Sunday, December 06, 2009

North Downs DAR

Dynamic Adventure Racing North Downs Challenge, Sunday 6th Dec 2009

At the end of an event, it's always nice to say things went swimmingly. Driving down the M3 to Peaslake for the last DAR challenge for 2009, it did indeed look like swimming would be involved. When you are doing 40 and still cannot see where you are going, you just know it's going to be a damp one. Loading up the car at 7am was like packing in the middle of a carwash. Extra dry socks then.

A full house at the Peaslake village hall was already evident by 8:30, a good sign for some stiff competition. The rain had gone north by this time to bother the flatter, less interesting parts of the UK and just a hint of blue sky was seen lurking. The hall was a lovely venue, tons of room and several toilets for changing, with a good start area right outside. An analysis of the map was initially comforting - how cheery that Simon put all the controls so close together - what a nice man. Oh, and look, what's this orange terrain here - fruit glades? volcanic soil perhaps? Then it dawns - those are contour lines, so tightly packed that to anyone with less than 20/20 vision they resemble a flattened Terry's chocolate orange. This realisation along with the aforementioned rain made me think that you wouldn't need spiked shoes so much as ones fitted with caterpillar tracks. And a winch. And snorkel.

By the time of the run start the weather had smartened up markedly. Departing the hall there were people going in all directions, the location of Peaslake at the convergence of two spurs giving a number of strategic options. Opting for an anti-clockwise direction with the aim of clearing the course, the start could not have gone more wrong. Due to a major geographic embarrassment I headed due north out of Peaslake, almost 180 degrees from my intended direction. The situation of the hall just off the confluence of 4 roads (that would be a crossroads, then) had confused me to such an extent that after two planned left turns, the desired bridleway was not 500 yards on the right. No. There was a field full of shooters in green wellies, but no bridleway. To further confuse things there was a carpark of sorts (where expected) and other competitors disappearing into the distance along what should have been the way (also expected), but no. It just didn't feel right. So backtrack to the main road, map to ground analysis, press on, and sure enough the true way became apparent. From thereon the nav was spot on. Just as well given the myriad of tracks, trails and roads littering the pineforest. People going in all directions, cyclists and ramblers all over too.

The run down the ridge through the Duke of Kent school was stunning, if not near-lethal underfoot. The nav up from Holmbury St Mary to CP3 was a mixed bag of luck, determination and, er, luck. Pressing on back to the hall via 2 and 1 required a bit of flagellation given there was only a few minutes to spare, and much cursing of the nonsense right at the start. In the end clearing the course with a few minutes penalty was a welcome relief.

A bowl of Flossie's Bolognase sauce, bread and tea was fabulous, and much nicer than a thermos of lukewarm porridge like the last time. Into the planning for the MTB section it was apparent that those contours weren't getting any flatter. In fact the northern section of the loop looked like it might require grappling irons and a scaling ladder. No way were these legs going to get them all, so a good selection of must-do's and nice-to-haves was marked up. Best wet-weather merino waterproof SealSkinz socks and neoprene roadie overboots on for a toasty toe-warming time, and we're off. Progress went quickly along the Greensand way, through Holmbury St Mary once more and along the escarpment to Leith Hill Tower for stunning views along the coast (and quizzical looks from walkers). The byway was so muddy that a longer route via road through Coldharbour was taken, then along Wolvern's Lane replete with foot-deep puddles from the 4x4 greenlaning activity. Down a spanking bit of new bridleway that was so steep the next rain will have washed it all away into the Thames again, and across the flat to Coomb farm and a very well-hidden CP by the rail underpass. The next 200 yards across a flat field was a hint of what was to come, so slippery that it was hard to walk let alone ride. The track along the base of the escarpment was a continuous power slide 6 inches deep in what can only be described as oatmeal on ice. Now turn left. By my maths to gain 100m altitude in 200m of travel requires a gradient of 22.5 degrees. Whatever it was, you wouldn't want to try riding down it without either a) very good healthcare or b) a bouncy castle at the bottom. So I assume the two gents I met at the top had option a). Once at the top (rather unsatisfying view, but maybe that was just my state of mind by then) it was flat along the road through 29 and 30, then a ferry fast and sketchy downhill to say 'Hi' to the donkeys at Colekitchen farm. Through Gomshall (with just a bit of swearing at the never-ending mud) to the final CP, then a 'dash' back through what seemed to be the longest village in England to the finish. Really Peaslake, you are not that big. If I see a village sign I expect to be within a minute of a pub, not needing a cache of food en-route.

The reduced interval of 45 minutes until the night nave was a new feature, and did require focus on personal admin skills. Got out the door and into the dark with about a minute to spare, raring to go. History repeated itself (again with a lot of swearing) before heading back past the hall in the correct direction this time. Up into the hills anti-clockwise with full beam on the Petzel Ultra, the CP's visible from about 500 yards away due to the pine-wilting capabilities of 6 LED's. There's nothing like buying yourself time, and as my bike is 8 years old I think it was OK to splash out on lumens. The close pine forest and many tracks had people all over the show, but some faultless night nav (if I do say so myself) meant getting back well under time for bags of bonus points.

