Bluff or bust

During the month of November, 67 athletes ran, cycled and kayaked their way from Cape Reinga to Bluff in the inaugural Xerox Challenge, billed as the toughest multi-discipline endurance race in the world.

Written by       Photographed by Sheena Haywood and Gareth Eyres

On November 14, 1990, New Zealand was gripped by the news of the Aramoana shoot­ings. A gunman had gone mad and killed several people. At nightfall he was still on the rampage. By the next night 11 were dead, including the gunman. The country was shocked. It was the biggest news of the year, possibly the decade.

But it was news that hardly reached one community. Insulated and at times cut off by the 22-day mission that pervaded their lives, the 200-odd people involved in the Xerox Challenge scarcely heard a word about Aramoana. There just wasn’t the time or, to be honest, the interest.

Jim Forgie, a 36-year-old Auck­land commercial fisherman, was typical. Obsessed by the race, he seemed not to care about or even want news from the outside world. It was Day 15 and he had just spent five hours on a mountain bike riding 106km through the Molesworth Val­ley. His mind was locked on tomor­row: another five-hour slog including a 77km road bike race in the morning and a full-blown triathlon in the af­ternoon.

To his mates, Forgie is a tough bloke; honest and genuine and with­out airs and graces. His support crew for the Challenge—handling driving,massages, meals and gear prepara­tion—consisted of one man, a friend who came out of Henderson’s “Mov­ing On” programme for wayward youth. They did the race on a small budget, sleeping in a horse-float.

Among the competitors Forgie was popular, outstanding for his determi­nation. He punished himself. Often bandaged to protect scars or tendonitis in his arms, he consist­ently finished in the top 10. Overall, he finished ninth, with the distinc­tion, at the age of 36, of being beaten by eight men under 30.

Jim Forgie typifies the Xerox Chal­lenge because he is an oddity. There is no mould for the people who did it or, for that matter, the event itself. In every way it was New Zealand’s own. “Wholemeal”, as one competitor put it. Unique. Different. Illogical. Under­rated. And great.

Described as the longest, hardest multi-discipline endurance race in the world, it was the idea of zany South Islander Robin Judkins, the bespectacled organiser-promoter whose Coast to Coast Longest Day race from one side of his island to the other brought him celebrity status eight years ago. Judkins now makes his living by running endurance events. He has, in his inimitable way, cajoled, charmed and bullied ath­letes, volunteer helpers, sponsors, journalists and even prime ministers into a private fan club that gives him sell-out events and a dictatorship over land access, road use, rules of competition and television time. Such was the case with the Xerox Challenge.

Judkins cleverly packaged his concept for a race from one end of the country to the other to suit the aims and objectives of the New Zealand 1990 Commission, and thus obtain the financial backing for a project that finally cost, he says, a million dollars. While Xerox bought the naming rights and, along with other sponsors, supplied $67,000 of prizes, vehicles, and 17,930 bananas, it was the Commission who made it hap­pen. Their support was justified on the basis that the race would be a celebration of New Zealand: a chal­lenge for the athletes as they traced a 2384km route across the country’s varied and stunning landscape; an exciting diversion for New Zealand­ers as they shared it, both in real life and through the media.

Judkins’ original concept was to run a race as an individual challenge for only 10 people, but to make it extreme, with more alpine content, including an ascent of Mt Cook. He decided to open it up after making a reconnaissance mission last year, when he and his confidant, Peter Tocker, a respected mountain and heliski guide, actually rode bikes and paddled kayaks over the entire route.

In April, 93 people applied to en­ter. Judkins had expected 50 and would have been happy with 35. Af­ter injuries and withdrawals, 67 went to the start, including six women and 13 veterans (men over 40). He guessed seven might not finish; the final number of non-finishers was only four. In the end, he felt the event was “superbly successful”, his big­gest disappointment being the can­cellation of the Cook Strait crossing by kayak due to bad weather.

[Chapter Break]

There was a hint  it would be tough when everyone gath­ered at Cape Reinga. Many of the athletes were frivolous and fidg­ety as they crammed food and drink into their nervous, mostly lean and super-fit bodies.

