For the Mayan Mountain Adventure Racing Challenge (MMAC), which also serves as the North American Adventure Racing Series Championship, NYARA sent a relatively young, up and coming team, with Olof Hedberg, Whitney Hedberg and Mikael Mattsson all new recruits to NYARA for 2014, and Jason Brown who normally races for GOALS ARA and SWIFT, making an appearance to complete the team. Below is a race report from team captain, Olof Hedberg.
We had a lot of uncertainties before the race: none of us had ever raced in the jungle before, the team of four had never raced all together, Whitney was sick before the race and just barely recovering, and two out of four had never done an expedition race before, and at the other end Mikael hadn’t done an AR in seven years.
It was almost a relief to be at the start line, because then all we could do was focus on the race and finally stop worrying about other potential problems.
The race started with a 30+k bike leg. The first 16k was relatively easy if it wasn’t for the fact that I overheated my breaks in the first downhill and we had to stop and do mechanical work while the rest of the teams raced away. How did this happen? – Well one of the brake rotors on Whitney’s bike got damaged on the flight over, and finding a replacement in Belize was not possible. The only solution was for me to race without a front brake, which lead to some problems throughout the race. More on that later.
After being dead last and playing catch up during the first 16k we had our first experience with Belizean mud. Just after punching CP1, the route turned off the road and into a double/single track. A thunder storm the night before had made the trail so wet that while riding was not an option, neither was pushing the bikes. The only way forward was to shoulder the bikes and carry them while trudging through the mud. Needless to say, a lot of thoughts crossed our minds at this time, but we found relief in that at this point the situation was the same for everyone. After about 3k, the mud-fest stopped and the trails became ride-/walkable again and we caught up with ENDracing/Yogaslackers – a super nice team which we saw again many times during the race.
After punching CP2 at the bottom of a beautiful waterfall, and fixing our first flat, we crossed a river and headed towards our first TA.
We arrived at the TA in third place in the elite class (and 5th overall), but with ENDracing right on our heels. After switching to foot our first task was a Tyrolean traverse over a river. This was a new experience for some of us, but it caused no problems and we always love well designed ropes elements.
The next trek was a lot longer than we had expected. It started with me making a navigation error which cost us about an hour. After that we realized that many of the trails marked on the map did not exist in real life and instead there were a few new ones. This is basically adventure racing navigation 101 – trails change, but hills don’t. With our maps last updated in 1992, a lot of changes had happened. So when several of our proposed route choices didn’t exist, and jungle bush whacking didn’t seem like a good option, we chose the long boring road around. A couple of hours later, which we had spent jogging dirt roads, we came into the TA. When we saw other bikes there we joked, “at least we are not last”. To our surprise we were still in 3rd place and hadn’t lost too much time on the leaders. Sometimes the long way around is not that bad.
Following that motto we decided to do the same thing on the upcoming bike ride. Dusk was nearing, and instead of riding 30+k on smaller roads we decided to play it safe and ride 40+k on “bigger” roads, which we also knew had a great stream for purifying water.
As the sun set, we saw the 2 person Ecuadorean team about 30 min ahead of us while ENDracing was about 30 min behind on the “out and back” to CP9.
The bike ride was pretty uneventful, but a full day of racing started to leave its mark on our bodies so at the next TA transition to foot we made a heater meal. Eating something hot at nightfall is a great feeling (there will be an upcoming blogpost entirely about food and what we learned from this race).
After eating, we started the night foot section. It was a 16k out and back (8k each direction), with a 4-6h foot-o at the far end, making the entire section between 7 and 10 hours. The slog back and forth on the road was not the most fun, but the actual foot-o section was beautiful, with unique trails, small wood bridges and gorgeous waterfalls. It got even more interesting as we had an addition to the team. The film crew following the race wanted some night shots of our team and sent a crew member with a camera along with us on the foot-o. We can’t wait to see how it turned out! Sometime during the night we also passed the 2-person Ecuadorian team and now only had Merrell Denmark (2-person Co-ed), Odyssey and Yogaslackers (both in our class elite 4-person Co-ed) ahead of us.
