Last weekend Bryan and I celebrated our anniversary in a way most other couples would not. We spent three and a half days adventure racing in the Basque region of Spain as part of a team. The “TLP Bombers” consisted of the two of us Americans and two British colleagues from Bryan’s work. To be honest, I’m not sure any of us fully grasped what we were getting into last spring when deciding to participate in the Basque Expedition Race. Shep had done a one day adventure race before, Grant has hiked the Camino de Santiago, Bryan likes to mountain bike and do anything with ropes and gear, and I have two kids. So, I guess we seemed a likely team to someone.
For my ‘training’ I mostly just lived my daily life: biked the kids to school, took a trip to Africa and ‘trekked’ all the paths in Disney World during a four day blitz. I did take mountain biking seriously the month prior as I hadn’t been on one in a long while.
Bryan taught me to mountain bike when we first got together, and I hated it. He got me a full suspension bike and I still hated it. Then he realized he was taking me on rocky steep pigs of trails that he enjoyed and probably should’ve started us on some nice smooth single track, but by then I just mostly hated it and had only gone along as we were newly married…. until I got a road bike and never looked back. NOW, 13 years along, I approached the mountain bike with trepidation and fears of holding back the team. So, I practiced on the local trails here in Albacete and quite enjoyed myself, built back my confidence, and felt fairly at ease with just slugging through the bike portions of the race even if it mean walking and pushing the thing (which I did. A lot.) Otherwise, my training mostly consisted of eating and sleeping in and controlling children.
To be clear, this event seemed quite difficult to actually know how to prepare. We did the best we could. We met as a team a few times to discuss logistics and ensure we had the long list of mandatory gear, and the guys biked a few times. In general, however, our prep was pretty individual and fairly last minute. We did clarify our goal: completion.
The race is sort of like a scavenger hunt. There are checkpoints along a vague route that have individual points based on the difficulty in reaching the spot. Some required a picture, others required a physical check in with an electronic sensor we carried. The race winner would be the team who gathered the most points, and in the quickest time if there was a tie. The checkpoints had to be done in ascending order, though, so no going back if you skipped anything.
We knew there would be varying skills involved, as well, but had no details about the route until the day of check-in other than we had Thursday morning until Sunday morning to complete the tasks. Ahead of time we knew there would be trekking, mountain biking, kayaking, caving, abseiling, canyoning, paddle boarding, and within each of these disciplines the additional task of land navigation. There was no set course, we would choose our own trails and routes with maps given just before the race began.
On Tuesday afternoon, Bryan and I picked up the kids at school, came home for a bit of lunch, grabbed their packed bags, and took them to a friends’ house. They stayed with good friends Emma, Lucas, and Titus for the rest of the week, and then on Friday came back home where their favorite sitter Benedikt stayed with them for the rest of the weekend. I cannot express how grateful I am that they were in good hands, and I needn’t (and didn’t) worry about them at all while we were gone. Avi, however, did get pretty sad about missing us, but he made it through with the help of Loni’s countdown chart.
From the drop off we drove and drove and drove north for about 7 hours to a town called Getxo just off the coast from Bilbao. The weather then decided to turn sour, cool off, and cloud over in an ominous way. We stayed in the dorms arranged by the race organizers at the sports facility hosting the race. I took top bunk. I like top bunk.
On Wednesday morning we woke early for prep day. We checked in and got a single sheet outline of the race – it showed the order of the events as stages, which discipline was used at the stage, estimated course lengths, elevation gain, and estimated times. It also showed how the Transition Areas factored between stages and which bags would be delivered to them. Part of the challenge of the race is not the actual endurance, but also the ability to handle the logistics of gear and food given the parameters on that outline.
All the teams needed to gather and organize their gear in a large gym. We lugged all our junk in and began dividing it up with the given info. There were 6 bags to be delivered at varying transition areas through the course. 4 bags labeled A, B, C, D could have anything inside, while R was for the ropes course gear and W was the wet bag for kayaking. It was quite an organizational exercise for us to put in our spare clothes, dry socks, new undies, bike shorts, hiking shoes, FOOD, snack refills, and other stuff into these bags and know we depended on this organization to be prepared at transition areas for the next task.
