Following most international race updates, it is the enticing images (or videos) of an ‘exciting’ race that draws the eye to the Corsica Raid Adventure which is part of the Outdoor Racing World Tour. Celebrating their 25th anniversary for this 1-6 June 2018 edition it was ‘back to the roots’, however we didn’t really know what that meant and it turns out we really had no idea about this race at all (huge understatement, bullet points to follow!).
All I can tell you, is, it looks really fun, rather than just really hard! (True story too, thankfully!!).
We had a team together in early ’18 comprising local friends Tristan and John, and from Kuwait our race mate Ahmed who I’ve had the pleasure of a couple of races now.. Four guys in the team didn’t make a difference vs. an Adventure Racing World Series (ARWS) race with standards, and generally for this race nothing “normal” or “expected” can be expected, so no advantage or hat-tip to a mixed male/female team as a “premier” division.
So with a team, we focused on specifics of the race..
Race Preparation (A how-to .. or how-to-reconsider!!);
Okay, here’s where it gets interesting.. And it’s hard to decide where to start..
Firstly I guess is to mention this race is suited to those based on the European continent for several reasons, and so let me list some race details/surprises;
- You can do the race with 2 or 4 members and both categories are “+1”.. Yep, you can sub someone in without penalty(!)
- It’s a stage race; you get to sleep at night (a good 7-8hrs sleep if you don’t go to mandatory briefings).
- The stages are daily of many legs called ‘al-la carte’ style.
- Legs may be loops or point to point, and al-la carte means you can choose to do some or all of the legs (classified as beginner, intermediate, or “elite” if you do all – amateur elite by the way, we’re not talking crazy stuff here).
- Point to point suggests you need items for the next leg (eg. bicycle, kayak, climbing equipment) when you get there.
- The twist: you need someone to move these next leg items for you. Moving kayaks/anything is not included in the entry.
- The +1 person can move things (my girlfriend, and not planning to be a sub) though really it means another person is required to share and help 4 people through all these activities.
- Second person +250 Euros(!!).. Thankfully John’s girlfriend Orla is so willing. We had no choice but out of interest I asked what it included – they asked for her t-shirt size, it includes “accommodation”, and a closing night dinner.
- Next twist: Each nights “accom” is at a camp site, and you need to bring all the camping equipment; tent, stove, you name it!
- Enter the European advantage:
- A vehicle is required (with a generous km allowance!)
- Vehicle must be able to move 4 mountain bikes
- Vehicle must also be able to move 2x 2-person kayaks strapped on full time
- Vehicle therefore needs minimum 6 seats, tow ball, roof rack and hold equipment for 4 people racing 6 days who are camping every night.
- Also to mention is the race location on a far flung island in the Mediterranean south of France.
Too late to back out now. So chaos ensues, luckily the organisers are willing to help.. Old van, hire base model hard tail MTBs (after just 2 maxi-taxi rides changing airports in Paris it would have been cost prohibitive to bring our own), kayaks, climbing harness and carabiners, purchased 4 ascenders, hired wetsuits and hoods,etc,etc. All sorted eventually with a trail of $$$ left behind, medical certificates, and a membership to the French Triathlon Association!
As we are boarding to leave for France the course profile is revealed suggesting the total vertical distance 24km equivalent to some 3x Everest’s (gulp!).
We arrive to adjust a few days prior to the delightful Corsican town of Porto Vecchio, and visited a few of the amazing beaches and did a 250km round trip drive north to collect the bikes from the rental shop the organisers referred to us (Ouch! Half the vehicle km allowance already), and we had the race briefing/equipment check.
Pre-days also include desperate shopping for items and prep (prep incl. we had to write our team number on each piece of food/wrapper in case you dropped it so they could do something bad to you. A couple we wrote “Team Swiss” on for fun :D). Mandatory equipment included a specific type of fleece, plus a tent was required on trek stages – and we needed a stove on all stages which reached a silly point when canyoning – we lost ours as like everyone, the bottom ripped on our backpack (packs were also required on the swim stage (the stove losing affair was during the 3 hour heavily guided canyon section and even then, no stage was over 7 hours let alone in the absolute wilderness! Maybe an insurance thing to bring a stove but alas, we play along)).
