventure racing was something I came across as I began my first job for Salomon. About the same time wetsuits and inline skates disappeared from the line, so too did their adventure racing focus and so it bypassed me; a niche sport that was perhaps beyond me due my slight lack of map skills.
So when some life changes last year led me to the Lakes, I finally found a place where it was harder to find people that didn’t want to do sport, rather than the reverse. My first introduction came last April, the Haglofs Open 5 series, teaming up with Anthony. From here, steadily maps were demystified, tow ropes discovered, multiple bike rides, paddle sessions and fell runs undertaken and then the question of racing…
Raidaran was the perfect option, both Anthony and Alex, experienced adventure racers, were keen to try some foreign events; shorter races with keen new recruits looking for the knowledgable hand to guide the way through what is a major operation of preparation, as well as racing. Raidaran was new to the calendar, set in a beautiful part of Spain called Val D’ Aran. Our only slight problem was even as a rough Spanish speaker, the Catalunian language meant we weren’t always too sure what we were in fact signing up to…
Debbie came into the team with a few weeks to go, Anthony had raced with her many years ago and she was superbly tough, having won this year’s Spine race. When she agreed it seemed perfect, having a 2:2 mix was much less daunting and as Debbie hadn’t been at the coalface of an adventure race for ten years, it took the pressure off for my first outing.
Race prep was a whole weekend of packing and checking. With the ideal kit coming from our Mountain Hardwear wardrobes I wasn’t worried about the lack of gear, and with a shopping trip for ‘cat feet’, or climbing shoes as the translation revealed, I was rigged up with as much Petzl as I could ever need.
Alex was our master engineer and hand cut our new bike boxes from correx, perfect for fitting all of our kit and managing the loads to fly over. With duffles and boxes packed, we drove to Bristol to make the flight to Toulouse. Perfect luck would have it Anthony’s brother had a Land Rover parked at the airport – he’s a pilot with a property nearby, so leaves his vehicle there to travel back and forth. Having posted us the key, we got into our adventure bus and made the drive to meet Debbie on route from Switzerland and over to Vielha, the starting location for the race.
The hotel was the perfect distance from the Prologue start – also right next to a great pizza place too where we filled our boots pre race. In the time I’d taken off before to taper for this race my body started to break down – I’d been chewing down Lemsips and throat sweets days before and started to get slightly concerned as I wasn’t feeling any better. Wednesday night before the race and my tonsils took a turn for the worse; lovely and infected, just what I needed before my biggest race to date. What’s worse, as a team event all I could think about was the others and their commitment to get there. I couldn’t let them down by not being well enough to get to the start line. Comforted by the fact that it wasn’t eyeballs out, but more about a journey, I just hoped that a good few glasses of wine and a mammoth pizza would fix me up and have me in condition to get on the line.
Thankfully the next day proved positive and I was good to go for the Prologue start. Splitting us into pairs within our teams, I was thankful for two strong navigators in Anthony and Alex. Teamed with Alex, we set off on a fairly brutal uphill start to get the first run check point – my early race hippo feeling utterly terrible as I heaved my body up the hill. Alex and I got the CPs and made for the village, crashing and smashing down the most direct route through brambles, nettles and all manner of jaggy, flesh tearing flora.
Back at the start line we switched and Debbie and Ant set off. Once they got back we went for the bike stage, making good progress, overtaking some bewildered teams on the technical bike tracks. Once over, it was back for more pizza eating, bag and map prep and if we were lucky, squeezing in some sleep before our two and a half day adventure.
The skate start was not what we would have chosen. Alex had bravely taken on some practice the few weeks prior to the start, all going well till the ‘last run’, which ended in a twisted knee and a longer than planned taper! With each of us having our weak sections, Ant took on the tow position and me at the rear, push and pulling in what was a true form of team work! Debbie joined in to get us to the first transition and the start of the trekking section 10 km from Vielha.
