Raid Gallaecia - Quest Competes in Adventure Race World Champs
Updated: Nov 4, 2021
by Scarlett Graham
Prologue - The race to get to the race
Getting a team of four racers across the world with all our gear, in good health and with most of our sanity was a race in itself for Quest. The list of bumps in the road is long for any team traveling to the World Championships, but our list felt longer than usual and included back-to-back-to-back speed bumps and other small, but not unsurpassable obstacles. For Matt, he was buying a new house and raising a 1-year old while trying to train enough. He had pushed himself too hard on a run and tendonitis had flared up in his knee, sidelining him to rest a few weeks before the race. My race bike was stolen just days after putting my new Schwalbe tires on, and I was scrambling to find a replacement. I settled on a used carbon hardtail that I bought three days before flying out. Meanwhile, Dust’Em were navigating new jobs and setting the checkpoint flags for the 10-hour Island Quest adventure race course in the San Juan Islands. Just as Dusty finished course marking and secured a late October start date at a local aerospace company; and all was looking up; he noticed some redness and swelling behind his knee. It continued to flare up and the local walk-in clinic diagnosed him with cellulitis, cause unknown. The day before we flew out he picked up a 10-day course of antibiotics. Whew, like I said, there was a race/obstacle course just to get to the race!
We were so stoked to finally arrive in Santiago de Compostela, the capital of Gallaecia in northwestern Spain, and also the supposed burial place of Saint James. Thousands of pilgrims walk the Camino de Santiago paths each year that lead to the shrine of Saint James. We were on our own pilgrimage winding through security, customs, and health screenings to baggage claim shrine, where we learned our bags and bikes were still in Dallas, Forth Worth. Well shoot! Where’s our boy St James when we need him?! Oh right, that’s Saint Christopher… At least American Airlines knew where our luggage was, and the next day, all the luggage except one bag arrived. Emily and I got a cab ride with a fabulous cab driver Manuel to retrieve them from the airport. Manuel made us feel welcome, told us stories of growing up in Galleacia, and reinvigorated us with promises of traditional Christmas nougat. Meanwhile, Dusty’s infection increased as he spent the days before the race lying in the hotel room with his swollen leg elevated. He developed a fever, and found a clinic in Spain to get stronger antibiotics, and luckily that seemed to do the trick for the infection.
Stage 1 - 75 mile Trek (Day 1, Night 1, and Day 2)
Finally, four days after landing in Spain, we were off to the start and with Dusty now miraculously able to bend his knee and our bikes safely loaded onto race trucks. We were stoked and thinking “We just need the race to start!”
The race started at 12pm and went out fast and runnable through an old city, and like I mentioned, we were STOKED. We started out running with our 15-20 lb packs on and settled into the top 10, which is where we wanted to be. Unfortunately, this pace was too hard for us. One by one, our feet and quads started to feel the effects from the running with relatively heavy packs. Also, early in this stage, we made one of the few navigation errors of the race and went too far down a road and had to make a short, but tough uphill bushwack to get to CP3. This cost us some time, energy and some morale. And then it started to rain and get dark! We climbed lockstep with many other teams to the top of one of the high points called Montouto, and worked our way down into the city of A Rua. One of the highlights during the rain was the appearance of fire salamanders.
My feet were feeling extra raw from being so wet from the rain, so we stopped in an attempt to dry our feet and take a quick rest/sleep. We found a dry alcove in the city and posted up. Within 10 minutes of lying down, the alcove started to rumble and a garage door opened on the other end. In one of the most funny moments of the race, Emily leapt 4 feet in the air and landed on her feet to wave down the car. The rest of us slowly eased off of the concrete floor and grabbed our things so the Spaniard could get to work! That woke us up, and we were soon on our way again. Deciding to “sleep” on the first night was just the start of all of the sleep related decisions we would fumble our way through during the race.
After we started to move again though, it didn’t feel like the sleep did much good, because our quads ached even more afterwards and our pace seemed too slow. Dusty passed off the navigating to Matt to get us through the rest of the mega long first trek stage. We got passed by at least 20 teams during these low moments, and were just all over the place and taking lots of stops for various needs...pooping, feet drying, taking off layers, etc.
