Adventure racing is anything but mainstream. A multidisciplinary endurance sport far removed from civilization that tests the mind as well as the body.
The 2021 Master course of the Nordisk Adventure Challenge
in Silkeborg, Denmark was simultaneously the European Championship of
Expedition-Length Adventure Racing, raising the level of the competition across
the board. With a point-to-point distance of 575 kilometers, an 80-hour time
limit gave us three and a half days to complete the course, which left little
to no time for sleep.
So what exactly is Adventure Racing? Well-known in some parts of the world, it is still an obscure sport here in Germany. Also called expedition racing, adventure racing is a team sport involving the main disciplines of trekking, mountain biking and paddling, but often include climbing, abseiling, swimming, inline skating, horseback riding, skiing and whitewater rafting, among others. Teams are generally mixed in gender and made up of two to five people, with the standard being four racers: 3 men and 1 woman. A team must remain together through all disciplines throughout the entire race. A set of maps are given to competitors shortly before the start, and navigation (without GPS) is required to get through the course. A good navigator can steer even a weaker team to victory by choosing the best routes, whereas poor navigation can lead to dead ends, longer routes, difficult terrain, getting lost and ultimately, frustration and vexation amongst the teammates.
The beginning of this journey brought me to a small village outside of Hannover to meet with two members of my team, Vincent, our captain, and Ange, his cousin. Both 20 years younger than me. Our fourth member, Lucas, also more than a decade my junior, was taking the train in from Basel, Switzerland later that day. We’d drive together to Silkeborg the following morning. Lucas is originally from Columbia and has 15 years of adventure racing experience, while Ange is an adventure racing newbie with a strong background in biking, and Vincent, our leader and a giant at 2-meters tall, is a master of all tricks and can pretty much do everything, though his strengths lie in paddling and climbing.
Expedition-length adventure racing is not only an enormous challenge for the body, but a logistical feat that requires considerable detailed planning. The race in Silkeborg would consist of 18 legs, between which, at a few designated points, you get access to your gear. You need to carry all of your food and drink as well as mandatory equipment such as first aid and safety items. Sometimes you need to carry gear for several legs which requires a change of clothing from trekking to biking or swimming, in which case a life-preserver may be required and has to be brought with you. You may have a trekking/climbing stage and have to lug your climbing belt, helmet and weighty carabiners with you. And you don’t have weeks or months to plan this as the race plan is disseminated just days before the race. Timing is everything. Experience is priceless.
After checking into our little cabin at a campground in Silkeborg, we unpacked the van and began to scatter our gear all over the place to try to find some semblance of organization in the midst of utter chaos in an attempt assemble our gear boxes for the transition zones.
After a day of packing and double-checking we finally had our 5 gear boxes, four bike boxes and a paddle bag filled with four kayak paddles, seat cushions, neoprene suits, gloves and paddle jackets ready to go hand over to the organization. Shortly afterwards we’d get our 45 maps and have 4 hours to review and mark the best routes to the 187 check points prior to the start.
Well, it was not really the start of the race, but the prologue, which is actually a race in itself for 2 hours around the city of Silkeborg for which the sole purpose, other than to entertain the city dwellers, is to spread the teams out before crossing the starting line so that we are not one endless line of racers following each other from check point to check point.
Promptly at 4:00pm, the teams were announced and introduced at the starting line in the city center and the prologue kicked off. We were sent on a sprint through the streets of Silkeborg, with quite a few of the runners gripping blow-up air mattresses to help in the swim sections. After about 2 kilometers we all jumped into the river for a 600-meter swim after which the teams were subdivided into smaller groups. We were first sent back into the water for a 1.5-km swim further down river, at one point having to climb up out of the water on a rope ladder onto a bridge and then run off the bridge and back into the river to continue swimming. Then we were back in the city for a climb and rappel up a four-story brick building, a white-water kayak relay, another swimming obstacle course, and a Lego-figure-building teamwork task before we were finally on the first leg of the official race course!
The first leg was a run and swim whereby we were in and out of the water half a dozen times completing a distance of about 35 kilometers. The shortest water crossing was a river of about 20 meters across, while the longest was about 600 meters across a lake. Before each crossing, our backpacks were placed in dry bags which we then towed through the water. Anyone who knows me knows that I do not like water. And cold water even less. I don’t like swimming and am not a big fan of any water sports. Showering is my single amicable relationship with water. So I was dressed in neoprene leggings, a long-sleeved swim shirt, neoprene jacket, glove mitts and cap, shoes and socks. And a life jacket which was required for all swims. While the guys, on the other hand, were in T-shirts and shorts. Until they weren’t. That is, at some point they were sick and tired of changing in and out of wet clothes so eventually as night fell and we were out in the wilderness all three of my teammates decided to swim in their birthday suits and call it a day. So, imagine the scene when another team came up behind us just as we were about to enter a water crossing. The middle of the night, three buck-naked men wearing only life preservers and me dressed from head-to-toe in black neo, with a tow-line attached to the life preserver of Lucas. To the inexperienced observer we were either filming a porno or competing in an adventure race.
