Laura & Adam’s weekend of adventure!
We are both new runners who (foolishly) signed up to do the Great North Run in September, but quickly decided we prefer woods and trails to pounding the pavements. I can usually be found on a road bike and Laura is often found on horseback, however we’ve been enjoying getting into running and exploring, going off the beaten track. We like the idea of more “adventurous” trail running events and both thought an adventure race sounded like a fun (i.e. less boring) way of training for the half marathon. However, I had no idea how to use a compass and we were both pretty rusty on map reading… We decided to get some training before our lack of navigation skills turned a short trail run into an accidental ultra marathon.
Early (for us) on Saturday 27th June, we headed out from SW London to the Chiltern Hills, near Princes Risborough where we had arranged to meet Adam of Tri-Adventure to take one of his new navigation training courses. We found him sitting in the morning sunshine outside a lovely little tea room, and after grabbing some coffee our weekend of adventure racing began!
I had a compass but I could not remember how to use it or much about reading maps. Laura was better at all of this but the pace of the course was such that I was able to keep up and interrupt with extra questions. We learnt the theory behind everything we might need the next day to compete in the trail race without getting too lost. This included: how a compass works, different types of maps, taking grid references and locating places on the map, taking and applying bearings, understanding and reading contours, reading the map, rights of way and different types of paths and geography.
After an intense morning session, we had a sandwich and cake break. Straight after we headed out into the woods to put try out our new navigation skills. Mine were still pretty shaky and as soon as I looked away from the map and looked back I was completely lost. I’d like to blame Google Maps and GPS devices that most of us have become reliant on but I suppose I was just not used to reading and following maps. As throughout the morning, Laura was getting the hang of it much more quickly than me. After a number of “err, sorry guys, can you just show me where we are, again” moments it started to become clearer and the ideas of “thumbing the map” and orientating it were beginning to make sense and more importantly, working.
We stopped a few times to take some bearings, learn about pacing to measure distances and trying to locate ourselves based on the lay of the land and any landmarks. We then tried a map thumbing, orientation and pacing exercise. This seemed to be a bit too abstract for my brain but I muddled through and eventually managed to get from point to point in the correct order.
Following this we put our skills to the test by attempting to find a few of the checkpoints that were already laid out on the course (not the ones we’d need to find the next day!). This went surprisingly well, with Laura confidently leading and I following us on the map.
After navigating successfully back to the car, we had reached the end of the navigation course and we were hopefully prepared for the navigation aspect of the race the next day. We were both mentally exhausted, and physically quite tired from hiking around the hills but it was a great day out and we, I especially, learnt a lot and felt much more comfortable out walking and navigating.
After a night at a nearby pub and hearty breakfast, we returned early the next morning to take part in the trail “taster” event. Initial nerves were soon eased when we arrived to meet the friendly Tri-Adventure team and competitors at the event HQ, and we were thrilled that the Adventure Racing community seemed to be encouraging to “newbies”. We studied the map as we drank some coffee. It was already drizzling but nothing could dampen our spirits at this point. There were 10 checkpoints, and we had an hour to find as many as possible. Thinking back to what Adam had told us about contours and “running your own race”, we planned a route of about 9 KM, taking in 5 checkpoints. We contemplated trying to squeeze in a few more, but after working out timings as Adam had taught us, we decided they were just too far and to play it safe in order to try and make it back somewhere close to the time limit.
A touch of nerves at the route planning stage?
Adam briefed all of the competitors before we headed to line up on the start line. Everyone started the event on foot, regardless of race category, and at 10am sharp (just as the heavens opened!) we were off. There were clearly some experienced racers and runners amongst the group and everyone went off at quite a pace. Despite Adam’s warnings not to get carried away by the more experienced competitors, the mass start was fairly infectious and I suspect we set a PB for the first KM before we settled down into our own rhythm and route. It’s a fairly strange sensation to start a race only for everyone to scatter in different directions, and a little unnerving, but we stuck to the route we had chosen and ploughed on.
We had no problem following the course we had set, a testament to Adam’s great training the day previously, and had great fun running through fields, along roads, up hills and scavenging around woods looking for the checkpoints. Our distances and timings worked out perfectly and we were thrilled to realise we were on the home straight somewhere close to the time limit.
Actually the HQ was tauntingly further than it appeared (no running across the golf course sadly!) so we returned just over an hour after we started (4.5 mins late), tired and soaked through, but total exhilarated. We were greeted by smiles, cake and tea and we realised that no one else had returned from our race. Perhaps our route planning had been a success? We both scored 41 points, achieving 50 points for reaching the 5 checkpoints and sadly losing 9 points for our late arrival, but not bad for a first attempt. In the end we did win our respective categories as the other racers had gone for a more substantial and ambitious run. I’d like to say it’s the taking part that counts, which is what I had planned to tell myself, but I must admit to being rather proud of both of us.
Since then, we have already entered the next Trail event, in Peaslake this Sunday, to try 2hrs of navigation and I’m longing to add a mountain bike to my bike collection so I can give the Sprint category a go. All in all, we had a great time and couldn’t recommend it enough. If we – relatively fit but certainly not fast runners, with no experience of adventure racing or proper navigation – could do it, anyone can!
All smiles at the end of the race.