Monday, July 15, 2013

Team Funfnip's Adventure Racing Debut

What will your first adventure race look like?

You may find yourself wading across a chest-deep river to get to an island, all so you can punch some holes in a mysterious yet oddly pretty pattern in a tiny piece of Tyvek-paper.

Or standing on railroad tracks while an angry local - who in your paranoid mind has a shotgun at the ready - shouts that he's called the sheriff and you better, "get your ass outta here because you're standing on private property."

Or secretly being thankful that a couple of other racers stopped your teammate to ask for a bike pump, because god that hill was steep and you didn't think you'd be able to keep peddling all the way to the top, anyway.

Or sharing a wet canoe with the biggest, hairiest spiders you've ever seen, which are surely harmless otherwise they wouldn't need to look to intimidating, as your teammate drags you upstream for a mile through the Shenandoah River.

Or picking spiderwebs as thick as rubberbands out of face/arms/legs/ears/hair/everywhere.

Or trying to explain to the race director, as you're about to get up on the podium, that you can't tell him what your team name means* right now, but you'd be happy to tell him later because it's a little bit embarrassing.

If you are me, and you are lucky enough to have Ben (who I'm 86 percent certain is an alien from a planet of athlete-navigator-pun-makers) as your teammate, you'll find yourself doing all of these things.

Whoa, back up, what is adventure racing anyway?

It's a multi-sport, solo or team race that has no specified course, just flags hidden in the woods that you have to find. You get to use a map, compass and your wits to figure out the fastest way to get to as many of the flags as you possibly can in a specified amount of time (in our case, 12 hours). To do that, you bushwhack, run, hike, bike, hike-a-bike, paddle, portage, swim, crawl - whatever is necessary, really. The specific race Team Funfnip did was the Adrenaline Rush AR, in the Shenandoah Valley (which, if you've been following along, is very close to where I recently ran the Massanutten Mountain 100), put on by marvelous people who call themselves Adventure Addicts on June 15, 2013.

*Before you go any further, you gotta explain this Funfnip thing...

I suppose. I did bring this embarrassment on myself, after all. Funfnip is German for "five+nipples." Huh? Well, my team has two people and five nipples on it. You do the rest of the math. I wanted to make it a neat Dutch compound word (because in Dutch you can glom words together and it's perfectly syntactically and semantically acceptable), so next time we might be Vijftepelploeg or Vijftepelteam (Chandler sent me these translations after we'd already registered, so Funfnip it was, thanks to Google translate). Moving on!

Now the part of the race report where I tell you what happened, in roughly chronological order.

One week to go
A big part of adventure racing is mountain biking. A week before the race, I had been mountain biking exactly twice (and the first time I don't think really counted, because it was early-season-biking in Oregon, and there were giant logs every 20 yards or so, so I was basically off my bike the entire time hoisting it over obstacles...and we biked up to the top of the mountain on a road). And I didn't own a mountain bike. So my first pre-race mission was to find a bike to rent. My second pre-race mission was to figure out how to ride it (at least perfunctorily) on some trails.

The Monday before the race we went to College Park Bicycles, who I have to hat-tip because they were super friendly and let me rent the bike for a week and then apply the cost of the rental to purchasing the bike - which I did! (Also, I dig their circa-1998 website.) For those of you out there who care about these things, I got a user (probably mid-2000s, judging from the graphic styling) Trek 8000, which is a front-suspension bike - perfect for a noob like me who doesn't really need anything fancy yet.

The hot-pink duct tape is my handiwork...the mud, too!
Hidden surprise: The cassette is red on the inside!

When I was checking out he bike, a thunderstorm erupted. So I test-rode it in sheets of rain through the University of Maryland quad, getting a stylish mud-strip on my butt. Clearly, this bike and I were going to be fast friends.

The next day, we went to Patapsco State Park to try out some real, "intermediate-level" trails. It Scary? Both? I found out that I swear a lot when I mountain bike, enjoy going up hills (even the steep ones), and am really scared of going downhill (especially the steep ones) - pretty much the opposite of my running personality (except for the swearing). I got my first fall out of the way (into some blackberry bushes), and enjoyed that so much that I fell again. Most important, I came back to the car saying, "We should do more of this crazy mountain biking stuff..."