Stage 2 - 50 mile bike + chairlift + zipline (night #2)
Finally, we arrived at the ski area where the transition area (TA) to bikes. It was just getting dark, and we opted to take a sleep here to get off of our sore feet. Again, this was a fumble for us because the TA was WAY too loud for sleeping. After a few too many useless hours at the TA, we set off into the night on our bikes. The first thing we did was wake ourselves up with an adrenaline pumping downhill bike course for Matt and Emily and a zipline slide for Dusty and I. Once we passed through those challenges, we took a ski lift up to the top of the mountain and biked along a ridge. This stage went really well for us, and felt like a recovery ride compared to the 75 mile trek the stage before. We also got a break from the rain as it was dry for most of this stage.
Stage 3 - 56 mile river paddle including an 8 mile portage (Day 3 and night 3)
At the paddle TA, we cleaned off our muddy bikes and opted to sleep again because we were onto Day 3 of racing and hadn’t had any good sleep. This TA was quieter and we had our sleeping bags, so all slept well but probably too long. Next, we loaded up our tandem sit-on-top sea kayaks with waterproof gear bags and a set of wheels for the portage. The first part of the river had a few class 1-2 rapids, and Matt and Emily took a little swim early on. We quickly recovered though, and eventually ended up in the reservoir of the River Sil. As advertised, it was beautiful in there with terraced vineyards and steep canyon walls above us. Dusty and I were paddling together and were seeing all kinds of interesting shapes in the rock (minor hallucinations).
We stopped to sleep at the end of the portage for about 3 hours. It was some of the best sleep of my life on gravel. It was still dark when we woke up when we hopped back on the river. The swirly currents and class 1-2 rapids woke us up very quickly! I yelled at Dusty to paddle hard through the eddy lines. It is very hard to see at night on the water because of all of the mist, and eventually we opted to just turn our lights off and paddle by feel. Finally, by mid morning we finished the stage!
Stage 4 - 130 mile bike with an orienteering course in the middle (Day 4, night 4 & Day 5)
At the TA, Dusty and Matt spent time posted up in the dry parking garage charting our route for the rest of the race. Our philosophy was that we were the smartest (aka least tired) that we were ever going to be during the race, so we should try to make nav decisions sooner rather than later. We had initially planned to sleep at this TA and even had a hotel room booked for 6 hours ahead of time. However, given that it was daylight and that we had slept the night before, we opted to skip the warm dry bed and roll on. I think this was one of our clearest eyed sleeping decisions of the race.
We were not allowed to go on any major roads to get out of the city where the TA was, and we had to navigate many small paved steep roads and alleys. Dusty described the course navigation as tricky, but rarely hard. He would often have his eyes 2-3 inches from the map trying to find the path through a maze in a Spanish country-side town. We wound our way through a park-like area and then up into hilly farmlands. The nighttime brought rain and once again we had to figure out how and when to sleep. Other teams found barns to sleep in with warm cows. We opted for a soft bed of pine needles in the forest. We planned to sleep for 3 hours, however, we ended up oversleeping our alarms and sleeping for 4-5 hours instead. Clearly, we were getting tired now, onto day 4 of non-stop racing.
In the middle of the mega bike stage, we dropped our bikes in a secure area and set off on foot for a 5-mile “photo” orienteering stage in the City of Lugo where we walked the streets taking pictures of the team in front of certain ruins. In Lugo, we also indulged in some real food and some new socks. The food recharged our bodies and minds, and we blazed the second half of the mega bike stage. We did deal with a few mechanicals during this time on my new-to-me race bike including two flat tires and all loss of rear braking power! Matt is the man to have with you when you have bike problems, and he acted as pit crew to get me rolling again. By the end of the stage, my rear tire sidewall was splitting open and the tube pushing through like a hernia. We applied ducktape and a tire boot, and luckily the field surgery held for the rest of the bike stage.
Stage 5 - 40 mile trek (Night 5 and Day 6)
Between the treks on Leg 1 and 5, we had had a substantial break from trekking, however, the skin on my feet was too far gone to recover. The saturated dead skins was tearing off and more and more blisters formed. I tried to lubricate and tape the skin back on. This trekking leg felt like a crux. If I could get me and my sorry feet through it, we could finish!
As a team, we had momentum coming off of the mega bike stage and were hopeful to make good progress on the trek before stopping to sleep for the night. Around 1am, we came to a river crossing where there was no bridge. The flows were up after the rain storms, and there were a few little rapids to negotiate. We tested the river at a few spots and deliberated where to cross. During the deliberation, another team arrived and they invited us to team up with them for the crossing. This ended up being a bad idea and a massive time suck, and is part of what the heck we were doing down by the river for all those hours....
