Lessons From the 30 Hour National Championship Adventure Race

Lessons From the 30 Hour National Championship Adventure Race

I just landed back in Vermont after spending the past three days in Indiana competing with my team Chaffing the Dream (shout out to Tom and Amanda Martin!) at the USARA Adventure Race National Championship. I’ve got three words for you: brutal and exhausting. I thought Ironman races were tough (and they are). But this is on a whole other level. On the flight home I processed everything my mind and body had gone through over the previous 30 hours. There were a lot of thoughts and emotions going on between naps over the Midwest and Northeast this afternoon…

The night before the race, my teammates, Tom and Amanda, and I laid out our supplies, strategized, eliminated items, checked our gear, and packed up for the 30 hour race ahead. A quick note – the goal of these adventure races and orienteering is to navigate the terrain, while hitting as many check-points as possible (which are often hidden and about the size of a plate), within the 30 hour time limit. For every minute you go over the 30 hour mark, you get one check-point deducted. The team with the most check-points in the least amount of time, wins.

To put it into a little context for you, only six teams cleared the entire course in the allotted time. Many teams pulled out early due to exhaustion or minor injuries. There was a lot of vomiting. Two people ended up in the hospital from physical overload. One person got bit by a snake (I appreciate that person for taking one for the team! I hate snakes). And regardless of what terrain you’re navigating, each three person team (co-ed) must remain within 10 meters or so of each other at all times, which means every team member must be able to keep up physically and mentally.

Fast forward to Friday morning, it’s 6:30am and the doors to the race open. We rush inside to grab our 4 foot by 4 foot map. We have 30 minutes before the race starts to strategically determine our route for the next 30 hours of our trip. At 7am, the gun goes off and the clock starts. We quickly pull up Google Earth, looking at elevation, trails and the thickness of vegetation as we map out our route. Eighteen minutes into mapping out our route, Amanda lets us know that we have just a few minutes to get to the starting line. We decide our initial route and then cut the map into sections so we can read the map easier when we are navigating that particular section.

Minutes before the gun, Amanda asked Tom if he had grabbed the “punch”, which is about the only thing that matters that you must have in order to punch each check point. Sure enough, we had forgotten it and had to sprint to the hotel, get it, and just made it back within seconds of the gun going off.

LESSONNo matter how prepared you are, shit’s going to happen. When it does, execute on what you can and focus on the result. Problems and challenges are going to show up; there is no escaping them especially if you are building a business or want big things in your life. The best thing you can do is master your mindset and create habits that build your emotional fitness so that you can handle said shit, anytime, anyplace. Oh yeah, and just embrace the suck. 

We have to carry all of our supplies with us for the next 30 hours, which includes:

  • A dry bag full of warm clothes
  • Cliff Bars, caffeinated Cliff Blocks, gels, dried mango, nuts, peanut butter crackers, gummy bears and Milky Ways (which by the way, taste amazing at 3am!)
  • 3 liters of water
  • 2 water bottles (filled with Gatorade)
  • Head lamps
  • Bike lights
  • Extra tires
  • Space blanket
  • Sealed phone (no GPS, watches, or phones allowed!)
  • Compass
  • Maps

That doesn’t include all the gear on our bodies. I’m dressed like I’m going into combat – Tri shorts, tights, ankle gators, gators, heart rate chest strap, gloves, light hat, t-shirt, and long sleeve shirt.

LESSONDon’t bring a knife to a gun fight. Have the right tools, and right equipment for the job at hand. It took weeks of preparation, but we were fully prepared for the journey ahead. How many of us are doing this with our business? Do we have the right tools, the right systems and models in place to build a platform of success? It took us weeks just to prep the right gear for a 30 hour race! When was the last time you did an inventory of your business “gear”? Is it time to eliminate or upgrade?

There is no prescribed route. Each team can take any route they want, via any means available (bike, running, canoeing, hiking) to get to the check points. When the gun went off, we sprint a little less than a mile, straight to the canoes, carrying all of our gear. At that point in the race, we’re leading the pack, and make it to the canoes first. Everyone started off in the canoes and headed to Transition Area 1 which was about a 12-14 mile paddle. There was a very dense fog and we were only able to see about 30-40 feet in front of us. Needless to say, navigating that type of distance in severe fog was extremely challenging, even with a compass and map. We took a short cut early on in the race. Instead of paddling around a peninsula, we decided to hit the bottom part, get out, carry the canoe, and drop in on the other side. We managed to get the canoe to the other side of the peninsula and just as we were about to put it back in the water, Tom fell into the lake up to his chest. Yup, we had a soaking wet team member within the first 20 minutes of the race. And this wasn’t some warm Caribbean water! We rebounded quickly and were off, until we realized we were actually paddling in a river, instead of hitting the main part of the lake.

LESSONYou’re going to make mistakes. Probably a lot of them. It’s about how quickly you can respond to your mistakes and, maybe more importantly, how, you respond to your mistakes that you will be remembered for. 

Once we realized we were not in the lake, we first had to figure out exactly where we were. Once we did that, we recalibrated and paddled out of the river, traveling south instead of north. That was a little unsettling knowing we were going in the opposite direction from where we needed to be, but we had to get out from where we were. We were able to get caught back up and paddled hard to check point one.

