We Eat Dust And Like It

December 29, 2010

2010 Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge

WEDALI finished the 2010 adventure racing season with an unscheduled. Going toe-to-toe with some of the world's best endurance adventure athletes, Molly Moilanen, Justin Bakken, Scott Erlandson, and Jason Nielsen joined a competitive field of 49 other teams, represented by 18 different countries, for the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge. Below is a race report from the December 10-15 event, written by teammate Jason Nielsen:
Talk about ending the 2010 race season with a bang?! How about a December race in the Desert? How about finding out 3 weeks before the race start that your team had the opportunity at: Race entry, Hotel, and Flight paid for, trip to the other side of the planet to race in ABU DHABI for the 2010 ABU DHABI ADVENTURE CHALLENGE (ADAC)? Thanks to a partnership between the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority and our very own U.S. Checkpoint Tracker Adventure Racing Series, WEDALI, was able to secure this year’s spot in the coveted race by winning the 2010 CPTracker Race Series.
With 3 weeks and 3 thousand things to prepare, organize, acquire, and test, there would be little time to train. Who needs training anyways? It can be very time consuming and highly overrated. Plus, trying to close out the final weeks of the construction season for me at work and another team member with a mysterious intestinal disorder what could go wrong? Oh, and I still don’t have my passport.
For anyone who doesn’t know, the ADAC is not the normal Adventure Race that we commonly do here in the States. For starters, where a GPS is always on the top of the list of banned items, a GPS is mandatory gear here. Where we get maps and have to plot checkpoints and determine our own routes at home, in the ADAC we still get maps, but the points are plotted and all routes highlighted to follow. Not only that, but as we would find out, the first two days of racing would have signs and markers along the way and anytime we were in traffic, police were there stopping cars and pointing us off in the right direction. It was definitely an Adventure Challenge, not Adventure Race.
The essence of the ADAC was this: A 6-day stage race consisting of an adventure triathlon, 3 mountain bike sections, 3 mountaineering sections, a 121-km desert trek, and a 121-km sea kayak. Placing in the top 30 even assures prize money. But with a sold out race and 50 teams coming to conquer, even placing in the top 30 could be and would prove to be a challenge.
It turns out that Giardia can easily be cured with the proper medications. What is not so easy about Giardia, apparently, is the diagnosis. For over 2 weeks, Erl was down for the count with no hope of recovery. Not a great feeling going into a race, much less a 6-day race. Luckily, with a week and a half before go-time things were calming down on the inside for him. Two weeks of training lost just before a killer race. I was hoping he had a really, really, really good BASE! And the passport came.
We arrived a few days before race start to do some sightseeing and to re-acclimatize to summer conditions. We found the buffet breakfast at the hotel fantastic (minus the turkey bacon and chicken sausages). Anymore days of that and we might eat our way right out of race shape. When ‘race types’ started showing up, we knew we were in the right place. It was a great atmosphere.
I got this picture during the gear check. Oh yeah!

Then the course is revealed at the pre-race meeting.
December 10
The race started on Corniche Beach in Abu Dhabi with little fanfare. Except that NBC was there videoing, a thousand photographers were there and 2 helicopters were there to film the event. The pace and conditions were frantic at the start with 100 inflatable canoes going in the water at the same place. It was bumper boat heaven. If I had to guess where we stood when we got back to the beach where we started after the approximately 0.75 mile paddle, I would guess 35th. This turns out be a reoccurring theme for us as we progress through the race.

