Thursday, 18 June 2015

Questars - Adventure racing you need to do

They say you never forget your first love and in running terms mine will always be questars. I was surprised to see I had never written about it, but due to race schedule saturation over the past two years it has fallen through the net. On Saturday I made my triumphant return, oh how I've missed you.

Questars is an adventure race, the explosion sport of the naughties, but in many ways it's not a race, but a competition. It combines trail running, mountain biking and kayaking but the beauty of the format is the freedom it gives the individual. You have five or six hours to get around as many check points as you can, in any order. You decide how you spend your time, how far you go and which route you take, as long as you visit at least one check point from each discipline. The only proviso being that you can only transition from one to the other at set transition points. You can enter solo or in teams of up to four and truly anyone can enter. A half marathon seems like a frightening distance for some, but a five hour ramble with a peddle and a paddle thrown into the mix and turns seems like a delightful day trip.

A typical Questars scene
Not for everyone mind and I intended to run myself ragged if at all possible. I opted for the duo format, dropping the kayak so having 5 hours for the run and bike. Kayaking was never going to be my strength, but when you thrown in that I cannot sit up upright due to my hamstrings, I'm forced to paddle whilst lying on my back - as entertaining to watch as a disabled swan, but half of the water goes over my face and steering causes some issues. But first the issue of packing. Actually it's far more entertaining to watch, but it's not great for the swan.

There was a time when I would consider myself relatively competitive at adventure racing, my preparation was regimented - always 2 bags, packed with pens clipped to the right loops, compass tied to the optimal length and food split across the bags according to which discipline I was doing - bloks for running, bars for cycling. I pulled out my magic box of equipment - what the hell was all this stuff? A compass ring - surely only useful for a bride lost in a Richard Curtis movie. Was I really the John Richardson of adventure racing. For some reason there was also an overly sized pair of novelty shamrock sunglasses - phew John Richardson yet. I'd forgotten all of my prep, so just shoved it in the bag and off we went - Cannock Chase here we come. 

The contents of my magic adventure racing box
 I crashed with my friend Matt who had lent me his brothers bike and we arrived with hopefully plenty of time to figure things out that morning. The morning atmosphere is always slightly strange - lots of friends catching up, but you're always aware that time is slipping away and you don't want to start unprepared. Bikes are checked and stowed, bladders filled - half water, half nectar and kit begged, stolen and borrowed as everyone remembers all of the little bits of equipment that are life saving - like a pen! I was waiting on my inov-8 backpack that I'd lent to a friend Ali for a previous event, I wasn't stressing too much, but she was certainly more concerned with her hot cross buns (not a euphemism for a change) and an arctic expedition's worth of snacks. 

The Map

9.45 registration packs were now available and a chance to see the race map with all of the checkpoints marked out for you. Choosing an efficient route is essential, to reduce how far you need to travel, but also figuring out on which surfaces you're going to be cycling up and down hills (cycle up the road and down the trail) and which direction it's easier to navigate to certain points. A really good route will also give you contingency options, allowing you to pull the emergency chord  and quickly get home if you need to, leaving a few checkpoints unvisited. It's slightly more complicated though. Not all checkpoints are worth the same number of points. Generally the further away or harder to reach they are, the more points they're worth, but sometimes there is no obvious loop to take to visit all of the checkpoints and the real wildcard is that they place a number of dummy checkpoints on the course worth 0. You only find out the checkpoints value once you start the race, so planning is tricky - too rigid a route and you'll have to change it anyway, but if you haven't planned at all you'll have to eat into your race time. The biggest decision is whether to run or cycle first, which very much comes down to preference. The course favoured the cyclist and cycling first - two of the cycling loops had to be completed in full. Cycling first would allow you to clear one or two of the loops and then run to get as many checkpoints as your remaining time allows, however running first would then limit how much time you had for the loops - too much time could leave you twiddling your fingers, as the transition point to switch back to collect run points was too far to go back to. Not enough time and there's no point in starting the loops - for each minute you're late back you lose 5 points, a huge punishment (2pts/min for novices).

