Confessions of an adventure racer and my meeting with the adventure race world series by Adventure Race Croatia. What a race! The longest I’ve ever done by far. The most spectacular and the toughest. Sign up for Adventure Race Croatia and you won’t be disappointed. The team around ARC kept their promise and made it truly remARCable.
I’m not sure I’m really able to explain it in words. A teammate was to explain to his girlfriend, what we had been through. He laughed and told her that we had been kayaking, hiking and biking and then hiking and biking and kayaking some more for 70 hours with 350 km’s with very much candy and little sleep. I guess that is the short version.
I’m normally using more words than the boys, so I would like to add that it left me with a strong feeling of accomplishing something I would never have thought possible. A feeling of being able to do anything from here. And also a feeling of just having witness one of the coolest adventures I’ve ever experienced. It took a while to write this – to find and write the words. If you want to hear the extended story on my first meeting with the world series please find a nice spot, a snack and some coffee and read on…
PS. I wrote in English, as the purpose of this blog is to inspire others to embark on new adventures (and reflect on the ones I did). In an international context I would love to make this post readable for more people (as well as the organizers).
Why racing in the world series?
My team consists of me, Tobias and Mikkel aka Coastzone Racing. We won the Danish adventure racing cup in 2017 on the master distance. The price was a part of the start fee for a euro or world series race. A friendly push to take the next step in the world of adventures and so we did.
Adventure Race Croatia was our first long adventure race. We had never raced longer than 22 hours. We chose Adventure Race Croatia based on a post on facebook presenting the world series demonstration races. Argentina and Japan was too far away, but Croatia seemed like a nice place (based on our prior summer-cosy-swimming-beer-vacation around Zadar). One team member short we hooked up with an old adventure racing friend Niels, who had experience with longer races. I had been racing with Niels and learned him to add some joy to racing (“hygge” in Danish). He used to be know as Dr. Evil or “the ladykiller” and thought me how to keep pace, walk straight through impermeable terrain and never stand still.
The team were set and ready to go. Or almost. I surely learned that it takes somewhat long to actually make it to the start line.
The hardest part is getting to the finish line
There are so many things you need to prepare for a race like this. The first thing that surprised me was the gear list – a VERY long excel sheet with mandatory gear and with all the other stuff added it became even longer. I don’t want to go down on gear, when I’m a little afraid if I can do it, so I went shopping. Luckily I have many adventure friends, so we were able to borrow some of the extra gear needed (who has batteries for three nights?). It was actually quite nice to go around and pick up nerdy gear and receive great advice of how to bring flip-flops for TAs or have music for motivation along the way.
Also we made a TA plan, in order to know where to eat, sleep, charge batteries and find bikes. Another great excel document that went through several revisions and graphical to have in the TA and know what to remember at what point. I guess this took 8-10 hours but I got to know the overall outline of the course by heart.
Finally we spend two days at our place packing food and extra clothing in personal bags for each TA. Everything was prepacked, coordinated and ready as we jumped on the airplane and spend another 1 ½ day getting the final gear in place. A LOT of practical preparation on top of the training (and physiotherapy) I was ready to stand at the starting line.
A common goal
Apart from the practical need-to-do stuff we (read I) had spend some time talking about our common ambitions for this adventure. In Denmark we race to win – here we had a different ambition. From my short but fast career in cross triathlon I’ve learned that the first race is all about learning. Knowing the distance, how you react, what gear suits you and all those small details that is tacit knowledge obtained by trying. When you know all that you can put your full focus on a high pace. That is next time.
I had no intentions to push the limits more than necessary to get through the course – only that seemed like quite a challenge. I just read the race report from the winners – Ertips. They were there to win. We were not. For us this was a demonstration race with line under demonstration. Stories about serious dehydration and injuries that had ended long races for strong friends made me somewhat scared of the format and doubt if we were able to complete the course at all. My (and our J) ambition was to go on an adventure of a lifetime, get through the entire course and feel what long adventure races is all about.
Ready to race
After long preparations we were becoming impatient and happy to finally put on the race gear for the first leg. The briefing session the night before had made me feel quite prepared based on the very basic question some of the other teams asked (that were easily found in the rules). We took the mandatory prerace picture, ate the final snacks and got in for the lock down.
21 maps for 72 hours and a little more than an hour to mark our route. Nice to get started and finally have the course revealed –but also quite stressful with maps all over and the clock ticking. Everybody was in race gear, and they looked fast. I could not stop thinking if we stood a chance. We had already split the different legs between us, as everybody on the team are skilled navigators. This is a huge advantage as it takes energy to navigate and we can switch the map between us. I even got some small parts – mostly for motivation.
