The endless race

Two New Zealanders have devised an ultra run on the border of Southland and Otago that they claim is too hard for anyone to finish. In January, people from around the world lined up to prove them wrong.

Written by       Photographed by Julian Apse

Twenty-one people meet at the pub in Garston to go for a run. They don’t know where it will be, or when it will start. It will be the most difficult one they’ve ever attempted: roughly 190 kilometres long, climbing a total of 16,000 metres, which is like running up and down Mt Cook four times. That’s if they navigate correctly, because there won’t be a track.
Each person has been selected and vetted. Sixteen people have been rejected. A few dropped out, for forgiveable reasons. One become a father yesterday. Another contracted dengue fever during a training run in Papua New Guinea.

The people here have already covered distances unfathomable to the average person. To them, a 24-hour run in the nearest national park isn’t a particular achievement, it’s a pretty good way to spend a Sunday. They test their mettle not at marathons but ‘milers’, 100-mile races, or 160 kilometres, about four times the marathon distance.

Information about the run was revealed little by little to Revenant contenders at a woolshed on Blackmore Station.

None of them are professional athletes. Among them are a high-school history teacher, a furniture upholsterer, a lawn-mowing contractor, two doctors, a nurse, an air-traffic controller, two current members of the military, two former members of the military, and a guy sailing around the world on a 28-foot yacht.

The organisers of the run, Scott Worthington and Leroy de Beer, have called it the Revenant. It’s a spooky word, and it means a person who comes back after a long time, usually from the dead. Scott and Leroy, two extremely fit men from Alexandra who also run milers for fun, greet the 21 people as though they’re long-lost friends, but they hope that none of them will finish the course they’ve designed. Not this year, anyway. Ideally it will take several attempts for someone to truly understand the land, to train for it properly, to run it perfectly.

The course has been a secret until now. Scott and Leroy hand out large, glossy topomaps, two for each person, and the runners bend over them hungrily.

The map encompasses Blackmore Station, on the hills east of Garston, and it’s constellated with red dots. Runners will navigate their way around a loop of 14 checkpoints, which they must visit in order, tearing a numbered page from a notebook at each checkpoint to prove they were there.

The run is four loops of the course. When competitors finish one loop, they return around the checkpoints in the opposite direction. They must finish two loops in 30 hours, three in 45 hours, and four in 60 hours. When they pass through home base between loops, they’ll get a medical check-up, and if they’re not in good shape, they won’t continue.

The only navigational aid they’re permitted is a base-plate compass. There will be no GPS devices, no phones, no watches. No aid stations, no advice.

There’s an odd feeling in the room, something missing. Eventually, I figure it out: no competitiveness. No one is looking over their shoulder at anyone else. No one is sizing up the field. Except for me—because I want to know who has a shot at finishing it.

Runners had only a few hours to study the course map, and plan their route between checkpoints. Thick fog blanketed the course for the first 14 hours—on the previous spread, Tim Sutton emerges near checkpoint 11.

At the front of the room is a team of two United States Navy veterans. They’re opposites: Chadd Wright is affable and expressive, while Shawn Webber is quieter, stern. They’ve been attracting a lot of attention because they’ve already done some of the most certifiably difficult things people can think of. Chadd is in the process of retiring from the SEALs, the Navy’s special operations force. Shawn served as an aviation rescue swimmer. They met towards the end of a 171-kilometre race called Cruel Jewel in the state of Georgia, battling each other through the final leg. By the time they crossed the finish line, they were friends. They knew the measure of each other.

I recognise Shaun Collins, who looks like a strawberry-blond Santa Claus with his permanent grin and wild long hair. He’s an event organiser in Auckland, but he’s most famous for coming up with the idea of running the Hillary Trail, a 74-kilometre route along Auckland’s west coast. Finishing a Hillary became a benchmark for Auckland trail runners until kauri dieback shut most of the track. Shaun remains the only person to have run a triple Hillary, which is exactly what it sounds like.

Ultrarunners tend to invent their own challenges, because none of the existing ones are hard enough. Wellington runner Tim Sutton set himself the goal of summitting all the peaks over 1500 metres in the Tararuas—there are 15 of them—in one go, on his own, which took him three attempts and 28 hours on the successful one. He had to learn the land, he tells me, the tricks for getting up each peak quickly.

Tim is one of the few people here whom you might describe as outgoing, and everything is delightful to him. (Later, I will scour my notes to see if he says a single negative thing—he doesn’t.) He just loves being in the hills, which turns out to be the main precursor for becoming an ultrarunner. People don’t really intend to get into it. “It sort of escalates,” says Alastair Shelton, a policy analyst from Wellington. He wasn’t even that keen on running until he realised it was like tramping, but faster. “You could go to all these cool places instead of pounding around on the tarmac. That two-day tramping trip that I’m really going to struggle to find time for—I can just run that in a day and be home for dinner.”

That’s how Ian Evans ended up an ultrarunner, too. He’s a young, red-headed Brit standing quietly to the side of the race briefing. “I used to hate running with a passion,” he says. “I didn’t see the point of it.”

When Ian arrived in New Zealand, he used trail running as a way to explore. He’s still pretty new to it as a sport, but in his first 100-kilometre race, he took second place—in Wanaka, on the hottest day of the year. I make some mental notes: Unfazed by heat. Knows about tussock.

When I ask Leroy for tips, he points out Jean Beaumont, a petite woman in her 50s. She recently won the women’s field of an ultra race in Patagonia, and the previous year, she ran for three days and nights to complete a 322-kilometre mountain race in Washington State.

“I back her to beat all these men,” says Leroy, “if she can get the navigation sorted.”

