The Adidas Terrex Expedition Adventure Race

 

It seems ages since the Monday Bank Holiday weekend, when 32 mixed teams of 4 congregated in the Planet Fear shop in Keswick to register for the first Expedition Adventure Race organised by Open Adventure and the first hosted in the UK for 3 years. The race had been the top story in adventure racing forums all year and teams had been preparing and training for months.

 

Getting your head around nearly 4 days straight of racing is impossible, so my team concentrated on breaking the race down into its component parts, starting with the first stage – a 25 km run across Morecome sands. Andy Wilson, our team captain, describes the start:

“The bus pulled up by the windy beach and we piled out, still sleepy and puff-eyed. There were two lonely flags out from the shore and a huge expanse of flat sand beyond that. A few camera men were dotted around but we were pretty much alone. The race start was exciting and pretty fast, and all the teams quickly stretched out. In convoy we splashed through the salt water puddles and occasionally waded thigh-deep to get across the rivers. There was a lot of banter amongst the teams, but when we eventually got into the first transition, everything changed. We were racing properly at last”.

 

At each transition, we had access to our kit bags and had to quickly dive in to pull out whatever we would need for the next section. Communication was vital and leading up to transition our navigator, Steve, would need to explain to the team what was coming up. “Right, we have a long mountain bike stage. About 14 hours. It’ll get dark so pack lights and warm kit. You need food for 14 hours.” We had packed into small ‘3 hour’ bags so for the second stage, the long mountain bike leg, we grabbed 4 or 5 bags and stuffed them into rucksacks and pockets.

 

Before we could leave for that second stage, however, we had to sit out the penalty we had accrued during the prologue. All teams would do this – wait triple the length of time they finished the prologue behind the leaders. Our prologue had not gone well and we had 33 minutes to wait. That meant food and kit fettling.

 

 

Terrex start

 

 

 

The second stage was the long bike leg, and it took the racers into their first night. The first two thirds of the bike was fairly easy going, on undulating roads and fairly decent tracks. A stretch over the moorland by Eskdale tested our off-road skills as the thin sheep ruts disappeared regularly into deep bogs, but other than that the going was easy. We made good progress, catching team after team and by the time we reached the mid-stage orienteering leg we had moved up several places and were firmly in the top ten.

 

Our speed and enthusiasm slowed dramatically after that, however, as we reached the bottom of Hard Knot Pass and took a track which veered steeply up the mountain side. Soon we were carrying or dragging our bikes up and over the boulders. The hike-a-bike continued into the darkness and I could sense spirits dropping as fast as the air temperature.

 

Eventually, we reached the top of a windy rock-strewn pass and could point our bikes downhill and make the most of gravity, and our off road skills, to pick up some speed carving a line down the treacherous descent. With lights switched to full beam and bums pushed firmly over the rear wheel, the four of us hopped from one side of the trail to the other, arms and back taught and sore, but enjoying every hair-raising second. We paused at the bottom to fill our bottles from a mountain stream and let our brakes cool, and then continued downwards towards the midnight ghyll scramble. It was dark, but I knew the smiles had come back.

 

The safety technician spoke quickly. “Abseil to the bottom, unclip, swim down to the next rock. Sit on the rock. Cross your arms and slide forward. The water’s deep”. With glow sticks strapped to our buoyancy aids we scrambled downwards. The water was freezing cold, but our skin was burning warm once we had got back down to where we had left our bikes. No time to sit around and chat. We had to get our bike kit back on and finish the ride.

 

Does this sound like fun yet? We had not even had our first sunrise but had already experienced such extreme highs and lows. Barney had sustained an injury in the prologue and his leg had been cramping all day; the skin of his thigh and calf showing contorted muscles twitching underneath. There were times on that first day that I was convinced he would not make the end of the first 24 hours. Although nightfall eased his cramp, the hike-a-bike was fiercely tough on morale, and we were not pulling together as well as we should a team. Would we splinter and implode, or pull together and get through it?

 

After the bike leg and the start of the new day, we managed to grab some sleep, some ‘proper’ food from our transition bags and feel the buzz that comes with the success of some very tricky navigation in the tussock and bracken-covered hills. We were together again, and moving forwards with purpose. In our first kayak leg, which was under the full moon and illuminated clouds above Coniston, we had realised that Barney was struggling in the kayak. His mood had plummeted to new lows. We therefore made a decision on the big Windermere kayak leg to cut the furthest checkpoint and head straight for shore and the next short bike. This was a decision well made and despite the rain that had set in, we smiled and shared jokes as we ate hot bacon rolls waiting for the ferry.

 

Terrex favourite kit

 

The make or break point of the race was the long trek, which took us into our second night on the course. The trek started and finished in Langdale. We set off in bright sunshine, the earlier rain having cleared, but knowing the mountains we packed plenty of warm gear, spare hats, gloves and full waterproofs. With trekking poles strapped to each wrist we set off up the crooked steps towards the scramble up Pavey Ark. The views were fantastic. The fells were green and soft, like there was Vaseline on the lens, and the tarns around us were peaceful, calm and reflected the steely grey light of the fading day.

