Adventure racing is an endurance sport which involves travel on foot (trekking or running), mountain bike and by water (canoe, kayak, raft, occasionally swimming).

What differentiates AR from other racing sports is the inclusion of wilderness navigation using a map, compass and common sense. There is no set race course; participants must find their own route from one checkpoint to the next. The checkpoints (CPs) are marked on maps which the racers receive shortly prior to or at the start of the race. AR also differs from other sports in that racers are part of a team of 2-4 people who travel together the entire time.

The races can last from several hours to many days and are unsupported, for the most part, which means that the racers carry what they will need (food, water, gear) in backpacks for the duration of the race.

To succeed, racers will need athletic endurance, navigation skills, mental toughness, good pre-race planning, strategic decision making as well as a strong and supportive "team" mentality.

Sound intimidating? While it's true that longer races can test even the toughest outdoor athletes, AR is a very open and inclusive sport. Beginning racers will feel welcome at nearly every event. Most races are organized so that anyone at any level of experience and fitness can participate. You can find a race near you on the calendar at the USARA website.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

2012 Bitter Pill adventure race: GMARA

The mid-summer transition from July into August can only mean one thing: time to drive up to the Green Mountains for the Bitter Pill!  The annual 12 hour summer adventure race put on by the Green Mountain Adventure Racing Association (GMARA) is an exciting time of year for us.  This is our 3rd Bitter Pill and it is a great race for us since it is relatively close by, but more so because it is a given that this will be a quality event with GMARA at the helm.

The venue, as it was last year, was the Moosalomoo region of the Green Mountains National Forest. We camped on the grounds of the Blueberry Hill Inn, which looks like it would be a great destination for a winter XC vacation. The weather was a little unsettled but mostly dry and not too hot, which is always a plus. 4:30 AM found us at the pre-race meeting hearing the details for this year's race. We actually had 5-10 minutes to look at the race map prior to the start of the race, and planned our route to the first 3 checkpoints (CPs) which would be on foot.  We (and about half of the other teams) set off first for CP3.

Quick pre-race nav meeting. 4:50 AM

Last year, there was a ton of rain preceding the race and the course was very wet. This had been a quite dry summer so far and I was holding out hope for some dry feet for maybe a little bit of the race, maybe?  Mmmmm, no.  We were knee deep in a malodorous swamp within 5 minutes in the pre-dawn murk. We also all got stung by hornets in the swamp. It should be mentioned that AR is not for the faint of heart.

So, as is typical of the start of an adventure race: lots of teams together finding the first CPs and lots of follow-the-leader.  We did some running to our next CP (1) to try to get some space.  This CP was on a buoy in the middle of a small pond that required a short wade and swim. Quickly got that and headed to CP2, which was in a pond on the other side of Blueberry Hill. A little bit of navigational delay here as a jeep road on the map was not really there (USGS topo maps are old and you have to take any "soft" features like that with a grain of salt) but no real problem finding the pond.  Nick took an underwater stump to the crotch while getting CP2 and then we headed back to the starting area to TA. Still quite a few teams around. We were maybe the 5th or 6th team to the TA.

Hike-a-bike to CP4.
Mounted the bikes and began a trip north on gravel and then west on doubletrack, picking up an easy CP4, doing a little hike-a-bike on MTB-restricted trails, then continuing west up and over a 1440 ft saddle and then a sharp descent (that I am not remembering at all right now ??) to the northern end of Silver Lake at 1250 ft elevation.  Here we transitioned back to trekking to get checkpoints 5 through 12 in order.

Nick doing the swim
The first was an uphill bushwhack to CP5 atop Chandler Ridge (which forms the western border of Silver Lake) at 1500ft. Then a sharp descent to the western shore of the lake to attack CPs 6 and 7 which were on buoys in the middle of the lake. After transitioning to our swim setup we took off to the middle of the lake, got the 2 CPs and swam to the eastern shore. It was a lengthy swim; looks to be about 0.4 - 0.5 miles on the map.
Emerging from swim

Transitioned out of swim gear and then ascended about 300 ft on trail to a small GMNF parking area with CP8 on the other side of that, down a small slope.

