Race Report: Alex Ham – WCAD Robertson A1 Race Report

The 4th race in the Adventure 1 Series took place from the 15-16 September at Silwerstrand Caravan Park in the beautiful Robertson Valley.

Alex Ham shares his insights about the race, challenges on route and personal thoughts about competing in Adventure Racing again.

Preparations before the race (not having done AR for a while)

My last adventure race was around 2012, I did a couple of schools’ adventure races and a full moon amongst a number of shorter sprint races with Greg. At that time the sport was still relatively new in the country and teams were still figuring out the “tricks of the trade” so from what I remember it was far slower and more of a battle of attrition than a fully blown race.

Back then I was quite a strong cyclist, but my running and multisport abilities were significantly lacking. Luckily, since then I have started dating a trail runner and naturally, I have been drawn into the sport. In addition to this, I am quite an avid social climber and adventurer and both the skills and fitness gained from these activities are useful in the AR format. Over and above all of this I am a competitive sailor and maintain a reasonable level of fitness to be able to perform well on the boat.

My addition to the team came relatively last moment (about a week before the race), so there was not much time to do any physical preparation, luckily, I raced Trans-Baviaans with my brother and Dad about two weeks prior, so I wasn’t feeling too bad about my physical fitness, specifically over a longer distance.

Most of the preparation was in finding all of the gear I would need for the race and trying to figure out a nutrition strategy for a race longer than I have ever competed in. I had little idea of what to expect and therefore what to pack, so I just packed everything!

The journey to Robertson

I am privileged to be able to live in the Western Cape for the past few years so I was on hand to pick the rest of the team and Craig (none of whom I’ve ever met) up at the airport and drive through to Robertson the night before the race through the impressive Du’Toits Kloof mountains. And after a relatively short easy drive arriving at the campsite in the dark, we had little idea of the surroundings and what lay ahead of us the following days.

We set up camp, unpacked the bikes and roughly sorted through the major gear we would need before getting to bed early to get a good rest before the many hours awake that lay before us.

Setup and registration

The next morning, we got to an early start, packing our race packs, compulsory equipment and nutrition. We packed our crate for the transitions and did the final checks on or bikes before handing them over to the organisers to be seen later in the race.

Team thoughts before the race

The team was feeling confident before the race, we all felt strong and believed that we would be able to contend physically for the race. There was a highly competitive field entered in the race with all of the series contenders and strong teams entered and on the start line, so we knew it would be a tight race from the start. I had very little knowledge of what to expect both in terms of racing for so long as well as the pace for each leg and the strength of the other teams so I was just hoping I would be able to stick with my team and not hold anyone back during the race.

Leg 1 – Paddle 18km

The race started with a water start already in our kayaks, all of the teams lined up across the river and were set off, after a short leg around the island upriver (presumably to spread the field out a bit before the rapids and provide some photographic opportunities for the media) we all headed down river for what was to be literally the longest paddle of my life by about 13 km. The flow of the river and the occasional rapid and weir provided some significant help down-river and helped break up the monotony of the leg a bit. Not having paddled in at least six years meant that it took a while for me to get into a rhythm and figure out some sort of thing resembling a technique. I do think the Vagabond kayaks we were in were far more efficient than the normal Fluid kayaks that the other teams were using, just by looking at the wake it was clear that the more sleek vagabonds were travelling through the water more smoothly.

We made good progress on the first paddle, just keeping the top two team in our sights while slowly opening a gap on the rest of the field. By the time we got to the first transition, we were solidly in second (there was one 2 person team in front of us as well).

Leg 2 – Trek 12km

We quickly transitioned into the first trek, for this leg there had been certain concessions made by the organisers in terms of the compulsory gear required. This allowed us to run with only two packs for the whole team; one with the little compulsory gear we needed with Michael and the other, a light, comfortable racing vest with some water and nutrition with me. The first trek turned out to be much more of a flat out run mostly on open jeep track. After taking a bit of a more conservative route to the first CP and losing a bit of time we ran a very fast leg and navigated extremely well for the rest further solidifying our second place. We were all really strong on this leg and despite the high pace seemed to cope well. Right at the end of the leg, we plunged into the icy Bree Rivier to swim back across to transition. We had lost a few seconds to the top team but had also opened up a bit of a gap to third.

Leg 3 – Paddle 18km

Leg three felt like the longest of the race, the wind had picked up slightly from the front and there were quite a few open river sections where we simply had to slog it out. There were, however, a few exciting rapids, compulsory portages and a massive weir which provided some excitement. We paddled well and towards the end, everyone seemed pretty fed up with paddling, with sore bums, hands and backs and more than ready to get on the bikes. The last few k’s of the paddle Michael and I towed Yolande and Jonathan as we seemed to be a slightly stronger combination. The towing worked surprisingly well on the kayaks and we finished the leg strong a few minutes behind the first team and having been caught slightly by the team behind us.

