So if you read earlier in the year, in addition to taking on the new sport of triathlon this year, I’ve also decided to give Adventure Racing a go. I did my first ever race the Shenandoah Aquablaze as a sort of introduction to checkpoint style map navigation, and then dove into the full Adventure Race experience with the 4-hour Greenhorn event a month later.
Much like with triathlon I’m trying to pace myself properly while also not being too cautious. I wasn’t sore or even really tired after the Greenhorn event so I knew I could do a bigger event, but I wasn’t quite ready for something that was full or multi day, mostly because I feel like going in that far I’d really want to be on a team.
Luckily for me during a random catchup phone conversation with my younger brother Justin, he asked about it and now he wanted to try one too. He’s a very outdoorsy guy, camping, hunting etc., and in decent shape. He was a wrestling State runner-up in high school and still plays league flag-football and basketball now, so it wasn’t like he’d be going from couch to race so I knew he could handle some level of this.
We still had time to wait though because the next race with a 3-12 hour competition window in either of our areas (he still lives in Louisiana) wasn’t til late September: the 12th annual VentureQuest out on the Mason Neck Peninsula in and around Pohick Bay Regional Park just south of D.C. next to the Potomac River.
VentureQuest actually had 2 options, a sport 4-hour course and a “elite” 8-hour course. While I’m doing triathlons, trail races and am fairly used to endurance style sporting, I wasn’t sure about Justin so I gave him the option to which he said “If we’re doing this we’re going all in.” So 8-hour elite race it was for us. We knew being beginners and not knowing this area at all we were in for bath of fire, and so dubbed our team name: The Lost Bros
So a few things were different from my earlier 2 races, namely I was prepared for what to expect, what supplies to have, and also knowing to spend a proper amount of time planning with the map on race morning.
One fun difference was earlier this year I’d broken my old GPS/activity tracker watch and since gotten a new one. Its important to repeat that using GPS watches for navigation are against Adventure Race rules, but I wasn’t trying to use it for that, instead the reason this new watch added a fun element, is because it has a LiveTrack/broadcast capability, meaning when I use it to track an activity, if I have my phone on me (and a cell signal), it can send back a live tracking map to friends/family so they can watch our progress. Luckily this race is in a decently populated area near D.C./cell-service and I could just throw the phone in the backpack during the race so the kiddos got to track us back home as we got lost 🙂
So our plan was simple, Justin flew up from from New Orleans Friday night, Saturday we did a quick test bike ride on trails near my house and Sunday morning was race day, Monday morning he flew back home.
All said we both definitely had a blast, 100% enjoyed the race, something we’ll remember forever, I’m itching to get to my next AR or even just orienteering race/event, but definitely still many lessons learned via mishaps along our race.
What did we right, what did we do wrong? Knowing it was a longer race and that we’d be spending longer time away from transition areas/supplies/refueling, I bought larger liquid bladders to go in our CamelBak backpacks; which was a life saver cause even with those we still ran them dry toward the end of the race. Fun pro-tip, if you can get ice into your backpack bladders, do it, the bladder is out of the sun inside your backpack so even at hour 5 of the event we still had cold water to drink.
Check-in started at 6:30 the race starting at 9am, we got there around 6:50ish which gave us plenty time to go through the maps, map our plan of attack. The 4-hour-Sport and 8-hour-Elite courses both contained just 3 disciplines for trekking, mountain biking and rowing, but being in the Elite category meant our official CP cadence went:
Trek – Bike – Trek – Row
But that didn’t account for some lengthy transitioning due to course layout, (e.g. you had to go on foot about half a mile from transition to get to the boats/rowing and the 2nd trek was in the middle of bike transitioning) which resulted in an actual cadence more like:
Trek – Bike – Trek – Bike – Trek – Row – Trek
Why does this matter, from a minor level my tracking watch can do multi-sport tracking but limits out at 5 activities, but I pre-programmed the activity to be the 4 discipline cadence of the race, which means once we started I couldn’t re-do it to match… so some of my activity shows “rowing” when we were on foot, etc. Again minor in the grand scheme but something to know.
