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ESPN X-Venture Race
by Ian Adamson
This article is reproduced here with permission by the author.
"Surviving the Heat - an insiders view of the ESPN X-Venture Race"
Here is a short story of the latest ESPN X-Games Adventure Race which included several well known ultra runners including Robert Nagle, Kim Smith, Marshal Ulrich and Adrian Crane. The first leg was a 70 km desert run/hike in 140+ temperatures.
Heat. Extreme, unrelenting heat. Heat so intense it could boil the water in your canteen, melt the rubber from the soles of your running shoes, dehydrate you faster than you can force fluids into your parched mouth. There is no shade for five miles in any direction, and no animal life other than a lone hawk circling 10,000 ft above, avoiding the 157 degree heat reflecting back from the parched salt pan underfoot.
It is noon on day one of the ESPN X-Venture Race, and 45 elite ultra-endurance athletes in teams of three are struggling their way across the unforgiving Laguna Salada near the Mexican border town of Mexacali. These athletes have conquered everything in the ultra distance world. World record holders, National Champions, winners of Eco-Challenge, Raid Gauloise, and veterans of the Death Valley Ultra-endurance Run are humbled by mother nature. We stumble for cover, wonder at our crazy notions to race and contemplate our obvious mortality.
By 10:20 am the thermometer in the shade of Check Point Three (CP3) registered better than 120°F, rising 15 degrees in as many minutes. Adrian Crane from Adventure 1, elite ultra runner and US National Orienteering Champion lives in Modesto CA and has trained specifically in extreme temperatures, but is fading fast and comments that the heat down here must be "special heat". Robert Nagle from Eco-Internet "the most feared adventure racing team in the world" and veteran of Morocco's 6 day desert run has heat exhaustion. No one is moving fast. Many are not moving at all.
Welcome to Adventure Racing Baja style. I am racing, correction plodding a weaving path beside my team mates John Howard and Andrea Spitzer of Team Presidio Adventure Racing Academy, as we make a bee line for the nearest viable shade, a group of spindly bushes floating some indeterminate distance away in a shimmering mirage. We are currently in seventh place, but that is the last thing on our minds as we are desperately trudging towards relief from the sun.
Unknown to us, seven other teams are in an even more desperate situation. Swedish kayak champion Eva Oskarsen is in critical condition with severe heat stroke and has been airlifted to a San Diego hospital. Athletes from France, the US and Britain have also been airlifted to safety. By the end of the day the medical tent at base camp looks like a mash unit with 42 of 45 athletes and several of the media on saline drips. Only John, Andrea and I are in good enough shape to by pass the medics and recover on our own.
Stage One - Mountain Run and Desert Hike
The day started like any other adventure race. Teams nervously jostled for position in the dawn heat, eyeing each other with trepidation and trying to focus on the task ahead. The rules dictate that each team of three athletes must contain members of the opposite sex, must remain together at all times, and must navigate their way to check points, in order and revealed only as the race progressed. Desert running, hiking, climbing, mountain biking, ocean canoeing and sea kayaking would get us 270 miles (435 km) from the coast on the Gulf of California to San Diego, crossing the 2,500 ft high Sierra El Mayor and Sierra Juárez mountains and traversing the Pacific Coast.
...tres, dos, uno. The countdown to the start had sent teams jogging into the foot hills of Sierra El Mayor. Each person was required to take a minimum of 5 liters of water as a precaution against dehydration and resulting heat exhaustion or the more deadly heat stroke. As with all adventure races, the course is never entirely clear or strait forward, and right from CP1 a few kilometers in, teams took different paths. The elite French team Ultra Coach lead by Marc ... (the only person to have completed every Raid Gauloise) and US/British team .... elected to take a shorter but steeper route directly over the mountains, while the majority of teams back tracked to a low pass further south.
By CP2, the pack had thinned out, with the lead teams running in the now 100°F+ temperatures. CP3 was nestled in the sand dunes and desert scrub on the Eastern side of the treacherous salt pan of Laguna Salada, and by this stage, five hours from the start, even the lead team of Red Hot (Australian's John Jacoby, Sharyn Davis & Tim Smallwood) was down to a half baked mosey.
