Adventure Racing a unique challenge for Columbia pair

Tuesday, May 18, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
Rodney Atkinson, Joe Bechtold, Dwayne Miller and Andy Pele finish the 30-mile biking portion of the LBL Challenge Adventure race on April 10 in Kentucky.

SOMEWHERE IN MARK TWAIN NATIONAL FOREST — Dwayne Miller and Joe Bechtold slog up the slippery path. The trail, long since turned to mud from the drizzling frozen rain, is filled with deep puddles. Each step is an opportunity to fall.

Adventure racing tips

Columbia's Dwayne Miller and Joe Bechtold suggestions for those interested in adventure racing:

Work on navigation skills

Clubs in St. Louis and Kansas City offer orienteering lessons, and one Miller and Bechtold suggest is the Possum Trot Orienteering Club in Kansas City. The Rock Bridge State Park sells maps for people who wish to practice orienteering.

Courses are designed for all skill levels.

“It’s a great way to get used to reading a map and reading a compass,” he said.

Train for competitions

Miller suggests building endurance because competitions are at least several hours long. It’s also important for competitors to know how to use the required modes of transportation. If a race includes mountain biking, for example, be sure to practice that.

Miller says competitors should also learn how to stay nourished and hydrated during endurance races. Every race is timed, so it’s important to limit the number of stops.

Be able to work as a member of a team

Team members sometimes fight amongst themselves during competitions.

“It’s a lot of potential for conflict,” Bechtold says. “You have a 24-hour race, and you have weather like this, 18 hours into it, you’re tired, wet, hungry, slightly injured, cramping. ‘Let’s not do that, let’s slow down.’”

Each team usually has a navigator, the only person with a map. A captain decides when to break, makes decisions about who carries equipment, and sets the pace for the team. The other members are responsible for pointing out land features.

Every person must stay within 100 feet of his or her teammates during a race.

Miller holds a compass in his right hand and a map of the area topography in his left. Bechtold carries a trail map and has a compass fitted onto a wristband.

Their tools soon become important. Miller and Bechtold veer left off the trail and head roughly east. They crouch, push away cedar tree limbs to move forward, check their compasses, change directions. Miller plotted six checkpoints on his map, and they have two hours to find them.

Miller and Bechtold, Columbia residents, compete in adventure racing, a sport similar to triathlons with one huge difference: The track isn’t marked. Competitors must use their compasses and maps to find checkpoints and the finish line. This is just a practice run, a chance to hone their orienteering skills. The pair competed in a number of triathlons before trying adventure racing. They found they enjoy the academic challenge the sport imposes.

“With adventure racing, you can go any direction you want from A to B to C, so you have route choices,” Miller says. “It’s a lot of thinking and strategy. But you can’t win by only thinking. The best teams are fast and accurate.”

Course designers choose the methods each race uses. Competitions can include hiking, mountain biking, canoeing, white-water rafting, riding on horseback or rappelling in one adventure race. Teams are comprised of two or four people and are sometimes co-ed. Adventure races range in duration from six hours to a week.

Miller returns to his contour map. The distances between the map’s contour lines represent the steepness of a hill. The further apart the lines, the steeper the hill. The map is about 40 years old, so the features may be incomplete. That’s never a good thing when going into unfamiliar woods.

Miller and Bechtold also didn’t precisely locate where they were when they entered the woods. That slip-up is causing them some trouble now as they try to find where they are on the map.

By now, their sense of direction is worthless because of all of the turns they’ve made. They shut off what their minds say and rely instead on their abilities to read a compass and map. They find a road and use it to orient themselves.

“We’re probably standing right in here,” Miller says, pointing to his contour map and checking his compass. “We might’ve been standing where we needed to be.”

“Just about on it,” Bechtold says, but they don’t return to the spot.

The pair was in the same situation during a competition a few years ago. They were standing near a checkpoint but couldn’t see it. (Competitors are given something that resembles a passport that they must stamp at each checkpoint.) Other teams approached and asked if they were having trouble.

“And all of a sudden, they’d be gone,” Miller says. “Turns out, it was hanging on a tree, obstructed from view. We knew where we were on the map. We just couldn’t find it.”

He estimates they wasted between 45 minutes and an hour there. Event winners routinely finish in two-thirds or three-fourths of the allotted time. In a 12-hour race, for example, winning teams will take between eight and nine hours.

Course designers sometimes limit how many checkpoints they give adventure races. The competitors are given clues for where the rest of the points are during the race.

“The teams that win aren’t necessarily the fastest runners, bikers, canoers,” Miller says. “But they’re accurate about getting from point A to B. A good navigator can make all the difference in the world.”

Severe consequences follow if a team isn’t accurate. Miller and Bechtold first competed in a summer adventure race, and the final part leading to the finish line was about a three-mile bike ride up a steep hill.

“Teams were just wasted,” Bechtold says. “It’s 90 degrees. Everyone had run out of water. People are dying out there. We were in fifth place, and we see a team ahead of us. They pulled over to the side of the course, and we catch up. They’re just toasted, blown up.”

They caught another team that had climbed about halfway up the hill before realizing it had made a wrong turn and would have to go back to redo the checkpoints. Another team further up the trail had made the same mistake. Bechtold estimates those two teams had fallen to 60 or 70th place. Most competitions have 100 or so teams.

After orienting themselves on the road, Miller and Bechtold jog about two minutes before Miller consults his map and compass again. They turn left, navigate around private property and find a large lake in front of them. It doesn’t show on Miller’s old map, which leaves him to guess it was man-made. They spend a few minutes trying to orient themselves, but getting warm becomes more important.

“I’m ready to go back and get a hot cup of coffee,” Bechtold says.

His partner agrees. The two walk back to the road and their car. The day is over, and they hit none of their intended targets. They have never quit a race because they were lost.

The pair completed another practice run a week later because they didn’t want the incomplete practice session to be their last before a competition. Two weeks later, Miller and Bechtold finished fifth in the LBL Challenge Adventure Race in Kentucky, continuing their streak of never finishing worse than fifth in a competition.

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