Arriving in Portugal, we felt we'd done everything we possibly could to prepare for the race. We knew why we were there (to finish) and knew we had a strong team who would work together well. However, being presented with 79 A4 maps at the briefing was a timely reminder of how truly epic the race was going to be. There was no time for relaxing as we packed our kit boxes, marked up maps, sorted out bike towing systems and bagged up pasta for the first few days.
We had met a few of the other teams at the airport and I don't think I've ever seen anyone quite like these people - every iota of their being screamed 'elite athlete'. My brother reminded me that foreign people have tans and therefore look fitter (!) but I suspect we were in the company of greatness. Teams like 'Buff', 'Orion Health' and 'Nike' who had experience of over 20 expedition races between them. Maybe if we'd been a top team they'd have been trying to psyche us out but somehow I doubt it. Adventure racing just isn't really like that and instead they tried to give us some helpful advice - like don't break any bones on the rollerblading for example!
It was great to see teams from so many different countries and I think we made a big splash with our kilts. Walking up the hill after registration we saw four bikes outside a cafe so had a good look in to see who the team was. 4 Argentinians came rushing out to greet us, full of latin kisses and excitement. It hadn't really sunk in before that we'd be there with the best teams in the world and I couldn't stop grinning for the rest of the day. Helped no doubt by the wonderful pastel de nata custard tarts!!
A quick explanation of the race...
To explain the format of the race would take many posts and I'm sure at least half the teams still don't really understand exactly what was going on and what the best strategy was - whether to meet the cut offs for each section or collect more checkpoints.
Basically, the race had 5 stages. The first stage took place in Cascais, just outside Lisbon and had to be finished by 6.30pm at night, when we were all bused to a mystery location in the north of portugal. Once there, we could grab some sleep then the race proper began at 8am the next day. After that, the clock didn't stop and any sleep was done in race time. Each of the four following stages was made up of shorter sections of different disciplines - trekking, biking, kayaking, rollerblading. At the end of each stage, you had access to your kit boxes with sleeping bags, stoves etc. but at the transitions between sections you often only saw your bike or your kayak gear, no extra stuff.
The way to win the race was to pick up checkpoints on each stage but you could choose to miss checkpoints and move through certain sections quicker - sometimes you'd do this to meet end of stage cut-off times, sometimes because you wanted to avoid a certain discipline such as trekking when someone has an injury. Most stages had a cut-off time. If you didn't make that cut-off you could face a penalty or be short-coursed and forced to miss a stage or go by bike instead of trekking etc. It was all very complicated and, in a state of extreme sleep deprivation, even the top teams were making crucial mistakes about the time of cut-offs.
Looking back, I find it really hard to see how we could have changed our strategy and done things differently but I think maybe I'm still too close to it. In a lot of ways, I'm still feeling like I'm racing. This is a race that will take longer to recover from mentally than physically and this story will continue in several posts...