Nightly briefings, reviewing each day and previewing the next, would become a ritual and a time of fear and loathing. The first, held at the pretti­est camp site of the journey, Tapotapota Bay, was ominous. The nerve-ridden Judkins was on edge. Speaking into a loud-hailer, which he carried for 21 days and with which he abused everyone including cam­era crews, sponsors, motorists and competitors for not playing the game according to him, he admitted he was very nervous, and he expected to re­main that way.

This event would not be a dawdle, he said, and he would not suffer idi­ots. Anyone who was stupid, or who had to be told off twice, was out. Anyone who asked questions about anything other than the next day’s race would be stopped or ignored. (This he did frequently, bawling competitors out and ridiculing them.)

From the start, it was Judkins’ event, and his personality was stamped all over it. His paranoia over safety, his bizarre and bawdy sense of humour and his craving for good media attention were ever present. His words “superbly successful”, however, were not the ones anyone who was there would use to describe the first day. To many, including the overall winner, Steve Gurney, it was the worst, the hardest day. A 17km cross-country run through sand dunes and scrub was followed by a 97km mountain bike ride down Ninety Mile Beach against strong cross-winds. Many dehydrated dur­ing the day, which lasted 5h 58m for the day’s winner, Dunedin triathlete John Knight, and 10h 3m for the slowest.

The physically and psychologi­cally demanding Northland section occupied the first four days. Its only virtues were the scenery, the warmth and perfect sunny weather. From Kaitaia, Day 2 began with a 94km road race which served to remind competitors that endurance was the name of this game — for which they were privileged to have paid an entry fee of $500. (Some competitors claimed that the absence of a money-back guarantee was all that kept them going!)

Leaving the bikes, they climbed into river canoes for a 21km paddle down the pretty but snagged Waiaruhe and Waitangi Rivers and across the open sea to Russell. The rivers took their toll: jagged rocks, log jams and weirs put cracks and holes in several hulls.

To those affected, this could have been disastrous. Failure to finish a section meant automatic disqualifi­cation, and while it was always pos­sible to walk a cycling section with a broken bike, it would not be possible to swim a river or sea with a holed kayak. So when news of a critically damaged surfski belonging to 22-year-old Dunedin student Tom Dawson reached the Haruru Falls checkpoint, where eve­ryone had to portage their craft over the falls, it was thought that the flamboyant Dawson—whose Volkswagen Combi, equipment, clothes and hair were decorated in stripes—might be the first casualty.

Not so. After nearly six hours in the river, as officials were packing up to leave Haruru Falls, Dawson rounded the last bend aboard his fragile craft with a story that made newspaper headlines next day. He had just wrapped his ski around a rock in the river, smashing it in the midriff, and was sighted by a carload of local people who offered help. With back-country improvisation, they found some billiard cues in a community rubbish tip nearby, pro­duced some strong tape from the boot of their car and lashed the timber cues as splints to the hull, patched the holes and sent Tom on his way. Not only did he cross the sea and finish the section, but the ski re­mained usable as his stand-by boat for the rest of the event.

From Russell, competitors completed one of the longest days of the event by moun­tain-biking 42km on metal roads to Oakura Beach.

That night’s briefing saw the start of a daily prank in­volving one of the oddballs of the race. Wellington business consultant Allan Wasmuth was, at 46, one of the oldest competitors, and, at 6ft 6ins, also one of the tallest—two points that gave him an advantage over Judkins. By deed of his age and his all-round experience as an accom­plished mountaineer and mountain-biker, he often raised the ire of the race organiser by arguing over course detail—on occasions winning his point.