A bus took us, all the other racers and a tense atmosphere of excitement to the starting point in the small town of Nin. I remember looking out the window into the arriving darkness and noticing how the clouds were darker towards the horizon – just to realize, that this were not clouds. It was the mountains of Paknelica on the main land, rising like the wall in Game of Thrones protecting the seven kingdoms from the realm behind. The map showed that this were exactly where we were going…
Leg 1: Ready-set-go
The intensity at the starting line by a statue in the town of Nin was a strange mix of high energy, loud music and adventure racers lying in the grass among old ruins having the last nap or pee before it all began. At 8 o’clock the gun sounded and ARC was officially started. 72 hours of adventure, out of the comfort zone but in great company with Coastzone Racing.
Running through the narrow streets of Nin out into the countryside along the water. It was dark, but we kept warm from the pace and excitement. The first CP’s was the control cards for the race. This was the only time during the race that we actually ran.
Leg 2: Paddling towards the wall
Arriving at the first TA with the kayaks we had a lot of gear to get ready for the next leg – a 30 km kayak stage passing through narrow passages in the dark and with a 30 meter rappel from a bridge into the kayaks half way through. Kayak is not my favourite discipline, so I was very pleased that I would be fast done with it. The water was calm, and the darkness surrounded us at we paddled towards the mainland with the glow sticks as the only light.
Mikkel navigated and got us efficient through a narrow passage between the islands before arriving at the bridge. Tobias and I were to rappel as the others stayed in the kayaks to pic us up after the rappel. I was a little scared to do it – mainly due to the super lightweight harness, which looked more light than safe. But I had made a decision and Tobias was there to help me get the gear ready. Arriving at the top of the bridge the Danish referee Lars cheered and talked. He is always ready with a story or some good energy.
As I got ready to go down, I quietly asked for some room for focus. Deep below us small kayaks were floating around waiting to pick their teammates up and continue the paddle. It was a looong way down and the atc got hot during the decent. I normally don’t bother rappelling, but this was cool with the setting and more than 10 kayaks in happy colours floating below me on the black water – especially the part around landing in the kayak ready to continue. Tobias was fast down the same rope and we continued into the darkness.
There were no good landmarks to help us find the next island with the CP so we paddled in what we believed to be the right direction. At the mainland coastline you could see small lights from houses. Looking towards west the moon was full and spread a bright light on the water. We paddled a long time looking for signs of islands towards the mainland – nothing occurred. At some point we meet two other teams who disappeared behind us.
The first island we meet was brutal. The surface was pure sharp rocks and I was suddenly very pleased to keep paddling. We also saw small lights moving further ahead and something that looked like the light from a lighthouse. Mikkel guided us in that direction and after a while we arrived at a small island just by the CP. Very satisfying, has it not been that all the other teams saw it a followed straight after.
The last part of the kayak leg was long. Mikkel tried to give an indication of the distance left. That’s normally really nice. Just not when it’s wrong and double the distance because the map scale is 1:50000 instead of 1:25000. Then it is actually quite demotivating!
Leg 3 – Welcome to Velebit
I was happy to get out of the kayak as we arrived at the beach by the TA. A lot of teams were there at the same time and it was quite stressful. I suddenly turned cold, my energy was low and I struggled to grab my TA2 clothing bag and change among paddles, water bottles and chips in the gearbox. The boys were faster and fixed the kayaks before I even noticed – we were ready to go towards “the wall”.
It was great to get the legs going and get warm. Tobias navigated and showed us from the road along the coast into the national park and approaching the mountain on a narrow path, that obviously was flooded at some part of the year and contained huge rocks to jump or climb. The only thing visible was the light from our headlamps.
We had a 33 km hike in front of us starting with a steep accent to the ridge of the Velebit range. The path went in one direction. Up. Following a canyon and on the side of the mountains. It was not easy to see but marks with small red circles or stripes on the rocks helped to navigate and it was almost like an extra post when we found the next one in the light form the headlamp. Distances were hard to tell and we were not sure if we had passed the cave with the CP as we kept hiking upwards. Every hour we took a short break to eat, adjust clothing and touch base on the energy. Niels started hiking in his underwear due to the heat. That did not apply to our normal style policy on the team ;-), but I still remember the amazing feeling of getting rid of a pair of scratchy tights and into comfy shorts so I let it pass. Right there it is the small things that count!
We found the CP in a huge cave, looked at the amazing scenery for a minute and continued upwards. Daylight we’re arriving and the terrain flattened out. Still I felt really tired and annoyed about this. Sleep had been one of my biggest concerns with 72 hours of racing and I had done all the prep. possible (eg. being ready in good time to spend all afternoon prior to the race in my bed and mentally preparing for this challenge). I didn’t think it would be a problem until the second night, but I was wrong.
