Irrespective of starting at night or during the day, at some point you and your team will be racing at night/early morning during a 24 or longer adventure race. This requires night/ limited visibility navigation skills, headlamps and bike lights as well as awareness of how you body will react when you should be asleep.
During the pre-race preparation phase after you have received your maps, handbook, and plotted your check points it is important to note the terrain and additional features you can use to assist with your route finding while traveling at night. During your map and team preparation you should be able to determine both “hand-rails” as well as ‘stop points” which assist in your navigation at night [useful during the day too] while on the bike, kayak and running/ trekking phases of the race. Examples of terrain hand rails include rivers or ridge lines that run generally parallel to your plotted route to the next check point. Using a ridge line, valley or river/ stream is especially important while “bush whacking”, i.e. no trail or road to guide your movement. A stop point or catch feature is a natural or man-made terrain feature that is clear and distinct even during the night. Examples include rivers, significant streams, ravines, significant draws, ridges or man-made features like gates or fences. The purpose of the catch feature is to prevent overrunning a race control point [check point] or make a required route change. You may well overrun your check point or route change, but a catch feature limits the damage and allows the team to get back on track quickly.
After years of night movements and long mornings I really have not discovered a silver bullet to keep the sleep monsters at bay. I have tried: caffeinated gels, drinks, and bars as well as chocolate covered espresso beans. Occasionally, dramatically changing the tempo of trekking, running, biking, or kayaking can increase the heart rate enough to wake you up…sometimes this just results in going faster in a sleepy state. It is a good idea to have your teammate or teammates keep an eye on each other. I have ridden completely off single track in adventure races and fortunately have not injured myself with sleep deprived detours into trees and brush. Probably a combination of changing tempo, caffeine, and mutual support from teammates is the best approach.
Ensure you have trained with both your headlamp and your bike lighting system prior to your race. I have written about trail running at night or limited visibility here>>. As in trail running at night, ensure you have at least one backup system between your teammates and extra batteries. Navigating during a moonless night on single track or no track without a light can significantly slow your progress and can be potentially very dangerous depending on the course terrain.
Bike Riding at night for fun. I highly recommend riding and running at night even if you never intend to adventure race over 12 hours, run a 100 mile ultra or compete in 24 hours of mountain biking. Training at night is a completely different experience and is just plain fun…I recently rode with a group of mountain bikers training for the Leadville Trail 100 in the Fredrick Watershed and had a great time hoping over logs and navigating rock gardens. Night riding really focuses your attention on the details of the trail in the cone of light. This ride also taught the value of two lights: one for the Helmut and one handle bar mounted as three hours into the ride the older non HID light died and I was left with only the helmet mounted HID—which worked fine albeit not nearly the trail visibility that two lights afforded.
Ultimately, consistent practice at night on similar terrain will yield your best performance during the race.
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