Once again bringing a trug along was a godsend, perfect for filthy shoes, leggings, tops and jackets. Then into a hot Pastie (is there a better post-AR food?) then cake, tea, cake and more cake as the prizes were gone though. Greg Keers and Lee Jackson cleaned up overall with a stonking 1435 points in the Mens Pairs. Karin Heath won Womens Solo with a very respectable 890 - Karin racing this time without husband Steve or baby Orla (they won Mixed Pairs last time with Orla in her Chariot trailer). The winning Male Team only scored a few more points - 906 from Team M.A.S - so that's a great result from Karin. And blow me down with a feather If Team Kiwi42 didn't bag a prize again, edging out Ken Jones by just 5 points (1308 vs. 1303) after 6 hours of racing. Goes to show that every little, tiny bit of effort and concentration can make a difference. Never give up. Even if you just made the biggest numpty of a mistake ever, or have run out of bars, legs or both.

Once more a fabulous day's AR from the Dynamic Adventure Racing team, faultlessly organised and executed (despite a few CP's being nicked and the kitchen counter needing re-enforcing to bear the weight of Flossie's cakes and chocolate flapjacks). Can they do no wrong? Well, let's have the next Peaslake race at the height of summer eh? ;-)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

South downs DAR

Dynamic Adventure Racing Challenge - South Downs, Sunday 18 October 2009

They say time heals all wounds, distance makes the heart grow fonder, and there's no fool like an old fool. With this in mind, I was looking forward to the South Downs DAR Challenge very much for three reasons: It had been over 6 month since my last one, there was a long way to go and I was feeling old.

Having missed the Isle Of Purbeck event due to a very inconsiderately-chosen wedding date by my wife's closest friend ("You are NOT leaving me with two children in Cornwall at 5am on Sunday to drive there") I had more or less lost my AR groove. The draft AR packing list compiled from the first two DAR experiences had been lost in the huge pile of school notices and bills composting on the kitchen bench. So it was the inevitable 9pm Saturday flurry of lost socks, missing lids and empty food/squeezie/lube packets. Of course in the end all one does is wildly overpack, knowing all the while that there is some critical thing missing. What are we but private parts to the Gods of Adventure Racing, they toy with us for their sport (apologies Mssr Fry).

Sunday dawned a true autumn stunner, just above zero with a few wisps of cloud. The setting of Duncton nestled at the foot of the South Downs north of Chichester couldn't have been more perfect. For a village of around three hundred souls they have a pretty swish community hall, which was well-populated with AR folk by 9am. Numbers looked good, there were rumours of a few burglars about who normally did the Endurance events, as well as two complete AR novices who had Simon 'concerned' according to the crew, due to their incredibly bubbly, "No Worries" enthusiasm. While getting ready for the run, the critical thing that was missing became apparent in the lack of orthotic insoles. Beware red insoles and red-lined shoes, when packing late at night. Luckily the 15-year old inserts from my cycling shoes were a close enough fit to be workable.

Looking at the run course, it was pretty obvious you had two choices: clockwise or t'other. Basically it came down to "Shall I climb the nasty hill at the start or halfway through?". Opting for the latter to allow for a warm up, the first two CP's were more or less follow-the-leader. Going from 11 to 9 however was a lesson in racing your own race. Simon had said exactly this in the brief, but sometimes the brain just doesn't listen. Trundling along following a spread-out bunch to the junction at what would be 28 on the MTB course, I completely and utterly disregarded the very wide, obvious bridleway to the right and ploughed on up the hill to the left. Herd-Follow-Moo-etc. After a few hundred yards the thought did arise that this was a tad steep for a path that should be - er - flat, but the appearance on the left of a decent-size quarry *as marked on the map* allayed my fears. Must be a slow day to warm up. Arriving at the track intersection part of a bunch of around 10, we started looking for the "tree with bent trunk 6m NE of waymarker post". We found that, and indeed it was a tree, bent trunk apparent. But no sign of a clipper. After 5 minutes of casting about I remembered a salient lesson from an Orienteering event earlier this year, where I was absolutely 100% certain I knew where I was. Until finally backtracking after 35 minutes to find not. So heading on up the track seemed the right thing to do. After 100 yards open fields appeared, and it dawned that this was indeed the wrong intersection. So a quick about-turn and back down the intersecting track to 9, past those still hunting around, imagining them thinking "He gave up easy". Heh.

Between 10 and 8 was located the world's entire population of Pheasants. Hiding from the guns, one imagines. And someone had even put out food for them, how nice. Probably the Pheasant Preservation Society. Up the hill to 7 made you really appreciate the dry conditions, as the slick hard chalk covered in leaves would have been near-impossible to clamber up in SPD shoes had it been wet. Coming out onto the plateau and into semi-managed forest allowed for a good stretch of legs, the decision to go for 5 and clearing the course only requiring a little deliberation. Here was met a bunch of folk converging on 6, including a large bloke pushing an off-road pram complete with small blonde passenger (not his wife, either). 4-3-2 were a lovely doodle with stunning views along the ridge, and then into the forest for a slightly out-of-control hare down the ridge to the flat and the last CP at Burton Park. The slight uphill slog back to the hall with 30 seconds to spare had the heartrate at 99%, cursing the earlier nonsense climbing the hill at 9 which probably lost a good 15 minutes and any chance of good bonus points.

Today's inter-stage food of choice was well-cooked porridge with sultanas, mainly because the pantry had run out of pasta. It went down a treat, and will be used again. Planning for the MTB section was the complete opposite to the run. With no obvious geographic clues (apart from "don't climb lots of hills") it was very much a mixed bag as to who would go where and how. Option for a more-or-less circular route with a few get-outs or ins along the way was the plan, foregoing the 3 CP's in the middle (26 / 27 / 32), all of which had a lot of climbing between them if one stuck to the open forest roads and didn't poach footpaths.

