Burn 6: Bath

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Burning in The Tunnel of Gloom

Adam Rose / 28.03.2023See All Event Posts Follow Event
/ © Adam Rose

The first event in the 2023 Burn Series took flight in Bath, and it was a splendid one. Six hours of mud, steep hills, mad swans, frantic prologuing, looong tunnels and some real sunshine. Quite a contrast to the Friday night when the rain was a-lashing, and the wind a-smashing. In fact, come Saturday morning, the decision to keep the gazebos and associated paraphernalia indoors overnight was well vindicated, and fortunately the wind dropped as the setup got underway.

Based out of Prior Park College, an amazing, dare I say ‘glamorous’ location for humble athletes, an impressive backdrop for the toil and sweat that was to follow. Many turned up in regular vehicles, though the Roller or the Bentley would not have looked out of place.

Competitors lined up for registration from 7:30am, a curious mixture of the UK’s racing elite and complete newcomers to AR, anticipation oozing from every pore, some wondering what they had let themselves in for.

Jeremy Holmes already had races under his belt, and when I asked him why he did these events, he replied, “Exactly!”, though he was beaming. 

Bianca Junge’s response was “Why? Because I like adventures. It’s kind of a different challenge. It’s about being out all day in the countryside and problem solving.” Her teammate, Jeff Smart, agreed on the adventure aspect, but had the modest ambition not to finish by “throwing his bike into the bushes”. Clearly there was some history. UPDATE: As The Psycho and The Pirate, they crossed the finish line laughing, so apparently bikes remained unthrown.  

Nick Gracie and Tom H. Davies (Endurancelife) were one of the first teams to register. Both are in training for the AR World Championship later this year in South Africa, and short sprint races like this event are useful for clearing the cobwebs after winter, but also can be a serious workout for athletes aiming for the sharp end. Nick will be racing with an Ecuadorian team in Africa, in preparation for the 2024 World Championships in Ecuador, though he wondered how much longer he would race competitively. Maybe some mentoring in the future instead?

Gemma Owen and Euan Tippen (Team Thistle and Rose) were newbies but keen. They brought their orienteering experience, and enthusiasm for running and kayaking. The lure was “the name adventure racing sounds interesting”. They also liked the post-race freebie beer being non-alcoholic, and had been inspired (surprise, surprise] by EcoChallenge Fiji.

An interesting trio were Ryan Sutton, Eleanor Broughton and Lizzie Broughton from Richmond, racing as solos. Lizzie is a world champion kayaker and 2015 overall winner of the Devizes to Westminster race, so she already has the pedigree to excel at adventure racing. After all, kayaking tends to be the weakest link for most teams. All three had an orienteering background, and done races before, so I was curious to see how they would fare.

Andrea Stefkova had convinced Sam Cole to join her, having done MTBO before, while Sam was so much not a runner, he didn’t even have suitable shoes. Andrea was in charge of the nav, claiming it was “a benign dictatorship”, and the decision was made beforehand “to reduce arguments”. But they were full of smiles and a little trepidation.

Another newbie couple making the trek, this time from West Sussex, were MTB guide Hannah Attenburrow, her partner Emyr Griffiths, and their baby. They used to do MTB racing together, but things changed when the new-born came long, so Hannah was on her own while Emyr pushed the pram. She was wisely cautious about following the herd out on the course, in contrast to MTB racing, figuring she’d have to trust her own navigation. 

Not to beat the bush about newbies, but Jake Loft and Katy Cruikshank of team Make or Break were keen as mustard. The race was their first big thing since having a baby last year. Katy was a serious triathlete with Iron Man history, whereas Jake admitted his training was non-existent since leaving the navy 4 years ago (other than “lifting a beer”).  They hadn’t competed together before, wanting to race as “our relationship needs a spice up”. Having forgotten a compass because it wasn’t on the kit list seemed a good way to ensure that.

In contrast to most UK sprint races, race director Andrew Woodhouse chose to begin with a mass start. This was a great idea, bringing much festivity and crackling energy to the 9:35am kick off, almost like a triathlon. Immediately there was a leaping and a sprinting for the closest CPs in the prologue orienteering stage around the grounds of Prior Park, racing across the lawns to be first to dib. I hurtled after them, only to be brought up by the frantic queuing at CP1. It was a rogaine, so others wisely chose to hit different CPS first.

As expected, speedy veterans were in top form, some with gleeful grins to be let loose on the course (here’s looking at you, Rob Smart).

