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
Not super important 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 your mountain biking) which resulted in an actual cadence more like:
Trek – Bike – Trek – Bike – Trek – Row – Trek
Not a big deal, but 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 pre-event announced 4 discipline cadence of the race, which means once we started I couldn’t re-do it to match… so some of my activity in the map shows “rowing” when we were on foot, or trekking even though we were on bikes, etc. Again minor in the grand scheme but something to know if you try to replicate.
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. After 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 getting post race data, is that after the our first 9 checkpoints (about an hour in) 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 CP we dropped to 25th place, by the time we got our 11th 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 as another team (which wasn’t our original plan) 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, ridge, stream 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 yourself 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 not just following our original plan, following a bearing, and then not being able to find and confirming a solid reference point once we felt lost.
There was a barn/workshed type building that we came upon, but it didn’t match where we thought we were, but it did have a rock road, and there were only two of those on the map so it had to be one of them and finally we reset… 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 at this point we were discombobulated, frustrated, and it compounded.
After this sort of thing 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 or be the navigator and take the anger and blame… We decided to split up our navigational duties for this race. Justin did the 1st trek, I did the bike, he would do the 2nd trek I’d do the rowing. After getting lost this much in the middle of the first trek you feel helpless, is someone sending you the wrong way, etc. We stayed calm-ish mostly because we’re brothers but I had some dagger eyes for my bro 🙂
Thankfully, after being idiots for 4 CPs, 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 adding on a mile or two 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 around, which could only mean we were dead last or close to it, 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 (and by that I mean Justin) really learned a lesson in acclimating to activities, training and preparation. There’s a big difference from doing more endurance style activities: running, triathalon, swimming, cycling type activities vs. stop/go sports like football, baseball and basketball. They all require athleticism but the difference is cardio. After all the getting lost, Justin was walking more than running/jogging and I couldn’t leave him behind.
But even moreso than just types athletic habits/background, lets be frank, Louisiana has no hills or mountains… For folks unfamiliar with New Orleans terrain, I once ran the Crescent City Classic 10K 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 N.O. City Park, 6 mile run… total elevation change tracked for that entire race… 7 feet!?
I get more than 7 feet of elevation change from my front step down my driveway to the street here in Virginia. The New Orleans Rock and Roll Marathon goes from downtown all the way to Lake Ponthcatrain… 26 miles, only 14 feet elevation change (remember that if you’re someone looking for a marathon PR). In JUST the first trekking portion of VentureQuest, we did 938 feet of elevation changing…
So yeah someone who lives where there is no elevation change is gonna struggle with it during an event. It definitely took 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 mountain bike near the start/finish line, but the actual beginning of the single track mountain bike course itself was almost 3 miles away using 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 was on trails with roots, rocks and sharp inclines etc.
So for someone who hasn’t really done any of this before, it was probably a bit much that the mountain bike single track course was in fact on the Meadowood Mountain Bike Park. tons of 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 stress locking during 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 the captain 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 our race goal went from “lets try and be Top 20” to “lets make sure Justin doesn’t seriously injure himself.” We weren’t alone though, we eventually got out of there and we were definitely the last team to arrive back at the trailhead of Meadowood… but later would find out its because the 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 done from exhaustion, but you had to ride 3 miles back if you were gonna quit. So I took over all navigation for the remainder and tried to think what could we accomplish? Having fun is more important than anything, I didn’t wanna kill him so giving in on pushing hard was fine by me. But the 2nd trek was actually halfway back to TA (it was within the bike), and when we got there we saw bikes from all the teams at that 2nd transition area, so we still weren’t obscenely far behind…
So I asked Justin if we could at least get 1 of those trekking points to say we’d done it before calling it quits; knowing that if I could just get him moving and into the shade of the trees and I took over navigating this trek, he’d hopefully recover somewhat. I let him know I saw a way for us to get 1 or 2 CPs close by and if he wanted we could “call it a day.” Thankfully the change of pace, and tree cover did some good. In a few spots I did the scrambling to get some checkpoints while Justin could do some recovery, pretty soon he said he was ok enough to continue that pace, no need to quit if we stayed at that, and so we did.
We got all 8of8 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 he wasn’t collapsing anymore 🙂
We finally got back to main transition area where he could finally be done with the bikes and elevation, and were able to refill on water, but at this point there was only an hour left on the time-limit, we knew we weren’t getting 8+ rowing CPs, but we decided we HAD to get at least 1 rowing checkpoint within the time limit, and we managed to get 2, so with time running out 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. And that is something that should be said, 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… 🙂