Tim and I had talked about doing the 2019 World Rogaine Champs together for while before the plans fell into place. After we won the National Champs in November, this provided us a springboard to target the World Champs. There was things we could do to improve and we could both get fitter so the 6 month journey began.
One of the main attractions for heading to the World Champs this year was the fantastic location, the Ski resort town of La Molina. La Molina is situated at the Eastern end of the Pyrenees Mountain range in the northern part of Catalunya. Of course being a ski area, the course was located up high, steep gully spur terrain, with a mix of open and forested areas. The top of the course was about 2500m and the lower part around 1300m below sea level.
Tim and I chose to turn up about a week and a bit beforehand and spend some time getting used to the altitude and the environment. I don’t think that it rained the entire ten days other than a few evening thunderstorms while we were there, but here we were on race day morning faced with heavy rain, complete with thunder and lightning. The one positive outcome of the thunderstorms was the significant drop in temperature.
Nervously we headed to the start area to check in well ahead of time to get the maps to plan with. Planning could have been a disaster, there was limited space in the planning tent for the 800+ competitors, so we had to find elsewhere to plan. Luckily Matt Bixley was hanging around and was able to set up a tent which we were able to use to plan inside.
Planning is never an easy task, and three hours seems like a long time, but its not really. Anyway we nutted it out, weighed up options and worked a reasonably solid plan out. There was a few of last minute changes, then quickly we then sealed the course on the map and rushed out into the cold to head to the start box. At the very last minute we had to scrounge an extra warm top as an insurance policy – somehow when packing the day before in 33 deg heat I struggled to comprehend that it could be as cold as 7 deg at the start!
The start was signaled by a series of guns being fired and we rushed off, straight up the hill to begin with. Instantly Tim was off and charging, I sprinted to catch up, narrowly avoiding a collision with someone else going a different direction. It didn’t feel like a huge many of the competitors went in our direction, which we were fine with, less congestion at the first control! Quickly the first one was under our belts and onto then onto the second.
We had opted to start of relatively high on the course where we were exposed to some quite solid wind. The soaking rain and a bit of sweat inside the jackets made things a tad unpleasant for a while. I think we were both on the verge of being just a little bit cold, that tricky point where its not cold enough to stop and put more clothes on just yet.
By the time we followed a nicely benched contour round to our 3rd control we found ourselves as a first arrival at one control (as we had to wake the control up!). The traverse back was muddy but good running on flat ground, the interestingly shaped hillsides made us wonder if they were man/animal made or just geologically like that. The easy contouring quickly came to an end as we entered the first of our course in the scattered forest. This is where we really started to have to work for the controls. Fortunately We were able to adapt quickly and like a hunter/killer team smoothly dealt to it. Our confidence levels were up and already we were over 200pts down, 1 hour in.
For the next hour and a half we spent the majority of our time in and out of the forest, somewhat sheltered from the rain. There was very tricky control located in a re-entrant which if you didn’t know any better you might have thought we fell on top of, but some good team work and solid navigation again saw sniff it out.
Prior to the start we had word that the rain was going to last until probably midnight before it abated. Again some luck was on our side as the rain had pretty subsided and the sun was poking through the forest canopy. It got quite humid for a while and then the jackets had to come off.
Progress was steady for the next few hours, we crossed through the lower village of La Molina. Then up and over the boarder into France briefly, to collect one, and quickly back into Spain. Things were going great, we were hitting our targets well ahead of schedule which meant now we needed to think about a reschedule or shuffle of our plan. Fortunately our planned route made it easy to add stuff in without compromising the original intention. Unfortunately most of the add ins were 3 and 4 pointers* but it seemed like to do well, we had to at least collect some of them as well.
As we approached the 6 hour mark, Tim required a quick stop to fix the old slippery insole issue with Salomon shoes. I’m not sure that there is many people that carry super glue with them in a race but it is a potentially race saving item to add to the list of gear to race with. Both of us went through alternative low patches with that hour but we both came right as the day was started to quickly run out. The evening Thunderstorm clouds were making their way back, and the air cooling down ominously so Jackets were back on. There was a little bit of tricky navigation on a couple of the next ones including a 10 pts control.
