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, June 10, 2015

All Out 24 - Bishop, CA 6/6/15

This year we we decided our race schedule needed an infusion of novel terrain. We love our northeastern races but we were looking for a deviation from the familiar northern Appalachian environs. The All Out 24 on the arid Eastern edge of the Sierra Nevadas was a nice fit. It would be a lot of firsts for us: racing in the west, flying to a race, packing and re-assembling bikes and racing at altitude.

We flew out 2 days before race day, settled into our Team HQ motel in the spectacularly-sited Bishop, CA and spent the first day building our bikes, picking up a few bits of kit at the local outdoor shops and accomplishing our registration tasks. Unfortunately, Nick suffered a major recurrence of sciatic nerve compression a week before the race. We were hoping this would abate by race day but that was not the case and Nick was unable to hobble for more than a couple hundred feet. He took on the role of helping out Rob and I with pre-race practical tasks and spent the majority of race day helping out at various TAs.

The dramatic race start location was atop 11,000 ft Mammoth Mountain. We were bused from Bishop to the Mammoth ski lodge about 500 ft below the gondola to the summit. We ran/hiked to the gondola (TA1) as the first leg of the race. Rob and I huffed and puffed our way up on dirt road, settling into our usual mid-upper pack position. There were several of the fastest teams in US making up the front of the race.

The gondola ride was a really unique element for an adventure race; Mammoth Mtn lifties packed us and our bikes into a gondola and we settled into a 10 minute ride, hundreds of feet above treeline to the snowy, barren summit.

We tried to appreciate the scenery while switching to bike gear and eating and drinking in the gondola before the next leg - mountain biking off/through Mammoth on their network of  XC and DH bike trails. There were 2 CPs on these trails that we would navigate to. We were given the resort's rendered bike trail map, but we didn't have a map of ski trails and there were basically only ski trail signs posted. This added an element of difficulty to navigating this section, but there were usually a couple other teams around this early in the race, so you had consensus to work from, which helped. We found the CPs without much difficulty but messed up the final descent a bit. It should be mentioned that Dart-Nuun passed us over an hour into the race. I just wanted to say that. An hour. We didn't nav so well on the final bit of the descent. We meant to take blue (advanced) trails that would reach nearly to CP3 but instead ended up on a double black diamond (expert) trail and then a screaming descent through some condo developments. Neither of us had ever been to an MTB park or ridden much out west. Compared to New England MTB terrain, the blue trails were very easy. The black diamond was also fine. The double black was a little worrisome in some areas primarily from a steepness perspective. We walked a few sections rather than risking a pointless injury and/or yard sale in the first hours of the race.

Looking up at the "Expert" terrain at Mammoth Bike Park

 The main obstacle was clipping-and-unclipping about 15 times during the descent to traverse steep, off-camber wet snow which covered the pre-season trails in many spots. Because of our overzealous descending, we had to climb 400 feet on Mary Pond Road before reaching CP3 in warm dry high-altitude air through scenic mountain country. Continuing to CP4, we were stoked to find a relaxing Nick manning the CP. This was followed by a rapid descent through the village of Old Mammoth and then some town roads, and a short out-and-back on dirt roads to CP5. We made a small nav error and hit route 203 farther west than was allowed by race rules and, rather than a long-ish backtrack, explored a possible Mammoth Water Department traverse which would make a short bushwhack possible and cut out a lot of road miles.

Rob exiting the Mammoth water treatment facility. I'm pretty sure this was what the RD intended.

After riding past some sewage-treatment basins and hopping a 6 foot barbed wire fence, we were on our way through a long gentle dirt road descent through sage scrub which made for a fun section leading to our allowed site of highway crossing. Our next target, CP 6, was atop a nearby hill, about 650 ft above us. We navigated up the steep, hot, sunny, dirt roads well and found what we thought was the off-trail CP location, didn't find it, looked at the map again, decided it HAD to be up there and poked around some more, allowing a couple teams to catch up to us before bagging it in an abrupt chilling hailstorm. The weather was very fickle during this race, making it really hard to stay at a comfy temp for more than a couple hours in any given clothing situation.

At this point, there were about 10 of us riding within sight of each other as we found CP7 after more dirt road riding. Our route took us to (according to the map) a Foot Bridge across Hot Creek. We walked our bikes down the path to the creek, not totally sure this was the correct/best route and found no bridge. What we did find was a little river about 18" deep and 20' across. Being fed by a thermal spring, the water was jacuzzi-hot and quickly flowing - a real oddity for us. Active geothermal features are not super prevalent in northern New England.