My teammates fed me with gel and candy with no option to refuse and as always that helps (even though I felt like puking). Both on the fact that you actually eat and that you get new energy. At the next CP we refilled water by a small mountain hut, ate a sausage and I managed to get a 3 min nap. From there on hiking got to a new level. The path was difficult to find in the beginning, but when we were on track the red dots took us steep up on the mountain through low forest.
Our hourly energy check revealed that I was still tired, while the boys were full of energy and soon got a line between me and Tobias to keep the pace. Every step was hard and up – we had already climbed equal to 10 times the highest mountain in Denmark. Looking at the roadbook prior to the race I had wondered how 33 km could be estimated 9,5 hours for fastest team – that does not make sense where I normally race, but here I suddenly understood why and learned about “technical hiking”.
At some point we meet another team on the track – they were sleeping right on the path only with the girl awake. This gave me somewhat motivation to see that I was not the only one struggling, and we pushed on.
As we got higher the forest disappeared and we were hiking / climbing on the light grey mountain. I know how to climb, but I prefer to do it with a rope. I don’t like heights or to be at steep mountain sides weather on foot or mountain bike. At the other hand I had made a decision with myself that I wanted to complete the race, if I was physically able to do it, and with this decision there is only one way, even though I didn’t like it at all. I continued with clenched teeth and cold sweat running down the bag. Right there it is nice to be with three good friends surrounding you and who feels safe in the mountains, patiently are waiting and knows what you are going through (this was not the first time we were in this situation together).
We reached the ridge with two teams close behind us. I felt relieved to have managed it so far and with the route continuing along the ridge the worst climbing seemed to be done. The views were amazing as the day had taken over and we could look down on the route from the prior kayak section and our hike. The house by the last CP looked so small!
It still took a long time to finish this section, but what a section. It is one of the most beautiful hikes I have ever done. I was surely challenged by fear of heights and it continued further along the ridge with steep sides and narrow paths. I sort of managed better – maybe due to the old quote “what doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger”? It’s cheesy but it sure felt like it.
The final part of the section was a hike from the top at the end of the mountain range along a ridge down to a plateau. This place reminded me of hobbit land with soft green grass hills.
We had a little trouble estimating the distance to the next post – a hut, but went straight to it. At the final climb down my knee started clicking. Not a good sign, but I managed to avoid certain positions, use the poles more and step carefully on the loose rocks.
We ended up spending 11,5 hours on this section – quite a good time and very satisfying.
Leg 4: Testing the bikes
This was the first time we meet our bike boxes, we got some food and changed to bike clothing. I don’t remember us as being fast – we sort of needed to digest the hike and talked about how the other teams managed – if all would actually make it. I had never imagined that hiking could be like that – so remote, rough and beautiful – and was filled with a feeling as something strange had hit us that we managed to concur.
The weather was really nice, sun with clouds as we jumped on the bikes and continued towards the next CP. This was close by – at the next leg just a short bike from there. But in Croatia even a short bike can be long, and I started quite demotivated, as the gravel road was to steep and uneven for me to ride it. Mikkel was also struggling– his pedals were to tight, so he was stuck on the bike having a few minor crashes and being quite annoyed. Niels firmly took my bike without asking and walked with his and mine own to the top of the hill.
Leg 5: Climbing Tulove Grede
Reaching the foot of Tulove Grede we suddenly understood how 1 km can take 1 hour.
Above us a white chalk rock was dropped into the landscape looking somewhat like I imagine Jotunheimen from the Nordic Mythology – a place of wild and untamed nature inhabited by supernatural giants. I wondered why we didn’t hear about this place as we visited one year ago. It seemed hidden in the mountains far far away.
We hiked and climbed to the top of the rock to find an incredible 360 view of the mountains and the sea. The climbing was not for fun. It was steep, a little technical and quite long, but also fun and a nice stop on the way. Lars (the referee) joined us along the way and made sure to update our friends about our progression via the Danish Adventure Racing facebook page. I was quite pleased about that as I’m the self-appointed SoMe manager and style expert of our team and get challenged by the lack of access for 70 hours!
Leg 6: Biking to TA 6
In a fast transition from hiking to biking shoes we were back on the bikes. To continue we had to backtrack the gravel road we arrived from going slowly upwards. The road was better than before, so we biked to the top point. I had back pain and Tobias pushed my joints back in place. Also I was really tired, so a short nap of 2 min at the top helped. I was not the only one. Mikkels energy was getting lower as we continued along the gravel roads. The route was a little up, then a little down. Never really relaxing.
By the next CP we took a 5 min break / nap and filled up water. Niels seemed impatient to continue – Mikkel seemed in need of a break. He soon got another break as I punctured after a technical decent on sharp rocks. Even with my nice new tubeless setup and super glue we were not able to fix it (note to self: don’t buy light weight tires for Croatia). After 3 attempts we gave up and added a tube. I was not satisfied. The scenery was beautiful although less wild. Still we were all alone.