 

Nightfall caught up with us as we were picking our way precariously around Great Gable beneath Napes Needle on our way to a far flung check point. At a similar time, a fine mist of rain filled the air. We then had a steep climb all the way up the side of Scafell and by the time we reached the top, we were cold, battered, exhausted and a little freaked out. Taking a bearing from the summit, we should have hit the next checkpoint within a few hundred metres, but there was zero visibility in the cloud and rain and we were slipping constantly on sharp, slick granite rocks. We could not find the tarn. Andy reflected that “in hindsight we should have all got in the group shelter and eaten some food. We were wearing waterproof mittens because it was so wet and cold and we hadn’t been fuelling properly. We should have waited an hour, taken stock, warmed up and then gone out to find it. Missing that checkpoint changed our race”.

 

Instead of hunting around in the rain for the checkpoint we decided to skip it and head straight for the top of the big abseil. However, we realised we were on the top of a series of crags and cliffs and the abseil was somewhere below us. Without any visibility, we decided that the combination of sleep deprivation, slippery rock and tired bodies could end very badly and we made the choice to get off the mountains and get back down to the Langdale transition. That took hours, but eventually we were down and safe.

 

Walking down the road into transition, in the new daylight and with the cloud-shrouded mountains behind us, we looked around at each other to assess the damage our night on the hill had caused. I had been very cold but had warmed up; Steve looked glum; Andy looked relieved. Barney, however, looked pale with red-ringed eyes. He was shuffling twenty metres behind us and would not join in with any team banter or discussions. I offered him some food and he just shook his head. Later he admitted he did not want to go on; could not go on. His feet were swollen and sore and he had not had appropriate clothes for the mountains, had been very cold and wasted a lot of energy.

 

This was the crux of our race. Do we let him give up and carry on as a three, or pull together and get him through? That moment the whole focus of our race changed and it became about getting to the finish intact. Back at transition we bundled Barney into dry clothes, got him in a tent and gave him some pain killers. We told him we’d wake him up in two hours with a bacon roll from the nearby pub and then we’d get back on our bikes - end of discussion.

 

Terrex food

 

That bike leg was no push over, either, although the rain storms had passed and it was sunny again and hot. After a fast start, we pushed our bikes up over High Street and although Barney’s mood was dropping again, he had a steely determination on his face and I knew we would make it to the end. Andy admitted that “once we had got Barney moving again, I knew we would finish. That must have been so tough for him but he got up and got on with it. Nothing would be as hard again”. The descent off High Street was flowing and fun and Steve and I enjoyed playing around in the singletrack, manualling over the wheel catchers and switching from rut to rut, vying for the best line.

 

The next paddle was the prettiest in the race; down the length of Ullswater. We could not believe we were heading towards our final night. We still had a long trek stage in the Hellvelyn fells and a long bike leg to go before the final orienteering and Canadian canoeing, but it was the final night and felt like the home straight.

The Hellvelyn trek restored our confidence in mountain night navigation. Steve hit check point after checkpoint with incredible precision and we were all moving fast. Our lack of sleep was causing me to struggle and I nearly fell over several times during the last few miles of the trek, but the stars were out and we were spotting shooting stars to keep ourselves awake. Some teams sing songs to keep themselves awake, others pop caffeine tablets. We found that talking nonsense to each other worked well, and we shared stories of childhood adventures and plans for the future to keep each other occupied and our minds alive. At least at night the trees and hills could not come alive as they were during the day (known as sleepmonsters).

 

A few glugged cups of tea and a quick sleep under our group shelter and we were fit to go for the final long bike; a 6 hour stage which would take us up to Whinlatter Forest and into the morning of the final day. Barney admitted afterwards that “I knew once we had come off the Helvelyn trek that I would make it. I could see an end to the race and it changed my whole outlook. My feet were in tatters but the adrenaline was keeping me going. I really wanted to finish by then.”

 

 

Terrex_run

 

 

The climb up to Whinlatter seemed to go on forever as we winched upwards. The darkness around us faded into different shades of grey, then green and soon we could make out individual trees. The new levels of colour and shade focused our sleepy minds and the pace picked up a little as we reached the trail centre car park and headed for the descent. I was disappointed to be missing out the singletrack off the top, but the climb time would be so similar to the penalty time we would get for skipping it that we turned our noses downhill, zipped up against the cold and screamed off down the tarmac road. Several teams were making their way painfully up that road, and I was glad we were seeing the back of it. They could barely lift their heads to smile at us.

 

Spirits were high as we coasted around the penultimate stage in the sunshine; a relatively simple orienteering foot stage around the shores of Derwent Water. We were greeted at the end of the orienteering by Steve’s wife and small son, who gave us a mighty cheer as we loaded up into the Canadian canoes for the final 2 hour slog to Keswick. The sun beat down on us and the water was beautiful as we glided around the lake collecting checkpoints. Finally, with four minutes to go until noon (when the course closed) we dibbed our final checkpoint. Steve, who had been quiet for hours (or was it days?) thanks to the suffocating pain of his saddle sores and the concentration required to navigate, piped up with “we really should get in by noon. It would be the proper way to finish”. I glanced at Barney, who was pale-skinned and had an agonised look on his face. He had been shuffling due to his swollen, raw feet. I honestly didn’t think a sprint finish was in him.

 

I was wrong. He handed over his rucksack and gritted his teeth, and together - more together than we had been for days - we ran full tilt through the streets of Keswick and up the high street to the finish. The crowds cheered and we sprayed champagne and laughed on the podium. It was an incredible moment. We had overcome our difficult times. We had finished with a sprint and most importantly we had finished as a complete team.

 

If you are a keen mountain biker and fancy a different sort of challenge which involves team work, new skills, endurance and mental stamina, then give adventure racing a go. A good place to start is the Open 5 series  www.openadventure.com, which are 5 hour run-bike events.

 

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