6km Run: The first day’s a fanfare prologue (where they noted John’s birthday complete with cake!) was a dart from PV’s old town high on a hill, sprinting down to the port, around some human CP’s (no punch) amongst dunes and salt flats, and really slogging back up the hill to collect a punch card for controls as a tour of the old town. At 6km it was up Tristan’s Parkrun alley, whilst the rest of us gasped for air! The Swiss team showed their prowess and insight into how things would unfold, with a cracking time to take the victory.
At this stage I should mention it would really help to speak French/understand Corsicans on another level. Lines blur; does the prologue count towards getting one of the daily jerseys (yellow leaders,etc.), and the map with what would be a “CP” circle and sequenced number may or may not be a control (or card punch; in their terms a ‘beacon’) and over the entire race 2 of 20 maps were stamped with ‘collect in order’ however it was implied in order. And the Corsican way of curiosities to have the shirt logo particularly visible & 8 pins checked to be holding their logo on backpacks, and any time we saw our assistance crew it was called a point of assistance with no use of the word Transition to define a mid-activity crew point vs. seeing the crew to change an activity. You just sort of work things out I guess.
Herein I will refer to our confusion on happenings – for the organisers benefit of the doubt – as “LIT” or Lost in Translation.
23km Kayak: This was a staggered 2 min interval start in a random order, sprinting 800m from the port main street to a small beach with our kayaks – we received a 4th starting position (Swiss in 2nd) and launched to a crowd roar for the road dash. We soon pulled out far in front of the field when on the water, in turn finding out this would be our strong discipline. We graced the crystal clear waters guessing what intended or apparent flexibly there might be with buoys and boat lane rules (LIT), hopping around a few bays for beach controls, before ending further up the coast to meet our crew. It was really picturesque! The Med crystal clear water, the perfect day, the small harbours full of nice boats!
Still looking good..
34km MTB: We had to help the girls get the kayaks on the van roof, and then we jumped on the bikes winding out of town along a stream. Instead of it being based on actual navigation or using arrows with text or ‘out of bounds’ to guide teams, we were pushed along recommended CPs (circled with the next successive CP number) where officials were based, writing down our team number but not requiring us to get a stamp,etc. Ignore what you expect eg. you collected CP 1 and therefore CP2 is next – a guide point might make sense as a route mark being ‘1-2’ but instead the guide is called CP 2 and you are actually collecting CP 3 next. L-I-T.
Coming across a bridge a hilly dirt turn was coming up, and an official was kindly there to point you up the hill so you didn’t overshoot the turn (I take it they really want everyone to finish in a day). This hill was big! What an insight into Corsica being a mountainous island and the Everests they had foreshadowed for us to climb! It was hike a bike at some points but largely grind a bike for several hours!! It was really hot in a full sun and we sweated it out feeling like we really racing, pushing hard whilst still finding moment for family happy snaps as the view was terrific!
Flying downhill was a thrill and a test of the bikes – 2 of ours had new brake pads prior to handover so this was perhaps a chance to bed them in! Also a key point to understand was Euro brake leavers are the other way around to Oz and these were base models with mechanical disk.
Along the bottom Tristan had a chain issue just as the Swiss came flying past showing off their Swiss Alps bike legs having chased down our kayak advantage.
There was a nice bumbling along through some fire road tracks and even through a boulder strewn national park walking track (which was a great element), and eventually we were back on the road time-trial style across a dam wall to the waiting girls for our TA onto the trek leg.
9km Trek: The start wasn’t great (LIT issue) but soon we hit the second CP punch climbing out of a creek to see the Swiss coming towards us – they had been lost and we were back in front! It was short lived though, their Alps trek legs and enviable speed with walking poles saw them catch up again and we matched pace to hold on. They got away and a few other teams with Corsican Alp legs also punched up the hills in front as we started on the first of many treks along the famous ‘GR20’ walking track. Coming back down from a high point with an amazing view, there were 2 route options of which I had the safe trail one in mind and I checked with another team what the maps dash-triple dot _ … _ meant as there was no legend (literally just a line scale that had the width of your thumb marked as 400m). They said it was a municipal boundary and not a track, then said it meant it was a track. Who knows! It was in the right direction and a short cut so we took it. A LIT moment.
