I recently competed, along with a superb teammate, in the Competition Dynamics 24 Hour Sniper Adventure Challenge. The event consisted of hiking 30 miles over mountainous high desert terrain in a period which was roughly 24 hours long - my team took 27. Total elevation gain along the route was approximately 10,000 feet, and a number of intense physical challenges were placed before the contestants as they hit various checkpoints. In addition, as the name implies, there was some shooting involved.
It was a hard day and I had not slept very well the night before, nor had I really eaten very well before the course began. I learned a few hard lessons, some of which I will share here.
Lesson #1 - Know Yourself
It is inadvisable to enter an adventure race without knowing what your limits, skills, and capabilities are. The only way to find out these things is to get out and test yourself. A number of the individuals who attempted 24HSAC were out of shape, and a few were medically obese. One team appeared to quit/drop out of the race within 50 yards of the starting line. The course description was very clear, and why out-of-shape people thought they could safely participate is beyond me.
I won't say that pushing yourself the way I do is a good idea - the things I do are actually not very smart at all - but they have helped me learn my limits.
Prior to this event, I have undertaken hikes, runs, and walks in remote areas involving difficult terrain and a lack of food, water, or sleep. None were as difficult as 24HSAC, but I have gone 48+ hours without food while walking 20 miles per day at sea level with a 25lb backpack, gone 12+ hours without water or other fluids while walking over 12 miles through soft sand in 95-100 degree temperatures, and covered long distances with large amounts of gear - 15 miles at altitude while wearing full body armor (soft armor and plates) and carrying a 50lb pack.
I have come so close to the failure point of my mind and my body during these "walks" that I know exactly what I am capable of. Near the end of the 24HSAC course, a staff member asked me if I was okay, because I apparently didn't look so great. I replied that I was, because I knew exactly how far I was from mental and/or physical collapse at that point.
Lesson #2 - Know Your Equipment
For all the time I have just spent talking about how well I know myself and how much I have pushed myself, the main equipment choice I made for 24HSAC was pretty foolish. I bought a new rifle and hurriedly zeroed it the morning before the event. I had never fired it past 50 yards and didn't even know the exact muzzle velocity of the ammo I was using (acquired at the last minute thanks to the guys at TheGunVault) from my rifle. As a result, all of the holdover decisions I made were theoretical.
Not surprisingly, I did not do well at all on the rifle shooting portions of the course. I missed the vast majority of the targets - often only by a foot or two at 600-800+ yards, but a miss is a miss. I can't really say anything more about this: know what your equipment is, what it does in certain situations, and what you can do with it. In contrast, the pistol I carried was my usual Glock 19, which I have shot tons of ammo through at various distances and from various positions. We had the third fastest time to clean the pistol only stage.
Lesson #3 - Hydrate Or Die
This seems really obvious. Heck, maybe the other two points I've made here seem really obvious as well. But if I heard correctly, the medical support team for 24HSAC went through three to five cases of IV bags during the event. There were numerous heat casualties who were apparently not getting enough fluids. Water was supplied at numerous points along the course, and all competitors were required to bring electrolyte replacement tablets or powder from the start.
As with the second point, there's not much to say here. Learn to recognize the signs of dehydration and stay well ahead of that point. Bring enough water and do not hesitate to drink it. Clean drinking water is the most valuable thing you can have when you are in a remote area and your life is at stake.
Lesson #4 - Take Care Of Your Feet
In an adventure race, you're probably going to be spending a lot of time on your feet. If you're not wearing the right shoes/boots or you're allowing your feet to stay wet for too long, your ability to keep going will be severely limited. You should wear shoes or boots that are in good condition - not worn out, but not brand new and unknown to your feet. And you should regularly change your socks. I changed socks four times in 27 hours - each time, the new, clean, soft pair made me feel a little better, and helped me go farther.
The shoes I wore during the event were Skechers Olympias Trekkers. I bought them about a week prior and spent a good bit of time hiking up and down hills in Seattle with them. I didn't see any blisters at that time, and decided that they would be suitable for use during 24HSAC.
Only a few tiny blisters showed up on my feet, and those appeared at the very end of the event. Some other people weren't as lucky. Keep in mind that the fit of a shoe to your foot is just as important, if not more, than the features of the shoe itself.
Lesson #5 - Have A Good Partner
I can't say that this goes for all adventure races, since I've only been in one. However, I can say that getting along with your teammate, if it is a team event, is absolutely critical. In addition, you need a partner that makes up for your deficiencies, and whom you can support in other ways.
My teammate/spotter for this event was Paul, an outstanding individual who is a fellow Eagle Scout and genuine outdoorsman. He's in outstanding shape and definitely motivated me to keep going throughout the event - not verbally, but simply by setting the example and keeping up a good pace that I was able to follow...for the most part.
He's also a really smart guy, but he got a little frustrated during one of the challenges of the event, which involved decoding a message from a book using a series of numbers. We had been awake for 30+ hours at that point, were exhausted, and not really able to think clearly. However, I was able to recognize the code immediately and we were one of six teams (out of 35) that got a perfect score on that event.
