#GetOutside champion Mary-Ann Ochota tries grueling night time adventure racing (cycling, orienteering, and running) in the Surrey countryside!
It’s 3am and I’m sweating in the dark, cycling up a thickly-wooded bridleway. The only noise I can hear is my ragged breathing – everything else in the Surrey Hills appears, quite rightly, to be asleep. For the seventeenth time tonight, I wonder what the heck I’m doing. Then I look up to see the vast shadows of ancient trees around me, and catch a glimpse of the red flashing backlight of the racer ahead of me. At the brow of the hill, I gasp some breaths then start bombing downhill as fast as my nerves will allow. Tree roots are barely illuminated before I’ve bumped over them, and I’m now breathless from exhilaration. This is really COOL. I’m on a proper adventure.
I’m five hours in to my first Tri-Adventure Night&Day adventure race, where competitors navigate between checkpoints on foot and on mountain bike, collecting points as they go. Most of these orienteering-style events run in daylight hours – sometimes for 2, maybe 5 hours. At 12 hours, this race is longer than anything I’ve done before. And brilliantly, it starts at 10pm, and runs until 10am the following day, so half the race is done in darkness, which adds a new flavour to the navigational challenges. When you make it to the finish line, you’re rewarded with a medal and a cooked breakfast. Thoughts of toast and tea drive me on.
Excitement and nerves at the start, with Adam Marcinowicz, the race director – Image: Tri-Adventure/Adam Marcinowicz
The race started at Effingham, Surrey, where the race director at Tri-Adventure, Adam Marcinowicz, briefed us all, and handed out maps and instructions. I realise I should have arrived earlier – 12 hours of racing means 12 hours’ worth of route planning and strategy. Thankfully the people sitting next to me take pity and share their route ideas and their highlighter pens. This adventure racing lot are a friendly bunch!
The elite racers will be trying to get to every checkpoint. My aim is to attempt around half the points, focus on navigating accurately, and finish the race without keeling over. I’m not the fittest, certainly not the fastest, but I do like a treasure hunt. And that’s what it feels like every time you see a checkpoint box where you expect it to be.
Images: Tri-Adventure/Adam Marcinowicz
To make things more interesting, the first leg is based on an Ordnance Survey map sheet from 1868. Half of Effingham village doesn’t exist. But the main roads haven’t moved, some of the footpaths are still in existence, and crucially, Adam has actually provided the modern 1:25,000 map on another sheet. Cross-referencing the map points from old map to modern is a fun exercise in its own right, and as the time counts down to race start, the nerves are offset by excitement. The elites sprint over the start line into the darkness – they’ll run about 12km in this first hour, navigating in the dark. I’ve plotted out a route that will cover about 5km, and I’ve given myself an hour to do it. This is a marathon, not a sprint.
To make things more interesting, the first leg is based on an Ordnance Survey map sheet from 1868. Half of Effingham village doesn’t exist.
As I faff about ready to set off, another racer suggests we team up – it’s always good to have two brains map-reading and checking for mistakes. Simon Coppen-Gardner has done these things before, and looks like he knows what he’s doing. He promises to leave me behind if I get too slow – but it turns out that I can see the map details better in the dark – so I’m bringing eyesight to the party, and he’s bringing experience. We make a good team.
Setting off on the bikes – Image: Tri-Adventure/Adam Marcinowicz
A late-night dog walker stops to stare at the people jogging by with headtorches, clutching maps. Once we complete our running loop, we ‘transition’ to our bikes. We need to head to a distant base, collecting points along the way. Once we reach there, we’ll do another running route, then back on the bikes to head home. En route there’s an activity centre where you can score extra points if you stop to complete a rock-climbing and archery challenge. Then a final bike back to Effingham and, if you’ve got any energy and time left, a final run round to collect any last points.
I’ve hired a Mountain Bike from local company B1KE. The words of B1KE’s Richard ring in my ears as I hurtle down the dark bridleway in Simon’s wake. “Strangle the bike, and you’ll get tired. Or you’ll end up over the handlebars! The brakes are very responsive, be gentle.” I try to relax my deathgrip to a manageable level of firm control, push my heels down and my weight back. It feels a bit like riding a narrow, skittish horse. But the trails and tracks in this part of Surrey are really fantastic for riding, and at this time of night we’ve got them to ourselves.
By the time we reach the bike transition point, Simon is having to wait for me at the top and at the bottom of each hill. And it doesn’t feel like there’s anywhere in Surrey that isn’t a hill. As we pedal into the transition, having logged about 45km, my muscles are starting to seize up
As we pedal... having logged about 45km, my muscles are starting to seize up.
I send Simon off to continue the race, a little crestfallen that I won’t be able to finish. But then the organisers tell me I can accept a ‘boost’ – in exchange for points, they’ll drop me off closer to the finish, then it’s up to me to navigate and complete the course. I gratefully accept and by the time I’m clambering out of the minibus at the adventure centre, I’ve got my strength back. I scale the rockclimbing wall, abseil down, then jog across to complete an archery challenge. By now it’s light, and I hop back on to my bike and spin off along the lanes to collect the final points en route home. I congratulate myself on not getting lost, and am infinitely grateful to lovely Simon for taking me under his wing on the night biking.
Climbing challenge, 9 hours into the race – Image: Tri-Adventure/Adam Marcinowicz
I push my way round a final 3k run/hobble, and collect my results – 395 points out of a possible 760, including a very lenient 20 point deduction for the ‘boost’ homewards.
We refuel with a hot cooked brekkie, leftover snack bars and pints of tea, enjoyed in the morning sunshine. Folk strolling to the park and walking their dogs do a double take at the sweaty, exhausted people covered in mud, eating sausage sandwiches. I feel like I’m part of a special adventuring club.
I’m rubbing shoulders with some of the best runners and riders in the country, and it’s inspiring. I’ve thrown down the gauntlet to myself. This Adventure Racing lark might be addictive.
'Proud to get my medal!' – Image: Tri-Adventure/Adam Marcinowicz
GET SOME ADVENTURE
Tri-Adventure run navigation, mountain bike and trail running races throughout the year, including 2-hr and 4-hr races, which are a perfect way to see if this is a sport for you. For more information visit www.triadventure.co.uk. Tri-Adventure also offers Navigation courses, to help you hone those map reading skills.
Develop your mountain bike skills in the beautiful Surrey Hills with B1KE. For more information and group bike hire details go to www.b1ke.com