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The Art of Course Design: GOALS 2011 Savage Sprint

So, where did I leave off?

While Team GOALS ARA was racing down in Shenandoah last weekend, Organization GOALS ARA was kicking off the season with the 6-hour Savage sprint adventure race.

Adventure racing is a curious thing.  Courses are always unique, and are kept under lock until the maps are handed out in the minutes or hours before the start.

So, even as Brent and I were planning the layout of the Savage this spring, we were (I was) forbidden from talking about it with just about anyone, lest word get around about checkpoint placement and course design.

You see, in an adventure race, there’s no set route from Point A to Point B.  Sure, there’s a general order of events, and there’s often an ideal route choice hidden somewhere in the mess of trees and trails and little orange flags.  But there’s no mandatory track teams must follow – the objective is simply to find your way there as quickly as possible.

As course designers, then, it was our job to find definable features on available maps, that teams could use to move from one point to the next.  We had to think about time, about distance, about terrain, and about flow.  For this sprint race, we had to think about what would be sufficiently accessible for beginners but still challenging enough to keep experienced racers engaged.  And we had to try to account for any and all possible glitches that might arise over the course of the 6 hours that the course was open.

In short, we had our work cut out for us.

In total, we spent about 15 hours a week for an entire month putting together this course – that’s 60 hours, or 10 hours of planning for each hour of the race.

Instead of sitting here and dwelling on the amount of time it would take to put together a longer race, now that the event has come and gone, I thought I’d show you what’s been occupying so much of our time over the past several weeks.

So, without further ado: The Story Behind the 2011 GOALS ARA Savage.

We learned back in January that the race was to be held at Marsh Creek, a small state park roughly 30 miles west of Philadelphia, and the home of several previous GOALS races.

To adventure racers, the park is known for its crummy maps and predictable route choice (like I said, it’s a small park – there’s only so much you can do), but still, we wanted to try to put together as unique a course as possible, given the circumstances.

So, of course, we started with the maps.

We had two maps available to us – a park map and a topographical map.  We were both reasonably familiar with the trails on the west end of the lake, and assumed that’s what we would have to work with in building the course.

We envisioned spending a few hours getting the lay of the land, and then finding mappable features for checkpoint placement.  But when we drove to the park for our first day of scouting, we decided to head first to the center peninsula on the east end, just to see what our options were.

We expected to find parking lots and dense, trail-less vegetation (not ideal for a beginner-friendly course), and were surprised to discover a network of well-maintained trails filled with unique features – ruins, rock walls, a teepee, a garden of rusted out appliances.  This area had never been used in a GOALS race before, so it also fit our requirements for something unique.  We quickly began building a course around that eastern peninsula.

There was no way that we could keep the race contained to that side of the lake – it was simply too small – so we needed a way to get racers to the opposite shore.  Biking around on roads was a possibility, but it was a 6 mile ride and would limit the time teams would have for the meat of the course.  Paddling across would have been ideal, but it was too expensive to secure boats for each team.

Enter – clown boats.

Before race registration on the east end, we decided, teams would be required to drop their bikes at a secure location on the western shore of the lake.

Then, for the opening leg of the day, teams would be split up and four individual racers would be assigned to each canoe.  Since canoes generally hold no more than three people, it would be like a clown car, over-crowded and sitting low in the water.  Each boat would be given three paddles, and everyone would have to work together to get from one bank to the other.

From there, we would run a relatively traditional Marsh Creek course, utilizing the east-end trails.  Teams would be divided by discipline, as is the custom for GOALS sprint races, with 1/3 of the teams doing a bike-run-paddle format, 1/3 with run-paddle-bike, and 1/3 with paddle-bike-run.  Once they completed the circuit, racers would bike back around to the start/finish for a final foot-orienteering section on our newfound trails.

We were both excited about the course we saw in our heads.

We decided to start our scouting on the east side of the park, to knock out the points on the known trails first.

We set off on our bikes to double check that the actual trails lined up with those plotted on the park map.  Of course, they didn’t.

So instead of relying heavily on trail bends and intersections, we plotted our points on noticeable geographic features – stone ruins, large trees, rock piles, depressions, park boundaries, an island in the middle of the creek.  We crafted the north side of the course first, setting both a foot loop and a bike loop.  We tied pink flagging to mark our points, and then moved on to the twisty-turny trails of the south side, for the more technical mountain biking.

