A winterrace is quite of a different class than the ‘regular’ Adventure Race. The words of a scottish friend: “Life is not for beginners”, definitely count for this one.
In this race, there are 2 categories: The ‘Masters’, in which a distance of ca. 250km has to be covered within 60hrs, by 4 person teams. And the category ‘Speed’, where 2 person teams receive 40hrs to cover about 170km, by means of running, MTB and ski plus three ‘Special-tasks’. In the latter group, Renata and Elwin defend the TeamXbionic flag.
The presentation on the website of the organisation (the polish die-hard A.R. Team 360) said it all, for example they did not mention ‘biking’, but ‘going with bike’.. The snow conditions, the cold, the technical mountain terrain and the altitude differences, with only short daylight, made up the test-elements, which would distinct the men (m/f) of the boys.
Preparation is half the work. In advance, we prepared a detailed time schematic. Based on 2 options: ‘slow’ and the bit more optimistic ‘realistic’. Deliberately omitting the option ‘fast’. We both feel off-shape and suffer from a persistant cold. And for Reni this is the first competition, since she severily injured her knee with a bike accident, 2 years ago, which still plays her part.
So, if we are going to finish, we hope that that will be before closing-time. ‘To finish is more important than winning’, will be our slogan.
There is serious competition in our field. Look like the top-league teams all put their cards onto the ‘Speed’ category. Though I feel suprised by my own steady mood. I feel not challenged, instead I feel responsible to get our team to the finish-line, complete.
First the usual hectic moments of delivering the team-supplies for the Transition-areas (extra clothing, plenty food, batteries, etc. Logistics play an important role in this game: To forget a replacement pair of socks, could mean end-of-race, or frozen toes), last-minute bike maintainance (mounting spike tires, would appear a crucial good descision) and the traditional photo-shoot in the cold.
Then, Friday evening at 7 p.m., the grand release, at the sound of the starter gun.
The race starts off with an orienteering run of ca. 10km. Short, but the altimeters count. The CPs (Check-points) lay arranged in a wide circle from Koników to the northern hills and back.
The first meters are a mass procession. Everybody seem to have choosen to pick up the points in a counter-clockwise order. A strange sight, to see all these stray lights, rolling down the skislope towards the first CP. Mind though: In front of us. Because Reni and I choose for a calm pace. All the advance of the crowd is lost, when the whole field stalls 1km further on in a bush, in search of CP2.
I’m convinced that the point is located one valley further on and silently guide us through the woods in a straight eastern heading.
And that brings back the fun of the game. Being persistant in keeping your own headings, instead of following the crowd. And the strategy of deception, by sudden changes of course and shutting off headlights. It works, we’re one of the first to clip CP2.
Only halfways CP3, the crowds are back on our heels. But we manage to shake most of them off again, when we make use of the confusion at the point where the trail seems to vanish into a farmer’s field and the landowner appears not very happy with tresspassers..
After CP3 the route is so obvious, that we no longer care about going ‘stealth’. Still we manage to deceive a couple of faster teams.
The worries that I initially had, faint away. The clothing pick appears to be the right choice, the cold is not too bad and my shape seems better than expected. Also Renata does perform wonderfully. From time to time, I need to slow hér down, instead of the other way round.
Picking up the rest of the CPs on this leg, is just a formality.
At arrival on the Race-base, we appear to be in 9th position. One full hour ahead of our best schedule.
Without delay, we jump on our bike for a short biking leg. Still we allow 2 teams to pass at departure. I don’t care. More important is it to survive the next 10km.
It starts off with a long descent. Instantly we are blinded by the whirling snow in our headlights and dazed by the cold wind. Reni is not particulary fond of fast downhills and still has to gain trust in the spikey tires. She can’t wait for the road to turn uphill. Just before reaching TA1 (Transition-area 1), we manage to shake of another team.
The skiing on the next section has been replaced by running, due to bad snow conditions. Which is a pity, because the running takes a lot of effort. I have to take care with my weak parts, the ankles, on this hard frozen uneven soil, covered by a thin layer of snow.