LESSONYou can never make any real forward progress unless to take stock of exactly where you are. If you’re not clear on that, it makes it incredibly difficult to take your next step, to make your next decision.

From there, we attacked our first check points in classic execution mode. We had tons of energy and were running from check point to check point, knocking them off our list one by one. We nailed that section and made up some great time – only about 25 minutes behind first place. We then paddled for what seemed like three days to an island that contained more check points. Once we (finally!) made it to the island, we executed. What I mean here by execution is that we did not make any navigation mistakes, and we controlled our fueling, hydration, and mental state. We dominated the island and then got back into the canoe for another long paddle. We ended up taking another short cut by pulling/dragging our canoe about half a mile over an old logging road before making it to Transition Area 2. At that point, I never wanted to see water or another boat in my life!

But even though we were surrounded by water, about 8 hours into the race, we were dying  of thirst and had already run out of water. I refused to drink pond water – that was one risk, I was not willing to take! We had bleach drops and UV lights to purify our water, but that takes time. So we pushed on and eventually found a camp site and some campers who had two 24-packs of water. They gave us two bottles each, which we gulped down in seconds.

LESSONWhen you are put into a situation where you have to survive, it’s amazing what you are capable of and how resourceful you can get. And yes, that does include asking someone else for help. It’s amazing how nice and generous people are in this world. I think we sometimes forget that people generally want to help their fellow man. 

I got a break from the water when we hopped on the bikes and began a 5-6 hour trek over a series of single track gravel roads, logging roads, and a few paved roads. On the gravel and paved roads I was able to hook Amanda up to my bike and pull her behind me in order to keep all of our members together and moving quickly between check points. I also created a draft zone for Tom to follow. While I am a stronger cyclist than Tom and Amanda, they are much better navigators and pushed me on the trekking, hiking, and running. Tom was the Captain of our team and kept us on track with the map and plotting check points in certain areas and Amanda did an amazing job questioning decisions, routes, and searching for other alternatives. Amanda also kept track of our step count. When you’re looking for a check point the size of a plate in the middle of the woods in the pitch black, knowing the number of steps from the last known location is critical and she executed flawlessly.

LESSONTeam work, folks. Sometimes in life we need to hook onto each other and draft to get ahead. Everyone has a unique gift or a zone of genius. Find it and unlock it in your employees and let them shine. When you have the right people in the right seats on the bus, its awesome to see how each team member will execute for the common company goal.

We were ripping up the course until we came into the hardest section called The Dog Bone, where you had to hit each check point in a particular order. If you went to 21A, you must hit 21B next and so on for eight check points, or a total of 16 punches. You might hit 21A and then have to travel over a mile through streams, up and over hills, just to get to 21B, then a half a mile back in the opposite direction just to hit the next check point and continue. We started this section at 9pm, left The Dog Bone, and were still missing two checkpoints at around 6am. Yup, that’s a long time to be orienteering.  At the furthest point in the section, we were completely lost and it took hours to figure out where we were. When you’re lost you start to move very, very slowly and question everything. You get frustrated and start to lose time and lose confidence in your process, your decision making skills, and in yourself. Going back to known points and starting over and learning from our mistakes helped us reset, recalibrate, and move forward. Did we overshoot? Did we drift left or right? What bearing did we miss?

LESSONWhen you get lost, go back to the place you know. Where you are certain. In business, you’re going to have failures and feel lost many times over the course of your career. Go back to the basics and back to what you know works, and start rebuilding from there. But you must keep going. 

At this point, it was like 3am or 4am in the morning, we were lost, cold, hungry, tired, and just mentally drained. We knew we had limited time left. We made a decision to leave the course, leaving two check points behind, with the goal of clearing the rest of the course. If we had stayed to get two more, we would have potentially missed six check points that were easier to get to. We knew that it was time to move on, so we did.

LESSONThere is always another option in life. Execute on the option that is going to have the biggest impact on your overall goal. Once you chose that option and commit, execute. 

Two hours later, around 6am, we were back on our bikes. Getting back on the bike in the middle of the night after being awake, running, biking, and paddling for 24 hours with a pack on is, well, literally a pain in the ass. We biked for another three hours or so, then got into our canoes, paddling back close to the finish line to clear out the last section and picked up four more check points. We got back and had trouble finding check point 1 and we knew we only had 1.5 hours left. The clock was ticking. We started to feel like we were going to miss the deadline, but then I did what no man has done before… I asked for directions. I decided to ask another racing group for help (totally legal) and they were happy to help, which sparked our energy and we used that motivation to pick up the last three check points.

LESSONIt’s okay to ask for help (or directions)! It just might be the boost or break or clarity or fresh perspective you need to get further faster. 

We finished the last check point with 20 minutes to go and sprinted (albeit a 10 minute mile sprint at this point) back to the finish line, crossing it with just under 10 minutes to spare! Boom. Done.

As brutal as those 30 hours were, they went by fast. In such a relatively short period of time, we had great moments and bad moments along the way. All we could do was embrace the suck and know the pain would end. But you can’t rush the pain, it’s an experience like any other to be enjoyed (yes, even the damn canoe).

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