25 Jul

A 24 hour Adventure Race that stirred up the hornets' nest

Everyone who is familiar with Adventure Racing can jump to the race.

What is adventure racing (AR)?
Adventure racing is a combination of several disciplines, in this region mostly trekking, mountain biking, kayaking and orienteering (by compass and topographical map, no GPS allowed!).
You can race solo or in a 2-,3- or 4- person team, female, male or coed. The Elite category is the four person coed team.
The race has a time limit which must not be exceeded otherwise one faces time penalty. In the case of my race, the 24 hours Odyssey One Day, everyone has 24 hours to complete the course.
Before every race, the team or the soloist receives a topographical map and coordinates. Usually the team designates a navigator who plots the coordinates and decides about the race strategy – meaning how to get from one checkpoint to the next.
Most times, it is pre-determined by the race promoter which mode of transportation is used; however, there were times we could choose.
Once, the team has a race strategy and estimates food and water demands, the race can begin. (Each race is different; sometimes the map plotting is part of the race, sometimes not) The navigator leads the team to the checkpoints. In a 24 hours race, the checkpoints could be as far as 4 hours or greater apart. (The exciting part of adventure racing is that every race is different)
The team must stay together at all times. There is mandatory gear that must be carried such as a medical kit, knife, whistle, etc and most likely it will be checked at some point throughout the race. An example of the list is here.
With 3 liters of water and food for 24 hours, the back pack can be very heavy.

My race food: 3 burritos, nuts and berries, energy shots, power bars, tuna sandwich…guessing about 3,500 calories

In a 24 hours race, the night adds another challenge to the race. Having enough battery time, and solid navigation skills (especially when bushwalking in the dark) become imperative to successfully finish a race.

The race
Before I even start with anything, I need to point out that I never could have survived this race without such incredible teammates. Mark (Pro Adventure Racer and Navigator), Charlie (outstanding in all AR disciplines) and Shane (Team Captain and comedic in such a way that it was impossible to concentrate on my pain) were part of the Odyssey Adventure Racing team – one of the best teams in the US.
Shane called me two weeks before the race and asked if I want to race. Since I knew the guys, I thought this would be a fun team to race with! I told him that I haven’t run more than 3 miles or been in a kayak or canoe for the past 3 years. Shane said, no problem, we will make this work.
In those two weeks, I ran as far as three miles but never made it into a kayak for training. Well, this definitely would be a challenging race. On top of it, I haven’t stayed up for an entire night for a long time so my body would complain at some point during the night.
Besides my lack of training in two of the three disciplines, I had no adventure racing gear anymore. My teammates provided me with literally everything – a sweet 29er mountain bike from Charlie while he would ride on his 30 pound beater bike, all mandatory gear, clothes and things that I did not even think about like protective skin crème for wet feet.
Shane and I drove to the race venue near Roanoke, VA on Friday afternoon. The race would start Saturday morning at 8am. We got there around 5pm and I thought we would have time to relax.
I forgot how much time the preparation would take. We were busy until mid-night.
Most of the evening we spent on plotting points and estimating the amount of time between transition areas so we could calculate how much food and water we have to take with us. We discussed race strategy, set up the canoes and labeled our packs, attended pre-race meeting (we learned that bears and snakes were on the course), made sure we put all our mandatory gear in our backpacks and got our food packs ready. So we were busy. Sleep the day before a 24 hours race was not priority.
On race day, we got up at 6am, ate breakfast and took care of the last details. At 8am the race started.
The first leg was a 10mi orienteering section on foot. Since we had two excellent navigators I knew we would take the shortest distance (opposed to the safest navigational-wise which would be on trails) which meant a lot of bushwhacking through the woods – brushes, thorns, whatever is in the way when you follow a certain compass direction.
My team loves running, so we ran – uphill, downhill, it didn’t matter. When I got dropped in the first mile, they took my backpack and we kept running. However, my cycling fitness didn’t exactly transfer to running very well so my legs didn’t like the downhill part at all. I started cramping ONE mile into a 24 hours race.  
I thought, sweet, because 24 hours weren’t difficult by itself! No, my legs had to revolt right from the start to make it a little harder.
Well, after a mile of trying to ignore the cramping, I couldn’t walk anymore. I apologized a thousand times to my teammates for my cramping but it seemed normal to them. They knew what to do – gave me electrolytes and did some magical stretching and I was better again. We blasted through the foot section in four hours with spot-on navigation. I don’t have to mention how my legs felt. My knees and joints, not used to running that much, were in awful pain. I don’t know if my feet hurt or not. Everything else was hurting so much more.
Well, then it came time to do a 20 mi bike section. It was 12 pm and
we changed into cycling gear. Coming off a very painful foot section, being on a bike was like heaven. It didn’t realize until then how much I love riding. The speed you are going compared to running, the cooling wind and the legs just moving finally in the right direction – in circles! I felt like me again.
This time I could return the favor helping out a teammate when he didn’t feel well and I carried part of his stuff. I really enjoyed the dynamic of our team. Everyone helped out where they could. We rode to the paddle section and what timing, it started raining right for our transition. By then, it was 2 pm.
We dissembled our bikes to place them into the two canoes, put on lifejackets and off we were. The paddle section was a total of 18 miles with an orienteering section mid-paddle. Our two navigators were leading us perfectly to the checkpoints, which were located in the middle of nowhere (aka somewhere in the forest on no trail or any man-made feature).
Sometimes the brushes were so thick that it was hard to see my teammates.

