The 2017 World Adventure Race Championship winners Team Seagate (from left) Chris Forne, Joanna Williams, Stuart Lynch and Bob McLachlan. Photo credit: Chris Radcliffe.
After winning the World Adventure Racing Championships with Team Seagate at the Cowboy Tough race in Wyoming, in August, I wanted to write a handy hints post. I saw so many people doing things early in the race that were going to have major repercussions on them and their teams later in the race. Seagate has success due to having great athletes, teamwork and a tried and proven race strategy and I have been fortunate enough to race with them and learn from their processes.
I really want to share a few things about the behind-the-scenes happenings of an experienced and successful adventure racing team. First of all, as adventure racers we all owe the friends and family around us a huge thanks, for without them our self-indulgence in a sport that is nothing short of a time and money sponge couldn’t exist.
While on this topic, remember to offer what you can and what you have committed to, back to your sponsors while the iron is hot, eg straight after a race and if you don’t have sponsors then more time with your family may be required.
Leading into a race involving a four-person team involves a lot of organisational logistics.
Often there tends to be one person that is the ‘Lion King’ and he/she takes on the lion’s share of the work. So if you are not that person, then it’s time to think about what your role can be, so you can take some work off their hands. The Lion King also needs to delegate so he/she can also concentrate on the race and training – around what is probably a busy work schedule, and possibly family life. Make sure you allocate each team member a task and then have a list to check that it has all been done so nothing is left out or forgotten.
Try to organise any sponsors and products well before time so that you get the chance to use the products during training and on your adventures, which will mean you are really comfortable with using them and there is nothing new that you are just trying out during the race. Although in my experience this is sometimes hard to achieve, depending on how early we receive our products and gear before a race.
While out on the missions you have chosen as training exercises, try to calculate your food rations and the clothing you will use in the actual race. These ‘exact calculations’ will help you with your quantities and minimise ‘excess baggage’ while racing. I have always found overseas races help you minimise the equipment you take –due to air travel’s baggage allowances – so try not to give yourself too much choice if your race is at home. You will know what gear is your ‘go-to’ gear that will keep you warm if it gets cold and how much you actually need to wear should the elements turn against you. So back yourself and pack those items and don’t keep adding those ‘just in case’ items that you carry around the race course but never use.
Remembering that adventure racing doesn’t allow you much sleep, I think it is imperative that the team has a sleep plan that all of you agree on before the race begins. This should be part of the complete race length strategy and to achieve a good sleep plan, you need to be at least semi-comfortable in your sleep. Don’t under-prepare in this area as it will cost you later in the race. I recommend that while on your training missions, try to practice your sleep systems, eg setting up your tent and getting sleeping bags out, as this will make this small amount of time out of racing a lot more efficient, and beneficial.
While we are on the topic of practice, one can never over-commit to navigational practice, especially in the hours of darkness. Include other team members, even if it is just to reassure or confirm a decision, so that you develop a partnership for when those sleep-deprived hallucinations hit, or the main navigator needs a break. Then he/she can just hand the duties over to someone else for a while when navigation is easier, but always communicate where you are and that you are handing over duties or this can end in misunderstanding.
Within all teams we develop roles amongst us to check on food intake, hydration, energy levels, tiredness, first aid and navigation. It is really important that you have these roles and keep up with whatever role has been assigned to you. It is a good idea to know where other team members gear is in their backpack as this will help you keep moving during the race. Develop habits of helping each other with food and accessing clothing, as this also helps you know how each other is feeling and if someone isn’t liking their food they may like what you have, which will keep them eating. It will also mean you don’t have to stop as often.
I have found that the food you may have liked in one race doesn’t always stay the same for the next race, so include a variety and assess the race climate as this will make a difference in food requirements. Team Seagate loves Absolute Wilderness food as it is designed to rehydrate with cold water, which most other freeze-dry meals are not. We also find the Pure hydration products are great on the stomach and mouth for these extended races. Take some easy to eat gummy candies, and particular favourites of mine are gingernuts and Cookie Time biscuits. Make sure you also include salty options and even a bit of meat jerky or cheese sticks are great. I also tend to have a plain water bottle and a separate electrolyte mix, as often you want one or the other.
The key to any team sport is the team aspect
So first of all is to realise we have to expose all of our weaknesses during the race and this helps the team ultimately moving at its fastest pace. If you are feeling slightly off form, then ask how everyone else is doing and if others are strong they may carry a little weight for you until you are back on top. Be assured this will help the team as you won’t go further downhill before recovering, and hopefully you will be able to repay the favour later in the race. You also have tow options while biking, hiking and even in some kayaking situations, but make sure that no one in the team is working too hard, either to keep up, or to keep towing.
The other times where teamwork is crucial is on the bike, where drafting makes a big difference. Make sure you communicate about what speed is good for you all and that everyone is able to hydrate and eat while riding at the pace you set.
