Just Back from... Basque Expedition Race 2018

Tom Davies and Gary Davies competed in the Basque Expedition Race 2018, held in mid-October around Valdegovia in the mountains of northern Spain. Staged for the second time – the inaugural event was held in 2016 - the course was 290 kilometres long with approximately 11,000 metres of ascent, and included the regular disciplines of mountain biking, trekking/running and kayaking, as well as complex navigation. This year, however, it also included two new disciplines – via ferrata* and stand up paddling (SUP). There were categories for mixed teams of four (Expedition) and unusually for Pairs (Adventure class).  

Davies and Davies (no relation) competed as a pair - taking 60 hours and 43 minutes to cover the course. They placed first of the two finishing pairs in the Adventure category.

The team is sponsored by Endurancelife and also by Montane and 2XU, who assist in equipment and clothing.

See more about the Basque Expedition Race. *And for more information about via ferratas, see here. These fixed line trekking/mountaineering routes with high safety levels open up difficult climbing, often with massive ‘exposure’, routes that otherwise might be inaccessible to inexperienced climbers.

 The hard yards - Gary and Tom on the Leg 1 climb, c Basque Expedition Race

The hard yards - Gary and Tom on the Leg 1 climb, c Basque Expedition Race

 

First a bit of Form
Gary Davies: Tom and I raced together (in team of four) earlier this year at Expedition Africa in Namaqua, South Africa (see Gary’s extraordinary race report) and also at the ROC Mountain Marathon (as a pair), two weeks prior to the Basque race. The latter was good practice, with lots of time on our feet and technical navigation/orienteering in the mountains. It also enabled us to practice working as a pair and to determine our roles. We assigned Tom as primary navigator for the Basque race with me supporting, doing other navigation duties such as pacing, time keeping and measuring our ascent/descent.

Tom mentioned the Basque race soon after Expedition Africa in May. We knew that we might struggle to find a female member from our squad to race with us (due to work commitments), so I suggested we enter as a pair - the organisers offer this option, which is not usual in multi-day adventure races – and we jumped at the opportunity.

Neither of us had participated in the Basque Expedition Race before, nor even raced in Spain. However, our friend Adam Rose had – and he did warn us that there would be some steep and technical terrain...

 

 Tom and the dry, challenging terrain

Tom and the dry, challenging terrain

What was the race like?
The main features of the Basque Expedition Race are the amount of ascent/descent, the steep technical gradients, the difficult technical navigation and the lack of surface water (for drinking) despite enormous amounts of vegetation! Navigation is key to success in the race: paths exist in some areas but not in others and so calculated risks - going in a straight line between checkpoints – were advantageous in some places but not elsewhere.

It rained in the second half of the race and given our experience in Expedition Africa (where we lost seven hours due to a broken rear mech) we were wary of the same happening again, so we were deliberately cautious going through the mud.

While the Basque Expedition Race is ‘short’ compared to some multi-day expedition races, pace alone will not determine the winners. The race started at 1700 on the Friday evening which meant that we had approximately three hours of sunlight (and heat) before it got dark. The pace at the start of the race was fast but Tom and I deliberately held back from going over the ‘red line.’ The first leg (trek) had almost 3000m of ascent/descent, the majority of which was done at night, so we knew it would be wise to concentrate on getting the navigation right while keep our intensity fairly uniform.

 

 Winners Adventure/Pairs category

Winners Adventure/Pairs category

Planning
Fourteen orienteering maps were handed to us approximately two hours before the race and they included over 100 checkpoints! There were 8 legs (three trek, three MTB, one kayak/SUP and one via ferrata) and the checkpoints were in linear format. Two methods were used to confirm that we visited them; some required photographic evidence and others required the use of SportIdent dibbers.