Some downhill finally was great, and the wooded forest we had been up and down was to be familiar over the coming race; rocks galore making huge steps interspersed with the loose stones – it was ankle twisting territory. And walking pole territory for which Ahmed was the only one with them!
The trek ended with us matching up with a team of 4 guys from Belgium who turned out to be great guys to chat with throughout the whole race, and the 1st day finished with the top teams all within 20mins of each other. (The race is Tour De France style with your time accumulation across the whole event).
After checking in the clock stopped and it was a chance to have fun across the road at a high ropes course with a couple of flying foxes.
The ropes park
Ending the day at 6pm it had been a huge hitout for day one, racing as if it was only a single day race we were ready for some rest and sleep. But wait! First a 45min drive to the first camp, setup, quick eat and shower and then we needed to have our name marked off at ‘Pietra time’ .. Pietra being the local beer (I opted for water!).. The time was to be a briefing and weather update although I think it was only the last 5th night we heard the weather (LIT moment maybe), the briefing covered the next day and pending changes, and briefings were intended start earlier, however 9:30pm approx. was routinely when it came together. Not sure how and when the French get close to 8hrs sleep?!
For out surprise kayak prowess (I think) we received the “Most Combative” jersey for the following day.
One advantage to this style of race – afterwards you get to chat! There is some comradery with the couple of teams you’ll come across as you bump into them around camp/waiting for a shower,etc. which was a really nice element.
11km Trek: The girls drove us an hour to the 8am start of the trek, which turned out to be a hilarious moment – the Race Director Michele (male) started teams after a countdown, waving his arm down the road and everyone took off. Then 30m later the pack slowed as maps were conferred, some turned around and then all the teams ran back up the hill the other way past Michele looking for a dirt turn off… And then, after conferring some more, everyone proceeded to head back down the road again!
The pace was fast and it was straight into the hills again, with Tristan on nav we found a nice shortcut directly up the slope vs. up many kms of switchbacks popping out into a top 3 position near the top of the climb. We couldn’t hold it though as the other teams were very strong incl. the locals and particularly the University of Corsica team racing as a 2+1 who eventually took the overall race win.
11km MTB: Finishing the trek at a mountain top, it was a spectacular trail and this TA was unassisted with our bikes waiting for us. We quickly jumped on and started a decent. It was a fantastic bitumen road switchback downhill of 12km with a small climb at the end.
In front of me John had a locked up brakes-skid moment on a tight turn, Tristan also skidded and soon we were being overtaken by another team on much more capable bikes (hydro brakes for a start!). I felt confident to sit in the draft and loved a good couple of minutes thrashing down the hill. A few turns later I looked back– where is everyone!? I start the climb back up concerned for my team. Other teams coming down told me 3 are coming and soon I see a scratched up Tristan! The guys tell me of a thrilling crash-stunt and Tristan is miraculously uninjured as he went into a ditch at great speed and somewhat elegantly stepped off the bike avoiding major injury.
Pushing on it wasn’t long before the climb and perhaps damage from Tristan’s crash to the rear derailleur arm; as he changed gear uphill the arm had gone into his spokes and snapped off the hanger. Bugger! We knew the remaining short distance was worth just towing/pushing him to the end to sort out later and we crawled up the hill to the TA.
On the decent we had passed the girls racing away from the drop off, and they passed us again later on the decent to get to the next TA with barely a few minutes to spare as we limped in. Swapping gear quickly for the canyon we had a bite to eat then trundled down with our wetsuit and harnesses,etc. checking in with the organisers to see if any bike help could be rendered somehow.
Limping in with the busted bike
3km Canyoning: This leg comprised approx 45mins of a rocky trail following a contour with some ups and downs to get to the start of the canyoning where we registered to get the clock stopped – the canyon for safety was to be untimed which meant the next bit could be enjoyed… And it was! Just after we started they stopped further teams commencing which we found out shortly after – with a few breaks between the pool jumping – that someone had been injured and a chopper was on its way to airlift him out.