Progress was great, navigation great and we were racking up the points. After a long section of downhill on the road we then met a familiar face or two from various racing around china and the rest of the world. A quick ‘nihou’ exchanged but no time for chatting though, this was business.
Back in the forest, a compass bearing took us into a tight re-entrant before we emerged into the open and across the hillside down towards Puigcerda, for perhaps the most spectacular views of the race. The sunlight and angle just made the views all very much worth the effort.
Eventually the grey clouds made way for some final low angle sunshine for the day at perhaps the lowest height point of the course. Going out of the control we spotted Andris and team mate, looking surprised to see us again. We felt we might have just got the edge over them at that moment in time, setting Tim off like a rocket. He was like a man possessed, I had to tell him to calm down a little as I went from being in a comfortable place physically to struggling a bit.
Tim’s enthusiasm meant that we took some bullish micro routes to get to the Water stop, ploughing through some nasty thick pockets of scrubby bush at the edge of paddocks and then straight up and over the hill rather than some nice tracks that sort of went near to the water.
When we reached the water stop there was another team there, and they were putting jackets on… I was feeling pretty hot and planning to take mine off! Interestingly enough the water stop happened to be right next to a paddock of curious looking Goats so I made sure I put my stuff down out of reach just in-case they were hungry. The stop was reasonably efficient and we were out of there within 5 minutes, all set up with head-torches for the night ahead.
The first control out of the water stop was a quick reminder that we were on a super detailed orienteering style map with the control tucked away in a narrow little re-entrant. As had been the case so far the right person was onto it with the Navigation at the right time and we slipped in and out of there quickly. The next few controls involved crossing though areas of sporadic farmland and patches of bush, before we emerged back out on the road at the base of the hill again. As we made our way along the road we ran into our mate Andris once again chilling out at the water stop. Again no time for stopping to chat, but a few minutes later we were able to chat on the move with some Kiwi’s.
Together with Kerry and her team mate, we climbed the hill into a very tricky little area. We made some good calls, which lead us straight to the control first time with no issues. Once out of the maze of little rock walls, we bid farewell to the only team we ran with the entire time and climbed back up towards France. Getting back into France this time required some careful negotiate skills to get around some agitated looking horses. The poor horses had probably been disturbed for the 20 millionth time already today and we were just adding to the stress.
Another 60 points down, we faced a traverse to get to the next control through the forest. Not for the first time today we did a text book job of it and hit the control right were we thought it should be. Another one down, we continued to climb back up to the tops.
As we climbed out we managed to find some more kiwis for a fleeting chat. Every now and then we needed to make a call whether to cut through forest blocks or run the long way round. By this stage I think because it was getting later in the night, Tim was feeling like we needed to take a more conservative approach. Luckily I was able to remind him one of our competitive advantages was in fact that we did posses the orienteering skills to cut corners and now was the time to best use them! It was great, both of us were working well together and we somehow had figured out that every-time we came to a disagreement navigationaly the right one was taking charge.
Around halfway through the night we made it to a water stop expecting to find just some bottles or a tap. In this case there also happened to be some warm soup, that really hit the spot. We both had a chance to sort out our shit to put it bluntly, but stuff like switch batteries, anti-chafe feet etc as well as water.
Back out into the wilderness we went, its so easy to see how teams could waste a lot of time at places like that! We had now reached the final section of the right-hand side of the course. Several controls were in the real scrubby stuff we had first seen when arriving in the area a week earlier. The scrub was just as we thought super tricky and particularly so at night.
We made our two biggest navigational mistakes here, first we did not see the control and wasted about 20mins searching before realising we had missed seeing it the first time by something like 10 m. Next we chose to cut down to an indistinct track which initially we were on to but later had to back track to get round. Perhaps the only time we found where the map didn’t quite get the heights of the vegetation quite right. Nevertheless we made it out of the shit fight there and were back on well used track again.
We wandered through the town of Alp at around 2-3am, quietly picking up water at a local park and climbing back up into the Northwestern corner of the map. This side of the valley the vegetation was thicker and after over 15 hours on the go, our legs were not enjoying the greater amount of elevation gain on this side either.
