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3 Women In Search of Adventure

Three area women compete in grueling Venture Quest race.

When it comes to rugged competition, look for Laura Harrington, Tracy Betts and Julie Guy to come in first. The trio of local women recently won the all-female division of Venture Quest and placed eighth out of 82 male and coed teams.

"As women competing against men in sports, we feel like we have to prove ourselves on their level," said former Clifton resident Harrington, now living in Burke. "We want their respect."

Venture Quest is not for the faint of heart — or the beginning athlete. It's a tough, challenging triathlon of mountain biking, trail running and canoeing — with orienteering and trekking (finding one's way with maps) added in.

The three women competed Sept. 26 against mainly male teams, in an event starting from Fountainhead Park and going through the Occoquan Watershed to the Bull Run Marina and Hemlock Park.

"It's a 30-mile, sprint-distance, adventure race," said Guy, of Clifton's Hayden Village. "An adventure race is usually 24-36 hours long," said Betts, of Springfield. "So a sprint-distance one is six to 12 hours."

"That's more manageable when you have kids and a life and can't be gone so long," said Harrington. All three women have young children and businesses and are involved in their communities. Harrington also likes Venture Quest because "it uses both upper- and lower-body strength."

THE THREE WOMEN met through their love of running, and Harrington and Betts own an IT consulting firm in Springfield. "The first time we went mountain biking in Clifton, Julie and Tracy both broke their bikes, but they were happy as can be," said Harrington. "They had bruises all over them, but they couldn't stop talking about how much fun they had."

The trio participates in at least four adventure races a year and trains four to six days a week. The women run, road- and mountain-bike, lift weights, work with resistance bands and do cardiovascular workouts.

"We mountain-bike every Saturday, for two to three hours, in Fountainhead, Wakefield and Accotink parks," said Betts. "And we do night-riding, too, to improve our reaction times," said Harrington. "You have to react to turns that you don't see for very long."

This was the women's third Venture Quest. Their first year, they came in second; last year, they finished first. This year, they wanted to place in the top 10 teams overall. "We wanted to beat the guys," said Harrington. And they beat lots of them.

"This year, the second-place female team was 1 1/2 hours behind us, so we just wanted to better our overall ranking in this race," said Betts.

"We have to prove ourselves against the men's benchmarks," said Guy.

Still, she said, "We're the Chickiegirlscouts Club, so we wore crowns [while competing]. We have an attitude to keep up." Besides, added Betts, "How terrible is it to be passed by some chick wearing a tiara?"

THE EVENT began with a 2-mile run on asphalt to spread out the teams so they entered the mountain-bike trails at staggered times. That's because the wooded trails are only 5 feet wide. Then came 12 miles of mountain biking over the toughest course in the area.

"It's intense — not a course for beginners," said Betts. "A number of teams pulled themselves out of the competition because the course was more technical than they expected," said Guy. "That's what separates the women from the girls," said Betts.

With lots of roots and rocks, logs and steep up- and downhill climbs, Harrington said many bikers find themselves flying, head first, over their handlebars. "We've seen people come out with broken shoulders and arms and deep cuts," she said.

Then came trekking, with the women using special maps of the terrain to find their way, as a team, to the next checkpoint. "You can't be more than 100 feet away from each other, at all times," said Betts. They were guided by landmarks on their topography map — "like power lines, stream inlets, the blue trail and ridges of hills," said Guy.

After trekking three miles, the three jumped into their canoe and paddled four miles upstream in the Bull Run River to the Bull Run Marina. "That's the hardest part of the race for us," said Betts. "We had to really practice it, this year, because last year, 15 male teams passed us doing this."

"So this year, our friend Tad Gleason of Maryland taught us some stroke techniques which helped us tremendously," said Guy. "We learned how to get the most forward movement from each stroke to be the most efficient."

"That's where a lot of our teamwork comes in," said Betts. "You have to stroke together and get your timing down," said Harrington.

Then the women had to carry their canoe up a hill. "That was the point in the race where I felt the weakest," said Guy.

NEXT CAME more trekking — this time on the Kincheloe soccer fields and then in the woods to find flags. And they used a compass and an orienteering map. "You have six control points on the orienteering course," said Guy. "And if you don't find all six, they dock 15 minutes from your time for each of them."

"They're spread out over nine miles, to the finish, and you have to write down the code written on each one," said Harrington. "It's easy to get lost." That's because the women were in the middle of the woods, with no nearby roads or houses, and only their map and compass skills to help them.

"You have to decide if you'll go on the paths with less rocks and vegetation," said Guy. "Or dead-reckon — which is shorter, but you'd have to bushwhack through the brush," said Harrington. "Julie did a great job of reading the topography map."

"Dead-reckoning from the map was my favorite part," said Betts. "It's a good feeling to look at this map and understand that — for example, here's a ravine and a gully and we have to go over this hill — and be able to put it together."

"It saves you from backtracking and enables you to cut off some mileage," said Guy. "It took us 5 hours and 10 minutes, overall. We were probably an hour faster this year because it was a different course than last year. This year, everything clicked."

The three also benefited from doing their homework. On Sundays, they go to Quantico Orienteering Club meets to learn how to read the orienteering maps and set their compasses. "You have to be in good shape, be dedicated to the sport and do the training," she said.

"I love the trekking and orienteering," said Harrington. "There's something primitive about bushwhacking and exploring. It's like a puzzle, and it's a mental boost and confidence-builder. Being a woman in the woods, you can find your way. And it's where a lot of the guys lose it. They don't have the patience, and they sometimes try to just rely on landmarks, instead of using their compasses, too."

The Bike Lane, a bike shop in Burke, sponsors Harrington, Betts and Guy on its race team, and the trio holds clinics and family rides to introduce other women to adventure racing. "We want to show women they can do it and it's not daunting," said Harrington. "And we have so much fun."

For more information, contact thebikelane.com or laura@balancegroup.us or call 703-440-8701.