Fully baked an hour later, Team (Baked) Alaska struggled through. Back in the heat on the other side of the Laguna, John Howard on Team Presidio had not felt this bad in 20 years of racing. This was survival. Team mate Andrea Spitzer, two time world quadrathlon champion, was starting to slur her speech, and see mirages with houses reflected in the water. We finally collapse in the nearest viable shade under a spindly bush, nothing much, but better than the endless white salt pan. 20 minutes later Eco-Internet plodded past, giving us some salt to help relieve our leg cramps.
The heat was unbelievable. Even in the shade the ground was almost too hot to touch. The radiant heat, bouncing off near by surfaces feels like direct sunlight. This was an oven, Dante's Furnace, the fires of Hell. John had stripped off naked in an effort to cool down, commenting that he now understood why the Australian Aborigines walk around naked in the desert. We patted down Andrea with water where she has collapsed on a pile of packs in the deepest shade, but were now getting dangerously low on water so I head out to find CP4 or better shade, water, anything.
After two hours searching in increasing circles it slowly dawned on me there must be water here. I hadn't found CP4, but there was a tendered watermelon patch and a farmers shack close by. After climbing a decrepit old windmill tower, I spied a small patch of promising greenery and low and behold, an artesian well, replete with five gallon buckets. Thank you Mr. Watermelon Farmer, I think you saved our hides!
John and Andrea were sprawled limply on the ground as I stagger to their small patch of shade. A dazed look passes over their faces when I dump the buckets down, slposhing the life giving resource at their feet. "WATER!" John jumped up like a startled Gecko, and we proceed to splash about like kids in a wading pool. Our Avocet altimeter watches read 142°F on our wrists, but quickly dropped to a more reasonable 100°F, reflecting our lowered body temperatures.
At about 4:30 pm Adventure 1 (Adrian Crane, Tony Molina, Valerie Ringo) and Team Green (Robin Benincasa, Kirk Boyleson & Mitch Uderback) stumble in out of the heat haze. Only Robin looked in reasonable shape and jumped one foot into each bucket like a giant toy Transformer. The other five athletes had heat exhaustion so we dowsed them down with water, inside and out to help them recover.
Time for us to press on. 16 hours after our dawn start, Presidio and Baked Alaska finally straggle into CP5, the finish of day one. This was the longest 50 km of my life. Lugging up to 10 liters of food and water (25 lb) through the abysmal heat had taken it's toll on everyone. By the end of the night virtually every athlete and several support crew would find themselves in the medical tent.
Stage Two - Hike and Climb
Sluggish athletes rose at dawn on day two to warm up painfully blistered feet, aching muscles and to try and stuff in some food. Eating is never easy in adventure racing, and despite burning about 10,000 calories per day one typically eats only 4-5,000. The remaining 5-6,000 calories must be supplied by the bodies reserves, mostly adipose fat (as opposed to dietary fat), which is somewhat scant on a lean endurance athlete. Over six days of racing we expect to burn at least 30,000 stored fat calories, or about 7 1/2 pounds of body fat, quite a radical weight loss program (don't try this at home!)
Race director Don Baker (who by now had more than lived up to his name) briefed everyone on the days excursion. An 8 mile hike up into Sierra Juarez via three checkpoints and an ascent up 3,000 ft El Trono Blanco "The White Thrown", a pre historic granite monolith similar to Yosemite's El Cap. This would be achieved via jumar ascent and tyrolian traverse, followed by a rappel into the boulder field on the far side and a mountain bike onto the plains. Seven hours was the estimated time for stage two.
At 8:30 am the gun went off and teams ambled off in stark contrast to the enthusiasm of day one. Izac Wilson from Stray Dogs (self named Two Mutts and a Bitch, with Lisa Smith and Marshal Ulrich) hobbled on the bloody mess that used to be the soles of his feet. Like most athletes, the heat and pounding of the previous 15 hours was not kind to his tender office pedes, and you could almost feel the pain as he grimaced at each footfall.
The slightly better preserved teams of Presidio and Endeavor quickly distanced themselves from the field, reaching the position for CP6 at about 11:30 am. Every team was carrying a "VRX" global positioning system that collected data from 13 overhead satellites and could be downloaded to a laptop computer at the end of each day. The VRX's had all navigation functions disabled (so athletes couldn't cheat), but gave a permanent record of each teams position at any given time. At the end of each stage, the courses taken by each team were superimposed on a three dimensional terrain map and then shown on ESPN's evening broadcast of the race.
