fitness · racing

What a 24-hour adventure race is like

I’ve never done a really long race of any kind. I prefer short, punchy, all-out contests where you leave everything out on the field and then retire to the picnic tables for a well-deserved cold beverage, with plenty of carbs on the side. I’ve never gotten into multi-sport races, either. I did two triathlons and came to the conclusion that, all things considered, I’d prefer to just stay on the bike the whole time, thank you very much.

But loads of people of all ages and shapes and sports backgrounds are spending their weekends doing multi-sport adventure races, called adventure races. My friend Janet did one in Maine recently, with her friend Dan. I asked her some questions about it.

Me: You did a 24-hour  adventure race in Maine July 17—18. Tell me about it.

J: It was the Maine summer adventure race, run by Strong Machine Adventure Racing. It was 24 hours of mtbiking, paddling in a kayak and pack raft and trekking with route finding and navigation, in teams of 1—4. They had 3-hour and 8-hour races as well.

Me: What made you decide to do this race?

J: My friend Dan, who I mountain bike and sea kayak with, made it sound like fun. My friend Steph and I did a 6-hour race earlier in the season, and he joined us.

Me: What do you like about adventure racing?

J: There’s a variety of endurance sports and thinking. And it is a super-friendly community, as it turns out.

Me: Are you surprised about the friendliness?

J: In bike races, the fast people finish first, and then the rest of the people come in over time. By the end of the race, most everyone has left the finish area, so there’s not a lot of fraternizing between faster and slower folks.

But in the 24 hour races, the goal is to try to get as many points as you can. Only the best and fastest teams will get all the points, but everyone finishes at about the same time. I think this makes for more collegiality. Also, people were more friendly on the course, in ways I haven’t experienced in other kinds of races.

Me: How were they friendlier?

J: At a mountain bike race, it’s a big deal to be passed from behind. People yell “men’s leader coming through.”

Me: Oh yes, I remember this. The riders from the faster races, when lapping the slower groups, can swarm the beginners. I’ve personally experienced this.

 J: In this race, sometimes teams cooperated to find tricky checkpoints.

Me: Is that allowed?

J: It’s unclear. (Chuckles). I think so. 

Me: Walk me through the race: where and how did you start?

J: We started with mountain biking. Mostly people were together like in a bike race, but for the first 45 minutes, which felt unlike bike races. Then it spread out. We did a combo of single track, double track and road.

We got to a park, then did a mini adventure race—3 loops—biking ,paddling and trekking. In whatever order the team preferrred. The trekking had a swimming section. Then you bike to a mountain bike park, ride there for a while. We then rode to a downhill ski area where there was more trekking. We didn’t do that—we knew we wouldn’t get all the points, and trekking wasn’t our strong suit. We decided to spend more time on the bike and pack raft sections.

Me: Tell me about that.

J: We biked to a park near a river area with 4-wheeler ATV trails. A bunch of checkpoints on land, and at any point you could transition to your pack raft and get points on water.

Me: How do the pack rafts work?

J: They are little inflatable one/two person whitewater rafts. They’re small enough to carry in a backpack or on a bike. You inflate it, get in, start paddling (you carry a paddle also). And a PFD (life preserver).

Me: How long were the pack raft sections?

J: Around 10 miles total. 1am-6am to do those. Some of that time was spent finding checkpoints.

Me: Is it scary to paddle in a pack raft in the dark? 

J: My amazing teammate Dan was the navigator. It wasn’t scary, but it was disorienting. There was dark, but also fog and rain. And pack rafts spin when you’re not paddling them on flat water. So Dan had to use a map and compass in a spinning raft in the dark. And rain. Which he did!

Me: How did you choose which sections to do?

J: We did all of the bike sections—we like to bike. We did all of the paddles, as we’re strong paddlers. That leaves the trekking. We had to make a judgment on how many we could do in the time allotted. There is strategy involved in doing these races.

Me: But you didn’t get the course info until just before the race start, right? Was that confusing?

J: Yes, both confusing and stressful. Luckily my partner is very experienced.

Me: Did you like doing the race?

J: About 80% of the time I was having fun. The other 20% was type II fun— a fun feeling later on when done. That was mostly because for the last 7 hours there was record-breaking torrential rain.

Me: ugh.

Me: What was your favorite part?

J: The mountain bike trails—NEMBA Apatite trails. They were swoopy and well-built. And there was a very refreshing swim across a lake after some trekking. We almost didn’t do it, but were very happy that we did.

Me: Let me point out to the readers that you swam in college for Carnegie Mellon, so you’re quite speedy.

J: Well, this swim involved carrying both PFDS and sneakers, so it was definitely not speedy.

Me: What was your least favorite part?

J: Checkpoint 33.

Me: What happened there?

J: We got turned around in the woods in a soggy, raspberry-prickly mud pit around 11pm. We never found the checkpoint.  Also there was some call-of-nature distress, but enough said on that score.

Me: How did you feel when you finished? Other than wet?

J: The thing that was so great about this for me is that I’m a recreational athlete. I do a lot of things, but am superlative at none of them. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to do this, but it turned out that I could.

Me: Do you think you’ll do one of these 24-hour races again?

J: Yes. At 3am, Dan and I had a conversation about how we were both never going to do this again. By the time we crossed the finish line though, we changed our minds. I’m hoping to do another one.

Me: Shall I put out a general blog call to anyone out there who is good at middle-of-the-night-spinning-navigation in water?

J: Yes, thanks.

So there you have it, readers. If you want to travel to Maine, and can use a compass in the dark while spinning in a pack raft, also while reading a paper map in a ziplock bag, leave your info in the comments. I’ll hook y’all up.

For those of us for whom a picture is worth a thousand words, here are a bunch of pictures from the race.

Here are some photos of bike transition points.

Here are some of kayaks and packrafts:

Here is a weather radar shot during the race, and a participant with her nighttime gear.

Wanna know what the course looks like?

The course, spread out over 11 (?) sheets of paper.
The course, spread out over 11 (?) sheets of paper.

Another cool thing about the race is that they had real-time tracking of the teams. If you could interpret the web-based maps.

And of course, here are our finishers, Janet and Dan, looking soggy but satisfied as they ride to the finish.

Janet on left, Dan on right, riding to the finish with smiles.
Janet on left, Dan on right, riding to the finish with smiles.

Hey readers, have you ever done a 24-hour race? Did you like it? Did you ever do one again? We’d love to hear from you.