Climbing from swim leg. Game face.

You can never tell for sure what sort of vegetation might be indicated by the green color on the map; green just means something other than an open field.  So my navigational plan to get us to CP8 by taking a "shortcut" through some green to a "trail" led us to an immense 4ft thicket of thorns and barely penetrable crap that slowed us way down and was followed by no discernable trail.  Rob led the way, plowing through this mess and we continued down to Sutton Creek to find CP8 a bit downstream.  On the map, continuing downstream to CP9 seemed pretty straightforward, but as we neared it,  the creek flowed into a fairly confusing flat area with lots of ponds, pools and channels with no obvious continuation of the creek. We were able to successfully navigate this area, however, to find the CP on a little knoll 80 ft above the water.  We saw that we had just passed a team in our division right before we found CP9 and they had not followed us to the CP, so, after quietly punching that CP we took off at a healthy clip through the woods to solidify our advantage.  Speed-whacking a path parallel to Sucker brook, we quickly found CP 10 downstream and continued about 3/4 mile to CP11 at the Falls of Lana.  Navigating this rocky point was aided by some familiarity from last year's race and we located CP11 without a hitch.

Rob on Tyrolean traverse over the Falls of Lana

At CP11 we had the pleasure of a Tyrolean traverse (horizontal rope over a chasm) over the beautiful Falls of Lana with a tremendous western view over Lake Dunmore from the rope. Definitely an exhilarating high point of the race.

Nick on traverse
Too quickly, the traverse ended and we were back on foot to get one more CP (12) before the next TA.

Planning route to CP12. That's teamwork.

CP 12 was about 300 ft above us on a steep ridge. Curiously, on this ridge on the map, there was a blue line indicating a stream (?) that traveled over the ridge (?) with no appreciable depression in the topography which would typically accompany even the smallest stream. Hmm...a stream that violates the laws of hydrology, I was stumped. Turns out the blue line indicated an 8 ft diameter concrete water pipe partially buried along the ridge. Partway up the ridge we found our CP on an associated water tower and then jogged for a good half mile on top of the pipe back down to the TA to pick our bikes back up.

Adios TA3

At this TA (3) we were informed that we were in 3rd place behind the 2 coed teams that would fight for the overall win, Untamed New England and Checkpoint Zero/Technu; we were 40 and 10 minutes behind them respectively.  All of the teams in our division (all male team) were somewhere behind us.  The next leg consisted of picking up 2 widely spaced CPs (13 and 14) on a long singletrack trail traversing the length of Chandler ridge.  This was about 4 miles as the crow flies, probably 6 miles or so factoring in the switchbacks, climbing and descending.  In the past year, the vast majority of our training together has been trail running, with not so much of the mountain biking.  It showed on this slippery technical trail. We were definitely not burning up the course, but we weren't too worried, knowing that the likelihood of a team behind us having 3 stud mountain bikers was pretty slim.  We were probably an hour on this trail, with slipping, sketching, clipping in/out and hike-a-biking interrupted occasionally by competent riding.  There has been some nice rock work done on that trail recently.

At the end of this trail, we lost 15 minutes or so initially going the wrong direction on Leicester Hollow trail but ended up at TA4 in about the same position relative to the other teams.  The other teams in our division were still some unknown distance behind us.  Its a funny feeling; the next team might be an hour behind you or might be right around the corner.  That insecure feeling is a strong motivator.