With no CP6 in site, the two lead teams pushed another two miles up the canyon to the foot of El Torro Blanco to see if there had been a mistake in coordinates. Nothing. We then retraced our steps back down the canyon, scanning the walls and side canyons for signs of ropes or people, but still nothing. Finally we reached the marked position for CP6 again and met Beast of the East (Kevin Klune, Robert Jardeleza and Felicia Bochicchio) and Adventure 1 heading up. All four teams agreed there must have been a mistake so we called in on our emergency radio for instructions. Our three hour excursion had been for nothing. CP's 6, 7 and 8 had been moved to the side of The Thrown and we were to retrace our steps once again. Don Baker gave us specific instruction to go to the right hand side of The Bull, to the North and look for the ropes there. Radio off and on we marched.
Another three hours and w still hadn't found our mark. Radio time again, we gave our position at the base of the Thrown and this time we were told to go to the south side. We traversed back around only to find ourselves 1,000 ft up on a thin ledge that petered out. Radio on, position given, new instructions, go to the valley floor and wait for the helicopter! What in heavens name? It was now nearly dark and day two had become a total farce. We had scrabbled several thousand feet up and down, retraced our steps countless times with food and water long gone and still no CP6.
We sighted the helicopter in the twilight gloom and made a bee line for the drop zone. Food and water and some sleeping gear would be available, but we had to find it in the fast failing light. John skillfully traversed the boulders and cactus stands to find the drop and set off his emergency strobe for the other teams scattered about the valley. Beast of the East, Red Hot, Stray Dogs and Alaska straggled in, with Endeavor and Adventure 1 already at the base of the ropes.
Stage Three - Climbing and Mountain Bike
Teams hunkered down amongst the rocks and cacti, trying to shelter from the ferocious desert wind that had built during the afternoon, and tried to catch a few winks before dawn. By 8:30 am the next morning all teams had made their way up to the base of the ropes and were waiting their turn to make the 1,000+ rope ascent to the summit. This required Jumaring up vertical, overhanging and sloping granite faces with spectacular views over Laguna Salada and the previous two days torturous route. The strong winds still whipped competitors about on the ropes, making it difficult or impossible to climb at times. Each team was assigned one of three ropes, and the clock was started when the first athlete from each team started climbing.
Adventure 1 and Endeavor were first, followed by Presidio, Red Hot, Stray Dogs and the rest of the field. Something of a bottle neck developed at the 300 yard single rope tyrolian traverse, letting Adventure 1 pull away. Endeavor was next on the rope, with Presidio and Red Hot close behind. Dangling 500 ft above the gound and pulling body wieght plus pack up the backside 150 yards was becoming more and more difficult as blasts of hot wind topped 50 miles per hour. A single pitch rappel lead racers down off the granite monolith and into a maze of huge baked boulders requiring us to navigate and scrable a convoluted course three miles to the bike transition.
Now for the easy part. Pete Muller, our support crew had left us four topographical maps to plot the next check points from new grid coordinates. The Mountain bike looked strait forward enough except for the spiders web of unmarked 4 wheel drive trails criss corssing the landscape. These trails are part of the Baja 500 and were a mix of hard pack, bone shaking road rutts and soft sand. The first 20 miles was an undulating 2,000 ft up hill to 6,000 ft, followed by a 40 mile undulating down hill back to 2,000 ft over the Sierra Juarez coast mountain range. Within the first hour, we had caught Endeavor, with an exhausted Louise Cooper-Lovelace pushing her bike over a steep rutted incline. John, Andrea and I pushed on through knowing we were narrowing the lead for overall first place.
We had opted to add time trial bars to our mountain bikes, gambling that there would be enough smooth road to over come the wieght disadvantage. The gamble paid off, and we were blessed with some slightly rutted, but non the less rideable streatches in the agricultural Valle Ojos Negros. John's strong desire for for ice cream, and Andrea's fluent Spanish made a good match in the "corner store" of Real del Castillo Nuevo. Our first taste of civilization and of cold ice cream in four days was a welcome relief and spurned us on to the finish of leg three for the overall lead. Adventure 1 timed in just beind us, with Endevour and Red Hot following next.
