Adventure Racing World Championships
Report by Karl Webster
After our first trip to these championships in 2013 in Costa Rica the appetite had been whetted for another crack at it, and so it was that Team Peaklife Sport entered the 2014 edition.
It was the same four – old school friends Christine Howard and Wendy Fjellstad and their respective better or worse halves Karl Webster and Jo Inge Fjellstad – who took up this immense challenge against a combination of nature and the imaginations of the race organisers.
For the uninitiated, adventure racing involves a number of disciplines – usually trekking, cycling and kayaking plus a few other bits – strung together over a number of days to be tackled by teams of four. The clock starts on day one and runs without a break until teams cross the finishing line often over a week later. Sleep adds to the time but is a necessary evil, so it generally pared to the bone, and balancing the cumulative effects of fatigue with progress along the course is one of the biggest challenges.
This year’s world championships were to begin at 8.30am on the 9th November and the course would be open until 1.30pm on the 17th November. Various cut-offs along the way would have to be met in order to continue so it all makes for a very intense few days with highs and lows in abundance mentally, physically and, in a mountainous country like Ecuador, topographically.
So, with the entries confirmed with a start list of 54 teams, everyone was brought together in the weeks and days leading up to the race in the country’s capital Quito. This city fills a high valley in the Andes around 2900 metres above sea level and the 710km course promised to take us up to 4400m and down to sea level. Many of the well-funded teams had arrived weeks in advance to acclimatise and train which was not the case for the self-financed Peaklife Sport team fitting it in around the day jobs, family commitments and the other things we call life.
Wendy and Jo Inge had travelled from their home in Norway with a few days to play with but Karl and Christine had to leave it until two days before race start and hope for the best. Getting there for a reasonable price involved bouncing around various airports but Chris and I arrived late on Thursday night, some distance ahead of our bikes which were languishing in Florida at Miami airport. Assured that they would follow us in due course, we were bussed to downtown Quito’s Best Western hotel with instructions to be ready to head down to the event centre at the city’s old airport at 6.30 to make a start on organising our kit. Fortunately, due to the time zone being 5 hours behind GMT, we were awake and up in good time to meet Wendy and Jo Inge and hopped aboard the bus with our limited equipment. That’s what comes of stashing as much as possible in the bike boxes!
Quito’s old airport was decommissioned only last year on completion of the new one and is very central to the city. It now functions as an event centre and we had plenty of floor space to sort through our kit and undergo the checks and rope work competency tests but our ticklist was somewhat incomplete. After a couple of hours spent shuffling through what we had, we decided our time could be put to much better use acclimatising to the altitude so we postponed the intended task until the following day in the hope our bikes would arrive soon and caught a taxi to the base station of the teleferico to carry us up just short of 4000m. Up there the air felt thin and we took on a brisk pace as a bit of a test to the summit of Cumbre Racu Pichincha at 4696m. Not bad, I have to say, and the reward of the view in perfectly still conditions gave me confidence that I’d hopefully have no problems functioning at this altitude previously unvisited by me. Wendy, on the other hand, was feeling nauseous as we dropped back down which had happened to her previously that week when they had taken a couple of similar trips into the mountains, but it passed after a while and we all knew that she’s the type of girl who’ll keep going whatever happens. Even if she ended up bringing up her innards she’d graciously combine it with putting one foot in front of the other.
Returning to Quito, we visited a supermarket to buy the food we thought we’d need for the race and set about packing the boxes which would be delivered to the various transition areas along the way, leaving space for the stuff in our bike boxes which still hadn’t arrived.
That night – Friday – was the night I was hoping to get a really good sleep. My shift pattern at work prior to leaving had been at its most disruptive and the long journey there hadn’t helped much either. Quite frankly, I was knackered and turned in about 9pm and was out like a light. Until the phone rang, that is. About 10.30 the very kind man on reception told me the bikes had arrived at the airport. Good, I told him. Instructions were that they were to be delivered to the event centre so we could sort them out the next day, so I went back to sleep.
2am. Ring, ring. Your bikes are in reception, I was told, and your signature is required. I duly obliged with a fuzzy squiggle down in the lobby and returned to bed, but sleep did not come as easily as I hoped and the rest of the night was spent in and out of consciousness until we had to catch the early bus again to the old airport.
