Big Grins in Coniston
Adam Rose / 08.03.2023
“When’s the next one? When’s the next one?”
That was the most common question I got asked while covering this year’s Open5 adventure race, set in beautiful Coniston, with (believe it or not) excellent weather! Shock horror, yes, it’s a true story. Not a drop of rain until 4pm, and the prize giving wrapped not long after 3:30pm, so even when things did turn for the worse, all competitors were safely on their way home, DRY.
Compare this to the 2022 edition, held in ‘horizontal rain’ according to one competitor in the carpark, shuddering at the memory. The horror, the horror.
So while it wasn’t exactly sunny, reasonable temps, overcast skies and no wind made for perfect conditions to push hard and not overheat. I even saw one or two hardy souls in T-shirts, though I definitely appreciated my windbreaker on the bike.
100 bodies turned up. A good number? More than last year, if memory serves, but race director Adam Marcinowicz, now on his second staging of the event after taking ownership from Open Adventure, grimaced slightly when he gave me the figure.
This was confirmed later on the start line by one of the marshals, who commented that it was decidedly low-key. Certainly compared to many years before, when Open Adventure had up to 7 such 5hr events annually, and a register of 350 competitors was not uncommon.
Nonetheless, teams were turning up before the 8-9am registration window, some having driven from as far afield as Surrey, as well as locals cunningly familiar with the terrain and route options. Many opted to overnight locally, and judging from the car park, vanlife is a thing. There’s a certain satisfaction to be had lounging on a comfortable van sofa sipping that cup of coffee, nattering with familiar faces, while others trip over gear and bikes hauled from the depths of the hatchback.
It was standard fare as regards pre-race prep: register for the maps and the electronic dibber for the checkpoints, hatch daring plans over intended route choice, lay out kit in the transition area, and obsessively recheck the bike that all was in order.
As is common in Open5’s, there were a number of dummy checkpoints – on the map but non-existent in reality. This always adds a frisson of excitement, as you only get the CP control sheet with point values (which affect decision making) AFTER you have started the clock on your 5hr jaunt. So, with the pressure of the tick, tick, ticking, you suddenly have to rejig your strategy, make sure to cross out the dummy CPs on the map, re-evaluate your life choices, and rush off the start as you see competing teams already on the move. Whaaaat am I doing?!
Of course, that’s not always the case, but one has to sympathise with the newbies who no doubt were feeling it all, whereas the veterans were confident, relaxed, fast.
The run section, contrary to expectation, was mostly northwest towards Coppermines, hitting the tops, and the bike was northeast from the base, instead of the anticipated east towards Grizedale. Some racers had dug up old maps from their vaults, comparing the 2017 course, and apparently even the 2007 version. There were some strong similarities. Before the start, Sleepmonsters stalwart Pyro was pointing out familiar sections, and he wasn’t alone in his observations.
Is it better to run or bike first? There are 3 options in my humble opinion:
- Run first
- Don’t bike first
- See above
While not unfeasible, you’d better have a darn good reason for refuting option 1, and was it any surprise that in the top 10 fastest times, across all classes, 70% went on foot, including the top 4? Third-placed Mark Chryssanthou had some sage advice beforehand: “if you run first, you can flip the map en route to assess which CPs to drop if necessary, whereas biking first, the map is fixed to your mapboard.” Plus there’s the impact of jelly legs, going from bike to run.
Most running teams headed for the shore of Lake Coniston to pick up a handful of easy points before ascending the hills. The furthest run CP was at the foot of Raven Crag, then scattered across the top of Yewdale Fells over to Coniston Fells, with the highest point being the summit of Kitty Crag at 435m, roughly half the height of the Old Man of Coniston. One return route was through the Coppermines quarry workings, descending the footpath of Big Hill before looping back to the TA.
I didn’t get to see all CPs, sticking to the dramatic scenery around Coppermines, but visited particularly-vexing CP29, which was 10m inside a mine tunnel, on the entry gate. Every team I saw headed up a neighbouring gully short of the correct tunnel, then re-emerged looking perplexed. Overall 4th-placed pair Joe Selby and Craig Tweedie spent a good 5 minutes on this CP, which is a long time at the sharp end. Overall winner Tom Gibbs came steaming through, a little frustrated, followed shortly by Ian Furlong, hotly pursued by Mark Chryssanthou. As they passed the CP, Mark glanced backwards, and perked up, almost like a meerkat getting the scent of something interesting. He then headed straight into the tunnel, keeping schtum while Ian hurried off downhill CP-less. Take no prisoners!
Many teams remarked on the tough going underfoot, struggling to find the CPs up high after assuming summits would be easy to spot. They had no excuses since clag was thankfully absent.
Back in transition, the few teams I spotted were a mixture of leisurely refueling and impatient haste, though none were dawdling once back on the move.