We decided to carry 2 x 750ml bottles for each leg and not to carry more capacity. However we soon discovered that drinking water was sparse out on the course, limited to infrequent water troughs (near springs) and/or village supplies. We had to ration our drinking to short sips and there were two occasions where I didn’t drink any water for hours. I was so desperate at one point that I even used a muddy puddle to fill a bottle; I treated this water of course.

One night we spent over thirty minutes in a village trying to find water. Each house seemed to have very angry guard dogs, which were barking loudly – one had several dogs barking and biting one another, which resulted in lots of yelps of pain! Luckily we found a water source on the outskirts of that village before ascending to the next checkpoint.

 

Were there differences in racing as a pair?
Racing in a pair instead of a traditional mixed team of four over this length of time is different. The likelihood of something going wrong is higher in a team of four (e.g. personal injury, mechanical breakdowns), purely based on the larger number of people/factors. However when things go wrong, it helps to have more people and potentially a wider base of skills to deal with it.

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One of the challenges in a team of four is to ensure that everybody feels that they have a role in the team. It is very easy for two or three people to have something to do (e.g. navigation) but for the other members to feel that they are spare parts. This is generally not a problem in a pair.

I enjoy racing with Tom as he’s a very good navigator and is always keen to keep moving and it worked well to be supporting him with other navigational roles such as pacing and working on the altimeter. We suffer at different times from the ‘graveyard shift’ (i.e. the moment when your brain wants to shut down during night), so I would take over the navigational and ‘driving’ duties until Tom managed to battle through and shake it off. 

 

How were the race organisation and logistics?
The race organisation was excellent. The maps were excellent quality both for their accuracy and their durability (tough waterproof paper). We learned after the race that Urtzi Iglesias (Race Director) had personally spent several days in the areas where the participants were likely to be and he updated the maps himself. The checkpoint descriptions were accurate and the SportIdent checkpoints were located accurately too; this a sign of a good Race Director and team. Cristina is the other side of the organisational team and was instrumental before and during the event.

The pre-race information was good and we were picked up from/to the airport and transferred to the race HQ for registration, kit checks, skill tests and briefings etc.

 

 Tom Davies on a SUP

Tom Davies on a SUP

What was the most challenging aspect of the event?
Tom and I had done very little time on a SUP board before the race; mine was limited to 20 minutes during the summer! We both struggled to keep the boards going in a straight line on the first section of the SUP leg albeit Tom was better than I due to his misspent youth on a snowboard! I decided to go on my knees after about 2km (into 7km leg) as I was far more stable and able to keep in a straight line and thus move forward faster. As it turned out, our leg times for SUP weren’t that much longer than the more capable teams, which was surprising.

I had never done ‘via ferrata’ previously either, though Tom had. Even he said that the section in the Basque Expedition race 2018 was technically challenging. It included a traverse along the top of a knife edge ridgeline for several hundred metres, with a vertical drop either side! Crib Goch (Snowdon, North Wales) has nothing on the Basque via ferrata.

 

And the best moment?
The biggest ‘oh dear’ moment in the race was during Leg 2 when I realised that the checkpoint description booklet was no longer on my MTB map board. We had travelled several kilometres and descended several hundred metres since the previous checkpoint where I had used it too! It may have been dislodged from my map board when I was ‘kicked out’ of my saddle (after riding over a boulder on a very technical steep descent) and landed on the map board! Anyway, Tom and I agreed not to go back as I still had the photo booklet (which contained photos of non-dibber checkpoints) and we thought the majority of the checkpoints on the leg should be easy to find as they were on clear ground/map features. However we weren’t sure how we would get on for the remaining legs!

So our best moment in the race came a while later, when we bumped into another team and asked if we could photograph their description booklet. Luckily they obliged!

 

 The via ferrata on the knife-edge ridgeline, courtesy Basque Expedition Race

The via ferrata on the knife-edge ridgeline, courtesy Basque Expedition Race

How did you get on ?
We started out pretty well and were yo-yoing with other top teams (fours and pairs) on the Leg 1 trek as we all made different route choices with different degrees of success. This leg was anticipated to last around 12 hours for the fastest team, so we were delighted to do it in a couple of hours less than that - and to find ourselves in the top five at the first transition. As the race progressed, the teams spread out and we saw very little of them except during the transitions.

