Tuesday, 17 September 2013

C2C Adventure Race - 'A Baptism of Fire'

Pete Keron undertook his first Adventure Race, teaming up with the experienced pairing of Jill Eccleston and Sharon McDonald, in the NAV4 Adventure Race Team. Pete is a very experienced elite 'paddler'.. with some interesting observations during his 'Baptism of Fire':

My first experience of adventure racing was a bit of a baptism of fire for someone who has specialised in short (20-40 minute) time trials. Jill asked me if I would be part of the team for the coast to coast race and it sounded like it could be fun, although as the start of the race approached, it seemed less and less so! I was daunted by the combinations of events; the transition between running & cycling is physically hard but the transition from canoeing to running (and vice versa) can be excruciating. It is really easy for legs to go to sleep in the boat and trying to run on sleepy legs is only funny for anyone watching. 

As the event approached the ladies impressed upon me more and more forcefully how it was a short, fast event…. the word ‘Sprint’ was even used. This was amusing to me because anything over 2 minutes is generally regarded at predominantly aerobic, but Jill and Sharon were dead serious and I had to ‘gulp’ hard when I realised the extent of the commitment they were expecting on each of the stages. My trump card (my only trump card) was that I was an experienced paddler and a bit of a rarity in the world of adventure racing. The girls put faith in my ability to paddle fast and make good tactical decisions about boat choice and racing strategy. 

Unfortunately the very first leg was a paddling leg and turned out to be a tactical disaster! We used a marathon racing K2 for the paddling sections and although this is exceptionally fast on flat water, it is extremely unstable. We paddled quite easily away from most of the field off the start line, but as the waves got bigger, I was gripping the paddles harder and harder. The waves got bigger and the narrow bow of the boat was burying with almost every wave. Each crest was coming over our decks and before long we took on water, after which point a capsize was almost inevitable. We managed to save it a few times but in the end we fell in about 2 minutes shy of the finish line and 100m from the shore. I remember thinking that it wasn’t such a bad swim, but I am quite used to swimming and only afterwards did it occur to me how traumatic it must have been for Jill who put her faith entirely in me and had to suffer the unfamiliar feeling of battling against wind and waves just to get to the shore. 

Jill and Sharon set off on the next bike leg and I had time to regroup, empty the boat and get ready for the next paddling leg. The girls rolled quickly into the second transition and we set off up Crummock Water. The waves were straight and small here and although the field had started to string out, we did manage to pass a few crews. Especially on the portage between lakes, where we easily shouldered our 14kg boat and trotted past a couple of teams struggling with heavy boats and tired arms. The run over Robinson, Dale Head and Cat Bells was hard work but incredibly enjoyable, and aside from the constant feeling of impending cramp, the swim across the cool lake was an absolute joy after so much heat and stress. If ever there was a better recipe for cramp than a 2.5 hour fell run followed by a dip into a cold lake then I would like to know - we must have looked like a right bunch, as one after another the competitors seized up, clutching hamstrings or groaning in agony falling victim to the cramp monster. 

Up until this point I had scarcely noticed the support team, but once we had finished their contributions suddenly became really obvious. Graham and Joe had calmly given us absolutely everything we had needed exactly when we had needed it all day and once we finished they were on hand for food, rehydration, results analysis, moral support and advice, not to mention the pitching of tents! The sign of a strong support team must be exactly that - unnoticed during the race and dependable after it. The fact that our transition times were consistently around (or under) three minutes is a testament to their skill, knowledge and organisation. 

Day Two was probably the hardest day for me (or so I thought!) as I had a back to back paddle along thirlmere, run over Helvellyn and then paddle along Ullswater. But it turned out to be by far the most enjoyable, easing along a placid lake, running through the mist over a beautiful hill (and loving the steep and challenging descent down Swirral edge) and then gliding along Ullswater. In fact by the time we got to Ullswater I was starting to feel rather jaded, but Jill was pushing the boat forward and we overtook the whole field (including the overall leaders!) which gave us a great feeling and so we were the first team out of the lake and the girls set off on their bikes to Kirkby Stephen. 

More moral support arrived at Kirkby Stephen as Craig, Edie and Connie came to cheer Jill on and Jules and Bram arrived in style in the caravan to look after me, and how gratefully received was their company after the brutal practicality of tactical advice, nutritional instructions and clock watching of Joe and Graham! First thing on day three was a run over the nine standards where Sharon clearly had ghosts to lay to rest from 2011 when she got lost. The conditions couldn’t have been more challenging with the clag down, indistinct paths and intricate navigation, but Sharon was right on the money as we charged over and down to the transition without so much as a moment’s indecision. 

Day Three was a relatively easy day with only three stages, but the final one was nearly the undoing of me! Jill and I set off on a 28 mile road cycle into Northallerton. With Jill having done the previous cycle leg, it made sense for me to do some towing (being on a road bike and having fresh bike legs) but having never done this before I was unable to anticipate the ‘husky dog’ response that towing seemed to trigger in me! for almost all of the 28 miles I seemed to be grafting and working and flaying myself down to the bone, and by the time day three ended, I was in pieces. 

Day Four proved rather pointedly that the exhaustion was not due to the towing but the accumulated fatigue! Jill had removed the tow because it was actually rather stressful to hang on (travelling at 30mph only 18 inches from my back wheel) but I hadn’t realised it was no longer there and so when it felt like I was towing, but in actual fact I was just a bit weak and struggling up the hills into the wind I had a road to damascus moment where I realised that yesterday the towing effect had been minimal and in actual fact Jill was whipping along just nicely without it! 

Next came a hilly run over Carlton Bank with Sharon and she was on form again, running strongly on both hills and the flat. in anticipation of the long bike leg coming up (and because I was knackered) she even towed me up some of the hills… past several other teams, one of whom commented on the comical scene (the 6ft tall 35 year old man, with his hand on the bum bag of the 40+ year old, 5 ft 6 woman) “...hang on a minute, I thought he was pushing you, but actually you’re dragging him along!”. This moment fairly typified the teams performance and competing with two women and one man competitively against formally sponsored teams with two men and one woman shows the strength and outright performance of Jill and Sharon. 

The penultimate leg of the race was a long bike ride incorporating a fast off road section and then a road section. Jill opted for knobbly tyres on her mountain bike and I rode landcruisers on my cross bike. To my utter amazement, even on the road sections, Jill rode hard and strong all the way and I rarely had to even look up to check she was there! Even on the road sections where the bike was probably 50% heavier than mine and the tyres must have made it feel like treacle, she was still tapping along at 16-18 mph, which considering the preceding three days was a very humbling thought. 

At the end of this leg I felt no fatigue, just incredible satisfaction at an arduous race completed and a great sense of camaraderie with my new teammates and the other competitors I had got to know over the course of the three days. Jill on the other hand had to get out and complete the final leg of a 10 (ahem) km run along the coastal path to Robin Hoods Bay with Sharon. a particularly brutal stage to end with, for anyone who has experienced the unending undulations and been surprised by an unexpectedly hot and sunny day! 

The girls finished after scything through the field and ending the race on a very strong note, and only a minute behind the team in front. Normally this would have been a frustrating gap but on the occasion the enjoyment of the race and the overall performance of the team left me feeling nothing but achievement. 

A great event brilliantly thought through and run. A great team to race with and some fantastic support from Joe, Graham, Craig, Jules and all the children. Thanks to everyone for their support and I hope everyones experience was as positive as mine!

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