So the first bit of the ride followed the run, along the bottom of the escarpment and up the same hill to the plateau. Only one real surprise on this stretch - a seemingly fit and healthy pigeon dropping dead at my feet out of a clear blue sky. A portent of doom? Bird Flu? Pinin' for a Fjord? we will never know. Once into the forest a good deal of speed was possible, the wide roads and easy junctions allowing a rapid progression. That is until turning right too soon after 33, therefore coming at 30 from the South via Braer Rabbit's Blackberry patch (Luckily this wasn't entirely out of place, 33 itself being halfway up a Holly tree, 5m into a mass of brambles, the flesh of yesterday's competitors hanging in shreds from the foot-long thorns. Well, maybe not that bad). Off to the distant wilderness of the Other Side Of The Map next, and through the lovely village of Charlton. Here someone had just trimmed a thorny hedge resulting in a loss of rear tyre pressure. Thankfully as this was a Slime tube, all that was required was a frenzied application of micro pump and we were off again. God Bless Slime.

35 & 36 lead through the charming village of East Dean, then on to 25 past a large mountain boarding park, which looked quite fun to this ageing snowboarder (though maybe not to his health insurer). A steep climb in granny gear to Selhurst Park road was rewarded with stunning views all the way down to the channel over Chichester.

24/23/22 were a grin-inducing blast along gently rolling bridleway, leaves crunching and miles ticking over nicely. Where to go from 22 was a poser. A pair of male competitors were studying the map in close deliberation, but I'd already decided on the way up to go for 21 and miss out 20, which would have required a lot of climbing on sore legs with only 25 minutes to go. The bridleway down to 21 was a mass of trimmed branches and rocky water ruts, a very technical challenge to do at speed with tired arms. The flat Folly Lane afterward around the eastern side of Barlavington Hanger was a joy, past picture-postcard farmhouses. As this section only took about 5 minutes, I arrived back at the foot of the hanger wondering could I get up to 20 and back in 17 minutes? With a fresh squeeze in the tum 15 minutes ago it was not as bad as expected, pushing a full-suspension rig up to the CP taking about 7 minutes where I met the two gents last seen at 22. We concurred that either route was valid, and it was only later (and with just a tiny hint of smugness) I found out they had not collected 21 en route.

The blast back down to the lane was all that it should have been, then through the trout hatchery to nab 19 and returning to the hall with 5 minutes to spare.

While stretching on the grass the couple with the pram (Karin and Steve) returned from their ride, this time towing their 'Chariot'. Inside 2-year old Orla was all smiles as dad recovered his breath. Their team name was "I want normal parents" - I'd go further and say that Orla has fabulous parents, if they are prepared to drag 25kg of pram and child around for 5 hours. It's wonderful to see parents involving children in AR, and with a son on the way our family will be getting one of these for sure. Maybe DAR needs a new race class for those with under-5's in tow? If those sans-children want to compete, BYO trailer and large sack of potatoes? (compulsory kit check: potatoes must be kept amused, fed, watered and all in the sack for 5 hours). To top off the day for Karin and Steve they won their Mixed Pairs class with a respectable 756 points.

The two women AR novices Lucy Funnell and Claire Connolly (aka Wylie Coyotes) won their class with a very respectable 672, surely a sign of great things to come as they hone their strategy, navigation, and ability to hold on to Control Description cards (apparently). The top scorers with 1300 were Richard Phillips and Hugh Torry (Chuckie's at a Wedding), only missing CP 20 on the ride and coming in a staggering 27 minutes early on the run for 105 bonus points. Competition in the solo male category was fierce, with only 30 points separating 2nd, 3rd and 4th place. Personally I came away pretty chuffed with 1082 and the prize of a decent-size pack towel, which will get used every week for the office run. Simon suggested I give the Endurance race format a bash - but having spent the last two days hobbling about and being overtaken by pensioners in Zimmer frames, I don't think 8hrs on the go is quite on the cards just yet. Maybe next year. Or the year after.

Being within latte-sniffing distance of W1, December's event on the North Downs will bring out the city types for sure. Already places are filling up, so if you want to be in on yet another fabulous DAR event there's no time to waste. Looking forward to the re-introduction of the night run - a real test of nav skills. Many thanks to Nicky, Sarah, Simon, Flossie and everyone else who helps make the DAR events such a fabulous experience for novices and experts alike.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Ah Spring.







A lovey, lovely day to get out for a bike ride. Next time, a stop at the pub. Of course, you can take post-ride data analysis too far...





Here's a link to the Flickr map of proceedings, and here's a copy of the GPX file if you have a GPS or GPS mobile phone and fancy giving it a go yourself.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Dorset Hills Dynamic Adventure Race Report

Some days just couldn't possibly be better. Everything just clicks into place, you feel great, and achieve something quite unexpected. This Sunday was one of those days.

The event was the second in the Dynamic Adventure Race Challenge series, held in the achingly picturesque village of Sydling St Nicholas (hereafter SSN) deep in the Dorset Hills. The nearest landmark is the giant man at Cerne Abbas in the next valley, memorable to me from childhood in New Zealand as an often-featured shot in Arthur C. Clark's Mysterious World. Some say he represents a fertility symbol. Others, Oliver Cromwell. Me, I reckon he's a lost multisport-fetish competitor who was caught out at night without enough kit (actually, with no kit at all). He is brandishing a floorpump, and recently the hidden outline of a bedraggled, unreadable OS map was discovered draped over one arm. Despite these hardships he's obviously enjoying himself.

