Assistance point 2, the transition we were in, is theoretically about two thirds of the way into the race. I knew we would get short coursed at some point soon though, as we were running close to cut-offs where they occurred, and there was just too much course ahead, given that the official race course closure was going to be Saturday at 2:00pm. At this stage real world time and day of the week were pretty irrelevant to us, and something that you would have to figure out by looking it up on your watch! Our world was just sunrises, daytimes, sunsets and night-times, all filled with adventure, checkpoint/controls, and sleep (and lots of food it would seem!). You really do become part of an alternative universe in multi-day adventure races.
After a very pleasant sleep we didn’t take too long at all to pack everything away and get ready to depart the transition. However Phillipe was an exception to this. For about 10 minutes he just sat there in his sleeping bag saying little more than that he couldn’t go on when we talked to him. The lads eventually cajoled him into action, and ensured he was also ready to go. We did our usual double checkout (The lads getting the French language map/instruction pack for team 66, and me getting the English pack for team 35), and took a few minutes to examine the maps before setting off.
We were starting the day with a short (in A.R. terms) trek. It had been modified to remove the first control, which would have been an off road river bed/canyon climb), so that we could now take a much more straight forward tracked route all the way to the next control. Bar the first 1km walking out a road from the transition it would be climbing on marked paths the whole way. There were several other teams in the vicinity as we set off, and the lads were chatting away to one French team in particular. However Phillipe got dropped behind very rapidly. He was doing a good “death warmed up” impression again, looking totally drained and walking very slowly.
This was a problem. A big one. We were on trivially easy ground (flat road) but at this pace we would take forever to even complete this stage. I checked if anyone had bungy cord for towing, but nobody had. But quickly enough Phillipe decided for himself that enough was enough and that he couldn’t continue. He had practically no energy, even after a long rest. So we said or goodbyes and wished him well before he made the short walk back to the transition. The remaining 3 of carried on.
The long climb up to the old abandoned village of Amen was very straightforward. The batteries of my powerful set of Lupine lights died half way up, but the trail was so straightforward that it didn’t matter. We had yet another fabulous alpine sunrise not long afterwards anyway. From Amen we descended on a much more interesting trail down towards a big obvious canyon below us. The terrain on these hills reminded me of the landscapes of the American desert, with red earth and similar vegetation.
The next checkpoint was a transition situated on a small pedestrian bridge over a river canyon. The marshals had a fire going, but there was now enough heat in the morning sun that there was no real benefit to be had from it. Now things were going to get interesting, from my point of view, as the next stage was canyoning. We changed into our wetsuits, harnesses and helmets which we’d had to carry all the way from the previous transition. The marshals warned us that the water was cold, and that most people had elected to wear the waterproof jackets as additional protection (presumably from wind, as we were likely to get immersed).
I thanked my lucky stars that at the equipment check the officials had rejected my initial attempt to use my 3mm shorty wetsuit, leaving me “stuck” with having to use a 5mm full wetsuit. It seemed most others people I had seen westsuited up in the race were also using full 5mm wetsuits. I seem to be more susceptible than most to the cold, so if I was standing there with just a 3mm wetsuit I would have feared greatly for what was about to come.
We descended the 20 meters or so to the river itself, and proceeded to start heading down the canyon. I was filled with excitement and trepidation at the same time. Excitement because canyoning is usually a lot of fun and I’ve only done it a few times before. Plus, knowing this race so far, it was likely to be a very good canyon. But the trepidation came from the fact that I’m not a great swimmer, and my fear of heights can sometimes get to me if I have to make jumps into water. All this added up to a good build up of adrenalin!
The first couple of meters had us wading up to waist deep in the water. After all the warnings the water wasn’t as cold as I expected. They’re probably too used to the water temperatures in southern France. To an Irishman, even one as cold sensitive as me, it wasn’t too bad at all (well, given that I was wearing a 5mm wetsuit anyway).
