Sunday, December 14, 2008

In the Deep End

I think I might have tried Wilderness with this too, but in the end it appeared in New Zealand Orienteering. Everyone should test their limits sometime.

A green kiwi takes on the worlds best adventure racers

The Adventure Racing World Championship took place this November (2005) in the wilds of the Buller District. While star Kiwi team Balance Vector ran away with the title the battle for second was hot. Caught in the conflict as a member of the Go-Lite Timberland team, Jamie Stewart relates his first experience of expedition racing.

Leg 1: Sea Kayak: “Welcome to the Southern Traverse”.

“Paddle hard, paddle hard, hold, hold, hold”, Billy’s voice was tense as we slid off the back of a breaker. “Paddle hard, hard, hard, go, go, go!” The wave receded in front of us and our world was silent as the next swell grew beneath us. “Oh no, no, no, no…!” We careered down the face of a West Coast roller, doomed.

The Tasman Sea was familiar this time, welcoming, almost soothing, the fear of the previous capsize, an hour earlier, had receded. We had only to drift up on the beach and we would be away, on our bikes, quickly gaining altitude. Billy was searching for his shoes, drifting away, while I clung to the kayak until the surf tore it from my grasp. It was only a jet-ski that tore me from the wash and dumped me in the shallows among other debris. Spare clothing and chunks of fibreglass filled the waters edge. We grabbed our boat, our gear and ran.

Leg 2: Mountain Bike: “Picking up the pieces”

In Bruce Mason’s famous play “The End of the Golden Weather”, the foreshore is used as a symbol for transition, from an idyllic childhood to an adult reality, from untamed, spiritual nature to conservative cloistered society. For me the wild-eyed gallop up the beach was a wake-up call from naivety. This race is going to be hard! John Howard’s advice rang true “don’t be shocked by how hard it is”. Man up boy, suck it in, 120 hours of Buller District awaited us.

The transition was quick. Bike gear: shoes, helmet, gloves, food and we’re away. Fortieth place after the kayak wasn’t cutting the mustard. The bike took us from the Tasman up to historic Denniston and through a scenic 4WD road to Iron Bridge on the Buller. Like most kiwi teams we had reconnoitred this route, allowing us to focus on the biking. We were away!

Leg 3: Mountain Trek: “Just not quite right”

We were too excited. Having chased down the pack on the bike and closed on the top teams, the first trek saw us clumsily following a track, passing one team repeatedly as we struggled to follow the trail. A crucial decision on dark found us heading down the ridge to the next checkpoint (CP) with the company of star Kiwi teams Port Nelson and Pro4 Nutrition. With the help of a taped possum line we made it down in a surprised 4th place, lady luck turning her glorious eye on us briefly that night.

As we exited the CP, The legendary team Nike strode out of the river, putting us on edge. The next CP, CP7 was high above on a ridge. We chose to get up there quickly to minimise the bush bashing but increasing our time on the tops. Teams were all around now, conversation surreal, casual bonhomie laced with grave rivalry. At one stage while travelling with Nike, our navigators walked off the front, leaving the rest of us to peel off the ridge. The looming bush line revealed our fate and we turned to see lights way above and to our right. Even the company of Nike didn’t dull the pain of extra contours so early in the race.

After checking through CP7 in a close 9th, we were to retrace our steps on the ridge for several hours before dawn. It was repetitive and mind-numbing. Slowly the teams regrouped; Merrell, Cross, Lundhags, Halti, Port Nelson, Nike, Go-Lite, Powered by Velvet. It was a squadron moving down the ridge in second place, crossing paths with those who had made more serious mistakes. The sun rose exposing the ruggedness and the loveliness of our surrounds.

On dawn we made our big mistake. There was a long bush covered ridge leading down to the next CP at the Buller River. The ridge wasn’t appealing and our planned route was to veer off right back down the Lyell Walkway and to approach the CP from the west via a Pakihi swamp. We went it alone and it didn’t go. 7hours later, 90 minutes down on the squadron, we checked into CP8 and I was hurting.