On prep day we also had to prove we had the required safety mandatory gear, and show we could rappel off a balcony. Finally there was a briefing that went long, way way too long, detailing rules and suggestions for the race course. Between 1900-2100 we had to turn in our six bags and boxed bikes ready for the race. Then, we all went downtown for some hamburgers prior to a weekend of hunger.
Thursday 6am came too soon, but we were ready in our Team 9 race bibs. All amount of technology was left behind; from now on we were off grid. It was dark when all the teams gathered outside at a picnic pavilion to receive our Race Books and the essential topo maps. Everything was printed on waterproof paper. The book outlined each stage and listed the checkpoints within the stage, it detailed how many points it was worth, and noted how it needed to be recorded – photos or sportident machine. There was another little booklet with pictures of the checkpoint items that we needed to photograph…and then the maps. Lots of maps. We immediately sat down. Bryan and Shep started planning a tentative route along trails and dirt roads. There were quite a few XX marked roads which were off limits and fairly forced specific routings, which didn’t allow for much variation or shortcutting. Grant had our emergency cell phone, which the race organizers took and specialy wrapped. Bryan also carried the GPS tracker; so the organizers and anyone back home could live track us on the website!
After 45 minutes it was time to walk to the start line…. which was quite far away on the beach. So, a small parade of racers decked out for a weekend with no sleep and carrying paddles tromped 40 minutes through the still sleeping town of Getxo to the beach. Our kayaks were waiting, so we kitted them out and gathered at the starting line. For me, it didn’t feel real until now. The butterflies started coming and nerves began to kick in. BUT, then the music started, someone counted down, and we were off.
Sea kayaking was first. 24km. And it sucked. Bad. I have kayaked alot, but never in a two person yak…and it sucked. I was up front attempting to simply paddle, and Bryan was in back attempting to follow along and steer but it just didn’t work. We washed over at the beginning and then simply couldn’t get the damn thing going straight. Grant and Shep moved along quite quickly and offered advice but we couldn’t get it. Eventually the sun rose to a cloudy day and we watched the hoard of others round the bend out of the port. My arms were killing me before we even got near that point, and it was so disheartening to feel as though every other paddle was a lost cause as we just couldn’t get the damn thing to go straight. The waves got quite rough as well.
At one point out in the open sea it was time to either skip check point #1, get #2 and out of the water, OR do the out and back around an island for a lot of points at #1. I wanted to skip it, as did Bryan because he also felt the suck of this kayaking…. BUT, I also didn’t want to ALREADY be the wimpy token girl – the mandatory mixed teammate. My goal for the whole race had been to keep low and just go along; I wanted to be PART of the team not a drag along. And I already felt like the lowest denominator. So, I didn’t put up much of a fight when Grant and Shep coaxed, and slugged along. UGH. It sucked worse as the sea got quite choppy and my hand was killing me. I think I did ligament damage at that point; it still hurts now but is healing. When we came round I didn’t allow for us to cross the bay a second time for checkpoint #2, and we skipped to the transition area. I felt like shit already and that was so very depressing.
Bryan and I fell out of the kayaks onto the beach. Exhausted. We were both just so exasperated and confused as to how it was so easy for Grant and Shep. There were a ton of other kayaks on the beach as though all the other teams had arrived, but not long after us a few others pulled up. That felt good…not last by miles and miles. After a moment drying our bare feet, we donned dry shoes and socks and went off for Stage 2: trekking. I had been looking forward to this, but was still feeling queezy from seasickness and dizzy that I don’t recall looking at much beyond by feet until after the first checkpoint at a ruin on the cliff top. From then, it got nice. The clouds lifted a bit and walking felt good, we accumulated checkpoints and enjoyed the views and the cows and the fields. There was even a lovely little porch kitty that enjoyed a pet. We made a team decision to skip a few checkpoints with a steep down-and-back uphill in order to save daylight and avoid the outward tide for the next kayaking section.