The river wasn’t much more than a big stream when it was running gently, but it acquired plenty of force whenever things got steeper. The canyon itself was deep and narrow. At times it was only a few meters wide. During the entire section I would only be vaguely aware of the tops of the rock walls on either side, as they were well out of our line of sight without looking up for them.
The whole canyoning section was a real adventure trip. The fact that we were unguided and fully responsible for our own progress and safety made it even better. Anthony and Frank’s confidence and ability helped me make my way down more effectively, and more enjoyably. Along the way we encountered feature after interesting feature that we had to get by. These ranged from smooth steep rock slides to waterfalls where fixed ropes had been placed so that we could abseil down either beside them, or sometimes in them with the water crashing onto our heads.
On several occasions Anthony or Frank would elect to jump rather than abseil, but there was no way I was doing that if I could avoid it! In quite a few places the fixed rope was too thick to be used with our descenders, so we had to rig up half hitches on karabiners to make our way down. I was particularly glad to have the lad’s expertise for those sections. Those sections usually ended in deep pools we had to swim through to get out of.
I had changed my shoes to the grippiest ones I had, my Inov8 roclites, at the start of the hike up, mainly because they were a half size bigger than my normal pair (Your feet can expand considerably over the course of a multi-day adventure race). But I was glad to have maximum grip for this stage. Even with these I still managed quite a few slips and slides and had a proper pratfall onto my back very early on (landing on my rucksack meant it didn’t hurt at all though).
Anytime I had to haul my weight up an area on my right rib-cage became very painful. I think I must have bruised my ribs a bit in the mountain bike crash a day or two earlier. It seemed that the cold was now making something I hadn’t noticed before seem suddenly very painful. I even thought about taking some of the powerful painkillers that Thomas has put in the team 35 first aid kit, but the distractions came thick and fast and I simply forgot to do so.
It was by far the longest canyon I’ve made my way down. We must have spent at least 2 or 3 hours making our way down. After reaching the checkpoint at the end of the canyon we then had to use fixed ropes to scramble our way up the steep bank on the left side of the river. It was a relatively long scramble, before it eventually eased off to a have minute traverse across the side of a hill to take us a pair of marshals controlling the start of the ropes section. We re-rigged our harnesses for the abseil to come. We then had to again use fixed ropes to descend down and then traverse across to the start of the abseil itself. The view at this point was yet again breathtaking. We were now at the top of an even bigger steeper canyon. Up the valley I could see a classic arched cantilever road bridge spanning the canyon. The road up from the bridge past us on the opposite side of the canyon looked like the kind of twisty winding road you see in car adverts, or even bond films. The canyon, of course, was spectacular in itself, with huge vertical rock walls having been cut through the valley by the river at its base.
The abseil was one of the longer ones I’ve done, at about 100 meters. At that length it can be hard work to get the rope to run through the descender at the start, due to the weight of the rope itself. It was also pretty much all free abseiling, so you floated about freely in space as you descended. In the first few meters I just concentrated on my rope equipment right in front of me, but I then relaxed and took in the view for most of the rest of the descent. The abseil landed us on the riverbank at the very bottom of the canyon. I was expecting we’d then have a big nasty jumar to climb back up again soon enough, but Anthony told me that it had been cancelled, thankfully!
Our next task was to get to the next transition by walking down the river. The first kilometer our two were in the deep canyon. Unlike the stream of the canyoning section itself, there was plenty of water in the river here. It was usually about 50 or 10 meters wide, and usually beyond knee deep. The river was always running fast enough that you would feel the force if trying to drag you away downstream even at that depth. The twist and turns if the canyon meant the banks on either side would alternately be cliffed out, so we had to cross and wade the river on multiple occasions. But at this stage, having spent most of the morning immersed in water, it really made very little difference to us. By now the sun had risen far enough in the sky that we were getting plenty of direct sunlight, even in the canyon, so temperatures were rising all the time.
After two kilometers or so the canyon walls eased back and the river bed widened considerably. The rest of the walk up to the transition was pretty straightforward from there, and mostly on dry land. At this point I had half removed my wetsuit and was just wearing my race top as an upper layer. The warmth was a big contrast to the cold of the canyon river only a short while earlier.
