A Bird's Eye View of the Bristol Rat Race by Fran Hardy
Ever heard of Adventure Racing? Or to be more exact Urban Adventure Racing? For the serious outdoor enthusiast you need to know about this genre of event and then put it at the top of your list of things to do as soon as soon as possible!
About this time last year, I remember passing lost-looking, map-reading rats on the streets of Bristol, either on bikes or on foot and - having seen no advertisements - reckoned that they were probably involved in some lame orienteering event... Nevertheless, I was surprised I hadn’t heard anything about what was going on right on my doorstep, and it’s pretty much thanks to the Cooler events calendar that after three years in Bristol (one of eight cities which host a Rat Race), I’ve finally become aware of this incredible high-adrenaline event!
The official Rat Race website enticed us with tales of 15km runs and 60km on/off road bike rides, whilst navigating around a course that weaves its way through the vibrant and varied suburbs of Bristol, plus parks, rivers, lakes, scout huts and swimming pools! Having completed a whole bundle of action adventure challenges, I'm amazed that adventure racing has taken this long to feature in my life. It has proved itself to be completely in a league of its own - and certainly isn’t just a lame orienteering event! Adventure racing is particularly remarkable as it embraces so many different activities: climbing, kayaking and high ropes courses are intermingled with long distance running or cycling and a host of other activities are usually thrown in for both comedy value and skill. As I have always been a good overall athlete rather than excelling in just one discipline, this sounded like a dream event!
Two of my equally sadistic friends were on board straight away and we formed one of the 9 all-female teams out of the 111 teams. After coughing up our £99 each, we received a series of rather cryptic emails which certinaly added to the element of surprise! As we had no idea what to expect, none of us ended up training (not to say that we didn’t wish we had done a few extra runs afterwards!) Instead, we relied entirely on our general good level of physical fitness, stamina and mental determination.
Our single sex team entry meant we couldn’t win but we were not in it to win it (although an hour in, we did quite fancy our chances of being the fastest all-female team). Our only aim was to complete it, whatever it took; we were not going to quit once we’d started, however much it hurt! And it did hurt. It really, really hurt! Read on and share our pain...
The Rat Race involves two choices; the long (Adventure Class) and the short option (Mean Streets); the latter involved only the Saturday evening ‘Prologue’ event from 5-8pm, and the Adventure class involved both the Prologue and a 7.30am start on the Sunday to be completed as fast as possible; all teams must have completed the event by 5pm.
Having registered at 3pm, the 3.30pm briefing saw us plotting the checkpoints on our maps and deciding our route whilst shovelling flapjacks down our necks. We decided to head far out, enabling for both scenarios; if we were knackered prematurely, we could head back in to the few checkpoints that were more centrally located, but of less value. The value of each checkpoint wasn’t revealed until the start horn blew, at which point we became a grabbing mass, eager to get ahead of the rest of the dirty rats! We headed up through notorious ‘bad-ass’ area of St Pauls where everyone was really friendly, shouting across the streets to us when we looked lost, endeavouring to help us find our way.
Unfortunately it wasn’t long before we made our first blunder, which proved the importance of team communication. We ran straight pass a checkpoint three miles from the start, losing out on 20 points (this was thankfully the lowest amount of points available, but put us down a massive ten places in the overall rankings for the Saturday Prologue). We narrowly missed out on bagging the points at two other checkpoints as well, running past minutes before they had opened or closed (this is where the importance of route planning/time keeping came in).
Our first activity was situated in the middle of a Eastville Park and when it came into view we saw rats struggling to keep their balance, edging along two wires (one higher than the other) stretched across a murky looking lake. Despite my fatigue I took on the feat, except on seeing the struggles of the other competitors, with the task being simply to get across to the other side, I waded through, holding on to the wires above my head, every step sinking into the thick gloopy mud lining the bottom.
Now saturated to the waist, and stinking of pond mud a bit, we ran on to our next challenge located at an innocent looking scout hut; this time two team members had to carry the one who was carrying a bowl of water, around a series of obstacles! At least it was easier than subsequent tasks of scoring goals against a bunch of twelve year olds, or choreographing a gymnastics routine using a skipping rope a ribbon and a hoop! Nevertheless, we were as graceful as knackered, sweaty, muddy tomboys could be and promptly legged it to the university swimming pool where we shunned the trickery of another all female team who tried sending us in the opposite direction! Luckily, we did not encounter this sort of competitiveness again!