There were a couple of great slides and an abseil which was really great and it was fun times with lots of laughs at each other.. The chopper rescue came and took the injured competitor (I believe he’d broken ribs), and once we popped out after our walk back to the TA (on the clock again) we found out we had 3 minutes to get onto the bikes for the time cut-off for the leg. Which wasn’t going to happen.. First we had to consider what we would do with Tristan’s bike – we had a spare hanger (that ended up not fitting) – and there was also the single-speed option.
Pretty good fun..!
48km MTB: Alas, teams that made it out (before the injury/airlift intermittently paused the canyoning for a collective hour or so), had got on the bikes for the next leg, and for the rest of us too bad (LIT/we just accepted that). We missed out on what was to be a really hard bike and it meant any chance of clawing back our 20min deficit from day 1 was distant… The penalty for not starting a leg was slowest team time +50%. Ouch.
We spent the afternoon around the local town Zonza fiddling with the current hanger, and trying to get help from a bike/shuttle shop (who also refused to rent us one of their bikes citing what happened to this one as the reason) and any bike shop near or far who might be able to supply parts or a bike.
We retired back to camp to convert it to single speed, and later in the night at the Briefing word was put out about any spare bikes, and thankfully another team had a spare carbon Trek for Tristan – going from worst bike to good bike is a nice boost! At the briefing we received the “Most Combative” jersey again (perhaps for our bike fixing desperation of the afternoon) and we were also told the downhill MTB for the following day 4 was dangerous so they were going to make it untimed from top hut to bottom town before the clock started again. They also issued us a new map for part 2.
Some maps the thumb-width 400m scale worked, others it seems like the map was stretched and didn’t quite line up.. The new map printed the day before seemed to also be unique, as a colour photocopy of a real map so it was a question mark as to how teams might go with the tough legibility for the second half of the MTB.
Overnight we would have the only rain of the whole trip so it was a perfect weather trip.
17km Trek: Back to a cold windy morning start where the bike TA was the day prior – everyone was rugged up (and about to take off their gear 5mins in – Euros feel the cold clearly and still make this rookie error) after a winding drive.
Versus local knowledge we started front of the pack and followed a sign for the trail we wanted – unfortunately there was a shortcut on a higher track most teams followed and we were soon in the last 3rd.. Not a great start only a few minutes into the race. The hill climb immediately went from start 1200m to 1500m, down again, then up to 1600m, down again to about 1000m, then up to 2100m! To the snow line – which was really impressive!
Unfortunately we’re up against Alps legs of other teams and we floundered in the bottom 3rd of the pack the whole way. The hills were really steep and really rocky.. And the day was hot!
At the snowline it was cool and overcast, a few snowballs were thrown and we found time at the summit for some fun and media-tarting dancing around… It was a great part of the race that, as a team, we could find the time to have fun and just enjoy the opportunity mucking around as friends.
Coming back down the other side was an intense rock hopping shale dance at pace as we wanted to make up some time, coming in for a quick TA. We felt sorry for the girls they had to drive an awful long way to deliver us the bikes for the next leg which just took us straight back to our campsite… The format of this race and the demands it puts on the crew is… is Corsican. Luckily we had a willing crew that stayed positive !
26km MTB (Changed to maybe 20max): Knowing we had to get to the cut off at a hut at the top of a trail we pushed on hoping to have a break once we got there and were off the clock. The map tracks and scale was completely out (just my LIT reckoning!) and it was only the good fortune there was a major track and major hut with officials to ID when we had reached the top. Thank goodness as it was easily 4km of slow winding rockiness and a high point hidden further than measured, and I had started to get worried.
At the stop Tristan was picked out to be pin-up boy for the local water company/sponsor as Mr Orezza. A hilarious moment. Being Australians who somehow were racing with a Kuwaiti in this off-track race made us quite the novelty !
The next downhill was a heavily potholed road and could have been quite dangerous in a race situation. I think if everyone knew it was dangerous then maybe we could have been timed, but so be it we rolled down to the next town were they told us the race was back on. A few handy officials pointed us in the right direction (we were now on the photocopied map) and heading for some really cool MTB tracks where the shuttle company of the day before clearly operated. At the start of the tracks more officials were there pointing us and then said to follow the red and white tape. Alas, there still was to be no significant navigation required in this race. It was tough going hiking in parts, puncture in another, couple of stacks, and some technical downhills which I loved, before we overshot but soon came back to the tape flagging our entry into the town where the camp was, and we finished the stage.