We then run 2+ miles to the Emirates Palace for the swim. Swim, run back to where the race started, re-enter the canoes to paddle across the bay (while dealing with loose t-handles on the paddles, and loosing 1 handle altogether) to Lulu Island for a short, 2-CP trek. This is where we get our first taste of racing in the sand with their mini sand dunes here.
After having to use actual navigation skills for 2 of the 25 minutes we were on the island, we return to our inflatables for the return to Corniche Beach and the finish of the ‘Prologue’, Section A. Our time: 2h 52m. Good enough for 36th place. Fastest time: 2h 14m (Thule).
Excited with finishing such a short section we immediately board the bus for the next stage. Section B, MTB, Mountain Trek. After almost 2 hours on the bus we arrive at Al Ain at the base of Jebel Hafeet. We find teams already there and making the most of their transition time preparing their bikes for the beginning of the next stage, which will begin in 1 hour. We find our race supplied bikes and a small piece of shade to begin changing out pedals, attaching lights, reflective tape, and making fit adjustments. Also, the tires have about 15 psi, so we search out another team with a stand pump and after some searching, one of the Russian teams kindly lends us theirs. There is just enough time to change everything over as ‘the voice’ proclaims the next start time will be in 10 minutes. A quick spin down a walking path and we are good to go. We even arrive at the starting line with almost 2 minutes to spare. AMAZING! Well, I actually think they delayed the start a minute or two, so really we were right on time in classic WEDALI fashion.
A mountain bike peloton cruising down the flatter than flat streets of Al Ain was kind of interesting. Everyone in the lead pack was crazy. It seemed they would rather die than to be dropped off the back and for good reason. The next 15 miles was paved and flat. There is a HUGE advantage to sticking with the pack if you can keep up. Us? Not quite. We essentially lasted about 5 minutes in the group because Molly’s chain would shift off the big ring when she shifted up. Luckily, each of the 3 times it did, she was able to back it up and peddle it back on without stopping. A good deal to keep us rolling, but by that time the peloton was long gone and we were a team alone.

We made the best of it and put in a good pace line passing a few others that were not able to hang on to the back either. It was fun flying through the round-abouts like we were in the Tour de France, but it was not fun knowing the peloton had dropped us like a bad habit. The paving turned to a gravely road as we approached Jebel Hafeet.
A couple of miles of that and we drop our bikes and take off on foot. We can see in the distance our destination. We run a mile or so before we start going vertical.
3,000+ vertical feet later we can see the finish, Camp 1, on the flat below on the other side of Jebel Hafeet.
There is still a ways to go for us though, including a 150’ rappel that will drop us the final leg to the valley floor. Biz here on the rappel as I ‘fun’ my way down taking pictures and videos for posterity on our way to the finish for Section C.

Section B: MTB time: 57m 40sec, good for 33rdplace
Section C: MTN Trek time: 1h 17min, good for 37thplace.
Camp 1 is a wonderful retreat. Great food. Great atmosphere with racers from around the world.

December 11
Day 2 starts out with a sprint on the flat and then has us crossing the mountain to get back on our bikes. It may be hard to see that is the line of people ahead of us climbing over the marked trail.

The end of Section D: 49m 09sec, good for 36th place.
Beginning of Section E: MTB Bike. Basically; a hill climb. Except the hill is 3,000+ feet to the top and the average grade is 8%. Pretty uneventful but it was a beautiful road and would love to have one like that at home to train on. I understand during last years race they went DOWN this same road. How lucky! Alas, it was not meant to be but we did blast our way up and finished the climb in 1:20. Good enough for 31st place!

Next up was the Mountaineering section with lots, and LOTS of rope. This section would prove to be our demise and savior at the same time. We quickly transition out and are quickly making our way along the mountain top finding the mandatory checkpoints along the way.
It is down to a shallow valley and then back up to the top where we get clipped into the ropes for a via Feratta that will be a mind numbingly good time on the ropes for the next 5 plus hours.

Yes, I said over 4 hours on rope. No need to go into details when this can best be explained in pictures.
Going over the edge to start.
Notice the guy in the distance about half way up the rock. We traversed that face to where the picture was taken. The man in the photo is Liam from Sleepmonsters/Rogue.
Molly navigating a boulder.
Erl having the time of his life!
Up close and personal.
It was never ending. There was nothing that was overly technical and luckily we didn’t have any problems with bottlenecks considering the time we spent on the ropes. Amazing I know.
The downfall for us was what happened when we reached the rappel, or did NOT reach it in time rather. It felt really unusual to not make a cut-off. But there we were, once we reached the final checkpoint to get off the ropes, we were directed to the bottom to await further instructions. We were the 1st team not allowed to continue and it was not a great feeling. We were given no real options and felt lost.
Almost immediately though, race officials began to arrive and within 15 minutes we had the information we needed. Hike out three miles to the road where a bus will be waiting for you. The walk of shame!

