What is Adventure Race Australia (ARA)?
Adventure Race Australia was a 6-8 hour adventure race held yesterday at the Sunshine Coast Hinterland. The event has a reputation as a fun and challenging day out for two- or three-person teams who work together to navigate a 5-8 hour adventure race course. The courses generally consist of rogaining, trekking, mountain biking and adventure legs, which can comprise anything from kayaking to abseiling. Yesterday’s event included rogaining, trekking, mountain biking and kayaking. While the lead teams probably took somewhere between five and six hours to complete the course, we were out on the course for just under eight hours.
Our two-person mixed team was called ‘Whoops Which Way?’. For both of us, it was our first adventure race; and my team mate has only ridden a mountain bike once before and that was a short one hour ride with her six-year-old son. We bought our compasses this past week and neither of us had tried them out. However, we still entered the Hardcore event instead of the Raw one (the Raw course is a three-hour course for beginners).
We drove to Race HQ on Saturday night and stayed in a bunk room at Teen Mission Noosa, which was Race HQ for the weekend. The bunk accommodation was basic but comfortable, and we had the whole dorm to ourselves. We arrived at about 8pm and, after settling in, we had one last navigation study session. I re-read the relevant chapters from one of my navigation handbooks and then explained the basic principles to my team mate. By 10:30pm we had swotted up and were ready for lights out.
On race morning we had to drive about 30 minutes to drop our bikes at the Transition Area (TA). Being a triathlete, I expected there to be racks set up and for us to have to pass a bike / helmet safety inspection. However, as I discovered throughout the day, adventure racing is much more, well, adventurous than triathlon. Bike drop involved us simply finding a tree against which to park our bikes anywhere within a reasonable radius of the bike drop sign.
Our bikes were definitely in a league of their own at the TA. Mine was the only one without any suspension or disc brakes and, at a cost of $250 in 2009 it was probably worth $1,500 less than all but my sister’s bike. But we were to discover later in the day that bikes don’t make an adventure racer – the key is navigation, team work and strategy (though I’m sure it does make a difference when you are competitive).
Registration and race start
After bike drop we traveled back to Race HQ where we registered and were issued with our maps. We were lucky because the 1:30,000 scale maps included a magnetic north grid system, so we didn’t have to adjust for declination. We had about an hour to read the race directions and to decide on our navigation strategy. Using two different coloured highlighters we marked out our intended route and, in some places, an emergency back-up for if we missed a navigation point or if the terrain didn’t quite match our expectations for an are (such as if trails were overgrown on the ground). We also made one final gear, hydration and nutrition check.
Race briefing started at 7:35am. It was clear, concise and informative. The three key rules for the day were: stay safe, have fun and look after each other (whether team mate or competitor) on the course. During race briefing we were told that the extra map in our kit (an A4 map containing checkpoints B-F) related to an extra rogaining section we could chose to complete either at the start or end of the event. We were also told that three buses were waiting to take us to the start line, some 30 minutes drive away. The first bus would depart at 8:10am with the other buses departing either when full or at 8:20am. So teams had to make a strategic decision whether they wanted to catch the first bus to the course start or two attempt the rogain first.
The race started at 8:00am and we made a strategic decision to run for the first bus and to take the extra 10 minutes to relax and study the map. We felt that we would have a better navigation and search rhythm after a full day in the bush than we had at the start when we were still unsure what exactly to expect on the course. The strategy also allowed us to get a head start out on the course to reduce time pressures before the course was closed in the afternoon.
Oh and it’s not bad luck to be team number 13.
Leg 1 – Trail run / Trek
The first leg of the event was a trail run / trek. Our route was about 10km long and took us through a mix of major trails, overgrown trails and bush bashing. We made the mistake of following all the other teams to find the first checkpoint because almost everyone on our bus made the same mistake of taking the wrong trail at an intersection. However, while all the other teams were searching in bushland just off the track, I identified that we should have been at a 4-way junction instead of a 3-way junction so we were able to correct our earlier error by heading up the branch trail at the junction to find the checkpoint.
Each checkpoint consisted of a red and white flag attached to a tree (often on the side facing away from the tracks). To register at a checkpoint we used an electronic rogaining / orienteering dibber that the race organisers had given us.