I decided to run first anyway, I always do. It's not always the best tactic, but for me Questars is training as much as a race so I run down all of the checkpoints to get the miles in, even if it doesn't make complete tactical sense. The bike route had a nice route out to the run transition to the north-east, so the start was fairly obvious, the run however was a mess. Check points everywhere, with no obvious route to tie them together. I decided to use the long run along the canal  to devise a route, hoping there would be a few dummy checkpoints to simplify the options - did they F***.

Checkpoints and their value

I crossed the line picking up my checkpoint scorecard and skimmed down the numbers, crossing them off on my map before jumping on my bike for the running transition. I raced down to B30 feeling great - the sun was shining, the running route was long, it was time to smash up the Midlands, just where the hell was B30? My navigation was probably going to be a bit rusty, but not this bad, I checked the sheet for the description - it was a dummy checkpoint - idiot! I'd skimmed down the column, not seeing that B30 was to the left of B40, two dummies together, well now I made it three! No biggie it was on my route to the run transition and B21 was on my way in anyway, a couple of minutes wated if that. It was road all the way to B20 and having not cycled for some time I forgot how fast a bike can feel when you're not stopping at traffic lights every 30 meters, especially when you're starring down at your map board, I narrowly avoided a crash with a stationary car - I probably need to concentrate a little bit more on the road. Through to transition and onto the run. I dumped my bag risking that one bottle of energy drink would be enough to see me through the run and looped back round to the canal starting to plan my run route. It was a mess - R6 and R9 made no sense from any direction, they were islands, out and back runs, but both worth 30 points, R8 turned R7 and R10 into a full loop, without being able to cut across due to the out of bounds, but was only worth 15 points and R15, well that didn't fit in anywhere and 25 points just didn't seem worth the effort, like taking a mile walk for a bar that's still open at 3 in the morning, knowing it only serves Carling.

Well they were all good training miles so I decided to crack this nut with brute force. Nav was going ok, although R5 was a little bit cheeky and I ended up coming down the wrong path, but no biggie. The trouble with cannock chase is that it's sand based, and relatively open. Walkers often take off in any direction and create paths that don't exist on maps. Crossroads of 4 paths might have 7, the next left, might be the third left, as the first two lead nowhere. The cycling keeps you on bridleways, it's the run where you'll get lost. I still hadn't figured out a route and was often stopping at checkpoints to figure out where next, something I try to avoid, I couldn't figure out whether to approach R6 from R7 or save it for the on in and was wasting minutes at each checkpoint trying to work it out, as there was no obvious route from R6 to R9, but the same was true of R11. 

I pushed on deciding to leave R6 for later and had a real chance to take in the scenery. That's one of the aspects of questars I love the most - it's always based in country parks or areas of outstanding beauty, they even mark out points were visiting based purely on the view. I made my way round to R13, having taken in all of the points along the western side and started on the path to R15. In such a long race it's hard to always keep concentration, but you invariable look back and wonder how you could have made such an obviously stupid decision. I was 99% sure I was on the correct path but as we entered the quarry the path split and I failed to see that the route did turn at right angles, if only for a few yards. With no markings on the map to refer to I decided to head back and take the route that seemed to stay true to the direction of the path and ran into the quarry and on and on and on. I eventually hit a gate and in classic stubborn naivety tried to convince myself that the marker was in the wrong place. This was clearly kind of a road, yet there was no quarry sign - maybe some local hoodlums had stolen it to try and annoy me. After a few minutes I realised I was actually one junction away from B28, I'd added almost 2k to my route, not an insurmountable amount, but when you've already wasted quite a lot of time figuring out where you actually are it seems huge. I started to run with a mild rage - R15 was only a few hundred meters on from where I'd turned back. 

