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Pre-Race Prep: Part 1

“Getting to the Start Line is half the battle.” - every adventure racer ever

This is a well-established fact in the sport of Adventure Racing (AR), especially as the races get longer and/or require more travel to get to. In this article I am going to share some hard-won wisdom on how to get to the Start Line in good shape. I don't mean in terms of fitness and skills and training – although all of those certainly help. No, what I'll be talking about are logistical and practical details that can easily slip your mind and then bite you in the gluteus maximii in the middle of the race.

One of the main draws of the sport is that AR presents a unique combination of physical, mental, and social challenges, all of which must be taken into account in order to minimize the chances of an epic DNF. Today we'll look at a physical challenge that is completely out of your control, but which you can nevertheless prepare for.

The Weather

AR is an outdoor sport. Duh. Well, this has ramifications that you need to be aware of. In a nutshell; it will be too hot, too cold, too dark, too muddy, too buggy, and too wet. Guaranteed, and very likely all during the same race. At a bare minimum, you need to obsessively check the weather forecasts in the days leading up to the start. You need to do this with the mindset of a die-hard pessimist:

  • sunrise and sunset times will be bang on, as will the phase of the moon

  • assume the rest of the forecast is 90% dead wrong

  • take the daily high and add 10ºC

  • take the nightly low and subtract 10ºC

  • a 10% chance of light showers translates to “unrelenting biblical downpour”

Now that you have the broad outlines of what conditions you will be facing, pack accordingly.

Too cold

Hypothermia is the #1 reason for racers withdrawing from races. Cold is evil, and particularly devastating when combined with “too wet”, so you better be prepared to deal with this nasty one-two punch. If ... scratch that: When you are cold, there are several things you need to do in order to warm up, or to at least not get any colder.

  • MOVE! The temptation to stop and huddle will be very strong, and is almost always the worst thing you can do. Stopping and bundling up will not make you warmer, no matter how many layers you have on inside your bivvy sack. Insulating coverings do NOT generate any heat, they simply minimize the amount of heat escaping from your body. If your body is already cold, covering it up will. Not. Help. Moving generates heat – that's why you shiver when you're cold.

  • DRY OFF! Wet clothing, especially in the wind (like when biking) will suck heat out of your body much, much, much faster than if you were in dry gear. Stop, get naked, and put on all the dry clothes you have. These, of course, are all safely stored away in your robust and waterproof drybags, right? If it's raining, then put on your waterproof breathable shell, which you have also packed away for just such an emergency. Once dry and changed, start moving (see point 1 above)

  • EAT! DRINK! There is something called the “thermic effect of food”, which is fancy speak for saying that digesting food generates heat. It also gives you energy in order to move. You won't feel like drinking, unless offered a mug of hot cocoa or coffee, but it is still important because being dehydrated makes you more susceptible to hypothermia.

To sum up: dry off, eat and drink, keep moving.

Too Hot

This one is potentially nasty, especially as up here in Canada we aren't exactly heat acclimated. Layering (in this case unlayering) clothing is not an option, as one can only get so naked.

  • SLOW DOWN! Since you can't change the ambient temperature, your only option is to reduce the waste heat you are generating in your body by slowing the pace. Actually, to be pedantically accurate: WORK LESS! Usually this means slowing down, but there are other ways to reduce your workload. These include giving your pack to a team-mate, getting towed, and picking less strenuous routes to follow. Worst case: stop and lie in the shade for a while.

  • AVOID THE SUN! Getting into some shade will slow down your rate of overheating. All that you need to do is be aware of the need for shade and seek it out whenever practical, such as when trudging or biking along a road or trail that has shade on one side and sun on the other. You can also adjust your route selection to stay in wooded areas, as long as they're not too dense.

  • FIND WATER AND SUBMERGE! Nothing will cool you down faster and more thoroughly than jumping in a pond or river or swamp and submerging yourself completely. Look for water features on the map, and maybe even go a bit out of your way to get to some. Trust me, you will more than make up any lost time and prevent a likely DNF.

  • HUMIDITY IS THE WORST! When it is hot and dry, you need to drink like a fish. You will be sweating profusely in order to cool down and will need to replenish those fluids. When it is hot and humid, you still need to drink like a fish, but you also MUST. SLOW. DOWN. You will still be sweating buckets, but your sweat won't be evaporating in the humid air, and therefore it won't be doing squat to cool you off. The threat when it's hot and humid is overheating, more so than dehydrating.

Depending on the race, you may have access to gas stations, convenience stores, pubs, etc, so look for them on the map and make sure you pack some local currency. There are some other clever tricks you can do to help yourself out, such as using a cooler as your transition bin and having frozen drinks available when you get to the TA's.

Too Muddy

This will only be a real concern on the bike, and it will mess with you in two excitingly different ways.

One – it will make things very slick and treacherous, greatly increasing the likelihood of falling down and going boom. So-called “mud tires” will help a bit, but don't rely on them overmuch. Or at all. The best way to deal with these conditions is to ride more conservatively. It will also be hugely helpful if you've gone out and done training rides in the wet and the mud so that you are aware of and comfortable with your bike's handling limits in slippy conditions.

Two – it will muck up all the moving bits and degrade your bike's performance, sometimes catastrophically. The most common issues encountered are chain suck and a loss of shifting ability. The former needs copious amounts of chain lube and chain rinsing, done over and over and over during the ride. The latter is usually because grit gets into the shifter cable housings, making it almost impossible for the cable to move. Fixing this involves detaching the cable from the derailleur and sliding off all the housings, then hoping you can reattach the cable with the proper tension to ensure a full range of shifting. You may be better off just putting up with it, depending on how bad it is and how much riding is left.

Too Dark

Captain Obvious says “Get some lights”. You need very bright ones for biking, and you need to practise with them to know how fast you can go without “outriding your lights”. This is when you are moving too fast to react to the trail, which you will only see X meters in front of you depending on how bright your lights are. That's why you want bright ones. If you only have 1 set of bike lights, then mount them on your helmet, not on your bars. This way you will be able to see where you are looking, whereas with bar mounted lights, you need to turn the handlebar to see anywhere other than the ground dead ahead of you. Obviously if you are the navigator, you need a headlamp in order to be able to read the maps.

Speaking of which, navigating in the dark is almost a distinct skill from daylight nav. You need to go out and experience it before the race. If possible, when planning your routes try to anticipate when and where you'll be racing in the dark and then try to pick safer and easier to follow routes for those legs.

Race Director and widely acclaimed “Nav God” Bob Miller has some good guidelines on the WT site HERE.

Too Wet

Waterproof everything. If there is an ironclad 0% chance of rain anywhere within 1000 km, then assume that you will all fall into a lake. Waterproof everything. For maps and instructions you will need waterproof map bags at a bare minimum. Really, you should also laminate them somehow. Most racers use Mactac™, so bring a couple of rolls and a good pair of scissors.

All your warm mandatory gear clothing is worse than useless if it gets soaked. Pack them into dry bags before cramming them into your pack. The same thing goes for TA bags and bins: assume that they will be dumped into a pond or that somehow the lid will pop open and it will get rained on. Therefore, pack all your “must be dry” stuff into dry bags in your gear bins as well. Finally, check that your dry bags are still in fact dry. They can and will degrade and start to leak over time. Do this before the race.

Too Buggy

Firstly, be aware that Deet™ melts most AR gear including expensive clothes, expensive watches, and vitally important compasses. Bug hats work but are stiflingly hot.

Secondly...well, Bob pretty much sums it up:

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