Open Adventure 2 day stage race
The second 2-day stage adventure race took place in a gloriously sunny North Wales this weekend. Racers from all over England, Wales and Scotland congregated by the stunning lake at Trawsfynydd near Coed y Brenin for 2 days of adrenaline-fuelled adventure racing.
Two day stage races are a historical phenomenon in adventure racing (‘AR’), having been the bread and butter of the now-defunct ‘Ace Race’ event company, and the place many British adventure racers cut their teeth. Open Adventure, the premier organiser of adventure races in the UK, picked up the gauntlet thrown down by Ace Races. Director James Thurlow, wearing an old and faded Ace Race t-shirt at the race HQ on Saturday, explained that “everyone loves the format, and my wife and I used to race them. With no Ace Races around any more, it seemed like it was up to us!”
The format is simple – 5 stages of different lengths and discipline over 2 days. You race in teams, pairs or solo, and get as many points as you can on each stage. In Wales, like in the Lake District event a month ago, racers started with a 2 hour foot navigation stage, followed by a short break and a 5 hour mountain bike navigation stage. Then, a few hours later, when the sun has gone down, competitors set out for the gruelling 90 minute ‘night nav’ on foot. After a good night’s sleep, the early morning 90 minute kayak begins, again with navigation. The final stage is a 17km trail run, which is scored on how many minutes racers finished behind the fastest time of the day (losing 5 points per minute). As with all adventure racing, route choice on the navigation stages is strategic and decisions about where to go, how fast and for how long can mean the difference between hero and zero.
Day 1 – Overcooking it at Coed y Brenin
Starting at ‘Go Ape’ in Coed y Brenin, the first foot stage of the weekend caught a lot of teams out. Checkpoints were strung out in the forest, with tracks and footpaths scoring the ground and easily confused with animal trods (which aren’t on the map!) Distances on the map seemed shorter than in ‘real life’ and most of the teams arrived back more than their allocated 2 hours later. That meant penalty points, although in some cases the points lost still made their extra effort worthwhile.
Scrabbling around in transition for a bite to eat, and rehydrating after a sweaty and brambly first stage, racers got ready for their bike leg, which finished not at Coed y Brenin but back at camp. Looking at the map, it was obvious that race planner Andy Mitchel, himself an avid mountain biker, had done everything he could to take in as many of the fast and flowing trails of Coed y Brenin as he could. With a bit of cunning route planning, competitors were in for five hours of singeltrack heaven!
“It was easy to forget you were supposed to be looking for checkpoints!” said Steve Fisher, a keen High Peak-based mountain biker who has had a break from adventure racing for a few years. “Those trails were great fun and it was tempting just to go as fast as you could”. Steve managed the balance between speed and strategy very well, as it happened, and scored the highest number of points out of everyone in that leg.
Back at camp, the Open Adventure Gantry was gleaming in the bright afternoon sunshine and the large digital clock ticking slowly onwards, second by second. A clutch of event support volunteers bustled around the race HQ, checking details for the next few stages, making the most of the brief lull until 6pm when the first of the mountain bikers would return. Suddenly there was a shout “rider approaching” and two sweat-soaked men screamed down the track through the middle of the campsite and hurredly clipped their ‘dibber’ in the electronic timing station before congratulating each other with a hearty handshake. The racer timer, Rob, looked on perplexed, wondering why the rush, when they had arrived an hour early. It turns out they had missed that part of the race briefing and thought they had 4, not 5, hours. Schoolboy error – but at least they had more time for a swim in the lake and to ready themselves for the night navigation later that evening.
By 9pm, all the racers were rested, fed and beginning to think about the night stage. The midges were out and teams were clustered in the marquee, enjoying the midge-free citronella zone. Gradually, the big clock ticked towards 10pm, and those with the lowest scores from the day’s previous 2 stages were gearing themselves to start first. With headtorches strapped on and compasses firmly gripped, competitors beeped their ‘dibbers’ in the timing box and at 30 second intervals began to trot uphill towards the towering fell which was to be the craggy host of the night navigation course.