Stage Four - Mountain Run and Mountain Bike
Athletes now had three days of debilitating racing behind them, so the course was modified to be a "recovery day". The horse back ride and swim sections were eliminated, leaving a short mountain run and mountain bike, from Agua Caliente 2,500 ft over the coastal range to the foothills above the coastal town of Ensenada. Estimated time for the leg was seven hours, so teams loaded up with copious amounts of water for a posible 12 hour stretch. At the gun Adventure 1 took off running over a short steep ridge hoping to get a jump on the pack, which was traversing the bottom of Canada (Canyon) el Molino. Not a good move as the rest of us hobbled and hopped between the stream bed and river stones lining the steep walls of the ravine, Adventure 1 was seen sliding precariously down to meet our now empty path. Adventure 1 was in the hunt for a stage win to help pay their costs forthe race. Endevour was motivated after being penalized out of a win at Raid Gauloise earlier in the year, and we were just as keen to maintain our first place for the overall lead.
As the climb up to El Toro steepened, Adventur 1 and Presidio started pulling away from the field, striding out along the sketchy thin trail in the mid day heat. It became increasingly obvious that we wouldnot need our full 18 litres of water, so we started using it over our heads to stay cool as we ascended. Once we reached the sumit, we could see our destination in the valley floor and set in a fast pace, leaping down the slippery dirt and scrub lined trail. The lead swapped several times as first Presidio and then Adventure 1 took wrong turns down the web of trails, but with fewer mistakes and a more consistent pace, we were first into the bike transition.
We were greeted by several ESPN TV production crew, but no bikes, not even a CP. In a little over two hours, we were way ahead of the estimated time, and had no choice but to run the bike leg. This was definitely to our advantage since unlike many other teams, our feet were in good enought shape that we could run. Three miles and 20 minutes later we a veritable paradise emerged from the dust in the form of Rancho Ensenada, the stage finish, repleat with swimming pool, golf course, open bar and live Mexican band. It didn't take us long to shed our grimy packs and Rail Rider shirts and collapse into the cool blue waters of the oasis.
Unlike many adventure races, the X-Venture race is run in stages, at least there is the possibility of having stages if you finish under the 24 hour cut off each day. In practice some teams do not make cut off and are eliminated beffor completeing the entire course. In this race, anyone more than six hours behind going into the final stage would be unable to start since it would make it impractical to complete the race in a reasonable time. Stage five would start with only three teams inside the six hour time limit.
Stage Five - Ocean Canoe, Mountin Bike and Sea Kayak
After a one hour penalty for losing our passport in the "transition" stage two, we were now relegated to second overall, by nine minutes to Endeavor, with Red Hot another 28 minutes behind us. The accumulated times for the race now determined the start in a handicap format for the final push to the finish. Endeavor departed at time zero followed by Presidio nine minutes later and Red Hot at 37 minutes.
The start was Le Mons style, with a hundred yard dash to the surf line, followed by a furious paddle through he break into the open ocean. Each team had one, three person canoe with spray skirt to prevent water from swamping the craft in big waves. This turned out to be absolutely necessary, with six ft breakers extending several hundred yards out on the shallow beach. First Endeavor, then Presidio and finally Red Hot successfully negotiated the surf and the race was on.
Within five miles, we had caught Endeavor, once again taking the overall lead. The world class paddling power of Red Hot, with four time world marathon kayak champion John Jacoby was quickly closing the gap for second. Strong currents, big swell and head winds made slow going of this 30 mile leg, so teams hugged the shore, dodging thick kelp beds and unpredictable surf breaks on the numerous coastal shallows.
CP 22 was at the beach town of La Fonda, looking ominously distant behind the towering surf and board riders hanging out for the sets. We chose our line and a gap between waves to make a dash to shore. Paddling furiously with adrenaline, we quickly gained momentum down the glassy wall of a Pacific swell. All seemed well until John got sucked sideways into a tube as he braced with his paddle far out to one side for stability. With that our screaming ride came to a abrupt watery end as we executed an ugly roll in the churning white water.
