Wow! Adventure Racing in the Canary Islands

FasterSkierMay 27, 2003

Wow! I have to start off by saying that because I know I said it about one
hundred times during my latest go at adventure racing. The race was my debut
in the longer format, and would be my first experience pushing through sleep
depravation and the night. The location of this event was well chosen, and took
place on the island of El Hierro, which is the furthest west in the Canary Island
chain. This meant we were plopped out on a volcanic rock WAY out in the Atlantic
off the coast of Morocco.

Justin (left) with Team Montrail

The trip to El Hierro seemed like the first stage of this race, with waiting
being the main skill the racers had to posses. All the teams assembled at 9
am in the Madrid airport. At that point we received our plane tickets to Tenerife,
which left at close to one o’clock. After a two and a half hour flight
to the main tourist island of Tenerife, we sat at the airport for another two
hours waiting for our transfer (bus) to the ferry we were taking to El Hierro.
Once to the ferry dock, we waited another hour and a half, and finally boarded
our five-hour cruise. I need to impress on you at this point that during each
and every leg of this voyage we had to schlep our obscene quantities of gear
in, out, on, and off of these various modes of transportation, which by the
end would include subway, plane, bus, boat and car. I thought after ski racing
that travel would be a breeze, and luggage might mean a duffle bag at worst.
Well, when you’re going to run, bike, paddle, kayak, cave, climb, and
snorkel, you’re going to be an airlines worst nightmare- and we were.

OK, we docked in El Hierro at just after midnight, and it was dark, cold and
really windy. I’m looking at nothing but rocks and thinkin’ this
isn’t the Canary Islands I had in mind. I made a comment to my teammate
Rebecca that the terrain looked really steep and rugged, and could potentially
be super tough racing. I couldn’t have been more right, and from there
on out, the Island held a ton of surprises, and more vert then you can shake
a stick at-WOW!

The Bimbache Extreme race, which also served as the European Championships,
was run in three stages, with each stage having a winner, and then the time
accumulated for the three stages, which would produce an overall winning team.

Stage one started at the ocean with a mass start rollerblading section in which
each four person team had to go about 10k uphill to the first run transition,
in which we would run (up) another forty-five minutes to our bikes. Needless
to say we all felt good about the rollerblading, especially since we were allowed
to carry poles. That is all of us except our fourth team member who happens
to be from Oz, mate. Yep, Novak comes from the east coast of Australia, and
I’m pretty sure he likes being as far away from the snow as possible.
Knowing Novak a bit, and Aussies in general, I was sure he was game for the
rollerblading, and would give 'er everything he had, and would manage to hang
with the rest of the team who all ski. He did, but with some anguish, and we
ended up finishing first, but in a close race with four other teams. The following
run was your basic uphill grunt with no real navigating, and then we were off
onto the bike for our first taste of how true the maps would be to the lay of
the land. They proved to show the main roads clearly, but many, many other trails
and roads appeared with not a mention on the map. That’s where it started
to get fun.

Steep ascents and descents anyone?

To summarize day one, I would say it was extremely tough, with some major climbing.
One climb in particular that we had to do on foot was 1300 meters without a
break. That’s over 5000 feet of climbing on what seemed to be a vertical
frying pan. Oh yeah, the sun did come out, and as my sun burned body can attest,
stayed out for most of the race. We also paddled and rappelled, which were both
nice breaks from the endless climbing on our bikes and feet. We ended the ten-hour
day about one hour behind the stage winners from Finland, Team Nokia. Not the
start we had envisioned, but we also knew it could have been worse, especially
with two more stages and over thirty hours of racing ahead.

After the finish of stage one all the teams set up camp in which we were to
live, when we weren’t racing. No warm shower, comfy bed or good hot food.
Instead we had a cold drip for a shower, ThermaRests, and food that Beckie would
later describe as fit for animals, not people. Oh well, it all fit perfectly
with how I was feeling anyway, which was totally haggard and scrappy. WOW!

Day two began at five am with a choked down stale roll and the sorting of the
gear in the dark for the day ahead, which was the big one. I think the unknown
of racing without stopping for over twenty-four hours was what got me through
that morning of nausea and wasted legs. I wanted to know how my body would react
in the sleepy zone from midnight through sunrise the next day. This stage would
have everything except rollerblading, and in fact it would have at least two
of all the events.

