Over the weekend Sam Ritchie and I embarked on the the Adventure Xstream Series‘ last event of the 2015: a 24 hour running, biking, and kayaking race through Moab’s endless maze of sandstone. Sam and I have both raced endurance events before (Sam has a lot more experience than me), but this was our first adventure race. After 13 hours on the course and 73 miles of running, biking, and paddling we crossed the finish line in first place!
What is adventure racing and what is this race all about?
“Adventure racing (also called expedition racing) is typically a multi-disciplinary team sport involving navigation over an unmarked wilderness course with races extending anywhere from two hours up to two weeks in length…The principle disciplines in adventure racing include trekking, mountain biking, and paddling although races can incorporate a multitude of other disciplines including climbing, abseiling, horse riding, skiing and white water rafting.” – Wikipedia, Adventure racing
The AXS Moab Finale is the Adventure Xstream Series’ last event of the season and longest race in the lineup. Always ones for a challenge, Sam and I decided to pop our adventure racing cherries by diving right in to the longest event that was put on by AXS.
Preparing for the race
I’m pretty new to the world of endurance sports. Actually, I had never even thought about any kind of racing until Sam invited me to join him on the Grand Traverse last February with less than a month to go before the event. I did what I could to train for the month before the race and when the day of the event came I was more nervous than I have ever been. We made it through the 40 mile course in a little over 12 hours and even though I was dramatically under-conditioned and Sam had to coach me through the whole thing, I was completely hooked.
I left for California and the bus two days later with a sense of accomplishment like I haven’t felt before and wheels spinning in my head on what would come next. Even with this being my first race, it was easy to recognize that Sam and I had an excellent team dynamic and I knew that I would be happy to race with him again given the opportunity. While paging through some ultra-marathons and cross country bike races, I remembered hearing from a Boulder friend about a race in Moab that he had participated in the previous fall. A quick Google search brought me to the AXS landing page. Sam and I were signed up within 48 hours.
This time around I had a lot more time to prepare for the race. Having a full 6 months gave me plenty of time to think about finishing the bus and getting back on the training horse. Out on the Grand Traverse, Sam and I got along well, but I was definitely left with a feeling that I held him back once I started to fatigue. With that in mind I was determined to train up to a higher level of fitness and bring as much as I could to the table. With half a year to train for this event, there was no excuse not to!
As soon as we hit the road with the bus, training began for the October 10 event. Over the summer I took every opportunity to run, hike, and bike as often and as far as possible. I’d like to say that I had a really disciplined training schedule with specific mileage and intensity goals, but I have to be honest and admit that my routine really just consisted of a lot of runs and bike rides that I would have wanted to do anyways had I not been training for this event. Fortunately, as I became more active, my endurance and strength increased and by the end of September I had developed what I thought was a pretty solid fitness base.
One aspect of adventure racing that makes the sport stand out from other ultra-endurance events is the mystery of what the specifics of the race course. Information on what exactly we would be doing, where, and when was pretty limited leading up to the event. We knew that we’d be biking 40-60 miles, running 15-20 miles, and paddling 10-15 miles. Were were also given a list of required gear which included survival basics like food, water, and emergency shelter as well as items specific to each discipline like a repair kit for biking and a life jacket for the paddling section.
Not knowing exactly what we would be doing and when made it difficult to plan out the logistics in the race and forced us to be flexible in our planning. A lot of questions like “Will I need to run in my bike shoes?”, “How much mountain biking will I be doing at night?” and “Will Alyssa be able to help out at the transitions?” were left unanswered until the night before the event.
For about a week before the event, Alyssa and I had been hanging around Moab. I spent the last few days before taking it easy on the workouts and exploring some of the areas around Moab trying to hone my navigation skills. Sam and Jenna headed out from Boulder on Friday morning and met up with us in the afternoon to run through all of our gear one last time before finding out the details of the course.