Since the map was created, more than a dozen new trails have been built over there, and it was impossible to follow the maps to navigate well around the course.  Once again, we were forced to rely on features and approximation, and to try to lay out the course in such a way that a natural loop would become intuitive.

These two sections took us two trips out to the park.  Along the way, we laid out four points to be collected by boat, all but one a ways off the water, so that teams would have to pull onto shore and run for the flag.

Next, it was time to plot the final o-section. Without a trail map at our disposal, we first set out on bikes with my garmin on hand, to create our own map of the area.

Then, we had to transfer our trails and features onto the topographical map, and lay out our points according to the lap placements designated on the garmin.

At this point, we thought we were all set.  We thought we’d designed a course that was challenging but accessible, long enough to keep less experienced teams out for the lion’s share of the six hours but short enough so that the top teams would clear it in roughly four, and as unfamiliar as it could be, given the familiarity of the park.

But when we went out with two teammates to vet the course at the end of March, we discovered that we had overestimated ourselves.

With Chris on maps, Melissa playing wingman, and Brent and I following along and watching, the course took a total of 6 hours and 9 minutes.  Granted, it was 30 degrees out so transitions took forever, and we had some issues with flat tires, but still, it was clearly far too long.  If experienced, strong racers were going over the prescribed time limit, beginners wouldn’t have a chance.

It was time to go back to the maps.

First, we cut the bike leg on the northwest side of the map, shortening the course considerably and clearing up any potential problems with clogging those trails.  Then we moved all but one of the paddle points down to the water, so teams could retrieve them from the boats.  Finally, we offered an alternate route to get back to the start/finish, one that added a bit more in the way of distance but kept less experienced racers off technical trails, minimizing the risks of flat tires and increasing speed.

Because all but one of the checkpoints on the course was optional, we also created a detailed rules sheet, alerting teams to the fact that there were eight possible points in the final orienteering section – more than all of the bike points combined – and suggesting that they think strategically about which points to go for and which to abandon, so that they’d have the opportunity to enjoy the new trails and compact circuit of points surrounding the start/finish.

In the end, this is the map that teams got at the start of the day:

The plan was to hand out the map and clue sheet for the final o-course after teams returned to the west side of the lake.

After finalizing the course, drawing the maps, and writing up the rules and clue sheets, it was time to place the points.  We headed back out to Marsh Creek for the last time the Wednesday before the race, the night before having sorted and marked the flags and come up with a coded system of pink ribbon for backup.

Lupine helped with the flagging.

We spent four hours at the park that Wednesday and laid out about 2/3 of the checkpoints.  GOALS co-director Bill would finish the rest the next day.

Brent, hanging the island flag.

Me, hanging the flag in a pile of logs.

Then it was off to Anne and Bill’s house to go over last minute logistics.  It’s rare for course designers not to be there on race day, so we had to make sure that everything was in order before we left for Shenandoah.

By that point, it was after 9 PM.  We made a quick stop for dinner at Wegman’s (first time ever there – I was a simultaneously over- and underwhelmed), and came home to focus on packing for our own race that weekend.

Sometime around noon on Saturday, as we were finishing the first bike leg of Rev3’s Epic Adventure Race, Brent and I realized that back at Marsh Creek, the Savage was in full swing.  At that point, though, all we could do was wait for the reports and photos to come in.

This is what we came home to Sunday evening:

Still smiling – definitely a good sign!


5 responses to “The Art of Course Design: GOALS 2011 Savage Sprint

  1. kari w/ Jogging with Fiction April 23, 2011 at 8:00 am

    Love the flagging pictures. What is a clown boat?

    I didn’t realize there was no set path to follow on the races, but I guess that makes sense, it might be kind of boring otherwise.

    • Abby April 23, 2011 at 8:07 am

      Sorry, yeah, I realized that was unclear – went back and hopefully clarified it a bit! Basically, a canoe isn’t supposed to hold more than three people maximum, so by putting four people in the boats, we were trying to mimic clown cars – too many people, sitting too low in the water, having to get creative about how to fit everything in to get to the other side. Does that make more sense?

  2. emily April 23, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    6 hour sprint? you adventure racers are cahrazy sauce.

  3. Black Knight April 23, 2011 at 1:26 pm

    Beautiful post. The last 4 pictures are pure art! Lupine is lovely and ….. black, ready to join the Black Knight Army!
    Enjoy the Easter week end.

  4. Pingback: Movin’ On Up « Have Dental Floss, Will Travel

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