Run for the hills: Adventure racing

Adventure racing is big news. So how did hillwalker Daniel Neilson fare running, mountain biking and kayaking around the Sussex Downs for two days?

Illustration photo of Run for the hills: Adventure racing

And then I fell down a rabbit hole, and I wasn’t entirely convinced I wanted to get out again. “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!” I heard a White Rabbit exclaim in my exhausted brain. I flicked the light on my GPS watch. I had 23 minutes to get back to the event base. It was 9pm and pitch black, I’d been running, cycling and kayaking since 10am that morning and I was up to my knees in the front porch of what I imagined to be a very annoyed rabbit family with an airy little abode on the South Downs. Perhaps if I stayed here there’d be a tea party in the burrow where the Mad Hatter would feed me caffeine gel packs and isotonic drinks with electrolytes (whatever they are).

“Get it together, Dan,” I told myself out loud. I pulled my foot out with a satisfying squelch and started skidding back down the slippery chalk downs somewhere above Alfriston in East Sussex. In the woods, lights flashed around me with increasing regularity. I heard mumbling voices, giggles and the occasional yelp – those rabbit holes again. As I hit a road, I saw more headlamps bobbing around me – there were perhaps 30 or so runners heading back to base camp, mostly in high spirits. More runners soon joined the pack, all hoping to get back to the finish line before 9.30pm, or be fined points. I ran under the inflatable finish line without jubilation. I hadn’t finished the race, I was merely halfway through. Tomorrow would be more running, more cycling, more pain. All I wanted was a bath, a cold beer and to consume more pasta and pesto than Tony Soprano.

A good idea?
I’d signed up for the Questars Adventure Race in the Brecon Beacons but life conspired against taking part in that one, so instead I went on the next one on the South Downs. Rather sneakily, the base also happened to be 10 minutes from my house and the ground it covers I know intimately. Pah, I thought, this is going to be a doddle. It was my second adventure race. The first had been with Tri-Adventure in the New Forest. I loved it, but the navigation handrails were alien: ‘inclosures’, ‘waters’, ‘shoots’; here on the South Downs it was all familiar ‘tumuli’, ‘bottoms’ and ‘dewponds’. It would be straightforward, I could even pop home for a cup of tea if I needed (although I’m fairly sure that would be against the rules). It turns out you need more than a good recce to succeed at adventure racing, although I’m not exactly sure what ‘success’ is in adventure racing. I’d soon discover.

Adventure racing is, simply put, a combination of two or more activities – usually mountain biking, trail running, paddling and climbing – plus navigation over a fixed time period, which could be a couple of hours to more than a week. With the exception of climbing, it is the perfect combination of disciplines I love, all combined with being outside all day in gorgeous scenery. Adventure racing really started around the late 1990s, getting ever more elaborate. Questars, who organised this race, have been going since 2004 and in 2009 Team adidas Terrex were the first British team to become Adventure Racing World Champions. I can hear the sound of some fell runners and mountain marathon runners gnashing teeth: but it was the Original Mountain Marathon, then called the Karrimor International Mountain Marathon in 1968, that started the whole thing. And the principle of adventure racing is much like the mountain marathons. You are given a dibber to dob at various checkpoints, picking up points along the way. These days it’s all electronic; my dibber beeps and flashes when dobbed. The man, woman or duo with most points at the end wins. Now, with the multi-disciplines and some nifty marketing, its popularity has exploded recently. You can see it in the gear we get sent at The Great Outdoors; everything is ‘fast’ and ‘light’. That’s how I find myself on a cold clear morning dressed in an OMM Kamleika jacket and Salomon’s Skin S-Lab backpack.

Day 1
Jelly babies and jelly legs
I awoke nervous, wolfed down some porridge and headed to the event base in Alfriston. I had a large plastic container full of gear: base-layers, gel packs, inner tubes, Vaseline, waterproofs, and my bike. The event base marquee was packed when I arrived for the orientation. I saw earnest types who looked as though they’d already run 26 miles just to warm-up, bickering couples: “I don’t want to say I told you so, but that choice of shoe…”, giggling duos and a few quiet, anxious-looking first-timers. That was me. After a detailed safety talk and a not so detailed explanation of each stage, we were given an OS map of the area with the location of the checkpoints, each coloured as to how they should be approached: on bike, on foot, by kayak. These could be done in any order I wished, but transition from bike to foot could only take place once. It was bewildering to plan, even though I love staring at maps. Like a cheating GCSE pupil, I hovered around the marquee as other participants purposefully joined up their route and leapt away. Finally, I’d decided on an order of sorts – bike, kayak, run – and a direction. I’d start with what I knew best.