In 14km, there are 2 Cps to collect, rather close to eachother. So taking the same route, back and forth. As we are only half an hour on our way, we meet some of the fastest teams already on their return to the TA, one and a half hour ahead of us, in this early stage of the race!
Back at the TA ourselves, we allow some time to take food down and to thaw our drinking bottles. Also I have to change shoes, since I have managed to get my feet wet by crushing through a thin layer of ice over a marshy pond. I sense no toes anymore, just 5 loose icecubes in every sock.
We depart on bike, still one hour before schedule. Well pré-heated, because this will be a serious, 45km section. It starts with a never ending descent, into the historical town of Wisła. The cold enters deep in Renia’s knees. These joints now start to ‘lock’ at every rotation of the legs. Even a shallow descent starts to be painfull. This is where we were afraid for. Our speed flaws to a crawl.
As the polish spirit dictates not to moan, there is no complaint of Reni to be heard, but her silence and the grim look on her face, explains more than words can. I start to worry. I don’t want this outing to cause permanent damage.
It causes me to break. I no longer believe in it. We’re only 6 hrs on the way. Not even logged 25% of the total distance. A winterrace is too serious to just struggle on. It is simply: When fit, you stand a chance, if not, you’re out. The bare law of the jungle.
Still we fight on. Uphill it goes a little better. After a short while, we find the ‘biking’ strategy that we continue during the race: 10 minutes biking varied with 5 min of walking, in which I often push both bikes, while Reni can relax the legs.
When we struggle steep upwards to CP6, a couple of lights descent in reversed direction towards us. These are our friends of team NONSTOP. First thing I see is a dangling bike chain, so I reach for my chain tool. But the real problem seems to be man-technical: Marek suffers from a sore back. For that, I am not equiped.
We push on. Meanwhile I suppress my thoughts: We might be the next to give-up.
At a mountain refuge on a high lonely crest, we pick CP6. The descent is great! Extremily technical tracks wind steep downwards. Even Reni finds unsuspected courage and enjoys the downhill.
But soon the struggle continues. We pick-up CP7, 10kms and an eternity further on. Again an isolated mountain hut. Deep down, we recognize the distant lights of Żywiec, the beer-town.
Now we head for TA2, a mountain refuge on 5km, as the crow flies. The most direct way leads over a high mountain crest. But given the snowconditions and the state of Renia’s knees, I choose a longer approach, with less height loss and by open road.
When we bike, our speed next to zero, and I find it difficult not to fall over. But Renata outdoes me in stubborness and persists. So who am I to consider giving up? I turn into my own cocoon and count the meters.
Than, Saturday around 5am, we pass a filling station that is still- or already open. Reni sugests to interrupt our suffering for a while and get us a warm brew here. Brilliant plan! It does us more good than just warming the stomach. Re-freshed, or better re-warmed, we continue our ride.
On the go, we surpass two stray teams. That is an encouraging experience. Only one hour behind schedule, we park the bike at TA2. Deep beneath us, we see the lights of Bielsko Biała waking-up. That makes me realise what an enormous distance we did already cover.
The warmth in the hut is comforting. Warm sportsdrink is provided. That is a good thing, since our flasks contain only solid ice, by now.
We stay in the hut for half an hour, to replenish our stores, internally and externally, and to change shoes. When we step outside at 7:20, the grim dark world has made room for a bright white one. According schedule, we are now halfways. This merely theoretical fact is a great source for optimism.
Now follows my favourite hobby. The trekking is an orienteering run of 14km, where we have to find 8 Cps. The woods are open and easy to navigate, but crossed with deep rivervalleys to negotiate. The layer of snow is only ankle-high, so the terrain invites straight cutt-offs and contouring, to keep altitude loss to a minimum.
Unfortunately, that sees us into half frozen marshes, once in a while. But I’m convinced of the efficiency of our approach. And confirmed in it, when we overtake a couple of teams.
After 2½ hrs, half an hour earlier as expected, we are back at the TA. Now we meet ST1 (the first Special-task). To climb into a tree by means of a ropeladder, followed by an abseil. It’s over before we know it had started.
Follows the most benevolent interlude of the whole race: A warm meal, by the house. Consisting of.. a cup of soup and a breadroll. Nevertheless a true feast. Complemented by treats from our own box.