The day passed by as we sorted our kit into its different boxes. Disappointingly, my previously almost-pristine bike now had a series of scratches along its down tube courtesy of some heavy handed customs official somewhere along the way. Both bike boxes had clearly been opened and rummaged through, the main giveaway being that one box had three wheels in it and the other had one. I have no problem accepting that unmanned luggage is routinely searched but I wish they’d take a bit more care with valuable property.
Anyway, after everything was prepared for loading onto the trucks it was time to make our way to the old part of the city for the opening ceremony. Quito in general is not particularly pretty. Concrete right angles are the dominant architectural feature and, adorned with graffiti and complimented with masses of overhead wires, aesthetics have never been at the forefront of the city’s planning department. However, the old town dates back to the Spanish colonial era and with its sloping narrow streets, town squares and ornate buildings of significance, this small area has caught the attention of UNESCO which lists it as a cultural heritage site. We were treated to a flag parade, some music by the municipal band, a dance show – all in a lovely cobbled square – before the speeches were brought to a hasty close as the sky went dark grey and thunder rumbled not far away. The large raindrops then signalled over 200 athletes to run for it in the direction of the theatre where the technical briefing was due to take place and as the clouds unleashed their very best we all huddled under some long colonnade for twenty minutes to let it pass. Squelching on through the street’s newly formed watercourses we arrived at the theatre and settled in the auditorium for a rather damp hour or so. The dancers were back as the warm-up act with some lovely 5-time routine and then it was on to the briefing.
The organisers – Huairasinchi, meaning strength of the wind in Kichwa – had put together a fine presentation with very few questions needing to be asked. In fact, throughout the event, their organisational skills were evident time and again to an extremely high standard. The ten stages of the race were illustrated which were to take us up into the Andes, over to east and the Amazon watershed, back over again westwards and eventually down to sea level on the Pacific coast to finish. Quite a journey lay ahead and the excitement was tangible. Race maps were distributed and eagerness to get planning took over, leaving the final act of the show – a lady singing to her guitarist – with not much of an audience. By then though, the only thing on my mind was sleep, and in anticipation of a 5am bus the next morning I headed off at the first opportunity to bed. Jo Inge was our team captain and chief navigator and, like the diligent science and maths teacher that the is, he knuckled down to his homework that night and didn’t retire to bed until all the maps were fully annotated with the race route, drawn up in consultation with Google Earth and whatever other online tools he could find.
The start was a couple of hours away by bus so we all mustered for a 5am departure, kitted up and ready to race. Ecuadorian roads are generally unpaved once off the beaten track and as dawn came our little convoy of buses trundled along quite impressively up some of the country’s more challenging routes towards Laguna de la Mica, high up beside the beautiful snow-topped Antisana volcano. We were treated to views en route of another storybook-looking volcano, Cotopaxi, as the morning sun helped settle any anxieties.
To the start. Cotopaxi.
As already mentioned, the logistical support for the event was tremendous and one of the tools used to carry out this mammoth task was a tracking device which was popped in the top of my rucksack where it remained for the next eight days. Huairasinchi take safety very seriously but in a very unobtrusive way, leaving us to get on with the race safe in the knowledge that they’d be able to mount an effective rescue if it all went wrong.
At 8.30 we were off. The first stage was the shortest with a trek of 29 km. It was a beautiful way to start, across the high plains with Artisana to our right and after about 15k we reached the maximum altitude of the course. The field soon spread out and my guess is that we were somewhere in the middle at this early stage. We then dropped off into a big valley, past a lake with some fairly tricky scrambling required around its edges and then into some fairly dense vegetation. Lava boulder fields followed – an awkward bit for Christine and her dodgy toe – and a good straightforward run in to transition area (TA) 1.
The start line - beautiful!
...and the last time we'd be clean for over a week.
TA1 actually had a bit of a party atmosphere. Everyone was relatively fresh, the sun and the crowds were out and there was no hanging around as we unboxed our bikes, set up and rode off onto stage 2.
Taking us eastwards of the continental divide, where the water drains off the Andes into the Amazon, we were treated to one of the few stretches of tarmac on the whole course. And what a stretch it was! Over 30km in length and 2000m of descent provided us with a rare treat not to be repeated. Hardly a pedal turn was needed to get us down there on this road named after Simon Bolivar who was a Venezuelan revolutionary credited for his part in freeing much of Latin America from Spanish rule in the early 19th century.
Our early sights of Amazonia.
