Team Sleepy Dragons is entering Expedition Africa, a full-length adventure race to be held in the Namaqua Region of South Africa in late May. It is a 540-kilometre, non-stope event for teams of two and four (single or mixed sex), with disciplines to include trekking, mountain biking, kayaking and ropework. As always there is a strong component of navigation and this year there will be some swimming (across rivers) and canyoning as well. Namaqua is located on the Atlantic coast of South Africa, some 500 kilometres north of Cape Town, so it is remote and unpopulated country. The race is organised by Kinetic Events and forms part of the Adventure Racing World Series.
This is the first expedition length adventure race for Team Sleepy Dragons, which consists of husband and wife David and Kay Naylor, and Diane Shearer and Jonathan Tucker, both long-time fans of the outdoors. Although the team has completed some short adventure races (120km), they are looking forward, and a little apprehensive, about stepping up to expedition length.
First a bit of Form
David Naylor: It all started with Kay (at the time we were just dating). After triathlons and outdoor sports, our first event was the Kinetic Adventure Race (25km) in the middle of winter at Emmarentia, Johannesburg. It was cold and half-way through the race I went flying over my handlebars on a tar road. I had to pull out but Kay finished the race with her brother.
Needless to say, we were back for the next Kinetic Adventure Race, competing for two seasons under the name Roomba Robots and a third with the name Galloping Giraffes. That’s when we decided to do the Kinetic Full Moon race (120km) in Parys, South Africa. We joined up with friends from the team Those People (creating Those Giraffes). One of our team members had only recently learnt to cycle.
This first longer race was a quite an eye opener to what longer distance adventure racing involves. And, we did all the things novices do:
- We got "lost" (we took the long way to a checkpoint, um… unintentionally)
- Arrived at the transition after the first long leg and just collapsed (after cycling on corrugated dirt roads - an absolute nightmare).
- Took 1.5 hours to take a 20 minute nap
But, we made it to the finish line, after a beautiful sunrise, and in a respectable time. Jonathan was also taking part in that, although we didn't know him at the time.
The next year (2017), we changed our name to Sleepy Dragons, and Kay and I completed the 120km Magoebaskloof half Double Moon as a pair. That was a stunningly beautiful course, with forests, mountain ranges, mist and a new discipline in adventure racing: tree climbing. On the second trek leg we needed to go up the side of a mountain through a tree plantation that had suffered a fire. The easiest route appeared to be to follow the road, but the burned trees had fallen in the wind and it was impassible. Which meant we had to climb through the dead trees, almost horizontally. Quite a surreal experience.
We decided to do the expedition length race and started looking for teammates to join us under Sleep Dragons. We knew Diane through Scouts and we found Jonathan through Heidi Muller of Kinetic Adventures. We then completed the Kinetic Full Moon adventure race (again in Parys, Diane's first race and Jonathan's second) as a team. We came first in the series log for the Kinetic Adventure Race (25km) season of 2017. In 2018 the team has already done the Kinetic Full Moon adventure race in Swaziland.
So the members of Team Sleepy Dragons have always been into sport and the outdoors and we love the physical and mental challenges that adventure racing brings. Diane came from a running background: she is extremely fit and enjoys pushing herself to her limits in the mountains – she just never seems to stop... She has always had her eye on the longer AR races so once she found a team, she didn't take much convincing. Jonathan is also interested in all kinds of outdoor activities and his job is to take youth on life changing expeditions. Although he has done two fewer Kinetic Full Moon races than Kay and me, he is very experienced with rope work and paddling, and he is a strong navigator, so he brings quite a bit to the team.
Why Expedition Africa? Why now?
It was logical (if not rational…). After completing the two Full Moon adventure races, I reasoned were not going to get any fitter if we didn't commit to doing the race. It was on our TO DO list and, well... there was no reason not to.
Why Expedition Africa specifically? Heidi and Stephan have been doing a lot for AR around Johannesburg and we have always enjoyed their events. It was just natural for us to do our first expedition length AR with them.
