x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Adventure Challenge goes backwards to be tougher

Fifty mixed-gender teams of four members each will spend the next six days mountain biking, running, kayaking and trekking to the finish line on the capital's Corniche

Competitors during the first day of the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge, a six-day event that will take athletes all over the emirate.
Competitors during the first day of the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge, a six-day event that will take athletes all over the emirate.

For Sylvain Thuault, the man behind the gruelling six-day race across Abu Dhabi that got under way yesterday, each location provides a new challenge.

He should know: in the 25 years since he started in adventure races as a finish-line usher, welcoming competitors as they crossed, he has built courses for would-be adventurers in more than 40 countries.

"In each country you have to adapt, it's a new race. I can never say I have a plan, that I will do the same thing again," said Mr Thuault, who is now the race director. "Things will always change, based on the geography."

The Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge, a 426km race across diverse landscapes, began yesterday on the Abu Dhabi Corniche.

The race will be demanding on the 50 mixed-gender teams of four members each, who will spend the next six days mountain biking, running, kayaking and trekking to the finish line.

For Mr Thuault, the event begins in April, when his team scouts the emirate to find new challenges to include in the race. Then they return in October to choose campsites and test the different sections.

"When we envisioned a trek through the desert, we had to cross it as the racers would do and see that it's possible," he said.

Adventure races are long-distance endurance races. The course can be either a series of sprints and short challenges, usually lasting one to three days, or an expedition race, which lasts more than a week and covers multiple disciplines.

For many participants, simply finishing the race is its own victory.

The race encourages teamwork, too. During yesterday's triathlon, weaker runners were roped to their stronger team members. Split into two canoes, teams could be seen strapping the crafts to each other. But not all courses are created equal.

Despite being a 2009 Adventure Racing world champion, Nick Gracie, from England, found the pace of the first day exhausting.

"I've done a lot of longer non-stop adventure racing that goes for a couple days," said Mr Gracie, a first-time participant. "This one is just killing me."

Even for those who have participated in all three previous races, this year the course offers something new: it has been reversed.

Previously, it began with kayaking and ended at Al Ain's Jahili Fort. This year, the final stage will be a 121km kayak from Mirfa to the shores of the Abu Dhabi Corniche.

Mr Thuault said: "If you start with the kayaking section, and a team are particularly strong at it, they just have to manage the time advantage they earned in order to place well."

Putting the kayak section last keeps the race competitive until the end. "Racers can make a big difference with the new course."

Mr Thuault may have had the three-time winners Thule Adventure Team in mind when he gave the course a makeover.

On day one the team, headed by adventure racing's golden couple, Richard and Elina Ussher, managed to chalk up a seven-minute advantage over the second-placed Thule Adventure Team Europe from France.

Mr Ussher said despite their strong lead, his team still have a wary eye on several other teams.

"It's always nice to take the lead from the first day but with a new course and a very strong field, this is still wide open," said Mr Ussher, from New Zealand.

mdetrie@thenational.ae