We grabbed a carb-filled dinner at Pasta Jay’s and headed to the Aarchway Inn around 7:30pm to get our info. Not knowing exactly what to expect, we made our way into the conference room at the hotel, handed over our release forms to the race organizer, and received a plastic bag full of race info. After taking a couple of silly photos we spread out our map and got to work.
We learned from the race “passport” that the course would be divided into five legs. The first leg would be a quick run from the staging area at the Gold Bar put in on the Colorado River. Upon returning from the first leg, we would receive a series of UTM coordinates marking checkpoints that we would need to navigate to before eventually returning to the same staging area. At that point we would be given another set of points to reach on our mountain bikes and end at the boat ramp back in Moab. Here we would hop into kayaks and paddle back down to the main staging area to receive our last set of points and embark on our final trekking leg before the finish back at Gold Bar.
Having been given only the coordinates of the transition areas and the very first checkpoint, there wasn’t much route planning that we could do before the event. Once we had a good grasp on what was happening, we hopped in the bus and headed out to the staging area for the race, conveniently located at a bus-friendly group campsite.
After a fitful night’s sleep, we woke up early to get a big breakfast in and finish up all of our gear preparations. Now that we knew the basic order of events for the race, we could organize all of our gear based on the order that we would need it. Conveniently, all of the transitions (except the kayak transition) were at the bus so we could lay everything out there. Alyssa and Jenna drove our paddles, PFDs, and other kayaking gear back into town to the Moab boat ramp so we’d have everything there after the bike ride.
While Alyssa and Jenna were gone, Sam and I did one final check of our gear and started the last preparations before the race: triathlon shorts, bike shirts, running shoes, and sunscreen.
Stage 1 – Corona Arch Trail Run, 3.5 miles
When Sam and I have talked race strategy before, the idea is almost always to start out slow and steady and then pass people as you go. The advantage to this is that you don’t burn too much energy early on and you can get a little ego boost every time you pass someone along the way. For this particular race, we knew that there would be a bottleneck at the first checkpoint as everyone stopped to punch their booklets. With this in mind, we decided to jet out ahead of the pack for the first 1.5 miles up to the Corona Arch.
As the minutes counted down towards the 9:30am start time, people started to gather at the inflatable arch that marked the start line. The race coordinator got on his bullhorn, counted down, and we were off. Sam and I bolted up in front of the pack determined to be towards the front and feeling out the rest of the energy of the other competitors. There was one other guy, a solo racer, who really jumped out in front with us and we pushed on right behind him.
The trail to the arch was well traveled and didn’t present any navigational challenges until one confusing turn that put us behind another team of two. By the time we made it up to the arch, we quickly punched our race passport and were back in the lead. We kept it cooking for the entire run down and made it back to the staging area right behind the solo racer that we had been following earlier. We all seemed to be moving at about the same pace and decided to stick together for a bit.
Stage 2 – Point to point trek off trail, 10 miles
Back at the staging area again, we were handed a set of five UTM coordinates that we needed to hit in order. Another advantage of being out in front of the pack is that we knew that we could plot the first point in the set and jet out of the transition area again quickly while many teams stayed to plot their entire course. With the coordinate plotted on our topo map and the point punched into my GPS watch, we jetted out of Gold Bar and up on the Jeep Arch trail.
We didn’t stay on the trail for long before cutting off along the top of one of the drainages towards our point. Based on the description of this checkpoint, we knew that we would be looking for a marker somewhere near the top of a waterfall. As we started to close in on the point, I veered off right and started climbing out of the wash that we had been traveling in. Sam and Justin stayed down low to make sure that we didn’t miss anything down there. Farther up I could see the top of the waterfall, but no point. I moved up closer and looked around for about a minute before spotting the checkpoint on the ledge about 30 feet down below me. I shouted that I had found the point and started looking around again for a good way down to the ledge. About 10 minutes later I had moved upstream from the waterfall and finally found a way down into the drainage.
