'The only shelter we found to eat and change was the hatch of a tank...'

'The only shelter we found to eat and change was the hatch of a tank...'
Former Irish rugby international Heather O'Brien with her team-mates during the European Adventure Racing Championships in Denmark.

Former Irish rugby international Heather O'Brien experienced the thrill of adventure racing in recent months. 

Here she details the highs and lows of her exploits in Denmark.

HIGH-FLYING: Former Irish rugby international Heather O'Brien during the European Adventure Racing Championships in Denmark.
HIGH-FLYING: Former Irish rugby international Heather O'Brien during the European Adventure Racing Championships in Denmark.

AT the European Adventure Racing Championships, in Denmark, we felt like a little Labrador amongst wolves when we listened to the team introductions: among them were European and world champions at adventure racing, mountain biking, trail running, and orienteering. 

We novices were a little apprehensive.

Denmark is a country in love with the outdoors. Their school curriculum includes orienteering, hiking, and mountain biking. One of the teams even included an adventure-racing teacher: we considered a quick lesson.

Every turn was conducive to an outdoor lifestyle. Our hotel offered free running-route maps, towels, and hi-viz jackets to guests.

Cycle lanes were impeccable. Garages offered bike-washing facilities.

Our query of ‘is that within walking distance?’ was met with a laugh and we were told that everything was within walking distance if you had the time.

The race director was also a teacher — his subject was history — so that interwoven with the race’s 400km were World War 2 bunkers, beach landings, and lookout towers. We were in for a treat.

The race started with 65km of glorious, rolling, single-track mountain-biking amongst sand dunes.

Denmark’s wild west coast lived up to its name, with sand grains blowing into our faces as we negotiated the opening hours of the three-day race.

A marathon distance trek was next, taking in beaches, with some tough navigation. And then the rain started: torrential, unrelenting rain.

Our next transition was another war memorial, including weapons. The only shelter we found in which to eat and change was the hatch of an armoured tank, one of the more memorable transition zones we encountered.

We had been forewarned that the hike section included a river crossing that you had to swim, and we had been told to have kit to keep our bags dry.

We had tow ropes and bin-liner bags at the ready to keep our rucksacks and spare kit dry. Mercifully, or perhaps not, the heavy rain meant the river-crossing was omitted, on safety grounds.

My bin-liner bag became an extra waterproof layer, as the torrents snuck through every other stitch I had. Fetching ‘sac noir’ in place, we battled on, arriving at a special task, an abseil down a towering grain silo. 

Our hands were shaking, we were soaked to the skin and leaning out over the side of the building, with rain and wind in our faces, but it was still a race highlight. At this point, two teams had dropped out, due to the tough conditions. I ached to do the same, but dared not tell my team-mates.

Former Irish rugby international Heather O'Brien with her team-mates during the European Adventure Racing Championships in Denmark.
Former Irish rugby international Heather O'Brien with her team-mates during the European Adventure Racing Championships in Denmark.

The quintessentially Scandinavian concept of hygge (meaning a cosy moment) looked ever more alluring: every home we cycled past was adorned with plush cushions and soft throws, as the biblical rain battered down. Race volunteers joked, ‘but the Irish love the rain.’ Funnily, having to endure a lot of something does not induce feelings of affection. 

Sodden attire and endless hours in the saddle of rental bikes were not a great combination. Chamois cream became a much-coveted item among my male teammates. 

Re-application pauses were a frequent request; double-dipping strictly forbidden; generous use encouraged. Despite this, I steadfastly refused to use it. Spirits were low that night; darkness is always difficult in these races. 

Your body wants sleep, your mind begins to wander, concentration is difficult, and actually racing even harder. A race volunteer mentioned that the next section passed through a town, a town with the possibility of a burger. Finally, the light returned to my teammates’ eyes and our pace quickened.

The next challenge was finding that burger joint in a foreign town and with only beer-fuelled revellers to ask because phones or any GPS devices were forbidden to us. Eventually, the familiar McDonald’s sign lit up the horizon. 

Stashing the bikes outside, we burst in the door, our first reprieve in hours from the insistent rain. Cycling for food at 1am will garner some funny looks, even from the ever-welcoming and hospitable Danes. 

Arriving bleary-eyed, soaked to the skin, decked in full hiking kit, complete with maps and compass, is certain to turn a few heads. Pools of water quickly formed at our feet, as we numbly selected items from the touch-screen menu. 

The children’s seating area was empty, due to the late hour, so we sat there and it was soon filled with our sopping kit. Our team navigator reorganised the 27 maps to find what awaited ahead. Our team captain put the cushioned children’s play area to good use to grab some sleep.

I willed an endless supply into my takeaway coffee cup, but, alas, the road called. As tired as I felt, every pause to check the map was a chance to eat and rest, albeit very brief, but, for our navigators, it was nonstop concentration. As the night dragged on, we stopped at every building we passed, hoping for a little haven, dry and warm. Dawn broke and still nothing. 

Fatigue was mounting. Eventually, we saw a gazebo in a lawn bowls club. In our sleep-deprived state, it was a five-star luxury. The uncrinkling of foil blankets was the bedtime story as you struggle to shield yourself from the elements. 

A 20-minute sleep will sometimes feel like you’ve barely blinked, while, other times, it feels like a full night’s kip. Thankfully, this sleep felt like the latter, as we arose to sunshine! Warm rays made the remaining miles all the easier.

Normally, in adventure racing, the four-team members must stay within talking distance of one another, but a twist at the end of this race split the team in two. One pair headed off on foot, while the other pair took to the canoe, in the hope of navigating to the prearranged point. Fog and darkness complicated the matter. 

The pre-selected communication, bird call, which initially drew a snicker of derision, actually proved quite useful. Head torches became lighthouse beacons while we were wading. 

Being thigh-deep in water is not exactly desired after 70-odd hours of racing. While our new team language was not without its issues, the pair on foot found the pair in the water and we hauled ourselves and the canoe over the finish line in fifth place. Hot food and dry clothes do wonders to make you forget the low points of the race. Perhaps this was why we continue going back.

All was forgotten by the time we reached the airport, an airport complete with plush rugs and soft furnishing. Perhaps we hadn’t imagined that hygge after all. A delayed first flight meant a race through Stansted, urging our legs to sprint to the departure gate.

Perhaps it was our team captain’s persuasive nature, or his propensity for the local lingo. Either way, he made the flight and left his teammates stranded.

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