First Adventure Race

The Adventure! 

 So back in 2020 after I did the Crusher, I found myself indoctrinated into a (very friendly) cult of ultra endurance crazy people mostly based in Michigan/the Midwest (who can forget the Ohio Biker Gang?). When you find your people, it's a really beautiful thing -- it's like you have an unbreakable thread that connects you all from the core of who you are to the core of who they are. But the backgrounds, the exteriors, the day-to-days, how we vote, kids/no kids... we're all radically different people.

I swear I'm getting to the Adventure Race part. Anyways, I found myself now in the purview of Barbara and Brenda, who won the virtual Crusher in 2020 for women and were top overall finishers. I could wax for a while of the glories of these two, I was initially floored how these two older women absolutely destroyed the field. Then, as I got to know them better, especially Barbara, I realized this wasn't just a race for them, it was a way of life they had been perfecting and living for years, almost decades

Specifically, they were Adventure Racers. I mean, I too thought that sounds kitchy when I first heard it, but these are the eco-challenges/survivor-style races that span across ungroomed forests and open water. If you really want a look at what this is like, I highly recommend Rebecca Rusch's Rusch to Glory (I reference this later!). 

Adventure Races typically combine 4 major disciplines -- trail running, mountain biking, paddling, and orienteering. At first, when Barbara tried to gently coax me to see the light on how awesome these style races are, I was like "NO, I do NOT run". After a while, with some "it's ok, you can walk" and Barbara's gracious encouragement, we signed up for one last year. But I had to cancel because I was not in a state to race, mentally. 

This year, however, I mysteriously started running in March. In a soon-to-be-released post, I'll detail this more, but I started picking up miles and, actually, loving trail running in a cautious "I can't believe this is love" kind of way. After a month, I messaged Barbara, "Barb, it's time. I'm ready, let's do an Adventure Race" and so we signed up for an 8 hour race in Muskegon (Barb: "there's an 8 hour or 5 hour, do you want to do the short one since it's your first?" Me: "pffft I won't even be warmed up by the time the 5 hour one is over") 

Let's go!

Cue more running, mountain biking, and me paddle boarding (not the same thing, but it did help) montages. Barb and I showed up to the start line on Saturday with her race canoe. Barb kept trying to remind me the point was to have fun and finish, but I kept saying "No, I want to WIN. Let's DO this!" 

So part of the strategy is you get the maps for a first look when you sign in and then have about 1.5 hours to plan your route and try to optimize for terrain. We ended up doing the course in reverse, going the opposite direction of like 90% of the field (everyone starts together and chooses their own path you have no idea how you're doing relative to the  the entire time). 

There's a ton of strategy involved. We tried to optimize for fewer transitions and getting the hard stuff over first. We ended up opting to bring bike shoes that clip in and run in them for about 2 miles (and 8ish miles of running in our trail runners). We started out biking in our running shoes for a few miles and then starting the longer (and harder) trail running / flag finding. 

The flags are bright around and about 1 foot x 1 foot, hanging from branches in trees typically. They have a unique hole-puncher on each one that you punch into the appropriate box on your passport (how you keep track of the checkpoints). Finding the first one in the woods was exhilarating - it was off trail, just us running through the woods and (!) there is was! Barb warned me at the first one that we yell "squirrel" as a code word so that we don't let others know immediately that we found it, and I excitedly yelled SQUIRREL at each flag the rest of the day. 

Unfortunately, right as we had spotted our checkpoint 2 and all of 25 minutes into the race, I had a mistep running down a hill and crunch -- rolled my ankle forward and down (it gave a little throb as I wrote this, haha). I immediately went down, taking deep breaths as the blinding white pain of a bad injury bolted through my body. 

Here's one of my super powers that I've developed over time -- I played volleyball for years. I have had every kind of sprained ankle and foot you can imagine, multiple times on each ankle. From the depth of those (quite dreadful) experiences, I can diagnose how bad it's going to be (and how utterly f'd I am) with 2-3 minutes of the crunch.

I'll share my secrets:

  1. if you have extreme pain (like you scream type of pain) when you rotate your ankle, you're done and if you don't immediately stop you will make it worse.
  2. if you can't fit your foot in your shoe, you're done. 

