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Humbled and Inspired by the ROCK - Adventure Race Croatia

Updated: May 21

“I’ve never wanted a race to start so badly as I do this one,” said Karine as we biked back from check-in with yet another gear problem. Since the day we landed, we had to figure out problem after problem. Our “chill” pre-race plan had pretty much gone out the window. It all started with two missing bikes, forcing us to make multiple calls to the airport and seek help from the Dutch adventure racing community (thank you!!). Once we got the bikes, we discovered that Max had forgotten his rear axle at home. After a day of searching for one, we surrendered to borrowing the race director’s bike. It was a great option but not ideal, as Max is much smaller than Igor. Fortunately, Max has a great attitude and made it work. As we resolved the rear axle problem, we discovered that our trolleys did not fit into the sit-on-tops! It felt like the universe was testing us before the BIG TEST. We took it in stride, figuring out a way to extend and reinforce the trolley with duct tape and parts from an umbrella we bought on the beach. It seemed to work, and we were all pretty proud of ourselves for staying calm and coming through with a solution. While it was a stressful couple of days, I feel like it made us gel together even more.

After solving all of our issues, we had two feverish hours of mapping our route on the 500 km worth of maps. Finally, we could relax a bit before turning in all of our gear.

When the start time of 6 am on Monday morning finally came, we all shot out like rockets with the biggest smiles on our faces. We were free. Free to race and free to focus on physically moving the best we could from CP to CP. Phone calls, texting, and emailing were all done. If a mechanical issue or a broken trolley was in our future, we would deal with it.

The Race: one for the memory books.

The Lure In:

The whole first day—six stages—felt like the most fun eight-hour race I have ever done. It included three different ocean paddles, a cliff jump into a cave, a run around an island that used to be a prison, amazing coasteering, and an epic six-hour mountain bike stage full of fun single track, windy paths, and interesting navigation. Up until stage 7, the big 58 km trek, we were ahead of the race's estimated times and were alternating between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place. We were pacing well and, for the most part, feeling good.

Lonely Town

Shortly after we started the trek, we had planned to sleep for 30 minutes. It was a new and scary move for us, but one we wanted to try. So, we stopped and watched the lights of Estonia and the French teams get further and further away from us. I was the only one who fell asleep. Alex and Max, our two navigators, didn’t sleep at all. We told ourselves at the time it was okay, that we would catch up and keep pushing, but in hindsight, we now know this is where we entered what we call “Lonely Town.” With no teams in sight in front or behind, our pace naturally declined. The trek was also a lot longer than we thought. The race estimate said 10 hours, but the terrain was extremely technical; we could run very little of it. On top of that, we had to carry a lot of water because there was only water towards the end of the trek. Despite all this, we managed our feet well with two 10-minute nap/Skin Doctor stops, and our spirits stayed high for the most part thanks to the out-of-this-world views and terrain. At the highest and most technical point, we were blessed with amazing views. Spirit B came out and whispered that he wanted to stay up there. As I spread his ashes, I imagined him enjoying the views and bringing the boys up there to say hi one day. The rest of the trek was an easier slog, with less rocky, sharp, and technical trails that kept us alert and focused. Instead, we faced forest mazes of roads and trails that both kept us on our toes and made us sleepy at the same time. When we finally approached the TA, we felt a bit defeated as we had gone six hours over the estimated time. We imagined the French and Estonian teams long gone, but we had only lost an hour with all of our stops. This helped us get our race face back on, and we transitioned as quickly as we could. It was not our best TA, and I could feel the sleep deprivation settling in, making my reflexes and movements slow and clumsy.