His first public encounter took place at Oakura, when he presented a dead kahawai to the master—the catch of the day. While paddling down the Waitangi River he spotted the fish slumbering in the shallows, stunned it with his paddle, hauled it on board his kayak and let it flap itself to death beneath his legs as he crossed the sea to Russell. In publicly presenting it to Judkins, “the geriat­ric”, as he described himself in the race programme, lifted Juddy’s ever-present hat and kissed his bald head. This then became Wasmuth’s daily custom when he crossed each finish line, Judkins cooperatively but reluc­tantly offering himself with a squirm­ing, eyes-closed lean forward for a smooch from the lofty eccentric. An­other Wasmuth distinction, which had a few nit-pickers looking up the rule book in vain, was the outrigger he built on his kayak, using two toy boats as floats to keep him upright.

Day 3 was billed as possibly the toughest of the lot: 180km of very hilly road cycling to Orewa, just north of Auckland. The single discipline, however, provided relief, taking the top two cyclists John Knight and Darryl Forsyth just under five hours, with the last riders coming in three hours later.

Friendships were already forming among competitors, with courtesies being extended where not expected. The showy Gurney, a Coast to Coast champion and fulltime athlete whose sponsored BMW support car was the object of both scorn and envy, eased back at the Orewa finish line after sprinting ahead of Alan Roxburgh to share line honours for fifth place. They had ridden neck and neck for five hours, but these were early days and there was no need to gain a minute’s advantage. At the end of the race Roxburgh was second overall to Gurney, 1h 19m behind.

With drafting or tail-riding al­lowed, bunches formed in the first two days as riders matched them­selves against one another and stuck together to take turns at leading. The same bunches remained together for the next three weeks, talking and forming bonds that spawned camara­derie and protectionism. Often bunches would ease up or take a collective urination break to wait for a mate with a puncture or wheel change. Rivalries soon dissipated, and “the race” became secondary to “making it”.

In Auckland on Day 4 the first triathlon became a test of the best. With 35 additional athletes in the field there was much wagering among officials and supporters—who were soon to introduce a daily sweepstake with a purse of up to $100 for the time of the day—as to whether an outsider could beat the “eventers”. This constituted a spe­cial challenge, and with a collective covetousness the eventers went out against some top names, including that of Aucklander Terry Newlands,  who had withdrawn from the Chal­lenge at the last minute.

For his rival Steve Gurney, the 28km bike-8km paddle-10km run across the city was a chance to stamp his mark. This he did, blitzing every­one, including Newlands, who was the first outsider home 7.04 minutes later in third place for the day. Newlands commented later: “Those guys are racing as if it’s a one-day event—I couldn’t believe it.” Gurney proceeded to win the Wellington and Christchurch triathlons as well.

Day 5 was relatively easy, with a 166km road race from South Auck­land to the Waitomo Caves, followed the next day by a 168km race to Whakapapa at Mt Ruapehu. The last section of 681(m from Taumarunui to the mountain sapped energy re­sources as altitude climbing got eve­ryone off their saddles for hours on end.

By now fellowship and fun within the camp began to unify the 130-odd supporters and officials into a tran­sient community with a purpose. There was a Bluff-or-Bust flavour to everything. Supporters began help­ing one another. Sickness resulting in the departure of crew members led to volunteers changing teams to help with driving, canoe transitions and cooking. Gear was loaned. Mechani­cal skills were volunteered to get ve­hicles going. Recipes were ex­changed. Training programmes were compared. Physiotherapy and mas­sage services were freely given. Eld­erly mothers and fathers on support teams joined young people’s touch-rugby games. Baby-sitting was shared. Hacky-sack lessons were held. Athletic supporters organised after-hours races, including an offi­cial mountain bike race for non-competitors.

Water fights became a daily pas­time, with water pistols being ac­quired along the way for roadside ambushes and raids on campsites. Money was loaned and borrowed. Counselling was given. Games were played. Personalities emerged. Friends were made. Romances began. In short, a community was born.

