Early in the fall I did an adventure race out near the Gauley River in WV and had an absolute blast. The race I did was put on by the Navy's MWR - their recreation program - and involved paddling, trail running and mountain biking. It was a ton of fun and I started looking for other adventure races and happened upon the Rev3 Epic Adventure race. The race was described as a 24-hour event involving paddling, trekking/running, mountain biking and navigating/orienteering. I have no experience in orienteering and knew this was going to be an issue to overcome. I signed up as a two-man team with my great friend Jesse that I've known since grad school.
My training in navigation involved signing up for one 5k event put on by the Quantico Orienteering Club. I mention this because you should check this group out if you are looking for a fun way to get out into the local parks. They plot out courses of all levels, provide maps and compasses and have volunteers on hand to get you started. It's good cheap fun and, frankly, a heck of a workout. You end up bushwhacking through the parks trying to determine your fastest course from point to point. Phil Schmidt (Phil also raced the Rev3 event with Bart Forsyth), Jesse and I formed a team and Trisha Bergmann and Jenn Dunn also formed a team (They raced the Rev3 sprint event on Sunday and had a great time). I learned, at the very least, that while we may not be experts with the map and compass, we would be able to survive in the wild. Mostly.
Fast forward to last weekend. I arrive in Luray, VA, for the pre-race meeting and walk in to a group of people that looking fitter and more bad ass than most any crowd I've ever experienced. What was more intimidating is that they were all hunched over their maps, marking lines, routes and features as if they had done this a million times. I just looked at my map and asked Jesse if he could tell which way was north. He could. That quickly determined he would serve as our lead navigator. Racers began helping us out and letting us know what to do and pretty soon we were marking our map as if we knew anything about what we were doing.
A lesson we quickly learned about adventure racing is to be prepared for everything. The race description that had been posted online left us feeling like we would be circling past our cars every few hours to replenish food and gear. At the meeting we learned that after about 5pm, we wouldn't be seeing our car again for 12+ hours. That's a pretty major change considering that by that point we would have been racing for nearly 10 hours with another 10+ to go.
I think Bart and Phil would agree that early Friday night we were all fairly nervous about jumping so deep into adventure racing. But by the time we'd packed our gear, gone over the maps and talked over the race format, we all slept pretty well and felt relaxed going into Saturday morning.
I'm going to spare all of the details of the race because it could go on for pages. As it is, this will be farily lenghty but I guess that happens for a 24-hour event.
The basic race format started with a 19-mile canoe, followed in order by a mountain bike orienteering and trekking orienteering course inside the Shenandoah River State Park. At the end of this trekking portion, we returned to our cars and had to pack for the rest of the night. From there we cruised over Massanutten Mtn. and into the Shenandoah wilderness for more MTB and Trekking.
All along the route there were checkpoints that you would hit to score points. There were a set of 19 mandatory checkpoints that would need to be cleared in order to complete the course. Additionally, there were 30 optional CPs that teams could hit to score more points and rise in the standings. The mandatory CPs were typically very near the trail and required little knowledge of reading a map. The optional CPs involved going further off trail, up mountains and through streams and at least some proficiency of reading a topo map was required. In some cases, extensive knowledge was needed. Of the 49 total points, no team cleared them all and one team cleared 48. It took them 26 hours and they were the top team.
Jesse and I paddled well and learned that using a kayak paddle in the canoe was key. It was a lucky piece of advice and helped us come off the water leading the race. A huge surprise. As we headed out on the MTB, we hopped in behind one of the elite 4-person co-ed teams who helped us greatly over the first couple of miles. We peeled off and cleared all of the points on this section. As we went back into the park on foot, we took off with a French-Canadian who was racing solo. We had determined a pretty similar course and we stuck with him for the first 3-4 miles. We decided to pass on one of the optional points on foot in this section. It was pretty far out and seemed like too much effort for too little reward. We finished the first half of the day leading our division.
Then the rain came, the sun set and our luck ran out for a while. We got lost looking for an optional point and spent close to two hours bumbling around the woods. A major lesson learned is that, if you suddenly find yourself alone and no teams are following you, those other teams probably know something you don't. We knew we had been about a half mile ahead of a couple of teams and I kept thinking, "I wonder where those guys went?" Well, they found the CP several miles back and turned around to continue on. Oops. We should have turned back as well and eventually, we did. Checkpoint J will forever be etched in my brain.
