All becomes clear, when we stumble back into the lodge, which serves as Start/Finish location.
We just finished the prologue, a fine one hour and a half of night-orienteering. We gave it our best shot and think we’d done fine, but still 4 teams finished before us, of which 2 mixed, both the Malheur teams. Immediately behind us, more mixed teams come rushing in. This race will be the ‘battle of the Mixed’!
Usually, I compete in these WERS races with my X-Bionic team buddy Harm. But this time, he considered the upcoming birth of his 2nd child of more importance. His place was quickly taken by Monique van der Broek, a member of the female Häglofs team, who also ended up single by a similar reason. There where more applicants to team up with me, but I preferred a ‘girl on my side’. I wanted to have an excuse to be slow, because 2 weeks before, my left foot was still in plaster. And yes, the doctor said picking-up training would be OK, probably not meaning to give it a full 100% yet. Though Monique did not exactly help me a lot with proper rehabilitation..
After the start of the prologue, we were the first team to run off, after Monique smacked the CP coordinates onto the map. The order of picking was free, but we did choose to do a long flat runner to the first, most distant CPs first, in order to warm-up properly. Though pace was set immediately, when we got company of Ray and Jeroen from the DART team, top-league guys. Resulting in a pace which couldn’t exactly do for ‘warming-up’.
We stuck together with them until I decided to take a shortcut through the forest. This appeared wrong choice, since we’ve already passed the position where I thought we were. When we finally found CP1 and 2, we were already back in the crowds. To CP3 same story, again a shortcut, which ended up to be a long-cut, because I estimated our position wrong again. Fighting our way through the woods, Inga and Esther of FAST joined us. These two I estimated to be our main rivals this race. How to get rid of them now?
That turned out all by itself, since I made my 3rd nav error. Now towards the remaining 3 CP’s deep into the woods, I took a crossing for one which we already passed some while ago. While FAST obviously did take the right one. I cursed myself that I got used to the polish bigger scaled maps. Or was it our speed? Though it turned out to be a lucky pick. We ran across DART again, and together we easily found CP 4 and from there through the streambed of a small river to CP6. Some advanced bushwork, riverwading and combined altimeter- and map reading followed to solve a combination of disappeared- and freshly made paths towards CP6. Without further problems we found our way back to base again.
In the morning, before setting off for the true raceday, fresh maps are distributed, not covering a lot more ground than that of the short prologue. But of the experience in former editions, I warn myself not to think of it to easy. It helps that the weather is fine, that is: still dry. And the ankle feels OK. Monique looks and feels fresh, so, I start the day with confidence.
In the earlier editions, there was a chasing-start procedure, at which the teams are started in order of finishing the prologue. This time, unfortunately, the first halve of the field is released simultaneously. These mass starts never do good to my adrenaline level. I always feel to charge full-on and forget about the energy-saving drill.
At these occasions, there is usually Harm to keep me on short leash. Now however, starting off the first ‘etappe’ of the day, some 10kms of Run-Bike, I fire off like a bullet. Wanting to keep sight on both Malheur teams in front of us. Only at three-quarter of the distance, when we are in lead of the mixed field (Malheur 1 took a flat tyre), Monique ‘confesses’ to me that we might be a bit too quick. I blame myself stupid to wear down my mate in this early state and determine that I have to keep myself in hand.
Back at the base, we receive the 2nd bike and set off again, without wasting time.
A fast asphalt stretch Northbound, through a picturesque landscape follows. And the navigation promises to be better today, I even discover a full km dislocated CP on our map in time. Monique makes good use of my strength now by hiding in my slipstream. Some gravel passages are easily legged. Such a difference with last year, when the rain melted the soil to glue. Within no time we reach another transition area. Still ahead of the mixed field, but we knew the other teams, such as Sleepmonsters, our comrades of X-Bionic 2 and Malheur 2 closely behind.
Back on our running shoes to cover some 5km of Orienteering in the forest North of Gouvy. It turns out to be a quick one, since it is fir-woods, the paths are straight and the sparse undergrowth invite for efficient cut-offs. At the furthest CP, I conclude we’re not fast enough, since this CP functions as the Meetingpoint for all the mixed teams in the front-field. On our way back to the bikes, I have to suppress some instincts to not overrun myself and my buddy. Taking a smart bearing straight through the woods, gets us in lead again.
In the next stretch of biking, I manage to spoil this lead again. There could be no mistaking in route picking, just 10km on easy asphalt towards the first of SpecialTasks. Though, my nasty habit of downscaling distances comes to plague me again. I confuse road-exits. Instead of picking a clear road, following the river Ourthe down the valley, I lead us to a route, taking a 80m gravel climb and a long technical muddy descent. The excuse I mutter to Monique is that in distance this is shorter and much more fun to ride.
I ignore the question marks on the faces of the SpecialTask marshals, when we turn up from another direction then expected and jump right in the climbing harness which is handed to us. Rock climbing with the help of a fixed rope lies waiting. Only one team member has to fulfill the task and since I feel it’s my turn for penance, I grant Monique some rest. Without problem, though with lots of effort, the summit is reached. As a rock-climbing puritan, I think the fixed rope is only a nuisance, and feels like cheating. When I descent, X-Bionic 2, in the person of Arnaud already starts to climb, we slap hands. Then, from downstairs, I hear a comment “Elwin, how come your X-Bionic shirt has become so bleak comparing to Arnaud’s? Shame on you, what wash-powder do you use?” That reminds me we are in a mixed war. And mind is switched to race mode again.
