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.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Race the Phantom 24 hr race. Spednic Lake Provincial Park. July 2016

We had a fun experience on our last sojourn north of the border for this race in 2013 and were keen for a return visit. The 2016 version would actually be east of the border; just barely east of the border at Spednic lake Provincial Park. This was a mere 5 hr drive for us. The last hour of the drive was through a very quiet and remote part of eastern Maine, which seemed promising for a race venue.

Arriving at the Park, we were greeted by Natural Selection AR frontman Troy Johnston and first-time course designer Mike Hutchinson.  We had our choice of several sweet lakeside campsites.

View of Maine across Lake Spednic, from our campsite. Not too shabby.

We arrived Friday evening. The race didn't start until 1:00 PM Saturday, so we had plenty of time to set up camp and enjoy the Park a little while slowly gearing up for the race.

We really lucked out finding Jenni's for dinner Friday night. The super nice ladies there consulted with us on the best choice of food to stuff in a gear box for 24 hours to eat on race day. Their recommendation was the donair, a local specialty we had not had before. They cooked us up a sample donair plate to try before committing and we were instantly sold.  They even wrapped them up special for us and included a good luck note inside the bag!
Evening swim while the loons call.

Rising early on Saturday, we had plenty of time to cook food, get geared up, attend the pre-race meeting, check out the race maps and plot the CPs from their UTM coordinates.

Checking out the race course a couple hours before the start.    Photo: NSAR

The format would be bike-trek-bike-paddle-BIKE-paddle, with the first couple sections being in Spednic Lake Provincial Park and the big bike leg being east of the park in a very rural area, primarily forestry land.  At the starting line we ran to our bikes to begin a 19km ride on gravel road to a more central area of the park. Race favorites Tecnu set a blistering pace to start off and several of the teams, including us, drilled this section as well, in an attempt to stay in touch with Tecnu. Consequently, most of the faster teams ended up at TA1 within a few minutes of each other. After 50 mins of high-intensity riding in the mid-day sun, I was pretty gassed by the time we reached TA1. Once there, we quickly switched to trekking gear and headed off on logging roads to the 5 CPs we would get on this section. Unlike most of the other teams, we attacked the CPs in reverse order. We shortly turned onto an overgrown forest road to approach CP5.

We jogged it when we could and hiked it through the thicker parts. My navigation was not good for this CP; we significantly overshot the departure point from the trail, where we would bushwhack down to East Brook Lake.  Because of this, when we hit the lake, we had to laboriously work through the dense lakeside forest for about 0.4 mi before hitting the CP. Along the way, Nick received a half-dozen stings from some ground hornets we disturbed.

Rather than continue working through the dense woods, we decided to walk along the northern edge of the lake as we approached. I'm not sure this was any faster or less clunky (lots of slippery rocks and soft mud underfoot), but it was a lot cooler.

Soon we entered back into the woods to continue bushwhacking toward a trail on the map that approached our next target CP4.  We have now done several races in rural Maine and Canada and the bushwhacking is generally pretty unpleasant. I don't know if it's because it has been logged so many times or whether it's just the latitude/ecosystem. You generally are faced with slow, brushy, scratchy vegetation and uneven footing. It really takes a toll, especially since, mosquitoes and flies can then take advantage of your slow speed. One occasional bonus in this race was the presence of rough corridors of mossy boulders which you could traverse instead of fighting branches and bushes (see video)

We navigated well to CP4 in this scenic spot - you can see the flag over Nick's left shoulder.

CP 3 was an easy find near a beaver dam after running a few km on forest roads (see video)

CP2 was a farther run/hike on more dirt roads. The clue was "15m north of skidder chains". I had plotted it in a spot about 200m off the trail. We searched the bug-laden area and found no clue of its whereabouts. It also just didn't seem like any place where you would find skidder chains, and rechecking the coordinates, I found that I had misplotted it by about 400m. We quickly ran down to the correct location but still were fumbling around without success. Then, Nick and I noticed a big-ass pile of skidder chains right on the road; we had passed by them twice without noticing. Aarrggh! We finally punched the CP but not before wasting a big chunk of time. Following this, we ran more dirt road kms to an easy find of CP1 and then back to TA1/2 where we had left our bikes.

 At this point, a certain heat-intolerant member of the team had been without water for a couple hours and was in a less-than-optimal place to begin the warm sunny 19km bike back to race HQ. Indefatigable Rob helped me along with some backwoods MacGyv-AR towing using a foraged root which we held onto at each end.