As morning rose the second day, we were back to the TA and our bikes. We now had a full day of biking ahead of us, estimating that we would bike for about 20h (it actually took us to ~24h) until we would get to our oasis box. After about 30 min Whitney started having problems with her backpack so we redistributed her weight and I took her food. I have never had such a heavy backpack racing. It was also hills galore and after a couple of hours we stopped to eat a little. I pulled out all the food from the backpack and start counting. It turned out I had food for over 80h in my pack (40h each for 2 people)! I was not happy about it but not much to do about that then, instead just keep biking and eating.
As the day progressed and we caught and passed Merrell Denmark when they made a navigational error. The hilly landscape continued and at one point we dropped more than 300 vertical meters in less than 2k of trail. The downhills were extremely scary for us (me), because I had no front break. This meant that my back brake constantly overheated and I had to stop and pour cold water on it. Over the race I poured over 3L of water on my brake, water that I originally had planned to drink.
For CP 15 we made a navigational mistake and lost almost 2h. Both Ecuador and Merrell Denmark passed us again. We were still ahead of ENDRacing and we were excited to head towards CP16 and CP17 – there was fresh water and a sleeping opportunity there. At the map it looked like CP17 was located in a small town and we discussed and dreamed about having dinner at a restaurant and getting Cokes at a store. At this point I was pretty thirsty since I had poured most of my water over my breaks instead of drinking it.
We found CP 16 in one of the coolest caves I have ever been to, and we took an extra 5 minutes just to look around. With only 20 minutes left to CP17 suddenly my thirst was not the biggest problem. Whitney, who had been feeling bad for some time, started vomiting up everything in her stomach. On top of that, Mikael was feeling bad and having some problems staying upright on his bike. We rolled into CP 17 and the medical check at the same time as Whitney vomited up the very last of any fluids that were still in her. As an additional blow to our spirits the “town” turned out to be a couple of houses without anything resembling even a mini-mart. While the rest of the team took an hour to sleep, I started the task of thoroughly repacking the backpacks. The CP was also manned with volunteers from the Belizean military (they followed the entire race keeping everyone safe) and it felt great that I could donate 40h of food to them. Not only did my backpack get significantly lighter, but also the food went to good use. Lesson number two: bring extra food, but make sure not everyone does it, because then you end up with a LOT extra. ENDRacing was also sleeping at the TA, and hadn’t yet gone out to CP16. They let us know that they didn’t plan to take CP18 and instead would take a longer rest at the TA, which meant that if we managed to clear the course we would have 3rd place in the bag.
The team felt slightly better after an hour nap and Whitney’s and Mikael’s backpacks where now significantly lighter. We headed towards the last 5- 8h of biking. When we got to the out and back for CP18 we took a short lay down on the road and made an assessment. Whitney was still very weak but Mikael was feeling better. If we took 5h or less to make the 22k, we should theoretically be fine, making the cut-off at 1.00 pm the next day for the jungle trek. Sitting at home reading this, this sounds like a no-brainer, because who can’t bike 22k in 5 hours? Well, after 40+ hours of racing and seeing some of these “roads” you would not be as sure anymore. Sand and mud often meant you had to walk your bike for miles and what looked like a jeep road on the map could in reality be more of a swamp that no four wheel vehicle had passed in years. To add to the fun, my chain and derailleur had started causing problems (thanks Belizean mud), making it impossible for me to use the small chain ring in the front. After some discussion, we decided to go for it. The out and back was brutal for the team. Jason towed Whitney as much as he could for the first 4k. We all had sleep monsters, and Mikael was sure he saw me ride through a herd of antelopes, while Whitney slammed on the breaks to avoid the men standing in the road. None of this was actually real, of course, but provided amusement for the rest of the team mates.
We came back to the road after a little more than 3h, and had another lay down on the road. Mikael had crashed, and cracked one of his ribs. I hadn’t slept one minute since the night before the race, now 46h ago, and Whitney was exhausted. Jason who had managed to catch some sleep was doing the navigation at this point, as I couldn’t keep my eyes straight. Still we felt happiness and relief. We had made it! We were still in the run for clearing the course!