As the first of our transitions it was a little unrehearsed, I encountered my first issue as I pulled out my Scott shoes to find the toes had strangley delaminated in the toe box, with a really uncomfortable feeling in the front. Uh oh. I knew I couldn’t wear them for the whole journey, so quickly decided the trusty Montrails were the only option. They are a lightweight trail racer, so not ideal and I kicked myself for not double checking my shoes. Off we went towards the mountains, but I forgot I was still wearing my elbow pads, so I made a fast dash back to the bags to drop them off.
Once on the trail, Alex did his magic and got on the nav, burying his head in it to get to know the surrounding area and get us on the right tracks. The valley was stunning but soon clouded over and the rain kicked in. Debbie and I agreed it was very Scotland-esk… Low mist, rain and lots of green. The trek went well, despite the cold really kicking in, once at the CP summit we piled in to the hut and changed our wet clothes – I wasn’t expecting it to be so cold or damp and judging by the shivering wrecks that came in soon after, neither were many other teams. However, being from the UK, two Yorkshire-men and two Scots, we toughed it out nicely and made it over the hill, through the snow (I was a bit like Bambi on ice with my racers and not much tred) and down the valley. The temperature soon rose and we stripped off, making good progress down to the next transition. We’d been calling out every half hour to get food down us, already by this point the novelty of stuffing my face full of food was wearing thin; this becomes a necessity and the love/ hate relationship with our fuel began.
Next stage we were on the mountain bikes, Debbie this time not so sure as she’d not been on a bike in years. Having committed and bought herself a new carbon 29er full suss, she got stuck in and we worked together to get up the first brutal climb to hit some lovely fun, flowy grass track overlooking the valley and the town below. The decent into the valley was a tight hairpin, Ant’s brakes were playing up and a quick stop near to the CP saw steam rise with a quick water bottle spray. Uh oh. Concious of the raft cut offs, Ant managed the situation, ending up with no front brake as we had to take at least another eight tight, steep switch backs. Debbie was hanging on, with some survival coaching from Ant at the back cries of ‘Ooh La La!’ and ‘Mama!’ kept up the team entertainment! Just cracking on with it, no complaints, Debbie got through the first bike brilliantly. We had a steep climb into the final stop, a slight kicker but better than some teams who’d opted to bash down a river bank and clamber boulders to get to the transition. Once there, we had to wait for a few hours to get the 7pm raft as they were grouping the teams. Kindly, the organisers had also given us a goodie bag, lots of drinks and even some posh Lindt chocolate, bananas and Brazil nuts! I was impressed. The staff were all incredibly friendly, caring and helpful.
We took the time to dry clothes from the wet trek, I took comfort in the hand dryer and am probably solely responsible for increasing their monthly electrical bill ten fold, but it was too tempting to stand under the dryer and soak up the warmth. I also knew if I didn’t get the compulsory kit dry by then, I could end up one very shivery racer later on if I needed it.
Stuffed with food, we lay down for 30 minutes to take what time we could to recharge. After sorting Ant’s brakes we planned to be ready to go as soon as the alarm rang. Once it beeped, we were off, pulling up wetsuits and making the way to the river entry to get on the rafts. Luckily we got to the first boat, aware the cut off to get down the river and out to the canyon section, which was tight.
The raft was hilarious! The team with us had a tough captain, instructing the guide to make us all work hard. I was concentrating more on not falling in thanks to laughter and grade 3 rapids! The water was super powerful, more than I’ve ever experienced before as it soaked us and nearly threw Alex over the side! Poor Ant took it in the face a few times, swapping over with Alex mid way to make sure he was completely soaked! After an hour we got to the town we’d ridden through and carried the boat out the water. I slipped on a rock trying to put my paddle in the boat and ‘crack!’ I smashed my poor leg on a rock. Ouch. I got out the water quickly, hoping for the pain to go and that I wasn’t going to have just ruined our race. Thankfully I think adrenaline gets you through most things and so we pushed on with wetsuits mid way round our bodies and set off on a run up to the CPs and then on to the canyon section. This was a tough up and down, we took a route through steep forest and slippy rock and so had to pass our bags to get Debbie and I back in shape to keep to Alex’s pace. The guys were amazing; carrying the kit and towing when needed. We had a true sprint finish at the end to make the canyon by two minutes. Phew. Another team we later found out were on the second raft and made it to the canyon just after us, missing narrowly the time slot.