Evening meals were a time for much mirth in the camp. On Day 6 at Whakapapa the catering company for the officials and media, curiously called Big Scream Caterers, produced a grand feast complete with a beauti­fully browned and decorated roast turkey. It wasn’t until after the meal that the origin of the turkey was re­vealed. A certain traffic control offi­cial with a reputation as a fine fisher­man, handyman and man-of-the-land spotted the bird on the roadside at an isolated intersection in the King Country. With plenty of time on his hands as he directed cyclists from his deck-chair, he planned an assault. When the bird came within range he grabbed a marker post and made a successful dash for it. He had just plucked it clean behind his campervan when a friendly officer of the law pulled up to ask how the race was going. With his hands covered in feathers and guts, the official found it difficult to conduct the conversation by leaning around the corner of his van, so he finally emerged, lifted his feathered hands to the law and con­fessed. Fortunately, the officer was a country gentleman with a keen sense of humour, and the turkey made it to the table.

The Ruapehu day was to be a blockbuster. It was Day 7, and fatigue was starting to show. Tension mounted at the briefing in the public bar of the mountain tavern when someone asked Judkins, in the inter­ests of safety, if Ruapehu safety direc­tor Graeme Dingle could demonstrate a self-arrest using an ice-axe. Judkins exploded, saying that if anyone had not learned how to handle them­selves on the ice in training for the event, they had better withdraw now, because if there were any incidents involving inexperience there would be “no Army whitewash jobs on this event”—a reference to the tragedy in August when six servicemen died on the mountain.

The prospect of a multi-disci­plined run-climb up and over the snow and ice, followed by a 57km descent at break-neck speeds on a mountain bike to Pipiriki and a 131(m paddle on the Wanganui River to Je­rusalem, was daunting to even the best. According to Judkins, this was  the big day. Everything else would be downhill from here.

Fortunately, the weather was per­fect for the day, and everyone com­pleted it, though there were a few high-speed crashes and burns on the metal road to the river. A little levity prevailed through the day as com­petitors responded to a special one-day $500 challenge to dress up and decorate themselves as bananas. Bonita, an event sponsor who daily supplied a fresh bunch of bananas for each competitor, were rewarded with some amazing efforts. Necklaces, caps and even a banana bra were among the many adornments.

Day 8, from Jerusalem to Wanganui, was an 80km paddle on the flat and demanding lower river. Strong cyclists and runners without much paddling experience and train­ing started to drop back, and new names came to the head of the field. Among them was a strong, quiet giant of a man named Athol Gardner, a down-to-earth Aucklander whose self-written profile in the programme read: “Relaxation therapist… 112th in the Speight’s Coast to Coast, 1987. Semi-reformed piss-head revelling in

middle aged mediocrity. Competed in most events with outstanding lack­lustre—a steady bottom half fin­isher—but if you had to choose you wouldn’t choose the bottom half.” This was a warning to all: watch out for this guy on the water. On his feet and bike he was definitely a plodder at the rear of the field, but in his old yet adequate kayak he shone. And he finished sixth on the Wanganui.

With two days to go until the pro­posed Cook Strait crossing, wrist and arm tendon injuries and all-round fatigue were worrying a good number of athletes. The race doctor was busy dispensing drugs, plasters and ad­vice while the two race physiothera­pists were flat out, too. Gamblers were predicting pull-outs and major changes to progressive times and the pecking order. Upper body strength might well decide this race if the estimated fastest and slowest times across the Strait were nine to 15 hours.

The rugged Wellington triathlon started on Day 10 with a 23km off-road mountain bike section over two small mountain ranges to the Hutt River. The first major injury was sus­tained on the bike ride. Forty-three­year-old nuggety veteran Dave McPhee crashed on a downhill sec­tion and smashed his head into the ground, tearing his nose and mouth. Despite bleeding and blurred vision, he continued bravely, doctors and medics checking him at the transi­tion to the 20km kayaking section down the Hutt River and again prior to the 14km run from Petone to Par­liament Buildings.

He reached the destination, but stitches were required inside his mouth, and these, together with swelling of his face and the effects of concussion, forced him to retire. “I feel shattered,” he said the next day before flying home to Dunedin. “There have been so many sacrifices to go in this event. That’s why I con­tinued after the accident. At first I thought I’d broken my neck. I couldn’t move. Then I picked myself up and said, ‘McPhee you’re a wimp!’ I had to get to the finish, even if it killed me.” As he left, he vowed to return to do the Xerox Challenge next time, in 1992.