Shortly afterwards we were in amongst the terrain which was to become very familiar throughout the next week: dirt roads; little tumbledown villages; greenery everywhere; and cheerful Ecuadorians. Oh yes, and mud. Just as darkness fell at one of the checkpoints we were turned off the dirt roads and onto a swampy track. Not just a muddy one, but a narrow, twisting, overgrown path with axle deep mud in places. Our Costa Rican experience had demonstrated something similar so it was no surprise when it came, but it was equally unwelcome. There’s only one way to get through sections like this and that’s to battle on until it ends, which it did an hour or so after dark as we arrived at a village where TA2 was set up in an open-sided sports centre.
Food was being served here: plates full of pasta, cake, drinks and the like but the single hosepipe was the priority. It is important to look after the bikes and putting them away covered in mud would only spell trouble when they were next needed, so they were all thoroughly hosed down and lubricated before being boxed away and loaded onto the truck.
Transitions in adventure races are not the frantic quick things of triathlons. A lot of kit is involved and it is important to think ahead to those yet to come and where everything needs to be. There were weight limits for the boxes so it wasn’t a case of packing them full of fresh clothes for each stage with an unlimited supply of fodder. It has to be accepted that wet, filthy, smelly kit is going to have to be used time after time. However, one thing I was determined not to succumb to this time was rotten feet. Twice before when I had done week long events with healthordisease.com continually wet feet I had ended up crippled after a few days with skin coming away at the slightest prompting. I had a decent sock supply, two pairs being waterproof, and a tube of Sportslick which is a petroleum based concoction which can barely be squeezed from the tube in cold weather. At every stop I would smear my feet in it and rotate the waterproof socks to provide some sort of barrier against the outside world, or even just the wet shoes I’d be putting on.
After a hurried plate of grub we were on the road again, this time on foot for a 44k trek back up to the heights we had started the previous stage. We were feeling good, marching along up a dirt road by a churning river, chatting away and anticipating a good night. There were no plans to sleep either, so we’d just trudge on to the next TA and take our first break when we got there. The organisers had given us a chart indicating likely completion times for each stage and this read 10 to 20 hours. Nearer 10 and we’d be at TA soon after dawn. If only!
One of Ecuador's many bridges.
As the night went on the weather deteriorated and the waterproofs came out as we started feeling the cold. Our first meaningful obstacle was a rickety old bridge with half the woodwork rotted away along which a line had been set up to ensure our safe passage via ferrata style. We crossed that with no problems using the harnesses we’d been instructed to carry for this stage and then the real hard work began. We had to follow the valley upstream for some considerable time but this was no scenic riverside stroll. It was, I think, not really a path at all before Huairsinchi decided it should be. We found ourselves slipping around through the mud and undergrowth on a steep valley side, battling over and under fallen trees, climbing uphill and sliding down, and all in the dark and rain. This went on and on through the night and shortly before daybreak we reached a gulley with no discernable path on the other side. We tried a few likely looking tracks of downtrodden vegetation but these led to one dead end after another, presumably repeating the experience of teams ahead. Eventually, we opted to drop down to the river and see if following it was a viable option. Surprisingly, although we were going to get very wet at times and risk being swept away in what was quite a churning torrent, we found we could make progress. It turned out that it might have been the “correct” route after all as we encountered a hardy checkpoint marshal with his tent and camp fire on a sand bank.
As the sky lightened we continued our way along the boulders lining the river and saw we had company behind from another team. They reeled us in as we reached a tributary which needed fording, but this too was a deep torrent swelled by the night’s rain. Our new friends were from Argentina and, with a bit of international co-operation to counter the Clarkson Effect, one of their chaps and I fashioned a bridge from a log and a rope which enabled us to cross to a large rock part way and jump the rest.
We were on our way once more and it was well into the late morning before any respite came. From there, the weather improved but the mud didn’t. It was a steady climb for miles and miles with mud, mud and more mud – the sort which doesn’t do much for the sense of humour. Tiredness had really caught up with me by now and I was questioning my wisdom in having started out on this challenge. It was difficult at that point to see how it would get any better and there was still most likely the best part of a week to go. But it did eventually come to an end. We reached a drier track then a dirt road and had another 10k or so to go. Unfortunately, we had mistakenly found ourselves on the wrong side of the river about 3k too soon which meant we incurred a 4-hour time penalty which we had to serve out at a late TA. Only three teams got this bit right so lots of teams ended up discharging it in the form of a rest.