This was the section I was feeling a little bewildered by. Not being a climber or used to rocks and water, I was going into the complete unknown. We started off on a quick trot through the canyon but I was on edge trying not to slip and fall, conscious of the leg battering I just took in the river. Having another team on my tail upped the pressure and the only way to take it off was to jump the canyon rather than rapel. Alex went first and signed it was okay… Debbie next with a scream and me to follow with an even bigger scream! The water wasn’t too cold and thankfully being the shortest member of our team, no damage done. It was proper fear turned in to absolute fun! We found the CP and made our way to the end, abseiling the final canyon to come out at the end really pleased we’d pushed on and made it. I think we were also quite impressed we’d ran over 10km in wetsuits! Certainly the first for us all.
We hit the road and went on to get to the next CPs, making a pit stop to change over and have some recovery after a pretty hard few hours of racing. On next to the ropes, but as we made our way to the section, none of us checked the route book and we missed the cut off by minutes. I knew Alex was annoyed and disappointed as we’d tactically missed out on a bigger point score, but we all agreed the canyon was worth it for the experience. A few hung heads and a shuffle on, we soon got over it and made our way back to the same transition before the raft section, in need of a quick power nap and some food.
Once back, we got our heads down and tried for a 80 minute sleep. It was freezing though and noisy, with other teams coming in and out. Curled up on the cold stone floor, we tried to keep the eyes closed and grab what rest we could. Soon enough the beep went again and we were on to the mountain bikes to take on the next big bike section. I was loving the riding, my strongest discipline in the race, so I was happy to start the next stage that way. Shivering, I rode as fast as I could for a while, before we hit a 10 km uphill, a long and winding climb to the top. Alex took on the tow with Debbie as Ant and I worked together to get going. Ant was suffering with the bike brakes sticking and lack of sleep before the race, so we kept together, surprisingly I felt good and after fears of not being able to stay awake, was amazed at how the body can keep pushing as it goes through cycles of energy. Just a little rest and a whole lot of food and you can keep on and on. The CP was at a beautiful waterfall, so we stopped to get photos and chat a little to Deidre, the winning team. Back on the bikes we kept climbing and I took Ant’s pack, knowing full well I was going to suffer in trek due to footwear and experience of long mountain stages. Seeing other teams around us also really highlighted how great Ant and Alex were with us, one team left their girl at the back, walking on the track and pushing her bike. The guys completely unaware of towing or even taking her pack.
We reached the top and as the sun rose the views were incredible. We kept saying how beautiful it was and how lucky we were to have such a stunning place to take on the journey. The next CP proved to be tricker, we spent a long time trying to find it. Alex certain we were in the right spot. His nav was spot on, and after other teams searching too, we decided to move on and make note back at transition. A long winding decent took us back down the valley, a sense of perspective now as we crossed the path of the very start of the first trek. We weaved down the valley and some fun riding through a singletrack trail brought us out at the sports centre transition.
The sun was getting hot at this point and after a change around for the biggest stage of the race, I was feeling a bit spaced out, likely from not sleeping much at the first stop, pushing hard to help on the bike and then not enough food. I was battling food at this point, feeling sick at the though of yet another bar or sweet.
We contemplated a food stop and a rest, but push on to start the trek. There’s a battle of emotions and decisions as you want to keep going, as too much time stopped makes you really feel the aches, pains and tiredness, yet the biggest part of managing the race is knowing when to stop and take stock. I was to learn this lesson on the next stage.
Heading off out the transition, we had a false start thanks to some rather less accurate maps, so we took off on a steep switch back climb, making short cuts on tough, almost vertical slopes. My feet hurt instantly and I knew my shoe dilemma was going to catch me up. Near to the top CP, having climbed and crawled 1000m I stopped to tape them up, feeling hot spots forming as my feet swelled.