At Parliament the roadshow was treated to a buffet luncheon at Bellamy’s, courtesy of the Govern­ment. It was a strange sight, and po­etic. The luncheon had been arranged through the Labour Government, but after the previous month’s general election and the change to National, no one would confirm a go-ahead for the function. Some sweet-talking by local sports promoter Arthur Klapp got the lunch reinstated, at the elev­enth hour.

The indifference of parliamentar­ians towards the Challenge, an event that in a future decade might well command more attention than an election itself, was reciprocated. Sweaty athletes and their motley support crews shuffled around the restaurant, many of them lying on the floor, devouring huge plates of food. There were no welcoming speeches, no congratulations, no formalities. When everyone had eaten, the whole mob went back outside to the steps of Parliament for the daily prizegiving,  presided over not by an important politician but, as usual, by the far more acceptable father of this big family: Judkins.

In the afternoon a bike procession wound its way from the city to Makara Beach, a distance of 18km. As with the processions out of Auck­land and Christchurch, racing was not allowed because of traffic, so standard times were allocated for these sections. The barren and wind­swept beach settlement was to be the waiting place and campsite before crossing the Strait. It was here that illness struck.

High winds lashed the place through Sunday as officials and sup­port boat crews deliberated in an old tin shed over weather maps, forecasts and speeches by local seafarers. It was not looking good. Twice-daily briefings brought news of dysentery and stomach upsets. On one show of hands there were 11 cases.

The wind was continuing, and safety fears were expressed. Judkins said he was not prepared to cross the Strait in winds above 16 knots. It was well over that. But he spent hours in meetings with his officials preparing anyway—organising competitors into groups, allocating rubber in­shore rescue boats and launches to stay with each one, going over scrutineering details for equipment, planning recoveries, worrying about a large-scale epidemic, and so on. He did not hide his paranoia.

On Monday, at 6am, he called off the crossing and abandoned the con­tingency plan to fly all competitors by helicopter with their mountain bikes to the head of the Queen Char­lotte Sounds. In five short and serious sentences he broke the news: “Good sense must prevail. Sickness is de­veloping. This is an awful decision. Everyone is to go on the ferry. I’m very sorry about that.”

While some were relieved, many cursed bad luck. The paddle might have sorted the field out. Everyone was told to cross by ferry on Monday and to meet for a briefing in Picton that night. Race plans for Tuesday would be confirmed then—either a mountain bike race or a paddle down the Sounds after being transported by launch back out to the entrance.

No one expected what happened on Tuesday, Day 13. It was decided to take competitors and kayaks by launch 12km out to Lazy Fish Pt to race 12km back to Picton. But within 20 minutes of starting, severe squalls gusting up to 60 knots lashed the flotilla. Kayaks capsized and paddlers fell out in all directions. Judkins, on the radio in the helicop­ter he travelled in each day, com­manded and directed support boats to rescue about 15 paddlers. For 30 minutes it was a scene of panic and distress, but there were no casualties apart from frayed nerves and cancel­lation of the section.

All told, competitors had three easy days before racing proper re­sumed on Day 14 with a 122km road ride from Picton to the Rainbow Skifield near Lake Rotoiti. The break had enabled most to recover from tiredness, to load themselves with carbohydrates and to prepare them­selves mentally for the final seven days. But the Makara stomach bug was yet to force two out of the race over the next few days.

It was perhaps fitting that the dra­matic landscape of the long and deso‑ late Molesworth Valley was to be the scene of the event’s main human drama. The 1061(m mountain bike race over metal roads on Day 15 was well under way when the helicopter flying Judkins and media people was flagged down by farmers on a sheep station. They were frantic because a young shepherd had been kicked in the head while shoeing a horse. He had serious injuries.