The sun was hot by then but we shuffled along, admiring the bucolic scenery, and TA3 eventually arrived by late afternoon in a village called Oyacachi. The little school was open as our lodgings should we wish to take them, so we prepared our bikes for stage 4, ate then bedded down on a wooden classroom floor hoping for three hours of sleep. Unfortunately, there were lots of kids around so dropping off wasn’t as easy as I had hoped but, with the alarm set for 8.30pm, I took some much needed rest.
When it sounded, it was hard to lift the head from the ground, but once up on my feet, that familiar feeling of eagerness and roughness was there. It was dark and not very warm and we were soon off on our bikes on the dirt roads leading up into the nearby mountains. There was no moonlight to give us some ambient light so we could have been absolutely anywhere, and I was rather envious when I saw the video after the event of some teams taking this part of stage 4 in daylight as it looked absolutely spectacular.
Any opportunity to rest must be taken.
We pushed on into the night and I started feeling strong for the first time since the start of the event. It was still the middle of the night though, and thoughts of more sleep were never far away so it was imperative that we pushed on to keep warm if nothing else. We had 144km ahead of us and as day broke we dropped down to warmer valleys. An old disused railway line formed a few miles of the route which made for interesting riding. Whereas back home our disused railways which have been converted to cycle tracks are all nice and smooth, this still had the track in place to add to the fun. Later, as the day became hot, we found ourselves crossing the Pan American Highway and climbing again, this time on tarmac, up and across the equator into the northern hemisphere.
Missing a turn off due to my exuberance of climbing cost us a few minutes, but we were soon back to the dirt roads and the last part of the stage which was a series of sharp climbs and descents which went on for the rest of the afternoon.
At the next TA was the first of a number of cut-offs. We had to be there and through transition by 5.00pm which was looking achievable until the gradients became evident. On a map with 50m contours lines it is actually possible to climb or descend 99m and only cross one of them. So as the deadline approached we found ourselves riding close to our limits with Jo Inge suffering derailleur problems. The TA was in a village called San Jose de Minas and we were just reaching its outskirts as 5 o’clock passed us by. Desperate to see if there were any negotiating opportunities we almost crashed into transition only to be told that they had extended the deadline to midnight due to the adverse weather conditions that first night. Thankfully, we were still in the game. We hosed and lubed the bikes, prepared our kit for the next trek, cooked a bit of food and bedded down in what seemed like a village hall for a planned four hours.
Jo Inge’s ribs were troubling him though following an ungracious dismount over his handlebars earlier in the stage, so he took a trip to the medics who gave him a shot in the bum to help with a good night’s rest.
I’m not sure whether it’s me who is a good sleeper or our Scandinavian contingent who are just more alert, but with at least an hour left to go on my watch before it was due to bring me round, Wendy was giving us a nudge and suggesting we get on our way as six other teams had arrived after us and had already left. That had shunted us back to a position in the low thirties so I duly arose, we packed our bags and strode off into the night.
It was good going to begin with. Roads made for a brisk pace but we had our first real navigational sticking point a couple of hours in. A checkpoint was marked at the start of a long climb but didn’t appear to be there. We back-tracked, tried a different track which we thought may have been mapped inaccurately, didn’t find anything, bumped into another team also struggling with it, then eventually found it some way further up the original track not quite as shown on the map. Irritating and costly, but we’d found it and began what was to become the biggest foot climb of the whole course. This stage was to be 45km with a huge climb and an even huger descent and, as daylight returned, we went up and up. There was a view out there somewhere too, but the quiet clouds were hiding it from us and it wasn’t until late morning that we negotiated a long ridge to reach the high point. We were faced with a route choice on the map and opted to follow what looked like the flattest track. Good in theory, but when it reached a dead-end we were wishing we’d taken the final part over the top of the ridge. We weren’t the only ones who had found ourselves in this predicament and we spotted an audacious freshly blazed trail up a precipitous overgrown climb. We followed it, cursing its steepness, looseness and dangerousness until we emerged onto a path at the top where an Ecuadorian team were wondering if they’d ever find the trail again. It turned out that they had left the previous TA about four hours before us. Always heartening to find that someone’s been in even more of a fix than you! We rounded the mountain top to drop onto the elusive checkpoint we were seeking before embarking on our descent.