Once again my organisation was left too late, requiring fretting and list-making late into Saturday night. As parking was at a premium I decided to base myself in the hall instead of the car boot, so well-organised boxes were the order of the day. One for the run, one for the MTB ride, and one for 'other stuff'. As the only item requiring preparation on the day is two pasta meals in thermoses (Thermii?), there's no reason all this gear couldn't be organised and packed days before. This is my quest. Maybe for the 2010 series I'll have it sorted.

The morning could not have been better for a drive into the West Country. Turning off the road to hell A303 is always a welcome change, and the road leading down to SSN was a stunner. The view over the valley set high expectations for a day's racing. On arrival Simon was out directing traffic to the wee sidelanes, there being no parking at the hall. The first thing you notice is the utter silence - the nearest A-road is miles away over a ridge. Into the hall and the same professional setup greeted competitors - maps, numbers, clip and route cards all laid out. Disappointingly for the organisers only a fraction of previous entrants chose to attend the event - 15 teams, down from 43 at the New Forest race in January. Speculation as to why ranged from going the extra distance west to a major 10k road running race nearby. That the weather couldn't have been more perfect compared to the New Forest deluge only further confounded the logic of low numbers. Regardless we all appreciate the DAR crew's enthusiasm and dedication.

I camped out at a table, soon joined by Toby, Rachel, John and Jo - two of the day's three couples living every racer's dream of having a partner as engaged in adventure racing as they are. Such an arrangement can only make the justification of fruity AR kit purchases easier. Possibly even achieving a bulk discount.

Run

Analysis of the run stage gave two options: clockwise or counter-clockwise. The nature of the terrain and control point (CP) location gave few options for an opt-out, should you find yourself nearing the 2-hr time limit with a long way still to go. Once over into the next valley there's no way back except over the hill again. This race was always going to keep everyone exceedingly honest. Most people opted for the counter-clockwise option, which started off with an 80m climb out of the valley on a farm track so steep it was paved with scoured concrete to afford vehicles traction.


The red line on the map is the GPS track, as recorded by the Nokia Sports Tracker logging software on my Nokia N95 8GB. NST is a very stable app that can run for 8hrs on a full battery, plus being able to take photos using the N95's 5MP camera cuts down on things to carry. Even handier is that once the photos are uploaded onto Flickr, the site GPSTagr will take the GPX file and use it to place your piccys on the map!

Enough geekery, back to the action...

Several CP's lead over the ridge and down into the next valley, then a long slow 135m climb to the highpoint of the run looking over Cerne Abbas, now running with the leader and feeling good. At CP24 my first error came in, as I incorrectly identified a set of buildings to the right, then ignored the control description card in favour of believing the OS map (and following the bunch, which was still very close after an hour). The route of footpaths across fields change easily, fenclines and gates rather less so. Don't always believe the green lines. Only 200m of backtracking and I had it, but I had lost the bunch. Preferring to run alone anyway, this was no bad thing. A fast run down into Cerne Abbas, through the village and past the Giant Man, crossing the valley toward what looked like a rather steep hill.


(No, Sydling St Nicholas is not an underwater colony. Note to self: calibrate altimeter *before* starting out).

The climb out of the Cerne valley was a bent-double knee-pushing wheeze of an affair, with an increasingly nervous eye on the clock ticking down to the 2 hour limit. Thankfully after cresting the summit the ridge was flat, meaning legs could stretch out on the way to CP29-30. From CP30 the path lead straight down the hill to the finish. Nothing motivates like being out of time, looking down a steep hill and having scoffed 2 squeezies, and the subsequent headlong career held ample opportunity for serious injury to self and other footpath users. Thankfully I wasn't the first runner-freak down the hill, and the God-fearing dogwalkers of Sydling St Nicholas gracefully made way with expressions of amusement at what constitutes a Sunday's relaxation to some.

Returning just a few minutes over time having cleared the course was reason enough for a celebratory scoff of rice pasta. What was unexpected was the state of my middle toes - on both feet they were dark red with bleeding under the nails. Possibly an unavoidable side-effect of prolonged fast downhill running, possibly due to some podiatric genetic anomaly, but disconcerting all the same. The Control Description cards were handed out, and the plotting - literally and figuratively - began. The spread of CP locations and values over 3 valleys posed a real challenge trying to pick the optimal route, factoring in time, points attained and the need not to be found whimpering in a ditch having run out of food/water/legs.

The organisation of everything velo into the 'Bike' box made the transition quicker, allowing more time for plotting, replotting and 'oh sod it just go' plotting.

Bike

As the start of the bike section loomed time was short. I overheard someone say "Don't panic, it's 3 hours so 3 minutes at the start isn't a big deal, just check everything's right", and I agree. Getting an hour into a ride to find that you've left crucial kit behind in a rush is not good karma.




From the hall I opted to head over the Cerne Abbas on the road - and what a climb. Granny gear all the way, heart rate hovering at 95%, moving just fast enough to keep balanced. But the descent the other side into Abbas was a blast.