After getting back on track, we continued picking off some optional points on the MTB before checking in to the second transition area just before midnight. At this point, we went out on foot to the "O-Course" for some orienteering. This portion of the event required us to plot points on our map using provided UTM coordinates and then using those points to find the checkpoints. We hit 4 CPs in this section. After some deliberation, we decided that we weren't going to win so we'd start the two hour ride back to the finish line. We also bumped into Phil and Bart who had just made a long trek out to one of the deeper optional checkpoints and they were ready to call it a night as well. This ride over Veach Gap to the finish line was one of the rockiest, most treacherous sections of riding I've ever done and it was 3am. It seemed crazy to attempt to ride (and hike-a-bike) this section any later and being more tired. Descending down wet loose rocks the size of loaves of bread is dangerous in any situation. Let alone when you are falling asleep on your handlebars.
We rode back to the finish line together and finished just before 5am. We had raced for nearly 20 hours and we all felt proud of ourselves. Despite some minor mistakes along the way, we never had any catastrophic failures. Jumping into adventure racing with a 24-hour event is probably not the smartest way to do it and we were really happy that we had all finished in one piece.
It turns out that Jesse and I, despite our getting lost, finished in 3rd place in our division. We didn’t expect this and didn’t stick around for the awards ceremony to get our award. Oops. For a quick second I kicked myself for not staying out there a couple more hours and collecting the 2 more points it would have taken to reach 2nd place. But I quickly remembered that at that point we were cold, wet, out of food and, most importantly, out of Red Bull. Our options were pretty limited. We'll be back for this race next year, for sure and will be will stocked for the whole race.
I wanted to share this report because it's a different type of event than what we normally do here at DC Tri. The vibe is laid back and relaxed even among the teams that were out there competing fiercely for 26 hours. In addition to our teams in the 24-hour event, Trisha and Jenn had a team and Katie Hatheway and her boyfriend Scott also did the sprint event. I hope they chime in on their experience. This is a really exciting and demanding kind of racing that gets to the root of competition. I love the spectacle of Ironman, but sometimes it's nice to get a little bloody, muddy and tired to really challenge yourself beyond the limits that you think you are capable of.
If you have any questions about the race, let me know. Believe it or not, I actually left a lot of details out of this.
Are there things you would change or do differently at your next adv. race?
Nice report and better race. You captured the fun of it and the challenge really well. Congrats on the placing too. Looking forward to next year? I am.
Good read. I'm intrigued.
Things I would have done differently:
- More navigation. The Quantico Orienteering Club (QOC) events are so close, cheap and easy. More practice would have helped. The reason we got lost was because we didn't know what the term re-entrant means. It's a common orienteering term and we missed it due to inexperience.
- Put more effort into keeping my clothes dry. It was 80 degrees and sunny while in the canoe but 48 and rainy overnight. I let my pack get soaked in the bottom of the boat and when night fell I didn't have any warm dry clothes.
- I had plenty of food in my car but didn't take enough with me when we left transition for the night. That was a major mistake that cost us a higher placement. Oops.
- I would have spent more time drawing out the shortest route to the checkpoints. We were so worried about all of the other details on Friday night and we could have saved a lot of time with a better plan. We also learned that you can't add too much detail to your maps. Highlighters, pens and sharpies are all useful tools.
Jesse and I compiled a list on the drive home of lessons learned and it's a full page word .doc. Lots of little lessons here and there.
Phil, we're definitely in for next year and likely in for a couple of 12-hour events in the meantime. DC Tri should dominate the podium.
Paul, check out one of the QOC events. You'll be hooked. There are quite a few adventure races in the area and they almost all have a distance that caters to all levels.
I'm intrigued as well.
Travis, I officially hate you a bit right now. Another really expensive hobby to explore. BTW, I wonder if compasses come in carbon?
Nice job and great report. Congrats on both accounts.
Nice job Travis (and all the other DCT people who competed). This definitely sounds intriguing and might be something I have to consider sometime. Maybe my Boy Scout Orienteering merit badge could actually come in useful!
Thanks for writing up a race report for this!
Concur on the QOC! I was very impressed with how well organized, helpful, and fun this group was when we went out for our practice run. I'll be going back for future events (they also have mountain bike orienteering which we could have used before race day).
As Travis mentioned, we did the sprint version which was very accessible to new people (but more difficult than expected; we felt like we had accomplished something by the end of the course). Although it rained all day and we were completely covered in mud, we had a ridiculous amount of fun and will definitely be looking for future adventure races!