At this point we thought there were still 5 teams in the running for clearing, but it turned out Merrell Denmark also decided to skip CP18 so it was actually just 4. Now it was time to take it easy. We rolled down to CP19 and our oasis boxes completely exhausted and ready for sleeping. Our only goal now was to make the 34k out and back to CP21 on top of the Mayan ruin, Caracol before 1.00pm – it was 5.00 am in the morning and we knew this was on a bigger road.
We took a 2h+ break to eat warm food and sleep – seldom has sleep felt so good. It was like all our worries, fears, exhaustion and problems washed away with the sleep and the knowledge that as long as we finished the course, we had secured a third place cemented itself in our brains. Our strategy now changed tremendously. We started playing with huge amount of safety, resting and eating as soon as anyone felt like it or wanted too. We ate two hot meals before even heading out to the ruins. We left for the ruins around 7.30 am and to our surprise, the road turned into asphalt after a couple of kilometers. This was fantastic! The miles flew by. At the ruins we met the film crew again and we stopped to talk to them, did a small interview, and took personal pictures. We knew there was no hurry, since the cut off for the trek was at 1.00 pm and we had almost 4h left for what should be 1h 30 min bike back. Of course, at this point, something had to go wrong- just because things were going too well. 6k from the TA, Jason’s sidewall of the tire got slashed, and our repair efforts didn’t work. This is almost ironic because before the race we discussed having extra tires in our oasis box, but we decided to take them out due to weight restrictions. It turned out to be just a small set back, since Jason was able to run fairly fast while Mikael took his backpack and I rode with two bikes on the flats and downhills. While we lost some time, it was nothing huge and we made it back around 11.30am with an hour and half to spare before the cut off.
Happy to ditch our bikes, we headed out on the jungle trek, fully knowing we would get caught in the dark zone. Upcoming sleep and food made us excited and the first half of the 30k trek went extremely well and at a good pace.
A search for a new trail and a Y in the road (seriously, we should just have kept going straight), cost us about 2-3h, but at that point we didn’t really care, as it was irrelevant to our overall finish. It was much worse for our Ecuadorian friends. They had pulled ahead during the night, while we slowed down and was roughly 3h ahead of us. Unfortunately the jungle is very unforgiving and they had got some major foot problems. When one team member took off his shoe, the foot swelled up enormously and “looked like it was boiling”, so they had to quit the race in the middle of a jungle road. We feel so bad for them, as they were fantastic racers and deserved a better race finish.
We came into the dark zone at ~9.30 pm and got great food and drinks – they even had beer! At this point frankly none of us were excited about the dark zone. We all felt pretty good and wanted to continue. Instead we got almost 6h of sleep and time to hang out with a bunch of other teams – something I don’t think has ever happened before in an adventure race for any of us.
Next morning we were up bright and early to head to a cave for CP24. The cave was guided and off the clock which made it like a fun exploring experience instead of a race. We saw Mayan pottery and relics which had been preserved over 2000 years in the cave. Pretty cool place for a CP.
Once we got down from the cave, the race started again with a couple of miles run to the canoes and then canoe back to town. After sleeping for hours we all felt strong, and together with ENDracing we picked up the pace to running. The final paddle was beautiful, amazing and fun. Mikael, who is the master paddler in the team, kept the team organized and focused even though we took our fair share of scenic breaks as the river flowed through the jungle landscape.
A final run through town took us to the finish line and there was nothing but joy as we crossed in third place and as only one of three teams clearing the entire course.
We could not be happier with the result and we are so excited about the upcoming race season.
The race was truly an adventure and included the tallest mayan ruins in Belize, countless waterfalls, and the mountains of the Cayo district, but nothing of that can compare to the hospitability of the people of Belize. NYARA would like to extend a huge thank you to American Adventure Sports for putting on a fantastic race, Friends of Conservation and Development in Belize for making the area accessible, to all fantastic volunteers and fellow racers. Looking forward to see you all again!