The planning does foresee in an hour of rest now. But since a couple of teams did leave the premises before us, we are starting to prepare ourself rather hastily for the coming bike leg, the ‘demolisher’ of the race.
The drinks in the flasks are still not completely fluid and the clothing, which Reni did hang to dry is still damp. How lucky I praise myself with the X-Bionic thermal layers, that kept me warm and dry all the race. I wish my gloves were as good, since despite the double pair of gaunts, I find trouble to keep the fingers warm.
Om 12am exactly, half an hour ahead of time, we start the bike descent. A long steep track, with roller-stones treacherously hidden underneath neath the white layer. Reni seems to got the hang of it and speeds down, like she has forgotten where to find the brake-handles.
The next CP would be at 30km distance. But in the valley, it soon appears that we have to choose a much longer variation. We pick the main-road via Żywiec, to avoid the more hillier direct approach. Renia’s knees are on strike. With an antagonizing slow speed, we proceed. Even on flat road sections, I often walk with the two bikes now. Now with the bulk of the load racked to my backpack, even the walking isn’t easy for Reni.
I really worry now. I fear the physical consequences of this race for her, but I admire her spirit. Though the atmosphere becomes somewhat gloomy now. Especially when we approach CP10 (which I nearly forgot to navigate to, caught in the trance of going slow motion). This is located at the summit-cross of Matyska, a hill better known as Słạsk Golgota. Towards the top, you proceed through a cloister, and pass the 14 last stages in the life of Jesus, impersonated by lifesize bronze statues. It does put our own little suffering in perspective, but does not directly stimulate a cheerful mood.
To add to all, is that we had to give way for team-Zulus, which did leave TA2 after us.
Also CP11, a.k.a. ST2, which we manage to reach quite quickly, doesn’t put us in a joyful state. In two, war-battered ruins of bunkers, there are two Cps to collect. What, in the contrary contributes to our optimism, is that we apperently did take over team-Zulus again. We leave, when they drop in.
And by smartly cutting of an enormous loop in the trunk-road, we’ll probably stay ahead, despite our push-and-bike average of 6km/hr.
Then night falls again, just as we are to deal with a difficult navigational issue. The map conflicts with reality here. And the small roads, of which we must choose one, are snow-covered. Nevertheless, we arrive at CP12 without making extra miles. To my relief, because every extra meter would make me feel guilty towards Reni now.
The following descent is of great pleasure. But it ends much sooner than I expected. I seem to have reversed the order of altitude lines on the map. Fortunately we also strike a bit of luck, when we bump into a tunnel underneath the Expressroad, where we thought it impossible to cross.
CP13 is the last point, before we may turn our wheels towards the race-base again, for the last race-section ‘skiing’. But it appears a mean bastard. Back and forth via a steep un-ending narrow track, paved with frozen-up mud-chunks, covered by a slippery snow layer.
I propose to leave the bikes behind, because walking-up is already leg-breaking , but to bike down will be risking more. But Reni keeps to strict principles, so we don’t cheat and keep fighting our way up.
After snapping the CP, I lower the saddle and climb on the bike, for descent. I find that this should be taped for an episode of ‘Jack-ass’. That I arrive down in one piece, I thank to the spike-tires again. Reni is much smarter and walks down. In thought, I hear her knees snap.
When we arrive back at the base, I feel much relieved. The biking, the killing-fields, are won over.
We think we are last in the race now (which later appears to be a mis-conception). Also our timeschedule is a disaster. This last biking leg took us 9½ hrs, 3½ hrs slower than planned and even half an hour longer than our slowest estimates. Still I feel happy and am sure that we will complete the race now.
The marshalls sound a bit skeptic when we pack for the last section. They ask if we are sure to go. But we are optimistic. It is only 10pm, while the finish will close at 11am Sunday morning. Plenty of time.
We start the skiing-leg with the skies strapped to the backpack. Reni asks if my skies don’t stick out too long, but in an groundless euphoria, I stubbornly neglect the wise advice. Resulting in many cuts and bruises on calfs and ankles in the next kilometres.