We got to the top CP and saw a GR trail, rocky but defined and it weaved on around the mountain to get to the next CP. This was a long section, after what already felt like a battering, I knew we were looking at at least another 8-10 hours on the mountain. Thankfully the poles I’d borrowed from my friend Helen (also the kind donator of her inline skates!) saved me at this point, relieving my sore feet from the pressure. Alex took my pack and we made good progress on this flatter section, only stopping to get water and a failed power nap as the mosquitoes swarmed around us and munched happily on my Scottish skin.
The views were gorgeous. It’s hard to have to keep moving, not focus on the discomfort and still appreciate the surroundings. Having the camera was fantastic, knowing our tired brains would be thankful of the memories. We got to the next CP at a refuge on the side of a reservoir that was selling food and this gave us a stopping point. I was suffering at this point, feeling bad for going slowly although as Ant said “it’s not how fast you go, it’s how slow you don’t”, I just didn’t want to be too far on the side of slow…
Shoes off and a tuna sandwich and Coke later, we decided to miss all the scoring CPs and go the easier, but not necessarily the shorter way, back to the valley and the next transition. I hobbled on and took relief in the views and Debbie’s support. We all agreed at the end that having two women on the team was a huge help for this, with Alex on the map and Ant tail end Charlie. Debbie was strong on the downhills and she encouraged me down the technical trail, giving me target points to get to was a huge help. The altitude got to her a little and we all felt bleary as we hit 2500m. We stopped for a 20 minute power nap and time off our feet, the guys agreeing this was one unexpectedly tough AR! The technical, rocky trekking was taking the toll and the altitude added to the feeling off dizziness and sleep deprivation. Team Bim Bim caught us up and we chatted briefly to them, a lovely French team who were to take 3rd overall. What I enjoyed was that it was turning out to be more of a strategic race than we thought, even the winners didn’t clear it, so there was not so much the pressure of teams behind us.
The last section was a long 10 km road descent. In fact, the longest 10km of my life! I thought we would have covered at least half as I hobbled down, doing a run/ walk/ shuffle to make up the distance. Alas, I shouted to Alex as to how far and I thought I’d mis-heard as he shouted back “8km”. Ahh! Debbie took on the mother role and got me down the next few km, giving me posts to get to on a 2 minutes on, 1 minute off true adventure racer shuffle! Tears came as the pain was just brutal and I knew I had to and would just keep pushing. We finally got to the small town about 6km for the final stop. Alex suggested we stop, that time off my feet would be the best thing – socks off and elevate them. That was a great call. I rested and Debbie sacrificed her lip balm to relieve my nasty feet. Unknowingly, Ant and his ‘never say never’ mentality saw me put my shoes on with full waterproofs and out from behind a bin appeared… a wheel barrow! If I could have ran and kissed him I would. Instead I shuffled in to the wheel barrow as instructed, all of us rolling around in laugher at the comedy of it all. Off we went through the village, just as the local band were kicking off the evening tunes in the plaza and people were out enjoying a Saturday night beer or two. We got some drunken cheers and as we left along the long, dark tarmac road with a couple of guys chasing us thinking we were another team.
The relief to my poor feet was much needed. Together Alex and Ant took turns on to push me till we got to a track junction, I was preparing to walk again to get to the final transition. Sadly, like the other team there before us, there was no path to find so back in ‘barrow I went for a further 4km push, all the way to the petrol station at the bottom. After a quick Nathan Fa’avae inspired moment from Anthony, Debs had his insoles inside her socks as I borrowed her size 7.5 shoes – giving much need space for my swollen monstrous feet! We walked as fast as we could to the swim transition, knowing we missed the cut off ( we hadn’t really planned to make it) I think we were all quite happy not to get back into our wetsuits and make the swim. We did get to make good use of the children’s inflatables that Debbie bought though – a kind guy offered us his van to sleep in as we pulled up, so we all piled in, changed and made some food before elevating the feet and trying to catch our second sleep for an hour, sleeping on our inflatable toys!
