I’m a lucky man. Not in the sense of the Verve song, but in the sense that I get to travel a fair amount to cover expedition style, navigational, multi-day, multi-sport, adventure races. I write and shoot for SleepMonsters, the adventure race website, and a few times a year they send me to interesting foreign places to do my thing.
This year one of those trips was to the European Championship, in Russia. As a kid growing up in the 80s, with the Cold War still in force, I never thought I’d ever travel to Russia. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it’s a place that seemed so separate that I never imagined it would ever be on the cards. But, since I was landing in St Petersburg, to be greeted by a guy called Mikhail, on my way to the Red Fox Adventure Race, I guess my imagination wasn’t all that good back then.
The race was near Sortavala, in the Karelia region, which has been part of Sweden, Finland and Russia at different points in its past. It definitely feels a bit Scandinavian, lots of wild, untamed pine forest, twisting, winding country roads, and the inlets and islands of the massive expanse of Lake Ladoga, the biggest lake wholly in Europe. Not mountainous but undulating, a place of contrasts between brand new highway and gravel road, old wooden houses and modern sports facilities.
The Red Fox race itself was huge, three events in one, with well over 500 racers. The European Championship course was just over 400 km of kayaking, running/trekking and mountain biking, with some special additions like ziplines, cable traverses, climbs, abseils and what was described as ‘board paddling’ - 6x2 foot, four-inch-thick insulation foam boards - with an estimated winning time of 55 hours. The other Red Fox races were 24 and 48 hour courses, open to pairs and fours, mixed or single-sex, and they took on shortened versions of everything the ‘pros’ did, with just as much effort and little sleep.
The racing at the front of the Championship course was fast and frantic, between Estonian/Latvian team Seiklushunt, local team MDK Russia and Team Sweden. All three of those teams held the lead at different intervals, and only a sleep deprivation-induced navigation error during the penultimate kayaking and coasteering stage, 48 hours in and running on 15 mins sleep in total, cost the Swedes the win. MDK Russia managed to stave off the sleep monsters to take the trophy, Seiklushunt second less than 45 mins behind. None of the top three teams had more than half an hour sleep in 55 hours of racing.
Outside of the racing though, the race staff were friendly, the location beautiful, the food good. The cooking fire in the crew camp was the centre of crew life, the sauna the focal centre for the racers post-race, and both kept the Russian welcome superbly warm. I may never have imagined going, but I’d love to be invited back.
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