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Thursday, December 24, 2020

AR: 39-hour training

Team Training Weekend: September 24-27, 2020

It took me six hours to drive from Regensburg up to Hohnhorst, a small village just west of Hannover, Germany. The traffic had been horrendous, with construction everywhere and tractor-trailer trucks lined up like a serpent in the right lane.

But I was welcomed warmly by Vincent, his wife Carina and their chocolate Labrador, Miley. They offered me something to eat and we sat and chatted at the kitchen table for a couple of hours before turning in early. A good nights sleep in the pocket would be great to have before the monster endurance challenge that was waiting for us over the next couple of days.

Carina gave me a pile of sheets and a blanket and Vincent pulled out the sofa bed. I felt comfortable there and was anxious but looking forward to what was to come.

A 06:30 alarm for an 8 am start was the plan. I had slept ok, but not great as is typical in a new bed. I scurried into the kitchen looking for a pot of coffee but didn’t see one nor smell the fresh brew. Hmmm… actually I didn’t even see a coffee pot at all.

“Vincent? Where’s the coffee maker?” I asked.

“Oh, we don’t drink coffee,” he answered, “sorry, I should have warned you.”

Ugh. What now?

But they had black tea, so I was all set, figuring I could stop at a café or bakery somewhere along the bike route and tank up on an espresso later. (Little did I know then that it would be 24 hours before I’d be getting my next ‘cup of joe’.)

Vincent gave me the maps for the first bike leg and I grabbed a highlighter and marked our route. It was estimated to be 70 km with 1,000 meters elevation gain. Give or take, he said.

Everything was pretty chill in getting ready, nothing hectic, we both knew what we were doing and organized all our gear accordingly. We loaded all of our stuff into their giant utility-van that Carina would drive to meet up with us at transition points. This included our clothing for hiking/biking/paddling, food, drinks, first aid, extra headlamps, bike lamps, bike tubes, pump, tools, wet suits, life vests, etc.

Then at 8:23, we were off. At this point it was only me and Vincent. Lucas would meet us later. He lives in Basel, Switzerland and had to work the day before, so he planned to get an early start and meet us around midday for the second leg. Angelus, Vincent’s cousin, would then meet us later that night during the second bike leg. And then our group would be complete for the weekend. The other team member, Andre, couldn’t make it due to an injury.

Vincent had created maps from an online resource on which he had marked check-points and transition areas for a nearly 270-km long course, consisting of biking, trekking, paddling (canoe, kayak), caving, climbing and swimming.

Since the 73-km Regensburg Landkreislauf two weeks earlier, my left ankle was swollen and sore, so my physical therapist advised me to sit out the running segments, but biking and paddling, of course, would be okay.

The first check point took us to a quarry which was also a ‘point of interest’, since there were visible dinosaur footprints in the rock. From there we seemed to simply stay along the ridgeline of a small mountain range, up and down, up and down. Each checkpoint was coincidentally enough at the peaks. I was beginning to learn Vincent’s style. Then we were at a radio tower in an old, abandoned US military settlement which was the last checkpoint before we reached the hospital in Lindenbrunn for our first transition and where we would meet up with Lucas. In total, the ride was nearly 75 km with over 1,200 meter elevation climb.

Lucas seemed to be very tired. He’d just spent 8 hours fighting traffic up the entire western corridor of Germany, only to now have a day and a half of nonstop sport in front of him. It looked like he needed a nap, but strangely enough was ready to go. So after a short logistics discussion, the two guys took off on Leg 2, a 25-km trek which they estimated would take about 3 hours. I got into the van with Carina and Miley and we headed to the next transition area where I would be dropped off with the bikes to wait for the guys’ arrival.

I set up the bikes and the gear and got comfortable with the maps for the next bike leg, marking a route that would take us through the next 80 km and 1500 meters elevation, although, after the first leg, I already had the inkling that it may be longer than planned.