Hot Creek!
We then climbed out of the Hot Creek gorge and rode on flattish dirt and gravel roads to CPs 7 and 8. The early afternoon weather had turned cool and stormy, occasionally pelting us with rain and hail and sending down some nearby lightning strikes. The last 9 miles of this bike leg would be on  mostly flat roads to the kayak put-in on Crowley Lake (TA2). Despite pretty fast riding and generally good nav, we were at 5.5 hrs on the bike and I was without water or food for the last couple hours. My dragging butt was more than happy to take advantage of some windy echelon-formation drafting off of Rob for the last miles of the leg into the TA. We had shed the other teams and there were virtually no other racers in sight for a long time after this point.

Once at the TA, we were greeted by stronger, colder winds and heavier rains while attempting to accomplish our TA tasks with shivering bodies - refueling food/water, eating/drinking, switching from bike to paddle mode and re-folding maps. We received the coordinates and instructions for the next set of CPs but it was not possible to do any plotting in the current weather conditions, so we just stuffed that perishable piece of paper in the map case and headed onto the lake in our sit-on-top tandem kayak (with backrests - thank you!). The weather abruptly cleared and we departed in sun and mild-moderate wind and drilled the linear 3.7 mile paddle to TA3, seeing a few pelicans and small mergansers(?) on the way.

TA3 was a long one, gearing up for a lengthy trek and plotting 5 more CPs. Oddly, the first 5 CPs (the first 5 of bike leg) were mandatory and all of the remaining 18 were optional, with only the TAs and rope being mandatory from CP5 on. Departing the TA, we trekked/shuffled along the trails south of Crowley lake on our way to a short swim section.

The swim

The swim was pretty cool, figuratively and literally, traversing a boulder-lined inlet of the lake, maybe 100m across. For me, it was one of those "this is adventure racing" moments. We unpacked/repacked a bit on the other side and continued  trekking on/off trail to pavement and across the dam that made the lake. Then a little more pavement, passing a team plotting on the side of the road, and continuing on what would be a very long stint on gently undulating dirt roads through the sage scrub, sparsely dotted with pines in the late afternoon/early evening sunlight. Navigation was not very tricky through this section; it was just a matter of staying on the correct dirt road, with an occasional bushwhack shortcut. We continued to CP9 without any problems and got to see Nick again as he unexpectedly happened upon us on his way to the "Climb Check-in" while testing the limits of our rented mini-van.

Typical terrain for the trek, except I'm not on a dirt road

We were approaching CP10. It was atop a very enticing Casa Diablo Mountain that we really wanted to climb, but it was very clear at this point that this race course was running too long. We are a moderately fast team who hadn't made any significant nav errors and we were about 1/3 of the way through the trek at the 12-hour mark. It was time to prioritize CPs in order to make the multiple time cut-offs looming ahead in the race. Our next cut-off of concern was 1:00 AM for the end of the trek, about 5 hours from now. CP10 involved 1000ft of gain and looked like a slow scramble at the top, so we reluctantly passed it by and headed straight to the next mandatory feature, the "Climb check-in".  This was ~5 km away down a straight dirt road. Team Nor-Cal had just come off Casa Diablo and emerged about 500m behind us, the first team we had seen in hours. The climb check-in was there to make sure that no one trekked to the ropes section after the time cut-off for that leg.

Another Nick sighting and brief hike as a team of 3 as the sky darkened and Nick sent us on our way to the ropes. We were excited to set an actual compass bearing (251) for this part, which was the first off-road travel of any distance.  There was flagging for the beginning but we lost the flags after 10 minutes or so and followed our bearing. Headlamps were on from this point forward. I'm not sure if following the flagging or our meandering path through the sage threw us off, but we hit the canyon pretty far to the north. It seemed several other teams did too, oddly. We made our way south to the top of the ropes after about 15 minutes of additional trekking along the eastern edge of the cliff.

When we got there, there were about 10 racers huddled on the ground wearing every stitch of clothing they had, and some wrapped in their emergency blankets - uh oh. It had really cooled off and gotten very windy since sundown and the cliff top was obviously a pretty exposed spot. There was some fraying on one of the rappel ropes and the climbing personnel stationed there were trying to fix it. Some of the racers there had been stuck for over an hour waiting atop the cliff with no sign of descending in the near future.

We put on all our clothes and joined the cold huddled masses in the queue. Shortly after we got there, the staff rigged a workaround solution - single rope rappel plus top-roping - and people could start descending again. Unfortunately, with the bottleneck of racers and the fact that there was only a single rope, it took about 15 minutes to get someone secured and down. Some teams spent over 2 hours on the cliff, for us it was 1.5 hours, shivering in the wind. The upside of the this was the opportunity to chat with the other teams stuck there. When our turn on the rope arrived, we got to experience an exciting trip 400 feet down the vertical rock face to the parched bed of the Owens River. We hit the bottom of the rope around midnight.

Rob found this waiting for us at the bottom of the rappel. AR is like real-life Pitfall.