Leg 4 – MTB 38km

We had a reasonably quick transition changing into dry clothes and cycling kit as well as grabbing each of our packs with the compulsory gear for the rest of the race as well as a bite to eat. Unfortunately, Michael had a mystery flat on his rear tyre which maybe cost us one or two minutes but nothing in the grand scheme of things. We set off and were all enjoying being on the bike, more within our comfort zones. The first CP was relatively straightforward after a bit of a steep climb and it was on the way to CP 2 that we lost out to a number of teams behind us. In the rush at transition, we had folded the edges of the map away to fit it into the map board. What none of us realised is that we had folded the CP descriptions away and were consequently sent on a bit of a wild goose chase to find the mysterious CP. After quite a bit of bundu bashing and back and forth on trails that didn’t appear on the Topo map we finally made it to a larger district road and put the pedal down for the rest of the leg. Being the fragile little skinny climber that I am my legs did not at all like the fast-paced, low cadence, high power grind that the rest of the leg consisted of and I hung on behind Michael and Yolande who were incredibly strong on the flats. Jonathan also suffered a bit which I was secretly grateful for as it allowed a bit of respite from the push. Most of our time had been lost in the wandering around at the second CP and this allowed Jabberwock to get us in their sights and slowly wear us down until they were right with us.

Leg 5 – Trek 18km

Definitely the toughest leg of the race mentally, the trek consisted of a lot of climbing and to make matters worse was mostly in the dark. Both Jonathan and I were feeling slightly fragile after the last fast few k’s of the previous cycling leg, once again I think I was saved a bit by not being the one to feel the worst at the time, but in honesty I would not have been able to sustain a pace much faster than the brisk power hike we were reduced to up the mountain. Jabberwock soon passed us after we had made a quicker transition than them and from there it was a bit of an uphill battle for us. We made a nav error and as a consequence had to bundu bash next to a ridgeline to the first CP. This left us well behind Jabberwock in 5th place with little idea of who was behind us. The next two CP’s were relatively straightforward, and we were all feeling strong enough to run down the mountain back to the base of the mountain near transition.

The next CP was, quite depressingly, placed in a saddle other side of another mountain opposite the one we had just summited. We had a look at the map and decided to take a bit of a risk and rather than traverse around the base of the mountain, go straight over it, as the crow flies, to the CP. In theory, this was a great idea and the execution was nearly spot on, however, there were a number of factors which made this a pretty terrible choice. One was that the vegetation on the mountain, which we couldn’t see, was rather dense and unforgiving, and the second was that we came across another saddle, very similar to the one in which the CP was before we got to the correct saddle. This was the cause of lots of frustration and searching around for a CP which we believed HAD TO be where we were.

Luckily, after hours of searching, cooler heads prevailed and Michael led us back in the direction of a more established hiking trail, after which we were able to see the error in our navigation and find the CP. All of this bundu bashing and searching had, unfortunately, taken its toll on me, both physically and mentally and I was pretty much done by the time we found the CP. We were able to run downhill but, on the flats, and up hills, all I could manage was a brisk walk. Luckily, we were now on a clear path on our way to the final transition.

Leg 6 – MTB 55km

The last cycle was, navigationally much more straightforward and we made excellent progress riding on bigger main roads. I felt absolutely amazing when we climbed up and over a small mountain pass and was feeling my old self as soon as the gradient started going up. As the night went on it started getting incredibly cold and we were all suffering a bit with numb fingers and toes, despite that, we kept racing, and it actually felt like we were racing quite fast, making great nav decisions and ticking off each CP.

The final CP seemed like it was placed specifically to crush our spirits after more than 20 hours of racing. On the map, it seemed rather straightforward and our first instinct (which eventually turned out to be right) didn’t seem like it was correct according to the description. So once again we wandered around, trying option after option until only the original area was left Once again, after quite a bit of bicycle bundu bashing we found the point and were ready to head back.

Since the ferry over the river directly from the last CP to the finish was cancelled we rode the last few k’s on the tar road around the river to a bridge and back to the finish.

Thoughts on teams 5th place

I think the whole team was satisfied with the fifth place after considering all of the intense competition from other, more experienced teams. We definitely would have liked to finish higher up and were specifically aiming to be in the top three at least. One has to take into account that, as a team we had never raced together before, I have not competed in AR in years and never raced for such an extended period of time and Jonathan had an incredible task on his hands, navigating for such a strong team at such a high pace (which he took into stride incredible well and I think learned a lot from the more experienced team members). Yolande and Michael were both incredibly strong throughout the whole race and definitely pulled us through physically and mentally.

General comments

I enjoyed the race and loved racing alongside my brother in a discipline that is much more his world than mine. AR is definitely a discipline in which anyone can get involved in. It allows people with a large variety of skills and strengths to compete against each other on an ever-changing, challenging field. The races are as much a mental challenge as a physical one and the satisfaction on completing such a challenge is well worth the hard work.

Images Craig Giese Photography and Media

Written by KeyHealth Nevarest Team Member – Alex Hamu