We arrived at the transition in the heat of the mid-afternoon. There were a few teams already in the transitions, along with the gang of supporters following the teams towards the tail of the race, who were in their usual good form. It was noticeable that the teams we were coming across were looking more and more battered as the days went on. It was clear that the race was taking its toll.
We had a problem now. We were transitioning to the big kayaking stage. This was expected to take 9 or 10 hours. However we were now a team of three, and three doesn’t work very well when the kayaks are 2-man sit-on-tops. I offered to let the other 2 carry on as a pair and somehow make my own way to the end of the kayaking (In retrospect it probably would have been easy enough to get a lift from one of the supporters), but they ignored that. They reckoned we could paddle as 3 with a tow rope from the lead kayak if we needed to. I reckoned that would be difficult at best. The lads also set about enquiring around with the teams about us, as it looked like there were other incomplete teams.
There was a Czech team in transition who were talking about retiring at that point. One of them was interested in going on, so was potentially interested in joining with us for the paddle. His team were still talking things through though, so he said he needed to give them time to decide what they were doing. The whole conversation was a great example of the internationalism of adventure racing. Frank and Anthony would discuss in French, Anthony would summarise in English for me, I would say it to the English speaker on the Czech team, who the communicated in Czech to his team! Very quickly after this we then found another lone paddler. Team SXM, another French team, were down to 3, it would seem, and one of them, Gui, was very interested in joining up with us. Sorted! Gui’s English seemed pretty good too, which was a bonus for me.
The transition was done at the usual leisurely pace. The lads had their lunch under the shade of a tree, whilst I sat getting the maximum amount of sunlight I could. Easily known who lived on a rainy Island!
I remembered hearing that we would probably have to portage (lift/drag/carry) the boats for bit of this stage, so I presumed that it was going to be a long straightforward flat paddle with lots of shallow sections. This was re-enforced in my mind when we had to drag the boats about 100 meters across the rocky floodplain from the transition to get them into the river. (Exactly the same river we had abseiled down to and canyon walked along).
Anthony and Frank were paired up in one boat, and Gui and I were in the other. When we reached the river we set up our boats by strapping our rucksacks into them. Thomas had brought along foam boards to use a seats in the kayaks and I had handed these out for everyone to use. They were put in position. I had filled my water bottle with one of my for-goodness-shakes mixes and put it within reach. Gui and myself weren’t sure of who should go in the back (where steering is controlled). We decided that I would go in the back and we’d take it from there.
The river was rushing along as we started, and we hit rapids right from the off. As soon as I started to put any kind of steering stroke I could feel the pain in my ribs again, so I had to get us to the shore as fast as possible. That would never work for a nine hour paddle, so we swapped around to that Gui would steer. And off we set again. And straight into rapids again. Sweet Jebus, this wasn’t what I was expecting at all! Rock rock rock, bang, bang, slide, scrap, bang, whooaaaa, bang, flippin’ hell, swoosh, bang, slide… and on it went. Rock rock rock, bang, smash, splash, chaos! Dumped out of the boat within a few minutes of starting. I remembered to hold onto the paddle this time! It wasn’t too deep (which was why all the rocks were killing us), so it was easy enough to hold onto the boat and get it to the side, where we flipped it back over.
But now everything that we hadn’t firmly secured was heading off downstream of its own accord. Luckily the rucksacks had been well secured. But one of the seats and my water bottle had disappeared. Damn. So off we set again. It was now obvious that this river was no picnic at all. It was continuous rapids, with tons of rocks to make like far more interesting than I was comfortable with! We caught up with the missing seat a minute or two later and grabbed it out of the water. I had decided by now that they were far more trouble than they were worth. I was just taking it back to avoid littering.
