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.
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.
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...
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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