Stage 3 was more kayaking – up stream – in the two person yaks. We switched around partners and it became apparent that Shep was quite skilled at being the rear/stearing kayaker. I sat in front of him and we blitzed along fairly effortlessly; it was so pleasant I finally understood why those two guys wanted to continue around the island earlier. I would have as well! At the same time, however, Bryan and Grant struggled. Hard. They began with Bryan at back and Grant at front and eventually had such a tough time they capsized the boat. When they righted themselves, Grant took the back and the struggle was no easier. It was such a challenge! For Shep and I, the river kayak was enjoyable. We chatted about nothing in particular, and joked about Team 5 – dubbed them “The church boys” (they were English and formed their team at church). But, Bryan and Grant suffered that stage quite intensely. By the end of the 10km upstream we were all excited to see the little dock and pull those kayaks out for good.
The first real transition area was at a castle! For real. There was hot water for our food, coffee, and our A & B bags. We spent time drying out, changing clothes, getting full bellies, and returning to our upbeat selves. It was time to start biking! The first 3 stages had taken up most of the day, but it was still light out for a bit when we started the bike segment.
This was to be the longest stage at 87km. It started quite nice on small paved or dirt roads. Nothing technical, but some insanely steep hills that required pushing. It felt to me like we were back in the groove as darkness set in and biked on and on along the nice route. I recall even commenting that I thought it would be more technical…words I would take back when the trail got super crappy. We made great time even biking in the dark which I’d never done before, and kept up with a few other teams – especially 9 (we called them “The Spaniards”) which was quite fun! We followed the checkpoints route and chose not to skip any as our motivation and skills were up….then stuff went sour. Sometime around midnight ?maybe? we had finally gotten off roads and onto tracks, found one checkpoint after a challenging bushwack, and then the rain set in. We elected to skip a checkpoint as it allowed us a shortcut, but the trails got rougher and rougher.
Soon we rolled through a town and the rain diverted us to an enclosed bus stop – a good point to catch a few zzz’s. So, we pulled out our sleeping bags and set our alarm for a few hours. But, when that went off, it was amidst a torrent, and the guys decided to just sleep (I didn’t wake up). Again, we woke in a flooding storm, but we were dry and agreed it would be best to sleep til daylight.
At daylight, it was still raining but not as hard and we took off for more mountain biking. It was quite a slog, occassionally on roads and nice tracks, often up super steep hills, and soaking wet. There were times I pushed uphill and other portions that were so rocky, steep, or rutted and muddy that I walk/ran the bike downhill. It definitely seemed more up than down. Grant also struggled with the technical trails, so the two of us kept the rear of the pack. Down was rough, super rough and rutted and rocky. Of course, Bryan was in his element and loving the whole thing!
All day it was biking and struggling and we didn’t see other teams anymore which seemed a bad sign. We rolled through a town in the afternoon and got hot coffee at a gas station when the rain finally let up. It had been a hard morning. We wanted to shortcut the next segment in order to get the biking finished, but there were too many XX roads that we could not. Bryan and I borrowed a phone at a restaurant to call the race organizers and ask details about that. Could we roll down it just in order to skip? NO – that would be a DQ. Could we just cross the X roads? NO – that would be a DQ. What options had we? Any? They offered to pick us up and ride to the next transition area, but weren’t clear on how that affected our status. So, we pressed on. The next bit started on an uphill road that eventually turned dirt and then into rocky boulders. We all pushed up that hill. It was tough and long. But when we walked to the checkpoint at the summit, it felt nice.
Later that afternoon the trails cleared, the sun poked through, and it got quite nice as we rode along the top ridge of a series of mountains for a long while. It became fun again, and positive. Even going down was now dry and along a beautiful smooth single track through woods with bits of sun. It was motivating. In the late afternoon we had descended into a town and then began ANOTHER long uphill into the last wooded segment of the route – this uphill was paved but steep and we all pushed. At the top, though, Grant was done. Facing the next thick green section on that map was too much.
We called the race organizers, and rolled back down that super long hill (it was crazy fun and fast) into town and waited. It took quite a while, so we rested and dried out and enjoyed the last rays of sun on this second day. The guy who picked us up said that everyone had a rough night, but they were all curious where we stayed. Apparently, they had watched us and worried a bit about where we were the night prior. They were all excited to find we had been at a bus stop. Some of the organizers had bet we were at a hotel; some other teams had done so! And we were unknowingly right beside one. It was so cool to know people were tracking us, and that the live feed was working. Later we found out family was following along, and that was so very motivating!! The driver also informed us that some teams dropped out, and others had to get shuttled, so organizers had underestimated the trail difficulty.