Onto R6. There was still no obvious route to R9, the stream cut off the paths and the paths seemed very winding and potentially hard to navigate. Decision time. I'd been at a work pitching event the previous day and had traveled light for the weekend, only bringing one pair of trainers and one pair of trail shoes. I'd decided to run in my f-lites, as 190's seemed excessive and they were a sexy arse trainer that could double as a casual shoe. The best route seemed to be going directly east from R6, cutting across the stream and the bog. We'd been planning a big night out in Stafford and I was well aware that the ladies of Stafford are no doubt all very classy and I just wasn't sure how well they'd respond to mud covered f-lites. In the back of my mind though I also knew that Leeroy's mum was going to be joining us for the evening, so there were options (actually she drunk us under the table, then showed us all up on the dancefloor - legend). So I waded through the bog, swished my shoes in the stream and collected R9.

The rest of the course was fairy straightforward, I transitioned back to the bike and realised that even going flat out I was never going to be able to make it out to the first bike loop and back to the finish on time. The loop would be at least 45 minutes and I only had about 80 minutes in total. It was a shame, as most questars leave you pushing right until the end and no matter how well you plan, you're nearly always left having an extra checkpoint tantalisingly near that if you really push you can just about reach in time. The loop was in force as the path was single track, so once started you had to complete.  It did mean that I had a huge amount of time to collect the remaining bike check points, so I sauntered round the course, suddenly being reminded just how hard it is to cycle on a path littered with peddles. In fact it was getting progressively harder around the course until I realised that my bike's sadle was gradually lowering until I was eventually riding a chopper bike. I met with Ali and co on the way and enjoyed the cycle in, before breaking to pick up an extra checkpoint. They somehow managed to take a wrong turn and end up half an hour late. Thankfully my journey back was straightforward, zooming down a bridleway lined with weeds, whipping my legs as I passed.

I finished with five minutes to spare picking up 28 checkpoints of the 37 on offer, having run 18 miles and cycled 15. It's not a bad haul, but even if I hadn't gone the wrong way and decided my route from the off I don't think I'd have built up enough time to make the loop which would have been an extra 120 points. I ended up in fourth, 20 points off first, not too shabby given how much I'd ignored strategy, to be fair though this was 4th in the duo competition - the real competition is the masters and they're phenomenal. We compared our war stories in the school sports hall, munching down on homemade chilli and tortilas. 

My Score

This may read like a marketing piece for questars, but it's more a love letter to a race I adore. Unlike most races it really is what you make of it - the distance, the intensity and even your mode of transport. How often do you get to explore some of the most beautiful areas of the country? It's a real mix of skills, strategy and fitness, offering mini triumphs and failures throughout. You can race solo or with friends and even deploy camel-tows to pull your friends if you're differing speeds.  It has a wonderfully inclusive atmosphere and at £45 can't be beaten for value. Whether you're a runner, cyclist, mountain biker or someone who like the great outdoors - questars is the way to discover it and hopefully you'll come to love this unique event as much as I do.  Next up is the Wiltshire Downs on the 11th July - hopefully see you there.

You'll be grinning like this

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Sunday, 22 February 2015

The Eliminator marathon - toughest in the UK?

I'm not sure what the etiquette is for publishing articles that you've written elsewhere on your blog? I write this article for Mudstacle but thought there's a strong chance a lot of you won't have seen it, so have republished here. Apologise to mudstacle if that's a faux pas.

Nothing is as scary as the unknown. The only limit in its potential horror is your imagination, and it is impossible to prepare for. Last week I signed up for the Eliminator Marathon, then suddenly realised that the terrain, the ascent and the course all remained unknown.

I’m a meticulous planner when it comes to race preparation. I know that at the London Marathon there are two Lucozade gel stops with 30 grams of carbs each, four stops with 330ml Lucozade bottles, containing 22 grams, of which I will drink only half, meaning I will need to run with three of my own 22 gram gels to see me through . So having completed my research on the Eliminator and being faced with the same blank page, I began to worry. Ironically I had only signed up to the marathon because I felt I wasn’t fit enough to take part in the 10 miler the day before – I wouldn’t be quick enough to challenge over a short distance, but in the marathon my experience would hopefully make up for that. However, as reports fed back from the 10 mile course on Saturday being harder than Hell Runner, I started to question my decision. We were scheduled to start at 7:45 to allow everyone enough time to finish before dark. 7:45?! Either I was now living in Norway or the organisers knew this was going to be a beast of a race… and they weren’t wrong!