As I was hopping down into the sand, Sam and Justin’s heads appeared above me and they asked me what was I doing? They had already made it to the checkpoint together from the other side and were already ready to go to the next point. Unfortunately for Sam and I, I was the one holding our passport so I had to make it to the point to do the punch. I ran down towards the checkpoint only to find a large pool about 30 feet by 30 feet filled with opaque water with no way to walk or climb around. The only options here were a big run around to where Sam and Justin gained access or a quick swim across the pool. Swimming was the obvious choice. It’s worth noting that one of my biggest fears is being in water that I can’t see the bottom of. I don’t know why, but it terrifies me. I pulled my shoes and pack off and started wading out into the pool. After about a foot in, the bottom completely dropped off into nothingness. I was going to have to swim it completely. Not without a little moaning and groaning, I held the passport over my head and jumped in. It was a quick swim across to the checkpoint and back before I was back on the route to the next checkpoint with slightly damp socks.
Just as we were leaving for the next checkpoint, two other teams were just arriving to the waterfall checkpoint and encountering the same issue that I had finding a way down. We kept moving towards the next checkpoint confident that we had just established a little bit of a lead.
The route to the next point brought us up and out of a wash onto slickrock and then down into another drainage. This was an easy find and we were quickly on our way to the next point at a tree overlooking the arch that we had visited at the beginning of the race. We kept our pace up moving up and down the big slickrock domes on the top of the mesa and made it quickly again to the overlook. Time to eat. I munched down a Clif bar while we plotted the next point on the map.
The next point was only about half a mile away from us, but there was a huge canyon running right down the middle.We were going to have to backtrack a ways, cross the wash, and get on top of the other side of the canyon. About five minutes after we started the backtrack, we saw a team of four competitors followed almost immediately by a solo racer and a team of two. The team of four were hot on our tails, but the solo racer and team of two had both missed the last checkpoint and were a little turned around looking for it. We pointed them in the right direction and kept pushing on towards our point.
Confident that we were on the right route, the run to the next point went quickly and soon we found ourselves at the 5th checkpoint right at the top of a 200 foot, mostly free-hanging, rappel off of a cliff overlooking the staging area. The volunteers at the checkpoint punched our passports and checked our gear for safety before we hooked up to the rappel and worked our way over the edge. One slight mistake here is that Sam and I both forgot to bring gloves which are a huge luxury on a big rappel like this. In order to avoid rope burn, we had to feed the rope hand over hand into our rappel devices rather than letting it run through our hands. This slowed us down a bit, but really didn’t ruin the race for us.
From the bottom of the rappel, we regrouped and ran down to the staging area for the transition into the biking stage.
Stage 3 – Mountain Biking, 50 miles
Alyssa and Jenna had both watched us on the rappel and were waiting for us at the staging area with cold towels, fruit, and Ensure (Sam’s favorite). The five checkpoints for the mountain biking leg could be reached in any order so we hammered down some food while we plotted the points and strategized. We settled on a route that took us up Long Canyon, around some of the Mag 7 trail system, and down Gemini Bridges road to the Moab bike path down to the Moab boat ramp.
It’s easy to get sucked into the comforts of the aid station, but Sam kept us moving and soon we were on our bikes and out of the parking lot. We made good time on the paved road leading up to Long Canyon before pulling onto dirt and beginning the long climb up to the top of the mesa. It wasn’t long before we were really feeling the heat so I was conscious to take a couple of salt pills and keep drinking water as we climbed.
About halfway through the canyon we finally found a patch of shade and took a minute to slam another Gu. Justin got off his bike and did some quick stretches to help relieve some cramps. Seconds later we were back on the bikes again moving up the road. Two turns later Sam looked back and pointed out that Justin had dropped back. We were disappointed to lose our race buddy, but had to keep moving at the fastest sustainable pace for our team.
About the same time, I was starting to really feel fatigued from climbing. I’ve been on a new bike for about a month and one challenge with it has been the 1×10 gear configuration. Having only one chainring in the front means giving up the easiest gear that I would normally rely on for super long climbs once my legs get tired. Sam offered to trade bikes for a few minutes to give me legs a second to recover. After a few cranks on my bike, Sam remarked that the seat felt a little high for him which was strange because we are almost exactly the same height. Maybe my seat was just set too high? I pulled out my multi-tool and bumped the seat down by about half an inch. Night and day difference. Just that little bit of seat height allowed me to get more power out of each crank and made me way more efficient on the climb. I consider myself a pretty decent biker, but having only started biking last year I still have a lot of basics to learn (like knowing how high your seat should be).
