The Harz 2016 - Adventure Race

When I was little I often saw cartoons on TV that showed people and animals that were going ‘on an adventure’. The smurfs, my little pony, David de Kabouter, etc. I then always wondered what it would be like to go ‘on an adventure’.  I think this wondering has never changed, and is probably one of the reasons I do adventure races.

And so we, team Vertical Dissidents, decided to go ‘on an adventure’ again. This time it would be the Harz in Germany. Bas moved to Norway and needs to focus on his life and work there, and so we were going to participate as a trio: Maarten-the-Machine, Arjan-the-Tarzan, and myself. We’re aiming for the Raid in France in September, and we saw the Harz as a good training weekend for this. We started the race knowing we would be unranked because we are ‘only’ a team of three, but that wasn’t really an issue – we just wanted to experience yet another adventure.

Racing on the continent is always a logistical challenge for Arjan and me. The problem is that bit of water that needs to be traversed. On Friday morning, Maarten picked us up from Eindhoven Airport. Unfortunately the traffic was really bad, and once we finally arrived we struggled to change the paddles of the bike I borrowed of Frederike (huuuge thanks!!). Thanks to some help and tools of other teams we managed, but it took a long time, and we finished packing just in time for the bike-drop off (read: 1 minute before closure). When the race briefing finished, we still had to eat. Luckily, Adventure Food meals come in handy sometimes J Because of our great preparations and an early start we didn’t get much sleep that night (1,5 hours). My body had decided to make it an even longer adventure race, because I had also barely slept on Thursday night because of work-related issues and the early flight. One thing was sure: this was going to be a perfect training for the Raid in France!

The race would start at 4am. Maybe this is where I made a mistake, who knows. I was cold and hadn’t put on an extra layer in the time we were waiting for the starting signal. I shivered, but was excited and longed for the adventure.

And then it started. We needed to get up to the tops of two nearby hills. This was fun. The trail of people going up the hill with only the lights of their head torches was just a lovely view and reminded me of some of the trail runs I’ve run. It started to get light when we ran along a canyon. We yelled a lot of ‘ooh’ and ‘aahs’, such magnificent views! We loved it. The running went well, but it turned out that the promised 23km were in fact something like 32km in real life. Luckily the weather was ok, and so were the legs. We arrived at the TA only to find out that we were very much at the front of the race. This enlightened our moods even more, and off on our bikes we went… at least, that’s what we thought… I took Frederike’s bike out for a very nice hike, because the path wasn’t really a path. We had go down a swampy forest, cross a river, and go over an I-don’t-know-how-many-times-lift-the-bike-over-fallen-trees path. After that, I was shattered of all the carrying, and it felt like I wasn’t really going forward when we finally were able to properly cycle again. Looking back, this might be where I first started to have problems, but I didn’t realise at the time. I’m so lucky Maarten-the-Machine and Arjan-the-Tarzan are super strong. We lost a bit of time finding the TA (switching to ‘aerial photo orienteering’) unfortunately, but the TA was beautifully situated near the ruins of an old castle, which gave us very nice views over the beautiful Harz.

Running again after the cycling, only 12k. Running went fine. I noticed a difference in my breathing, but wasn’t paying much attention to it. It must have been something like mid-day and a cool sun was brightening up the Harz’s forests. We loved it. We met Harm and Elwin on our way, and learned that Elwin was having a difficult time because of sleep deprivation. We hoped we managed to cheer them up a bit. We also often met a Lithuanian-Italian team, who sometimes appeared out of nowhere in front of us or behind us. We didn’t really understand their choices but it was fun meeting them every now and then. This section showed us some stunning views and great rock formations. Just before we arrived at the TA we were surprised by a short but intense hailstorm. Everything is possible in April.

We quickly went on our bikes again for a 28km cycle stage. I’m quickly warm, so I resisted to put on an extra jacket on the bike. But a lot of downhill cycling on asphalt with reasonable winds isn’t particularly warm if you’re only wearing a thermal layer. I was cold, but got warmer in the uphill bits. Maybe the cold got onto my lungs then – who knows. At the time, I didn’t quite get why I couldn’t keep up in the uphill – normally there isn’t this much of a difference between us. Yet I managed to keep up a decent speed, but happily hanged on to Maarten-the-Machine and Arjan-the-Tarzan in the uphill bits.

We stopped for a quick 4k canoeing break, which was lovely and went super quick. The organisation warned us that we probably would have to get out very often, because we were the only team that had three people in a canoe and the water levels were very low. Luckily, we only had to get out twice (like every other team), so we arrived happy at the next TA.

The next stage was another orienteering session. In this stage I started to notice that I was breathing more than I normally do. I’m well-trained and just back from a two-week ski touring holiday in the Alps, so I should have to breath less instead of more. I was worried I was going too fast, but except for my breathing my body felt perfectly fine. No aches, no pains, no stiff muscles. I decided to ignore it for now, but did tell my team members that I was worried for the night. I think I foresaw something coming... 

