The fourth annual Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge (ADAC) proved to be the toughest edition yet with longer legs, tight stage cut-offs and unseasonably hot conditions in the Liwa Desert. Over six days, Team www.AR.co.za covered around 400km in the disciplines of running, mountain biking, canyoneering, sea kayaking and desert trekking to place 39th in the field of 49 teams from 18 countries.
“This year’s race was tough,” says Team http://www.AR.co.za’s captain Lisa de Speville. This was her third consecutive Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge leading a relatively young and inexperienced team. “The first four days were crazy! From the moment the prologue – a fast-paced multidiscipline sprint around the city’s main beachfront – started we seemed to rush from one leg to the next; sprinting on bikes, running flat-out, commuting in buses to new locations, setting up camp, eating, sleeping and then up again – once at 2:30am – for the next stage’s start.” When Day 5’s sea-kayaking stage was cancelled due to high winds and unsafe conditions in the Gulf, many teams welcomed this unexpected day of leisure. The final sea kayak stage on Day 6 was shortened to 35km confined to the protected beach-front bay as conditions outside remained turbulent and unsafe.
South Africa’s adventure racing website, www.AR.co.za, receives a race entry – plus flights – from the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority to bring a team to the event. The only condition is that the team, bar one member, must have no international experience. Taking this a step further, de Speville selects the team members for their relative inexperience in the sport. The months of preparation and the race itself serve to bolster their skills and add to their adventure racing competence with a view to seeing each member contribute their experience to build stronger and more competitive teams locally.
In this team sport where mixed-gender teams are usually three-men-and-one-woman in format, female-dominated teams are unusual. “I decided on this composition because it is rare – and a first for me. Also, we need more female racers with experience to complement local teams,” says de Speville. Team http://www.AR.co.za’s members included Lizelle ‘Zelle’ Smit, Lizelle van der Merwe and Steven Erasmus.
“Zelle and Lizelle have only been racing for a year so they encountered many firsts at ADAC,” says de Speville. They found the canyoneering especially challenging with its sharp rocks and steep, roped descents, which required constant clipping on and off safety lines. “I always joke that canyoneering, which we call kloofing in South Africa, is fun for the first hour, interesting for the next and thereafter you can’t wait to get to the end because it is physically and mentally demanding; you’ve got to be alert with every step,” de Speville explains. “After this, any other ropes sections they encounter in races will seem child’s play.” It took the team more than four hours to complete the technical 1200m descent.
“Steven was the best ‘guy’ a female-dominated team could wish for,” says de Speville. “The dynamic of a girly team is quite different and he adapted with ease. In addition to being a good all-rounder in the race disciplines, he is easy going and even natured.”
A journalist at the race asked de Speville whether she thinks that female-dominated teams will become more common. “Nah, I don’t,” she says. “Adventure racing is a male-dominated sport and there are so many teams looking for good female racers. Also, within traditional teams, men carry most of the equipment load, which makes fast-paced racing easier for women who are physically smaller; it’s no picnic carrying backpacks as heavy as the men’s when you’re 20kg lighter and trying to race at the same pace.”
“But,” de Speville adds, “a ‘girly’ team can be a supportive environment that may encourage more female participation in the sport.” Too often women new to the sport are put off racing because they doubt their abilities and don’t want to always be the one slowing down their team. It is daunting to join a strong team where you go in knowing you’re just not as fast. A female-dominated team gives women the opportunity to gain experience, without pressure, and the confidence to move into stronger traditional teams. This format also encourages women to take on navigator and ‘workhorse’ roles, which are commonly fulfilled by men. “I believe that it is very important for women to realise their value to their teams; they are not just compulsory X-chromosome contributors or there to boost morale. Women are able to hold their own in this sport that favours endurance and mental strength,” she says.
De Speville also comments that there’s a big difference between an inexperienced team like hers and an experienced female-dominated team. “A few years back there was an incredibly strong and competitive Spanish women’s team; they were always up at the front at major international races. I’d like to see another such team surface again.”
“I am really pleased with our result,” says de Speville. “To place 39th in this ultra-strong field is a good achievement and I hope that with this notch in their belt Zelle, Lizelle and Steven will go on to greater accomplishments locally and internationally.”
Two other South African teams competed at ADAC. Team Cyanosis placed an impressive 18th; Team Inov-8 Mzansi finished 33rd.
For more information on the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge, visit www.abudhabi-adventure.com.
For information on the sport of adventure racing in South Africa, as well as news from the race, visit www.AR.co.za.