Once on top of the mesa, Sam and I really started to move. The 4×4 road turned into a graded dirt road and then eventually into paved highway to the Gemini Bridges trailhead. Here we finally hopped on the first singletrack of the day and quickly covered the last three miles to the first biking checkpoint. By now we had covered about 15 miles on bikes and were just getting started with the ride.
The position of the second checkpoint forced us to backtrack a bit so we headed back up the “7up” trail and cut over to “Getaway.” On Getaway we snagged two more checkpoints and kept cranking through to the forth point at the intersection of the Great Escape and Little Canyon. Right after this intersection we saw another team who had come up into the trail system from the opposite direction and were grabbing points in reverse order from us. Since we were four checkpoints into the ride and they had only grabbed one, we became pretty confident in our lead.
The next checkpoint was a slow ride a couple of miles up a loose and technical 4×4 road. The passport said that the point was in the wash about 30 yards up from the road, but left out the fact that there were two washes side by side. We looked in vain up the first wash before realizing that the second wash contained our point.
With the final biking checkpoint punched, our next task was to make it down to the Moab boat ramp. We opted for the route that would take us a little farther out of the way, but was on dirt and paved roads so would hopefully be a little faster. This thinking turned out to be pretty solid except for the full mile of deep sand at the top of Gemini Bridges Road. The sand in the wash had us spinning in our granny gears trying to keep our bikes straight when we were planning on being able to ride 12+ mph on the road. When we finally made it through sand trap onto real gravel, the pace picked up and we were cruising towards the paved bike path that runs along highway 191.
Clip of the mood up above Moab in this past weekend’s adventure race with @whitchcock . #maddoxlives A video posted by Sam Ritchie (@sritchie09) on
About 30 minutes later after an unexpected climb towards the end of the road, we pulled onto the bike path, munched down a burrito, and started hammering away towards the Moab boat ramp. It was all downhill from here and we made excellent time on the paved surface. Sam and I switched off taking the lead so the other could draft behind and conserve some energy. The huge bike ride in the heat of the day definitely took its toll on our hydration so we chugged down the rest of our water on the way.
Stage 4 – Kayaking, 10 miles
About 25 minutes after pulling onto the path, we rolled into the Moab boat ramp confident in our lead. Alyssa asked how we were doing and we responded, “Great, we’re in the front by a lot.” Alyssa didn’t even have to say anything to convey that we were wrong in our assumption. Another team of two had pulled into the boat ramp about 30 seconds ahead of us after absolutely crushing it on the bike leg.
Now it was on! Sam and I regeared as quickly as possible in the transition. All of the bike gear out of the packs, shoes off, PFDs on, and glow sticks cracked so motor boats on the river didn’t run us down. A minute or two ahead of the other team, we pulled our inflatable kayak into the water and shoved off for Gold Bar. It was only a couple of minutes on the water before we realized that we were going to be cold and wet. The sun had finally gone down, the temperature was dropping, and water from the paddles was splashing all over us. We took a minute to stop and pull on our rain jackets to keep a little warmer, losing our direction as soon as the paddles stopped (these inflatable kayaks are definitely not built for flatwater paddling enjoyment).
All set for a long paddle, we hunkered down and started moving downstream at a steady and strong pace. About 20 minutes into the paddle, I looked over and was blown away to see the other team sneaking by us on the other side of the wide river. There isn’t much current out there, but they had found a slightly faster channel and were riding it right past us. We cut over behind them and kept up the pressure on them. With the fire lit, it wasn’t hard for us to pass the team again and start to develop a lead over the next 20 minutes. Unfortunately, the lead was completely blown when we run aground on a sandbar and the team leapfrogged right by us again after seeing our mistake. Instead of burning more energy trying to pass a second time, we hung back and waited for the other team to make the same mistake.