We arrived in the dark to see the wreckage of what used to be the Mudstacle gazebo, broken by the wind during the night – an ominous warning of what we’d all be looking like in a few hours. I looked out over the course and you could see for miles. It was beautiful site, until it dawned on me that you could only see for miles when high up. With lots of hugs and wiggles completed, we stood together to watch Dean gave the race briefing:

‘This is not a race, this is about surviving. Please try and run with others at all times. Do you all have your phones packed in a water proof container in case of an emergency?’

That was just the usual confidence inspiring speech you need just before you start. I had dressed for speed – just a base later, vest and shorts, but most were fully layered up, some with Camelbaks and, as I started shivering, I questioned my wisdom.
Eliminator race start

The start gun went and immediately I came to a standstill. I had tested how my gel belt felt on me when running, but I had neglected to test how my gel belt held on to my shot bloks and, after a few meters, they lay strewn across the ground. I scooped them up and restarted – with six packets of shot bloks and a banana in my hands, trying to figure out how to deal with this. I put four of them in the zip at the back of my shorts but, as wonderful as my shorts are, they weren’t designed for this sort of weight and I developed what looked like a severe case of haemorrhoids. For about a mile I ran, holding up my shorts with one hand, as my roids repeatedly high fived my bum. I tried to retie my shorts, but struggled due to the thickness of my gloves – I’m a meticulous planner. Eventually with shorts retied and roids retreating, the race began.

Two of us started edging away and we looked at each other assessing how much of a threat the other was, the mind games began. He looked like a good runner, but was scared of the mud. We darted down a slippery tight corner, he slowed and went wide, I ploughed on, slightly misjudged my footing and fell, rolling and springing back up in one motion; a move I would never have been able to pull off if planned. I looked back at him, as if to say ‘that’s nothing for me I’m badass’ and I knew I’d won the battle – it convinced him running carefully was the best strategy.

We approached the first water hazard. My plan was to pull my tops up to my neck, then wade with my arms held high, to keep my clothes and gloves dry. I felt like a tactical genius, as I revealed my pasty belly to the baffled stewards, then two steps in – branch! I flipped over and got soaked from head to toe. So much for that!

It’s often questioned whether natural OCR races should be part of the Mudstacle League, some arguing they’re just trail runs, but the Eliminator puts this idea to bed. We entered the woods and that’s where the trails ended. We were running in every direction – between trees, under trees, over trees, down banks, half up banks [bugger the branch snapped], back up banks. I’ve never thought of a marathon as a mental challenge, but you had to be careful where you placed every step, which took great concentration. The route kept on changing, so while concentrating on the floor you somehow had to keep your eyes up, constantly scanning for the bright orange arrows, taking you another direction. I realised how hard this was and decided to sit behind the leader, allowing him to do all of the work, having to repeatedly adjust his route, decelerating, while I could pick the racing line from afar. Three miles in though and the terrain was becoming trickier and I could tell he wasn’t comfortable. We entered a ravine and descended down its small waterfalls, me – jumping, splashing, smiling; him – gently lowering himself over each obstacle. I made my break and on exiting had completely dropped him.
Water crossing

It felt like mission accomplished, until I scrambled up a steep hill, aided by a large tree, crested and edged to the right. It looked familiar, but I continued until I started catching up with other runners, was the course looped? I continued for a while, trying to figure out what was best, before doubling back and running to the track. I looked back up at the route and realised that a tree had blocked my view of the arrows that you could see from 50 meters – I’d lost concentration and found myself in 7th.

Anger flowed through me and adrenaline kicked in, I started chasing them down, ‘it was only a few minutes, let’s go get them’, but what was I doing? There were 22 miles left, why was I sprinting? I intentionally slowed and tried to breathe deeply and calm down.