While kayaking, where you are working as two teams of two, I can’t stress enough how the teamwork in each boat and between the boats will help. This will not happen on race day if it has not been practised beforehand, so get at least some time in a boat together, especially in white water and using canoe paddles. In white water it is important to have the person in charge of steering communicate their intentions to the front paddler as this will help with stronger paddling if you both know where you are going. It is also important to have the best paddler lead the way and pick the route and be there as safety for the second boat.
When you are creating a team, don’t assume every member has the same race goal. Make sure you discuss what the goal is and also plan a race strategy that will suit your strengths, keep your weaknesses to a minimum and ultimately keep the team moving as fast as possible over the entire course. Having done this, you will be able to optimise your team and individual training time and be more organised with your roles within the team based on your strengths. Make sure you understand the pre-race procedure and pre-pack what you can, so that when you get your race information, packing it runs faster and smoother. There is a lot to do on this pre-race day! Also try to create a timeline based on your estimated speed so you have a better idea about how much food, hydration and lights/batteries etc to carry for your stages.
The one other thing that a lot of teams will do is treat the transitions as a holiday and if you do this and are taking over an hour per transition then you will be on course a lot longer and may not make the short course cut-off. Try to pack so that your transitions can be quicker, more efficient and if you can monitor what stage other people in the team are at with their transition, the first people who are ready, can help out the others. Leaving tasks like water filling etc until last is beneficial, as one person can fill all the water if they are ready first.
As you are approaching transition talk amongst your team about what your transition is, how you are going about it and if you are planning on sleep, when that will happen, so you get it done and don’t waste too much time. Have a system for getting things out and back into your boxes, so that all your gear for the leg comes out, and nothing goes back in until you are all ready. Used gear should all be contained so next time you open your box, it isn’t a dog’s breakfast. Having layers with a rubbish bag between stages is a good system here as you can take all gear down to the bag out, then put used items in the bag and put it back in so it doesn’t get mixed up with the next stage’s gear.
Talking through the plan as you pack is crucial
As is going over the race rules and where you will next see the boxes. Make sure you remove unused food from your backpack, so that you don’t just keep adding to the next leg’s food and overstocking the pantry, as this could mean carrying extra kilos on the course. Be fast and efficient but don’t rush as this can result in forgetting something which can upset your entire race. Once again practice your systems – they make things so much smoother when the brain is in sleep mode.
Next up I want to talk about stopping. The less time stopped, the sooner you cross the finish line so when you are needing toilet, shoe debris removal, first aid, water or any other reason to stop, communicate with the team and that way you can all think of what you may need to do while one person is stopped. This will mean you won’t have to stop again for the next person to do the same thing. This applies to clothing changes too, where if it is getting cold, communicate so that you can decide if a change is needed. The navigator is often a great influence here as they know if you are going to be in an exposed area for a long time or just going through a small cold/hot patch. Sometimes you just have to bear being a little cold, or hot, for a while if the temperature/environment is going to change soon, otherwise all change at once. You should always have easy access to your hat, gloves and shell layer as this will avoid stops too if your team mate can access it for you.
Remember your goal but always remember that you are racing and putting in time-saving practices, means time gains with no extra training, so make the most of these. Moving consistently and faster where the going is good, or the conditions are cooler, and slower when it is really hot or the team is eating will make you time. Making the most of daylight hours and sleeping to a good plan will benefit, as does having good torches at night. Also loading with good nutrition where possible, including while paddling downriver is a great use of time as you are moving anyway even while resting.
Make sure you communicate where there is water on course so you don’t carry too much and filling up when there is not going to be water means you won’t get dehydrated. This is the navigator’s role to inform the rest of the team. If you have a support crew then make sure they know exactly what you need done in each transition and that way they will be able to tell you what to do, when you are exhausted and sleepy. You will appreciate them more than they can ever know.
I don’t want to write a novel but I’d like to add that while incredibly tough at times, adventure racing does have its incredible moments – otherwise we wouldn’t do it. So enjoy your time out there and know when you have a dark patch that you will come out the other end. You will also have those Kodak moments that will be imprinted in your mind forever and these are often just a few seconds of a race that make life-long impressions on you. Each team member will have different memories but they combine into what is a total team effort and this is what sets adventure racing apart from other sports. The reward for all the pain, is that life will seem easier after the race is over. We don’t often take ourselves to these extreme places in normal life and without a team you may have given up hours ago, but you didn’t and when you cross the finish line, you can enjoy that overwhelming sense of achievement.
Getting a team to the start line is a fantastic effort and however your adventure race pans out, try to take time afterwards to write down as a team what you would do differently, what food worked and what weaknesses and strengths you had that you can work on for the future. This may be important next year, even though right then you may think you are never doing another adventure race. Share your thoughts on the race, as although you raced as a team, you will all have very different experiences. And lastly but perhaps most importantly, celebrate your successes as these races are a huge undertaking and a massive commitment for you, your team and your family.
Thanks for reading and I hope to see you out there on the start lines or in the backcountry enjoying the very reasons that attract us to the sport.
Bob is available for team or individual information sessions and practical kayaking, pack rafting and navigational sessions. Please contact him for prices and availability.