How it started
One thing that Jean de Chatillon, former TREC World champion and Centaure en Morvan organiser, was very clear on was that the 2021 Centaure would definitely not be a gentle stroll through the forest on a moonlit night! I first heard about the Raid Centaure in early 2020 when I saw Red Kite TREC member Kate Gillam’s photos of her first attempt at it. I was intrigued - what was this event? All of the photos were a bit dark and somewhat mysterious, and I tried to figure out what was going on in them. There were horses involved, and maps, but this was not TREC. Kate filled me in on what it entailed. The Raid Centaure is a unique 100km long night-time orienteering competition on horseback, a sort of POR on steroids. Normally held once a year in France, it has on occasion been held in other countries including Spain and Belgium. The 2021 Centaure was to be held on Jean’s doorstep in the Parque Natural de Morvan and marked the 50th anniversary of the event. Jean promised competitors a particularly diabolical challenge this year that would have competitors negotiating their way round a route even the most experienced navigators would be likely to get lost on. I decided that this sounded just the sort of thing I would enjoy!
During the course of last summer, at Saturday night TREC socials, a team was formed. Kate had not completed the event on her first attempt, and was deliberating whether to go back and have another go. Eventually she decided she would. Our next member was Caroline Brammer of TRAC. Caroline had already completed three Centaures, with a best place to date of 5th as an individual rider. Her opinion that the 50th anniversary event would be especially hard was the factor that made us decide to enter as a team, so that when we were lost and crying in the middle of the night (as Jean hinted we might be) we would have teammates’ shoulders to cry on! The last member of the team was me, a first timer in a competition in which I had no idea what to expect. We elected to hire horses from Jean’s endurance stables, as the distance to the venue and Brexit regulations made taking our own horses rather difficult.
As the end of November drew nearer, we compared endless kit lists, with a particular fixation with head torch battery life and the waterproof-ness of jackets. We were worried the damp, lush forests would be rainy, but as the days counted down it became clear the temperature was dropping and the possibility of snow was becoming increasingly likely. Debate turned to thermals and how many layers we would wear.
Eventually it was time for our journey to France. We arrived in the small village of Sommant in Morvan, home to the Sommant Horse Team and venue for the Centaure, on Thursday 25th November. We were introduced to our horses, and were permitted one hour on the Thursday to ride our horses before the competition started, which was hardly a great length of time to get to know them. Caroline was given the oldest and wisest of the three, a 14 year old grey mare called Tite Leah. I was given another grey mare, 8 year old Delhalyn, and Kate was shown to flaxen-maned pretty boy Baksan, a 10 year old gelding who seemed to be beloved of all the stewards. I had not really known what to expect from our hirelings, but I knew they would all be Arabian endurance horses, fit and ready to go. So I was quite surprised at how sane and steady they were, experienced and tolerant trekking ponies quietly rolling their eyes at the silly English women trying to figure out how their mounts worked. We rapidly established that Delhalyn did not go in the front, and all three of them would quietly bunch together and plant their feet if asked to do something unusual to them or go in a direction they did not normally go in. It became obvious my concern about being carted off by a feisty steed was unlikely to happen on one of this trio!
A map-reading challenge
Friday dawned and we were asked to sign a disclaimer littered with fearful claims of the difficulties ahead and strict instructions to respect our horses, the checkpoint controllers, and any other random people we may meet along the way. We made a final check of our kit, laid it out ready for later, had a final afternoon nap and then presented our horses for the vetting. Our sleepy Arabs perked up at this, and briefly became fire-breathing giants as we ran along trying to keep up with them. After this, dinner was served followed by the briefing for all competitors. We were informed that each individual, pair or team would start with 2000 points at the start of each night (compared with the 240 we are familiar with in TREC!) and penalties would be 30 for entering a control incorrectly, 50 points for missing a first control, and penalties would double for each subsequent control missed. Three controls in a row missed, for example, would gain us a whopping 250 penalties. Then came a rule that was apparently new this year, and drew gasps of surprise from regular Centaure riders. A time limit was to be imposed on each section of the ride, and anyone arriving at a section end outside of their permitted time would be removed from the competition. This, Jean informed us, was because the route was very long and he did not want riders to be riding much beyond sunset the following night. This seemed an unfeasibly long time away, and ridiculous to think we could still be riding then! Also, it was because there was snow even as he spoke beginning to fall on the higher ground our route would take us round. This was going to be a tricky ride.