One day to go
The night before the race, we joined a couple of friends, who are also adventure racers and who volunteered at the Adrenaline Rush event, to camp near the race start. This also served as our race warm-up, because we had to navigate to the campsite in the dark, which consisted of driving on windy, narrow mountain roads with subtle and confusing signage. Despite the three different "Elizabeth Furnace" signs we made it to the campsite - by the cutoff time, no less! We were rewarded with a night full of screaming infants, barking dogs, and snoring neighbors.

Race morning
We had to get up way too early, so I don't have a very good memory of what happened before the race.  There was eating. There was drinking. There was checking in. There was studying of the map. There was nervous eyeing of other teams and their intimidating matching spandex outfits.

Ben, our team's designated navigator (cuz he has the skillz), put the first map (we would use four maps throughout the day, but only got one when we checked-in) in a ziploc bag. We noticed that other teams had these fancy waterproof cases that hung around their necks. Pssh, why would you need that? Well, we'd find out...

My designated role was "person who tries to keep up and not cry." So that I wouldn't feel like complete deadweight, we decided that I would be the keeper of our passport (a tiny piece of Tyvek), and do the glamorous (if glamorous means getting messy/muddy/wet/poison ivy all over you) job of punching in at each checkpoint.

Get to the race part already!
Ok! The race started with an on-foot prologue? What's a prologue? Good question - I didn't know until I found myself in one. Basically, the real first leg of the race was a mountain bike segment, but because everyone starts at the same time (both 6-hour and 12-hour races), they needed to give us a short task to spread us out a bit so we wouldn't be tripping over each other and throwing elbows and playing lemmings. In this case, it was an extra map they handed us about two minutes before that start that had one check-in location on it. We had to run to that point and then run back to our bikes, which were staged next to the starting line.

The check-in point was uphill - good for spreading racers out - and you had some options: You could run up a road, then cut into the woods for a short bushwhack (shortest option), or you could take a trail (longer, but no bush-whacking required). We chose the road. Success! Then it was back down the hill to get our bike gear on. The prologue was also a nice confidence booster. Hey, we can do this!

Stage One: Mountain Biking, 14 checkpoints, must go in order, ~3.5 hours
Map for the first mountain biking leg

The course was set up in such a way that it took us all over the park, through marshes (where we biked on boardwalks), to the top of ridges, down by the river, up into tributaries, etc. Most of the check-points were 100 meters from the trail or closer, so we were on our bikes most of the time. There were also a few points where we took off-trail shortcuts and hiked our bikes. During this stage of the race, we saw lots of teams and got to chat with them.


  • There was a guy biking with kayak paddles strapped to his back (I was scared he would wipe out and impale someone). 
  • For a bit, we were near a female soloist who was kicking butt on a cross bike! 
  • We stopped to help a male two-person team who had gotten their fifth flat tire of the day and needed to borrow our bike pump. They ended up being able to finish the race (and doing really well!) despite the fact that the guilty tube was leaking and one of them had to walk his bike back. 
  • I was, as expected, a wuss on the steep downhills. But on the uphills I schooled lots of people :) 
  • Ben was an amazing navigator.  We ended up getting all the checkpoints on this segment.
  • We had tons of fun...yay!
Stage Two: On-foot Orienteering, 19 checkpoints, can do in any order, can do this section either before the paddling section or after the second biking section
The trekking/orienteering map, with Ben's route penned in blue. (Note that it's the same map as for the mountain biking leg, but with different checkpoints.)

This was our favorite part of the race, and it was an excellent opportunity to put our recent orienteering skills to the test. Ben again served as the navigator, and I was the follower (maybe that will change once I get some more practice?). Unlike the bike section, where we were bumping into other teams and soloists the whole time, racers on this section were sparse. It may be hard to see on the map, but the blue ball-point pen is the route that Ben plotted for us. We were able to get the first 10 checkpoints before we had to run back to the canoe put-in. We were rocking and rolling on this stretch, so we wished we could have just kept doing (and maybe it would have been a better strategy in the long run), but alas we needed to get to the canoe put-in before 3:00 pm or there would be no paddling for us that day.


  • A fire road (not on the map) magically appeared on top of a ridge, right where we wanted to run.
  • We met up with a male soloist around checkpoint seven or eight and finished out the course with him. We got to chat (well, Ben and him chatted, I kind of huffed along behind them), and also we got an extra pair of eyes to help find the last few checkpoints. It was a nice example of how race teams are allowed - and often encouraged - to work together if they so choose.
  • A bit after that, we met up with a female soloist (who would go on to win her division) who finished the final checkpoint with us.
  • One checkpoint (number four, but we got to it last) looked like it was located directly in the middle of a wide stream. Guess what? It was! And guess who got to wade to the middle in rib-deep water to go get it? Me! It felt amazing, because at this point we were at the height of the day's heat and humidity. At least the race organizers were kind enough to put up a rope for us :)
As I mentioned, this is a section we were allowed to come back to later in the day. So stay tuned...