So anyway, we spent a good amount of time studying the maps, biking was the only discipline that required you to get CPs in a specific order, both treks and the paddle was up to you so we had a lot of fun thinking about strategy, the first trek had 17 checkpoints and there seemed to be 2 main strategies: start on CP 1 working to 17 or ascending order Start on 17 work down to 1. Pafter seeing post-race data there were some teams who went a little more clustered or “random.” We decided to mostly go “backwards” from the top with occasional changes based on terrain or proximity so our plan looked like: 17, 15, 16, 1, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 4, 5, 6, 3, 2
What I do know now from post race data is that after the our first 9 checkpoints we were doing solidly in 10th place out of 37 teams on the Elite course… then we just imploded navigationaly… by the time we got our 10th (CP9) checkpoint we dropped to 25th place, by the time we got our 11th (CP8) we were in 36 out of 37th… ouch…
What happened? This is where in the heat of the moment, out in the woods you see other teams, and we second-guessed our original path but didn’t commit either way; we started going in the same direction with another team but then decided that they must have been going the wrong way or just to a different CP than us, so we then tried to get back to our original route except we didn’t have a good reference point like a trail or something to do that with… and we were relying on a digital watch/GPS based compass, which is the next big lesson learned, just get a real compass…
Our first 9 checkpoints we all ran/found in 3-5 minute intervals. finding our 10th though 13th checkpoints (CP 9, 8, 7 & 4) took us 27 minutes, 27 minutes, 24 minutes and 13 minutes. CP 9 was genuinely hard to find but we made it even harder on ourselves by just not finding and confirming a solid reference point once we felt lost.
There was the barn type building that we came upon, but it didn’t match where we thought we were, so from there we just assumed where we were and we were wrong… once we finally found CP9, we ran into another lost team but they were going in a different order, so we shared info on how to get to each other’s next CP but we just could not find this one, looking in the wrong areas, being frustrated, it compounded.
After this it messes with your confidence level in yourselves and also your teammate. Which is a new thing I learned, being on a team means you get to bounce ideas and plans off each other but it also means you have to rely on someone as a navigator. We decided to split up our navigational duties. Justin did the trek, I did the bike, he would do the 2nd trek I’d do the rowing. After getting lost much in the middle of the first trek you feel helpless, is someone sending you the wrong way, etc. We stayed calm mostly because we’re brothers but we were definitely both getting frustrated.
We finally found a groove again and got the last 4 trekking CPs in 5-6 min. intervals but the damage had been done. In addition to losing time, you can see in our tracking that we probably wasted energy on a mile or more of searching for CPs, scrambling down hills and into creeks etc. So we were more tired than we should have been…
When we finally made it to the transition we saw no one, we were either close to first or last, when we saw the mostly empty bike racks it confirmed not everyone got as lost as we did… doh.
I also think this is where we really learned a lesson in acclimating to activities, training and preparation. First theres a big difference from doing more endurance style running, tris, cycling type activities vs. stop/go sports like flag football and basketball. After all the getting lost, we were walking more than running or even jogging.
But even moreso than just types athletic habits/background, lets be frank, Louisiana has no hills or mountains… I once ran the Crescent City Classic which starts next to the Superdome, runs down through the French Quarter parallels the Mississippi River a bit then goes back into the city and ends at City Park, 6 mile run… total elevation change tracked for that race… 7 feet!?
I get more than 7 feet of elevation change from my front step down my driveway to the street in Virginia.
The New Orleans Rock and Roll Marathon goes from downtown all the way to Lake Ponthcatrain… 26 miles, all of 14 feet elevation change (note for people wanting to run a PR). In JUST the first trekking portion of VentureQuest, we did 938 feet of elevation changing…
What I’m getting at is elevation change was taking a toll on Justin cause its something he just didn’t/couldn’t have prepared for and gotten acclimated to quickly. This was most apparent when we switched to mountain biking.