We blazed out of the start, OK, we hobbled out of the start at two-minute intervals
based on the previous days results onto a section that was made to test the
navigator’s skills. Eight check points we had to punch on a card, and
then it was off cross-country to the bikes. Although we found each CP relatively
easy, we weren’t matching our main competitors foot speed, and we're giving
away minutes with each mile traveled. Rebecca, Patrick and Novak didn’t
like this, but in the same respect, they knew this was a day of endurance and
not one of hasty decisions, or poor pacing. I watched them and followed suit,
although my race persona just wanted to bust a move and play catch-up right

The highlights of this day included one wild-ass kayak in super windy conditions;
I mean hold on to your paddle so the wind doesn’t blow it away, kind of
paddling. Another interesting part of the day came with a "local activity"
at one of the CP’s, which was carrying water with these hand made scoops
called Calabozas. I would describe them in more detail, but I was so wasted
at that point I could only say it was like scooping water with a knights helmet
on the end of a broom stick. Another form of relief came in the snorkeling section
where we had to map read underwater with map and compass. The CP’s were
anywhere from15 feet down to a couple that pushed 35-40 feet-defiantly not gimmies
when you’re a bit tired. Each missed "punch" and we’d
be docked twenty minutes. We managed to get them all, but in the process came
out shivering like a bunch of shaved dachshunds.
Then night started to fall…and we were moving up through the field as
smoothly as the sun faded. Next thing I knew it was midnight and we were on
a major trekking section. I was feeling good, and still excited to see what
the next hours had in store. We moved through the night not saying much, but
all keeping an eye on one another. Occasionally we’d catch a glimpse of
four other little lights off in the distance, and wonder if the grass was greener
on the trail followed by another team. We were sticking to our plan and moved
into a tie with third going up the last big climb on foot, before the final
three hours on the bikes. The final bike would prove to be the toughest part
of the race, due to a 1200-meter climb, which would take us through the hours
of three until six.
Rebecca was the first to go really quiet with the "sleepies", which
she caught soon after and started to beg us to keep her awake. Sleeping on your
bike…WOW! I mean what a wild concept. Pat was next, and I was starting
to worry what came with this feeling of ‘must sleep’. I never got
'em, but maybe that was 'cause I was so intrigued with what was happening to
my team. Unbelievably they rallied though, and we pick up even more ground.

Ending the bike atop a 6000’ foot mountain would seem a fitting place
to end the stage as well- oh no…We got to run a trail that took us down
5000 feet in all of forty –five minutes, and to top it off, we did it
in our bike shoes. That’s what happens when you listen to the race organizer
(who said it would be an easy twenty minutes) and we made the decision to forgo
our running shoes without even really looking at that section of the map.
We finished by sprinting with Team Buff from Spain, who was actually four minutes
behind us due to the interval start, so second behind a strong Nokia was a good
finish. It also secured us in third with a shot at Buff, who had a forty-minute
lead on us based on their great day one.
Since we finished stage two at seven in the morning, we had an entire day to
recover, and sleep. We slept most of the day; in fact while we ate, we’d
sleep after a few bites of food, and then wake up and take a few more bites.
The camp had a surreal feel to it that whole day, with people just sacked out
totally dead to the world. The twenty –four hour stage had taken its toll
on all the teams, with only seven of the over twenty teams actually finishing.
The teams that didn’t finish could still go on, but wouldn’t be
in the overall classification, but did get the opportunity to endure one more
day of the harsh El Hierro terrain.

The last day proved to be the shortest, but with a massive climb first on blades,
then on foot. Stage three started with two team members kayaking, and two running
across lava fields, both to meet at the first CP. From there the kayakers would
paddle to the rollerblade transition, while the runners, Novak and I, would
do a zip line and then scramble to meet Pat and Rebecca at the blades. We bladed
uphill to CP 5, at which point we started the 3000-foot climb up, and then across
the island to one last local activity, and then down to the finish. The local
activity turned out to be wood chopping, which was actually fun, and quick.
Our spirits lifted as we began the last climb, and then the final hard run down
to the finish. We had started with intervals again, with Nokia first, followed
by Buff, and then us four minutes after Nokia. Coming into the finish I felt
like we had a good shot at the stage win, and the prize money that came with
it. It turned out we were just over three minutes behind Buff who edged out
Nokia by a minute.
So we ended up third over-all and in the prize money. I also came away relatively
unscathed from my first all-nighter, and with a good sense of what the island
of El Hierro was all about. I would still describe it as a hunk of rock out
in the Atlantic, but with some totally unique pine forests, and some of the
most amazing vertical relief I’ve ever seen. I wouldn’t suggest
it for a vacation, but I’m glad to have experienced another part of the
world in such an up-close and personal way, one that couldn’t be duplicated.
Adios El Hierro!


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