From there up Piddle Lane to CP9, then along a very busy B-road full of England's obligatory future organ donors spring idiots on motorbikes. Passing at 100MPH doesn't exactly endear motorcyclists to their human-powered brethren. From CP11 the bridleway was slow, brambly going back to the main road. After CP17 (70 points!) I decided to detour right and come at CP18 via the Byway, not the Bridleway - good move, as the surface was much better with a similar distance. After CP18, Mintern Magna echoed to hoots of delight as a fast grassy downhill opened up. Through CP13, then two quick detours for CP14 and CP8, then on through CP15.

At Wardon Hill the bridleway passed a politically-incorrect comestibles storage and clay pigeon shooting ground. It's disconcerting to see bits of clay pigeon littering a public path, and it was even more upsetting to feel lead shot fall on one while cycling past. I can't believe that this was legal, and feel a stern letter to someone coming on.

From CP16 the way south was fast and smooth, meaning I returned to the hall with over 45 minutes to spare. A very leisurely spin 3km south to get CP5 where Toby and Rachel tried to convince me to get CP4. Thinking finishing with legs in one peice the better part of valour I declined, and ambled back for food and a stretch.

Along the way I noted the high-velocity bullet holes in the village sign. A bit disconcerting, seeing as the houses of the village lay along the likely trajectory. Maybe someone was taking the Village Of The Year competition a bit too seriously. Still, so long as you drive carefully, eh?

Night Run

Arriving back with plenty of time to spare meant a nice, leisurely stretch, scoff and study of the night nav section. The rapidly changing daylight meant that this would be lit for most of the way, so headtourches were surplus to requirements (but were carried regardless). The 8 CP's were all clustered within 1km of the hall in a more or less circular pattern, so the question again was which direction and which one to start with. I opted for the nastiest climb up to CP34 first, then clockwise finishing with CP35. Coming in 13 minutes early having cleared the course meant 35 bonus points. Thankfully my knee held up for the final event and only minor twinges of cramp were apparent, easily stretched out.


Result!

After going for 6 hours, covering 62km and collecting some 1200 points, the difference between second and third in my class came down to just 4 points -that's being 3 minutes early (having clearing the field) or 3 minutes late. I'd been joking with John all through the day, my lead on him last time being a paltry 16 points. One minor mistake at a CP. One wrong turning, quickly corrected. This is what makes Adventure Racing fun for me - the continuous mental effort required to stay on top that masks the thoughts of fatigue, discomfort and bloatedness when you can't fit more food in but your legs are crying for energy. If you removed the navigational distraction it would be a 6 hour drag, albeit through some pretty scenery. Maybe this is why some people don't like SatNav - programming in a relative's address in Aberdeen and the display telling you there's 13 hours of slog ahead is much less enjoyable than 'consulting' with your spouse over which is the best way to avoid Birmingham at 5pm.

Special mention was given at the prizegiving for the father/son team of Phil and Lewis Holland, not a bad effort for an 11-year old. Then it was into a large bowl of Bolognaise sauce and some unseemly quantities of carrot cake. Hopefully the turnout will be larger for the next event, which is on the Isle of Purbeck (not actually an Isle, BTW).

Many, many thanks to the DAR team for yet another fabulous day's racing. If you weren't there you truly missed out.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

New Forest Dynamic Challenge race report - 4th!


My first Adventure Race, and I got 4th in my category! w00t! And 8th overall including the teams, 12th person home out of 80. Pretty chuffed with this as a result, after all the faffing about, nervous preparation, list making, fretting, etc. And particularly as I've been recovering from a knee ligament strain for the last 3 months. But more on that shortly...

So what's this all about?

Here's the lowdown on the Dynamic Adventure Race Challenge. Basically it's an intro to Adventure Racing (AR hereafter) that anyone with a modicum of fitness and navigational awareness can attempt. 'Real' AR's such as the Southern Traverse often span days, teams traveling hundreds of kilometers by foot, bike, kayak, attempting challenges set by the organisers along the way. Sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion are essential factors. Strategy and cunning are watchwords. Organisation and teamwork under intense pressure is critical.

Ans so to the New Forest...

After quite a few days of preparation the big plastic bins were loaded into the car, each according to discipline: one for the first run, one for the bike, and one for the last run at night. Overpacking on clothes is a boon, as coming back after each event to a dry change of kit was lovely. The thought of climbing back into wet thermals or - shudder - socks after getting nice and dry doesn't bear thinking about. The extremely helpful Russ Mockford at Hargroves Cycles, Winchester was critical to my success. I popped in on Friday to pick up some GO bars and some NUUN isotonic tablets, and ended up getting a 30 minute sports nutrition consultancy for free. Russ advised taking along 2 prepared meals of rice or pasta to scoff during the 1hr transition between events, as well as nibbling a GO bar and squeezie every hour. And a sort of turbocharged Milo for bedtime, plus - oh joy - having a Snickers bar stashed away for a rainy day...and boy did it rain....

Departing home at 7am on a Sunday is always lovely. Very few others about, some rather loud Neil Young, and the anticipation of a day's adventure ahead.

The race HQ was in the Thorney Hill community centre, on the southern edge of the New Forest. The infectiously-enthusiastic Simon from Dynamic Adventure Racing was on hand in a raincoat to welcome arrivals. For someone who does this in his spare time (Simon's a university business lecturer by trade) the level of professionalism from him and his team was outstanding. I could not fault the organisation or atmosphere, and I've organised a few large events myself in the past. Inside to the registration desk, and all my stuff was ready to go - a pre-marked map showing the control points for all 3 courses, plus race number, plus punch card and descriptions and points for each control. Oh, and loads of safety pins, rubber bands and free sponsor's squeezies for those who forgot to pack enough. A few of these tucked away were to be a godsend some 5 hours later.