Now, this descent deserves a special mention and explanation. The organisers had told us we’d witness some cultural heritage and the ancient peoples of this land appeared to have some reason for crossing these mountains with great regularity. Contraband, I believe. After centuries of treading these paths, some became so worn that they developed into deep channels in the soft clay which were metres deep and the width of one person. So we dropped down the mountain via one of these passageways for nearly 2000m. Imagine a winding path hewn deep down the side of Ben Nevis and more and then filled with thick slurry and you might begin to get the picture. Chatting to the Ecuadorian team following us, we were told these types of routes had been used by Huairasinchi in last year’s AR World Series race but they had been in one during a storm for over six hours. That was probably quite scary as well as difficult.
Anyway, we emerged from the bottom end relatively unscathed and set about the final few kilometres along a decent dirt road reaching TA5 shortly after dark. We passed three other teams on this final stretch which gave us quite a lift.
It was a charming TA. A church had been turned over to us with all the pews stacked away round the sides to open up the large floor space. A local man was selling a 5 dollar deal of soup, rice and pork washed down with sweet coffee. Too good to turn down, although quite where the meaty bits of the pig had got to, I don’t know. Perhaps the leading teams had stripped it and left us with the higher calorie bits, but mine didn’t go to waste thanks to Jo Inge’s Scandinavian appetite which treats lumps of fat and gristle as a delicacy.
Three hours on my sleep mat by the altar prepared me for the next stage and we stacked our boxes by the truck and rode off in the darkness on stage 6. This was to be 159kms which we could expect to take at least 24 hours and I knew my hands were in for a tough day when I realised I must have lost my gloves somewhere at TA3. It turned out to be a day of punctures but otherwise quite good riding. The roads were not too rough, the sun was out and we could finally see some splendid mountain scenery which had been largely hidden from us by the clouds until that day.
Around 8.00am we passed through a village with a little shop and thoroughly confused the old lady in there by buying more than one item. This called upon her arithmetic skills which were somewhat rusty which in turn called for assistance from someone who was perhaps her daughter. She in turn managed to find an old calculator and we eventually arrived at what sounded like a fair price. It’s a good job we took a short rest here too as, ten minutes later, they appeared to be some concern that we hadn’t paid for a bottle of Coke. A dollar coin seemed overcome this and we went on our way, down and up quite pretty valleys and over more mountain tracks until we arrived at the novelty part of the stage late in the afternoon.
This was a Tyrolean traverse which had been set up for us over a raging river followed by a slack-wire crossing to get back. Eager to go first, I found out just how tired arms can get when hauling along a cable but enjoyed it nevertheless. Chris went next, enjoying the traverse, but didn’t have the same enthusiasm from the slack-wire. I couldn’t hear much above the roar of the water from up above where I was waiting with the camera, but I believe Jo Inge’s encouragement along the lines of “if you don’t get over there the whole team will be disqualified” proved to be enough motivation for her to complete it.
Darkness came again as we continued for the last 40k or so which became another patience tester. Three river fordings, loads of loose rocks and light-loving insects added to the ambience which soon lost its appeal. Again, there would have been a view out there somewhere to help us along had it been daylight, but the mood was not a particularly good one by the time we trundled into TA6. We made it though, perhaps by keeping a lot of feelings to ourselves, and we bedded down for a couple of hours, planning to rise about 3.00am to begin the 11k hike with our paddling gear to pick up the kayaks for stage 7.
This TA was very short on facilities too, so it was a bit of an uncomfortable one, fumbling around by torchlight with our filthy kit. I also seemed to have developed a case of numbness in my left hand, perhaps due to overusing an unprotected palm on juddering a handlebar for so long. We were also all developing something we named "sausage fingers" which is perhaps the hand equivalent of swollen ankles after spending too long awake and on an aeroplane. My piano playing was likely to become even worse.
We had actually been doing alright for sleep in reality. We had reached many of the TAs at night and, although these areas can be a bit noisy at times, I was finding that not too much deviation from a normal sleep pattern was getting me through quite nicely, even if we’d probably not managed a total of 12 hours by that stage. Some of the top teams would consider this downright lazy, but we still had a long way to go and were not experienced enough to balance extreme fatigue with good and accurate progress.
We were on the road again by 3.30am expecting a two hour trek to the river and we arrived just after first light and having picked up a buoyancy aid we’d found beside the track which turned out to belong to the Argentine team ahead. They were grateful for its return and no-one mentioned Clarkson. There would have been no point getting there earlier as the river was a “dark zone” meaning that all activity on it had to stop between 6.30pm and 5.30am, safety being the reason. So, even if there was only a kilometre to go on the river at 6.30pm teams would have to come ashore for 11 hours. We expected to be able to make this whole section before that with our early start and had a short safety briefing before taking to the water. This went along the lines of take a good look at the rapids before going down them and portage around them if you wish. And there are some indigenous people living by the river at a couple of places who aren’t keen on outsiders. If you get into trouble and need their help then wait for them to come to you, don’t go to them.