Navigation was quite all right in the light – we only had one little detour visiting a local farmer by a dead end. Finally we started riding downwards gaining some km fast. Darkness was approaching together with our planned 2 hour nap. This was needed. Still we had quite a distance to cover on asphalt with endless amounts of small hills up and down and up and down and a section of gravel roads with a tricky post in the darkness. By common effort we found the right way and the CP. Riding along a huge lake we knew we were close to the TA, our food, gear and sleep.
In the TA we got our gear in place, hot food and were ready to have our reward of 2 hours sleep. Just then Mikkel announced that he could not find the motivation to continue. I was puzzled. He didn’t feel strong and he didn’t find it fun. I recognised such feelings from the hours that had just passed. Still in my head the only opt out option was serious injury.
I remember a blog post I ones wrote – “How much pain is fun?” (in danish). My conclusion was twofold. I’m not laughing my way through the race – for me the pain and the suffering is part of the challenge. If it was easy and “fun”, with no ups and downs, I think the experience and feeling of accomplishment of it afterwards would be smaller. The intensity of being out there in the middle of amazing nature, pushing my limits with the team and getting to know myself and my mental and emotional abilities, this is why I’m there.
My second point was that the degree of pain we accept is different. Some racers seem to like pain so much, that they constantly search for it. I know a few of these very well. I guess that’s the mental ability that it requires to be in this game for the real competition. I’m not enjoying the pain or looking for it, although I often find it along the way. I accept some pain as a part of the game and stick to my reason of racing. To complete the course as fast as possible and have a great adventure in good company.
Regarding this race I had spent a year with practical, physical and mental preparation and I was not ready to end it here. The other team members clearly felt the same and we had a short conversation stating the above. For us it was not an option to continue as a three-man team. Mikkels withdrawal would mean for us all to stop. Also we would very much like us to do this together and help whoever were down to finish as we started – as a team. It was a really difficult conversation, being wasted and not knowing how hard it was fair to push and we went to sleep without an answer.
Leg 7: Little prince trek
When we woke up we quietly agreed to continue. At that point of time we did not know what we were about to meet.
I felt like a new person after 2 hours of sleep. My hurting back was reset and my head was fresh. It was a little caotic at the beginning as we crossed a railway without noticing before we reached the first post in a cave by a church. From there on the “fun” started.
On the map, there were small paths – in reality we were surrounded by darkness and the path was nowhere to be found. We moved uphill into a forest on a hillside. The forest shifted between friendly permeable and deep rocky holes or steep white rocks. As the path was gone and sight bad in the darkness we were moving without a clear plan to reach a road 300 vertical meters and 1,5 km above us. It was difficult.
It took a while, but at some point we accepted the path was nowhere to be found. Waiting in the middle of a dark forest I had absolutely no cue where we were or where we were going. At times like this not knowing what the map looks like and not wanting to disturb and ask I tend to think that we are never going to find the right track. It feels like walking into the eternity.
Niels and Mikkel came up with a new plan and we moved according to the direction on the compass. The threes were used for bearing – the navigators behind and Tobias and I being guided to the next three along the right course. Small steps in some direction. Niels and Mikkel did not agree completely on the strategy, which only added to my feeling of being lost. The terrain was not really suited for walking along a straight line. We climbed small rock section, walked around deep holes with one at a three with a compass at one side and the forward guy finding the three lighted by torches in the other. It was rough and reminded me of Niels’ old nickname – Dr. Evil., that I spend so long to rewrite to mr. nice. Right there I think he forgot that!
After what seemed like forever we found tracks from a forest machines. Back home it is really annoying to walk or run on these uneven paths. Right there it was pure ease compared to the alternative.
Finally we found the road we had been aiming for. Here we had the option to do a shortcut through the terrain and save 3,5 km, but we soon realized we had gone too far east as we did not pass a small hut. None of us really had energy for another visit into the unmarked wilderness, or to figure out exactly where we were, so we took the safe but long choice and stayed on the road. Tobias had brought pringles and red bull for a nice morning party on the flat road. That tasted so good that morning.
Walking upwards in the forest we were meet by several animals. I got quite scared until we realized that the bear was fake. Finally we got close to the post. The clock showed that the estimated time with a max time of 9 hours was not within reach – we already spend way to much according to this. It didn’t help that we took a minor detour to the top of the micro area – Bili Kuk in our search for the post. This was one path to early and delayed us. Still we ended at the top just as the sun rised. It was an incredible sight. Suddenly we could see where we were – if Tulove Grede was wild – this was insane. It looked like a huge white chalk rock that exploded and spread across the area softened by time and surrounded by threes and endless holes. The colors of this area in the early morning were a sight to remember and I might say, that it was worth the detour.