The kitchen (run by Flossie) was already open and doing a good trade. Tables were laid out, and teams were trucking in their gear bins and staking a claim. I opted to base myself out of the boot of the car, partly because I couldn't be bothered shifting everything, and partly because I like to mutter and curse when under pressure and didn't want to put others off. A must for the next event will be a gazebo to go over the back of the car, to provide more shelter than Volvo can. Plus a decent square of waterproof carpet. There's nothing worse than trying to keep your feet dry, in the rain, in a muddy field, with cramp setting in, in the boot of an estate trying to contort yourself (in a seemly fashion) out of a pair of wellies/thermals and into a change of cycling shorts/socks/shoes.

After changing into running gear and throwing on a lovely, lovely new down jacket to ward off the chill (usual disclaimer on toys) it was back to the hall to do some planning. The accepted wisdom with AR is that speed is not everything. Strategy counts for much, and the hare/tortoise analogy was never more apt (assuming tortoises wear Lycra and like pain). A study of the Run control points (CP's) showed a pretty obvious circular route, and being human it's pretty hard to avoid the desire to do them clockwise. Simon had been advising everyone to avoid an area of swamp, so that got marked onto the map using a waterproof pen - the single handiest thing I took along. Also marked onto the map were the points that each CP was worth - the farther away / harder to find being worth more than the closer, easier ones. This is where the strategy in AR comes to the fore - which ones do you go for, in which order? Your strategy needs to be flexible as well, to allow for changing conditions / the realities of terrain / how you feel / mistakes you make. Having a few judicious 'outs' is essential.

Here on the map you'll see the red circles - they are the Run course CP's. The start/finish is the red triangle at the bottom. Beside each CP in black are the points for each one, added from the description card handed out 30 minutes before the start.

My plan was 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 30 then an assessment of 29, 28, 27. 27 had a question mark over it, as being the last one, and quite a detour, it would be the most likely to be dropped in favour of getting back on time and avoiding penalty points being deducted. Note the indicative distances marked in km, for sections where there are few visual clues to indicate proximity to a CP.

So: plan made, sneakers on. On the back goes the CamelBak MULE, stuffed with the following: first aid kit, survival blanket, mobile phone in waterproof case, compass, whistle, drink bladder with 700ml of NUUN, plus a GO bar and a squeezie. Suunto T6c alarms set to go off at 1hr (eat), 1:30 (30 minutes left) and 1:50 (Be Home Now). 10 minutes to go, and Simon is calling for people to start lining up. I'm 107, meaning I'll start at 7 minutes past the hour along with others ending in '7'. This means people are spread out at the start, giving an opportunity to do your own thing instead of following the crowd.

GO

From the outset, it was grim. It had rained just a tad the night previously, so within about 100m everything was squelching up nicely. The first 3 CP's were a doddle, it being rather hard to avoid the long train of runners all going the same way. From 21 to 22 got interesting. Having subconsciously decided "How wet can it be?" I was soon re-enacting Frodo and Sam's trek through the Dead Marshes, albeit with fewer Nazgul and more swearing. Not for the first time would the mantra "No Shortcuts, No Shortcuts" be chanted between snatched lungfuls. 24 was a poser, confusing more than a few. The veritable plethora of tracks made by wildlife made discerning just which track junction the CP was near a challenge. This lead to a few fellow competitors asking if I had found the CP. Etiquette demands a fudged answer along the lines of 'tricky bugger isn't it' or something similarly nondescript. Neither an informer nor a questioner be.... From 28 I made a call to go straight across the valley to 27, thinking (almost correctly) that if a pine tree was growing on the valley floor then it couldn't be too boggy. Finding 27 was frustrating though, as I didn't aim off enough to pick up the track leading into the area. This made confirming I was on the right track tricky, and some 10 minutes were wasted circling gorse bushes before finding the right one. Then a quick run back to the finish, a few minutes late but very chuffed at having 'cleared the course', meaning got all the CP's. Here's a Google Earth display of the GPX track file as logged by Nokia Sports Tracker on my N95 8GB mobile. Always nice to confirm afterwards how/where you cocked up.

The next hour went by in a blur of changed clothes, pasta, drink, marking maps, more pasta, dry socks (Joy), then somehow it was time to go again. Next AR I shall be much better organised. I think you can only prepare so much for your first time.


On yer Bike


Exactly 5 minutes before the start of the MTB stage the heavens didn't so much open as disgorge a torrent of freezing rain. It was like cycling into a carwash. Fortunately the fine lads at Ground Effect invented the Storm Trooper for occasions just like this. Seal Skinz Merino waterproof socks and some wetsuit-material overboots kept the feet dry and warm, however no glove known to (this) man would have worked in these conditions, short of a full-on Goretex mitten.

The plan for the MTB was to head clockwise again, straight up to the valuable CP's, then wiggle back down as time/legs allowed. 16, 15 & 14 were easily had, 13 was a detour south on the dotted bike route then north again. A fair number chose the logical (but naughty) sort-cut, the faster going on the gravel roads meant no difference all up. CP17 was handily located under a bridge, requiring a leg in the stream to get it. Sock/overboot combo performed perfectly, dry feet all round. After 18 there was a glorious downhill in top gear and a quick bagging of 12 & 11.

