Brian Stavely describes himself as competent at a lot of different sports but not terribly good at any of them. Staveley makes his living writing epic fantasy novels, such as the recently The Emperor’s Blades (PanMcmillan) the first in a series he calls the Chronicle of the Unhewn Thrown. But when he’s not weaving elaborate myths, he gravitates toward adventure racing which allows him to combine different athletic disciplines together with navigational skills.
Family: Wife and toddler
Occupation: Fiction writer
Primary sports: Adventure racing
VS: How did you get involved with adventure racing?
BS: I don’t remember how I started but I know that what drew me in was the idea that it’s like a treasure hunt. You have all these flags in the woods and you have to find them. I also realized that a huge part of this sport is mental. Navigation skills are as important as your fitness level. At a regular race you can generally tell how well you’re going to do at the start but in adventure racing you might make good strategic decisions or you might make really horrible decisions. In theory, any team is in the race. Really good teams can make really bad decisions and others can come out of nowhere and ace it.
VS: Tell us about a memorable race.
BS: My very first race was a summer race with the Green Mountain Adventure Racing Association (GMARA). I think it was 2004. I had no idea what to expect and dragged a friend along who was also new to the sport. The first leg was on the Winooski River. There had been a lot of rain so the water was really high and the race director warned us that at a certain point you had to go to the takeout so as not to go over the dam. We came around that bend and it was just carnage. At least half, maybe three-quarters, of the racers were out of their canoes and on either side of the bank. We were only an hour into a 12-hour race and we had lost our canoe. I hoped that wasn’t the end for us so we went to the bank and asked a race official what we should do next and he said “welcome to adventure racing.” I realized they take the “adventure” part seriously. We ended up running most of the canoe leg but since we’d lost our maps in the canoe, a team of women had to help us with the navigation. Later someone found our canoe and maps and gave them to us in one of the transition areas. It was just madness and I thought it was great. We didn’t do well but I thought it was a great introduction to the sport. You never know what to expect.
VS: Do you always have the same team?
BS: My teams have changed a lot over the years. I was a high school teacher for a while and I used to race the Frigid Infliction, a GMARA race at Bolton Valley, with another teacher. We had that tradition for eight years. Sometimes we’d bring a group of students up with us and let them use it for their winter sport credit. One side benefit of that is some of those kids are now in their mid-20s and I race with them if they’re kind enough to let the old guy hang around. When I was in better shape I took it more seriously and would try to find more competitive teammates from Dartmouth where I went to school. Now I’m just happy to find someone who will thump around the woods with me. The shorter races have teams of two but the longer races have three or four person teams so that if someone breaks a leg there is someone who can stay with them while another teammate goes for help.
VS: What disciplines are involved in adventure racing?
BS: The standard non-winter race involves three basic sports: foot travel, mountain biking and paddling. The foot travel can be running or just trudging; the mountain biking can be through a field or technical single track; and the paddling ranges from inner tubes to kayaks and canoes. Sometimes there are gimmicks like rappelling and GMARA has started introducing swimming in their summer races. In a short race which is between six and 12 hours, you may have just one of each leg but for the 24, 48 and 70 hour races you’ll go back and forth a lot, in contrast to a traditional triathlon.
VS: Have you done those long races?
BS: I’ve done one 60-hour race and one 70-hour race. They were both really hard but they were great races put on by a group called Untamed Adventure Racing. One of them took place in The Balsams in northern New Hampshire and I think in that race we covered three states and were pretty close to Canada, as well. We covered a lot of ground but I’m not exactly sure where we were because I was so tired. Those multi-day races take the strategy elements to the next level. In addition to navigation there are decisions about nutrition, sleep and pacing. It’s hard working with people when you’re starving, dehydrated, sunburned, hypothermic and tired. In those races the people who are in the best shape often aren’t the winners. You need people who can work well together.
VS: What has been your best finish?
BS: We’ve won the Frigid Infliction twice, but that wasn’t recently. That’s a unique race because it’s one of the only winter races. It involves cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, some wicked post-holing where you have to carry your skis and snowshoes in deep snow and a Tyrolean Traverse which involves clipping into a harness and sliding across a rope strung over a gorge. We also finished second in a 24-hour race in Virginia back in the day when I did more running and was in better shape.
VS: How do you train for those kind of races?
BS: There are two things you need: a high fitness level but also the ability to navigate. It doesn’t matter how fast you are if you’re going the wrong direction. If you miss a flag you can spend five hours looking for it. The way to train for that is just getting out in the woods with a map and a compass and trying to find the best way to reach a point. Just running or biking doesn’t hack it. Bushwhacking through the woods in the middle of the night puts all kinds of strains on your body that you don’t get from a run. I do more weight training with rocks and tires than standard cardio and it’s more fun. These days I push my son in a wheelbarrow across the yard or do hill repeats with him on my head.
VS: What is your best discipline in these races?
BS: Adventure racing is perfect for me because I’m competent at a lot of things but I’m not great at anything. I’m not a really great mountain biker or whitewater canoer or kayaker. I’m a decent runner but my best asset is my problem solving. We generally navigate well and know how to avoid major mistakes. You can correct minor mistakes and that’s a big part of it. I don’t have as much time to train but if you’re savvy you can race against those who are in better shape. I can get out-savvied too. It’s race to race.
VS: Tell us about your writing.
BS: I’m just finishing up an epic fantasy trilogy in the Game of Thrones style. I’ve been working on these books for the last three or four years. I left teaching to do this full time and it gives me time to get outside and be with my family and live in Vermont. I love it.