You transitioned to bike near the start/finish line, but the actual beginning of the mountain bike course itself was almost 3 miles away on gravel roads, grassy knolls next to streets etc. and involved another 50 feet of elevation. On top of that this is where we made probably our largest mistake. Thinking Justin could just wing it for mountain biking. Justin has not cycled much and even when he has none of it on trails with roots, rocks and sharp inclines etc. To make matters worse, he was using my backup hybrid bike which I’ve used for mountain biking before, but its just not a real mountain bike, and he was using it after doing just one quick 15 minute test ride the day before.
So for someone who hasn’t really done any of this before, it was probably a bit much that the mountain bike course was in fact on the Meadowood Mountain Bike Park. 150 ft + elevation difference highest to lowest point, tons of quick turns on tight single track trails, bridges, rocks, trees to jump over, and plenty of trees to avoid… I was liking it with a few “oh shit” moments sprinkled in, but I think Justin was just being tortured, and about halfway in he was ready to throw the towel in, his legs were dead from stressing all the bumps etc., and we were stopping every couple hundred feet for long breaks.
At the bottom most section of the trail I made a conscious decision to bail on 2 of the “extra” bike CPs rather than kill Justin because they required you to do some double backing through using one-way trails so we got 6 of 8 biking CPs. After many more short stints of biking and breaks, at this point it just became, “lets just get outta here…” We eventually got out of there and we were definitely the last team to arrive back at the trailhead of Meadowood… though later would find out its because that team that was behind us after the trek completely bailed on biking after just 3 CPs.
At this point we were 4 and a half hours in, and Justin was exhausted/done, but you had to ride 3 miles back if you were gonna quit, having fun is more important than anything, I didn’t wanna kill him so giving in was fine by me. But the 2nd trek was actually halfway back to start/finish, and when we got there we saw bikes from all the teams at that 2nd transition area, so we still weren’t too far behind… maybe…
So I asked Justin if we should at least get 1 of those trekking points to say we’d done it; but walking, I took over navigating this trek, and saw a way to get 1 or 2 close by and we could call it a day. Turns out this doubly worked super well for us because it got us slowed down and under tree cover and while I ran ahead and did some scrambling to get some checkpoints Justin could do some recovery, pretty soon he said he was ok enough to continue that pace and so we did.
We got all 8/8 of the 2nd-trekking section though we did both run out of water toward the end of it. Slowing down contributed there cause you’re still drinking water at the same pace but not moving as fast. But taking our time also allowed us to take in the beautiful area full of ponds, creeks, points/cliffs, and also working to find some interesting checkpoint locations, including one on the underside of a bridge.
We were a good hour behind the next best team by the time we finished it but we weren’t collapsing 🙂
We finally got back to main transition area where we could finally be done with the bikes, and were able to refill on water, but at this point there was only an hour left on the time-limit and we knew it required a decent trek to get to the boats, but we decided we HAD to get at least 1 rowing checkpoint within the time limit, and we managed to get 2, so we called it a day from there made our way back and what was nice was receiving a hearty round of applause from the teams at the finish line; there really is a true comrade in this sport and everyone understands that finishing in of itself is a major accomplishment.
So in all we did 26 miles between all the disciplines, got 36 of 45 possible checkpoints. good for 36th place overall of 37 teams on the elite course (beating that team that skipped out on most of the bike course). Only 19 teams got all 45 checkpoints which gives you an idea of how hard the course was; by the end of the race, I was definitely sore, Justin was ready to collapse, but we both agreed that it was some of the most fun we’d ever had.
Easily the biggest takeaway is that everyone should jump in and try Adventure Racing cause its super fun, but just maybe don’t try to wing it for a mountain biking section of an AR course if its your first time ever on a mountain bike… with elevation changes… 🙂