Each of the checkpoints (CP) were listed in our Road Book and given a title like: Statue, Overhanging Tree, Southwest Corner of Bunker, etc. And these names were in English but translated from Danish by a Dane, which needless to say, the translations were not always exactly accurate. Case in point, sometime in the middle of the night we were looking for a CP entitled Bridge, and after running back and forth along a shoreline for nearly 45 minutes looking for a bridge that would give us the CP and take us to the other side of the lake, we realized that there was no bridge, it was a wooden dock, from which we would unfortunately not have a dry crossing but another swim! Argh. Ange, Lucas and I were not thrilled but Vincent was ecstatic because he loves water. I often felt like I was the mom of this foursome, not necessarily because of the age difference but because what could a bunch of little boys wish for more than to run around during the night swimming, climbing, and mountain biking?
That leg took us about 10 hours to finish and we were into the first transition zone and on the mountain bikes by sunrise. A short bike to the lake where we piled into a canoe. Two seats, three paddles, four persons. I curled up amongst the backpacks in the hull and tried to get some shuteye, but despite running through the night, at that time of the day it is tough to sleep with the sun blazing, the rocking of the waves and Lucas singing. So I simply rested while the guys were having fun paddling. We had to go ashore to get some checkpoints before we had a transition where we had left our mountain bikes. We loaded the bikes from Vincent and me in the canoe, and the two of us paddled further, meeting Ange and Lucas later on the other side who met us by bike.
Then it was back on the bikes for an epic leg of over 100 kilometers that took us about 14 hours, in between which we had to stop at a climbing park and do an elevated climbing, zip-line course high above the tree line, as well as a tricky BMX-inspired trail loop which felt like a scene from the Maze Runner from which there was seemingly no escape. As we entered a city our next checkpoint was at a high-rise where there was a rapelling task from a 12-story hotel. The guys were thrilled! I was not. Abseiling James Bond style from 120 meters with equipment that I’d never used before was not happening for me, so after going up and cheering the guys on, I took the elevator as well as a minor penalty back down to the ground to continue on the bikes.
But finally at 2am on Friday morning we reached the next transition area where we were to catch a bus to the next leg of the race. We had to disassemble our bikes and pack them in the bike boxes then could get an hour of shut-eye on the floor of an auditorium (I’d packed my sleeping bag in the gear box for this, yippee!) before the bus was schedule to leave at 3:30 am. The bus ride was about 1.5 hours so that was obviously was spent in dreamland too.
When we awoke and disembarked at around 5:30 no one knew where we were except that we were somewhere on the coast, but which coast? North Sea or Baltic? We soon realized we were at a castle estate on the Baltic where we had another little prologue-running-puzzle-solving-event before we set off on the second half of the course.
This next leg was comprised of 42 kilometers (a marathon) of coasteering. This is a discipline where you trek along the coastline, remaining within 1.5-meters of the shoreline at all times. If there is an obstruction on the shoreline, you have to go over or under it, or into the water instead of on land. We were in and out of the water constantly over this 10-hour haul. Thankfully the weather was gorgeous and the sights were beautiful on this completely remote track of land on the Danish Baltic shore.
Next up was a 50-kilometer kayak tour on the Baltic. We checked into the next transition late in the afternoon and were hoping to get some distance on the water behind us before darkness set in, but getting the kayaks down to the water was no simple task, as we had to carry them along with all our gear for more than a kilometer. And they were heavy. Very heavy. Much too heavy for me so I was tasked with shuttling back and forth all our gear to shore side while the guys wrestled with the boats: 2 single kayaks and 1 double.