From that point on, we stopped watching other teams and trusted our navigation skills. While we might only have honed our compass skills the previous night, we actually have a wealth of natural navigation and map reading skills from a lifetime outdoors. This kept us in good stead as we passed many more experienced teams who were running around like headless chickens while we calmy (and sometimes stealthily) walked directly to checkpoint locations.
At one point a more experienced team we had been near on the bus were having difficulty finding a checkpoint. They knew they had to cross a creek to find another non-joining trail but hadn’t looked closely enough at the map to see that the trail we were on met the creek twice: once with the creek to the south and once with the creek to the east. The crossing had to be made where the creek was to our east. (There was no track across the creek). The team gave up and backtracked to find a more direct route. During their backtrack they passed us and told us they were struggling to find the checkpoint. One of the team asked us whether we could help them identify their current position on the map but their team leader said not to listen to us because we were beginners. It was a tactical mistake on their part because, when we reached the MTB transition area ahead of them they told us they had wasted at least 10 minutes unable to find the checkpoint and had ended up following another team to it. When they asked us, they were about 120m from the checkpoint and only 40m from the correct creek crossing. Instead they backtracked about 500m on tracks to approach from another direction.
We performed well on the trek leg, finding checkpoints with ease and navigating accurately. We made some excellent decisions about whether to follow trails or bush-bash, which saved us time and energy. We conserved energy by walking up hills and using the time to confirm out geographic location and navigation tactics. This allowed us to run past many teams as they were either stopped on the track struggling to find their current location or who were unable to find checkpoints.
Leg 2 – MTB
The second leg of the event was a long MTB section. We knew this would be more difficult for us than the trekking section. Neither my team mate nor I are experienced mountain bikers. I’ve been doing a little bit the past few months but am still very much a beginner. My team mate has only ridden once and was anxious about whether she had the skills to handle the course. In the end, it didn’t matter. We both stayed upright and put on a solid performance.
The actual MTB riding wasn’t highly technical. It took in mostly fire trails, overgrown tracks and flowing single track. The real keys to our performance in this leg were navigation, energy conservation and team work. Again, our navigation skills meant we could find checkpoints easily and that we could take short cuts that other teams raced past. As we had in the trekking leg, we walked up all the steep hills rather than cranking up them at a slow pace. This gave us time both to recover and to make important navigation decisions without stopping our forward momentum. But it was team work that really got us through the long MTB sections. Being the stronger cyclist (I’m a triathlete and my team mate is a soccer player), I was able to give my team mate a rest by pushing her bike up the steep hills while we walked. This gave her time to fully recover and to keep going long after her legs had told her it was time to stop. On her part, she told me when she needed to slow down or rest, which meant that we were both able to maintain our enjoyment and complete the race. My team mate was also an excellent checkpoint hunter. She fearlessly threw herself into the bush no matter how many scratches she got and she seemed to be able to find the checkpoints as though they were on a radar.
We found that our tactic didn’t cost us much time, relative to the other teams we were near. Many of those teams would ride quickly to a point then stop to navigate, while we were able to almost seamlessly do so. Our team work was also the envy of many other competitors who were struggling to keep up with faster team mates. Some said repeatedly that they wished their team mates would wait for them and that their team mates would push their bikes up the hills for them while they were walking.
Leg 3 – Surprise rogaine
At Checkpoint 9 there was a surprise foot rogaine leg. We had a clue that it was coming because the checkpoint clues were listed as 1-9 and then 10-12. This was a fantastic opportunity for us to make up time and to get a lead on some of the teams we had been riding near. And make up time we did. We found a lot of short cuts, both along heavily overgrown trails and just straight through bushland. Our willingness to wade waist-deep through creeks also paid off here. We were still near the back of the field but at least we were holding our own back there.
I had a funny moment during this leg when I was running through some mud. My shoe was literally sucked off my foot and I was left hopping on the track asking my team mate to please go back and get it for me. It was like a scene from any B-grade slapstick comedy.
Leg 4 – MTB
After a quick surprise rogaine we were back out on our mountain bikes for leg 4. This was a long leg with few checkpoints and some quick gravel roads. The only real challenge was finding checkpoint 11, which did get us stumped for a while after we took a literal interpretation of the clue.
Leg 5 – Kayak
The kayak leg was a welcome reprieve from what felt like a long day in the saddle. The wait for kayaks also gave us an excellent opportunity to rest, refuel and take some more photos. We also used the time in the queue to mark out the kayak checkpoints on our map.