Leg 4: Rafting”: “Fun in the sun”

An expression of gratitude: And heres to you Billy Mattison, Captain America, River Guide extraordinaire! If anyone else told me that “I am 75% Ibuprofen, it wouldn’t hurt me if you hammered a nail through my balls” I would have my doubts, but I have seen you suffer hugely then still guide us down a river with such skill and finesse to have the safety people cheering! Maybe the mighty Buller felt mocked by our 360 for the cameras in its grade 4 cataracts but I think it had a quiet chuckle and saved its worst for less fortunate teams. My first time in a raft, it was a ball!

Leg 5: Mountain Trek: “From pain to gain”

After the pleasant interval of the raft, the sheer pleasure of a hot shower to wash off the globules of didymo and a cruisy bike ride back to the assisted transition area the race turned serious again. Our crew were pleased to finally see us and us, them. Sandy Sandblom and Viv Prince were two of the best adventure racers from the original and toughest generation of racers, while Brent Edwards is a top orienteer, and onto it practical dude. As a unit they complemented each other and provided us a smooth ride.

I let everyone know I was suffering, somewhere I must have got dehydrated and my feet were killing me. Upon closer examination they seemed ok, what was hurting so much? Was it psycho-somatic? Harden up boy, get it together. Our transition was slow, but we were away before long trying to make the most of the fading light. But as night grew and the hill rose in front of us I fell to pieces, my head dizzy and my knee spearing with pain. While I continued to get as much food and water down as I could Anna swapped packs with me, a welcome relief.

Anna Keeling, mountain guide, agile, tough, positive, winner as a 20 year old of the original adventure race, the “Grand Traverse”. Back to racing and back to form! Tolerant too, sleeping that night with her head outside the tent, 2 hours punctuated with the passage of other teams. Like Nike who had slept at the transition “Oh Go-lite is that you, are you ok, are you comfortable, can you all squeeze in there?” I fell asleep giggling at their “concern”.

The remainder of the night was a blur, we passed CP11 still back in 11th place, then another navigation mistake, falling off a bushy ridge, but as the darkness thinned I felt palpably stronger. Lollies were the secret, glucose and lots of it, one every 15 minutes for the rest of the race! We were suddenly on the open tops and I was navigating ridgelines in the fog, it was fun, hammering rain and wind, the required Southern Traverse snow flurry, high point after high point, with a detour to CP12 where we had picked up a couple of places. Amazing granite outcrops peered out of the gloom, blocking progress. Spectacular!

Dropping off the ridge to CP13 was a scary navigational challenge, an exhausted team Merrell had made a 3 hour mistake here and were now just in front of us with the squadron of teams now reforming. A lazy error saw us false start our descent allowing the strong team Sierra to catch us briefly. Fortunately they disappeared the wrong way as we entered the bush and it was ½ a day before we saw them again.

At CP13 we were still in 9th and a quick descent along a recently blazed trail was a pleasant escape from the expected bush bash. A quick compass from the foot of the trail guided us across flat forest to the next transition and on dark. Later teams lost time here, young kiwi team Orion Adventure sleeping for four hours less than 500metres from the transition.

Leg 6: Mountain Bike: “We’re on a mission”

I felt great on the bike, as unco as ever, but the motor was fine. Following a 90minute sleep we left CP14 in good spirits and flowed through the remote CP15 with no problems. A short “hike a bike” bush bash before dawn turned ugly as we followed the tracks of other teams down the wrong spur and stream, quick relocation and psycho bush wresting minimised the damage and other teams did worse.

Light found us in remote dairy country out the back of Reefton, and all of a sudden it was the others who were sleepy. My favourite wake up song “Meat plough” by Stone Temple Pilots was not sufficient and a five minute sleep was called after Aaron rode his bike off the sealed road into a ditch. It was fast going and we were going slowly. Sierra zoomed past us only to puncture before we reached CP17 together. Never has toast dripping in butter and jam tasted so good.

Sierra took off like a bullet up the much maligned Waiuta track. Supposedly rideable single track this was a three hour push up a benched track just too muddy to ride. Calls of encouragement rang out as we gutsed it out. The environmental impact on the track particularly when it reached a sub-alpine zone was a lowlight for me, and there was no way we would have taken bikes over it in those conditions if it hadn’t been a race.