The rapids continued and we picked our way through them as best we could. I was quickly working out that I had got lucky having Gui steering for me. He was in control and steering down the optimal lines as far as I could see. But even the optimal lines were tricky enough to negotiate with the protruding rocks. I could see that if you steered out of the main flow of the river you would get grounded quickly, which explained the probability of having to portage.
The river headed towards a large rock cliff wall with the usual nasty rocky rapids to negotiate through. At the wall it did a 90 degree turn, with the main channel running right up to it and swooping past the rockface. We got to the bottom of the rapids and Gui had us turning as fast as he could as I paddled away. But it wasn’t fast enough, and the currently pushed us into the wall sideways with a bang. And then… splash! We were out again. Oh man, this could be a very very long paddle indeed!
Once more we did the pull ashore, put it all back together routine. This time we secured the seats down out of the way with the rucksacks, so we wouldn’t have to chase them anymore. And off we set into the rapids again. The capsizes had really been my fault, as I wasn’t very well tuned in with the boat or with Gui. But I was getting switched in now, and as a result we were paddling much more effectively as a pair.
I don’t think I’ve ever concentrated so hard for so long in an adventure race before. This kayaking section was just unbelievable. There was no let up for kilometer after kilometer. It was non stop rapids for hours. I barely got time to look up at the scenery, and certainly had no opportunity to look at the map to even begin to figure out where we were. Navigation isn’t an issue going down a river, thankfully.
Now that I had got the hang of things I was having a blast. Gui was also enjoying it, and we having fun being in synch and working well together. Every now and again take a long look ahead. It was amazing to see the river dropping away into the distance without any sign of a let-up.
I had brought my carbon wing blade paddles to the race, as they’re great for generating good speed on flat water. They were taking an awful battering now. They’re definitely NOT designed for white water paddling. As we battled through the rock gardens I was having to put in brace strokes, bashing the underside of the paddle of rocks, push off rocks directly with the edge, and even plant the paddle into the river bed with all my weight to push the boat back from flipping over, all done instinctively. The paddle was there to race with, so I didn’t mind. But I definitely didn’t want to capsize again!
We were paddling so well, and Gui was steering us so effectively down the main river channel that we even managed to start overtaking a few other boats. All my trepidation from the start of the kayak stage was replaced by confidence. We passed few signs of civilisation along the way, as we crossed under one or two bridges.
A few hours in I saw a fabulous castle ahead, which jutted right up to the edge of the water. As we approached it we found ourselves heading down a particularly awkward set of rocky rapids… flippin’ hell, there were boulders in the water everywhere. whoosh, scape, bang bang, phew, through one set, bang bang, scrape, whoooaa, bang, bang, turn!!, turn again!!! bang bang, whack, wallop, splash. aaaahh feck! The very last set of rocks caught us and we were out in a particularly hard running section of the river. I scrambled to the shore having lost my grip on the boat. Gui hung on to the boat and got it to the other shore. I walked on to a calmer bit of water a few meters on just after the rocks and started to walk across to Gui.
One step, two steps, three steps, and suddenly I was floating off down the river rapidly. Ooops. I think I just found the first deep bit of water! I’m not a great swimmer (did I say that before?) so I was heading downstream faster than I could finish crossing. Gui grabbed the throw rope and threw it my direction. I think he may have thrown the wrong end! But it didn’t matter since it landed in the water just about within reach and I grabbed it. It quickly tightened up, and I swung to the shore as Gui pulled it back. I found my feet on solid ground again and walked in to the shore. Gui said it was his first time throwing a throw rope. It was also my first time catching one!
A quick check on the map indicated we still had quite a way to go before we got to the intermediate control on this stage. And that itself was only just beyond half way.
From that point on the river was a little less extreme. A few tributaries had joined it along the way so there was more volume. Short flat sections were starting to pop up occasionally, giving a nice mental break, although it was harder work physically since there was very little current in these sections to easily move us forward. We had actually been making pretty progress along the route, thanks to current main channel in the rapids.
