Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Bottlenecked: Game Over, Man!

Above Video shot by and featuring our friends from Seattle, Team VERVE at CheckpointTracker National Championships in Moab...In the video you can see my team literally lying down on the ground with our feet up, where we were for an hour (at the 2:10 mark you can see me with my red shoes propped up) as we waited for the Tyrolean Traverse bottleneck to clear. Absolute nightmare for any team.

Why would a team be sitting down for an hour waiting in the middle of an adventure race?

The teams ahead of us at the time were also waiting to get on one of the lines. They had skipped one or more checkpoints, which were optional, in order to get to the 300 foot tyrolean traverse across a canyon chasm before the 6:00pm cutoff. Our team had "cleaned the course" and hit every checkpoint with a 1 hour mistake that we were barely able to recover from. In fact, we made it to the tyrolean only 4 minutes before the cutoff. Although we were maybe the only team present that had cleared the course thus far (perhaps Verve did as well?) we were not allowed to go in front of these other teams who had skipped sections.

While we waited for an hour, the top 3 teams ahead of us were riding in a paceline at 20+ mph on their mountain bikes towards downtown Moab in daylight, having left the nearby trek-bike transition while we sat motionless as the sun set. For the record, the view was spectacular! It is very tough to beat Moab for a location for any endurance race or event.

What is even crazier than waiting for an hour in a race is the personnel at the tyrolean told us that on the other side we would easily find the rappel, and rather quickly. According to the map (satellite imagery maps were a novelty) the rappel was less than a mile from the trek-bike transition. We looked for the rappel for 30 minutes, and two different race volunteers (who unbeknownst to our team had just taken the rappel down) told us "you can't go this way" or "you need to follow that shelf"...of course we thought they were telling us how to get to the rappel safely, and they assumed we were already told the rappel was already gone. Awful.

We continued down the canyon until we hit the riverside paved road that took us back to the transition area, finally realizing that the rappel was non-existent. Then at the TA we find that we would be penalized an hour for "not doing" the rappel. Insult to injury.

Knowing the tremendous caliber of the teams ahead of us, such as DART-nuun/SportMulti, Osprey Packs, Yoga Slackers, etc., we were frustrated but invigorated to put the pedal to the metal to try to make up time. You never know what can happen in an adventure race! In this race, that certainly turned out to be the case...

So our earlier mistake of an hour + an hour waiting for the tyrolean (58 minutes, to be precise), + 30 minutes going back and forth in a canyon looking for an imaginary rappel + a one hour penalty meant we were had lost not just a "recoverable" one hour, but 3.5 hours! In a 24 hour adventure race that is an absolute eternity. We rallied and continued to move well almost mistake-free for the rest of the race, but it was too late.

The one and only reason I am recounting this story (for the record, not a whiny lament) is so race directors can read it (possibly) and take this situation into consideration when designing future courses. Directing an adventure race or any multisport event is a difficult and time-intensive job, and can be quite complicated. When you factor in teams skipping ahead to checkpoints, teams protesting against others tactics, and course design flaws, things can get dodgy very quickly.

Unfortunately, this new optional CP format is increasingly popular with race directors and even some racers, and more of the norm than the exception today. Race directors today have switched the emphasis in many cases from racing to participating and hence now create events designed to allow everyone to 'finish'. Although I recognize this may be the best offering to attract new athletes to the sport of adventure racing, I am not personally interested in any ultra endurance event that everyone knows they are going to be able to finish, even if it means skipping up to half of the course. Personally I find this to be antithetical to the concept of adventure racing.

Much like a hard drug user or other "sensation seeker", I require an increasingly intense and/or long challenge, preferably one that puts the odds against me. This applies to any endurance event, from a 2k ocean swim race where I know I will be trounced by the "real" swimmers, to a 20k TT where I hope to break my own PR or a 200k 24 hour adventure race.

You can only dig deep-really deep- when forced by competition and a sense of white-hot urgency. Folks who race bikes know this. This is why I am attracted to events that scare the crap out of you and require you to dig deep just to finish. We race against ourselves, our demons that whisper excuses in our ear as our limbic system convinces us to quit. Defeating these demons, even more so than the competition, is how you grow.

Adventure Racing isn't for everyone, and now it is trying to be. Bring back the hairy, scary races that NOT everyone finishes. Boo Hoo. Too bad. Races that eat their young. That's what I want. I want the finish line to MEAN something...that I completed the journey, ran the gauntlet, passed the test. Every adventure race certainly does not have to be this way. There will always be races for beginners or folks who just want to "play" more than race their guts out. There are options for both, but increasingly more for the latter and less for the former.

Contrast this new culture shift to the Barkley Ultramarathon and 60 mile Fun Run. Only 9 people out of 700 entrants have finished...ever. I do not believe they are planning on changing their race anytime soon. Apples to Oranges, sure.

While many are quite content to participate in these newer versions of adventure races, I will choose races that offer a "point to point" adventurous journey, and courses designed to prevent teams from skipping ahead of their competition. To me it is just a matter of satisfaction. When my team was undefeated in 2008, many of the season's races were ROGAINE format. Our navigators were co-North American ROGAINE Champions, as well as very strong athletes, which I believe gave us a tremendous advantage in this race format.

While I love spending time with my teammates and winning races for our sponsors, the joy or sense of accomplishment just was not there in ROGAINE races compared to point to point races when crossing the finish line...certainly not compared to crossing the finish line at a nearly suicidal insane race like the Baja Travesia. I was deathly ill and mostly worthless in that race, but making it to the finish line somehow with my teammates is something I will never, ever forget.

Some adventure races on the radar include next May's new addition to the Adventure Racing World Series schedule: APEX: Alpine Expedition Switzerland Race, put on by veteran race director (best known for directing Untamed New England/Untamed Switzerland Adventure Races) Grant Killian. TRIOBA in Washington state is also a great option for those who want a capital A, capital R "Adventure Race". Outside of AR I plan on entering more solo races that promise to brutally crush my dreams.

I much prefer the odds for success, for even finishing, to be Against Me.


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