One of the checkpoints was located on a super steep ridge but we were rewarded with wild blueberries (I waited to eat them until one of the guys put them in his mouth to see if they cause some serious consequences 😉 ) and an amazing view over other mountains we probably would climb up at some point during the race. 

Going downhill steep hills made my legs cramp. Here coming down from one of the orienteering check points. 
After an hour or so in the woods, we made our way back down a ridge when my teammate ahead of me accidentally stepped into a hornet hive. The hornets started attacking him and me. I froze and screamed like a girl. My teammate yelled “Run” and I think I set a new PR how fast I could run up a mountain. A few hornets chased me though and I ran and screamed some more. Finally, I got rid of them and I trekked back to my teammates. We counted at least 12 stings. After some antihistamine and alcohol pads we kept going as usual.

Back in the canoes we paddled for another few hours through few small rapids until we finally arrived at the take-out spot at 9pm to get out of the water.

Paddling down James River. You can see part of the bikes disassembled behind Mark
Shane and I in the boat for hours at that point.

We changed back into our wet bike gear, assembled our bikes and rode to the last orienteering section. We were 4 hours ahead of estimated schedule and made awesome time. If we kept going at that pace, we predicted to finish at 3:30am. When we arrived at the transition area, it was well into the night already. Maybe 11pm. We changed into our wet trekking gear, put our head lights on and took food with us for four hours – our conservative estimate for that section.
All the checkpoints were in the woods on some random ridge. We had to get 11 checkpoints which were all optional (meaning they were not required to finish officially). Since the distance of each of them was short, four hours seemed completely reasonable.
How off we were!!!
We started trekking through thicket. Our legs got more and more torn from the thorns and sharp brushes.
I started to get tired. It was way past my usual bedtime.
The time we calculated for finding the first checkpoint had passed.
We were lost.
We had to trek back to a path to get some sort of orientation again and spent an hour or so trying to find ourselves on the map. (Later we learned that the map didn’t exactly match the reality.) We climbed up seemingly endless ridges through thickets.
I got increasingly tired. My legs didn’t want to move anymore. My motivation was not exactly 100% and I lagged behind my team big time.
All I wanted was to sit down and let them find the spot. It was more than obvious that I needed a break so we stopped for 15 minutes.
We shut the lights off and holy cow, it was dark. I did not even the see the moon. We were surrounded only by noises that were foreign to me. Crickets? Other insects? Bears? I didn’t know. I took my previous thought process back and I did not want my team to search for the checkpoint without me. I won’t stay here by myself!
Finally, after 1.5 hours we found the first checkpoint and from then on, we found the next checkpoints very quickly. However, we lost a lot of time and it was 2am by then. I dragged my feet slowly behind them and the pace we were going was not helping to cat
ch up with the lost time.
In fact, our navigators had to re-assess if we could get all points. Although I started feeling a little better, my teammates started to fade too. 
The view from the ridge earlier in the race.

 Climbing up ridges for 10+minutes and wading through thick brushes was very exhausting. Plus, we ran out of water because we were past our 4 hours we estimated for this orienteering section. Every time we stopped for navigational purposes, I dozed off.

At 4am, we found five of of the eleven optional checkpoints. Disappointing but we had to get back so we would not be late for the finish (which would result in penalty). We trekked back to our bikes and climbed up a mile-long ridge.
We finished at 6:30am and realized that we won! (We didn’t know until the end, because we don’t know how many checkpoints other team got).
Exhausted but very happy we all ate breakfast! That night I slept for 15 hours.

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