Once Jean’s instructions to us were concluded the maps were brought out. Now, for the average TREC competitor in the UK, they are used to seeing their route on one piece of paper. This route was on 6 pieces of A4 paper. However we had been given 4 pieces of A3 and a single sheet of A4 as our own maps, and it quickly became apparent that copying the map was going to be a stiff challenge in itself. The master maps and competitor maps did not match up. They were not even the same maps, the master maps being older versions, seemingly with entirely different paths on it. And not quite enough master map pages for each competitor were given out. What ensued was the maddest maproom session I have ever been in, as competitors who had maps tried to frantically work out where the route was taking them, and other unluckier competitors wandered the room shouting ‘does anyone have a number 5?’ But in French, obviously! It took us nearly an hour and a half to locate all the maps and copy out the 70-odd kilometres of route, and then it was a mad dash to the stables to tack up and jump on.
After a slightly breathless dash to find the start line, at six minutes past midnight we were finally on our way. Headlamps clipped on our hats helped us to see the way and read our maps, but outside of this small circle of light we were effectively blind. Within the first 10 minutes we were into dense forest and I began to realise the enormity of the task ahead of us as the path ahead of us, initially a strong easily followed track, dwindled away to nothing.
As we picked our way gingerly through dense undergrowth on rapidly steepening ground, I did wonder what on earth we were doing. Caroline was at the front, and seemed convinced that this was the right way - all the while referring to contours on the map and how the land beneath our feet compared to them. Eventually the brambles became too thick, the ground too steep, and we dismounted. Judging by the lights flashing about us in nearby parts of the forest, other riders were crashing around in the same way. From up ahead Caroline shouted out “I’ve got it! I’ve found the path,” and we scrambled towards her dragging our horses, who did not seem to be perturbed by our behaviour at all. Kate had slipped at some point during this escapade, and had lost her thumb compass, so she dug out her back up compass and we resumed our ride.
Getting on with the horses
For the next couple of hours the woods flashed by as we wound our way along convoluted paths, many of which were not even shown on our maps. Our compasses were invaluable, as was counting our footsteps - often these were the only methods we had of working out which of these unmarked paths to take. We passed control stewards, who informed us whether we had ridden into their ticket point correctly or not, and pointed out the correct way if we had done it poorly. It was good to have both these confirmations that we were on the correct route, and also the explanations of the right and wrong way into tickets while we were actually there, as I would never have remembered everything we did after the event. The only hiccup during this section was Kate’s horse Baksan slipping on a muddy rut in the dark, leaving Kate a bit unimpressed with him and reluctant to trot on, a situation I sympathised with. It was hard enough navigating through the dark forest without throwing a lack of faith in your horse into the mix. I don’t know if Baksan understood what was being said about him, but after a decidedly rocky start he decided to buck his ideas up and gave no further problems over the weekend. He was a grumpy character, but many of the stewards shouted his name when they saw us approaching their checkpoints, and we decided he must have some lovable qualities.
We reached the second major checkpoint at about 4.30am, and I realised here that we really should have been much further on that we were. We had trotted on any level ground we had been able to find, but much of the route was over steep narrow tracks through dense forest and it was not always easy to get out of a walk. We left this checkpoint and it was my turn to take the lead, but it became apparent Delhalyn was not fond of being in front at all. I found it difficult to mapread properly whilst encouraging her to put one foot in front of the other - it was like riding my kids’ ponies who were used to mindlessly following each other nose to tail! So I resumed my place at the back of the ride.