The muddy terrain was a challenge, particularly following the rainfall in the second half of the race and after our experience in Expedition Africa we were deliberately cautious. Even so, the mud stuck to our tyres and drivetrains, making some sections of the MTB legs unrideable. We ended up having to carry the (now heavy) bikes, even down some shallow descents.  

Even after the muddy sections the issues continued. Our chains and derailleurs were full of mud, resulting in ‘chain-suck’ and kinking our chains. We were reluctant to use our drinking water (if we had any) to clean the drivetrain because of the lack of suitable re-supply, so Tom even tried peeing on my chain once to clean it! Later we found a big water trough and dunked the bikes and removed as much mud and weight as possible before the next climb.

It was great winning the Pairs/Adventure category in a starting field of 13 pairs and to place third overall (i.e. including teams of four in the Expedition category). There were two other very good pairs in the race and for a while all three of us were in contention for podium positions. Then one of the teams retired, so we ended up head-to-head with the third team, exchanging first place (in the Pairs category) through the second half of the race. But finally we managed to pull ahead, gaining a four hour lead by the end of the race. We believe this happened for two reasons: first we had a very good quality sleep (2 hours, our only sleep during race) on the second night in a small timber shed; and second our navigation was probably better.

 Pairs/Adventure category winners podium

Pairs/Adventure category winners podium

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Expedition Africa 2018 Namaqualand: A Novice Team's Account

Team Sleepy Dragons took part in Expedition Africa in Namaqua earlier this year. The 530 kilometre multi-day event was their first full-length adventure race – prior to that they had raced only single day races - so it was a big undertaking and of course it took them for the first time into new domains such as sleep deprivation and multi-day planning.  But it’s funny how addictive the sport can be… and it wasn’t long after the end of the race that they found themselves dreaming of the next event. Below, team Captain David Naylor talks about their race.

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About the illustrations: Diane Shearer, a member of Team Sleepy Dragons, is an artist who specialises in landscapes and the outdoors. She has drawn a number of pictures inspired by the race and the Namaqua area on the west coast of South Africa where the race was held, and we are pleased to illustrate this article with them. See more about Diane Shearer and her work.

And see more about Expedition Africa.

 

What was Expedition Africa 2018 like?
David Naylor: #ExpAfrica was our first long-distance adventure race.  We had previously done a few ~120km races but never before did we have to worry about budgeting sleep (we’ve never needed to sleep on a race before), taking enough food with us or blister management. The race taught us so much.

Namaqualand had been going through a drought just before we started the race, however on the very first day inclement weather rolled in.  During the week of the race the area experienced more rain than in the previous 3 years.  And we dodged all of it! 

 Olifants River

Olifants River

It was a beautiful race, with wonderful people at the transitions, keeping the spirits up and the fires warm. The legs were long and so we often went many hours without seeing another soul. At the end of the event, after a good sleep, we were already excited to do the next race.  We wanted to improve upon what we had learned. 

Finishing the race was a moment in itself - the vibe at the finish line was awesome. 


Random Thought
## Adventure racing isn't only about the good and beautiful moments, but also about pushing yourself through tough times. 

 

Did you get your Training and Planning right?
The fourth leg - the first and longest cycle - spanned nine 1:50,000 maps.  Once we had plotted our route, we had to cut up the map as it wouldn't all fix in the map sleeve.  So, during this leg we had to periodically stop and fish out another section of the map.  That was a first! 

##Training - More training, lots more training, over longer distances! 

 

What team Strategies did you use?
#Pacing - We had been warned about setting a pace that was too fast, so we did the opposite and went too slowly.  Next time we will focus more on setting a good sustainable pace.  We will also cut down on the number of rests we have. There is no need for a 5 minute break every 45 minutes. 