We gradually reached the early hours of the morning,we had made it so far through the night now that we knew morning wasn’t too far away. However this is probably the time when you are most vulnerable to silly mistakes. And that is what happened, we both had downers for a while, missed a track junction then really struggled. I was having problems feeling ill and not being able to eat any food, just a few nibbles and a lolly every now and then. We mostly held it together, but looking back now if there was one point during the race where we let the foot off the throttle it was then.
As the light finally arrived we cut a long way across to a 9 pointer, but had real trouble getting to the actual control site. First try we had to back out due to steep ground and gnarly vegetation, second time around we cut in a bit lower and it paid off – we collected the control, and got some momentum back again. Just as well because we had a lot of climbing to do for the next 4 or so hours.
As we emerged from the forest we were met by a cameraman who seemed almost a bit rushed to get some photos and video of us. We put on a bit of a jog where things flattened out for a bit, and they rushed around to get some more photos which made us wonder if the reason was because we were doing quite well. This rallied us a bit, and kept us motivated to grind our way up the steep ski slopes into the higher reaches of the course. Both of us were struggling to eat the food we had, but there seemed to be an abundance of wild strawberries that Tim periodically grab a handful of now and then between steps.
The steep climb to collect the 8 pointer seemed like a hard fight to pick up, I struggled a bit during the climb, while Tim kept a high tempo. The tables however turned once we had reached the top as Tim faded dramatically and I regained a bit of strength to get us to the water stop.
At the water stop we filled up on last time for the race. Since we were struggling to eat we added drink powder to our hydration bladders so that we were taking in at least a few calories even if it was just sipping them up through a straw. We had allocated about 1 hour to make the climb to the highest point on the course, as we figured we needed two hours minimum from the top to continue on our planned route. As we climbed higher it got a lot windier and a lot colder again, coupled with the altitude (we were now at about 2500m) we were missing our target time by about 15 minutes. Now we had to make a call, and we went with the sensible option. We chose to cut down our course, dropping a total of 14 points from our score.
We hoped that this would not come back to bite us, I think I even remarked at the time: “I hope we don’t lose by 14 points”. Our altered course added in a few more low pointers at the expense of the higher ones further away with more climb. The running ended up being quite good on the ski slopes, and we covered a lot more ground than we expected in a short amount of time. One control in particular was quite tricky but luckily Tim was onto it and I was just getting a little panicky. We sidled around the hillside and suddenly we were only 1 hour out. Somehow when it gets down to the final few minutes the pain goes away as the brain takes over and gets excited with finish line fever. We raced through the final 7 pointer then we were onto the last 2 pointer with 20 minutes to go, we had enough time now to add in extra controls. There wasn’t a lot of good options around other than another 2 point control. We picked that one up and headed to the finish.
The final straight was a bit of grind up a grassy ski slope, luckily it wasn’t too steep, but it was enough that we wanted to walk. However as we were power walking a team came from behind us. I repeated back to Tim what he told me a few weeks earlier about “you haven’t gone hard enough unless you spew at the finish line” this spurred a little bit of action and we managed a slow uphill jog across the line to finish with just under 10 minutes to spare. Waiting for us at the finish line was a super happy Matt, which he indicated to us that we had done a pretty good job, possibly a win and definitely a top 3 position. This put us in a tricky situation as we had to wait now on tenterhooks until the final result could be confirmed.
It wasn’t until we had been back to the hotel, had a shower, some food and were back for the prize giving that we saw some finalised results. After being lead to believe that it was possible we won, we discovered we had infact been beaten into second place by just 5 points. A bit of a let down, but also lucky that we hadn’t allowed ourselves to believe until the final result was through. Never the less we were happy with our race, we had given it our best shot, basically the race of our lives, we had a good plan, we executed it well, we navigated well and ran well. There wasn’t a lot more we could have done to improve our performance, and we were beaten by a better team, a team that already have several previous World Champs wins under their belts too. Definitely some unfinished business to attend to next year though!
* the points system works a little different to NZ, for example 7 points = 70 points in NZ. We scored a total of 409points or the equivalent of 4090pts in NZ scoring terms