Lesson #6 - Suffering Is Inevitable, So Ignore It
The race began with every team filling a duffel bag with 100lbs of rocks and carrying it for an unknown distance - it ended up being three miles - using one or two 2x4s. This was not an easy task. In fact, it just plain sucked. At least one team, as mentioned above, quit early during this challenge. Some others elected to drop the rocks for a huge loss of points which essentially made it impossible for them to win the race.
These events are not easy. You will encounter pain, hunger, discomfort, exhaustion, and a number of other unpleasant factors. If you focus on them, you will start circling the drain and might quit early. Of the thirty-five teams that started the event, only 24 crossed the finish line in one form or another; of those, only 7 actually completed the entire race and didn't turn back early. We certainly encountered unpleasantness, but did not allow this to stop us from hitting every checkpoint and finishing third in the race.
This is the most mental lesson I will list - I cannot simply tell you to suck it up. You must be willing to suck it up on your own. If you don't think you are mentally tough enough to keep going when the true unpleasantness begins, you should avoid entering these types of races until you have built up the requisite toughness.
One thing you might try - and this will sound a bit cliché, but oh well - is to enjoy the view. Most adventure races take place in attractive locations, and if you can get your mind off the major suckage you are facing at any given time, you might be able to go farther than you think.
I also had a Taylor Swift song stuck in my head for about nine hours. It was annoying, but a welcome distraction.
Lesson #7 - Pack Light
Many competitors brought far too much gear. A number of teams brought over 60lbs of gear, plus rifles! My backpack (with water and ammo) weighed 19lbs and my rifle weighed almost exactly 10lbs. I also had a Glock 19 in a Praetor Defense holster on my waist, a Surefire E1B and a Benchmade Griptilian clipped to my pockets, a Casio Pathfinder watch, and a Canon S95 in an arm pocket. That's all I brought.
Even though some of the other competitors were in better physical shape than I, they were unable to go uphill or downhill as fast as we were, and many ended up skipping stages (which cost them a lot of points) or turning back early due to the tons of gear they were carrying.
This difference was in fact huge - we were the second to last team to leave the starting point, but the third team to reach the second checkpoint. That first "hill" was a real challenge.
This is a lesson I have learned the hard way in the past, and is a mistake I wasn't about to repeat. I brought little more than what was on the required gear list for the event. I would strongly advise that you carefully consider everything you want to bring with you on an event like this. I took a serious look at everything I wanted to bring and honestly made decisions based on 2-3 ounce differences in weight.
Even the weight of your pack matters. I have a lot of packs, and they are all good for different things. My Gregory G pack is superlight and nice for short day trips. The North Face backpacks I have are pretty rugged, but look like school backpacks and don't stand out much in urban environments like those I've encountered in Europe and North Africa. My Kelty MAP 3500 can hold a good amount of weight and distribute it properly - it's seen use in North and South America, as well as Asia. And my HSGI TRASH pack - well, it weighs 12lbs or so empty, so I only take it when I really, really need to carry a LOT of weight.
Lesson #8 - Quality Gear Is Nice To Have
I took a lot of name-brand gear with me on the race. Most of it was purchased, some of it was loaned, and some was given to me. Most of this stuff was pretty expensive. For example, I bought a Leica CRF1600 rangefinder specifically for use during this event, and found it to be an outstanding and accurate product. I was loaned a USO scope, dropped it in the dirt a dozen times, and never saw any real signs of damage.
Could I have cut myself free from the tree I was duct taped to during the E&E phase with a cheaper knife? Sure, but I like my Benchmades, and the one I brought has served me well in extremely harsh places for a long time. That's what you pay for with expensive gear sometimes - not just initial quality, but quality that lasts.
I was also given about $700 worth of Arc'teryx LEAF clothing for use during the event. I was initially skeptical of the items simply based on cost and made some related Facebook comments which upset some people, but which the Arc'teryx reps I showed them to found quite funny. They then proceeded to give my teammate and I a solid breakdown of what makes Arc'teryx gear expensive. We were impressed - not only with this breakdown and their knowledge of the gear, but the performance of the clothing during the event. I feel that this gear/clothing deserves a separate article, but for now I think that it is sufficient for me to say that I could actually see myself spending money on this clothing if I intended to use it in a harsh environment.
Lesson #9 - When You're Done, Relax And Enjoy Life
It was really nice to finish this trip and be done with everything. Really, really nice. But what it gave me - and what many of my other trips give me - is an appreciation for life. From hanging out and eating pizza with my friends Jim and John (the other Deliberate Dynamics/Arc'teryx LEAF sponsored team) after the race to the flight back with my teammate and friend Paul, I just don't take things for granted after something like 24HSAC.
I will definitely be looking to participate in similar events, and I think Paul will be, too. For all the pain and suffering that we encountered, the event was truly rewarding.