The next cutoff was 1:00 AM at TA4, which was about 6mi away as the crow flies - not possible. We decided to pick up CP 12 that was more-or-less on the way to the TA and skip 11 and 13.

From the map, the route out of the canyon was unclear, but a quick inspection revealed a (climbers?) goat path snaking up to the rim. From there we followed a short section of road and then a combo of trails/dirt roads and bushwhacking eventually to CP12. We had a little navigational uncertainty in this part - too many roads on the ground and cold bleary heads but soon stumbled onto the right spot. There was a linear feature between us and the CP labeled as "TUNNEL" on the map. When we got to it, the "TUNNEL" was a giant rectangular groove in the ground, about 40 feet deep and across. It looked like we would be "tunneled out" but Rob found a collapsed portion where we could scramble down into it and then steeply scramble back up top up next to the top of a huge aqueduct. The flag was in an "old cement mixer" nearby - cute.

What followed was a fairly straight and mostly flat 6 mile trek on dirt roads back to the TA. Not much nav or variation - just get it done. Team NorCal passed us on the trek and chatted for a bit. They were the last team down the rope. A couple teams had been turned away after them at the top of the rope after being cleared to go ahead at the Climb Check-In (oops).

We knew we were well past the time cutoff at TA4 and had heard that there would be no flexibility in this for those of us who were held at the top of the rappel. Despite the excessive length of the course, there was also no short/alternate course option in place, such as riding to one of the later TAs if you missed a cutoff. All of us got a big fat DNF, with no official credit awarded for any of our efforts on the day. We rallied our cold, dejected bodies and helped load bikes and bins and break down the TA as everyone packed into vans and cars and headed back to town. Volunteer Casper drove us to TA7 (Thanks again Casper!) where we rendesvoused with Nick, borrowed the mini-van and ate some Dennys. We brought Nick some breakfast back to the TA, hung out a bit, picked up our bikes and bin, ate at Dennys again and headed to Bishop City Park to watch the finish. We got to see the winners (Tecnu) cross the line. The upside of the >75% DNF rate was that there were quite a few of us present to applaud them. The finish time cutoff had been extended by an hour, so we headed down to TA7 (river paddle -> run) to see if anyone else was going to make it - a couple did. Dart-Nuun pulled into TA7 with 35 minutes to go and somehow managed to push to the finish line with 1 minute to spare until the revised cutoff time after transitioning and a 3 mile slightly uphill road run from TA7. They were awarded 2nd place and a 2-man Bones team got 3rd. As a testament to the length of the course, Tecnu, currently the fastest team in the country, was one of only 2 teams to make the original finish cutoff time of 11:00 AM and had to skip 5/23 CPs to do it - wow.

We had a great trip out west. There were certainly issues on race day and our result was not very satisfying, but we have huge amounts of gratitude to those who organize and design adventure races, essentially a huge volunteer effort in keeping the sport alive in the US. It's not easy (or even possible, sometimes) to get everything right for everyone and we recognize that. This race had some amazing stuff that we may never get to experience again. A hearty Thanks! to the staff, volunteers, sponsors and racers for making it happen.


  1. A very positive report which I enjoyed reading very much and super thanks for taking the time to snap some pics while racing. I agree, there were some fun sections and thus some good memories. But a race organizer cannot DNF teams that make the posted cutoffs - period, which this one did. Thus, the whole race became invalidated.

    1. Hi Robert, as far as I know we didn't DNF teams that didn't make the cutoffs unless they also didn't make mandatory checkpoints. My suspicion is the hang up at the ropes? Teams that got stuck in the backlog at the ropes made the decision to go to optional checkpoints which likely would have resulted in not making cutoff time anyway. We agree that in hindsight, the decision to not extend the TA4 cutoff was a poor choice, but most teams we've spoken to agree that they probably shouldn't have gone for spots like Casa Diablo or they'd have finished by cutoff time. If this is not what you're talking about, I'd suggest you talk to us directly about it as that's the only way we learn and it's possible a mistake in results happened that's resolvable.

  2. Here is the text of the reply from All Out Events (not sure why it defaults to white text on white background ??)

    Hi Robert, as far as I know we didn't DNF teams that didn't make the cutoffs unless they also didn't make mandatory checkpoints. My suspicion is the hang up at the ropes? Teams that got stuck in the backlog at the ropes made the decision to go to optional checkpoints which likely would have resulted in not making cutoff time anyway. We agree that in hindsight, the decision to not extend the TA4 cutoff was a poor choice, but most teams we've spoken to agree that they probably shouldn't have gone for spots like Casa Diablo or they'd have finished by cutoff time. If this is not what you're talking about, I'd suggest you talk to us directly about it as that's the only way we learn and it's possible a mistake in results happened that's resolvable.