Within minutes the race doctor was airlifted from the tail-end vehicle and taken to the farmyard. Fortu­nately, Dr Dave Austin, a ski patroller and accident-emergency specialist, was equipped for the job. The shep­herd’s face and skull were crushed and his brain torn. It took nearly an hour to stabilise his condition before he could be flown to Christchurch for neurosurgery. The man survived. “For me this was the highlight of the whole event, being able to save someone’s life,” Judkins said after the event.

By now Steve Gurney was the clear race leader, wearing the customary yellow bib virtually every day. Con­sistent performances in all disci­plines gave him a strong position. His jocular style and pushy manner at the briefings where he collected his daily prizes won him more than a little ridicule, but his prowess on a moun­tain bike, which he fearlessly rode at top speed, slaloming past many stronger riders on the downhills, was envied by many.

He gained a win-at-all-costs repu­tation from a North Island ride where he crashed and burned on the shin­gle, but picked himself up in consid­erable pain and kept going to clinch the day. The Molesworth ride looked like another close tussle between him and the two top all-round cyclists Knight and Forsyth. Coming over Jack’s Pass to the finish at Hanmer Springs, Knight stole the lead, leav­ing Gurney and Forsyth to fight for second. Gurney was just ahead when he heard the sound of a high-speed crash behind him. Forsyth was down in the gravel. Instinctively, and with­out time to think of the cost, Gurney skidded to a halt and went back to see if his rival was okay. He was. So they re-mounted and raced to town. Gurney beat him by less than two minutes. That night he won the daily banana prize for sportsmanship—and his image was enhanced.

The next day was another biggie: a 77km road ride to Waipara, just north of Christchurch, followed by the af­ternoon triathlon of a 501(m ride, a 15km run on the beach to South Brighton and a 12km paddle up the Avon River to the Christchurch Town Hall. Nothing could stop Gurney in his quest for a hometown win—not even his old multisport rival and team-mate Russell Prince, who did the one-day event and came second 1.43m behind Gurney overall.

Day 17 was one of human warmth, thanks to the towns of Geraldine and Fairlie. It was a fun day, with the best receptions from local people in the entire event. At the approaches to Geraldine there were dozens of farm­ing families in groups eagerly waiting for their local man, the good and popular Dr John McKenzie. In the town centre people had erected ban­ners and makeshift signs saying, “Go Doc Go”, “This is McKenzie Coun­try” and “C’mon Dr John”.

The cyclists—without knowledge of the welcoming party, but simply because McKenzie is a good guy—  called him out to the front of the first big bunch and gave him the glory of the lead position as they rode through Geraldine. Patients and friends, pa­trons of the local hotel with jugs and glasses in hand, his nurse and even the locum who was looking after his practice, cheered them through town in what was one of the most emo­tional episodes of the Challenge. Later, it seemed the whole town drove to nearby Fairlie to join the country fair that was underway at the finish line, complete with baby contests, highland dancing, egg-throw­ing and candyfloss.

With four hard days to go, the race was full-on. Day 18 was made up of a 55km mountain bike ride over the McKenzie Pass, including an orien­teering section tracing compass bear­ings to the Twizel River, a 27km ­paddle down the rocky river and a 12km overland run to Twizel. It was a wil­derness experience. There were tense moments when 36-year-old Kevin Clark failed to show at the barren kayak transition area. A search party was sent out into the rabbit-infested McKenzie Country, and eventually radioed back that they had found him. Clark had taken a wrong turn and got lost, but directions from a sheep station owner put him back in the right direction.

Six hours later, at Twizel, the alarm was raised again when the infamous Athol Gardner failed to show after 13 hours in the field. It was nearly dark. A full-scale search and rescue mis­sion was mounted, the helicopter sent out, ground rescue teams formed, rations and radios issued and the local police called in to super­vise. Happily, however, at 9pm there was loud cheering from the scores of volunteers who had gathered to help when Uncle Athol, as he was fondly called, emerged from the darkness with a big smile on his face and a story of losing his way in the dusk.