The Miry rotating mapboard performed flawlessly. A truly beautiful execution of minimalist form and function.

By 10 the legs were starting to flag, and the bars, squeezies and Snickers were going in at a heroic pace. After 2 unforgivable cock-ups trying to get to 9 (turning left too soon - twice), I realised fatigue was catching up mentally as well as physically. No way was I going to clear the course, so plan B was a straight line to home via 8 , 2 and 1. This also allowed a wee bit of scouting for the night run to follow. Turns out that the area used to be a WW2 airfield, now a caravan park in more clement weathers. Getting back 15 minutes ahead of time gave me an extra 15 minutes to relax.

Yeah right.

Yet more pasta, and praise the lord for dry running clothes. At this stage had someone offered me a pair of warm dry running shoes in exchange for our dog it would have been one too many leads hanging in the hall...

Hello darkness my old friend...

The Night Nav Run section begins with a sprint on the MTB from the start down to the run start (the green triangle). Thankfully the rain had stopped by now, having done its worst. The transition from bike to run plays havoc with sore, tired legs, and many were nigh-on hobbling away from their bikes into the darkness. A counter-clockwise plan was to hand, and I knew if I could sustain 10kph I could clear the course and get back in time. After 38 the legs felt OK, but the uphill to 35 was a walk. 35 itself was a real poser, with about 20 people hunting around for the reflective post marking the CP. Here technology was on my side in the form of a Petzl Ultra, the megawatt-beam showing up the CP's reflection from about 100m away. A slow, 'confused' sidle in that direction didn't draw the attention of the others, and I was away into the dark. Unfortunately, I'd forgotten to turn off the red flashing light left on from the bike ride, which was as good a signal that "it's over here chaps" as you could ask for. Thus by 36 I had been rejoined by the crowd. Around this time the furtively-stashed squeezies came out, 2 in quick succession. Hello fast carbohydrates, it's been a while. 34, 33 and 32 were easy, then the hard call whether to dive down for 35 then back up to 31. The trail down to 35 was the boggiest yet, and a real fight to get back up in such a state.

All over bar the shouting / wimpering

Just after leaving 31, thinking, "it's all over, that's it" my knee said exactly that. No way was I running out of there, so a brisk walk back to the bike it was. The next pleasant surprise was instant, debilitating cramp in both adductors (inside thighs) within making 2 pedal strokes down the road. The subsequent attempts to dismount the bicycle whilst stretching whilst avoiding colliding with other road users would probably have caused some mirth among fellow competitors, had they not been having such fun of their own. Luckily the cramp settled down, allowing a gingerly remount and easy / high RPM ride back to the finish, a few minutes late (again) but having cleared the course (again).

One really helpful discovery was the 'lap distance' function on the Suunto T6c watch. At least I had a rough idea of how far I'd gone since the previous CP. Not that it prevented me from overshooting several very easy CP's, thus proving that technology is no match for nav skills. Not only is it something else to go wrong, if you trust it implicitly you will suffer. He who lives by the gadget, dies by the gadget. I guess there will always be purists who will swear off stuff like pedometers, devices like the T6c and others (and GPS systems - I'm thinking real-time display ones as opposed to loggers like Nokia Sports Tracker - are already explicitly banned).

The AR component sports are getting ever-more technical, the slow steady creep of innovation in hydration, nutrition, clothing, footwear, lighting systems and load carrying systems means there will always be someone who has an edge because of new kit. However the maxim "All the gear, no idea" holds strong, and there's still no substitute for time in the field and training.

Bringing a big pink plastic bucket along was a master stroke. Everything was peeled off and binned, and warm dry stuff gotten into.
Everything resembling food was eaten, and the bike put back on the car. There was no way I could have jumped in and driven straight away - getting cramp while doing 70 on the M3 in the dark is not my idea of being a responsible road user. So into the hall for a slap-up bowl of Bolognaise, white bread, a huge slice of cake and a hot cup of tea. Simon did the prizegiving, thanks all round to the helpers (big clap) and that's it. The first of hopefully many AR's. With a tad more preparation and training they should get more enjoyable, even.

Home for a hot bath and a mug of Nocte, which worked a treat - cheers again Russ. Thanks for the advice on preparation - you do need an eggbeater to mix the stuff up. No spoon in the world could do that job. The next morning soreness was bad, but nowhere near as bad as I'd feared. The knee wouldn't even allow a gentle jog to catch the train, so it's no exercise for a week on the Physio's orders - following an eye-watering session today involving elbows and needles to get to the offending muscle tissue.

Already looking forward to 15th March in the Dorset Hills.

*edit* the 3 competition images were taken by Nathan at Lipsquid. I purchased 3 downloadable versions for a tenner. Not bad value considering he had to stand around in a swamp for 5 hours in the rain. I mean, some weird people pay for that sort of privilege...Oh, I used to dream of standing roun' in a swamp...would have been a palace to us...

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Sunday looms....

On Sunday I venture forth to do battle with my legs on the windswept heath of the New Forest.

The kind folks at Dynamic Adventure Racing have put on a good show by the look of it. Where else can you pay £35 for 8 hours of fun? After last Sunday's debacle (post still to come) I'm actually feeling optimistic. An hour with my physio last night clarified that 1) I'm not fundamentally broken and 2) I should be OK for 2hrs running / 3hrs mountainbiking / another hour's running (in the dark this time).

