Overcoming a Tough Course - 2012 Adventure Racing World Championships

Written by Matt Hayes
Created Date: Thursday, 18 October 2012 13:40

The Raid in France brought 65 teams from around the world to the western Alps for the 2012 Adventure Racing World Championship. DART-nuun-FeedTheMachine, comprised of Mari Chandler, Matt Hayes, Ryan Van Gorder and Aaron Rinn, was the only full US team at this year’s championship.  Highlights of the race for us were beautiful views, wild whitewater, tough mountain biking, and the steep, rugged, and technical mountains.

Teams prepared their food and gear for the upcoming week in the picturesque town of L'Argentière-la-Bessée. We were given the order and estimated times of the 18 legs a day and a half before the start, and we used this information to stage our equipment into the appropriate bins and boxes that we'd have access to at different points around the course. Once the gun went off, we would have just over seven days to complete the course and reach the finish line in Roquebrune Cap-Martin by the Mediterranean coast.

The night before the start, the teams competed in a fun prologue that established the next morning’s starting order.  We were given orienteering maps with 30 checkpoints that we could visit in any order, and we sprinted around the town then through a hillside trail network picking off the points.  After losing track of which ones we had visited, we ended up doubling back to one checkpoint we had already visited.

After a good dinner and a short night of sleep we found ourselves back at race headquarters, where we picked up our bikes for a relaxed uphill ride into Écrins National Park.  The race started here at 6:00 am with a 7-hour glacier trek that was shortened from the original18 hours due to the snow conditions up high. The minimum time that teams could take for this section was to keep teams from being careless on the glaciers.  The 7-hours was generous enough that we had a short break before restarting with a short, downhill mountain bike. We dropped our bikes and started a long trek that was inserted after the start of the race to make up for the shortened high mountain section. For us, this meant that we had to wear our mountaineering boots on this trek and carry them on the bike. We were kicking ourselves for wearing boots instead of running shoes on the approach to the glacier. We had stored our running shoes in our bike boxes, based on the information we had been given prior to the start. Our heavy boots slowed us down a bit and gave us blisters, but the excitement to have finally started and the stunning views kept our spirits high.

A short mountain bike led us to another long trek: the 3rd of 10 treks in the race. We ascended up a rocky canyon that led to a free hanging wire ladder under a waterfall.  More rugged and beautiful trekking brought us to an immense 13th castle in the town of Chateau-Queyras. We had anticipated spending the night at the whitewater rafting put-in, which was several kilometers down the Guil River from here. Instead, we were told that we could complete a via feratta course over the river gorge, but that we would have to stop after this for the night and camp next to the river. We had hit a dark zone with only race food in our packs, but we found a tiny café in Chateau-Queyras that was still open and bought some amazing quiche, cheese, pâté, baguettes, and apples. We soaked up warmth from the fire of the race personnel, and then crawled into sleeping bags for a long night of sleep.

The whitewater rafting lived up to the race director’s warnings.  We bounced off a few rocks as we found our rhythm in the four person raft, and we made it down the most difficult rapid without incident. We were feeling somewhat competent, only to get completely stuck a while later. The boat was held in place by the flow of a waterfall, and the flow was pulling Matt and Mari out of the raft. They climbed back into the boat and were dragged back several times before finally making it safely to shore. We used throw ropes to pull the boat loose and we had a blast descending the rest of the wild rapids. Next, a short trek with some minor bushwacking led us to conclude that every plant in the Southern France has sharp thorns. The following section was a scenic downriver kayak more first-rate whitewater and swift water flow that keep our sit-on-top kayaks moving.

After a short trek, we began a long bike section. Day gave way to a clear cold night as we climbed to the top of a mountain pass. The stars were so bright that you could see their various hues. We passed through an old tunnel at the top, and then layered up for the cold but fun descent. This led us to a narrow, unpredictable trail across a steep mountainside to a checkpoint in some old ruins. In the darkness we couldn’t see the bottom of the drop to our side, so it definitely felt like a high level of exposure. We finished the ride and tried to get a few hours of sleep. Instead, the temperature dropped, and we shivered through fitful sleep. We found a layer of frost covered everything when we woke before dawn to begin the 4th day of racing.