The day had been cold, and temperatures dropped as we cycled into the evening and night. As it got cooler and cooler, my breathing got worse and worse. This was very frustrating, because my body felt very strong. I had a lot of power in my legs and head. But it felt like I didn’t get any oxygen. Uphill cycling was simply impossible without being towed, and I needed to stop for breath from time to time. I felt what it must be to be asthmatic, and I felt sorry for my brother and dad who suffered from asthma when they were younger. The night was cold. Really cold. I think temperatures dropped to -5 degrees, and I was so happy I had good gloves and a good hat on me. Maarten is just a fantastic navigator, and he guided us perfectly to the TA. He found us a great shortcut, which gave us a head start over teams that were following us. This gave us a great kick and boosted our spirits even more. The TA was a very welcome warm place in the night. There was hot food and more food and warmth. We ate a lot and prepared for the next run and bike stage. We had collected all CPs up until then, but we were behind on our own schedule because of my breathing problems. It was difficult to leave the warmth of TA5, but as soon as we were cycling/running again, it was ok. As soon as I was outside, my lungs played up again. I had to cough, but the coughs were so deep that unfortunately I got the ‘throwing up reflex’ (is this a term?). And so I started the run and bike stage on an empty stomach – not ideal. I tried to eat and read the map while Maarten and Arjan were taking turns running. This didn’t work out perfectly because I was wearing Maarten’s backpack as well and I couldn’t really reach my food. So I needed to stop and handed over the map to Arjan. If it could get worse with my lungs – it did. I now was out of breath even on the flat bits, made squeaky sounds, and often needed to stop to get some breath. When we arrived back at the TA we decided to go see a medic. He investigated me well, and reassured me that it was probably the cold on my lungs, but that he didn’t see a real danger in me continuing. And so we did. It was sometime in the morning and I hoped that my lung problems would be more manageable in daylight, when it would be slightly warmer. TA6 offered us the surprise of pancakes, and in the early morning we started the 12k trekking. Already after the first few steps I realised that this was not going to happen. I couldn’t run, because I couldn’t breath. I couldn’t walk uphill, because I couldn’t breath. We knew we weren’t going to get all CPs, which was a bit of a bummer, but this was also the reality we had to deal with. So we decided to hike instead of run, and to only go for a few CPs. Back at TA6 we took our bikes for the last mountain biking section. This section went a bit better, maybe the morning sun did have a positive influence on my breathing? We arrived at the last TA about 10.30am. We had 1,5 hours to do the last 8km leg back trough the canyon where we started. The guys shoot off. Even though these first few meters were flat asphalt, and even though the cycling went slightly better, I couldn’t manage to keep up, my lungs played up again. Maarten took my backpack, and we set off in a hiking pace. The canyon was still beautiful, and great to see it from this direction. Suddenly, somewhere halfway trough, I realised we were going to arrive late at the finish if we were going to hike this entire section. And I didn’t want to arrive late. I just didn’t. And so I pushed myself hard to run as much as possible. Luckily most of it was downhill, and I’m generally quite good in downhill running. Maybe the warmer daylight did me good, and I learned to control my breathing in such a way that it was manageable. Running the flat and the downhill, and struggling up the uphill while occasionally stopping to catch my breath, we went to the finish line. We finally arrived at 11.53. We made it on time, 7 minutes before the deadline.

There, at the finish line, we looked each other in the eyes and said: ‘wow, that was such a nice adventure again!’ I LOVE racing with Maarten and Arjan, and I think this particular experience has bonded us even more. We managed to just continue, without unrealistically pushing it, and keeping our spirits up. Of course I was very worried about what had just happened to me. This is not the first race we do, nor the longest race. In fact, I’m probably stronger now than I was for some longer races we did. And yet – breathing is fundamental. The Harz has a great medic who investigated me thoroughly. When I got home I went to see my GP and spoke to my dear medical hero Nikje. I will be further investigated next week, but now they all think the most realistic explanation is a virus on my heart or lungs that I probably already carried, which played up because of the cold and the endurance. I hope they’re right. And I also hope this is not going to happen again. But yet, I look back at a fantastic experience, and I’m proud of how we dealt with this – as a team. To our surprise, it turned out we would have been second if we’d participated in the official ranking. Thanks guys, on to the Raid in France, I’m already longing for a new adventure with you ;-).

What is Adventure Racing?

Adventure Race

Keep going. Just keep going. Day and night. Whether it's 10, 40, 75 or 175 hours non stop. Running, mountain biking, kayaking, climbing, swimming. Whilst knowing where you are and where you're going to. Navigation is crucial. Cereal bar after cereal bar. Fighting sleepmonsters. Pursuing your own strategy. Twenty minutes of sleep or 'hanging on' to your team mates to be able to 'sleep on the move'.

Welcome to adventure racing. 

A random AR picture