The descent beginning from CP18 Big River Hut was great fun. Again we had ridden the area in training and knew where to go. Bypassing Reefton we crossed the Inanagahua River on a footbridge, receiving needed cheers from friends and family before heading up into the last section. A nice climb to CP20 followed by a zigzag descent, a big river crossing, a big “hike a bike” climb and a sweet downhill to finish. A Geoff Hunt inspired mission, 22 hours of masochistic fun, one of the great legs!

Leg 7: Mountain Trek: “The die is cast”

We had climbed to 8th during the mountain bike, Sierra had gone past, but Merrell and Powered by Velvet had fallen behind us. The latter as well as Montrail went past us as we blissfully took our last planned sleep, but we woke refreshed and hunted them down up the thousand metre hill up to Kirwan’s Hut. Blowing past the struggling Montrail we arrived at the hut, CP22, in the early hours to find Swedish team Halti resting up. There we formed an alliance that was to see us through a long, long night.

Team Halti’s navigator Sara Wallen is the fiancée of our navigator Aaron Prince, Aaron being the guy who had got me into this mess with a phone call two weeks earlier “Jamie, desperate times call for desperate measures”. And together they guided us down the left hand ridge to CP23. Back in the bunch with a gaggle of large Swedish boys complete with walking poles, I tripped and fell my way down the ridge, till I finally succumbed to the lure of ibuprofen. At first light we hit the river, 200 metres from CP23. It was an outstanding piece of navigation from two of the top navigators in world adventure racing.

There was somewhat of a gathering at the CP as the surprised Sierra and Cross Sportswear teams arrived blurry eyed as well. The congestion was now for fifth place with only Nike, Port Nelson and Lundhags finding the CP that night, with Balance Vector cruising through the previous day.

The next two hours was a battle of wits walking down the river to CP24. We made a break with a cunning double river crossing as teams sidled high above us. A timely crossing further down then saw us on a 4wd track direct to the transition, with only the still strong team Sierra, running us down.

Leg 8: River Kayak: “Leggus horribilius”

Things were good. I wasn’t ready for them to turn around so quickly. Our kayaking began well; before a minor calamity saw Aaron and Anna’s rudder break and require a quick fix-it. Then all hell broke loose in my back, it felt like Frodo was up there sticking his little elven sword in. Stupidly I didn’t think of taking a pain killer and events were exasperated when I really, really needed to um lose some fluid, and failed to do so, on the move. It was the worst experience of my life and we leaked time (ironically), finally losing touch with Nike who cleared out for second place.

Leg 9: Mountain Trek: “Give us glory, or give us sleep”

We arrived at CP27, the start of the trek marginally before Cross Sportswear and left just behind them after a big fuel up and rev up from the crew. We had thought the trek would only be 6 hours but were informed that Balance Vector had taken 13. It was mid-afternoon and very hot, so water was precious. The ridge was notable for a large monkey scrub belt at about 1100metres, after we had climbed from 300. The route was no less than a labyrinth of white markers at irregular intervals, a crazy, curvy jungle gym. I fully expected David Bowie at every turn, if it had been night time I probably would have seen him!

We strove to make CP28 on dark, pressuring Cross Sportswear along the ridge, from which we saw the beauty of the Paparoa ranges on sunset, vast limestone formations lit in a fiery glare. We arrived at the CP in time to get out torches, food, accept a welcome coffee, and to make a big decision. The expected route to CP29 was down a long untracked bushy ridge. The alternative was to descend down a track to the east and navigate across uncertain flatlands to access the CP from behind. Aaron was concerned. We were five days into the race could we make this decision well on the spot? But it stacked up; we were tired, the track would be good going and there were good navigators ahead of us, we had to try something different. It was decided, we would give it a whirl, apprehensive, but in consensus, we set off.

It was a long way down, and the sleep monsters were back. I stepped over a dead baby on the track and peered back at faces looking in from the darkness, notably Princess Diana and a big bad wolf. We were a shattered unit for a time with people drifting off to sleep and waking as they walked into trees. Finally flatter ground was reached and we found a shelter belt to sleep under for thirty minutes.