Stage Three: Paddling (in a canoe, kayaks for soloists), 7 checkpoints, must do in order
Paddling and second biking leg map

We arrived at the canoe put-in at around 2:30 pm, and by this point I was feeling pretty exhausted after almost six hours of biking and trekking. So taking a seat in a boat and floating down a river seemed like a nice break, right? Well, that idea flew out the window about 45 seconds into paddling, where both Ben and I realized that we are big wusses and because we run all the time our upper bodies and like flimsy cardboard cutouts. Paddling is hard work. The soloists we had finished the trekking leg with quickly disappeared down the river as we loafed along in our canoe. Here is how most of this section of the race went:

  • We'd paddle along, taking frequently breaks because our arms felt like they wanted to fall off, zig-zagging down the river because I was "steering" the canoe.
  • We'd find a stretch of shore where we could get out of the water.
  • We'd nearly kill ourselves trying to drag our canoe up on said shore.
  • We'd run over land to find a checkpoint.
Well, that's how it worked for the boring checkpoints, at least. There was one checkpoint we couldn't find, and as we were looking, about four or five other teams arrived and started looking too. After about 15 minutes we decided it wasn't worth it and headed after the next one. Apparently some teams found it, so it did exist. Where, I have no idea.

Our favorite checkpoint was one where we had to paddle up a narrow, steep-banked inlet to find a check point that was hanging over a slippery bank. It was quiet and peaceful up the inlet, and there were cool rocky mini-gorge-like features. I wanted to stay up there and relax for the rest of the day. But, well, you know that didn't happen...

Instead, we went after the now infamous (in my memory, at least) mega-checkpoint. Most checkpoints are worth one point, but this honker was worth three. Yup. Three. It was begging for us to go after it. Why was it worth so many points? It may be hard to see on the map, but mega-checkpoint #20, innocently named, "Eastern End of Island," is located downstream of checkpoint 21, which is where we had to finish the canoe leg. And not just a little ways downstream - it's a mile or so if you follow the curves of the river. A conundrum, right? There were two strategies we debated: 1) Shore our canoe across the river from where we'd need to eventually take-out, then run along land downstream, then swim over to the island that held the checkpoint; 2) Paddle downstream to the island, get the checkpoint, then paddle back upstream (not an easy feat) to the canoe take-out. We decided to go with strategy 1, which was clearly going to be faster. Except that we ended up doing both.

We found some railroad tracks that would take us overland directly to the bank across from the island we needed to get to. But after we'd run half a mile or so along the tracks, we heard shouts coming from the hillside bordering the railroad tracks. A disgruntled local (what you are probably picturing is very likely accurate, so I'll leave the details out...) was shouting at us that we were on private property. We, calmly of course, asked him if there was public land we could cut over to. Well, maybe there was, but he wasn't going to help us. He shouted that he'd already called the sheriff (and who knows who else - the pitchfork-wielding mob?). It was enough to convince me and Ben that we shouldn't go any further. We didn't really have any other options except to run back up the railroad tracks.

At this point, we had a choice. We could skip the mega-checkpoint entirely, thus missing out on three points, or try to go with strategy 2. Well, being stubborn and in a someone-impaired mental state due to exhaustion, we decided to go for it. Yup. So we paddled downstream, I swam/waded over to the island to punch our passport, and then we were faced with the very difficult task of getting back up the river. After attempting to paddle for a bit and realizing how slow we were going, we decided that the fastest method would be for Ben to get out of the canoe and wade up stream, towing me along. I's kind of embarrassing. But Ben handled it really well, even though low-hanging branches and giant hairy spiders were attacking him with every step. It was a long, hard slog (for Ben, at least - I got to chill and play cheerleader), but we made it.

Our final ordeal on this segment was hauling the canoe up a very steep bank. We had been warned at the pre-race briefing that the volunteers would not help us with this, and true to their word they just stood there and watched us struggle and grunt and grimace.