We had been warned to expect rapids up to and including class 3 so there was little chance of us getting down this section and staying upright
Off we paddled downstream on the sit-on-top plastic tandem kayaks, Wendy and Jo Inge in one, Chris and I in the other. Our bags had been firmly lashed on and it was a beautiful relief to be off our feet for the first time. We had been told the river levels were two metres higher the previous day so we wouldn’t get the help from nature which earlier teams had benefitted from and the rocks on the rapids would be more exposed.
It was lovely to begin with. The water was quiet and there was tranquillity all around. There was a disappointing lack of wildlife though. Last year in Costa Rica the rivers had been overflowing with birds and butterflies but this part of Ecuador seemed a bit sterile in that respect.
Then the excitement began. Parts of the river were churning white and the time came to try out our kayak handling skills. Chris’ kayaking experience was little more than lots of straightforward paddling the previous year so, as her hand grabbed the side of the kayak when we first tipped more than a few degrees from the vertical, we were in. And again. And again. We soon came to the agreement that she’d hold her paddles up at shoulder height each time we reached something rough which improved our success rate no end and we actually began looking competent.
After a confluence the river was now much bigger and challenging. The first class 3 rapids had a safety team in attendance which turned out to be a wise decision on the part of the organiser. Portaging wasn’t an option really, nor did I want it to be, so they were to be run hoping for the best. There was no point worrying about it so we headed straight over the top and were promptly tipped overboard and then the churning and gasping began. It seemed to take quite some time before we settled in the pool at the bottom and took stock of what had just happened to us. We were all still alive and had all the kit, but one of Chris’ paddle blades had been snapped clean off and resembled the kayaker's equivalent of a spork - a paddle on one end and a punting pole on the other. We all had some new scrapes and bruises too but we were the cleanest we’d been since day 1!
We righted the boats and paddled off again – Chris doing what she could with her one paddle - and the river treated us to one rapid after another. I was thoroughly enjoying it until tiredness started getting the better of me and I bounced heavily off a rock on my lower back. Then it wasn’t so funny. I also managed to lose my paddles and we really were up the proverbial creek without a paddle.
The only option was for me to use Wendy’s paddles as we continued and scoured the edge of the water as we went in the hope of being reunited with my paddles. It was odd that we didn’t see them anywhere but all became clear when we caught up with the Argentines – who had been reduced to a team of three at some earlier stage – and were handed the missing paddles which they had kindly retrieved.
And no-one mentioned Clarkson. Or Maradonna.
So we reached the end of stage 7 well before dusk and it was then I found out how troublesome my lower back’s encounter with that rock was going to be. I could do nothing to push the kayak up the riverbank and along the road to the TA, only pull it along with little steps from in front.
At the TA Jo Inge was not looking particularly happy. His dinner went uneaten and he looked washed out and weary, more so than he or we would have expected. His swallowing reflex was malfunctioning, which is something he's experienced in the past, and it was a significant cause for concern when eating is such an important part of keeping going. We sent him off to the medics while Wendy, Chris and I considered what might be. It was a remote area, we had been on the go for five days and still had at least two more to go and the last thing I wanted was to be setting off for the next stage with Jo Inge in danger of exhaustion, dehydration or even illness. It was looking as if we may have to accept our race was over if we couldn’t overcome this as the medic team called in their doctor to administer an IV drip to Jo Inge. We decided to prepare the bikes as if we would be continuing, reassured Jo Inge that getting his physical condition up to scratch was the most important issue and bedded down beside the charming rancho which was providing the TA.
I was expecting at the very least a good 4-hour sleep, but after only two Wendy prodded me awake to say that Jo Inge was ready to go! He’d had an hour on the drip, a bit of a snooze at the same time, some energy drink in his belly and was like a new man.
So that was that then. Off we set only to be chased down by a couple of motorcycling medics who were concerned at the surprising efficacy of their treatment. Jo Inge should have been under their care for at least four hours and it was only after an assessment on the move that they left us to it.
We pedalled on, this stage 8 seeming more like a transit stage to get us to the next trek. There was nothing technical but there was a lot of climbing.