I guess I see the need for a MTB stage/have something every day and it as a discipline,etc., but with a portion off the clock and most under flagged direction, it was really a ride for rides stake.. And all that work by the crew to get us our bikes. Crazy, but just my humble opinion and LIT on my part about what sort of raid/race this actually is but I was getting the hang of it.
A rare early finish approx 3pm we headed to restaurant for lunch and early dinner. Our poor crew girls turned up later after doing an exhausting 7 hour winding drive back to PV in the van for supplies incl. a new stove to replace the one lost canyoning.
14km MTB: Cancelled. Not sure 100% why (LIT) but I think because we didn’t move campsites as planned (apparently last minute knock-back by the town). Might also have been some nice consideration to save more chaotic driving and logistics for the crew.
17km Trek: Huge hour winding drive to get to this place. Again as it was cold and windy competitors soon took off their gear within the first 5mins into the leg when it got hot. This time, it was a zigzag climb up to a winter ski village. The scenery – as always but particularly on this leg – was stunning and we trundled along the trail and through rocks and streams of towering trees above so we crunched along dirt, pine cones, and leaf litter. Since it was a day-stage race we had taken to serious jogging, and walking the steep hills… This was like a week of boot camp and we were guaranteed to come home fitter that when we arrived!!
Coming into the TA under the ski lift of an alpine hut, we were informed the snow section of the race was cancelled due to bad visibility on the mountain. Bugger. This was a part of the race I think everyone had looked forward to.
6km Trek: A shortened version had us doing a trek up before coming back again. The start was on the clock until a ropes section, and huge abseil (where they didn’t forewarn the cliff drops away from under your legs and you will be hanging in the air – what a thrill!!). This was really fun, we loved these sort of elements inserted into the race..
Back on the clock after finishing that, it it was a climb into the mountain where there was a mini snow section and we got to use our ascenders we brought, and there was a view to an alpine lake below. Across the top to a CP which was to be the start of the original courses proper snow section, we dropped back down dancing through the rocks to the girls at the TA which finished the day for us.
17km MTB: Cancelled. It was a timed liaison stage anyway (which I pointed out to Michele the day before it required us to go on a road off the map!) – as a consequence of not doing the snow section, we then weren’t transitioning later onto the bikes so we went to a restaurant for lunch. Or tried too at least, it was approx 2pm and French kitchens close when they close, or you’re just too late.
We rolled into the final camp site and had an early dinner before as a quick rest before the looming night stage.
Day 4 Night
7km Coasteering: Starting on the beach 10pm in the dark it wasn’t long before we were up to our waist in water around the craggy coast. John used it as an opportunity to practice his Ironman swimming (haha). Sometime tough going it was a bit slippery in places, hence the mandatory kit of wearing gloves and the gritty sinking sand bogged us down. Not too bad though and mostly grippy rock, so we finished about an hour later to the waiting girls, before we headed into part 2.
20km Trek: Would you believe the longest foot section was the day before the end, at night, and it actually required navigation!! We had some early success with CPs and further along darted up a track following a creek.. It turned into thick brush and some luck of head torches on a parallel track some 10m higher on the slope thankfully guided back onto a main track.
We made it through the next couple of CPs without drama; it was a couple of hills of serious elevation, each demanding heavy breathing on heavy legs from the weeks activities.. One of the hills had tape off the fire trail so you didn’t miss the turn up (yay?).
In a roundabout loop we started descending to a town St’Amanza, and by another stroke of luck a local team in front found some scratch of a trail which pointed us to Pitrusedda furthest from the coast.. It was all winding along some local trail running track (lucky locals, it was good fun).
Heading back towards the finish at the campsite, a ‘shortcut’ proved to be immensely thorn ridden and slow going, however it popped out at the right spot and we were back for 4:45am approx!
6km Kayak: On the beach for a mass start it was a little overcast and that added to our heavy hearts that this was it! Last day! How sad! We did our thing and pulled away with the fast teams – so short it was like a sprint and it was all done at 110% effort. Soon arriving at the beach around the headland where the girls raced to meet us with our gear for the next leg.