Next is a great short stretch of orientation running in the hilly woods near Steinbach. Taking the closest CP in the valley is tempting, though we wisely decide to go for the highest CP first, some 100m up. Much to our pleasant surprise, a non-indicated path leads us directly there. From this point, we literally drop downwards North back into the valley to collect 2 other CPs. From here we only follow the river downstream to find the last CP and our bikes back.
Next section is biking to another SpecialTask at the other side of the forest and hill. From the two options of getting there, I assume a lady would prefer the longest, but clean and easy option, the trunkroad, which leads around the hill. But when I set out for it, Monique studies the map and calls me back. She insists taking the shortcut, straight over the hilltop, by the dirt-track. I love modern women!
The great advantage is that the direction is the same as to the hill CP we followed before, so we know the route and that a path continues further uphill. Disadvantage is that on our way up, we meet all the other main mixed teams on their way running down. So we know how close they are on our tail and they now know which route choice they would pick best. I feel chased again. Though I relax my spirits when we enjoy the fast steep downhill dirt run straight from the hilltop into the SpecialTask location.
At the Archery stand we meet the guys of team DART again, some friendly words are exchanged. Then 3 arrows have to be fired of which one has to be in the centre blue. I ask Monique if we’d not just better start right off to do the penalty run. But she hands me the bow, no objections taken. I concentrate, aim and let go. Black. Not good enough. Monique takes the next turn. I don’t dare look. If I open my eyes, there is a second arrow in black. My turn again. Now I focus and look along the arrow in 3 angles. After the snap, the 3rd arrow sits half in black, half in blue. The marshals are happy and so are we.
The last long stretch of biking now first leads us to SpecialTask no.3: an altitude course with climbing and lots of ropeworks, which again has to be completed by one team member. I know Monique also likes these things, so I gladly grant her the joy. Thankful, I take some rest, drinks and food and study the map, while doing some obligatory cheering at my partner. Within no time, she’s back down again and we set pace Southward to the Luxemburg border.
As we know the other mixed teams on our tail, we take a huge risk when we decide for a non-indicated shortcut through the woods from CP 26 to 27, which is to be found at the border trail. Continuing the dirt-road might have been a better choice, but uncertain, because it continues outside the map limits. The most safe option would be approach the CP by going back for the trunkroad, taking a certain 400m D-tour. Our shortcut follows the exact bearing to CP27 straight through the woods. It begins as a nice doubletrack through a clearcut. But the path fades away quickly and the clearcut disappears. Soon we are off our bikes and duck through clearings between the bushes. We start doubting our pick. Just before the blackberry bushes disable all further progress, we bump into the border trail, within 20 mtrs of CP27!
All we have to find now is SpecialTask no.4 and from there a short stretch of biking to the finish. The route follows the main-road back North, along the same track for some kms where we came from. Oncoming we meet all the hunting teams at only little distance, does not really comfort our moods. Monique finds my slipstream again and we don’t waste time on the roads.
We find the SpecialTask at a lakeside and it is exactly what I feared. The CP is pinned at a buoy 150 metres offshore. Swimming this time of the year, it must be an April-fools joke. As soon as my groins tuch water, I can’t laugh anymore. There must be a desperate gaze in my eyes when I helplessly glance up to Monique. She doesn’t doubt a second, buckles a life-vest and jumps in. All I can do is stand on the shore and cheer her. I feel less then a hero, when I fumble in the backpacks to have food and some dry goods for her ready. The moment Monique punches the CP, our main rivals enter the scene, team Malheur 1. And also they have a clear role setting, Martine dives in and Roel is left on the shore, cheering and feeling as clumsy as I do. He defines the motto of this race perfectly: “Now who’s the strong Gender here..?”. Humbly I try to treat my shivering partner as good as I can, when she climbs out of the water. Though, she doesn’t allow any pampering, we’re straight back on the bikes, only for a 10min stretch back to Steinbach. Much to our surprise, we are the second team of the day to hit the Finish. Hoite and Bram of team Salomon are unbeatable, as usual. They cheer us in, freshly showered and share their beers with us.
We can’t relax yet. We start calculating. If team Malheur would get lost, have a flat tire again or fall back for what ever reason, we would have a chance to win our category, as long as they would spill the 10 min difference which they built up in the prologue. But they did not play around, within 5 min behind us, they come biking in.
Immediately all rivalry is forgotten. The pressure releases and we slap shoulders, we all had a fine day outdoors.
1. Team Salomon (1st WERS)
2. Team Malheur 1. (1st Mixed)
3. Team X-Bionic 1. (2nd Mixed, 2nd WERS)
4. Team X-Bionic 2. (3rd Mixed)
Many thanks to JanWillem Poot and his crew of JT-Buitensport. They provided an excellent track again and did even improve their contacts with the weather Gods..