Team Cyanosis: nine winning lessons from Expedición Guaraní

Team Cyanosis, adventure racing, Paraguay, AR World Series, finish line

Team Cyanosis celebrates a well-deserved victory after 107 hours out in the field. Photos SUPPLIED by Agatha Boveda Aguirre, Wladimir Togumi and Craig Bycroft

Team Cyanosis sent a strong message to the adventure racing world when they won Paraguay’s Expedición Guaraní (an Adventure Race World Series qualifier) in March 2017 by an incredible margin of 12 hours.

After 107 hours of navigating, trekking, abseiling, mountain biking, and kayaking through some of the world’s toughest terrain, they were one of just six teams to complete the full course out of a field of 23 starters!

Team Cyanosis leader Clinton Mackintosh shares more about their nail-biting adventures in Paraguay and offers useful tips for South African adventurers that have been inspired by his team’s achievement.

Discover the greatest lessons that they took from this experience as the team prepares for the AR World Championship, which will take place from 8-16 August 2017.

(From left to right) Susan Carter-Brown, Robert Crichton, Clinton Mac, and Nicholas Mulder. Photo SUPPLIED

1. It’s all about the team

The Cyanosis team line-up for early 2017 was forced into a few changes. Captain Clinton (Mac) Mackintosh from Stellenbosch and Joburg based navigator Nicholas Mulder needed two replacements for this race.

Cyanosis thus approached Susan Macpesh (formerly Susan Carter-Brown), who had raced Expedition Africa with the team in 2013 and then gone on to compete with fellow SA team Merrell at the AR World Champs. She was 100% on board and supportive of the team objectives for 2017 and raring to have a good crack at Paraguay.

Robert Crichton, was asked to stand in for Nathan’s place in the team. Rob comes from a very successful paddling background, with a few South African expedition races under his belt.

Tips for choosing the right AR team

The key to a good team is to race with like-minded people and to have a common goal. There is no point racing with people that don’t have the same goal as you or visa versa, because when the going gets tough this will be the first thing that will test your resolve!

I firmly believe you need to like the people that you race with as you will be experiencing some serious life experiences together, and you’ll want their support.

Susan Carter-Brown taking the lead. Photo SUPPLIED

2. Planning ahead

There was an added challenge for Rob and the team, in that he is a Type 1 diabetic. This brought a whole new set of considerations and risks that we discussed in advance. The medical condition would require changes in race strategy and pacing at various points in the race, but the team believed we could effectively handle these extra elements without any problems emerging.

Tips for racing with a diabetic

We knew the challenge we would have going in to the race, so we sat down before the race and said we wanted to stay ahead of Rob’s sugar levels. What this meant was stopping as often as needed to know exactly where his levels were and what we would need to do.

To race with any medical condition a team needs to discuss the drills prior to the race and make sure everyone is aware of the “what ifs” and what needs to be done if something goes wrong.

We had a little scare at one point as Rob’s sugar levels spiked and his insulin did not work as expected, possibly as a result of the very hot conditions. When we got into the transition we were able to replace his medication and make plans to keep the insulin cold for the rest of the race.

I learned from this race that no medical condition should determine what you are able to do, if managed correctly you can do anything you set your mind to. I have huge respect for Rob.

The starting 23 teams, of which only ten were able to finish the full course. Photo SUPPLIED.

3. Beating the language barrier

The biggest problem that Team Cyanosis was going to face in Paraguay during the race was the language barrier. We had almost no experience of Spanish except for Hola and Gracias (Hello and Thank you).

Sign language and charades would quickly become a big part of the team’s skills, whilst the words ‘agua’ and ‘camino’ (water and path) were soon added to our dictionaries. This proved particularly entertaining when Rob had to resort to charades to explain to the house caretaker that our toilet wasn’t working.

Tips for beating the language barrier

If you don’t know the language of the country you are racing in best you learn a few words or helpful questions quickly! Some good ones would be ‘hello’, ‘water’, ‘where is the path’, ‘which way to […]’, ‘please’, and ‘thank you’. When you are out there, though, you will learn key words very quickly and your ability to play charades like a pro will become the order of the day.