1km Coasteering & 1km Canyoning: We ran the boats up the beach to the van then headed to the headland for the ‘marine canyoning’. This part was off the clock, and probably like us, it was here teams realised there is not enough time in the day.. At the briefing the night before, we were told the final kayak was a mass start at 2pm. Looking at the part coming up, you had to decide to skip the fun and jump straight to the next legs. We wanted to do the fun! (The Swiss appeared not long after us and started putting on wetsuits to stop midway, probably thinking they shouldn’t do it so they have time for the pending bike leg – we took a gamble that no (bad) teams would do the bike, therefore we weren’t going to lose further ground).
The organisers had let us pre-prepare a bag of our wetsuits so we put them on and headed up the rocks. First up – Flying fox into the water, wahhooo! Cool fun. Then a swim further out to nearby rocks where we squirmed and climbed up to a high knob – instructed to run down a metre then jump 15m, is a little apprehensive.. But again, wheeee! So much fun!!!
In the water plodding back (because it was off the clock until we got out), we then realised the coming bike leg was 100% out of the question, and even the final 2pm also wasn’t far away by time we loaded the boats,etc. Alright we got a move on.
2km Swim: Holy wow. After the race they said it was 3.5km.. This was tough!! Mandatory was a snorkel & flippers, wetsuit, and all the usual fruit like medi kit, the stove,etc. The wetsuit I had was just a bit small so freestyle was hard enough as it was without a backpack ! At some point a swimmer went past with just wetsuit shorts and a small dry pack clipped to his waist and there was some exhausted envy at the (LIT) setup. Heaving out of the water with possible snorkel issues causing me to ingest a lot of water, we raced up the beach to stop the clock.
20km MTB: Relieved the swim was over we were sad we missed the cut off to start the bike.. We had a just over an hour to swing the kayaks onto the roof of the van and trundle off to the mass start 2pm. The start was back around the other side of the headland we had just come around on the earlier kayak which was just a bit of logistical fun. Apparently only 1 French team made it onto the MTB leg.
8km Kayak: We were at the beach ready on time for this one but no one else was, so the start time floated back and we used it to move the boat down to the end of the row where the latecomers were setting so we could launch strategically closer to the first CP.
It was an in-boat water start and off we went! Bam! This was 120% the whole way – we counted 100 hard strokes occasionally but really it meant nothing I was flat out and it was immensely tough. Tristan and John in their boat lead the charge and eventually got pulled up on the 100m team separation rule to let the local Uni Corsica team pass. Darting around headlands amongst washing machine of rocks and waves (awesome fun) we were battling it out also with some French on the final straight to beach .. The Uni & French teams beaching just before us dumped and ran, we had to pull our boats up the beach (LIT) and we stumbled across the line just 20 seconds behind.. Absolutely exhausted!! What a finish! What a race!
And thanks to the amazing crew! The 2 best girls we could ever want to support us..!
Well, this was a far-flung location race and really unique.. And we ended up 3rd overall in the 4-person category – on the podium is a bonus when you travel all that way!
If a ‘real’ AR team were to do this race they’d smash the field to bits which makes it perfect for all the fun-seeking teams that are not chasing points on an international circuit, and further to that, ones who don’t care about the result and what you will/will not get or do (I’m sure we only did 1 Everest in the end which is fine!).. Once we worked this out and went with the flow of the eccentricity of the organisation, I think we had the time of our lives.
The scenery taking us across the GR20 was fantastic and I loved that we ran so many portions, as the thought of doing the everyday hiking of it over weeks would drive me crazy. It was fast, fun, and ever changing with huge valleys of rocks, trees, or wild scratchy scrub.
Sad is the statistic that over the 6 days we did 54kms of dirt cycling & another 11kmks on the road; it is a no-navigation race for hill runners really and that is where training should bias.. Ahmed and I as mountain bike guys were perhaps saddened 2 bike stages were cancelled, 1 missed self inflicted, and 1 impossible to do! The fun time canyoning/on ropes might have made up for it.
The 60 volunteers really made an effort within the bounds of what they knew and were delightful, the ‘media’ was prolific and it’s the most photos I’ve ever had during a race.. Quite a few small things as differences, which is maybe why so many people return each year…