It was 10am, and I had six hours. Dibber dobbed, I hopped on my bike and headed for the first checkpoint on my route. “Stick to the plan, stick to the plan.” One checkpoint down, two down. The sun was shining, my bike was working; this is great, I thought to myself. The plan, needless to say, didn’t last long after I’d underestimated a hill climb. Plus, the brightly coloured checkpoints are about the size of a phone, but sometimes frustratingly hidden around the back of a fence or on a tree. I learned that some entrants will help if you can’t find it, while others will pretend you are not there. Having been born without the merest hint of a competitive streak, the latter I found confusing – I was a chatty, helpful contestant. Some were there to win. Between checkpoints I’d often fall in synch with another rider enjoying the day out. It would be more fun as a duo, I think, but it was still a sociable day with a sense of camaraderie I enjoyed.

A dip in the water
I love Cuckmere Haven. I remember as a schoolchild visiting the area on geography field trips because, like those textbook illustrations of water features that are improbably squeezed in every feature in a square mile, Cuckmere Haven was really like this: meandering river, delta, levee, mouth, flood plains; heck, there was even an ox-bow lake and longshore drift. In actual fact, the curly part of the Cuckmere is a lake (a channel directs the River Cuckmere into the English Channel at the foot of the white cliffs of the Seven Sisters), and this is good news for adventure racing kayakers – there was no tide to battle against. I jumped into a kayak for the first time in several years and immediately remembered how hard it was. The checkpoints were attached to various overhanging fences that required a bit of negotiation. I’d intended to get all of them, but after a couple my arms were failing me. Time for a run. I was just over three hours into the race and felt great. It was such a lovely day.

I discarded my bike, changed into my running shoes, and headed into the folds of the South Downs, across fields, over stiles and into Friston Forest. It was mercifully cool in the shade and I had a spring in my step. Readers who enjoy this kind of thing will know that somehow when you need to run most of the day it becomes kind of normal – you just keep on going. It was soon time to head back to event base (points are docked if you are late) and flagging but happy I lurched over the line. “See you in a couple of hours,” the marshal said. Nuts, I’d forgotten about this evening’s night stage. At this point, seemed unnecessarily cruel. Fortunately, I had a shower and pasta to enjoy, while the rest of the contestants had a tent and a portaloo.

Day 2
Riding the ridge
The night stage was less successful, but I still enjoyed it, despite the affray with the rabbit hole. It’s amazing how your perspective changes in the dark. It was an area I knew well, but navigation required real concentration. I realised how little I’d walked at night – something I’d rectify; perceptions are totally skewed and senses keener.
The next day shone clear. It was a five-hour stage over a different area on bike and foot. I cycled west out of Alfriston towards Lewes along the Old Coach Road at the foot of the South Downs. It’s a wide, clear path, fine on a mountain bike, but I’d imagine a nightmare in a stagecoach. It was easy going, and I’d return along the ridge of “Our blunt, bow-headed whale-backed Downs,” as Kipling wrote. For me, the ridge between Southease and Alfriston is the finest stretch of the 100-mile South Downs Way. I walked my bike up to the top, regretting the decision to head up at this point. It was steep enough to occasionally grab at tufts of grass in desperation, but once on the top, and after I’d wiped sweat out of my eyes, the panorama was as expansive as it was beautiful. The Weald to the north was a maze of fields and B-roads, while to the south, the sun reflected brightly off the English Channel. I fancied I could see France, and headed off back to Alfriston. I descended a thrilling singletrack road for a good 3km, going a longer way back to extend the descent. While much can be said for slowly walking, contemplating views and admiring flora, much can also be said for hurtling down a bumpy bridleway.

I dropped my bike for the last leg along the Cuckmere River. I was tired now. The last 24 hours were catching up with me. A touch of cramp kept appearing in my legs. One bloke muttered something about needing more ‘electrolytes’ (I’ve since Googled them and I’m none the wiser really), but in between the agonising contractions I kept on running. I’d planned a fairly short round to be back within plenty of time. I ran the last few kilometres with some new friends, and together we ran under the finish line. In a fug of an exercise-induced endorphin rush we hugged and congratulated each other. We sat down picking at roast potatoes in the sun, reflecting on common themes: how being stung by nettles reminds us of childhood, amusingly-named features on the map (Park Bottom, Plonk Barn, Crapham Down), and what the next race will be (two votes for the OMM Lite, one for the entire Questars series).

A few days later I checked the results. I got 958 points over a time of 10 hours and 33 minutes. The winner got 1763 points (how!?). I was mid-table in the novice class. I was the Burnley of adventure racing. Maybe if I hadn’t fallen down that rabbit hole…

First published in June 2013