At this point it became obvious that they were tiring out. Confident that we could beat them in the last running leg of the race, and knowing that even a huge effort for the rest of the paddle would only give us a couple of minutes lead, we eased off on the paddling and cruised at a steady and mellow speed for the next hour until making it into Gold Bar.
Stage 5 – Trek, 5 miles
Not wanting to waste any time before the final leg, we spent the last 15 minutes of kayaking planning how we would handle our transition. Our passport had room for 25 punches and so far we had only punched 10. We were only about 12 hours into a 24 hour race so were pretty sure that we’d be looking at at least another 10-15 miles of trekking to several points in the dark. As we pulled the kayak out of the water, we shouted to Alyssa and Jenna that we had arrived (I think Sam actually yelled “Bus Crew!”). They came running out with shoes for us and started stuffing all of the gear we needed for a big trek into our packs. Water, food, and layers for a long night.
At the race organizer’s table we learned that instead of 15 more points, we were only tasked with getting out and back from a single point. A quick plot on the map showed that the point was up a marked hiking trail only about 2.5 miles away. Now we were dumping water out of our backpacks and dropping food out in front of the bus. Only 5 more miles to victory and we needed to be as light as possible!
After a quick shirt change into something warmer and drier and a half of a cup of hot coffee, we jogged out of the transition area for the last time while the second place team fiddled with their gear and dealt with cramps at their car. The trail up to the last checkpoint and the Jeep Arch was well marked with cairns, but difficult to follow in the dark. Several times we would run off of the trail looking for the next cairn and have to backtrack and find the trail again. Even in the dark and after 65+ miles, the trail was a lot of fun and we made good time up to the arch.
Once near the point, we started scanning around looking for the flag that would mark the hole-punch that we needed to punch our book with. Nothing. On either side of the arch. Every other checkpoint had been marked with a big, orange cubic flag similar to a Chinese lantern. If there was one of those out here it would be easy to spot. About five minutes into our search, I started to fan out from the arch and something caught my eye on the shrub about 10 feet in front of me. Attached to one of the branches was the red punch, but no flag like we had grown accustomed used to seeing. Either the race organizers had neglected to put a flag there or a tourist had grabbed it during the day (we later learned that it was a tourist).
A video posted by Sam Ritchie (@sritchie09) on
With the last checkpoint punched into our book, we hopped back on the trail and started jamming down towards the finish line. The second place team was right behind us, but fortunately too far to see exactly where I had found the punch. That would give us at least a little time advantage which, if we kept our pace up on the descent, we would hopefully not need anyways. With the finish line so close, fatigue was starting to set in for me and keeping the pace up downhill was no small feat. Sam, ever the drill sergeant, kept me moving with uplifting commands like, “Don’t even think about walking right now!”
After a few wrong turns, we finally rounded the last corner and saw the glowing arch of the finish line in the distance. Only a quarter mile to go! We kicked on the afterburners and bumped the speed up for the last stretch over the line. We both came in strong together still in pretty good shape after 13 hours straight in the desert.
Coming in first at our very first adventure race was a huge accomplishment for Sam and I. Not only was I really stoked about the victory, but I felt that we performed admirably as a team, never letting our stubbornness, grumpiness, or exhaustion break our focus on the finish. I was under-conditioned for the Grand Traverse in the spring, but felt like I had achieved a bit of redemption with this race. Sam definitely still has a bigger engine and a lot of gas in the tank, but my conditioning has improved to a point that I felt like I could hold my own during the race.
When I first heard about the Adventure Xstream series, I was pretty sure that I would be hooked on this style of racing. One of my secret objectives with this race was to get Sam hooked too and I think it worked. Since finishing on Saturday night, he’s been scheming on other events that we can sign up for. We’ll see what’s next.
Thank you so much Alyssa and Jenna for being our crew during the race. We could have done it without you, but it would have been shitty. You two made the transitions something to look forward to each time. We owe you one!