## Food - Make sure you take a variety of food.  You will get tired of anything after a while.  Our navigator had packed too many cashew nuts and ended up a cashew nut merchant, desperately trading them for anything that wasn't cashew nuts. 

 Maskam Mountain

Maskam Mountain

#Things get surreal - On the 6th day we found ourselves with a short ~50km cycle to the finish line.  We set off and soon found ourselves in beach-quality sand, on the top of Gifberg Pass.  Alas, someone was negligent and failed to include the ocean.  So, through soft sand, comical moments of falling over, and sheer pain, we came to the end of Gifberg. 

#Hike a Bike - Despite avoiding the hike-a-bike mud nightmare (see below) we did end up hiking our bikes over fences and up a hill at one point in the middle of the night, as our navigator took us on a scenic "shortcut". 

#The end is magical - As we cycled down the last pass, we could see the fields of Namaqualand, and a road cutting straight across those fields into the horizon.  That straight road was our route home, and what a beautiful sight it was.  After 6 days, 127 hours of racing, less than 20 hours of sleep, the end was in sight. 



Was there a particularly special moment?
There were so many memorable moments, but here are a couple:

 Gifberg

Gifberg

#Cycling alongside a coal train - On the fourth leg part of our route took us alongside some train tracks and while we were cycling, during the night, a train passed us - except it was so long that it took a good ten+ minutes to pass.  Never have I seen such a long train – there were packs of locomotives at the front, middle and back.  The train passed us in the darkness, with nothing else to keep us company except the rattle of the bikes on the dirt road and the clinking of the wires above the train tracks. 


#A Party at the top of Hel's Pass - It happened that our navigator had his 30th birthday during the race, on a day when we had a major route decision to take.  Stephan (the race director) had given the teams an option for one of the CP points: either a shorter route that involved a hike-a-bike section of ~1km (Option A), or add 20km to the distance but avoid the hike-a-bike (Option B).  Both options involved an equivalent amount of elevation. 

We chose the long way around, and luckily that was the right option for us – it turned out that rain had flooded the plains on Option A, turning the route into a multi-kilometer hike-a-bike slog through mud. And that was before the real hike-a-bike section up the narrow pass.  Taking Option B – and unknowingly dodging the mud – we had mostly dry tracks up Hel's Pass.  And so, on the 3rd morning we found ourselves at the top of Devil's Pass with a little cake, a candle and a mini bottle of Amarula to celebrate our navigator's 30th.  What a sweet moment! 

#At the Finish - Getting back to our lodge on the evening we finished and turning on a cellphone for the first time in a week - and seeing a flood of over 600 messages on the Sleepy Dragon Whatsapp group discussing our progress throughout the race and messages of congratulations - made us realise that although we felt very alone at stages of the course, our trusty dot-watchers had been with us all the way.

 Dooringbaai

Dooringbaai

Tip Top Tips - What did you learn?
Normally we include Tip Top Tips elsewhere, but as this is the view of a team on their first major race, we decided to include them here.

After walking for miles over quartz rocks and cycling for 36 hours at as stretch, were learned some key lessons - wear double socks for long treks and carry spare socks to allow yourselves to have some time with dry feet (say after sleeping). On long cycle rides wear double cycling pants.



#Other Random notes
 - Sleeping at transition may be more comfortable, but it’s a lot noisier
 - David has back problems and a back rest on the kayak leg was essential (and likely a life saver). 
 - Time your stops! 
 - Sometimes compasses invert (especially if you have a magnetic camel pack), look out for a "slow" compass that confuses the navigator. 



You can read David Naylor and Sleepy Dragon’s thoughts before they set off for the race here.

