Friday, 6 August 2010

The Open 24 Adventure Race. North Wales. July, 2010.

The Open 24 took over our house. My boyfriend Andy was the ‘planner’ and I was racing it. He had to keep the details secret so I was often banished from the room as he schemed with Open Adventure boss James about what the 62 pairs of racers would get up to. 24 hours is a long time and a lot of adventure could be had.

As it happened, 24 hours wasn’t enough and there was a prologue to the 2010 edition of the Open 24; a swim across Rhoscolyn bay followed by an hour of exhilarating coasteering. “Look at the horizon. Cross your arms. Then jump into the swell”. Horizon. Rock. Spray. Sea. Plunge.

At the end of the coasteering course we were ferried by speedboat (RIB) across the waves to Rhosneigr. Gripping hard to the handles on the boat. “Don’t let go”. Heart thumping in your ears, fixed grin, involuntary squeals, teeth chattering against the chill and the excitement.

And the race hadn’t even started.

We stripped off our wetsuits in the drizzly slipway, stirring quite a few bemused looks from the kitesurfers and dogwalkers. Andy battled against the wind and his distracted audience to deliver the pre-race briefing. “It’s Plan B. Plan A has been cancelled due to the weather, so it’s plan B. Does everyone understand?” Yes. No sea kayaking. More cycling. We packed our race bags and then lined up for an underwhelming chasing start on the beach.

The exhilaration of the prologue faded fast as we hit the lanes of Angelsea for the hastily organised ‘lane quest’ of Plan B. Pedalling into Newborough Forest we were pleased to get off the bikes and enjoy a trail run through the trees and out across the sand to the lighthouse. But then it was more bikes, more lanes, more drizzle.

The kayak spiced things up. Rarely is there kayaking in UK adventure races, and even rarer is there kayaking when the weather puts paid to Plan A. The Menai Straights may not be the most exciting stretch of water, but it was lovely being in the boat, feeling the waves underneath the hull and resting our leg muscles.

Far too soon it was biking again and a full 9 hours after the start we crawled up the final hill to Ogwen Cottage and the evening transition. Plenty of racers were milling around, gearing themselves up for the night, going through kit check and contemplating their route. Andy and James were nervous about the night trek, and with good reason. They had returned from putting out checkpoints earlier that week drenched through, exhausted, sore and tired. They were scared that racers would feel they were just nipping up the Glydrs and that it ‘must be safe, it’s a race’. Them Glydrs is big, and at night and in the clag, can be treacherous.

The night trek was by far my favourite stage. After a steep and sweaty climb up Ygarn and into the dusk, we wrapped up against the penetrating cloud and settled into a steady pace, concentrating on our torch light and picking clear and sensible lines through the rockfall and then boggy grass. 5 hours of trekking, 4 hours of total darkness. We stumbled upon other racers, held brief conversations and then were left alone with our own breathing. Slipping and jumping down Devil’s Kitchen took all concentration and focus, then another steep climb up towards Tryfan, slurping water from the streams as we went. Night made the mountains bigger and the race didn’t matter. It was fresh and empty and beautiful.

I realised we were faring well at the next transition. We jogged in and quickly changed back into bike kit, snatching a shake and a sandwich. In the light of my Maxx D I could see racers sitting on the gravel floor, tending bruised and blistered feet, looks of broken exhaustion on their faces. It had been 14 hours now since the start. Still 10 to go. Let’s keep moving.

The bike stage was short and fast through forestry tracks and down into Dolwyddelan. Easy points clocking up. The regular beep of the dibber. Satisfying. Then the final trek stage was upon us. We knew this would hurt the most. Tired feet trudged up through endless logging tracks and fireroad, cool grey morning draining the colour from the landscape. We pushed just hard enough to move quickly but never fast enough to feel like we were really racing. Another final push up a steep rooty track, overtaking other teams, half asleep and pushing down on their knees with gloved hands. We were out on the moors and enjoyed a tussocky descent through deserted slate mines into the deep mine special stage at Rhiw Bach.

How did our forefathers work down mines? We slipped down into the belly of the earth, freezing water rushing over our numb feet, hands feeling for grip along the slippery tunnel walls. The pick marks and the metal rails were still there, echos of an industry not long died out. For half an hour we rushed around underground searching for checkpoints, before being spat out the bottom of the mine into the tropical heat of a Welsh Sunday morning.
One stage left.

4 large hills loomed on the final bike leg before we could roll over the finish line at Betws-y-Coed. Hill one hurt. Snickers. A gel. Some water. Either the sugar intake of the descent on Penmachno’s rocky singletrack trails did the trick. Climb 2 was easier. A final orienteering special stage had us ripping through deep undergrowth for an hour, giggling at the bramble scratches round our ankles. We shared a grin with friends racing against us and then pushed off. One hour left.

Tiredness had come and gone that morning. When we left the mine, my eyes were gritty
and red-ringed. But as the heat of the day picked up, so did my energy levels and with an hour to go I felt like I could carry on all day. With fifteen minutes to go, we rolled under the finish banner, greeted by a sheepish looking Andy and an exhausted looking James. Racers were lying on the grass all around us, sipping tea, munching on sandwiches, swapping stories. Eagerly awaiting the results.

I lay my bike down on its side and knelt on the warm grass. I stripped off my sweat-soaked top and wiped some mud from around my eyes and the sweat from my cheeks. The journey was complete. We had run, paddled, biked, explored. And I felt the warm comforting feeling of my eyes closing as I lay on the grass.

Series Results (The Open 24 was the last race in the 3-race series):
Female Pairs ::
1st Barbara Lonsdale/Jackie Scarf
2nd Jenny Allen/Judith Hughes
3rd Liz Barlow/Sally Ozanne

Male Pairs ::
1st Tom Gibbs/John Houlihan (Adidas Terrex)
2nd Andy Mitchell/Phil Scarf
3rd Kim Collison/Neil Hamblin

Mixed Pairs ::
1st Steve Fisher/Fi Spotswood (Team For Goodness Shakes! AR)
2nd Chris Morgan/Anna Sloan
3rd Emily Brooks/Jake Morgan (Planet Fear)

Thanks to: For Goodness Shakes! USE Exposure Lights, Squirt Lubes, Spoke Shirts, James Kirby Photography.

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