Once again I was amazed that nobody told that these places existed when you visit as a tourist. It was über cool, but we were the only people there (maybe due to the fact that it was 6 o’clock in the morning?). We realized our mistake and got back on track, to find the post at a narrow ridge on the path in the middle of an intense bee summing. It was far down to both sides but I was learning that Croatia is full of surprises and took it as a challenge.
The path went up and down crossing more rock sections –through narrow passages and down into a deep “hole”, climbing on shaky ladders to the bottom for a photo post. The last CP before the TA was placed on Velika Crnopac – the highest mountain top in the area. And to add to the fun, Niels announced a few of the funny men on map along the way (=climbing sections)…. Almost there and still quite far to go. Mentally it’s tough to expect a hike of 14 km and then realize than you’ll spend more than 10 hours doing it.
We had a short stop for water and a look at the peak from a cabin on the track. Sitting there we wondered if this was really a marked hiking path where normal people spend their Sunday afternoon? In the middle of a fairytale.
From there on the path continued up, up, up with technical hiking.
Leaving the hut, I started thinking if there was something about a cut off at TA 8 that was next. Cut off or not – one team members was low on energy and there were no reason to try to push pace until we reached the summit.
It was quite difficult to keep the team together. One was tired, one tried to wait/ nudge and two were in front to navigate and find the right path in the forest. I had finally found some energy after being low for the past 28 hours. We were only wearing tree backpacks – I had a running vest for food and water, but I took one of the boys backpacks to increase pace and use my energy surplus knowing that my back might not like it.
Sometimes you are up – sometimes you are down. It is no fun to be the one in need of help. The one who is low on energy, slow, in need a string or to be told what to eat NOW. Simultaneously this is exactly what makes it so cool to race on a strong team where we help each other. I have been doing triathlon. There I’m all alone with defeats and victories. On an adventure race team you are never alone. You have to share the energy to become a success. At the end of the day it’s all about the team progression. Here it’s just stupid to be too proud to receive help – also it’s pretty hard to hide.
Close to the CP we met another team on their way back and towards TA8. They were nice to tell, that the CP was close (not on the hilltop far away). The ridge was easier to hike on and the view was stunning. Suddenly the post was there – at the top of Velika Crnopac. At one side we has the rock explosion below us, at the other side a steep decent that ended in a main road deep below us. That was where we were heading and now Niels mentioned the cut off. At this point this section had changed from a variation between up and down in a slow pace to flat, to straight down with a tight deadline to reach.
We had 1 ½ hour to decent 700 meters and something that looked like 2 km at the map, but probably was the double in reality. In Denmark we don’t really have mountains so running downwards is not our strength. Especially not when we are tired. Still we agreed to give it a go. Niels was in front – Tobias and Mikkel in the back, and I was trying to motivate in the middle finding a balance between a high pace and motivation to keep on pushing. I’m not sure I succeeded with the motivation part, but we managed all together to make it with 15 minutes to cut off.
I don’t think it can ever be shown on pictures how crazy this leg was. 14 km in 10,5 hours. It was more crawling than hike like one of my teammates said. It felt insane – especially ending it with 15 minutes to cut off. Also because this meant that all teams behind us was now cut off. As such our ranking in the race was set right there (ranking are based on longest continued CP’s). In the TA a guy with a camera interviewed me and asked how it was to be so far behind. I’m not sure if he realized that we just made the cut off and actually celebrated a huge success with high fives and a deep feeling of satisfaction. We won over the mountain. Not the other way around.
Leg 8: Biking to TA8
My feet were sore – I had blisters and my toenails started to turn blue, but I was so happy. It took a while in the TA to get control over myself even though the only thing to change was from shorts to bike pants. We had a short discussion on how to progress with a new time schedule in mind and decided to go for full course as long as possible.
As we embarked on the next biking leg the road was good, energy was high and we were ready to fight to make it before the next cut off. It was not an easy ride, but a this point we sort of expected, that nothing in the Croatian wilderness was easy.
I remember a long ascent on a really shitty gravel road with huge rocks, crossing of railway and uneven ground. I was determined to continue and fought uphill thanking new tubeless tires with low pressure that gave me grip on the hard tail to stay on the bike. As we reached the pass a huge valley opened up with smooth landscape of grass and small hilltops on each side. Riding across the plateau enjoying the scenery and the relative easiness on the bike. Time to eat and drink and prepare for a technical decent on a loose gravel road with full concentration to keep pace down and not to surf uncontrolled on the loose stones. It lasted forever and shaked the arms thoroughly, almost to an extent that made you wish for another ascent instead.
Leg 9: Hiking along the river and across the mountain
Arriving at the TA by an old monastery was a relief. One more leg was done and we were in due time to continue the adventure. Bikes got packed down and we got ready for another hike – this time expecting the worst. It was afternoon and we got some dryfood ready before we turned up the music and started the hike to the tones of Aha – “take on me”.