The next day was a 146km road ride to Wanaka over the snow-capped Lindis Pass. For John Knight, who had lost over an hour in the Twizel River after damaging his boat, it was a desperate day. He poured on the pace and broke free from the bunch in a bid to close the time gap that had opened up. He amazed the field by winning with a clear 15-minute mar­gin in what was possibly his best day, but he realised that night that it was fruitless. So, keen competitor that he is, he devised a plot. It was a scheme for the day after next.

The 80km off-road ride from Wanaka to Queenstown on Day 20 was spectacular, taking competitors through a sheep station in the Motatapu Valley and over the pass on old gold-mining trails to Arrowtown. There were no mishaps, though the doctor kept a steady eye on 42-year­old veteran John Lewis, who was weak and slow, suffering from sus­pected appendicitis. The hardy, de­termined Christchurch cabinet­maker maintained a steady pace right through to the finish, despite low food intake. There were regular nego­tiations between him, the doctor and Judkins as to whether he should or could continue. His quiet zeal prompted collaboration with the doctor, who kept handing him an energy drink formula several times a day to get him to Bluff.

Day 21, the 45km paddle on Lake Wakatipu from Queenstown to Kingston, was the day of John Knight’s plot. He had seen the Athol Gardner powerhouse in action on the water, and decided to offer his state-of-the-art Sisson Evolution kayak to Gardner on a hunch that it might give him sufficient edge for a win. Knight himself borrowed a surfski, because, with one day to go, his seventh posi­tion was secure, and a few minutes here or there wouldn’t change much. The Evolution is a long, sleek racing machine designed partly by Steve Gurney for this type of event. Most of the top 10 had Evolutions, and, sure enough, it did the job.

Gardner streaked to the lead at Queenstown and, according to his training partner Derek Ferigo, who was fifth, played a cat­and-mouse game with those following him. He sped ahead a few boat lengths, let them catch up, then sprinted for­wards again, repeating this sequence several times. Finally, he pulled right away and finished three minutes ahead of the good all-rounder Alan Roxburgh.

For Gardner, the former 17-stone, beer-drinking slug from Blockhouse Bay, who shed two stone of flab by training up to 30 hours a week for the Xerox, it was a sweet victory in the light of his 59th place overall out of 63 finish­ers. “I’d always thought about the three paddling sections as mine, espe­cially the Strait and the lake. With the Strait out, I had my eyes set on this one. It feels great.” It was also the most popular single win, if the ap­plause and hooting that night was any measure.

Day 22, the final day, contained 161km of road riding to Green Hills, south of Invercargill, followed by a 10km run, including a public fun run, to Bluff. It was in the bag for Gurney, with his 79-minute lead over Roxburgh, and the top 10 places seemed secure. There was some jock­eying for final places in the mid­field, but there was more excitement over the high jinks planned for the day than the racing.

First up, 28km along the road from Kingston in northern Southland was an unofficial but well-organised “Compulsory Pie and Piss Stop” at placegetters, who always stuck to­gether, sat around a garden table to eat their pies and drink their beer, they announced their intention to do a pub crawl all the way to Bluff. Needless to say, supporters warned publicans right through Southland of the impending visit by the seven, and southern hospitality saw to it that no money changed hands.

For 34-year-old Oamaru farmer Richard Borrie, another member of the seven, and 60th placegetter over­all, the cheering and welcome at the Bluff pub was more important than reaching the finish line just around the corner. “I was only competing against myself, and I’ve won. Those people made me feel like a winner. Each day has been an achievement, and now the whole thing is mine. It’s something no one can take away from me. I’ve done it.”

Two weeks after the race, 28-year­old Mark Smith, an outdoor training instructor who finished 42nd, re­flected: “The champagne was great, as were the hugs and congratulations, the beers, the chips and the swapping of tales in the pub. But after all that,

the best bit was a comfy motel room, a video on TV and knowing that we didn’t have to get up and go again in the morning. The full realisation of what we’d achieved won’t be imme‑diate, it’s still growing on me. Now and again I sit back and I think, yeah, I did that—from Cape Reinga to Bluff—just me, with some help from my friends.”

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