Considering how bad things were, we tried to focus on the good of the deal. 1. We would not have to climb back UP the mountain and spend a likely 2-3 hours completing the course. 2. We could use this as a nice recovery and prepare for the 94km+121km bike and desert trek. 3. As far as we knew, the odd way penalties work here is that we might only be assessed the time of the last team to complete the stage +1 hour. Not too bad probably and we don’t have to kill ourselves for another 2+ hours. However, that also means that all teams directly behind us will pretty much get the same exact time as us. Like we have a choice. 
Section F: With 2 hours of penalties, we end up with: 9h 56m
The bus ride out into the real desert is interesting. We make it to camp though, but it is already dark when we arrive and we are looking at getting some good food and a nice nap before the next mornings 4:00am start on bikes for Section G.
Dinner is great and we get to cozy up to Thule NZ as we eat. Mr. Usher and Mr. Fa’avae are great to chat with. They give us some pointers for the desert which is basically that this years general direction of travel will be much harder than last years. Great, we thought the tougher the better for us. Afterwards we retire to our camp. We get additional maps and the locations of the ‘optional’ checkpoints to plug into the GPS. The optional points don’t have coordinates, they are merely placed on the map so Biz does some studying and calculates a rough coordinate location so that can be GPS’d . Erl and I try to locate our bikes which is harder than it should be. Our excuse was that there are 180 bikes that are exactly the same.
December 12 & 13
Another amazing breakfast but where I was making fun of the elites earlier about their Coco Krispies , all of a sudden, this seems like an awesome addition to the other offerings.
The race begins on a sandy road and what seems to be the entrance to Rub’ al Khali (the Empty Quarter). Immediately there is trouble out of the gate in front of us. Again, the teams in the front get to avoid the delay and are off to the races as the teams in back sort things out. Again we are alone within the first two minutes of the stage. The road is broken up asphalt paving that is mostly good with a few areas that are so bad we detour around them. The going is good and an hour in we feel like we are doing quite well. The odd thing is there are individuals without teams here and there. Not sure why so many people seem to be on their own but we stick together and keep a tight line while the road is good because we expect that to end anytime. Two hours in and we hit the 1st CP. All is good and we recalculate our time for the section because it seems to be going so well. Well, that was the first third. The next third would be nothing like the first. The asphalt turned into what looked like a cement treated base, with drifts of sand here and there and EVERYWHERE. The road was rough when there was a road, and miserable when it was sand. I suspect we spent as much time off our bikes pushing as we did riding this part.
Grace came at the next CP and the end of the desert bike whack. From there it was smooth sailing for the last 20 miles when we would reach our transition to the desert trek.
SECTION G, Bike: 7h 00m. Good for 32nd place!

Now, after a nice 7 hour warm up on the bike the real fun is about to begin. Trekking 121km, (approx 72 miles) if we hit all the optional checkpoints. Only 70km if we just take the mandatory points. We spend almost 1 hour in transition stripping our bikes and preparing enough gear and food to last us the next 30 hours.
Then we head out of the desert oasis of Hamim.