The first part of the leg ran in a river valley – flat nice grass as a pleasant surprise. This didn’t last for long – there had been landslides and many places the riverbank was covered by rocks to cross. Niels stated, that he found a way to avoid too much up and down route, if we were ready to get wet feet. We were!
It’s not that I like others to suffer, but I must confess that it gave a little boost to surpass a team high above us at the mountainside, as we crossed the slow stream and continued along the riverbank. We continued to the tones of old disco hits on our little speaker and the mood was good.
Lars had passed us running from TA 8 to TA 9 and cheered for us from the top of the mountain on the other side. I guess I knew that we were going up there, but I didn’t realize that the way to the top was even steeper climbing on a ridge than before. As a little extra challenge the sun had set and we were climbing on the ridge as the dark slowly arrived. I did not like it and chose a strategy of staying close to Niels, asking him to wait for me mainly looking at my feet as I continued. I don’t think I was very slow – more determined to get over with it as soon as possible and reach the plateau. Niels had changed from dr. evil to the new version of himself – Mr. Nice Guy and took good care of me.
Up on the plateau darkness had arrived as we were looking for a big path, and later a small one. This time we were lucky and with a little effort we managed to stay on track. I was becoming tired again but knew that my sleep in TA 12 depended on what time we got there. Still I preferred to walk longer instead of crossing a river by swimming prior to the coming Kayak leg when I got the choice. Looking back they shouldn’t have asked me, but we have a history of me becoming cold and demotivated after to much cold water in the middle of the night. It was a beautiful night as we came down the mountain, passed small houses with lots of goats and loose barking dogs and the moon was shining down on us.
As we got closer to the kayaks I suggested to swim and the boys were fast to accept. We chose the second of two roads to the river. At the other road we could see the lights from another team preparing to cross. As we reached the river I was very pleased to see that the water was no deeper than my knees. It feels so good to make the right decision. Especially as we found out that the flood was way deeper by the first road were the other team crossed – not by walking but actual swimming!
Leg 10- 11- 12: Krupa river in the darkness (Kayak – hike n’ swim – kayak)
Getting ready for the kayak leg meant wearing our wet kayak clothes and getting on board in inflatable kayaks / river rafts. We were paddling along the stream and Niels gave me a few tips on how to maneuver the boat as we descended on small waterfalls. The water was completely dark and the headlamp only gave a diffuse light. Looking ahead an optical illusion showed an abrupt ending of the river into a steep decent, which never became reality but gave a surreal feeling of the place. On the river bank the mountain stood high and steep above us. All the pictures of this place are from daylight, and they are amazing, but I don’t regret that we were there in darkness.
A peaceful atmosphere surrounded this leg, where we paddled what we could, but navigation was not an issue. Along the river, we had a short stop with a small hike to a cove with a waterfall. The post was placed opposite to us, not directly reachable. After a look at the map and the terrain Niels took of his clothing and jumped into the cold water. The rest of us followed with the go pro. Of course this was a photo post. In this situation the warm weather in Croatia was very appreciated.
Back in the kayaks we had another 5 km of silent, dark paddling with a few fun rafting sections before we finally reached TA 12. Again a huge success, but we also knew we had not much time to loose.
We had spent some time prior to the race discussing our sleep strategy – especially for TA 12. Niels believed that it wouldn’t be possible to take something you have planned (eg. Sleep) away. I preferred to have the choice out there based on the state of the team. We had landed the discussion on a flexible solution where we could sleep max 2 hours and should leave the TA no later than 2 in the night.
Now we were there – the watch showed approx. midnight and we were tired after having pushed through since TA 6 so we decided to get our gear ready and take a nap for 1 hour and 15 minutes before we continued on the bikes.
Leg 13: Biking in the darkness
Mikkel was on the map and did a good job, but had trouble finding the post in the darkness. How do you see a small hill 20 meter from the road when it’s dark and threes shield the road? We succeed with that one, but the next one was even more difficult.
Have you ever felt like tearing the map into a 1000 pieces and scream in anger. I’m thinking about a situation where the post is gone / you can’t find it. When the map does not match reality and the post just disappeared. You can do nothing than to continue looking – if you continue without it the race is over. I find it endlessly frustrating and sometimes that can affect a team member or two. (I’m sorry about that). My only comfort is that I don’t think I’m the only one.
I felt like this in the middle of the dark Croatian forest. Surrounded by darkness, rocks, and stone fences. We were ready to push to make it, but this stupid CP 38 stalled us. The CP was not where we looked first time. Or the second. We were not the only ones – many team was gathered all trying to figure out what was roads or stone walls on the map and where to go. We tried to go back. To go further. To follow another path. To look at old stone fences and decide they orientation. To revisit the maps and pass it on to another navigator. After 45 minutes or so finally something seemed to match. The path that looked least like something was apparently the one on the map. After an hour of searching we finally found the post in an old ruin surrounded by brambles.
