Saturday, December 4, 2010

ARE "Adventure Race"

Today I drove north to participate in Albany Running Exchange's "Adventure Race" - not quite like adventure racing as we know it, but entertaining and fun!

The course was a marked run through the woods, mostly off-trail. We stood at the starting line while the race director explained that we should follow the pink flagging (they had put up plenty of it to keep us on track) and that the course is DANGEROUS so don't do it if you don't want to (and don't sue them) and that if you encounter an obstacle you don't like you should just try to find a way around. So ... GO! Oh, and go that way ---->

The RD took off into the woods, ignoring all the pink flagging already strung in various spots around the start/finish. We followed en masse, picking our way between the trees and through a bit of a swamp until we saw the start of the flagging up ahead. With over 100 people barreling into the vegetation, it must have been quite a sight. It soon became clear that the biggest initial challenge was to avoid getting whacked in the face with a branch! Luckily Dave has helped me practice that, so I was ready in full arm-block mode.

Next we followed the flagging down a steep hill, jumping over sticks and rocks and hoping the leaves weren't hiding anything too treacherous. It was basically a free-for-all in terms of finding a way down, as long as you were somewhat close to the pink flagging, that seemed to be good enough. It felt a lot like orienteering - trying to follow a bearing while picking a decent route through the vegetation. Except without a map and with 100 other people around.

I passed a few people who were more tentative than I was feeling, and the woods were mostly open enough to find good ways around. At the bottom we started a series of creek crossings in a generally uphill direction. No one seemed impressed by the section of flagging heading up in the middle of the creek, following along the edge instead. Everyone was breathing pretty hard by this point - and we had just gotten started. More avoidance of branch swing-backs, more flagging.

We came out at a pretty lake, crossed some swampy areas, and popped out on an old road. I made the mistake of following the flagging (and another runner) too closely here, missing the chance to jump right up to the road. When I got up there, the group that was right in front of me had taken off down the road already. Part of the challenge was figuring out which obstacles were faster going over and which flagging was on the best route vs. chances to find a better way. At least that's what everyone else seemed to be doing - I hadn't heard any rules about staying as close as you could to the flagging. And it was supposed to be a fun/adventure run, after all.

I caught up to one woman just as the route turned sharply uphill on a small trail. I switched into "speed-walk hill-climb" mode, which I need to start practicing again anyway. Soon I had passed her, although a guy in shorts ran up behind us and overtook us both. Another runner, this time a young girl who looked fast, also passed me, just as the trail seemed to level out. I thought it was strange that we weren't going to the very top of the hill.

Oh, I take that back. Up ahead there were folks all across the hillside, including some guys pulling themselves uphill using a rope that had been strung - nice! The girl in front of me noticed one person climbing a not-quite-as-steep section to the left, so we both aimed that way. She still had problems gaining traction, while I was quite at home with scrambling uphill hanging onto trees and rocks. My legs and breathing even kept up, although I was sure glad to reach the top. I noticed another woman in black not far ahead, and I had gained time on the uphill, but then she was gone again.

Right about here I realized that my right shoe was loose. I had taken a gamble and worn my older running shoes, the ones with the laces that were about to break. I figured I should keep my "good" shoes in decent enough shape to wear them to work (I'll be asking John to bring another pair up from Texas later this month!). Well, it wasn't surprising that the lace had broken. I made a mental note to be careful through any muddy sections so I didn't lose the whole shoe...

It did slow me down a bit on the downhills, since I couldn't hop and jump nearly as nimbly as I would like. I didn't think it would be a big deal - I was just there to have fun. Of course, I still turn highly competitive anytime someone uses the word "race" (try it around me sometime). So I was wishing I could follow the woman ahead of me more closely. I also checked my watch - only 33 minutes so far (really only that much?) - we must have a ways to go.

Here the course took us up and over large rocks, with some fun climbs and drops. And we were back on an actually trail at this point, plus with great views from the top of a hill. Nice. That didn't last long, back to the woods and a bog crossing. Some of the water crossings had space to go around, and depending on the depth of the mud that might be faster. Sometimes it was faster to splash through, and sometimes it was easy enough to jump. Lots of things happening really quickly, lots of little decisions. At least I didn't have a map in my hand. But I didn't get any breaks to figure out a compass bearing either.