"The Real Croatia Shit"

Together, though, we left on our bikes with focus and hope to find the fire. We made short work of the bike leg and headed straight into the next trek with both excitement (to see more views) and a bit of nervousness because of the dark clouds above. As night fell, a storm rolled in while we were on the tops. “This is the real Croatia shit!” yelled Alex into the wind (a classic Alex quote from the Patagonian Expedition Race). We tagged the CP and ducked behind a rock to put on all of our mandatory gear and our Fenix headlamps. Before the race, I had decided to try Jason’s ultra-light plastic bag pants with a rain skirt over them and was amazed at how well they worked. Instantly, I was warm! We joked about my ridiculous outfit as it looked like I belonged in a dumpster, and honestly, I felt like it too. My period had started, and I didn’t have any tampons on me, so yeah, in short, I was feeling pretty disgusting. In adventure racing, all bodily functions are out in the open. There’s no hiding what is going on. It's a weird and wild sport where all inhibitions go out the window with in hours of the start. To save time, we pee two feet away from each other while we do other things like put on sunscreen or eat at the same time.

As soon as we finished the trek, we decided to bed down for our one long sleep of the race. We had planned it to be before the kayak, which was right after the bike, but there was no way Alex could make it through the bike as he was already sleepwalking as we finished the trek. So, we found a shelter and shivered and cuddled for an hour and a half. It was not ideal, but in adventure racing, you have to adapt, especially when things don’t go as planned. Once we woke up, we were cold, which made us a bit slow to get back on the bike, but once going, we were able to keep our speed up and navigate well to the start of the paddle leg.

The LONG Paddle:

“Are we really going that way?” I asked as we approached our kayaks. I saw a pretty big dam downstream and was confused why it was not written in our road book. “Well, that is the only way we can go,” Max replied while double-checking his map. Luckily, it was not a big deal because the river was not moving at all. It was, however, a very slippery dam, and not the kind of water you wanted to go swimming in if you no what I mean. A few hundred meters after that one, we saw another one, and then another one… After the second, we started to just run them as they got easier and easier, The river was glassy and beautiful, and further down, in our sleepy state, the rocks turned into ancient Mayan ruins with faces and animals carved into them. To stay awake, we talked about life, relationships, and what we would do if we could not adventure race or play outside like we do. This is another part of adventure racing that I love, I call it the deep therapy/ no filter conversations. It's when you can talk about and share anything because you are in your own time warp bubble, completely immersed in nature with a common goal of staying awake and moving forward. Thoughts come and go and get shared with no judgement.

Pretty soon, we were already at the portage. It was a rough road, and we could see our makeshift trolleys flexing and straining under the stress of the boats, but luckily they held up to the very end, and I was so grateful for my teams maguiver duct tape job.

The Last LONG Day

The next stage was a 101 km bike ride, something we were all looking forward to, as the bike legs had been engaging and fun. We made a fast transition and headed out, knowing that we would need a nap in the sun at some point. So, before the next pro point, we took a few minutes in the sun to reset and fall asleep. Unfortunately, the pro point was a bit more confusing than we thought, as the water on the map was not there. After 45 minutes of figuring out a different attack point, we got it—it was a HUGE cave in the middle of nowhere. I had a moment of awe as I was punching it before going on to climb for a few hours to the next CP. Overall, our bike leg was good, but as night fell, the sleep monsters hit Alex hard again, and we experimented with a few different sleep options. On the very last CP, we made a navigation error but caught it a few minutes later and had to ride an extra 2 km before heading into the TA. The next stage was our last 29 km trek before a final quick kayak and final bike leg. Since we were behind schedule and needed to be fresh for the trek and final potentially confusing bike leg, we decided to bed down one final time for 30 minutes. We found a spot near the TA and woke up to Karine’s voice, all ready to bang out the last few sections. Ever since the long kayak, we had not been checking the TA sheets, so we didn’t know how far ahead 1st and 2nd were, nor did we know how far 4th and 5th were behind us. Instead, we tried to light our own fires by running all the flats, fast hiking the ups, and trying to be as efficient and precise as possible. After a few sleepy and rough bike legs, we finally felt on pace again.