Heading out on the bike, it was apparent that no particular strategy dominated, although broadly it was a clockwise or anticlockwise loop. Biking generally tends to be easier CPs, usually path junctions or gates, but as is often the case, there was hike-a-bike on some route choices. The furthest CPs were just shy of Rydal Water. I went towards Raven Crag, picking up teams dibbing under a footbridge on some fast-rolling graded singletrack, and loads near Tilberthwaite. CP12 was especially scenic on the moors west of Black Crag, before a glorious descent south through Iron Keld and the byway to Knipe Fold. You could even score minor airtime – woot!
Husband and wife team Joanna and David Taylor had an epic. David’s cassette seized out in the wilds of CP12 so he’d removed his chain, but they were still catching CPs when I found them en route to the TA, still grinning.
They say AR is an aging sport. I’m not sure age is such an issue. Chris Ainsworth (66yrs) finished in 39th of 66 teams, did his first Karrimor back in 1984, is currently on 32 out of an intended 40 OMMs, and wishes there were more solo events because H&S increasingly means RDs won’t permit it.
Legends Phil (60yrs) & Jackie Scarf were cruising when I found them at CP12, and came 3rd out of 12 Mixed Pair teams, hardly the worse for wear. This despite Phil having had a very rough 9 months of extended covid, and almost calling it quits on AR altogether. Having said that, he is weighing up ARWC later this year if he can find a team.
Peter Bascombe and Paul Welsh from Kendal Tri Club were plenty experienced Open5-ers, though Peter hadn’t done a race in years. He said it “seemed like a good idea to do it, and I wasn’t even drunk at the time! Plus it’s a great way to see the countryside.” They’re trying to get more people to join their club, and see adventure racing as an easy entrance into multisport. “It’s a bit different, but fun.” They hope their participation will be inspiring to their club members – we’ve done it, come and try – since many see the swim section of triathlons as too intimidating.
I bumped into Helen Knott and Liam Challis multiple times on the course. Either smiling or laughing, NEVER dropping maps, giving it stick. This was quite encouraging for two newcomers to AR, who were “apprehensive but not intimidated” before the start. The worst bit for them was the dummy controls – “they don’t exist, so mean!” they laughed.
Jonathan Ellis and Alison Wright (team Paqualife UK) were kicking ass and taking names, finishing one place behind the Scarfs. Alison was ostensibly over from Oz for a family wedding, but fortuitously remembered to bring her northern hemisphere compass. Funny that. She “borrowed her friend’s husband and bike and half her clothes” to race, and had the savvy to colour in all the CPs on the map to make them stand out. Much harder to miss. If she’d known the point values before the start, she would even have used different colours, giving a better overall picture when making decisions on the move. Smart.
At the young end, it was excellent to find two 16yr olds paired with their respective fathers. Itera racer James Williams took daughter Imogen on her first AR, about which she was skeptical at the start. She’d done the Saunders mountain marathon previously, so not inexperienced. Her brother’s parting encouragement was “Kill Dad for me please. I can’t wait to see (him) in the car, crying.” James’s goal was “the win is we do it and she wants to do it again.” Imogen had watched EcoChallenge Fiji and been inspired by the Abel Abels.
Will Hampshire ran with his father, Peter. Will comes from a scouting / cyclocross / cross country background and was dead keen. He saw AR as a bit of cross country combined with geocaching, which is one way to sell it to the yoof. I said the future of AR rested his and Imogen’s shoulders - no pressure then.
By 3pm teams were back in the HQ of John Ruskin School for some hot food, comparing of war stories and battle scars, and quite festive. All the newbies I spoke to were stoked about their day out, whether landing on the podium unexpectedly “with zero arguments!” (Drew & Hugo in the Male Pairs), or having simply had “a great day out” with less wetness.
This brings us back to the beginning: when is the next one? A fair few competitors lamented the lack of events up north, especially long-time racers, but the answer is complicated. Events in the UK south are definitely seeing a resurgence, with Questars and Burn Series vying for weekends, whereas up north, it’s only TriAdventure and Durty Events in the main, and Durty are concentrating on the multiday missions at this point.
Speaking to Adam Marcinowicz afterwards, he is keen to do more, BUT it hinges on a particular linchpin: YOU. More people entering as we encourage and inspire them to participate is essential, but no less the need for volunteers to make the races happen. This is true the world over in adventure racing, with margins so tight. If you want more events, you need to help in any way you can so all can benefit. The appetite for more adventure racing is real.
For the record, the top placings were as follows:
- Tom Gibbs (590 pts, dropping only CP3)
- Ian Furlong (570)
- Mark Chryssanthou (551)
- Victoria Jones (334)
- Nina Saunders (315)
- Joe Selby / Craig Tweedie (509)
- Andrew Scot / Hugo Hunt (495)
- Simon Enderby / Alistair Morris (485)
- Laura Evans / Katherine Hargreaves (400)
- Sophie Edwards / Beth Hoggarth (305)
- Kim Spence / David Spence (480)
- David Harcourt / Rosemary Byde (445)
- Phil Scarf / Jackie Scarf (430)
Full results and photos can be found at https://www.triadventure.co.uk/event-results/See All Event Posts