 Sneeukop

Sneeukop

And here are Diane’s images held in situ. The race course took them from the coast around Dooringbaai, inland on the Olifants River and then south to Sneeukop in the Cederberg mountains and then via Gifberg to the finish

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Sneeukop1.jpg
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Team Ertips win AR Croatia

Leading French adventure race team Ertips recently won the inaugural ARC Adventure Race Croatia by a considerable margin. The 350km race, which was held in Zadar, with its extraordinary ‘karst’ limestone terrain, saw 20 teams compete over 17 legs of sea kayaking, mountain biking, hiking, gorge walking, ropework and of course, demanding navigation.

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Adventure Race Croatia was a demonstration race within the ARC calendar, and the winning team was awarded a free entry to this year’s Adventure Race World Championships – the Raid in France, to be held in early November in the island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean.

Team Ertips has been winning races in various incarnations for more than 20 years, since the days of the original adventure race, the Raid Gauloises. They covered the course of the ARC in just over 56 hours, five hours faster than their nearest rivals, Team Intersport from Slovenia. On this occasion the team members included Sam Hubert, Clement Eldin, Stephanie Bianchi, David Barranger. Sam Hubert, captain of Team Ertips, tells us about their race.

See more about Adventure Race Croatia and more about Raid in France, this year’s Adventure Racing World Championships.

 

First a bit of Form
Sam Hubert: I have been captain of the ERTIPS Team for 13 years and I have competed with all three other team members over the years, but this was the first time that the four of us have entered an adventure race of this length together.

David and I are the most experienced racers in the team and we have competed in six world championships together, as well as in many other adventure races. It was Clem and Steph’s second major adventure race. Team ERTIPS has won lots of races over recent years, but it would be fair to say that the ARC was one of our favourite victories.

 

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What was ARC 2018 like?
The ARC 2018 was a proper adventure race. It was quite short, obviously (and that’s why we choose it), but the balance between the activities was good and the 17 legs gave the race a good rhythm, and it enabled us not to fall asleep !  One of the aims of Igor Dorotic (the race organiser) in his course design was to take us through some historic parts of Croatia, so for instance that’s how we ended up on the Velebit Road, an old Roman road that links the sea and the mountains.

The mountain bike sections were not that technical, but the treks were really demanding and pretty unforgiving - you really didn’t want to make a mistake out there - a fall could have been really dramatic ! Also, as it turned out, our two sea kayak legs took place at night and the navigation was challenging.

What makes ARC special?
It’s important to know that terrain in this part of Croatia is extremely hard going. You had to be a real mountain goat to get through the hiking legs. We suspected this before the race – and we even found some similar rocky terrain in which to train. It was definitely worth it !

During Leg 7 particularly, you really had to get your navigation absolutely spot on – it was necessary to strike out away from the paths. In fact this turned out to be a key point in the race, and it enabled us to build up a lead on the other teams.

 

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Was the course a success?
For a first race, the ARC was definitely a success ! Maps, check points, check point photos and the organisation were almost perfect. I say almost, as there are a few small things that they could do to improve, but we would like to emphasise what a big, big job Igor and his team undertook and how accomplished it was.

 

Did Ertips get training and planning right?
We have plenty of experience, obviously, so we train individually and this time, in order to get ready for the race, we entered just a single, one-day adventure race in France in early September.

David and I are the team navigators and when one of us is leading, the other verifies his decisions. Steph is in charge of the sleeping time, which is a crucial job, because in the third night, we were so tired that we could have slept on and on! Clem was in charge of the control-book … No mistakes are permitted in that job :-)

 

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How long did you sleep? Team strategies?
Before the race we decided that we wouldn’t sleep on the first night, and then that we would take a minimum of an hour’s rest during the second night, and this is exactly what we did. It was particularly good rest because we found a refuge on Leg 7 to sleep in. On the last night we slept twice for 10 minutes and that was all we needed.

Our strategies worked pretty well in the race itself. We were pleased that we managed to navigate pretty accurately and to keep our race rhythm – if the weather’s hot it’s important not to push too hard so that you don’t dehydrate, because you will always pay for it later.