With little in the way of substantial features to help with navigation, the ‘night nav’ was always going to be tough for those without night time orienteering experience. However, Open Adventure makes a point of being accessible to all, no matter what their experience, so James and the race planners had also distributed a few checkpoints lower down the hillside and along the lake, so that those who didn’t have the confidence to run around the fells at night would also be able to score reasonably. This helped out the several teams who were doing their first ever adventure race. One male pair, themselves admittedly “in need of a bit more fitness training and a few less pies” was doing this race to raise money for CLIC Sargeant. Looking exhausted but elated, they finished day 1 with their heads held high, and collapsed into the lakeside hut they had hired for the weekend to rest up for the final two stages.
Day 2 – A fight for the podium
For the final two stages, the field was split so that half would run first and half kayak first. Trawsfynydd was blisteringly hot even by 8am on Sunday and those who had bagged the run first were delighted as it would only get hotter! A mass start at 8.30 saw the mixed pairs and male solos steadily ease themselves into a firm running pace as they took off up the same track as their night nav had started the previous evening. This time, there were no tricky checkpoints to find, just a simple marked route. 1 hour and 42 minutes later, elite fell runners Shona Robertson and Adam Perry came haring back down the hill, telling tales of thigh-deep bog and slow going terrain. They dived straight in the lake to cool off while the spectators hung around to cheer the remaining runners in over the line.
Meanwhile the kayakers were out on the water, disappearing round crinkly headlands to collect hidden checkpoints. Clearing the course was tough, and only a few of the fastest teams managed it, although all were late back by a few minutes. Dragging their kayaks up onto the pebbly beach, they too sunk down into the cool water before preparing for their run.
Having eaten and stretched, it was time to swap over and the larger field of female and male pairs, female solos and mixed teams lined up for their run. This is where the fierce competition was being fought, as Teams For Goodness Shakes and Costa Rica were battling it out for 2nd and 3rd place behind Mountain Hardwear, who had a healthy lead. Also, team Haglofs Silva were switching the lead with Total XC/Facewest pairing of Ian Furlong and Stuart Pitches. The run was going to be important in the overall classification!
A very hot stream of fell runners began to return nearly 2 hours later, well after the kayakers were home and dry. It was clear Shona and Adam’s time was the one to beat as even experienced fell racers were struggling to match it. Female solo Rosemary Byde sprinted down the finishing straight, dibbed her timer and then collapsed in the shade of the registration marquee, calling for water and ice. “I’m so hot. I felt sick out there”. Rosemary had pushed so hard, hoping to extend her lead in the female solo category, and had gone into the red. A quick cool off in the lake and litre of water saw her red cheeks dull to a normal pink again and her smile soon returned!
- Mountain Hardwear (Ozanne, Pilkington, Collison, Emmet)
- For Goodness Shakes (Morris, Enderby, Lonsdale, Turner)
- Costa Rica (Verjee, Spence, Davies, Heppenstall)
- Shona Robertson and Adam Perry (Accelerate)
- Sophie Moore and Ed Clifford (Tri Adventure)
- Fiona Poulter and Keith Wilkinson (Tri-Active)
- Kim Norman and Jan Rogers (Jolly Rogers)
- Sue Woods and Lisa Whetter
- Nicole Evans and Jenna Kelway (Evansway)
- Bruce Duncan and Tim Higginbottom (Haglofs Silva)
- Ian Furlong and Stuart Pitches (FaceWest/Total XC)
- Rob Joules and Paul Round-Turner (Still Rookies)
- Steve Fisher
- Finbar McGurren (Get no sleep)
- Eddie Winthorpe (Internationally blank)
- Rosemary Byde
- Sharon McDonald (Castleberg Outdoors)
- Rebecca Lemen-Hogarth (Temporarily Misplaced)
Stage races are a great way of mixing the social side of adventure racing with the adrenaline of fast stage racing and the endurance required to keep going for 2 days! If you’re interested in more racing in this format, look at the Questars and Might Contain Nuts alternatives, and think about entering the Open Adventure Coast 2 Coast. The C2C is a 4 day stage race that crosses the beautiful and classic Coast to Coast route, but with biking, kayaking and running thrown in. The camp sites each night are a buzz of chat and excitement, and the racing by day is some of the best you’ll ever experience in the UK. Check out Open Adventure for more information.
All photos thanks to Charlotte Hattersley.