So stripping down to our underwear, we did our 4 lengths (between us) and headed down Park Street for the penultimate activity of the evening, a spot of ballet - tutus, tiaras and all! Embarrassed? Us? Not after 15km; embarrassment was the least of our worries! (The organisers definitely had their fun with this event, cheekily warning us about not speeding on what transpired to be a super-steep up-hill!) After a few twirls, we were ready for something a little more rugged which came in the form of a tandem kayak, blindfolded, with me bellowing at my fellow team members from the sidelines, directing them to a total of three buoys which they had to hit successfully, before being granted the right to yank off the restrictive eye wear and speed back. We had 20 minutes to spare so wandered back to the finish line, went home, drank beer, ate pizza and fell asleep... Prologue event: 29th out of 111 teams! Whoop!
Today was the real bitch... And with sore (so sore!) limbs, we set off for a run (designed to spread the group out), and then there was running on running (after our 15km run just hours before!) as rats had to complete a mini orienteering exercise up Park Street into St Brandon’s Park, taking about half an hour. Then we raced off towards the Bristol-Bath cycle path and cycled up to Stoke Park where we disembarked bicycles for yet another on foot orienteering exercise, which required us to split up and go off in different directions in pursuit of five checkpoints; running obligatory of course!
After this time-sucking stunt, we headed into the depths of Bristol’s northern suburbia, racing through housing estates, main roads and pockets of countryside... At every check point ‘dibbing’ the electronic chip that had been securely attached to our wrists. Other stunts included a Smart Car pushing exercise, an egg run (this involved teams getting an egg-unbroken up a 100m hill, but the person with the egg wasn’t allowed to move - use your imagination!), a BMX bike park circuit (really fun – though tricky for those who had never encountered such fierce bends and jumps, tossing a few rats on the floor – but not us!) and then to our horror another on foot ‘extreme’ orienteering course in Blaise Park - this, we stuck two fingers up at... Most of the activities were mandatory, but some gave rats the option to opt out, in preference for a hefty penalty; this activity took an average of 60 minutes to complete but a 90 minute penalty if not... So with 30 minutes to make up, we raced off, now midday and starting to feel the strain of 4.5 hours of non-stop riding...
Heading back to the competitors village, it was time for a ‘short’ kayak challenge, up the river past the HMS Great Britain, to dib a few more times and back for more fun and games! Mary raced up the climbing tower, Jess and I rode over the ‘skinnies’ on mountain bikes (I went over the handle bars, not used to such good breaks – I was pissed, really not in the mood for more, totally unnecessary pain). After racing up the bungee run it was time for a little waxing (yes, waxing!), with one macho lad getting his (sweaty) butt crack waxed!
And then we were off for the Southern Bike route, taking us through the Timberland, single track trail in Ashton Court and finally back over the Suspension Bridge, which saw us hurtling down through Clifton back to the Harbourside, breaks off and feeling invincible. Whoop Whoop!!... But all this came after one last beast...
Stopping off at the Bristol City Football Ground, we wandered in, having been taken off the clock, to look up and feast our eyes on a load of rats climbing up spindly wire ladders into the rafters of the roof over the seating area... Rats then had to walk along the beams, and abseil down. Normally I would have relished this kind of activity, but not seven hours of relentless exertion... My head was spinning through lack of food and exhaustion was setting in, but mind over matter, I had to do this and not complain for the sake of my team mates who were totally game. Rock on girls! So I shut up, as I usually do when nerves set in and just got on with it.
The final few minutes of racing towards the finishing line gave us a massive buzz and my stomach churned with the stoke! I can’t express how much fun the Rat Race was, and well worth the money – it was obvious that an incredible amount of work had gone into the organisation of this event to ensure that it ran as impeccably smoothly as it did...
Typical Rat qualities involve stamina, determination, a good level of fitness, an adventurous, challenge-hungry spirit and a sense of humour! So if you’re feeling envious, Rat Races run each year in Birmingham, Bristol, Brighton, Belfast, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Galway and London... Check out the official Rat Race website and get signed up!