Lost in the woods
My first head torch blinked out as we were finally able to trot on on wider forestry tracks, so I dropped my reins on Delhayn’s neck and spent the next 5 minutes fumbling in my saddle bags for may next head lamp. When I eventually returned to the light and looked at my map, I realised we might have a bit of a problem - I had no idea where we were, or what direction we had been riding in, and now we were a little bit lost! The snow had started to come down by this point in big fat flakes. It was dark, getting colder, we had been out of bed for the night, and none of the tracks on the ground made sense when compared to our map. Other riders were having the same trouble as us, but I felt quite useless and unable to help here, because I only knew a roughly 1 kilometre radius that we might be inside of, but there were a lot of tracks in that circle. We rode round here hunting for the right way forward for over an hour, and Caroline was beginning to get worried that if we ever did find the right route we would be so far outside the maximum permitted time we would be sent home. So we picked a path and decided that this would be the one we followed, and we would see where it took us. This path initially went in the right direction, but soon swung south and down a steep hill. This wasn’t right. I was getting very uncomfortable - our route should have been going slightly north of west, but there was definitely no south involved. Suddenly I heard something - running water. I scoured the map and found only one river in the entire area, at the bottom of a steep narrow valley and heading north to south. By deduction we decided this was the only place we could be.
Quickly we rustled up a plan. Having realised we were so far off route, Caroline and Kate decided we should throw in the towel. I was not ready to give up so easily, but could not overrule a majority decision. I dug out the emergency phone, looked at the screen to call for recovery assistance, only to find we had no reception at all in the narrow little gulley. Rescue was not an option for us here, so we re-planned, and decided to attempt to head to the nearby village from where we could pick up a bridleway that would take us back up towards our intended route. Once we were settled on that, we urged the horses up into a trot along the relatively easy tarmac road and trotted through the village. I did wonder if any of the sleeping villagers were woken by the sound of 3 briskly trotting horses at 6am and if they wondered what we were up to! Through the village we began to climb the hill back up into the forest again. The sky was gently lightening at this point, and looking at my watch I realised we had been on the go for nearly 8 hours since leaving the start. The snow was laying thicker now, and as we crested a hill we encountered a forest path deeply tracked with hoof prints. Caroline gave a little ‘yes!’ and we knew we were back in the game. A few hundred metres further along the track we rode into the breakfast stop.
A welcome break!
We tethered the horses and one of Jean’s stable grooms appeared with blankets and grain for the horses. A tent was pitched nearby, and inside we found a busy kitchen serving up fried eggs and ham, soup, coffee, fruit, and for those who wanted or needed it, brandy. We sat in front of a heater, warmed ourselves up and after filling ourselves with hot food and caffeine while the sky brightened to full daylight, everything seemed possible again. We had just 20 minutes break here, but set off refreshed and ready for the second half of the first night and day! We worked out that we had missed an important checkpoint, but that had we ridden into that checkpoint we would have been too slow and removed from the competition. Our inadvertent re-route meant we had ridden into the breakfast stop with time to spare. We decided to motor on.
Day One completed
After the low points of the night the snowy forest was now a delight to ride in. The tracks and paths were not any less steep and difficult, but the clean bright daylight made it easier to make decisions. We found most of the remaining checkpoints, although we didn’t ride into all of them the right way, and there were some robust discussions had in some places! But we didn’t feel quite as baffled at any point now as we had at that low point of 5am, lost in the forest. The day went on and we passed control stewards with chocolates and brandy and smiles, but looking at the map sunset was approaching and we still seemed to have many kilometres to go. Jean had warned that many riders would rider into a second night without having completed the first, and I couldn’t quite get my head around that when I first heard it, but now it was becoming a very real prospect. We rode into a major checkpoint staffed by Linda, a French Canadian who Caroline had met on a previous Centaure, and she informed us that the first night was being cut short by 14km and the next major checkpoint we rode into would be the end of day 1. Jean was arranging transport for all of the horses to take them back to the venue. We finally rode over the finish line at around 4pm, 16 hours after we had begun!
Each horse was checked over at the finish, and to my surprise my little Arab mare had a heart rate below 40bpm. They all flew through the vetting - none of them had even broken into a sweat at any point in the last 16hrs. Transporting nearly 60 horses back to the venue proved to be a logistical challenge, and it took us until 6pm to get back, by which time we riders were nearly on our knees with exhaustion. Having made sure our horses were cleaned and fed, we took ourselves back to our B&B, stuck our head torches on to recharge, and grabbed a quick hour’s snooze before heading back for the second night’s dinner. A leaderboard had been produced and it quickly became clear that the riders who had set off later in the night had a distinct advantage. Less of their navigation was done in pitch blackness, and they had many more hoof prints to follow. A lot of riders had not finished the first night or had elected not to start the second night. Many of those withdrawals and eliminations were among the first to set off, so we felt reasonably pleased that as one of the first batch to start on night 1 that we were still in a position to take on night 2. Riders on night 2 set off in the reverse order to which they started night 1, so we were one of the last to leave, at 3.12am.