Stage Four: Biking, 4 checkpoints
As far as I can tell, the purpose of this stage was just to get us back to where we started the race. And to do that, we had to cover miles and miles (and miles and miles! so many miles I don't know how many!) of dirt, gravel and paved roads. This was where my brain really started to melt, and I just wanted to be done, so my description of this segment won't be flowery or flattering. We got lost** a lot. We ran into other lost racers. Everyone was frustrated with the map, because the tiny state roads on it were labeled with tiny numbers, and none of those numbers seemed to match up with the reality of where we were. Some racers gave us bunk directions. We probably shouldn't have listened to them, but we were tired. We found one checkpoint that involved biking up a short gravel hill and then bush-whacking through the woods to a pond. I remember that being kind of fun - or it could have been a hallucination.

**Note: Ben would like to correct this by saying that we weren't ever really lost, we just didn't know where we were for a little bit. I asked, "Isn't that the definition of lost?" 

He replied, "No, to be lost you need to not know where you were and be somewhere you don't want to be." We didn't know where we were, but we never ended up somewhere we didn't want to be (or, at least not for more than 100 meters or so). Thus, not lost. Ok!

Eventually, we ended up on an endless country road that I think I ran on during the Massanutten Mountain 100. That was mildly exciting. We were so tired that we had to walk our bikes up almost all of the hills. That was less exciting. And then we made it back to the starting line, which was really really exciting!

Our reward? We got to finish up as much of the trekking course as we could with 20 minutes or so (minus a few for shoe-changing and watering up) before the race cut-off.

The "rules of travel" -- pretty much equivalent to the rules of a board game

Stage Five: Stage Two Redux - Back to the trekking course

This part was really fun, because we love trekking and running and orienteering! But it was sad, because the race was almost over, and we didn't want to miss the cut-off time because then we'd be docked a point for each five minutes we were late.

(Honestly, I felt like I was a contestant on America's Next Top Model and this was the go-see episode. And if I've learned anything from watching too much reality TV, it's that you better make it back on time, because models can never be late or they'll be fired and shamed by Tyra Banks.)

Even though we didn't have much time, we got to pick up some really exciting trekking checkpoints. One one, I had to swim/wade (yet again) to an island. On another, I had to root around in a ditch. (By now, I was getting pretty good at that.) We tried to pick up one more, which was on a hillside inlet, but it was getting dark and we couldn't find it. I was starting to freak out about the time cutoff, so I told Ben we had to go back. He was sure he would have had it if we'd looked for one more minute 30 more seconds, but we'll never know because we started running back. We made it to the finish line at 8:56, four minutes to spare. This time, our reward was a pint glass and a trays upon trays of buttery Italian food.

So how did you do? This was a race, after all...

Well...we won! Our division, at least. Here are the full results.

We were first in the co-ed two-person division, which had five teams in it. We just squeaked by, getting only one more point than the second place team. You can't really get any closer than that. They arrived four minutes earlier than us. So, if we had one less checkpoint, they would have won. (Ranking is decided by total number of points, then if there is a tie, the faster time wins.) We also got ninth overall, out of 32 starting teams (and 29 finishing teams).

We got these sweet bike-chain/bottle-opener key-chains as our "medals":
Our "trophy" - best medal ever!

Ok, so what did you learn from all of this?

Learning? I was supposed to be learning something? Ok, here's my best shot:

  • Adventure racing is rad because all of the distractions (navigating, strategizing, route-finding, swimming/wading/crawling/hauling) make you forget how tired you are. This makes it fun.
  • Make decisions and stick with them. You won't always be able to predict the best course of action. For example, the overland route that took us straight to a disgruntled local would most definitely have been faster - if it weren't for the disgruntled local. But we had no way of knowing there would be an obstacle that would cost us 30 minutes or so. You can't predict those things, but you can minimize the waffling time.
  • If you want to analyze what went right and what went wrong (which of course, I do), the time to do that is after the race.
  • Navigation is probably the most important skill you can have. Unless you aren't your team's navigator, in which case the most important skill you can have is not-whining.
  • Everything will get wet. Waterproof does not really mean waterproof.
  • Poison ivy is the worst.
  • Ben is much more succinct with his lessons learned: "Just play the cards you're dealt."

Proof! We need proof. Do you have pictures?

There was a professional photographer, Vladimir Bukalo, who was all over the course (seriously) and took lots of amazing photos (1268 of them!). Here are the links (more photos if you want to go a-huntin'):
Are there more adventure races in your future?

Yes! Team Funfnip will compete again. Our next race will be the 10-hour Calleva Adventure Race in Poolesville, Maryland on August 3rd.

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