Two CPs were around the impressive front of the college, one on the portico, overlooking a stunning view down the valley. It was hard to tell who was in the lead, but for all their speed, none of the aforementioned vets were first on the scene. Had they all followed the leader, or was it simply logical to hit the CPS in a specific order?

Within 15 minutes or so, all teams were back in transition, swopping to either bikes or running, with the kayak TA down on the Kennet & Avon Canal near the Dundas Aqueduct. Andrew had split the field into 2 groups, randomly allocating teams into a morning or afternoon kayak, which affected the choices made about which discipline to do first. Nick Gracie and Tom Davies got the morning slot which meant biking first was more logical for speed, much to their sorrow.

The Psycho and The Pirate a-grinning

Heading out to catch teams, I found plenty at foot CPs close by, only to find them mostly heading for the kayak immediately after. When one is gunning for the top spots, attempting to clear the course, maximising the minutes is a real issue, but much less when adventure is the priority or just a spot of sightseeing.

There were 5 kayak CPs, 3 on the canal east of the River Avon after crossing the aqueduct, 2 down a narrow stretch that led to the Angelfish Café. Herewith teams encountered a hiccup. In the enthusiasm of planning, a small sign had been missed, stating this latter section was private. Consequently, the leading kayakers encountered vocal resistance from the landowner, strident objection from another resident, and great violence from a brooding swan. However, peace was restored in short order by the RD as soon as the boo-boo was discovered, and the landowner went away with a smile. Subsequently the 2 CPs were relocated and racer scores compensated accordingly.

Lizzie Broughton powering away from the lair of the Swan of Doom

I only saw the kayakers in the morning, and most dropped the most distant CP which was at the bridge near Rowas Lodge. Lizzie Broughton shot off from the TA on a single kayak, pulling away strongly even from those in tandems, and at the time I had no idea of her background – she was clearly on a mission.

Others were just having a laugh, some kayaking for the first time, and only one person managed to capsize a sit-on-top but hardly in an issue in a sluggish canal.

Back at the HQ, MTB guide Hannah was the first into transition at 11:30, clearly itching to be on her bike, followed shortly by a few others. The weather had brightened considerably, the wind gone, and it was turning into a glorious day.

Hannah, Emyr and the Bebe

Zipping around on my own bike, I attempted to intercept teams en route. The course design laid the run CPs within the greater spread of the bike CPs, which meant slower teams maximised their views of the course – if they couldn’t run to a particular area, it was likely they could still bike to it. It also made for frequent contact with teams in either discipline, most grinning, the odd one grimacing thanks to the “lumpy” nature of the surrounds, as described by Paul Cantrill.

Regardless, there was one standout feature that elicited an almost universal “That was coooooool!” Welcome to the Tunnel of Gloom, aka the Two Tunnels Greenway. A former train line now pedestrianised, it ran through the Combe Down Tunnel (1.6km!) and the Devonshire Tunnel, crossing the Midford and Tucking Mills viaducts. Opened in 2013 after substantial grants made it possible, the tunnels were an excellent choice for bike CPs, and eerily, feature only vague illumination. This makes it quite unnerving upon first entry as your eyes need to adjust, and while there is sufficient light not to crash into the wall, you can’t see cyclists without lights. RD Andrew had recommended max lumens but I left mine behind, so only had myself to blame when someone in the blackness growled “Left!” The tunnels also feature spooky music courtesy of an audio-visual installation to add to the atmosphere.

Racers came whizzing through the dark, some hooting, all clearly enjoying the novelty while avoiding shadowy pedestrians.

Back out in the bright, teams explored bridle ways, footpaths and byways, some slow-going thanks to the mud and squelch from the previous night. Three run CPs were centred around a series of disused locks, a small quarry and the remains of a ruined engine building, relics of the industrial past. Further afield to the south, I found teams Endurancelife, Cranny Gary and Leaping Goat bunched together having slogged up a bridle way towards Hinton Charterhouse, sweating buckets. They had followed a very similar logic in collecting the bike CPs, experiencing the ‘journey’ the RD had intended in the course design.