I breathed as I realized I could both rotate my ankle and fit my foot in my shoe. This was an under the ankle bone crunch -- it would look worse than it was the next day and would hurt a lot today, but I would be able to keep going. Barbara, blessedly, had a compression sock (!) and horse-pill sized ibuprofen from paraguay (!) with her. A few moments and deep breaths later, we were going. Yes, every step literally hurt the rest of the day and anytime I added more pressure to my left foot, I got a fierce reminder that was a NO. But again, I had read Rebecca Rusch's book -- I knew how this worked, you either shut up and finished or you didn't. No in between -- whining doesn't help and neither does dwelling on the unpleasant aspects of your new-to-you race conditions. 

Post Race Ankle 

We continued on, finding the checkpoints. I wish, very badly, I had taken an orienteering course before this race and could have helped more with the mapping and figuring out where we were. Choose your partners wisely if you do a race like this -- you will have disagreements or different approaches! Communication is absolutely key that you both can navigate together and discuss / make mistakes freely. 

Eventually after running through the woods off-trail for 2.5 hours, we came out with about 1/3 of the flags done. I was now bleeding and bruised too from running into sticks, etc. What a race! As we switched to bike shoes (again, I was relieved to find I could fit my left foot in them), we started biking (and I was relieved that there was little ankle pain biking!!!).  

Even though it was mostly road riding and we were on a hard tail mountain bike (me) and gravel bike (Barb), we flew through this section. I mean, we met doing bike stuff, this was our jam. We quickly knocked off the bike leg and then moved to a short trail run (4 checkpoints), grabbed a hand full of oreos at the aid station (BLESS!), and ran in our bike shoes (not roadie shoes, to be clear). We moved quickly through this section, hopped back on the bike, and returned to the start to do the lower half of the race. 

This is where the endurance side of the race kicked in. It was starting to rain, temps still in the high 50s/low 60s. We switched back to our trail runners and dropped the bikes at the parking lot, rain just starting. We ran into Richard, who had just finished and won (!), said hi and then kept going. 

The next section was probably the most challenging for us -- we were tired and navigating in the dunes was a challenge. My ankle was wearing down my pain threshold; my motivation to finish was picturing the ice bag I was going to put on my ankle... I wanted that bag of ice more than food or rest or anything else in those moments. 

We made it through, a big smile cracking my face as we ran into the canoe drop off point. Paddling was going to be a strength for us (so I thought!) -- Barbara is an excellent paddler and I don't totally suck. We jumped in the canoe and started picking off 5 hour racers and hitting the check points (one group: "you're both are like, really good, aren't you?" us: "we.. do these things sometimes"). We actually started racing a boat at one point in the channel on it's way out to Lake Michigan (and won, muahahaha) 

the Lake Michigan attempt (thanks for the photo of this and not the canoe tip, @Richard)

In the last 200 m of the race, we had to portage and then either carry the canoe the last 200 m or canoe in Lake Michigan (which had waves). We decided to canoe (I mean, come on, we're strong paddlers!) but what I didn't bank on was that waves in race canoe != waves on paddleboard. Oops. We made it a very slow 75 m before I tipped our canoe with a mis-stroke. Of course, we were within vantage of the finish line, so everyone got to see us flip and take a swim. 

Now wet, we ran the canoe in the sand up to the canoe drop, tagged the final checkpoint, and then ran hand in hand to the finish line. DONE! We came in at 5.5 hours, 2 hours ahead of the next female finishing pair. We had won our division and come in the top third overall. 


Something I immediately loved about this community is everyone hangs out afterwards, eating pizza and talking. I got my long awaited bag of ice, the bruising starting to surface. Everyone was lovely to me -- nice, encouraging, and excited to have a new friend. It seemed to me like the other racers had been doing this for years and years and here I was, this new person with an ice bag ("Please don't think I'm the person who always gets hurt!!") but excited and happy to be around people and, to be honest, having a good race that I was proud of. It had been a while. 

Will I do this again? Absolutely. Am I look for orienteering classes? Even more absolutely. I called Claire the next day on my way home and was like "this is our thing Claire, this is it. I think you and I can go places and achieve some incredible things in Adventure racing, like the expedition style ones. We have all the right pieces." 

My last thing to sign off on is afterward I was talking to two of Barb's friends, Tom and Ed and they asked why I do the long events (12+ hours). I told that there are lows in all races, even 20 minute ones, but the ones in the long races force you to really dig to your core and think deeply about the choices you are making. In those moments, I get to see who I really am, and I love who I am in those moments -- the decisions I make, the things I push through, the person I just am -- she's everything I ever wanted to become, and I just see it so clearly in these races -- a brief, ephemeral glimpse of (I guess) my soul. 

What a milestone in the journey. Thank you Barbara for all your encouragement and helping me dip my toes in! 

and then we threw axes, happily ever after!

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