Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Nice weather for llamas

Sunday was beautiful. The sun shone, the ground stayed firm, and I was very grateful. I'd agreed to muck-in at a local event, and not knowing what to expect, the boot of my car looked like I'd been prepping for the apocalypse.

Chilly (not Chile). 
At quarter to seven I arrived at the wrought iron gates of the event venue, a steam museum near Liphook, Hampshire. On this December morning, still a long time before first light, there was nothing steamy about it. Though the sun eventually cleared the treetops, the sub-zero conditions were better suited to the llamas in the neighbouring field, and I was wondering whether we'd finally reached long-trouser season again.

The event itself was one of the "Open5" series of sprint-duration adventure races, organised by Open Adventure, sponsored by Haglofs.

Participants enter either solo, or in pairs. There is no course to follow, instead they receive two maps, one pre-marked with checkpoints to be reached on foot, the other by mountainbike. Each checkpoint has a point value, which remains secret until teams cross the startline. Participants choose how many checkpoints they want to go for, whether to run or bike first, and their start-time between half-nine and half-ten is recorded. Five hours later they need to be back at the finish, or penalty points are deducted. Participants with the most points win.
A checkpoint in situ. A bit like a clocking-on machine,
but bolted to a tree in the middle of nowhere.

Essentially, it's like a timed treasure hunt, with participants recording their progress by "dibbing" an electronic control at each checkpoint location.

For event crew, it's an engaging and varied day's work. With the checkpoints already in place, and the registration area ready to receive, the first job of the day was to set out the start/finish, and transition area. Soon after, crew spread themselves between parking, registration and the start, while participants arrived, faffed with kit, and discussed tactics and tyre pressures.

A flurry of start-line activity ensured all runners and riders were out on the course by ten forty, after which an hour-long lull gave the crew chance for a cuppa and a bacon sarnie. Then in dribs and drabs, muddy, sweaty, grinning racers began to return to either collect, or drop their bikes before heading out for round two.

Greeting the finishers.
From two o'clock the first of the finishers came in, playing it safe by arriving early, perhaps keen to warm fingers and toes, numb from a day spent in the wintry conditions. As time ticked on the activity hotted up, and the half-three cut-off came and went, and frantic finishers wondered whether those risky final checkpoints would outweigh any penalties.

Finally, with everybody safely back, marshals headed indoors for the prizegiving and hot drinks, participants rummaged in car-boots for thick coats and gloves, and I stowed my jacket, grabbed my spanner, compass and headtorch, and scampered into the woods to collect checkpoints. Having cheered home a couple of hundred happy racers, it felt great to stretch the legs with a wee trail run.

If you've heard about adventure racing, and are tempted to give it a go, look up an event near you and call them for a chat. If you're not yet ready to race, most organisers are happy to offer a free event credit in exchange for a day of crewing; once you've seen how they work, and how welcoming they are, you'll be champing at the bit to give one a go.

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