Andrea Stefkova bearing the burden of nav for Sam Cole

Regardless of the route, there was a sting in the tail: all roads led uphill to the race base. A fiendish bit of planning, it meant teams crossed the line having taken some strain, especially for those in a sprint finish. Speedsters Tom Hard and Iain Porter had been neck and neck, both clearing the course, coming together towards the end. Trying to outwit Iain, Tom kept his pace in check until almost the last minute then went like blazes, pedalling frantically, “leaping over flowerbeds, chucking his bike” to finish 5 seconds in front. Ecstatic to have triumphed, Tom then learned Iain had mis-dibbed at the TA earlier, losing 40 points, and so he could have strolled in while still securing victory.   

Nick Gracie and Tom H Davies took the win in the Men’s Team division, also clearing the course though not without mishap. Thanks to ‘interesting’ navigation, they biked a crazy descent, Tom at speed, Nick over the handlebars. Nick smashed headfirst into rock, saved by his helmet which unbelievably didn’t crack, and crunched his knee into stone. Sustaining a nasty gash that needed big bandages at the finish, he’d persevered with the stage then cleared all the run CPs, to share the top spot on the podium. Privately, Tom marvelled at Nick’s capacity to endure suffering, which is probably the superpower that enabled him to become world champion back in the day.

Nick and Tom

Hannah found the course amazing: “I got ridiculously lost at at least 2 points, and will definitely do another one!” Maybe she’ll have to fight Emyr for it?

Bianca and Jeff “had an excellent adventure” while Chepstow local James Brown, a veteran racer, had such a great time “I almost don’t care how well anyone else did!”

Katy and Jake survived their experience, but initially were a little grumpy. Having skimmed the race briefing, the bit about choosing which checkpoints to visit had escaped their notice, so 16 miles later, they passed under the arch after clearing the run CPs, but none of the bike CPs, and time was up. Event Director Damon took it in his stride, urging them to head back out, timing be damned, to enjoy the ride. This saw them return half an hour later beaming, with a handful of CPs from the bike, and now proper adventure racers!  

Katy and Jake with the bike CPs under their belts

There was a lot of laughter and joy at the finish, as usual. Teams gathered to compare war stories, devour excellent pasties from The Pasty Cove en masse, down their free beer, and hatch plans for the next one. Incidentally, that’s another 6hr event, this time on the South Downs at Pulborough on May 20th.

RESULTS (Top 3 places)

FULL / SOLO / MALE

Team

Competitor

Time

Position

Score

Tom Hards

Tom Hards

05:36:36

1

695

Safe Strength Chepstow

James Brown

06:08:28

2

656

Iain Porter

Iain Porter

05:36:41

3

655

FULL / SOLO / FEMALE

Team

Competitor

Time

Position

Score

Lizzie

Lizzie Broughton

05:45:26

1

565

Sandy

Sandy Benchetrit

05:56:02

2

540

Ro

Ro Cole

05:57:59

3

500

FULL / TEAM  / MIXED

Team

Competitor

Time

Position

Score

Leaping Goat

Matt Young & Iwona Szmyd

05:55:49

1

610

Team Naf Nav

Jennifer Hunt & Nick Mileham

05:56:39

2

545

Hazard

Andrea Stefkova & Samuel Cole

06:05:02

3

544

FULL / TEAM  / MALE

Team

Competitor

Time

Position

Score

Endurancelife

Tom Davies & Nick Gracie

05:49:07

1

695

Cranny Gary

Gary Davies & Mark Chryssanthou

06:10:59

2

674

Rob and Ross

Rob Smart & Ross Remnant

06:00:28

3

629

FULL / TEAM / FEMALE

Team

Competitor

Time

Position

Score

E.T. Ride Home

Ella Pyman & Tracey Freeman

05:56:19

1

500

Cagney & Lacey

Tiggy Burch & Vikki Gordon

05:38:49

2

205

DUO / MIXED

Team

Competitor

Time

Position

Score

The Psycho & The Pirate

Bianca Junge & Jeff Smart

06:06:08

1

388

DUO / MALE

Team

Competitor

Time

Position

Score

Southampton Orienteering Club

Timothy Gray

05:52:00

1

520

MTB / MALE

Team

Competitor

Time

Position

Score

Team CasaWally

Chris Casanovas & Andrew Wallis

06:14:15

1

405

TRAIL RUN / MALE

Team

Competitor

Time

Position

Score

Andrew Macmillen

Andrew Macmillen

06:39:26

1

445

TRAIL RUN / FEMALE

Team

Competitor

Time

Position

Score

Eleanor Broughton

Eleanor Broughton

05:41:36

1

525

Crafty Divils L

Lorraine Horan

04:03:03

2

220

 

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