I slowly made my way through the field – across swamps, a dead tree playground, every mile was completely different terrain; you could never relax. Nine miles in and I caught sight of the leader, a different runner to before, as he did that cool flip over a gate in one motion – ‘Damn you! Not only are you beating me, you’re doing it far more stylishly.’

We were slipping down to the river beside a picturesque bridge. I took in the view and [BANG!], another root, another fall, snapping back my middle finger – ‘Ahhh I think that’s broken’. That’s not a problem in a normal marathon, but I was relying on my hands to pull me up steep banks; this was going to hurt.

I caught the leader then others appeared. Two became six, they’d gone the wrong way too and had somehow ended up ahead. They were good runners too, who I’m pretty sure would beat me currently at the shorter distances. I was tired, struggling mentally and felt as if the gods were against me.

That’s when the mind games really started. I’ve always wondered how mentally tough I really was. I’m stubborn, but also a sensible runner. I’d stopped at The Nuts Challenge after only one and a half laps, realising that my clothing wasn’t going to see me through all four. It was the sensible decision to make, but it has left me with a doubt that maybe I wasn’t as tough as I wanted to be. They looked fresh, with renewed spirit to be at the front and I had to make a hard decision – put some pace in to mentally break them or stick to the plan of sensible pacing. The marathon runner in me said the latter, but how do you pace for a race like this? Pacing is about even effort, prolonging your energy for as long as possible, but the terrain was hammering my legs and I wasn’t sure that my legs would let me run at any speed by the end anyway. It’s like trying to pace your face in a boxing match. The course was unknown, if there’s an opportunity take it.
Through woodlandGet your Eliminator Race photos here – there’s 15% off until midnight on Friday.

We had been following the perimeter of a fence on a smooth path for the first time in several miles, then thankfully we deviated back into the brush. Now was my time to test their technique and I kept up the speed from the path, trying to dance over the roots and dried bracken ‘smooth like Albon, tough like Miller’. If I could get out of sight quickly they’d slow. We were following the fence, but the route became the most challenging of the race – crater to crater, separated by trees, climbs, rocks. This wasn’t running, this was climbing.

I’d broken free and tried to settle into a rhythm, but I was running scared – they could catch me at any point, my legs were shot, but I was wired on sugar, I had to push on. We looped back onto the course we had partially covered and there was a stretch in the open, followed by a sharp right up the hill. If they could see me here it would give them hope, so I pushed my pace again ‘don’t look round, it will make you look weak.’ I scaled the hill and used the natural angle to peer back. There was no sign of them, but they could still be close.

The race continued, each mile lifting my spirit, but every noise filling me with paranoia that they were catching me. The water hazards became your friends – their coldness acting like morphine on your tortured legs. Another double-back up, right and down the hill, Lou cheering at the top:

‘How close are they?’‘Six minutes behind at fifteen miles.’

With only five miles left, I was down to doing ten minute miles, the terrain sapping me and small inclines becoming mountains. I was starting to walk some, but reminded myself that they might be running them – nine minute miles is nothing to someone on the hunt.

The music blared out in the distance and the event village came into sight. The sun was out and as I jumped through the final puddles, the cheers began.

‘Sprint finish.’

‘Sprint finish.’

A beaming Mark Buller held aloft the ten tonne medal, as I crossed the line with a grinning whimper – 4:32:00.
David and Dean

I think I’ve now completed 16 or so marathons and this was by far the hardest, but also the most amazing. It’s as much about mental strength and endurance as physical. The terrain changed constantly, with the course repeatedly chopping and changing direction. I stopped counting how many times I fell over at 15, the ‘path’ was so unpredictable underfoot and that’s what made it so hard – the unknown. You cannot find a rhythm, never relax or mentally turn off. Every single mile is hard won, which makes it so impressive just how many OCR racers completed this as their first ever marathon.

So congratulations to Dean on Mark on creating a truly unique course and experience – the toughest marathon in the UK. As I warmed myself in their heated hut, one of the finishers smiled at me, mischief flickering in his eyes.

‘So are you ready for their next race?’

‘What’s that?’

‘It’s called The Unknown’

'Oh Dear God!'

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