In this race we were provided with big plastic two-person kayaks. They handled like bathtubs and our kayak had plenty of water in it by the time we arrived. It didn’t slow us down though. While it’s been five years since I paddled a kayak (I used to be part of a social canoe club), my body remembered the technique and we were soon pushing ourselves forward in the water. While I had been a map hog on land, here I gave my team mate the map and she took charge of navigation while I took charge of steering the kayak.
We both paddled hard through the first two checkpoints and caught the two teams in front of us. We then set off for a long paddle across the lake to the third kayak checkpoint. I had my team mate rest periodically during this stretch so she could be fresh for the MTB leg. She’d paddle for a stretch then, as our momentum picked up I increased my stroke rate and she downed her paddle for a while. For her part, my team mate has excellent balance and she was able to nimbly exit and enter the kayak at each checkpoint, saving precious time. Seriously, she would just launch herself back into the kayak facing backwards and still be steady enough as she turned around that I could back paddle us out of the reeds.
By the time we returned to shore we had overtaken four teams and left them a long way behind. Our success was a combination of our ability to instinctively find a rhythm as a two-person paddling team and her ability to balance in the boat when she checked us into the checkpoints.
Leg 6 – MTB
The final MTB leg was the most technical of the day and we found ourselves riding down single track trails that neither of us would have attempted earlier in the day. My team mate did much better than me as she bounced down some crazy hills that I was too scared to attempt (i.e. trails I walked down).
We found our way back to Race HQ without any difficulty. I have to admit that after being out on the course all day I was very happy to see the big yellow Mountain Designs tent and to hear Robyn’s voice (Robyn is one of the race directors and she was cheering the teams to the finish on a microphone). However, the glory was short-lived as we checked in and set off on the final rogaine (the extra leg we opted to leave until the end).
Leg 7 – Extra rogaine
The extra rogaine had to be completed on foot so we set off back down the track we had followed into HQ at the end of the last MTB leg. We found the first five checkpoints easily and then had to make a tactical decision about finding the sixth. We could either run about a kilometre along the road to get close to it or we could scrub bash about 300m. Most of the teams that were near us took off up the road but we set our compass to take us north-east and set off into the bush.
We knew we had to climb out of the swamp onto a hill and our natural navigation soon took over. In the dense bushland it was my team mate who saw the first clues of the hill; grass trees. We know from experience that these do not grow in creek beds but prefer hills. From here, with the sun slowly setting in the western sky we followed our shadows to the south-eastern slope of the hill and found the checkpoint. The map showed that we could again follow a gravel road back to the finish line but that it was over twice as far as bush-bashing. The terrain was easy to walk through, being mostly open grass forest so we opted for the shorter route.
It paid off as we hit the road just 300m from the finish line with another team who had been quite a long way in front of us running down the road. My team mate and I dug deep in a final run for the finish as competitors who had finished much more quickly than us cheered us on as they packed their cars to travel home.
We crossed the finish line at exactly 4pm; 8 hours after the start gun had sounded.
After handing in our timing dibber and race bibs we were given meal vouchers. Never has spaghetti bolognaise tasted so good! While we had kept up my food intake during the race, I felt suddenly hungry as I saw the pile of pasta and mince on my plate.
After our food we packed our bikes back in the car and basked in the glory of finishing our first adventure race. Sure, we were nowhere near the podium but that doesn’t matter in events like this. We congratulated teams we had seen and helped (or been helped by) on the course and they congratulated us. Then we grabbed clean clothes, soap and towels to clean off. The only bad and unavoidable thing about finishing at the tail end of the event was that there was no more hot water. But I’m sure my muscles are recovering better today thanks to the icy cold shower, and I sure felt better during the 2.5 hour drive home due to the wash. Thankfully I didn’t actually have to drive; I have the best team mate in the world who not only made it possible for us both to finish the race but she also dropped me home afterwards.
I reckon Adventure Race Australia is an amazing sporting event. It’s most certainly the most enjoyable sporting event I’ve ever participated in. It was well organised. And everyone, participants and organisers alike, were friendly and enthusiastic. The course was the perfect achievable challenge.
If you like mud (and lots of it) and adventure, get yourself to an adventure race … it’s the best fun. (And no, you don’t have to be a gun runner, mountain biker or navigator – you just have to be willing to give it a go).
Place: 10/20 in mixed teams category in 7:48:33.