Once the alarm went off and I actually had slept, I felt so much better. The dread of putting on my skates soon hit me though as I bit my lip squeezing on the skates. One of the organising crew actually gave me a hug and a blanket as I stood waiting for the team to finish and set off.
We decide to miss the CP, it would have been possible but instead of skating it was a dirty track and the thought of a group shuffle was too much. We aimed to finished the course, not get too greedy and be caught short. I was determined we would finish. Once I got skating with Alex ( who was running as his knee would have given in on the skates, one section was quite enough!) I felt good, popped a few caffeine pills and a pain killer and I was off! Back on skates we made good progress, keeping up with Al and then flying off into the darkness downhill. I was really having fun now! In fact, I can see Ant and I getting quite into this…
A strong skate saw us get to the transition and be 4th team through. I think a lot of teams got caught on the mountain, it was a long, tough stage and I was pleased we’d made the cut. We changed and got prepared for the ride, I was so happy to be back on my bike! Feeling strong, we rode well up to the next check point, the sun out and me back on a high. The roller coaster of emotions are incredible, I was also building my confidence just knowing how strong I felt on day 3 given we’d had such little sleep and been pushing hard. Your body really can do wonderful things, it’s all in the mind.
The next few CPs were straight forward to get to, although another no show stumped us a little. We took a photo and moved on. The plan was to ride to the next transition then just carry on to the finish, the course was truly trying to pack in a lot! Too much to complete it, so we knew we’d be best to just keep focused on the finish line.
The riding was amazing, big ascents that I loved, and a bumpy and challenging ride over the ski fields, which was fun to test to the bike skills at slow speeds. We got to the CP and headed for the final one on a long, rocky and swooping technical decent that left us all smiling! Debbie had cracked it too, the confidence so much higher now and even she flew down having fun, but still screaming ‘Ooh La La’ with terror.
We made the final few singletrack trails to the sports centre, having ridden it before we also could take it a bit faster and really enjoy it. As we pulled in to the centre for the last time, a huge smile was across all of our faces and we took some time to rest and feed. As the winning team hadn’t yet come in, we were held there until they arrived so they could be the first to cross the line understandably. The tracker computer was there so we checked out our position, reckoning we’d take 6th. I was super pleased with that – my first ever AR race, plus the only team of 2:2. We didn’t know for sure though.
Once Diedre came in we chatted with them for a while before they headed off to claim their victory. Soon after we followed with a few teams to the end, enjoying the final few km of mountain biking, a river crossing and a steep rocky climb I cleared. I was still feeling strong and I think the adrenaline and relief were giving me that extra kick in my legs.
Once into Vielha, we rode the familiar road into the village centre, up to the archway and were met by cheers and photographers. The organising team and volunteers were lovely, big hugs and some tears from our team as we realised we’d done and it and completed the journey. The satisfaction and super high was instantly addictive.
After a sleep we headed to a nearby hotel put on by Raidaran for what was a lovely local meal. We sat with Bim Bim who we’d seen on the trek, their girl also suffering hugely with bad feet. We shared stories and laughed about the adventure. After a visit to the sports centre, bags and boxes were packed and we found ourselves a local restaurant to feed up. Ah the joy of not munching down on energy bars! We gorged on meat and chips, ah the salty goodness! Ant then checked the results, hoping we had made 6th, the look on his face told us all we’d done better than that… “We got 4th guys!” What a result! Super pleased with that we all toasted and dug in for more chips.
So what did I make of my first AR? Incredible. The body and the mind are truly powerful and it makes me realise that fresh air and freedom, great team mates and a beautiful journey can keep you going. Don’t be so afraid of the lack of sleep, the focus and the excitement of what’s to come next will keep you going. It’s only once you stop and switch back to the normal world that you hit the wall. I’ve enjoyed the sleeping and most of all, the recovery eating! Never has chocolate, ice cream and chips felt so justified.
Thanks to Petzl, Trek & Eat and Mountain Hardwear for their support.