I had my own fight on the bike. Legs and blisters were painful and annoying, but I new that this is temporary pain not causing serious damage. My back was different. It was hurting quite bad now and I had no idea whether the increasing numb feeling around the upper spine could be something serious. Tobias had tried to push the joints back in place several times but I didn’t dare to do it again. It was painful and made me drop a few tears, worried to cause serious damage to myself. Apparently not worried enough to quit!
Leg 14: Hiking in the caves
What do you prefer – reaching for the stars / pushing the team to the limit and risk disqualification (reaching goal after the time limit) or going for the safe choice completing the race, but not getting all CP’s? We were standing in the TA at the start of a 4 km hike. Sounds easy, but the other teams had spend 2-3 hours doing it.
It was quite a difficult to make this decision. I guess all of us wanted to continue all the way around – that’s sort of a non-negotiable standard when racing. Still the energy on the team was affected by 60 hours of racing, we only had max 12 to go and we had learned to expect the unexpected. To finish the race we needed to do the last three legs – orienteering in Zadar and kayaking 11 km back to petracane and to get there which were a 50 km mtb even if we skipped all other CP’s.
We made the decision to go for one CP at the hiking leg, so we had been on all legs and had one more CP in line. It was an incredible place with a huge canyon of red rock that rose above us where the layers was evident and caves were hidden in the walls. We only got to see the flood bed of it as we hiked to the first CP, but I would have loved to keep on and see the rest.
Other teams were there as well. They had probably been short coursed earlier and might have had a shorter time on some of the other legs? As they continued upwards, it didn’t do our decision easier. Decisions in other teams affect you, weather it is about finding the right route or making other visible decisions. I guess there is a brain bias about social confirmation that kicks in here. You see what they do and wonder weather their decision is better and you should follow or you should stick to your own plan. Quite often the decision you make is based on your team – the skills, the energy and the people, so we have a saying “not just to follow the others blindly” but making the good decisions for us. I think we made the good decision for us, right there, even though it felt wrong to cut CPs so close to the finish line and to some intend meant that my goal of completing the full course failed with this decision.
Leg 15: Biking to Zadar
The next leg convinced me that we made the right decision. All other legs with out exception had been spectacular in each their different way. The amount of wild beautiful and different nature in Croatia had been overwhelming. Remote and slightly deserted paths and roads from the war cut through the landscape surrounded by hills, valleys with grass meadows and jagged peaks. Each leg had been beautiful and diverse. From one spectacular setting to the next until we reached this bike leg that showed a different picture of Croatia. It was a strong contrast to the prior legs and it almost felt like this leg was designed to make the teams find their last motivation. Not only by being long, but also by the desolation in the landscape. Long uneven gravel roads, we were biking through lots of thorns that caused bloody legs, punctured tires and difficult navigation. This cocktail was very effective, especially with the twist of very few CP’s and maps that was not too accurate. As a mitigating circumstance it was not too much elevation.
It felt like riding into the eternity. When you are tired and don’t know the map, you loose the overview. The legs become endless and I tend to think that the other teams would laugh if they saw how slow we were progressing. Niels tried to convince me just to push on and stop thinking too much. He learned that, he explained. I’m not quite there yet. Knowledge of progression and distance means something to my motivation and thus my ability to keep a high pace.
We left the big roads to search for smaller paths. There were many more in reality than on the map and we ended riding along olive trees on an almost invisible path reaching an area with even more paths not shown on the map. It was difficult navigation and I was glad that we were not under strong pressure to reach the finish line. I used every micro break to lay down and rest the back. We stopped often to check direction and using the elevation shown on the watches and an electricity tower we finally found the right direction. We kept riding, now with higher pace, but I did still not know whether we were on track.
We have worked a lot with our communication in the team. It helps me if the navigator briefly tells where we are going, if we are on track and the approximate distance. It’s not that I don’t trust him. It’s just that I like the overview. When I started adventure racing I was the navigator. I was quite good at it and I really enjoy the map. Knowing where I am, and where I’m going. I’m still okay with the map, but with the physical differences on our team, I’m not the one navigating.
This strategy work all right when the navigator is fresh. When we all get tired it’s more difficult. I stop asking for info in order not to disturb. The feeling of endlessness or doubt if we are on track affects my brain and my legs. Writing this it’s obvious to me, that it is irrational, but it how I feel out there.
During this leg I took a new strategy as the feeling of endlessness overwhelmed me and the back pain did not make it better. As Mikkel stopped to look at the map I looked too and asked a short question of where we were and where we were going. That helped a lot even though it only confirmed my feeling of really long stretches with no CPs!