We can always improve though. We lost about 10 minutes during the first sea kayak leg, when we had our heading out by a few degrees for a whole hour. Also, in the final moments of mountain bike leg, which we did during the night, we made some small mistakes. However, we were lucky that this didn’t make a difference.

 

What was the most challenging moment for the team?
Probably leg 7, the hiking leg in the Crnopac Mountains. It was only 15km long, but the terrain was brutal karst limestone and it was like a labyrinth weaving around the outcrops, so the navigation was really tough. We expected to be doing the leg by night, which would have been really hard, but we were lucky and we made it through the difficult bit by dusk.

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Was there a particularly special moment?
The sunset on the third evening was beautifully red and we were confident about the biking and kayaking legs to come, so that’s when we began to scent a possible victory. So that was a good moment. Also, when we got through the difficult navigation on Leg 7 that gave us another boost!

 

What did you learn?
We reminded ourselves that taking the time to navigate properly is key to doing well in any race.

We don’t worry about what the other teams are doing. From the start we just concentrate on our own yellow jersey....

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Team What's Your Dream and Nordic Islands AR 2018

Team What’s your Dream took part in the inaugural Nordic Islands Adventure Race 2018, which was held between Stockholm in Sweden and Turku in Finland, via the scattered isalands of the Aland archipelago. It was quite a novelty for the team because three of the members - Kalle Zackari Walström, James Roberts and Jens Larsson - had never raced a full length adventure race before. However, they were accompanied by Marika Wagner, an extremely experienced competitor with podium places in several major events over the years. Kalle Zackari Walström is a well-known Swedish television presenter, who specialises in taking on sporting events as a challenge and then reporting on them. Here the team gives their impressions of the inaugural Nordic Islands AR. 

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What was Nordic Islands AR 2018 like?
Marika Wagner: It was a very special feeling to race on home soil; during the first 24 hours of the race there were spectators all along the route, cheering us on and giving us a lot of well needed positive energy. The landscape was magical and that kept us going on many occasions during the race.

The first three legs (the abseil, city-orienteering and first pack-rafting section) were intense, because we knew beforehand that the bike was going to be long and a little short of time for us, so we pushed it pretty hard at the start. At the same time, I tried to keep an eye on the pace and the well-being of the team, so we wouldn't hit the wall too early.

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What makes NIAR special?
For me the most special moment was the start. There were lots of spectators and I was in my home town. I was touched by how many friends turned out to give us a great start to the race.

James Roberts: The course was a fantastic mix of wilderness and feeling small in nature. The Aland archipelago particularly, where we were swim-running and pack rafting, was spectacularly beautiful. I felt so fortunate to get to spend time there, to get out into the wild environment.
 

Was the course a success?
Marika: The course and the organisation was well done in quite challenging circumstances - it was a huge logistical task to create a safe, A to B race which crossed a sea and then an archipelago. A lot of experienced and professional staff gave their utmost to give us this adventure and it delivered everything.  

Kalle Zackari Walström: The maps and check points were very well placed and accurate. We felt a little low at some of the TAs. When you’re fighting really hard, every TA is a milestone and you put so much effort in to reaching it. We were really longing for something special, only to find the TA was just a parking lot. That took a little mental push to overcome. 

 

Did you get your training and planning right?
Marika: The guys admitted that they didn’t do quite enough training, especially in kayaking and biking, which they found hard to find time for. 

Jens Larsson: Marika’s experience and professionalism with the planning made everything work out very well. 
 

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How long did you sleep? Did you get the food right? Team strategies?
Jens: Food was well planned and balanced. As always you find some stuff in your food pack you like the most and there’s some stuff you don't want to eat at all. It would have been nice to take a bit more real food, but the extra weight stopped us from doing that. 

Sleeping turned out better than we expected because of the timings. We powered through the first night on the mountain bikes and then each night after that we got about 3 hours during the dark before heading out onto the sea with tricky navigation. On the last night we decided to take a longer sleep and we felt very confident with that decision. It gave us a lot more energy for the final bike ride to the finish and I'm sure we gained time in the end because of this. 

