All routes lead to the finish

There are three ways that race organisers accommodate slower entrants and get them to the finish line. First, they plan an event with multiple race offerings; second, they give them enough time to finish; and finally, they leap-frog slower participants on a shorter, alternate course to catapult them forward by a sizeable chunk of hours and kilometres.

Hours and days

No matter what the discipline, the standard is that backmarkers will finish in at least double the amount of time as the winners. At a 10-kilometre race the front bunch will reach the end in 30-minutes; the majority will run close-to and over one hour. At Comrades, most gold medallists are done between 5h30 and 6h00; the majority of the runners finish after 10 hours, aiming to make the 12-hour cut-off.

And when events run over days… At an expedition-length adventure race where the front teams complete the course in four or five days, you can be assured that the backmarkers will need the full eight to 10 days set aside for the event to reach the end.

Multiple offerings

At most runs or cycle races – road and trail – there will be at least two options available; a short race aimed at newcomers and youngsters and a longer course for those with a little know-how. Few adventure races offer more than one course at any one event; although this is something that we may see more frequently.

Swazi Xtreme, a multi-day adventure race that ran annually from 2001 to 2010, used to offer teams a 250-kilometre non-stop course or a 120-kilometre, three-day, staged course. Some events use optional controls (OP), which entice faster teams to race faster and further and where the winner may be determined not necessarily by who finishes first but by the number of OPs collected – a la the time-limited, point-score rogaine style of orienteering.

Plenty of time

Given sufficient time, most teams should be able to make the finish. This is the approach taken by international, expedition-length adventure races, including our own Expedition Africa. Organisers plan for the front teams to complete the 500-plus kilometre course in around four days, leaving another four or five days for the back teams to finish. Doing the math, it seems puzzling that it could take a team eight days to do 500 kilometres; that’s only 62.5 kilometres per day. But it does happen – often. How and why these teams flounder is certainly the topic for another column…

For these races teams block off two or more weeks for racing and travel and once finished they hang around for days resting and socialising as they wait for prize giving. Expedition-race organisers want the teams to have the satisfaction of a full-course finish.

At Expedition Africa 2011 we had 14 out of 22 teams finish,” says race director Stephan Muller. “After the event, most teams that pulled out commented that they should have stuck it out. They could all have finished if they really wanted to.”

For the 2012 edition of Expedition Africa Muller added an extra day and as a result all teams finished. “And this is mainly due to the fact that most teams had done the distance in the past and were, on average, great athletes,” Muller adds.

We’ve only got a weekend

Short coursing comes up time and time again as an ‘issue’ but it is a very feasible option where race organisers only have a weekend (or long weekend) to host competitors who set off for the race venue on a Friday afternoon – after work – and need to be back home to be ready for work as soon as. Built into event planning should be sufficient time for competitors to sleep before driving home.

Take a hypothetical 36-hour race starting on Saturday morning and finishing on Sunday evening (where Monday is a public holiday). Without short coursing front teams would have to finish on Saturday night (18 hours) for back teams to finish by Sunday evening. They travel the same distance to the race and pay the same entry fee. Without short coursing their weekend of racing is halved to accommodate slower and less experienced teams. But with short coursing, all teams can finish within a few hours of each other and they can celebrate together around a fire. Over a long weekend there is just not the time available to book an additional three days to get the backmarkers through the full course.

Hugh Glyn-Jones was a long-time racer in the Swazi Slo-Jos team. “As a back marker, I often found beating a cut off in a long and difficult race as satisfying as making a full finish. I have also always felt that finishing a shortened course after a full weekend racing is a hundred times better than being pulled off and not seeing the finish line.”

Team Bad Medicine’s Mark Human is in agreement. “The difference in fitness between the front teams and us ‘weekend warriors’ is massive. All we want is an adventure in a beautiful, remote setting and if we are not strong enough to finish the entire course we should be short-coursed to enable a finish.

The Western Cape Adventure (WCAD) series of events offer a short and a long course simultaneously that share many of the same checkpoints. Ronald Jessop, a Cape Town adventure racer explains that it’s up to the competitors to match themselves up against the course of their choice. “The advantage of this approach is that there will be no unexpected disappointment at being short-coursed or pulled from the course. You know what you’re in for and you race against other teams on the same course.

Jessop adds that on tough races like the recent Quantum Leap 270km “completing the full course on such a race would be an achievement of note and something to aspire to if it became a regular event of consistently the same degree of toughness”.

Vanessa Fisher is also ok with short coursing and she highlights the importance of communication within teams around their race strategy. “I’m usually part of a middle-placed team. Most important is going into the race being aware of the short-coursing options and the cut-off times and agreeing with your team upfront what the strategy for these will be,” she says.

At Quantum Leap one of her teammates was ill and wanted to drop out; two wanted to sleep for two hours in transition instead of pushing through to make the cut-off and then sleeping on the ‘other side’. “Thank heavens other teams in the transition area talked some sense into my teammates and we made the cut-off,” she explains.

Teams can plan for cut-offs in their race strategy (pace, transition times and sleep) but sometimes weather comes into play and race organisers have to divert the field for safety reasons. That’s just the nature of an outdoor sport that is played out in wilderness locations.

But, if the race organiser moves the goal posts… “Poor event planning that leads to surprise or arbitrary short coursing negates any reasonable arguments and leaves everyone feeling bitter,” says trail runner Laura Forster.

Racing towards a checkpoint – thinking you are on time according to what you were told at briefing – only to be shorted is a bitch. Race directors deserve the hard feelings they generate in such circumstances.”

Trail runner Bruce Arnett has completed many adventure races too. He correctly mentions that teams overestimate their ability. Indeed, those with little (or no) experience look at the numbers on paper and think the race will be a piece of cake and then they’re demoralized when the course proves to be challenging. A team like this is highly likely to withdraw for silly reasons. “Don’t complain because of the DNF you get when you overestimate your team’s ability. Make a better assessment next time,” Arnett says firmly.

Yet, more teams could complete the full course if they just keep it together and maintain focus.

A certain responsibility lies with teams to ensure that they are well prepared to tackle an adventure race,” says Ugene Nel, organiser of Quantum Leap and long-time adventure racer and member of Team Energy. “It was not necessarily just the [Quantum Leap] course that nailed them. The teams had their destiny in their own hands. Poor decisions and route choices, lack of fitness, dithering in transitions, sleeping during the day, team issues and moving at snail pace played a massive role.“

Being short coursed should not be viewed as a failure but as an option that allows every team the opportunity to race for the full time allocated but with route variations that come into play as the race unfolds. Realistically, a novice team should be nowhere near a fast and experienced team. When teams look at where they’ve lost time (transitions, navigation, speed) and work on rectifying these weaknesses, they will move up the field. Reaching the finish line of a tough race – whether on the full or modified course – is an achievement.

Short coursing is palatable if:

  • Teams know that short coursing will be included in the race course as a route option and pressure factor
  • Cut-offs times and locations are clearly stated at race briefing and in route books
  • Less experienced teams understand that they’re likely not to finish the full course but that they should aim to see how far they can get and to improve on this with each race
  • Fun activities like abseiling and caving are still included on shortened routes
  • Cut-offs are activated later in the race, not 24hrs into a 500-kilometre race as happened to Team Energy at Southern Traverse in 2005

Author: Lisa de Speville | Originally published in Go Multi Magazine, Nov/Dec 2012