We met other teams along. Some surpassed us, other we surpassed. As half of the teams had been short coursed if was difficult to tell if any of these were real competitors. Never the less it’s not fun to be surpassed.
Finally we got closer to Zadar. The area was rough and it seemed like the locals missed some organized junkyards. Many places trash, old furniture and other leftovers were left in small piles along the route. The paths were rough gravel roads with small gatherings of houses newly built or damaged from the war. This leg truly was a strong contrast to the prior amazing nature and quite symbolic for the last hard push towards the finish line where energy is low and everything feels loooong. I remember crossing a huge square area of 2 x 2 with low bushes, grass and rocks, separated by straight symmetric roads thinking what such a place was used for.
Leg 16: City orienteering in the old town of Zadar
Arriving in Zadar meant the end of the biking. That gave me a lot of energy, but also a return to civilization that did not match our prior adventure out in the remote and spectacular mountains. Too many people, asphalt and building at one place.
It was bright daylight and the sun was shining as we packed the bikes down for the last time, found our trekking clothing and the food pack for the final two legs. Even though the end felt really close it was still some hours to go, and without proper energy you miss the power for the final push.
I got the map for the city orienteering. Always happy in this position I started out being a bit confused about direction, but managed to get us in the right direction without much time delay. The orienteering was easy and took us through the ancient part of Zadar through narrow streets and past beautiful old churches, which gave a great impression of the old roman town. We made a quick stop at a small shop to buy 4 cokes for the final push. The streets were filled with tourists eating at restaurants and strolling in the streets. A strong contrast to us all geared up, dirty and moving focused. The referee made sure, that all teams kept the 5 meter from the CP rule, which gave a lonely team member a small time penalty for not sticking together with his team. I guess they were tired and took the more direct route.
Leg 17: Kayaking home
Arriving at the seafront with people relaxing in the sun and our kayaks waiting I was so ready to give the final push to the finish line. Niels had pushed so hard on the prior kayak stretches to keep his and mine kayak up to speed that his carpal tunnels in his wrists were hurting really bad and had probably done it for quite a while now. (Did I mention earlier, that he has another level of pain-acceptance?). To take this into consideration Tobias and I made a kayak team and Mikkel and Niels took the other boat.
Crossing the entry to the harbour of Zadar in sit on top kayaks was interesting with traffic of smaller ferries and sailboats. At some point the waves approaching us were huuuge and I was sure we were going to crash. Tobias was calm, turned the kayak directly towards the waves and we had a fun rollercoaster ride without any problems.
The weather was perfect for kayaking. Actually we had a small wind from behind and were gently pushed in the right direction. Time wise we had plenty of time to make it – but not enough that I felt confident we could have done the entire course. That would have been a gamble and a fight against time.
In general the weather conditions had been really good. Dry with sun and clouds and a temperature of 25 degrees at daytime and 15 during the night. I can’t imagine what this race would have been like in bad weather. Wind would have made kayaking a total different story and wet rocks in the mountains would have been slippery and dangerous. I’m not sure that even the fastest team with 14 hours to spare before the time limit would have completed the course if the weather conditions had been tricky.
Paddling along the coastline was a beautiful sight with the mountains on the islands at our left side and the coastline of Zadar with expensive houses and huge yachts on the other. I was full of energy so close to the finish line, that Tobias kept telling me to slow down and wait for the others. The 11 km kayak only took us 1 hour and 45 minutes, which was – maybe the only time in the race – faster than we planned.
The finish line was just by the floating bouncy castle and trampoline that we played at the day prior to the race. It was a nice revisit while crossing the swimming guard and reaching the coast. We arrived with hands over our heads and were welcomed with cold bears and cameras from the race committee. High fives and hugs and a weird feeling of finally being done. 69 hours and 30 minutes of adventure, teamwork, ups and downs was done. We had finished our first World Series race together.
We ended the race as number 10 – 12 hours after the winner. To me, that felt like success and as Niels asked if we would do it again I was not in doubt. I have to do this again – it’s a true adventure in good company.
A huge thanks to my team members for doing this together – one of the most crazy experiences ever.
A huge thanks to Igor, Ana and crew for organizing this race. You did an amazing job (and thx for all the beautiful pictures!).
A huge thanks to Racingdenmark.dk and Salomon for helping with top notch gear. (My Black Diamond Carbon Distance hiking poles was a true friend, wings pro 2 is the perfect hiking shoe in wild mountains and the fusion tights is always a winner).
A huge thanks to all my adventure racing friends for teaching me how to do it all – lightweight, fast transitions and a racers mindset. I’m looking forward to much more. Next time I’ll go for a classic of running in one of the most amazing places in Denmark at VUMB (Winter Ultra Mols Bjerge).