True expedition style race boxes which were transported to each transition area. Photo SUPPLIED.

4. Packing light and packing right

Expedicion Guarani is a bit different from other AR World Series races in their use of race boxes. Each team member had their own personal box that they saw at all transitions (as opposed to one big team box used in the other World Series races).

Teams were given really clear instructions during the pre-race check in: Four race boxes (one per team member), four bike boxes, and one paddling bag.  Race boxes to weigh less than 20kg and bike boxes less than 25kg, and they even weighed every team’s boxes and bike boxes before they accepted them.

We had to do a little shuffling around between boxes to make sure we were at the correct weight, but this was quickly accomplished.

Tips for creating the most effective race box

We are all guilty of over packing our gear boxes as we venture into the unknown. You will soon work out what are essentials or nice-to-haves.

If space is limited, we discuss what we’ll be packing as a team and all take exactly the same gear. There’s no point one team member packs extra warm kit if the rest didn’t- the others are going to be grumpy when that person feels all toasty. Rather suffer together and move faster. Take only what you believe you will need, and leave the rest in the finish line bag.

High temperatures in Paraguay leave Robert Crichton exhausted. Photo SUPPLIED

5. Trekking when it’s HOT

Although the days leading up to the race had seen the wind pumping across the lake towards our villa, race-day dawned calm with flat conditions providing a superb reflection of the boats and the horizon.

The negative was that this exacerbated the heat, with temperature highs of 36˚C and almost no rain expected every day of the race. With the tropical humidity and altitudes of only 100 to 400m above sea level (despite being 1000km from the nearest ocean), the heat was going to be the BIG factor in the race and would dictate Team Cyanosis’ racing strategy.

We finished the first stage of paddling faster than we expected, but it meant starting the next trekking leg at the hottest time of the day.  With the oppressing heat, we didn’t think we were moving particularly fast as we walked our way to the first of a sequence of checkpoints, any jogging definitely off the cards.

Map for the fourth trekking stage of the expedition. Photo SUPPLIED

Best advice for trekking in the heat

Keep moving forward. It is tempting to sit under a tree in the shade, but you are literally burning daylight.

Daylight navigation is so important as you see where you need to go or what is in front of you. Yes, it will be cooler at night and you may be able to move quicker, but the navigation becomes more technical and way more difficult. Don’t get despondent about moving slowly in the heat, everyone is experiencing the same thing.

It can be difficult to eat in the heat, but you need to force yourself to eat approximately every hour.

We eat a lot of baby foods (yes, baby foods). They are easy to stomach and eat on the move, and they have a good level of calories.

We also make sure that when we get the opportunity, we eat proper food. An adventure racer will go through around 7,500 calories in a race. You are going to find it hard to find food to replace all of that, but you will need to replace as much as possible with food that you can keep down.

Team leader Clinton Mackintosh taking on Paraguay’s unforgiving terrain. Photo SUPPLIED

6. Overcoming navigational troubles

Approaching CP18 (the abseil), we made our biggest navigational error of the race just after dawn, losing about one hour after we followed a track network up the wrong hill slope.

We identified the error and recovered, but were caught by a chasing Team Euskat. After having been the solo team upfront for almost 24 hours, the presence of another team definitely added some pressure.

What to do when navigation goes wrong

This is inevitable; at some point you will get lost or you will be in the wrong place. The worst thing to do as a team is to put blame on anyone, it happens to the best of navigators.

The heaviest piece of gear a team carries in an adventure race is the maps; this responsibility weighs on most navigators. So the best thing you can do as a team is accept that you are lost, suck it up and get going in the right direction. Look at the bright side; at least they worked it out before any more hours or km’s = kilometres down the road.

Susan Carter-Brown carries her kayak through a transition area. Photo SUPPLIED

7. Setting our own pace

Team Euskat really started pushing the pace after the abseil. With temperatures already starting to climb rapidly, we found an excuse to drop off the pace and stopped at a small corner shop to purchase something to drink (one of the local Guarani-infused colas).