Day 2 Mission accomplished!
The luxury of being able to avoid the scrum for maps and to draw them calmly, in a quiet room that most people had vacated, and under no time pressure like we were the previous night, cannot be described! It was a different experience altogether. After copying down the route we retreated once again to our very tolerant B&B and slept until nearly 2am. Returning to the now-quiet venue we tacked up quickly and headed out up a track Caroline was familiar with. She had competed in Sommant once before some years ago, and knew Jean had a favourite track that was difficult to find that he liked to send people up. A jink on our map confirmed this, so smug with the knowledge of what we were looking for we trotted up the track. I was at the back again, Delhalyn’s favourite place, and the shout of ‘Duck! Low branch’ came from up ahead. We all ducked under the branch, then sitting up continued to look for the elusive track up the hill. Back and forth we rode looking for it, ducking each time we came to the low branch. After a while, conscious of the time, we gave up, and elected to ride into the control wrong as we did not want to waste more time. A quick scout on foot the following day in the light revealed the path had been to the left just as we were all ducking under the branch! Once sat back up again it was outside of our circle of light and went unnoticed even though we were looking for it. That is how devious Jean was with his route planning!
The first night had seen us ride into some controls wrong even though the person at the back (generally but not always me, who had the advantage of not having to ride my horse at the front, a task in itself,) had seen it was wrong. We’d decided that we would try and be less hasty this time, and two minutes pause would perhaps give everyone the chance to make a more considered choice at tricky junctions. This method worked well and after being thrown in at the deep end with some gnarly navigating decisions to make at the start of the night, the rest of night 2 went much more smoothly than the first night. The extra time to route copy, the sleep and the extra daylight the later start gained us all helped here.Footsteps in the snow often confirmed our choices were good ones, and we had a more confident ride on this second night. It was a shorter route of ‘only’ 32km this time. We frequently asked the horses to canter, and they hopped into an effortless bouncy yet strangely comfortable canter that it was clear that they could have kept up all day long without tiring. The advantage the later riders had on the first night was definitely ours on the second night.
The route though brought us challenges right up to the very last steward, but the elation we felt at having finished, in one piece, only having got utterly lost once, gave us the energy to keep going. We finished night 2 in 8 hours - practically a stroll in the park compared to the first night! Putting the horses away after one final vetting that confirmed they were really only just getting warmed up, we headed back to the crew room for breakfast. By this time the master maps had been made available to scrutinise, and over a rather early but well deserved glass of wine, and a lunch which followed straight on from breakfast, we picked over the routes and realised in many places what we should have done instead of what we did do.
Roll on next year!
Once our lunch was finished Jean announced that he had results to give out. The prize in the Centaure is a fabulous gold, silver or bronze belt buckle to the first three places in the individuals and the pairs, but unfortunately there are no buckles for the teams. This was no matter - we had not gone to win, but to be part of the experience and to complete the challenge. So we were extremely surprised to be announced as the winners of the team category. We were convinced our shenanigans of the darkest part of the first night had put us firmly out of contention. Jean told us, as he handed us our commemorative plaques, that next year he expected to see us riding not as a team, but as a pair and an individual. We replied that we would each be riding as individuals! And so the next challenge has been laid down.
Out of 66 riders who set out, some 28 did not finish. The chat among competitors revealed that everyone found it an immense challenge, there were several controls that not one single rider found correctly. However, it is a credit to the horsemanship of our fellow competitors that every horse was fit and ready to go, and it was not for lack of a well-prepared and well-ridden horse but because of the difficulty of the questions asked that riders dropped out along the way. The professionalism and camaraderie on display from both riders and stewards made this one of the best, most exciting and rewarding events I have ever taken part in. As we drove home along the autoroute back towards dreary reality, all three of us mourned the fact it was over for now, but we have plans to return next year for more beautiful, tortuous nighttime adventure. We all feel we have learned a lot and grown as navigators and problem solvers, and all in the most enjoyable if a bit difficult of circumstances. We can’t wait till the next one!