Once I’d finished with the maps I lay down on a huge wooden trailer bed that looked like it was used by the loggers to haul trees out of the woods. It was beginning to get cold and I crawled into the sleeping bag that Vincent had given me, but it was a summer sleeping bag and I was far from toasty warm. It was now nearly 6pm and I was expecting the guys in about an hour, so I was hoping to get a few minutes of sleep before the long night bike leg, but I was not tired and there were occasional trekkers walking by which kept me from being able to relax. Around 7 I got a call from Vincent. They took a wrong turn and would need another hour. Ugh. It was beginning to get dark. He suggested I ride down into the nearest village, but I didn’t want to leave our bikes and gear unattended so I told him I would hold fort. It got colder and then it got dark. And after an hour, still no guys. There were animal noises in the woods and I was so thankful to be up off the ground on that trailer. I kept turning on my headlamp and shining it in the direction of the squeals, squawks and scurrying in the woods. Then I heard what sounded like a cat screaming… maybe a fox, maybe one of those odd wild-cats that you never see because they only come out at night and swallow up squirrels, but after that point there was no chance of me sleeping. At 8:30 pm I heard talking and saw headlamps in the distance and knew I was about to be rescued. The guys had finally arrived.

After a quick change and repacking of the gear, we were on our way deeper into the forest and up towards the next mountainous ridgeline (here we go again). Within the first 30 minutes, the trail up to the Wilhelm Raabe Turm must have had at least a 400-meter climb. It was brutal on my quads. The check-point tower was perched on the top and supposed to afford a fabulous view. I got up to the second parterre then saw the ladders which led up to the remaining etages. Between the footholds were wide gaps which fell off into the darkness below. I decided then to go back down and take photos and videos of the guys on their ascent and descent. Sacrificing myself for the good of the whole. Wink, wink.

In addition to the maps, adventure racing and orienteering also have a document, sometimes called the ‘road map’, which has a brief description of the check points (CPs): water tower, stony cliff, fox hole, etc. This list is sometimes critical in finding the CPs as it gives a multi-dimensional image in your mind of what to look out for.

The road map said that our next CP was the Lippold’s Cave and that we’d have to traverse it from top to bottom. Since it was now after 10pm and completely dark, it was lucky for us, that this the cave was a local tourist attraction that had a sign on the road indicating the path entrance leading up to it. We rode the bikes along the single-track path adjacent to a stream and when we saw a steep sandy embankment leading up to the steel steps to the top of the cave, we left our bikes where they were and scurried up the hill. The opening was about a meter in circumference, nearly perfectly cylindrical and worn with time. I entered in a squat and made my way forward until there was a sharp drop-off to a small ledge, which then had to be further descended by a ladder. At that point I let Lucas take the lead so that there would be some padding under me someone to help guide my descent in case I lost my balance on the first ledge.

Briefly back onto the road and then again into the woods for yet another long arduous ascent. But this time I had some help. Suffering up a hill that had no visible end, I suddenly felt a hand on my back and an immediate relief to my legs. Lucas was at my side. It was amazing how strong he was, able to push me and still power himself up the hill. I may have had to dismount and push otherwise. 

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Eventually we arrived at the highest point where there was small wooden building with a view over the valley below. There were also benches and tables inside, as well as a broom and, for some unclear reason, a doggie-dish.

Lucas stretched out on one of the benches and fell asleep. I would quickly learn that he has an amazing talent to fall asleep immediately anywhere and at any given notice. And he doesn’t have to be lying down either. Sitting works just fine. Probably standing up while leaning against something would also be an option under extreme circumstances.

After 5 minutes of rest, Vincent got a call from his cousin Angelus who was on his way to join us for the rest of the training. A long descent on washed out trails led us to a village where Ange was waiting. He’d seen our headlamps shining in the forest, zig-zagging along the trail as we came down the mountain. Ange had had to work that day which was why he was just joining us now, but he already ridden his bike about 100 km to meet us, so his legs weren’t all that fresh either.

At the next village Vincent announced that he was out of water and that he wanted to look for a cemetery to tap up. In Germany, nearly every village has a church with a tall steeple that can be seen from miles away, and usually next to the church is the cemetery with spigots for watering the grave flowers. But this village was tucked into a hillside, and it was the middle of the night, and as the church tower wasn’t lit, it took us a while to locate it. Up and down the hilly narrow streets. We ended up making a big circle through the village, but eventually we found the cemetery which wasn’t next to the church, and Vincent and I grabbed everyone’s empty bottles and unlatched to creaking old iron gate into the dark graveyard. It was spooky in there. And very dark. Something swooped down above my head. Was that a bat? Where was Dracula supposed to be from again? Vincent soon found a spigot and we were quickly on our way back to the lighted street and the safety of numbers.