Endeavor lined up for the ride as we dragged our soggy boat up to CP22, perched 50 ft up on a small sand flat. Red Hot was visible in the distance having closed the gap on Endeavor, and looked strong as they paddled metronomically up the coast. Despite careful timing, Endeavor successfully negotiated the big back breaks but came to grief in the second break nearer shore. With the two lead teams on terra firma, Red Hot took a dramatic nose dive down the face of a big set, spilling the Aussies in an undignified pile into the whitewater.
With sirens screaming and lights flashing the Mexican highway patrol cleared the road as each team set out along the coast road to El Rosarito. This section proved fast with rolling hills and only a slight headwind. Our gamble to clip on aero bars was paying off handsomely as we settled into a paceline and went to business putting time on the field. John's sea sickness had vanished with his last sandwich over the of the canoe, and he was now cooking along at 25 mph. Only one 2000 ft hill stood before us and the finish of the stage, but it was on rutted farmers 4WD trails and sketchily marked. This was an out and back section to Mesa Redonda, allowing each team to see their position as the other teams passed them, up or down.
We worked efficiently as a team, leapfrogging each other to open gates and scout the course. We pushed each other whenever we were feeling strong, so our net speed was greater than the slowest person by themselves. Endeavor favored the towing method, using fishing poles and bungies to tow each other, while Red Hot shared their weight around to even out the differences. Navigation problems continued to plague Red Hot and they again made a costly error on the bike, letting Endeavor maintain their second place.
Once back on the highway, we had a flat and fast four mile stretch to El Rosarito, with hundreds of locals and tourists lining the road cheering us on. This felt more like a cycling stage race criterium than an adventure race and we upped our tempo in response. The steps of the famous Rosarito Beach Hotel led us down to the finish on the beach to be greeted once again by the vast Pacific and our next challenge. Endeavor bumped their way home 47 minutes later, with Red Hot another 50 minutes back.
Stage Six - Sea Kayaking
2:45 am. The pre-dawn scene on Playas Rosarito saw the three remaining teams organize their kayaks in a sleep deprived fog, and try to digest a few bites of pre-race breakfast. Behind the Scenes Catering had followed the race from the start, providing sustenance for weary racers and officials alike. Despite the delicious aromas emanating from the beach kitchen, race nerves and the general nausea associated with lack of sleep and five days of hard racing made eating difficult.
The sixth and final stage started in the order teams finished the following day with Presidio leading the pack at 3:26 am. With little wind and a low swell the beach exit was relatively strait forward. John and Andrea ploughed resolutely through the breaking waves in the double and I followed gamely in the single. Our 47 minute buffer over Endeavor and 1:37 advantage over Red Hot gave us little solace knowing both teams were capable of catching us in the right circumstances. It would take only one mistake to blow the lead, and everyone knew it.
By 6:20 am we had found the US/Mexican border and despite a spill by the double in the surf, Presidio had a quick transition to the US side in just nine minutes. With John drained from the previous days battle with sea sickness, I swapped with him into the double and we provided towing assistance using a tow rope and bungy system pre rigged that morning.
The mental and physical stress of the preceding five days was starting to show on the other teams, and Endeavor overturned both kayaks going into the Mexican border. Red Hot had a near disaster with Smallwood and Davis flipping 50 yards out in the rough surf, requiring a surf rescue. Quite a surprise considering they were the strongest kayaking team in the race.
Presidio continued on unaware of the problems behind them and crossed Silver Strand Beach to San Diego Bay at Coronado. This required carrying the heavily laden kayaks several hundred yards over the beach, under the freeway and through the low tide mud into the bay. A relatively strait forward paddle around Point Loam and into Mariners Basin at Mission Bay Park was all that remained. Strong flood tides made the paddle laborious and each team now battled the wind and waves knowing a change in position was next to impossible.
Finally, after six days of neck and neck racing, Presidio crossed the line in first at 12:11 pm, to the cheers of the assembled crowds and throng of hungry press. Bemused skate boarders, climbers and bladers watched from their near by venues, wondering at the insanity that pushed us 300 miles through deserts, mountains and oceans to this other jungle.
1st: Presidio Adventure Racing Academy