Pack pack pack! No matter how much time you give yourself packing for an adventure race always seems to take you up to the last minute. Mandatory gear has to be found/bought/borrowed and gathered together. The more technical race food also has to be bought/found and packed. Then there is the non-mandatory, but none the less essential gear, such as the multiple layers of clothes, multiple pairs of shoes, and various other useful bits and pieces.
The end result is a large gear pile that has to be packed into one or two bags (plus a bike box) which need to hit the airlines weight limit (so lots of weighing of bags as they are being packed. I had booked a 20kg bag, a 15kg bag, and a 30kg bike box with Ryanair for my flight to Nice. I just about kept the bags under the limit (mainly by packing all the food as part of my 10kg carry-on allowance).
Transporting that lot to the airport becomes the next problem, as the bike box doesn’t easily fit into a normal car boot. It does load up into the Aircoach luggage compartment though. The lift doors at Dublin airport aren’t wide enough to accommodate a bike box though, so getting to departures was yet another short logistical exercise. Having known and played their rules to the letter, getting through the Ryanair check-in process was a breeze.
One of the more nervous parts of the day is waiting for the luggage to appear at the destination airport in Nice. Thankfully everything arrived fully intact. I arrived in Nice terminal at around 1 o’clock, and the race organisation’s coach was due to pick up racers from terminal 2 departing at 5:30. I was somewhat glad of all the time, as the small baggage carts in Nice, along with the less-than-the-width-of-a-bike-box doors in terminal one made it interesting to even get out of the building.
Yet another small logistical exercise had me on the inter-terminal bus in Nice airport with all my luggage. At this point I knew I was in a very different climate to just a few hours earlier though! I couldn’t wait to get off the bus to change out of my Irish oriented clothes into something more appropriate to 25+ degree temperatures.
As I ambled slowly around terminal 2 killing time I heard my name being called. Sam Clark, along with 2 of his Tecnu teammates were already encamped there waiting out the day. We were joined about an hour later by my two Brazilian Teammates, Camilla and Gui, arriving from their domestic French connecting flight after a bit of an adventure connecting between the 2 Paris airports, involving one missed flight. This was the first time I had met them, so the next hour or two were a good getting to know each other session.
By 5:30 a busload of Adventure racers had gathered. This included my fellow Irish adventure racer Avril Copeland, along with the rest of the Dancing Pandas team. We all piled our gear up to be collected by truck, and piled ourselves onto the bus for the 4 hour journey to race HQ in L’Argentière-la-Bessée. The countryside of southern France looked great whilst we had the daylight to see it, and made us feel optimistic about the ground we would cover in the race.
Thomas had already been in Argentière for a day, and he and his wife had hired a large people carrier, so he collected the rest of his team from the bus when we arrived into Argentière late at night, and whizzed us up twisty climbing alpine road to our accommodation in a chalet in Vallouise, a small ski resort beyond Argentière.
The days before the race start on Saturday morning are spent going through the official race certification processes and organising our gear and food. Every item of mandatory gear was checked and tested by the race organisation. We also had to get a number of other official tasks and procedures out of the way. At the start of this process on Wednesday morning we were given an overview of the course, showing the sequence of stages and what each stage consisted of, along with what boxes would be available to us at transitions.
The race provided a number of gear boxes… A high mountains box for glacier walking gear, a mountains box (the A box), and two assistance barrels which would each be retrieved at one transition in roughly one-third intervals in the race. We also provided our own water bags for kayaking/rafting gear (the B-bags), and bike boxes. Each of these had to be packed with the right gear and food (where allowed) for the race. Some of them had to fit within allowed maximum weight limits as well. Working out the plan of where to put each food bag and all the gear, and when items would need to be moved from one box to another so as to be accessible was another big logistical exercise which the non-navigators on the team were put in charge of.
Race food is a very very individual thing. We each have our own preferences and nutritional requirements. We worked out that we needed to make about 11 food bags (usually in the form of large zip-lock bags) to be picked up at various transitions in the race. One or two trips were made to the local supermarkets to fill these bags out with various things. In my case this added various bits of chocolate and small cheese packs (such as baby bells) to the items I had brought from Ireland, like pro-bars, for-goodness-shakes powders, one or two energy gels etc.