But there came a point when our short and disturbed rest at the last TA seemed inadequate and we opted to take a few minutes at the roadside. With our bikes strewn in the grass and our bodies in four dishevelled heaps amongst them we began to drift off – with the alarm set for ten minutes – when a vehicle skidded to a halt beside us. Quite what these local cops thought they had come across we can only imagine with amusement, but they went on their bemused way and allowed us a remarkable refreshing few minutes.
We reached the end of the stage around 4.00am and, with no more cycling to be done, were able to box them up in their mud-encrusted states.
We had seen a bit more insect life as we left the mountain behind and this TA was an entomologist’s dream, or at least I found it fascinating. The bright lights of the open-sided sports centre brought them in droves with moths the size of saucers and grasshoppers the length of a shoe.
With not much darkness left, and keen to try and maintain my tenuous nocturnal sleep cycle, I found a spot in a corner and managed a couple of hours before a dog came sniffing round me then promptly did his lavatory business a couple of feet away. Time to get up!
Talking of dogs, the folk back home may have been following the internationally documented story of Arthur. Arthur was a scruffy but loveable mongrel – one of a multitude throughout Ecuador - who had tagged on to one of the Swedish teams following the offer of a titbit. He accompanied them from TA8 to the finish and has since been adopted by their captain and taken for a new life in Sweden.
Arthur with his new family.
Stage 9 was an unusual trek. It was 40km long, hilly and was to take us through and unmapped area which was some kind of reserve. It started off easily enough along undulating dirt roads and then we reached the section where the map was no longer any use. From here onwards we were to navigate by following a pre-loaded GPS route through the jungle. Again, it was looking good, if a bit muddy, as we descended into a deep valley with the howler monkeys asserting their territorial dominance in the distant trees and came across what was, for me, the highlight of the day. There was a village down there which appeared to be only accessible on foot or mule and it was their annual gala day. We were too late to watch the cock fighting (!) but someone invited up to the servery for a plate of rice and salad which went down a treat, along with a few cups of some kind of drink which strongly resembled puddle water. However, it tasted good and the locals looked well enough on it and after a short stop and a pidgin conversation we carried on.
The afternoon was coming to an end as we began our climb out of the valley and as the night fell we hit the real mud. Not just the shoe-sucking potter’s clay we had trudged through on the way down, but knee-deep man-eating bogs up and down steep slopes amongst the thick forest. And it went on and on for hours. Jo Inge led the way with the GPS which seemed to be taking us through this awful terrain for its own amusement. It was hard enough going as it was without the added discomfort from my lower back each time I extracted my trail leg from the deep mud. I have to say that this was the lowest point of the whole race for me. I felt completely miserable, struggled to keep up and was vowing never to let myself get into such a situation again. It was only mild consolation that my diligent foot care seemed to be paying off as I imagined how I would have felt had my feet been in the state they had been in Costa Rica.
We reached a point where progress was painfully pathetic. The GPS was a constant reminder of how far we had to go and the tenths of kilometres were ticking down agonisingly slowly. Eventually, with 4km to go, we agreed we had reached a point where we had to stop for a break. Even though we were now descending down a ridge which had given us a teasing glimpse of the coastline in the dark distance we were in a bad way. Or at least I was, and I don’t think Chris was much better. With the alarm set for a 15 minute nap we more or less fell into the undergrowth and drifted off.
Now, time for a confession. I did hear someone’s alarm bleeping in the haze of my slumber. It wasn’t a welcome sound and no-one seemed to stir. Should I wake everyone up and get us moving? No. My hazy reasoning reached the conclusion we were so exhausted that a few minutes extra would not go amiss. I think we had about 45 minutes in the end, and what a wonderful effect it had on us. We were up and on the move again with a new purpose. The mud was still as bad but seemed much less sticky; the legs were tired but felt able to cope; the insects were still bothering us but were not getting on our nerves to quite the same extent; and we neared the end of this penultimate stage knowing we were going to complete the whole course.
The GPS brought us down to a river with the TA somewhere across the other side but no sign of a means to cross. We explored each direction in the dark in case we’d missed a bridge somewhere but it wasn’t looking promising. We were just contemplating swimming across or rafting on some of the logs lying around when a torchlight on the opposite bank was shone our way, followed by a young guy punting a boat carved from a log coming our way. He offered us a lift so we all crouched down as we wobbled across in what is the most unstable water craft I have ever experienced. He also wanted 5 dollars for the privilege which seemed worth it at the time and perhaps amounted to a very good day’s wages for him. We made it across and into TA9 just as it was coming light.