By the time Cyanosis were on the move again, Euskat were well out of site and we could focus on riding at our own pace. Upon arrival in the next transition area we noticed that Team Euskat had arrived only 7 minutes ahead of us, so we hadn’t lost much time at all. We also looked in much better condition than they did.

We had a good rest at the transition point and didn’t rush anything, making sure that we prepared properly for the next leg which was going to be an extremely long and tough 54km trek.

The importance of setting your own pace

It is easy to get caught up in the race and push yourself and your team beyond a long term sustainable pace.

Don’t get me wrong, it is a race where you will need to push out of your training pace limits, but make sure you are racing to your team’s goals- the only way you can win a race is to finish, and as a full team.

We managed to maintain a solid and comfortable pace in Paraguay that didn’t put us in too much difficulty. We believed that we were in it for the long haul and set a pace that allowed the team to move well together.

(From left to right) Clinton Mac, Robert Crichton, Nicholas Mulder and Susan Carter-Brown. Photo SUPPLIED

8. Recovering during the race

After the tough trek of close to 27 hours in stage four (taking 7-8 hours to do the final 10km) we took a good rest in the transition. We arrived at 3pm, with slightly more than three hours of sunlight left. On this occasion however, we were content to hit the MTB at night as we could move a little quicker and we could do with the recovery period.

The importance of mid-race recovery

I am not a fan of forced stops in any race, I believe that the team needs to decide to sleep or push on.

We worked out that we had a big gap to the rest of the field at this point and we could use this TA to get some good rest. Resting in a TA will benefit you as you will be able to get quality rest opposed to a rocky sand road or forest floor.

With good rest you should be able to move faster and make better decisions. This downtime also allows your navigator (that has been so focused for all that time) to zone out a little and recover mentally.

Clinton Mackintosh fights off sleepmonsters as his team makes their way to the next transition area. Photo SUPPLIED

9. Expecting the unexpected

We left the transition to start stage five at last light, expecting to complete the leg in about 10 hours. The first part was a compulsory section along an old railway line to avoid busy tar roads. Unfortunately the vegetation along the track was extremely dense, not what we had expected, but we had to forge on, breaking down branches and vegetation to create a tunnel through the dense undergrowth.

The first 2km were the worst and we literally ended up crawling through some sections, towing our bikes behind us. Obviously as each team member progressed it got easier for everyone following, so Cyanosis definitely got the worst of it by leading at this stage!

We took another hour of sleep along the way, but in the end it took us seven hours of active movement to cover the 11km train track section to the next town, something that would take the teams further back in the field only about 2.5 hours!

Once again our expectation didn’t match reality when we started the sixth stage (kayaking). The ‘easy’ paddle we’d hoped for turned out to be tough and technical along a swollen river choked with very big trees! We were forced to manoeuvre through small little gaps between branches and trunks while leaves, insects and other debris rained from above as we pushed through.

The 90km paddle was expected to take us all night, so we settled down into a good rhythm, making use of the main current and when needed, one person sleeping in each boat.  This didn’t always work out perfectly, it was the fourth night of racing and some serious sleepmonsters descended on the team.

Adapt to survive

Adventure Racing requires you and your team to adapt constantly. There is no blue print to a race, and what you think may lie ahead is not, in fact, even close!

Small goals help you deal with circumstances that don’t go your way.

Go into each leg with the right mind-set. I tick each leg off in my mind, reassured that every step forward gets me closer to the finish line.

Robert Crichton leads the way. Photo SUPPLIED

The finish line of an Expedition race is really something, the utter joy and feeling of total relief that the pain is about to stop is indescribable.   We took first place after finishing just before sunset with a comfortable winning margin of about 12 hours, a very large gap that we have never had the privilege to enjoy before!

Team strategy worked out perfectly for almost the whole race and the team managed factors, both internal and external, that could have proved extremely problematic and resulted in a big loss of time had they been handled poorly.

We raced at our own pace, never worrying about who was behind or around us. We arrived in Paraguay with one goal and we all knew what we needed to do to achieve it as individuals and as a team. I believe that this was instrumental in the success of Team Cyanosis. We will have the same approach for Raid in Spain next month and for the World Champs at Cowboy Tough in Wyoming, USA, in August.

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