I looked up to see the flagging going straight up a 10-foot (ish) rock face. There was a runner on top heading to the right. The guy right in front of me was trying his level best to climb the slippery thing, but that didn't seem to be working. I checked left, didn't see an obvious reroute, then looked right to see the flagging just right over there and another running heading directly that way. Hmm, it didn't seem like we should be skipping obstacles, but the RD had given us the option to do so. The woman in front of me had quickly disappeared, so I was fairly certain she hadn't climbed it (unless she had gotten a boost?). It took me a moment to ponder, but I finally decided to go around. It would have been fun to try it - with the rest of my team there to help me!

More pink flagging - this time leading to a huge drop down from a rock. Not even! I went around, that was an easy question. More running through the woods, then a turn into thick brush that led right to a swamp. There wasn't any easy way to go around, so I carefully placed my right foot on branches to lessen the chances of losing that shoe. My left foot took the brunt of the mud/water. I almost lost the right shoe anyway, but came out of it still shod. Brr, that water is cold! Me and a guy behind me, we couldn't feel our feet after that.

A bit of trail running, then a sign pointing toward the main road telling us it was only half a mile away. The person right behind me said "I hope we're almost done" and I replied that I was trying not to hope. Because I was getting a good sense about this RD, and it would be just like him to show us that sign and then lead us away again. Sure enough - there goes the flagging up the hill! The guy groaned and I told him that I blamed him :)

As we slogged up the steep hill, I could hear him, "I hate hills. Hills are my friend." Must me the angel and devil sitting on his shoulders. I looked up to see a big rock wall in front of us, and a runner CARRYING HIS DOG up a section of it. This was not a small dog, but a pretty golden retriever (who I learned later is probably named Summit, assuming that's who people were cheering for and not the runner). It wasn't an easy climb, to be sure!

I tried a different route to the left which seemed less arduous, which worked out for me and the guy who followed. Soon I was hopping over branches and through leaves again, feeling good about being at the top of yet another hill and looking forward to the downhill and wishing both my shoes were on tight. One piece of flagging made me laugh - it was at the top of a gigantic free-standing boulder, like anyone would climb over that instead of running around!

Log-hopping, tree branch-ducking, then a steep drop down a different section of the rock wall. I made it down the first ledge no problem (just a bit of sliding on my butt down to the next tree), then aimed for a spot that looked OK for the second part. Too late I suddenly noticed that the lower rock was covered in ice. Most of the rocks up to that point had been nice and dry and tacky (this would have been a much different race if it were raining). This one caused my foot to slip and I ended up banging my head against the rock next to me. I dropped my water bottle but stayed on my feet.

So now I have this to show for it:

Yep, I hit my ear on a stationary rock without falling down - not sure I could repeat that if I tried. And yep, I took that photo myself (a new version of a selfie) :)

I was slightly dazed but everything seemed to be working so I continued on and soon felt fine. I saw the woman in black up ahead of me but couldn't quite catch up. Soon I could hear the finish line area - finally! It was a nice downhill run through the trees, then there were the buildings. I saw a couple guys walking toward me, so I asked if that was the end. They said, "Not quite!" Yes, I figured that - they didn't put up all that flagging at the start/finish for nothing. It was fun to watch later finishers deal with the fake-out and find out they had to keep going - just a little more!

I crossed the road next to the finish line and was directed through more woods. There was a brief "smoke obstacle" next to the BBQ pit, then a bit more pushing through vegetation, around and back to the road, THEN we could actually finish the race. The woman in black ran across the line in front of me and I was close enough to hear that she was the first female. GAW! So close! Maybe if I had worn my good shoes. Which would now be soaking wet and dirty. Other than that, I had given it my all throughout the course and was totally out of breath most of the time except when picking my way through the swamp or trying not to lose a shoe on a steep downhill. Oh well, just another second place finish for the year :) Finish time = 1:01:58

It was a bunch of fun, something really different, great practice for orienteering, and I'm glad I found this event even though I haven't really looked around much at race opportunities yet. Thanks to ARE for putting it on!

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