Nevarest Jabberwock: Racing off the back foot

Winning a +500km World Series Adventure Race attended by almost 40 teams, of which half is international, takes some serious preparation, focus, and dedication. Not much space for joking around, socializing or mistakes.  So when you start your race well trained and focussed gauging the competition, staying comfortable yet keeping the bungee tight with the leaders on the first couple of legs, it sort of ruins everything when you suddenly realize your race went for a ball Buffalo dung.

This was the first time in my 17 year AR career that I made a mistake like this. During plotting, I managed to miss CP12 and draw a route from CP11 straight to CP13. Usually, I count the CPs to make sure they’re all there and that the points are in numerical order. This time I somehow didn’t. Craig, my co-navigator also didn’t notice my miss plot, so basically I blame him. But in a rather “conspiracy theory” series of events it also happened that CP13 was destroyed, we only found the cable ties still on the tree, so we took a photo of the point but could not mark it on the CP card, therefore did not notice the problem right then. Only after reaching CP14, upon clipping the CP, Craig asked me but if this is CP14 where was CP12?!?

After the initial disbelief, you pull all the files in your brain on how to best resolve the scenario. There are a lot to choose from but only one that follows the high road, only one that keeps you in the race – you go back and get the CP. My next problem was that CP12 was not plotted so I didn’t even know where to go back too. Luckily Team Skylotec was coming from behind having struggled a bit with finding CP14 and we asked to check on their map. And yet another hick-up in the series of events, I had cut off the section of the map where CP12 was, so we couldn’t just plot it and carry on. Thanks goodness for cameras being part of the compulsory kit, and will this, took a photo of Skylotec’s map, navigating back to CP12 by digital photo.

What softened the blow, for me at least, was that I didn’t bother to look at how far we had to go back – we just decided to go back, and back we went. When Janneke asked Craig how far back we had to go, the only response was “It’s quite far”. Only on reaching CP12 I realized that this has added another 60km to our race. What also helped a lot mentally was the dark zone. We knew we would still make CP17 before the dark zone lifted at 04:00 and would, therefore, be back with the top teams, ONLY, we would have 60km more in our legs and ~4 hours less sleep …

So we just put our heads down and did it. And this is where I’m proud of my team. There was not one tantrum, question or suggestions. Everybody just accepted it and we got on with it. At that stage, we could already see that there were 3 other very strong teams that were all fighting for the podium, and now suddenly they had a big advantage over us. In my mind I was watching our 1st place chances disappearing down the toilet, however, pulled on years of AR experience and focussed myself on “This is AR! And it’s not over until it’s over”. The other teams will also make mistakes, get mechanicals, injuries or get lost, so stay focused and keep on racing.

We decided to sleep at the transition just before CP17 (the dark zone stop) because it would be warmer and then we would have less kit to carry for the long hiking leg, this turned out to be a mistake however as it was very crowded and noisy in transition and we ended up sleeping very little although we did manage a ~1 hour of lying down at least. We got up at around 03:00 and with some encouragement from Donovan in Team Merrell Mentors, started a relaxed jog to CP17 hoping to make it in time for the 04:00 “restart”. Unfortunately, we missed it by about ten minutes, which meant we didn’t get to connect with the front teams going into the canyon. No harm done, although there was a bit of harm when we had to strip down to basics and swim through a deep pool of icy water at 04:00 just after CP17. Even the adventurous race photographer, Bruce Viaene, seemed less than keen to follow into the icy waters and opted to rather hang back and photograph some of the other teams. Fortunately there was only one more swim for us in this canyon stretch, unfortunately, it was still dark.

For some reason, I lost focus in the canyon leg and we lost a bit of time at CP18 and CP19. For me this remains one of my biggest navigation challenges, KEEP FOCUS, many races go well focussed, but then sometimes I have a race like this where lapses in focus cost us precious minutes –SIGH- This particularly haunts you when you look at the finish results and you see that we were only 40 odd minutes behind Thunderbolt, and then you wonder what difference those lapses in focus would have made…

Any case, moving on…

After CP17 we were starting to fight it out with Nantes and East Wind, so I knew we could still podium. There were some awesome battles going on between us three teams during the long “bash a bike track” leg which consisted of bushwhacking through a river in the general direction until you find a path, cycle on it until it disappears (usually after 1km) then bashing through thick undergrowth which was more like overgrowth and swimming through the river to the other side to find the path again. None of the teams were just settling in, we were constantly trying to break away from each other just to be caught up again in the next frenzied river crossing/pathfinding exercise. Once we cleared the river section and headed out into the mountains we decided to go for a 2 hour sleep to avoid Janneke from falling off a cliff, which gave the other teams a bit of a break on us.

From here on the race was ON, almost like we have now settled back into position and could start racing as we were supposed to. We finally broke away from team Nantes during the short abseil leg when we were all trying to figure out where exactly the CP on the fence corner was. We were now lying in 4th position with East Wind still ahead of us.

Nevarest Jabberwock might still have some work when it comes to paddling and as with all thingsthere are space for improvement BUT, I feel we really came together as a team during this race in terms of:

  • Staying Focussed – Inevitably during 80 hours of racing with very little sleep, you go through bad patches, you tend to fall into an easy rhythm, don’t want to push harder etc. But this race we managed to arrest those lapsing moments and to get the focus back up and to get the pace back up to “Uncomfortable”. Can we improve? Hell Yes! But we we’re doing better than ever.
  • Organized Transitions – Since my life, this is the first time that I have a team that pampers me in transition while I get the new maps prepared, they bring me food, fill my water bottles, assemble my bike etc. We can definitely improve on the pre-planning here to make things smoother but a big improvement on previous years.
  • Team Dynamics – After racing for 17 years, I think I’m entitled to give an opinion on this matter. We have “Most Awesome” team dynamics, as was proven during my CP12_60km_4hour_extra disaster. Everybody accepted, pulled together and got it done. I won’t put it past Ruan to have used the F word in silence, but at least his facial expression was calm and focussed. But just in general, we never have admin, usually have our sense of humour intact and enjoy each other’s company on and off the race course.
  • Fitness – Well are you ever fit enough? I guess once we win World Champs we can circle back to this question.

And so it happened that we kept on working hard closing the gap and finally on the last bike leg when we past East Wind I was starting to feel very optimistic about podium.  At the last transition we caught Thunderbolt still in transition and suddenly even 2nd place looked possible. Now all that was left was a long haul back to the finish, hiking mostly along the beach, with a couple of bad route choices ending up in serious fynbos-whacking without gaitors and had the scratched legs to prove it.

Nearing the end of the hike we knew we had a gap on East Wind although you’re never quite sure how big… all we knew was that we could not see them on the beach behind us, so it seemed good. And with the last daylight disappearing on the horrible Dune Fields “grid search a CP” part of the hike leg we actually saw Thunderbolt a couple of hundred meters in front of us. However the Ozzies got such a big fright seeing us behind them, they managed to fight us off till the end, even opened up the gap with a slightly better route choice and the advantage of the list light heading onto the beach.

And so it happened that Nevarest Jabberwock crossed the finish line in 3rd place, 3 hours after the leaders Skylotec, and about 40 minutes behind Thunderbolt. All in all, not a shabby comeback after such a horrible start! And as it goes with all racing, “The past is past, The future is Now”, so Watch This Space.