There will be no race provided supper tonight. We are on our own until the 6pm cutoff the next evening. Rushing into the desert sands on foot is a refreshing break from the bike and is almost fun.
We quickly catch and pass a team in front of us on the way to the first checkpoint. Navigation? Erl gets in on the act and leads the way!
We arrive at the 3rd CP late in the afternoon and the temp is hot. Where it has been mostly moderate everywhere we’ve been so far, the UAE winter day temp in the desert was around 95°F. We choose to set up a brief camp as many others had already done and take a break from the day time heat to rest and plan our attack for the optional CP’s (8 hours of rest taken at two or less CPs was mandatory).
Thanks to our Mandatory Gear Puppy Piles, we saved considerable weight on our travels.
Only being a few hours into the desert, and still ‘on the edge’, we next proceeded to strategize our ultimate demise. With only taking two hours of our mandatory combined eight hour break at our first stop, we set up ourselves for torture. Heading out of camp at the same time the Yogaslackers went out, we both maintained a nice stiff pace for an hour or so and at which time the sun began to set. The footprints in the sand said go one way but we decided we might try a more direct route. After just a few minutes and the rumble of an emanating sand slide, we stopped in our tracks and retreated back to the path more traveled. By the time we got back on ‘trail’ we were all alone again. Our strategy was to go for the 1st two optional CPs (of four total) even though the 3rd optional looked to be the easiest and shortest to get. Our thoughts were to ‘go for it’ and skip 1 or both of the remaining 2 at the end if we had to. We didn’t want to look back and wish we would have gone for the earlier ones had time allowed. By the time we nearly reached the 1st of the optionals, we were already questioning our strategy and everyone was running the math in their heads with the time and distance left to see if it was possible. If it stayed the same, we were good. That was not the case though after we reached the 2nd of the optionals and by that time, it was too late to reconsider. From there we were going against the grain all the way to the next mandatory CP. Up the soft steep sides of all the dunes. No more free bounds down the soft sides. It was straight up. And it was tough. The fun was done and we were just trying to survive and get to the finish. As the fun was just beginning to end.
We staggered into the 2nd to last mandatory CP just before dawn. Biz and I were having a really hard time staying awake. Molly and Erl pulled us through. We decided to change our plans of resting at the last mandatory CP and break there. We had to. We rested/slept for approx 2 hours before getting up and eating a breakfast of cold instant soup. The first few bites were AWESOME. The last few were AWFUL. We made do and went to checkout. Based on our previous rate of travel, we seriously were in doubt of being able to make it the finish in the next 12 hours. After explaining our case to the race director his simple reply was “Go.” Apparently he knew something we didn’t or else we were still incoherent. Either way, with our shoe cover setup and not having had a chance to take them off our feet, it was going to be a fun 12 hour trek to the finish.
At this point teams were going off in all directions and none of it really made sense to us.
Apparently we were still in a fog but we trudged on. Soon we were climbing more dunes and the temp was getting hot, fast. Here we're getting our hurt on with the Yankee Scribes, a fellow US team.
Eventually we came across a road which offered a great relief for our feet. After 60+ miles in the sand we were ready for it to be done.
Arriving at the last mandatory CP was no cause to rejoice. It was hot, our feet were on the verge of going bad, and we still had about 10k to go to the finish. We never planned to get the last optional CP (because it even looked bad on the map) after this one and also had to skip the "short and easy" one on our way to the final mandatory CP. We were beat down pretty good at this point, and it came down to what gets us through so many of the long, mind numbing sections of races at home: Perseverance. It was almost a crawl from that point to the finish but we made it.
Not the hardest section I’ve ever been through physically, but mentally it might have been. The sand just does not end. Ever. In the end, we estimated we trekked approx. 75 miles. (add an extra 10 miles for the 2 steps forward 1 step back sand hill climbs)
Our time for SECTION H: 27h 47m. With a 12 hour penalty for 2 missed optional CP’s and 8.5 hours for not taking the mandatory ‘stop’ time, we finished with a total time of 48h 15m. Placing us in 29th for the day. Miraculously, there was food at the finish line. It truly was a blessing. I am not kidding!
Next up, a 3 hour bus ride to the coast!
When we arrive at our seaside camp of Mirfa it is already dark. Everyone is walking slow as we file off the busses. People are having troubles fitting their feet back into their shoes. I know we don’t even want to put our feet in them but we manage. We find our #13 bags in the giant pile of gear bags and find what looks like a great place to set up tents for the night. Right on the beach (this photo was taken the next day).

Before, during, and after the nights supper we and every other racer are visiting the results tube. We move around in placings from 23rd, 29th, 31st, before finally falling into 27th place, 8 minutes behind 26th as we finish our gear prep and turn in for the night. There were many revisions to the results as everyone’s time was tabulated and penalties calculated. We weren’t sure of anything except we were glad to be out of the desert sand and in the white beach sand preparing for the 121km paddle back to Abu Dhabi over the next 2 days.
December 14
3:42am.. I briefly awake to the sound of wind. Strong wind. I see a flash of light and in my dream state kind of think it might be lighting and as I drift back asleep I dream that it IS lighting and maybe we won’t have to get in the kayaks when morning comes. 4:20am and it is time to get up, pack up and get ready for our final stage. No lighting. What was I thinking? This is a DESERT! It certainly is windy but there is only 1 Adventure Race I’ve ever been in where the weather has altered the course and that was way back in 2003 with 40mph winds, snow, and a paddle on the Mississippi River in the dark. The only problem with this wind is we have mandatory sails on our $3,000 2-person kayaks and the thought of suffering for so many miles in a wind like this was not a great thought.