 

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What was the most challenging moment for the team?
Kalle : The whole crazy adventure was the challenge. This kind of racing is insanely challenging and hard. It really takes 1000% discipline and commitment to make it to the finish line of an adventure race.

 

Was there a particularly special moment?
Every sunrise was a unique special moment.

Kalle : There is nothing I love as much as a sunrise during an adventure race. I remember the daybreak in the packraft on Day 3: everything was peach. I’m missing moments like that already.  

James : A part of the race that meant a lot to us was the friendship; within the team of course, but also friendship with other teams that we met along the course, especially Puppy Adventure Team who we kept an even pace with for a long time. 

Also, it felt really adventurous setting out on the third night. We slept in a barn and then headed out on the sea in the kayaks. I really liked that stage. It was the first time I had ever done anything like that. 

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Team Endurancelife in Expedition Africa 2018

Gary Davies of Team Endurancelife talked us through the team’s race at Expedition Africa 2018, the 530km adventure race held in South Africa in May, including the moment when he managed to fall asleep while walking... The course, which involved kayaking, mountain biking, ropework, canyoning and of course hiking, ran from Namaqua on the Atlantic coast and inland into the Cederberg Mountains.

It was an unexpected race, both for the organisers – after months of drought it rained the day before and then during the race – and for Team Endurancelife themselves, who after a mechanical failure unexpectedly found themselves near the back of the field. Their considerable adventure racing experience and some superb navigation from Tom Davies helped them to climb back up the order. Eventually they finished in 7th place.

The team is sponsored by Endurancelife and also by Montane and 2XU, who assist in equipment and clothing.
 

 From 35th to 7th at the finish, © Kirsten Oliver, Expedition Africa

From 35th to 7th at the finish, © Kirsten Oliver, Expedition Africa

What makes Expedition Africa special?
Gary Davies: The reason we went back to Expedition Africa is because the race is so special. The organisers are great hosts: Heidi is the people person and she makes sure you are well looked after from the moment you arrive at the airport. You almost feel as though you’re on holiday… Stefan puts on very good quality courses and that was the case this time.

His courses feel like a proper journey: for instance there was an abseil with the bikes at one point in 2018 – 50 metres down to a ledge and then another 100 metres to the valley floor - but they weren’t there just for the sake of a spectacular abseil (in some courses you would just ride back up to where you were). They were there so that the cycling could continue along the next section of the course.


What was Expedition Africa 2018 like?
We were expecting a dry race. This area of South Africa had been through a drought for months - the grapes and other crops weren’t growing for lack of water. And then, the night before the start, it began to rain, which it did on occasions throughout the race. So Expedition Africa 2018 turned out to be quite wet. And that meant it was quite cold too, amazingly. Some teams even suffered hypothermia in the Cederberg mountains.

Our race was defined by a problem we hit early on, on Leg 4 (about 200km of mountain biking). It started when we chose a route that was much longer but which would have been faster because it had plenty of tarmac road. However, it fell outside the organisers’ permissions, and we were told we couldn’t use it. This meant that we had to change our route on the hoof, and we opted for another route that nobody else considered, down a dry riverbed. Normally this would have would have been fine, but after the rains, it was incredibly muddy and hard going.

 One smashed rear mech and a failed single-speed mend

One smashed rear mech and a failed single-speed mend

Then we suffered a problem to the rear mech on Phil’s bike; first the hanger snapped as we traversed a very muddy (dry) river bed and then in the mud the whole rear mech broke. We tried to create a single speed to enable us to continue on the stage, but that failed and so we had to return to the transition - asking every team we passed if they had a spare in their gear box (our boxes had already been moved on). Eventually Alec Rust from South African Team Rustproof kindly gave us his spare, which he was carrying with him. We very much appreciate his generosity for sacrificing their team spare part to enable us to continue. 