The race briefing took place on Thursday evening. I always enjoy these things. It’s a chance for the organisers to scare the bejaysus out of us by showing us the extent of the course and warning us about any major dangers. Normally the full course description and maps would be handed out at this meeting. But this race was doing something very unusual. Maps and full route descriptions would only be handed out after the start, and after leaving the two mandatory-stop transitions. This made for a fairly quick briefing, and also ensured that the navigators would have a far more relaxed run-in to the race start without having any map preparation to take care of. Of course that would also mean that the navigators would have their hands full during the race itself, having to work out optimal routing on the fly in race time.
The flip-side of the simple briefing was that the captains Q/A session the following morning took far longer than expected, as without the full course information there were loads of questions on everyone’s mind. Normally I’d go along as the representative to these meetings, since the main questions are usually about mapping, routing, and navigation. However without the maps, this one was more likely to be about scheduling and logistics, so Thomas went along. I had a peek in after it was going on for more than an hour and a half out of curiosity about what was going on. I was delighted to see Thomas had positioned himself to sit next to Seagate’s captain, and AR legend, Nathan Faave.
Our biggest crisis in the whole preparation process was discovering that the mobile phone we had to provide as a sealed emergency phone was rejecting the sim card the organisation was providing. After a few attempts we were finally bailed out of our problem when Sophie Hart of Seagate very generously gave us a loan of her phone to use as our emergency phone.
By Friday afternoon we had completed pretty much everything we could, all at a fairly relaxed pace without much panic or stress. Sometimes this part of the race can be the most stressful, but there had been a lot of time available to get everything completed, and our team was experienced enough that we all knew what needed to be done. We had even managed an hour or two of fixed ropes practice on the climbing wall in the gym we were using as the gear-preparation area. Gui was able to provide Thomas and myself with a few very good tips on setting up and using our jumar system.
The next task to get out of the way was the prologue. I really don’t like prologues in Adventure Races. They’re usually a waste of time, and more likely to be a way to expend too much energy unnecessarily, generally wihout adding anything of value to the race itself. This one was a short street score-orienteering event. The event started with all the racers lining up behind the flags of their nations (so Avril and myself joined together for this one), and walking behind the local band up the main street to the start location. The Danes had by far the loudest most vocal support on the sidelines.
At the main square in the town we were then handed out SI cards to use to dib the controls in the orienteering course. There was a mass start run around the block before the maps were handed out to teams as they arrived. Kyle from Tecnu managed to loose a shoe immediately after the mass start, and had the interesting task of running against the tide of about 250 runners, frantically making their way towards the maps, to get his shoe back!
Despite being a score event, there was a lot of clustering of teams, and most teams seemed to be choosing a similar route. This resulted in big scrums forming around the unfortunate volunteers holding onto the SI boxes which we had to dib. We managed to get all the controls in the time allowed, but due to one or two bits of confusion we weren’t particularly fast in doing so. The results of the prologue would be used to determine the start order that teams would be set off at the real race start early on Saturday morning.
We had to be back down to the event centre in Argentière on Saturday morning for about 3:15am to get ready for the race start. Adventure racing is never known for long lie-ins!!! We had been told at the briefing that due to complaints about competitors being bussed to the start at last year’s race this year we would be cycling to the start. Damn those moaners from last year! So at 4am all the teams were gathered in the town square on their bikes ready to go. We were handed out an information leaflet telling us that due to safety concerns the first stage, the big Glacier trek, was going to have to be shortened. We were also told we would be cycling to Ailfroide for the start. As it happens Ailfoide was where I had stayed 12 years when doing an alpine climbing course. Ailfoide is also a long uphill road up from Argentière.
The cycle up was taken a pretty decent pace, all things considered. I made sure to spin up as much as possible to expend the minimum effort. The team stuck to the first peloton bunch most of the way up. It was about an hour and a half of alpine mountain road climbing in the dark. The atmosphere was good and the anticipation was palpable.
At Ailfoide we found out high mountains box and A-box. We got out the required gear and packed our bags with the mandatory equipment for the stage, and changed out of our bike specific gear. As the stage ahead was a loop we just had to leave all our unused equipment, including the bikes, with the boxes. Nearby we could hear the roar of a hot-air balloon being inflated. It was being used to get arial shots of the race start. Thomas went over to join the queue to get our team’s tracking device.
Finally all was ready and teams were called out at 30 second intervals to make their start. We were about mid-way down the pack making our start. It was still dark and feeling quite cold so we were still in our full 3 layers of clothing. Eventually we were lining up, and with a countdown from 5 finally we set of on the 2012 ARWC with a gentle 100 metre jog to the marshalls distributing the maps.