No one said it out-loud, but I’m sure many were thinking it. After breakfast and packing up some gear, ‘the voice’ comes on over the speaker system. “Due to the wind, the start of Section I, is being temporarily postponed until further notice.” No one knows what to say or what to do. I think most people quietly rejoice in the fact and hope for a little more rest time before starting the day. Within an hour the final verdict is revealed. “Today’s leg of the sea kayak will be cancelled and you will be bused the following day back to Abu Dhabi for a shortened, to be determined, stage for the finish.” This announcement comes with relief and sorrow for all. I don’t think anyone’s heart was broken that we have the day off but at the same time, this IS an adventure race (challenge) and cutting a huge part out feels like someone stole a piece of your soul. It is really hard to describe. There is an empty feeling in camp. No one knows what to do. I suppose we will live, but for all intensive purposes, the race is now over. So much for getting to paddle on the ocean. So much for getting to camp overnight on an island. So much for a grand arrival back in Abu Dhabi. Even now, many weeks and many miles removed, I still feel like we didn’t complete what we went there to do. Still empty.
We mull around for awhile, recheck the posted results before deciding we would try a little nap. Sounded good right? That was when being on the beach turned out to not be such a great idea. The sand came again. Nothing like lying in a closed up tent and having sand rain down you as you try to sleep. INSANE!

We got to miss the wind and sandstorm in the desert, which last years racers experienced, but we're getting a little taste of what it could be like right there in camp.
Enough was enough. We get up and team up with the Yankee Scribes and walk into town in search of food. Dreams of a restaurant or even a McDonalds dance in our heads. Once we make it to the main street area we go door to door in search of food. We find a restaurant, but the prices were crazy. We sample the offerings from 4 different grocery stores. Nothing crazy. Cheetos, potato chips, ice cream sandwich, and soda pop. The Gulf News on display had a shot of the Metrodome collapse from the snowstorm. Local news from home and we are TOTALLY in the middle of nowhere. Nice! (Not upset about missing that though)
We find a grassy area to eat and chat with new friends before heading back to camp. Time to move our tents off the beach! I am also able to phone home from camp this day. It was good, and hard, to hear the voice of Andrea. Taking a day off and not racing was harder emotionally than physically at this point. I had been away from home for 10 days now. Away from wife and kids. It was the longest I’d ever been away from them. Here we were in exotic Abu Dhabi and all I could think about was how can I make this time up to SDK? It wasn’t fair.
We camp for a second night in Mirfa before loading up again the next morning.

December 15
A 2-hour bus ride back to Abu Dhabi and we are back where it all started. Corniche Beach. The kayaks are lined up, but without their sails.

It is still windy so they choose to keep us in the bay and have us do three laps of 11km each. The wind is not bad in the protection of the bay and after we prep our kayaks, we line up for the start of what should only be 3-4 hours of paddling before the race is complete.
We race across the beach and load into our kayaks. So many boats in such a small area. Always fun considering the field spread out pretty fast and it is smooth paddling from here on out. Knowing that the Kiwi’s are the strongest paddlers in the world, we jokingly wonder if they will be able to lap us before we finish. As we approach the first island CP, they are paddling away and they look like machines. So much for the pleasantries as we cheer them on - No reply, they are ALL business. We paddle on and actually hope we can hold them off lest we DO get lapped.

We knew we only had to maintain and get through the day and would have a lock on 27th place. I think we were two hours ahead of the next team at the start of the day but only 8 minutes behind the team in front. We kept them in our sights, but as we were coming into a CP, they were always leaving just ahead of us. They seemed to know it too and they had an eye on us. After 2 laps though, there was no way to make up the 8 minutes unless something went really wrong for them. And it did not. We beach our boats back at Corniche and run up to ‘plug’ for the final time. It was a nice way to finish the race.
No real pressure, much like the final stage of the Tour de France. No real changes to the overall leader board but always a few battling for the stage win. We were not one of them. But we did finish.
Section I time: 4h 17min 37th place.
Good enough to land us in 27th place overall. Well, at least until the final numbers came in. Turns out they hadn’t quite calculated all of the penalties on the previously posted results. Our actual time placed us 29th overall and just 52 seconds ahead of 30th place. Talk about close.
In all, I think we were happy with where we finished. It was a great experience and a first class race all the way. Our hats go off to the ADTA for setting out to create a world class event. They certainly succeeded.

Credit for additional pictures and the ones found on the CPTracker website goes to (awesome photographer) Chris Radcliffe.