The ensuing paddle leg was a nice break from the heat and forest. We had a calm lake paddle, followed by a grassy winding river paddle and then a short-ish portage before hitting First Lake. There were 2 portage sections per paddle leg. Both were very awkward and frustrating, with 6-18" of water covering slick, bruising boulders and random deeper holes. We never really figured out the best way to get through these sections; the other teams we saw seemed to pass through more easily than we did.

Following this was a paddle through First lake toward on-land CP6 as the sun set. This was another frustrating time-loser characterized by very dense bushwhacking, lots of bugs, unlucky nav, unlucky interpretation of the clue and questionable accuracy of the provided CP location relative to the nearby road feature. We also spent some time not finding where we left our canoe on the bank, once we re-emerged from the thicket.

Next (after portage #2) was paddling the 3 mi length of Lake Wauklahegan under a fantastic array of stars. The night paddle experience at our previous Race the Phantom proved that glassy lake paddling under a clear starlit sky is best done without lights. Surveying for obstacles in the low light tests one's observations skills, however the lack of glare from artificial light is actually a benefit.

TA3 was probably one of the longest TAs we have ever had. We were cold, wet and hungry and because of our issues thus far, we were not doing well in the race and a little demoralized. We spent a large chunk of time changing clothes, eating our donairs (yum!) and gearing up for the long upcoming bike leg. We got to spend some time chatting and joking with TA volunteers Scott and Marlana, whom I had spent a weekend with previously, manning a TA at Untamed New England 2014. By the time we left, spirits were lifted and we headed off toward the town of McAdam, NB in the cooling humid night air.

I'll summarize the bike leg: 10 CPs over ~125km of dirt roads. Hills were generally mild. The CPs were a bit off the road - near lakes, in trees, on objects and not too hard to find. There was a big navigation decision to be made about halfway through. It was the classic AR bike route decision: the shorter, more technical route of unknown surface quality or the longer ride on better roads?  We chose the latter and we think it was the right choice. We heard of several teams having significant problems after choosing the shorter, sketchier route. Our route added a lot more kms to the loop and also a pretty large descent/ascent into/out of the St. John river valley, but we had no delays and generally did well on this leg.

The big bike leg - a lotta lotta this.

Troy was waiting at CP11 with baked potatoes, beans and cola - a lovely mid-night treat. As the sun rose, we made our way through tiny Canterbury and onto the flat and fast NB rail trail. We grabbed a few CPs on a moderately hilly loop off the rail trail in the early AM hours before re-joining it and heading back to McAdam.

Scenic spot for CP 14 just after sunrise - it was located near the far end of the water, top center. Thank you Rob!

We made decent time through this leg but my bike legs had never really recovered. By the time we hit the last 10km of rail trail, my "Check Engine" light was flashing red. A final delirious push and some more MacGyv-AR towing brought this epic leg to a close at TA4, where we would paddle back to the finish line.

When we arrived at the TA, we noticed that Monkeys Throwing Darts, whom we had been chasing all night, were just leaving the TA. This time we transitioned fairly quickly and set up for a reverse of our last paddle, back to race HQ. Being 3 relatively strong racers in a canoe, we had decent horsepower and passed a couple teams along the way. We caught Monkeys at the second portage, but we were again thwarted by the awkward rocky traverse and they regained a 2 minute lead on us. We were not able to close much of this gap on the winding grassy river, but once it opened up onto Spednic Lake, we laid into a fast cadence and began gaining. This was high drama - two teams paddling for 3rd place in the last km of the race. Monkeys Throwing Darts were a team of 2 and, eventually, our extra manpower proved to be too much of an advantage. We hit the boat ramp about 30 seconds before they did, but then had to carry the canoe to the finish line. The canoe felt like it was filled with wet sand at this point, but we were able to maintain our thin lead and steal the last podium spot.

Gritting it out to the finish line with Monkeys Throwing Darts close on our tail. This is equivalent to a photo-finish, in a 24 hour adventure race!      Photo: NSAR

And then we were done, logging 130 miles in a bit under 22 hours. What a relief. We spent some time talking the race over with race staff and our fellow racers before taking some minutes to rinse off in the lake, grab a Picaroon's beer or two (thank you!), eat some freshly grilled goodies and catch a nap. Tecnu grabbed first place with a solid margin of victory and provided a number of the race prizes as well. We'd like to send out a great big international thanks to race directors/designers, volunteers and sponsors for making it all happen. We look forward to our next trip to the Maritimes.


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