TA4 arrival

There was only one mandatory checkpoint on this next trekking leg, CP15, but there were 3 bonus CPs that could be tried for if you had time.  Each bonus CP you found knocked an hour off your time.  Its a calculated risk. You look at the map and determine how far away the bonus CP is and assess how difficult it will be to find based on the local topographic features.  Best case scenario: you can find the CPs in less than an hour each and you don't exhaust yourself doing it.  Worst case scenario: you spend lots of time looking for the bonus CPs, never find them and exhaust yourselves trying, squandering your previous efforts and previously favorable race position, eliminating all team morale and any sense of self-worth and thrashing your body on near-cliffs covered with dense, barely penetrable, dead, sharp, scratching, gear-ensnaring fir branches.  We have a pretty good idea that it would be something like that.

We headed about 0.7 mi upstream on Leicester Hollow Brook and grabbed the next CP on an "awesome rock". Now we contemplated the bonus CPs. They were relatively close together and fairly close to us and we had plenty of time and a pretty solid energy reserve at this point, so it was an easy decision to go after them.  To get to the area where the CPs were, we had to climb out of the valley we were currently in. This meant a steep climb, like a quarter mile bushwhack gaining 500 feet of elevation.  It actually looked worse on paper that it was in reality. There was a lot of climbing with hands and feet and pulling yourself up with little trees, but soon enough we were up to where the map showed a "trail" to be.  We interpreted the very old unmaintained logging road we found to be the trail on the map and started navigating to the first target (19) based on that assumption.  It quickly became apparent that this was a false assumption.  We spent some time following a new trail and eventually decided to forget the dang trails because the ones on the ground weren't on the map and the ones on the map weren't on the ground.  I was starting to get a bad feeling inside (see "worst case scenario" above), but once we decided to navigate using only the topo features, we found all 3 of the bonus CPs without too much difficulty.

TA5 arrival after finding the 3 bonus CPs.
Then we speed-whacked a beeline on a compass bearing to TA 5 for the final bike leg.  We got there, still behind the 2 top teams.  A few teams from our division were ahead of us on the course but hadn't gone after the bonus CPs. We were feeling good about that. We had the division lead prior to the bonus CPs and had found all 3 in much less than 3 hours, so it was almost impossible that anyone from our division could be beating our current time.  All we had to do was pedal to the finish line, picking up one easy CP along the way.

Rob and Nick focused on a fast TA back to bikes.  Mason focused on clear, cool stream very thirsty... I don't see any  Giardia in there.
This was somewhat grueling in that the bike to the finish line started at about 840 ft elevation and ended at 1660 feet of elevation 4-5 miles away.  Not the easiest bike leg we ever rode but a slow and steady effort brought us back home.

Just finished
Some chatting with the GMARA crew, some standing barefoot in grass (ahhh), a little food and drink and we were feeling a lot better.  The best immediate post-race activity was a hot shower at the Blueberry Hill Inn.  They offered their shower out for racer use, even those of us that were not paying guests. A huge THANK YOU to them for that.  The interior of the Inn was as inviting as the handsome grounds surrounding it and we probably should have stayed there rather than camping.  We also found out AFTER the race that the Inn hosted a delicious breakfast for all racers and GMARA staff before the 4:30 AM team meeting!

The post race party was great: beer, delicious eats provided by Bevo and good conversation.  Untamed New England took the overall win, as they did last year and we won the all-male division by a solid margin.  The raffle items and prizes were of really high quality this year - thanks to GMARA and all the race sponsors.  Shawn Freebern, Chris Yager and the rest of the GMARA crew unsurprisingly put on another challenging and fun race and we can't thank them enough for their efforts in perpetuating this sport we love.
Us with Race Director Shawn Freebern


  1. Hello there,
    New to the whole adventure race thing. Looks fun!
    Question: when you transition to the swim (or paddle, for that matter), do you put on different footwear to keep your shoes/socks dry?


  2. Hi, sorry, you probably wanted a reply BEFORE the race, heh, heh. We do change out of shoes before a swim but not before or after a paddle generally. For most races, expect your socks and shoes to be soaked for most of the race. Well-draining shoes are key.