Arm in arm with our new Spanish and Russian speaking friends, we waded through faster moving water out to some grass islands in the middle of the river. Two guys on the other team took the lead on figuring out how to get across the second half of the river. After 20-30 minutes of trial and error, they decided to just launch their bodies and dry bags across the swift channel and take 1-2 swim strokes to the other side. In our state of sleepy, cold delirium, we decided that we didn’t like the body launch method. So we retreated off the grass islands back to the other side. Upon checking the time - nearly two hours had now passed since we reached the river! At this point, we concluded that first we should take the sleep we were already planning on taking anyway, and second when we get up to simply swim the deep slow crossing, and then punch it for the rest of the stage. Once again, however, we overslept our alarms and 3 hour planned sleep turned into a 4-5 hour one.
We awoke to sunrise, and rushed back to the river where we stripped down naked and put all our gear inside waterproof trash compactor bags. We inflated the compactor bags with air and floated them across while we swam. It worked very well. As we got dressed on the other side, we watched other teams ford the river on foot and with very little issue in the exact same spot we had first scouted the night before! Ugh! Had the flows receded or did daylight really change things that much?! Who knew, but there was no time to consider it. We were across and on the move again. During the rest of the trek stage, we kept a great consistent effort up and continued to pass teams. This was definitely a very painful stage, but we got it done and tried hard.
Stage 6 - 7 mile ocean paddle (Night 6, Day 7)
All of our feet were aching hard after the 40 mile trek, and we spent some time popping blisters and putting lubrication on them for the ocean paddle at the TA. We launched our kayaks around midnight which was very close to low tide. Because the tide was so low, we had to paddle through very shallow water getting out to the bay and pay close attention to keep in the deeper channel. In the bay, we were once again confronted by another technical water feature at night! This time it was waves crashing on the sand bars that were exposed at low tide. Similar to the nights before that we spent on the water, it was hard to see. We could see the whites of waves crashing out in front of us to our right and left. Once again, we pulled the plug and retreated. We found a good place to sleep near an abandoned hotel and waited till first light and a better water level. Again to all you folks wondering WTF, I hope this gives you some insight into our situation and decision making!
In the morning, we paddled out over swells through a clear passage between breaking waves. The passage likely existed the night before we just couldn’t see it. We also later learned that other teams had issues at low tide. See photo below of other teams waiting out the tide.
Stage 7 - 20 mile trek along the coast and through the city of A Coruna to the finish!
Once we made it across the bay, we quickly changed into dry clothes for the grand finale trek along the coast. This section was so so beautiful, but so so mentally and physically HARD. Matt had been dealing with tendonitis in his ankle and could barely bear on it, so Emily shouldered his pack for most of the route. I was constantly falling asleep and mustering all my mental strength to keep walking on my destroyed feet. Dusty patiently navigated us through the coastal trails and city streets, and Emily finally decided it was finally OK to take some photos of the Atlantic ocean crashing against the rocks.
None of us usually do races just to finish, but that is what this one turned into, and finish we did! and other American racers welcomed us at the finish line and we were so grateful to have them there! In total the race covered 375 miles with 57,000 ft of elevation gain, and took us 6 days 5 hrs 32 min. We finished in 33rd place out of 90+ teams that started the race, and were the second American team behind our friends Bend Racing.
Lessons of the Pilgrimage
Like all good pilgrimages, there were lessons learned and perhaps even some personal transformations along the way. Here are some of mine:
Anticipate and try to avoid technical water features at night when you're tired. Watersports are definitely our team's weakest link and it is just so hard to see at night on the water. I think trying to plan better around these features could have saved us time.
Buy a louder alarm clock!
Suffering is a gift? And when you think you can't give anymore, reflect on how far you have come. Just knowing how many obstacles and how far we had traveled to get to Days 4 and 5 of race, kept us wanting that finish line.
Hallucinations are better when shared. I still haven't confirmed with Dusty that he was seeing all of the same rock and gecko illusions that I was having during the Sil River Canyon paddle, but it was awesome and really fun of him to go along with it.
Don't go out to hard; but when/if you do, #1 have a great time doing it, and #2 stop it when the first person starts to feel the burn, not when all four of you are destroyed.
Be A Goldfish. - Ted Lasso
In closing, thanks to all our family and friends for cheering us on from afar, and to those that raced alongside us. Thanks to Schwalbe tires for the fast and reliable rubber - I should have had it on both my wheels.