Soon we were back onto the wooded trails and again headed steadily uphill. After a short time, I felt a hand on my back and that welcome relief to my legs, but to my surprise it wasn’t Lucas by my side but Ange! He didn’t have the super-human strength that Lucas had, but more than enough to keep away the edge of reaching my limits. This continued throughout the rest of the MTB leg. Every time there was a significant ascent (and there were many), Ange was right by my side.

The next checkpoint was sort of tough to spot. The road map said it was a ‘Lichtung’. I asked the guys what that meant. I knew it had to do with light, but I wasn’t sure if it referred to some type of manmade object. They described it as an opening in the forest. Oh! A ‘clearing’. But when riding 15 km/h in the pitch dark of night, a small clearing was easy to overlook. Eventually, after getting lost for a while, we found it. Actually we were not lost, we knew exactly where we were on the map, but the trails in reality were not what we expected when looking at the map. This happens quite often in the woods. There is always forestry work and trees will be cut, blocking entire sections of pathway, or certain forestry roads will be reinforced while others neglected. Some areas become overgrown from lack of use, or rain and the weather alters them, turning tractor ruts into muddy pools or overgrown moss carpets. And of course the map-makers are not completely up-to-date on forest transformation. Getting through on the bike is also different than on foot, unless you are prepared to carry your bike for certain distances, but with backpacks and mounting sleep deprivation, we searched for the most ridable trails that we could and followed the advice of our compasses to keep us heading in the right direction.

Sometime after midnight we decided to take a short break when we came across a small hiker’s info pavilion along the trail. There were four benches, which was almost too much to resist. So we all laid down and Vincent set his alarm for 10 minutes. In what felt like the blink of an eye, his alarm went off and I said, “Snooze!” and we were all granted 10 more minutes of rest before, somewhat refreshed, we got back on our bikes.

More steep climbs and descents before we were funneled out of the woods and onto some country roads. It was nearing 5 am and were all starting to get really tired so we conspired to stop at the next bakery that we saw and get some coffee and breakfast. Unfortunately, we were really out in the middle of nowhere and a bakery was not to be found for two more hours, and at that point it was like a mirage! Hot coffee, chocolate croissants, whole-grain rolls… yummy!

From there we only had about a 30-minute ride to Ange’s house where we would leave our bikes and transition to the water. We changed into our wetsuits then carried a 2-man kayak and a canoe about 500 meters to the access of a small, shallow stream. We climbed into the boats but didn’t make it far before we were stuck in shallow water. This happened multiple times and each time someone had to get out and pull the boats along. Then we came across a fallen tree. It crossed the stream with dense branches and I saw no option of getting through. That’s when Vincent pulled a saw out of his gear. He began sawing through branches and we’d pull them free and throw them aside. I was trying to maneuver the kayak through, branches poking in my hair, face and forcing the boat to rotate. After about 30 minutes and not having gotten more than a couple of meters, we realized it was futile. There was a steep embankment so getting the boats up and out was difficult, but we managed and then were soon underway with a short distance to where the stream met the main waterway canal. There we had deep water but quite a bit of traffic causing wake-water waves. But we soon got into our rhythm. After about two hours Vincent said that he was falling asleep. I said that’s probably not a good idea the kayak. So we decided to do a sequenced power paddle until we reached to second bridge in sight and then we’d find a mooring and take a break. We tied our boats onto the metal barriers on the side of the canal and climbed up the ladders. There was a narrow strip of grass along the waterway on the other side of which there was a bike path. We laid down head-to-toe, four in a row along, amongst duck droppings in the small strip of grass and slept for about 15 minutes. I can’t imagine what the bikers going by must have thought. Another couple of hours in the boats, carrying them across a motorway and onto a river, and then we were at the next transition area where Carina and her brother met us with hot coffee and cake. It was there that the guys changed into running clothes for a 10-km jog while I drove with Carina to the next check-point at the marina. There I had some time to change and rest. When the guys arrived they did the same, but I stayed awake and watched the time to give them about 20 minutes of rest at which point I turned up the volume on my cell phone and blasted out AC/DCs Highway to Hell as a wake-up call.

It was pouring rain then. In buckets. And very windy. We had a long bike segment ahead of us that no one was looking forward to. So we agreed to shorten it to about 25 kilometers which lightened the mood and brought back some enthusiasm which would guide us through to the end of the tour.

At around 11pm we were back in Hohnhorst and ready for hot showers and hot food. Over pizza and beer we had limited energy for talking and were more than ready for bed at midnight after a 39-hour adventure.

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