Transition area 5 was in a local gym where racers could use the showers (coed, which was interesting), and get hot water, and nap if they possibly could with racquetball happening. We enjoyed the new clothes in our C/D bags, and got hot food at a bar in town, then decided to skip all of Stage 5 trekking – it was a loop – so we could move on to Stage 6 (UGH, more mountain biking) in order to get to the next transition area. Race rules wouldn’t allow us to be shuttled from transition to transition, but if we at least BEGAN the next segment then we could shuttle onward. So we did.
We knowingly began Stage 6 – the next mountain bike segment – around 11pm, with a plan to call for a ride at the next village UP and OVER the nearby mountain. We did actually get a checkpoint or two along the way, but mostly we pushed our bikes up a mountain in the dark. It was paved, so slightly easier than trails early in the day. At the summit we stopped for a snack, view, saw stars out for the first time, and began a downhill slog. The trail began too rocky and crazy steep for me to ride… I rolled my bike and ran alongside it, kind of a controlled fall. Eventually, thought, it wasn’t too bad to ride. In the next village we looked for a place to sleep – it was either here or the next transition area which was just a parking lot, so first available.
We saw a crazy Spanish team coming out of a restaurant, and they helped us hook up with the locals to stay in the adjacent schools’ gym. We settled in, and then the local key holder opened the bathroom for us! We set our alarms for 4 hours of sleep, but barely got that. It was so very very cold I couldn’t stop shivering. I even pulled out my emergency blanket to use in my sleeping bag, where Bryan was trying to keep me warm. It crossed my mind that I should just go into the bathroom to sleep as it was smaller and not drafty….but I was so in and out of sleep consciousness and shivering that I never acted on this thought. Wish I would’ve been able to enunciate.
Frozen, we called for a ride at some hour in the dark of the morning. 5am? not sure. They came quick and were surprised we wanted to move onward to transition 6. We aren’t quitters!! The first place team had just come through there, so we were permitted, it’s not OK to get in their way. The transition are was so cold and windy, it made our bed down spot for the night seem like a good idea. We quickly hunkered down behind a wall, changed into new hiking clothes from our R bag, grabbed our stuff for caving and canyoning, had some hot food, and started out at first light.
This was now Saturday, and after such a rough time the two prior days, it became my favorite. If the whole race had been like Saturday, it would have gone way differently. Moving into Stage 7 it was wonderful to be on foot and done with bikes. The trek was beautiful, we racked up points, and the sun came out in full warm force.
I had been looking forward to the caving section, and was so glad we hadn’t given up! The cave was awesome and fun. We donned wetsuits and had Bryan navigate for us. The first half was full of freezing cold waste deep water, challenging and fun. These checkpoints were also worth alot, so we finally could play up our skills and interests! The second half of the cave was more dry, but enjoyable and pretty…and one-way. The exit was out a hole in the back and emerged onto a flat grassy sunny meadow. We stayed for snacks, rest, drying, and a chance to finally warm our bones!
From that point, the trek was still pretty and enjoyable. We passed lovely fields of sheep and cows with bells, views down steep ravines, a big dam, and wandered into a unique area with cool limestone formations and wild horses. The kicker was that it was taking a ton longer than we expected, and we had DOUBLED the race estimated times for our own purposes. By the time we got to the canyoning, there was only an hour to spare before the stage would be closed….these occasional cutoff times keep the race moving along.
We stripped and replaced clothes with wetsuits and donned our climbing harnesses for the next section down a wet canyon with 6 rappels over waterfalls. I had been looking forward to this alot, and am so glad we got to do it… In the end it wasn’t as exciting as I expected, but still fun. The ropes along the course were so fat and full of muck that my device wouldn’t glide smoothly, so I was frustratingly gallumping down the ropes. Otherwise, it was like going down a ravine in Pennsylvania.
At the end we dried out. We sat in the last bits of sunlight, warmed up, changed into dry clothes, and planned our next step. Shep found a route along a road that shortening the trekking so we could get back to the transition area and move on. It was a long hike back, but not difficult and mostly flat so it was almost like a 10km rest. At dark we wandered into the transition area and put on our bike shoes; the next segment was a 15km downhill bike portion and though it started on some rough trails it quickly turned onto a gorgeous bike path and we zipped along fast! Down down down into the night and through odd pockets of cold sinks all the way to the beach. Actually we stopped just before the beach in a town and found a pizza shop. It was around 9pm, dinnertime, anyway and we enjoyed the break, although it did end up taking quite a long time.
