Half past eight on Saturday morning. I’m lying on the cold floor of the sports hall at Brockenhurst College in Hampshire. It’s not the hilarious end to some late-night revelry, but better to study an Ordnance Survey map.
If you said this smacks of school days, you’d have a point. But, barring the early start, it does so in the best possible way. I’ve joined three friends for our first attempt at AR, or adventure racing. A relatively young sport which is enjoying exponential popularity in the UK, AR is an expedition-style event in which mixed-sex teams of athletes find their way through remote and challenging terrain. It puts child-like excitement back into exercise, and is worlds away from a BodyPump-style fitness programme or a lunch-time squelch on a treadmill.
“There is always an element of navigation, what used to be called orienteering, in an adventure race,” explains Paul Pickering, editor of UK Adventure Sports magazine. “They tend to be multi-discipline, often with running, mountain biking and kayaking. But part of the joy of AR is that there is a range of events and you can find the ones that suit your skills set best.”
“The whole point of AR is that it doesn’t have strict boundaries,” says Rob Howard, founder of adventure race website sleepmonsters.co.uk. “It is a bit of a rebel sport. But a race always has an element of strategy, and will always test your endurance.”
There are around 100 events run in the UK each year. “The shorter races are now so popular they turn late entries away,” Howard adds. “Some weekends you’ll have more than 5,000 people adventure racing.”
Pickering is competing today. But, while my friends and I have signed up for the Duo race – a mix of mountain biking and trail-running – he is signed up for the longer, Trio version, with an extra kayaking section. Longer in this context means six, rather than our measly five, hours.
The day begins with a briefing. We must reach as many checkpoints as we can in the time allowed. They have different values and it’s rare for anyone to make them all, so strategic route-planning is key.
With plenty of sports drinks tucked into our rucksacks, and no small degree of trepidation, we go to pick up our rented bikes. Seb, a commuter cyclist, seizes the pump and starts to inflate his wheel. Huge bang. The usual pressure for mountain bike tyres is less than half of that for road bikes, and he has burst the inner tube and cracked the wheel rim. Happily, there’s a spare.
The teams cross the start line in two-minute staggers. Our time is called, we seize the envelope with the checkpoint locations, plot what looks a reasonable course, leap on to our bikes and pedal off.
Wending our way through muddy tracks in the New Forest, we share a sense of competitive excitement. As we pause to consult the map to determine where we are, we encounter a team hunting for the same checkpoint. To throw them off our scent, we head off in a different directions, then retrace our steps to find the electronic checkpoint beeper attached to the fence. Seb connects our electronic scorer to the beeper and it flashes red; we cheer; it’s a bit like an adult Easter egg hunt.
We are cycling through perfect, bucolic England. Wide oaks and beeches reach overhead, and deer flash through the undergrowth ahead of us. Because we’ve chosen a pace we can maintain for the full five hours, we’ve got the breath to chat.
Heavy rain the previous night has left the track to the third checkpoint waterlogged. My wheel sticks in a puddle and I fall off. Louisa, neatly slip-streaming Seb, is decorated in Apache mud warpaint. “People pay for this?” she laughs, wiping it off.
To our surprise, as we judge our speed across the map better and hence find the checkpoints more quickly, we start to make good time. Our speed improves further as we cycle on the road to a high- scoring checkpoint; around us the woods give way to open moorland dotted with wild ponies, and the sun tentatively breaks through the drizzle.
Then, a puncture. The boys pump Louisa’s tyre while I provide encouragement and Jelly Babies. We just make it to the transition area at the time we hoped, drop our bikes, and start the run.
“The great thing about AR is that it bolsters your sense of comradeship and team spirit,” says Jon Denoris, an exercise psychologist who trains adventure racers at Mayfair studio Club 51. “Because tactics are as important as brute strength, women can compete alongside men. All the major muscle groups are worked, with an emphasis on your quads, glutes and core; AR boosts your flexibility and agility, as well as giving you an adrenalin rush and endorphin release.” Depending on the discipline, you can expect to burn 500 calories an hour.
Egged on by one another, we finish well, coming 11th out of 33 teams. We celebrate with a beer and a bowl of chili, luxuriating in the physical fatigue. Pickering won the Trio, after two punctures. “I loved every minute of it,” he says. “Spending the day outside, with friends, racing. AR is the perfect sport.”
For forthcoming adventure racing fixtures, go towww.sleepmonsters.co.uk
Original article published in The Daily Telegraph, in September, 2010