I need to score some
decent electrolyte replacement goods, as well as some carbohydrate love. Years ago, doing loads of day-long epic MTB rides in the backcountry of New Zealand, I used to eat Mother Earth bars by the boxful. I always had at least 3 boxes in the boot of the car. Plus a few bananas for potassium, to avoid the dreaded cramp. I need to find the UK equivalent of Mother Earth, but the GO bars will do for a first trial.

She'll be a long day for sure, and I'll not be pushing so hard that injury is likely. Having the T6c keeping a close eye on my % heart rate will be cool. I do tend to go hard when I feel good, then blow up a few hours later. Sticking below 80% from the start should hopefully mean I finish 8hrs later with some degree of composure.


I'm set up with my 122dB emergency whistle, my first aid kit and hopefully today, a new micro compass for the Miry Mapboard. I'm really looking forward to seeing what cycling and map reading at the same time does to my brain :-)

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

I love Suunto

It's official: I love Suunto. Years ago I used a Suunto Advizor (the grey one on the left), however after much mocking from my wife for wearing a watch the size of an aircraft carrier we parted company. Altitude was nice to know, but really a gimmick for my needs at the time. Fast-forward to 2009...needs change, and the VDO 12.6 HRM+bike computer just wasn't cutting it.

After a lot of research and general geeking about, it really came down to one device - the T6c (the sexy red/black one on the right). Out of the box it was paired and working with the supplied Heart Rate Monitor chest strap, which is a real step up from previous efforts. The sensor bits that read your HR are set into the fabric of the strap, meaning they are very comfortable to wear. The only hard plastic part is a disc that sits in the centre of your chest. In fact, it's comfy enough to wear all night in order to capture the elusive resting heartrate.

I also use the FootPOD (love those capitals) to track distance when running. It clips to a wee bracket that you nail down under your shoelaces. It pops on/off if you are going to completely immerse your shoes or want to swap betweeen shoes (but it is held in place very tightly. I have no fears it would fall off in a race, unless you hit your foot so hard you've probably broken a bone). This is way more than a pedometer, in that it analyses your gait a thousand times a second using a tri-axial accelerometer. Out of the box it measured 970m on a 1000m distance, which is not at all shabby, and is what Suunto reckon the default accuracy should be. Calibrating it was a breeze - having run exactly 1000m, a few button presses tells the T6c that the 970 was really 1000, and voila! from then on it's correct. The run back along the 1000m stretch confirmed this. One caveat of the FootPOD is that it is only accurate on flat surfaces. The Orienteering race I did this weekend (another post coming on THAT) showed what I believe to be a marked variation between measured and actual, as a lot of jumping over fallen brances, roots etc plays havoc with the sensitive, er, sensors. I have no proof of this though, so I'll try to do a comparison of GPS vs. FootPOD over rough ground in future.

Finally, I have two wireless BikePOD's - one for the MountainBike and one for the Cyclocross bike. I had an initial panic that the T6c was not the right device after all, when I found there was only one 'slot' in the watch's software for a BikePOD. Trying to pair another BikePOD just confused it. After a call to Suunto's brilliant tech support, it transpires that you just pair the 2nd BikePOD as another sort of device, in this case, a SpeedPOD (whatever that is). The T6c is smart enough to recognise that it's talking to a BikePOD, and allows you to calibrate it for the different wheel diameter. So now, no matter what I'm riding, the distance/speed will be bang on, with no faffing about. Also, swapping from run to bike and back, the T6c recognises the activation of the new POD and changes the speed scale accordingly, from minutes per km to km/hr, if you want. And keeps recording the exercise log. Nice.

I've had a bit of a play with downloading exercise logs to the Suunto software on my PC using the attached USB cable. There's so much info it's scary, and I haven't had any time to do more than look at HR and distance and go "yep, I was knackered at that point". But it's nice to know it works.

All in all, the T6c gets 5 out of 5 on the Mike-O-Meter of sporty geekness. It's not cheap, but it doesn't disappoint in any way (yet).

The guys at heartratemonitor.co.uk were really helpful.
As they have a pricematch promise it was a bit of a no-brainer to go with them.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Righto.

Time to get off my arse and actually do what I've been putting off for years. Namely: to get seriously fit, get over long-standing injury, see more of This Sceptr'd Isle, and maybe get some cool new toys along the way.

Since the age of about 5, maps and compasses have intrigued me. I have very fond memories of my grandmother buying me my first real compass, a Silva Orienteering one with a yellow lanyard. I spent most of my teenage years in the cadet forces, doing loads of navigation work, so this sort of thing is second nature. I have dabbled in Orienteering on and off for about 25 years, but now with a growing interest in Adventure Racing (AR) honing up my nav skills is critical to having a good time. Being lost is not a good time as I discovered this weekend gone, but that's another post.

Mountainbiking, cyclocross, mountain running and navigation are all in my bag, baby. I'm up for any and all combos of the above.

So what I'll be doing is noting down my achievements, disappointments, goals, journeys, gear, etc - whatever I think might be even remotely interesting to you dear reader, or to my children in years to come.

To clear up something from the start: I like toys. Most things electronic, or beautiful from a functionality / design standpoint, I'm in. A Monopol corkscrew

or a Squeezebox - they are equally beautiful to me.


So part vanity project, part blog, part diary, part historic record, this will be my online storehouse of things outdoorsy, things adventure-prone.

Let's go.