We were right back to working together perfectly as a team and enjoying all the challenges that the river was throwing at us. I had learned how Gui liked to position the boat in the flow of the rapids, and navigate through and over obstacles, so we were getting down most sections perfectly. We made it to the intermediate checkpoint without any further incidents of note! It was after 7pm when we arrived there. We had been back and forth with Frank and Anthony’s boat all the way down, so we were reunited again at the checkpoint. We spent a few minutes on shore, taking a little break. We didn’t hang around for long though, as we knew there wasn’t much more than an hour’s usable light left.
I was having another John McEnroe moment thinking about this section (“you can’t be serious!!!”). It was strange how they dark-zoned the first kayak stage, which seemed a lot easier than this, but we were free to paddle this one in the dark. I had never paddled white water in the dark before, so I knew this could get interesting! But I was loving the adventure of it all 🙂
We paddled as hard and as efficiently as we could in the remaining light until we finally had to concede it was getting difficult to see what we were doing, so we pulled ashore and got our headtorches out. We had a quick comparison of light outputs. I was now left which a much smaller light since the main light ran out of juice in the morning. Typical!!! just when I would have appreciated the light most. We reckoned Gui’s was marginally better, so I took that one (The idea being to have the most powerful light at the front of the boat).
We set off again, but this time in torchlight. Wow, this was definitely different! It actually wasn’t as difficult as I thought. Of course this was helped enormously by the fact that we were now paddling really well instinctively as a pair, and were able to react to the rocks shoving us around without loosing control. After a few minutes I was completely relaxed with paddling in the dark. Occasionally in the rapids we’d hit a big standing wave and be showered with a water. In torchlight you’d just see a wall of water coming at you!
An hour or so later, as we were halfway down yet another set of rocky rapids, my headtorch cut out completely, leaving us to complete the rapids in near darkness. We made it through, and then pulled ashore. We couldn’t get the light going again, so we swapped back since my original light was now more powerful than Gui’s back-up torch. I set mine to intermediate power rather than full power, as I didn’t want to risk running out of battery power.
It was hard to tell how much paddling we had left. I knew there was no chance of paddling past the transition as it would be well marked, so we just got on with things and kept working our way down the river. It was still hugely enjoyable paddling, but it was starting to feel a little cold without the heat of the sun. If we were too much longer in the water I would need to start layering in more clothes, which would have been time-consuming. But we made it to the transition before that was necessary.
We pulled the boats ashore. Gui and myself thanked each other. It had been superb paddling with him, and we really clicked as a team. He had also enjoyed it. We all went up to the transition staff and checked in.
There were quite a few teams in transition. The transition area was nothing more than a wide rocky river bank. The transition marshals had fire going, and there were 9 or 10 people standing and sitting around it. One or two teams were sleeping on less rocky bits in their sleeping bags.
I rapidly started getting very very cold, so I got as close as I could to the fire and changed out of my wetsuit and into my normal “land” racing clothes. It sounds straightforward, but I was getting so cold that it probably took me at least 20 minutes to do this, with one or two other racers checking that I was OK.
I had thought that we had access to our A-boxes here, but we didn’t…they were at our next transition. All we did here was drop off the b-bags containing our wetsuits, PFDs, helmets and paddles. We had to then trek to the next transition. It looked like a relatively short trek that shouldn’t take more than a few hours.
The lads as usual were taking their time, and I stuck close to the fire to stay warm. After an hour or so they decided that we should take a sleep here, although I didn’t really figure that out until they got out their sleeping bags and climbed in. It was only going to be a relatively short sleep of an hour or two, since the trek looked short enough and we would have access to resupply gear boxes at the next transition.
I was really glad that T.J. from Columbia had given me a new moonstone sleeping bag before the race. I had been lusting after the bag for a while, as it weighed only 600g, but had omni-heat lining and was extremely well constructed. As a result it was fantastically warm for its weight. I was actually a lot more comfortable after settling into the sleeping bag for a few minutes than I had been sitting right next to the open fire. Even though I had done little more than lay the sleeping bag out on the rocks and use my backpack as a pillow I went to sleep pretty rapidly.