By now, we had vague confirmation that we were in 22nd position. Other teams ahead had fallen by the wayside or lost a member and we had gradually crept up the rankings just by keeping ourselves intact and on the move. About midway along the race we had been around the 30th position mark for much of the time.
TA9 was particularly primitive. It was at a school which consisted of little more than two classrooms and a playing area and the running water had packed up. It just illustrated that parts of Ecuador are really still quite poor but, as can be seen in many similar parts of the world, this does not necessarily equal unhappiness. The locals were there smiling and offering to cook breakfast, although this was just as we were preparing to go after a couple of hours sleep, so we politely declined.
Talking of food, Chris had won a couple of boxes of High5 banana energy bars at a recent race and we took them with us. About five or six of these a day had sustained me very well whilst we were on the move and they tasted as good on the last day as they did on the first, so well done to the bakers at High5.
The final stage was a 55km kayak rounded off by a 4km trek to the finish line in the coastal village of Mompiches. The tide charts we had been given suggested we should try and catch the turning tide around 10.45 that morning to help us down the river to the coastal lagoon we then had to cross then pick up the rising tide late afternoon to help us back up the mangrove channels which would take us to the end. We actually caught these waters very well and made excellent progress and enjoying the close company of diving pelicans. It was a long paddle but we pushed on hard throughout the day with only a couple of short breaks to grab a bite to eat and pulled up an a headland just before dark to work out our final push to the finish. There were some large sandbanks to negotiate which were well marked on the map and Jo Inge’s impressive trigonometrical navigational skills guided us safely through just as it was going dark. A final few kilometres was all that stood between us and the finish line now and it started feeling beautiful once more. We were causing plenty of disturbance amongst the flying fish which leap out of the water when they perceive danger. They didn’t know we just wanted to get to the finish and not eat them, but that didn’t stop a few of them leaping up and into the kayaks at times.
Not far now.
Once into the final stretch of water, we were tasting the food and drink which we hoped would be waiting for us at the finish. Then came the sting in the tail. Sandbanks. The tide was low and there was suddenly more sand than water. This meant having to do a fair amount of kayak dragging and the shape of the lagoon in the darkness suddenly became unclear. We were struggling to locate the cove where we were to go ashore and ended up asking for a bit of guidance from a bemused local chap who Jo Inge had gone ashore and found somewhere. Then it all made sense. As the tide began to rise rapidly the land and water became separate entities again and we headed in, accompanied by one of the Huairasinchi team who had been tracking us and wondering what on earth we had been up to that last hour.
We triumphantly hauled the boats ashore and romped off up the road to Mompiches where we were cheered over the line. The razzmatazz which had been there for the earlier teams over the previous couple of days had died down but we had the honour of taking the headlines as the team which rounded off the event by being the last to complete the full course. Quite an achievement we were all proud of.
Photo courtesy of Sleepmonsters - the website for adventure sports.
After some light refreshment, an interview and a splash in a sink it was time to forget about sorting any kit out and crash out for some satisfied sleep. Amongst the kit boxes I had a good six or seven hours and awoke feeling like a train had run over me in the night. It’s amazing how hitting the off switch brings out every ache and pain and the rest of the day was spent sleeping, eating, cleaning up and reflecting on what we’d done. Quite a lot, I think.
We returned to Quito the following day which was a seven hour bus journey where stories were exchanged with other teams and normality gradually resumed.
That evening we attended the presentation at the city’s Museum of Water where the Seagate team from New Zealand were hailed as the world champions before catching an early taxi back to the hotel ready for the 3.00am bus to the airport!
Overall thoughts are that we did ourselves justice. We all had our own personal battles with various demons along the way but most difficulties were accepted as part of the game and not dwelt upon or unduly mentioned and we got through it all as great friends. We conquered the time-out ghosts which had disappointingly led to our short course in Costa Rica last year and, whilst the lows were very low at times, the highs must have overwhelmed them as we’ve already been wondering what we can do next.
Congratulations from us must go to all the other teams which achieved their goals, especially those at the sharp end who display amazing motivation in being able to genuinely race from start to finish.
Also, to the Huairasinchi team which devised the event and looked after us so well, not just during the race, but before and after as well. Looking at the logistical support instruction book afterwards, some massive driving distances were required just to get from one TA to the next as we cut across country, and everything was where it should have been when it should have been.
And from me, thanks Chris, Jo Inge and Wendy. It was a great adventure.