So often when we run and compete we get caught up in the numbers.We want to know exactly how fast and how far we went, so we can compare performances and assess. Generally, that’s a good thing. But sometimes it’s nice not to have any idea. On Saturday, I spent the day running, canoeing and mountain biking. I know that I didn’t stop for almost six hours, but I have no idea how far I went.
My friend Emily was in town a couple months ago and mentioned that she was going to do a race in May. A women’s adventure race called the Buff Betty. Did I want to do it with her? I didn’t really know what an adventure race was, but I said yes anyway. Running around the woods sounded fun, and I figured that several hours of uninterrupted intense activity would be good mental training for Timberman.
An adventure race is like a triathlon, in that there are three genres: trail running, mountain biking, and canoeing. And that’s pretty much where the similarities stop. Whereas most races have clearly marked courses, an adventure race has waypoints. The race organizers present you with a map marked with dots (waypoints), and you’re goal is to find as many of those dots (in a certain order) as possible in six hours or less. Some of these points are on trails, some in tunnels, some are hanging on trees in the middle of the woods. You can follow trails, but you don’t have to, and the team that finds the most dots in the least amount of time wins.
The race was held at Shenandoah River State Park, a 1,600-acre swath of wilderness along the banks of the Shenandoah River not far from the National Park of the same name. When we arrived, the organizers gave up a map, and our team set about coming up with a strategy on how to get from point to point.
Serious strategizing happening here
The race started with mountain biking. After marking five points, we’d transition to a canoe, paddle three miles and then take off on foot in search of four more waypoints. Then we’d get back on the bike and mark four more points before calling it a day. The points were scattered all over the map: one point would be in one corner of the park, and the next would be clear on the other side. Since we had to mark the points in order, we’d spend the day crisscrossing 1,600 acres of land. Race organizers told us that the fastest would finish in 3.5 hours. In reality, no one finished in under five.
one of the easier parts of the race
The race started with a quick sprint to retrieve a math problem. Once our team solved the math problem, we were allowed to get on our bikes and take off towards the first waypoint, which entailed following a muddy trail and then riding up a mountain. I learned some key lessons in the first few miles:
– wear long socks as they’ll protect you from all the underbrush you ride by
– make sure you have shoes that are washable, or that you never want to see again
– ride around trees, they don’t give way like bushes. I now have the shoulder bruise to prove it.
The bike leg went pretty smoothly. I pushed my bike up a few hills, carried it over fallen trees, and rode through a lot of mud. After about an hour and a half we reached the transition area, and got off the bikes. From there, it was a two mile run/walk to the canoe launch.
The other thing about adventure races is that there’s not a lot of support like in road races. No water stations. Instead, you carry everything you need with you on your back. In addition to two-liters of water, I had two packs of Shot Bloks, a couple of Gu’s, a bag of trail mix, and three Clif Bars. We were also required to carry a whistle and a space blanket in case we got lost. Running with this was sort of challenging.
We made it to our canoe, launched, and almost immediately capsized. The water felt delightful, but a swift current and competitive nature motivated us to quit swimming and get the boat in order. Since this was an adventure race, and the whole point is self-reliance, no one rushed in to help us. While race support kept an eye on us to make sure we weren’t in danger, none of the brawny guys on shore offered to help lift the 50-pound canoe full of water. Instead, they stood on shore and took photos like this.
After a few failed attempts, we finally got the boat righted and were off on our way, paddling three miles down the river. It was gorgeous, and one of the more tranquil points of the day.
Once we landed, we were off on foot, again criss-crossing the park to collect waypoints. We did a lot more bushwhacking than we’d done on our bikes, going up and down ravines, and sliding down steep embankments on our rears. A thunderstorm rolled through, and we encountered a herd of deer. We spent about 30 minutes wandering the same acre of land trying to find one waypoint, Charlotte had to crawl inside a tunnel to reach another, and I waded across a stream to get to a third, but we managed to mark them all. Each hour we made sure to eat: a handful of trail mix, half a Clif Bar, a few Bloks. I was surprised as we ended the trekking portion to see that we’d been out there for four and a half hours. I started to worry that we wouldn’t reach all the points, and wondered if there were teams that were already finished.
Finally, with about 30 minutes to go, we had just one waypoint left, and it was on our way back towards the finish line. We rode down a paved road, past a turtle, and turned onto a trail. A guy standing before a bridge warned us that it was slippery due to the storm that had just come by. I rode across and it seemed ok, but when I got to the end, the bridge turned into a ramp to meet the trail. My wheel slipped sideways and I went down hard, landing on my shoulder and my knee. My first thought was that I had to get up as quickly as possible- we had one more waypoint to go. I was more embarrassed than injured anyway.
We clicked off the last waypoint, and rode to the finish, arriving 5 hours and 47 minutes after we’d started.
There was ok pizza and some of the best cookies I’ve ever eaten. I was happily surprised to find that I was tired, but not exhausted. My legs felt ok. And I was in a good place mentally, with huge a smile on my face.
Tired, but smiling.
After a quick dip in the river, it was time for the awards ceremony. We won our division, and the grand prize! Though a few teams finished faster, no one else found all 15 waypoints. It was pretty exciting.
I returned to D.C. with a feeling of satisfaction. Last month, my friend BG wrote a little blog post that hit close to home about the question “What are you training for?” Regardless of events or whatever, the answer is “Life.” In my case, I train so that I can sprint up the stairs when the escalators are broken, and not lament that the universe is plotting against me. I train so that I can carry all the grocery bags in one trip, so that I can catch up with a friend at the pool, even if I did just do a ridiculous circuit workout and ride a bike across town. I train so that when my friend says “hey, you want to do this crazy thing with me?” I don’t hesitate, I just say yes, and we spend six hours running around the woods together with silly grins on our faces even as we capsize boats and run into trees, and we finish strong and feel glad that we did it.
“LIFE, as I’m reminded again and again, is always ready to thrown down,” BG wrote. “Always. So all you can do is train harder.”