Finally around 6:30 pm I was teamed up with Vincent in the double and Ange and Lucas were on their own in the singles as we headed out to sea in somewhat choppy conditions. As the sun went down (yes, it was beautiful) the wind picked up and so did the height of the waves. I was scared (due to my water phobia) as we crossed wide open spaces of water to islands to collect checkpoints in the dark. After darkness set in and we were several hours in the boats, Lucas told us he needed to take a break and sleep. But where? It was late and dark and we were cold and in kayaks on the Baltic?!? We eventually decided to take a short break and huddled together on the shore in some sea grass where we slept about 15 minutes after finding a checkpoint. At the next land stop we decided to try to sleep a little longer but I knew this was not a good idea for me since I was wet and cold already. If I didn’t keep moving my body temperature would drop even more. But I trusted the team’s decision and we wrapped up in our emergency blankets and curled up off the shoreline. I kept getting colder and colder while the guys slept. I couldn’t sleep and kept mumbling about how cold I was. Finally I knew the situation was getting critical and that I was in the initial stages of hypothermia. I woke the guys. They jumped into action. They were awesome. Sooner than I knew what was going on they had me tucked into an emergency heat foil bag, a buff and swim cap on my head and warm neoprene mittens on my hands. I snuggled down into the bag and slowly felt the heat creeping back into my body. After about 10 minutes Vincent asked me how I was. I said that I was getting warmer. I wanted to stay curled up like that for hours but I knew that as soon as I was ‘out of danger’ we needed to get moving, so after another few minutes I told them I was ready to go. We packed up our packs and got back into the kayaks and paddled into the darkness. Back in motion, it wasn’t long until I was warm again and concentrating on the task at hand. We were now looking for a bridge to cross under to get from the bay to more open exposed water. It was still dark so land masses were just black patches but shouldn’t a bridge be lit up? Wouldn’t we see headlamps of cars traveling across it? We soon realized that this would be the second ‘bridge’ that was not a bridge, or at least not in the traditional sense. It was a land bridge that we needed to cross over, not under. So upon reaching the breachway, I climbed out of the kayak, and scrambled up the steep embankment to see if there was possible reentry into the water on the other side. There was. So I carried the paddles and gear while the guys lugged the kayaks up and then back down the other side. As the first boat was delivered to the edge of the shore and they guys went back for the next, I suddenly heard a scraping noise (yes, that sound of hard molded plastic scraping along rocks) and turned to see our kayak ship off on its own into the water! Boat! Boat! I yelled but none of us were close enough to grab it so once the second boat was in the water Ange paddled out to secure the runaway back onto land.
The sky was beginning to brighten and just as the sun was beginning to rise we decided to take another short break and we laid on an island in the tall grass in the morning sun. After that we had the last push of about 10 kilometers to the next transition but it was the toughest segment of all. A strong headwind and 2 to 3 meter waves battered us as we tried to navigate along the coastline, at times seemingly making no progress at all. We pushed through paddle drills which had my nervous system at its limits and the tears came again with the fear of being capsized and having to battle it out in the water to reach the shoreline. Vincent had his hands full with the boat and conditions but still tried to console me and my fears. And eventually that gray Nordisk Adventure Challenge flag was in sight in the distance and after 17 hours we were finally done with the element of water in Denmark.
We were then somewhat behind on the transitions and would miss the pick-up time for our last gear bag, so instead of a bike/run/bike finish, we’d bike it all the way in. Just 100 or so kilometers ahead of us until the finish line in Silkeborg.
We were now into the fourth day with only about four hours sleep during that time and the effects were taking their toll. I was wobbly on the bike and was sporadically dozing off. I reported this to Vincent by telling him that I didn’t want to stop and sleep but that I was in a lull and that we should take is slowly and carefully. He said that he already knew. Apparently my swerving all over the place was a dead give-away. But despite my fogginess, I couldn’t help but notice an apple-tree grove along the trail and I ditched the bike and ran in to pick four juicy apples for our team, a welcome fresh food after days of vacuum-packed products.
As we’d stop for checkpoints I’d let the guys look for the flags while I sat down, reclined back against my backpack without removing it, and simply dozed off for 10 seconds, 30 seconds, whatever was available. This repeatedly over the span of about an hour each time that we stopped and finally I was rejuvenated and felt as though I’d had a full night’s sleep, though in total it was probably not more than several minutes. We rode on trails and roads, through forests and villages, grabbing checkpoints along the way. And as if in a blur (which it understandable was) we finally reached the outskirts of Silkeborg and our goal was so close we could taste it. Then we were nearly blown away by another team passing us that had taken the longer course and though finishing at nearly the same time as us, they’d be way ahead in the standings because of the complexity of the rules and the sport, allowing stronger, faster teams to cover more ground and gain more points, yet slower teams to remain in the middle of the action.
We collected two more checkpoints then headed to the city center exhausted but still pumping with adrenalin about the ensuing euphoric finish. And then… we crossed the finish line with the jubilant crowd of zero. No one. It was midnight on Saturday and there was not a single spectator, competitor, nor drunk Silkeborgian in sight. But then we heard Wait! and the race directors came running out of an adjacent tent to take photos and congratulate us. Then they were overly welcoming, offering drinks and food and of course, our finish medals.
Now what? We were completely spent but our cozy campground cottage was about 5 kilometers away, so the easiest thing to do was to just stay on the bikes. After all, what’s another 15 minutes of riding after an epic 400-km haul?
Back at the ranch, a hot shower, a sandwich and that tiny little bed with fluffy comforter and pillow were the most decadent luxuries I could ever have hoped for. That topped off with satisfaction, pride and the gratification of success were all the elements required for 8 hours of a well-deserved, hard-earned rest.