We spent the day trekking through Mercantour National Park, and as we assembled our bikes that evening, we were befriended by a local family. They brought us homemade soup and oranges that we graciously gobbled up. We rode uphill from here for a few kilometers before being forced to get off and push our bikes up rocky terrain. All the pushing, slipping, and sliding while wearing bike shoes on our blistered feet, dampened our mood but we kept plodding along. After some tough route finding through nighttime fog, we finally made it to some rolling hills. Three vicious sheepdogs chased us away from their herd and kept us moving in the right direction. We had a 1400 meter (4600 foot) descent ahead of us. We were suspecting that the way back down would not be ridable since the way up had been so steep and rocky. We were very pleasantly surprised when we discovered one of the most amazing descents that we have ever ridden! The team was all smiles as we banked and twisted our way through Badlands-style erosion gullies and ridgelines.  The dirt was marl, which is a mixture of clay and limestone, and had great traction that made the riding very predictable. The long descent led to another section of pushing our bikes. Down a riverbed this time.

We trekked up to the top of the Clue d’Amen slot canyon, which has over 20 rappels along its length.  Several of the descents were under waterfalls and ended in pools of water, so we rapped down and swam across the pool as fast as possible. We were happy to have done most of this canyon in the daylight, because the water was cold and the route finding became more difficult after dark. We clawed our way out of the canyon only to rappel back down two final times to the Var River. We changed into dry clothes and did some quality sleepwalking while trekking the river down to the next transition area.

We overslept our alarm but we woke before dawn ready to kayak. A curious goat greeted us as we unzipped our tent. It kept coming around as we tried to change into our damp wetsuits. Finally, it left us to go investigate another sleeping team. There were lots of rocks and shallow spots in the river. Matt and Aaron tipped over their kayak in the first few minutes and several kilometers later there was a loud crack while bumping down one of hundreds of shallow sections. Within a few minutes it was clear something wasn’t right as the boat became very heavy and hard to control. We stopped and dragged the kayak up on shore and watched water pouring out of a 10 cm long hole in the bottom. It looked as if a previous patch had come off. We set about to repair the hole. Step one, build a fire to dry out the boat. Next, cut out a patch from your foam seat pad to plug the hole, use a piece of water bottle to protect the plug, and hold everything in place with gorilla tape. The repair held through numerous rock scrapes, and we made it to the end of the paddle! 

The next trek looked like a straightforward hike over a mountain. We started in dry terrain with lots of thorny desert plants but the canyon we were in soon turned green with waterfalls and pools. Some of them we had to swim across and use ropes to climb out.

At this point, our delay from the broken kayak and slow pace from blistered feet meant that we were not on pace to finish before the cutoff. We were instructed to skip the last big trek which was quite a relief after racing nonstop for six days. After getting some pizza at a local restaurant, we took off on bikes. We found a great spot to sleep through the witching hours in our sleeping bags and space blankets. We woke early to finish the rest of the bike section which was a great route through a complex series of mountain ridgelines and valleys. Aaron wasn’t feeling well and finally threw up in the afternoon. This slowed the team down a bit but we could feel the finish line. We were elated when we crested a ridge to finally see the Mediterranean and Roquebrune Cap-Martin. Night fell as we disassembled our bikes one last time then walked a medieval route down to the beach. The smells, speeding cars, and bright lights of Monaco were a shock to our senses after being in the mountains for a week. All that was left was a celebratory 5 km kayak through the luxurious yachts and around a small peninsula to the finish line of the Raid in France!

We hovered around 20th place the whole race, and this is exactly where we finished. Although we hoped our placing would be higher, we are proud to have finished in this position since only 14 teams finished the entire course. The course was rugged, technical, and very tough. And, there were no boring sections. We had a grand time and we were left with great opinions of the southern France and the French people.

The team would like to thank our generous sponsors that made this great adventure possible.