Transition area 8/9 was the final one for us. We completely skipped the stand up paddle board stage; a single 60point checkpoint wasn’t worth the wait for boards and time to paddle a 3km loop back to where we were. So, in the dark, we packed up our bikes, got some hot coffee and began the trek to the finish. Our chosen route was along roads through town, skipping the checkpoints that went up and over a steep mountain. At one point, though, we needed to walk along and through a storm culvert and then found ourselves cutting across a field and through a backyard. Quietly. Not much to talk about anymore, exhaustion pushing us forward to the goal of FINISHING.
As always, it looked shorter on the map. We had hoped to roll into Getxo at 1am, but around 3am we finally spotted the final stage: an abseil 40m off the old Vizcaya Bridge. Oh my god! It was high. And it was windy. Grant and I weren’t sure about all this, but we still moved forward…went up the elevator, walked across the top with its creepy wooden planks, and discovered that it was a rappel down the middle of a support column. Somehow that seemed do able since it wasn’t a free fall, and Grant, who had just been declaring, “I dont know why I’m walking across this bridge, I’m not going down” decided to go first!!!! Yay Grant!! Then went Shep, myself, and finally Bryan. It was scary at the top – the getting started – but then the ropes ran smoothly and it became fun…still a bit scary, but fun!
It felt good because we knew it was only a few hundred meters to walk to the finish. Trixie, Shep’s fiance was there for our support and cheering, and walked to the end with us!! The race organizers were funny, as the teams must all come it at such wildly varying times, they turned on the music as we walked through the finish line and presented us each with a beer and a camp chair, and then a weird tuna hot pocket which was funny. The music was promptly turned off, and the easy up awning almost blew into the river. It was a good triumphant ending!
Trixie had booked us at a hotel, so we rode with her to get our car and followed to the hotel where we showered and crashed into bed for the rest of the morning. By 10am we were all gimping around the breakfast buffet. We needed to return to the sports center for the final awards presentation. Bryan and I wandered into the gym to sort stuff with a 20 minute bit of spare time, and found out there were massages. So, I stripped down to undies and flopped onto one of the tables in the middle of the gym (nothing like 3 days of constant movement for someone to care less about being discreet). It was so wonderful!!!
The ceremony was nice. The organizers said few words about how difficult the route became and how they appreciated us keeping positive as this was the first even they held here. The winners were announced: two local teams actually collected all the points. All teams recieved T shirts and mugs. Then there were Pinxtos (tapas). We packed up our junk into the car, and drove the long long drive back home.
Got a traffic ticket on the way home, too, just to put a dent in the day….apparently we needed lights on our bike rack. The kids were glad to see us, and Benedikt seemed happy to be heading to his own home! I recall just going to bed and sleeping like a baby.
My feet healed up quickly after taking care of the blisters, and the soreness dissipated after a day. My right wrist is still mildly jacked up. I have kept it wrapped to avoid undue usage and that seems to help. During the day now after a week, I use it only slightly more gingerly than usual, and still wrap it at night to avoid sleeping funny on it. I think it was tendonitis as making a fist or writing or any small motor skills hurt and made a vicious crunchy sound just atop my wrist. Its healing, though, so I’m pleased it wasn’t permanent damage. I also have a humongous bruise on my left hip where I fell hard mountain biking, and plenty of small bruises all over as well. That will take time. Otherwise, we were over soreness and walking about as usual by Tuesday. Its the tiredness that lingered longest. Only now, a week on, do I feel truly rested.
The best part of the whole thing was that we finished, and we did it as a team. Our team was amazing. We pulled together. We made decisions. We kept it light and funny, laughed at ourselves and each other and generally had a great time. I so wanted to be part of the team and was so happy to be treated as such; treated as one of the guys. We struggled, but these guys just laughed it out, walked on, made choices and stuck to them. Couldn’t have chosen better mates.
Final results. We are “unranked” since we used assistance.”Retired” are those who dropped out. Only those first 7 teams were tough enough to do it solo!!