In the same high mood, I’m chatting away to Renata and don’t realise, that the river I choose to follow, is one river too early. When finally discovering the headings to be wrong, I am lost. I fall silent when Reni points out our position. Can’t believe that we are not even halfways of where I thought we are. Luckily for me, Renia’s knees cope fine with the 15min extra walk.
We don’t find the terrain suitable for skiing. Though, on the backpack, the planks seem to have grown little hands, to grab for all the overhanging branches.
I’m not in my brightest moods. Despite my sense of gaining altitude quickly, my altimeter tells a different story. And where I expect lows in the landscape, we find hills and vice-versa. Fortunately, we run into the green indicated path, which sees us back on the map.
I do estimate distances wrong now. Our speed must have fallen dramatically. The map-scale seems to have doubled. We find CP15 exactly there where it’s drawn. I only don’t want to grasp it. It makes me angry, and that’s clearing my head a bit.
Now the terrain looks flatter. I think we can continue on ski now. I change shoes and mount the planks. Though the snow appears in such bad state and blown, that I am hardly faster than Reni, who is consisting in walking (on skiboots!). The skiing brings half-controlled descents and technically cornering of mudpools and piles of scree. I have to grab all my attention to stay upside-up and to avoid getting the skies scratched. So that I forget all about keeping bearings..
After a couple of U-turns, the path ends on a little field within vast bushes, on a steep flank. Than I dig-up the map and compass and can’t believe where we are. We seem to have spend half an hour on hardly one kilometre.
Still I don’t understand the contours. We have to find the blue track leading down into the valley. Reni brings the solution, to keep an east heading, untill we bump onto the path. I’ve found my master here. Strap the skies back on the pack and follow as a good boy.
Indeed, we find the path. From there, all the navigational problems will be over and just to follow the path for an easy 4 kms onto the road below.
The release of pressure, causes the cloud in my head to discharge into a sudden thunderstorm, when I cut my ancles for the hundreths time. After an explosion of beep-words and throwing about of materials, I finally manage to strap-up the skies decently. Now with a completely cleared head, I continue going in good spirit. But what I did forget is, that teamspirit is a total of the mood of all members. It takes a while, before we both are on the same team again..
Down in the valley, we find CP16/ST3 in a quary. A bit of jumaring, a little roped traverse and an abseil lies ahead. This will be Renia’s first timer in jumaring. When she is busy amusing herself with the tools, I feel real cold for the first time this race.. We did not drink for 4 hrs now, due to our frozen drinksystems. And drinking is essential to regulate body-warmth, also at subzero temperatures. I dance and jump, but can’t prevent the cold to find it’s way into my core.
When it is my turn, I try to tackle the ropes as quick as possible, to force some warmth back in.
From there, we nearly take a straight line home. Only still to climb a 200mtr ski hill on the way. On the descent, I look over my shoulder to see where Reni is. The beam of my headlight catches a figure, which looks like escaped from Michael Jackson’s video ‘Thriller’. Reni can’t bent her knees anymore, and sort of sways downwards around her skiing-poles. It’s really time to stop all this.
And so it happens. On Sunday morning, 3:20am, after 5 hrs spent on the last 16kms, we enter the schoolbuilding of Koniaków. The inflatable Start/finish arch has since long been dismantled. But we find the jury wide awake. They congratulate us an we’ve been handed a bottle of champagne. And the good news is, that they still expect 2 or 3 teams more.
Follows a delicious tasteless meal and a deep sleep.. of 4 hrs. There is still a long journey ahead.
After all, 18 of the 22 teams made it to the finish. And with team-32, TeamXbionic, in 14th position. With a finishing time, precisely in between the ‘realistic’ and ‘slow’ estimation. While in this schedule, we took only the 170km distance in account. But in addition, we clocked 4500 true altimeters..
For checking out the comp maps, see: http://www.team360.pl/zima_2011/node/2003
And a big thanks:
Lisette for borrowing skies and Deuter backpack,
Harm and Arnie, for lending the spikeys,
Napierajfor the J.I.T. Delivery of my INOV-8s,
Team-360 for the super organisation and route-setting,
X-Bionic for supplying world’s best winter-resistant thermo-layers.