I awoke, my torch had run out. Figures were moving I shoved in a new battery and followed. Stu Lynch from team Orion Adventure was navigating, Sara Wallen was behind him and …who was that guy? Hey guys those trees are on the map I yelled, keen to contribute. It started to look good, we found a road which matched my compass and ten minutes later I remembered where I was and who my team mates really were. We were team Go-Lite Timberland, we were at the World Champs, and we were making a play for the podium, wicked! Re-enthused, I refolded my map and proceeded to lose 5 minutes, as I dropped my map case and had to run back to retrieve it.

Now this was fun, trying to find our way across paddocks of alternating gorse and pasture with old roads and native bush thrown in. A real buzz to get to the road into CP29 to be discovered by a media motorbike and told we were in third. Game on!

Leg 10: Mountain Bike: “Beware the Sleepmonsters”

The transition was rushed, our support crew caught asleep. We had no idea when the next team might roll in and we didn’t want to be there when it happened. Although the ride was short and light was imminent we needed our lights for the stony road out to the highway. A mechanical here would be disastrous. We set off, going hard. Nothing went wrong as we switched into big gears along the state highway through Charleston. Some did laps off the front to stay awake. I drifted off the back confident in my speed but worried about my co-ordination. The danger was increased by the motorbike roaring beside us like some evil purveyor of death, freaking me out. The danger of falling asleep was very real and we were all suffering. After one particularly bad episode I snapped awake and yelled out to the others “talk to me, talk to me” but the adrenalin from my close call probably saw me through.

Leg 11: Caving: “Smiling past the gates of Hades”

The caving was un-timed but the clock didn’t stop until we had all entered the cave via a 50metre abseil. We stripped and put on our caving gear, I was horrified to find a pair of boots now 2 sizes too small in my bag. Pain! A short walk to the shaft and a long drop down, yeehah! The organisers had struggled to get permission to use the cave, but it was worth the effort. While it was a real struggle and I crawled as much of it as possible because of the pressure on my feet, it was very beautiful and my only regret is that my torch was not strong enough to allow me a better look!

Billy, ahead of me was claustrophobic and I tried to encourage him on, down spiral worm holes, through cracks, along ghostly hallways. Meanwhile our guide was keeping a close eye on me, a prime suspect for falling asleep and falling down a never-ending crack into the centre of the earth. Finally we were reborn, thrust through a muddy chute into a grassy glen next to the Nile River. And what relief, we were clear in third! Woo hoo! How could a soak in a freezing river to get cave mud off be so enjoyable! A short wait and we were back on our bikes and freewheeling down to the sea cliffs of Charleston.

Leg 12: Ropes: “Heights don’t seem so bad anymore”

Abseiling used to scare me. As a kid I had set myself up an abseil from our roof and proceeded to let go of the rope and fall flat on my back from a height of two metres. It took me a while to get over that, but now I have. What a blast! End of the race, no time pressure, a scenic abseil and tyrolean traverse in front of spectators, family and friends with the finish line in sight.

Leg 13: Beach Walk: “The end is nigh”

Only 16 kilometres to go, but straight along a beach! When is this going to end? 30 or 40 times I awoke to see my team mates disappearing into the haze, and gritted my teeth to chase them down. The hill at Tauranga Bay got closer and closer as our little bits of running got shorter and shorter, till finally we were there. I don’t know who I spoke to at the end, I was done in, the words weren’t forming, but the beer was sweet. What a week!


Bob McKerrow said...

Hey, that was an interesting post. I haven't seen Anna Keeling since she camped on my lawn at Franz Josef in 1991. Say hi to her.

Enjoy your time with Robb and Tara.


Andrew McCarthy said...

hey a good read champ. I remember reading it a few years ago but still pretty funny. And yourve never done another adventure race since..?

Jamie said...

Hey Bob,

yeah hope they show up, unfortunately its raining in Arthurs Pass...realistic first impression I guess.

Hey Andy,

Yeah no one wants to race with me, hardly surprising giving the extent of the struggle. My lousy training and transitory lifestyle has probably contributed too. Hoping to do ARC with Penny, Neil and Nick in March, that'd be fun.

Will catch up in the next week aye, before you abandon Aotearoa!


Paul Brown Dip Clin Hyp MNZSCAH said...

That was such a great read !!! If I ever get fit again I wanna try that sometime

Jamie said...

Hey Paul,

You should man, go for it!