The physical side
We know it is going to be tough and at some point it will be more of a mental challenge than a physical one. We hope that our training will make it a little less painful and the beautiful area we’re racing in will take our mind off how tough it is.
Most of our training is on the weekends and involves long sessions of running/trekking/ cycling and a bit of paddling. Interestingly our programme has evolved. We recently did a 3 hour cycle ride, which at the start of our training programme would have been quite a long session but now we consider this quite short. Elsewhere we go to a personal trainer twice a week for strength exercises.
We also went to a skills training camp run by Jabberwock, which was very useful. They gave us a lot of tips on surviving an expedition and did a great job of training us on mapping and rope work.
Planning and Strategies
After our first 120km race, the next one seemed much less overwhelming and we were much better prepared for what was coming. I think the story may be the same with Expedition Africa, as a race this long is very unfamiliar territory. So far, the planning has mostly been about getting to the start with sufficient gear and a good mental attitude and then seeing how it goes from there. Something I have thought a lot about is the balance between moving and resting (most teams, it seems, take minimum rest). We are planning on 4 hours of sleep a night at the moment. We have said we will keep eating, even if we don’t feel like it.
What will be the most challenging aspect event?
Kay has done a lot of research into expedition length adventure racing and there is definitely a lack of information out there. We've had so many questions to answer, from how much training does one need, to how to handle cycling lights (over 6 nights).
Initially, I think it will be tough to pace ourselves properly - to go slow enough. To date, in our shorter races we have generally gone all out. I also think night navigation will be quite a challenge. It could easily set us back if we get a bit lost (or a lot).
We have been warned repeatedly about keeping our transition times down - our last adventure race was quite good in some respects, but the transitions were still 20 minutes each. Otherwise I think it is about being resilient and going at a steady sustainable pace. Physically we have prepared as best we can (except maybe in paddling...).
What are your general expectations?
The maps we've glanced at show three mountain ranges, so a lot of elevation - and some stunning views. The area is also known for its lack of water and very barren landscape. This can lead to hot days and cold nights: explicit water planning will be required. The Kinetic races are generally well organised so I expect the transitions to be traps of luxury (hot drinks and beds to tempt us).
I think physically it is going to get very tough after the first 2 days. Legs are going to be sore, feet might become an issue and sleep deprivation can make even simple arithmetic difficult ("so, the map says we need to go 3 centimetres, which on a scale of 1:50000 is 1.5km, and moving speed of 15m/km on this terrain it will be…" When you’re tired, sums as simple as this take about 5 minutes to compute).
What does achievement look like?
Our primary goal is to finish the full route (without short coursing) within the 6.5 day cut-off time.
What does adventure mean to you?
To me adventure racing captures modern life in so many of its dimensions:
- Equipment: although we go out into the wilderness "alone" we take with us everything 21st century humanity has to offer: GPS tracker, modern fibres, shoe design, maps, etc. It has certainly made the sport more accessible (and in some case - I think – more doable).
- Preparation: one of the defining characteristics of being human is the ability to plan ahead - and adventure racing certainly requires lots of fore-planning, and...
- Skill: a diverse range of skills, from map and compass navigation and 1st aid to mechanic.
- Team: Another very human thing is the ability to function as a group, as a team. And to be more effective as a group than individually.
I also think it requires us to embrace some aspects of life that sometimes the modern conveniences can allow us to skirt:
- Perseverance: the sheer will, perseverance and endurance required to keep moving for days on end is diametrically opposed to modern convenience.
- Resilience: we go with what we have and have to make do. We need to be both prepared with tools and skill to ensure we can overcome anything that happens to us (be it a broken bike, or physical injury).
Finally I remember very distinctly the first time I finished a (medium distance) adventure race and that subtle change in attitude it brought. There were two key things, first the reassurance that I can do really difficult things, and second that some other things in life are nowhere near as important as they seem, despite the demands they make.
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