On the final 6 km of the trek, Karine hit a low point. She had chosen the wrong shoes for that leg. Instead of being fast ridge running on the tops, it was super technical and rocky. Her feet suffered and she stopped eating. After screaming out loud into into the wind, we gave her a minute and all ate and I shared my most embarrassing adventure race story to try and cheer her up. "Nothing can be as bad as this" I start in. It and the extra calories worked and pretty soon she was laughing and we were almost off our feet.

The FINAL push

At the start of the kayak, we found out how far ahead Estonia were, and our spirits dropped big time. We were ok with a third place, but to be that far behind the leaders was hard for us to swallow. But there was not much time to be depressed, nor was it productive. So, we set a new goal- "get to the finish line before the buffet closes!" By the takeout and start of the final bike our spirits were high again and while we took our time in the TA, we set off with focus and intention to be smooth on the last and final bike.

And that we did. We took our time through the maze of trails and worked together to be efficient. We finished the 550km / 12,000 meter elevation gain race in 85 hours. At the finish line we were greeted by the Estonians and the French. Silver from Estonia shook our hands with a knowing smile and said "train more". We smiled back and said "next time.....: " We leave Croatia with a fire in our belly to train more and come back even stronger. Competition can be healthy and fun and with these guys and gal - it is and we are so excited to keep growing and pushing the envelope as a team.

Some races are for winning and some are meant for learning.

Clutch Gear and Food: 

4 Hour Fuel: This race our team favorite flavor was Horchata and a new tester sample of Mango. Whenever either of these would come out, it brought happier times to us! 4 Hour Fuel - Code is "Racerthanks" Order the liquid fuel designed by us, for you (and us!). Use the code for 10% off until May 31.  We are fully stocked for the moment, but that does not mean much, as our supply is not huge.  Lab flavors include Peach, Mango, Horchata, Ramen, and order a 4-pack with "Lab" to try something new!

Fenix Lights: We love these lights and use a variety of them depending on the kind of race. We love that they are lightweight, durable and easy to use. The whole team is on the same light system, this makes it easy for us to interchange batteries. Use Link and code "BendRacing25"

Skin Doctor: While technically we did more miles on bike than foot, the foot sections were extremely technical which called for a few foot care stops. We also slathered it on our hands for the paddle sections. We ended the race with very happy feet and even being able to go on a recovery run the next day! Use "BendRacing" for a discount!

Leki Poles: We had a ton of elevation gain on this race, especially on foot. My Neo Ultra Trail poles were amazing at giving my legs a little break. Leki Poles: 25% off with code SUNRIVER24.  This deal is only good until May 31, and discounts this big are rare with Leki.  We love this pole (crosstrail FX superlite) as a team - super light (under 200g) and adjustable so that we can more easily share (we carry 2 sets between the 4 of us on big trekking legs). But check out the other poles too - discount good on all cross trail, trekking and nordic walking poles.  

USWE Packs: We used a mix of the Ultra Hyjacker and the Pace packs. They all worked great and were super comfortable. Use "Ultra" for a discount!

Ellsworth Bikes: While I was the only one an Ellsworth Truth, I must say, it is the best adventure racing bike out there. Super light, nimble and very fun to ride. 

Infinity Bike Seats: After 350 km of riding with no bike chamios, my butt felt better than ever. I only needed to apply skin doctor twice and I ended up with no chaffing, no sore butt and no rash. Max also rode his, and he had the exact same results. This seat is amazing for AR!! Use "bendracing" at check out for a discount.

Backpacker's Pantry: 25% off meals with code "ExpeditionOregon".  These meals helped us big time-real food is amazing in Expedition Racing! Code only good for 1 more day (thru May 22) so stock up for EO and all your summer needs!  There are a limited # of these coupon codes so act fast. We use these all the time.  Favorites (mostly based on cold-cookability and calories!) are Mango Sticky rice, Shepards beef stew, Pad Thai, Lasagna and Mac and Cheese.

AdenGear: 10% off.  BR-2024SUNRIVER. Code good till June 1!

Just a great selection of gear. Good for all hard goods (but not 4hourfuel - see below for that code!) So many favorites, too many to choose. 

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