All in all it wasn’t a great start. Despite the good luck in getting the rear mech, we had lost 6 ½ hours and we ended up down in 35th place. We considered carrying on in tourist mode – sleeping plenty, enjoying the view, taking photographs – but two of us were particularly keen to race and in the end that’s what the team did. Tom (Davies, but no relation to Gary Davies) and Phil did a spectacular job of the navigation and so for us the race was all about climbing through the ranking.
 

 In the Cederberg Mountains, © Expedition Africa

In the Cederberg Mountains, © Expedition Africa

Did you get your training and race strategies right?
We hadn’t trained together much. We identified our individual weaknesses and then worked on them on our own. I did a lot of mtb, with lots of turbo training, high power and short intervals, but others were more focussed on trekking.

Training was our biggest unknown, but it turned out that we were pretty equal, certainly over the long distances. Nobody bonked or had to be dragged. Possibly this was down to our sleep strategy, which worked pretty well.

We started out with me as Team Captain and bike nav, and with Phil as foot navigator, but before the race I handed over the primary nav to Tom. He was up for the foot navigation too. On one leg we leap-frogged six or seven teams because his route finding was so good.


How long did you sleep?
We went through the first night, slept 2 ½ hours the second night, 2 on the third and then an hour in the canyon, so 5 hours in total, which was fine. Often in a race someone will have a really bad night, but it didn’t happen this time. Perhaps we know how to deal with the lack of sleep better after our years of racing.

We still had our moments, though… Natalie would sing to keep herself awake. And I had a strange thing where I actually managed to fall asleep while I was walking, holding onto Natalie. It was a fairly smooth track and I would wake up each time I kicked a stone or something, but I managed a whole series of micro sleeps while walking.  After 10 minutes I was feeling fresh again.

 Shhhh! Team member sleeping

Shhhh! Team member sleeping

 © Expedition Africa

© Expedition Africa

What was the most challenging moment for the team?
Definitely Leg 4 when the rear mech broke and we lost so much time. That and the end of the canyon, after hours of fighting our way through the vegetation in there – at times you had to burrow down and push through and then drag your rucksack behind you. Once we were out we headed off on our chosen route, but lost confidence, worrying that we had gone the wrong way. Heads dropped. But then we met a leading team and realised we were doing well and on the right track. It gave us a boost and the heads came back up again.


Was there a particularly special moment?
For me the most special moment was in the canyon. In the middle of the night, after about four days, when I saw this huge pair of eyes glowing in a tree above me. They seemed as large as headlamps. Later I was told that it was a bush baby.

 Kayaking, Leg 2, © Alfred Thom, Expedition Africa

Kayaking, Leg 2, © Alfred Thom, Expedition Africa


Was there any kit that turned out to be particularly useful or you realised you needed?
We took some high quality Montane waterproofs, which we didn’t really think we would need in South Africa, but as it turned out with the cold weather in the canyon they were really useful.

I had a moment of good luck. On a skype call before leaving, the team all agreed to bring an extra set of brake pads each and I didn’t actually do so. And then with the gritty wet and mud, I was down to the metal half way through the race. Which was potentially embarrassing - as I might have had to walk my bike downhill… But Expedition Africa has a mechanic on call and so I left a note on my bike box asking them if they could fit new brake pads – and when we saw the bikes again my brakes had been fixed!


What did you learn?
Be open and honest within your team. You’re bound to have a few disagreements under the stress of racing. Vent them early. At the start I didn’t know whether Tom and I would get on – we’re both quite macho types – but we did get on and we worked together well.

Also, never let your head drop. You have to get back in the race. As it turned out, from position 35 we spent the race climbing the order and this gave us a good feeling as we went along. Through Tom’s navigation we were climbing four or five places per leg at one stage. By the finish we had climbed to 7th overall and, you never know, if we hadn’t lost the time at the start we might have been pushing top 5.

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