Longer distances appear to iron out strength differences between men and women, and increasingly, female ultrarunners are winning races outright.

Invercargill psychiatric nurse Matt Hamblett and Christchurch property analyst Tony Sharpe compare route choices as they await the start of the run. Both began ultrarunning after family commitments made long tramping trips impossible, and last winter, both competed in one of New Zealand’s longest running events, the Great Naseby Water Race.

Two Australian adventure racers, Andrew Charles and Peter Donnelly, are thrilled at the prospect of bashing through tussock without worrying that something will bite them. I don’t know whether to tell them about Spaniard, a plant made out of bayonets, but I figure they’ll learn about it pretty quickly. Another team, Tom Reynolds and Matthew Jeans, met in medical school a decade ago, and they’re seasoned orienteers and adventure racers. They’ll have the navigation sorted, I think, and the sleep deprivation.

Leo Pershall, another American contender, is here because of a revelation, one he had on top of a mountain in Pago Pago, American Samoa. The revelation told him to enter an ultra race, even though he had never run long distances before.

Leo used to be a serious mountain biker, nationally ranked in the United States. He once raced from Canada to Mexico, causing permanent nerve damage to his hands in the process. (He still can’t feel them properly.) He quit cycling to sail around the world with his wife, but the loss of training precipitated an unexpected plunge—he stopped exercising, started smoking. In the Pacific, he had a brush with melanoma, and he realised he needed feats of endurance in his life. He liked the way they sharpened his mind and his body.

When he started training for the Revenant, he discovered that it’s quite difficult to prepare for a mountain race while on a yacht in the middle of the Pacific.

“It’s a lot of running around in circles and a lot of running up and down a hill,” he says. “I climbed a hill, like, 40 times. There’s a small island outside of Neiafu, Tonga, that I logged 50 miles on, but it’s like 3.5 miles around the whole thing.”

On the way to New Zealand, the Pershalls became waylaid by bad weather for weeks at the Minerva Reefs. “At the height of training I didn’t see land,” says Leo. “I’m likely the most undertrained athlete coming into this event. And I’m okay with that because I’ve had so much pressure on my previous racing that this doesn’t feel like a race to me in any way. It feels like a personal journey.”

THU 2301 / 0 HOURS

Fog hangs in the air on the range above Garston, so thick you could scoop out pieces of it with a spoon. Headtorches cut fuzzy beams through it, the light bouncing off plastic-coated maps worn as necklaces. There’s the rustle of waterproof jacket sleeves, the click of buckles. I can’t see a metre away from my face.

Everyone has been issued a race number, a page number to collect, and a surprise: an envelope they must carry, undamaged, until instructed to open it. For safety, each person has a cellphone sealed in a courier bag. Break the bag and they’re out of the race. Lose the envelope and they’re out of the race. Forget pages and they’re out of the race.

Scott gives the word and the runners are off, flashes of fluorescent yellow in the dark, pouring down the slope. The fog sweeps closed behind them, muffling all sound as they drop out of sight.

Loop one will take them nine hours at least—that’s how fast Leroy runs the course, in broad daylight, knowing where all the checkpoints are. But in the darkness, clagged in, on unfamiliar land, it will certainly take them longer. The 30-hour time limit for completing two loops seems distant, but it isn’t.

Scott and Leroy have crafted something that both of them really wanted, wound it up and set it ticking. Now they have to wait and see how long it’ll last.

Leroy’s impassive, stony expression makes him look like someone you’d cast as a gladiator in a film—until he flashes a huge smile. He’s ex-Navy, now runs a gym, PT Central, in Alexandra. Scott invents missions for himself by pulling out a map and wondering if it’s possible to run from A to B. A couple of months ago, he ran to Garston from his home in Alexandra. For years, he’s been trying to enter the Barkley Marathons in Tennessee, one of the world’s most difficult ultra runs, but he never gets in. Today, he’s been walking around with the type of grin you wear when you’re playing a prank on someone. Both of them have a monkish vibe, a calm so intense you can feel it.

Tim Sutton, Ian Evans and Angus Watson search for checkpoint 14, their last stop on the first loop of the course. After returning to home base, they’ll run the course in the opposite direction, starting with checkpoint 14. All three hope the second loop will take them less time now that they know where all the checkpoints—small plastic lunchboxes—are located.

Compared to other races and their rah-rah start lines, their sponsors’ tents and advertising flyers and the booming voice of an announcer at the finish, the Revenant is stripped to the basics. Home base is an old wooden hut, a gazebo for shelter from the sun, a bunch of camping chairs, and a medical tent. If you finish the run, you don’t win anything, except for a shot of Welcome Rock whisky. That’s on the table in the gazebo next to the official race watch, which still wears its price tag from The Warehouse. If you DNF—‘did not finish’—you tap the whisky bottle.

Over the next couple of days, eight runners will get bamboozled by one checkpoint and never proceed in the race. Three will lose pages they’ve collected and spend hours searching for them. Five will embark on a second loop of the course. Only one will have a shot at actually finishing it.

FRI 0610 / 7 HOURS

We are on an island floating in mist. The cloud laps at the edge of the grass around the hut, and slowly the sun turns it from deep grey to light grey.

I pull out the map to figure out where the runners might be. The course is brutal: travelling through the first three checkpoints involves descending from the top of the range to the bottom and back up again, an elevation loss and gain of close to 1000 metres. Checkpoint 4 is in a riverbed, checkpoint 8 in a tiny clearing within steep, scrubby beech forest. After that, they’ll climb to checkpoint 11, the highest point of the course, then plunge again to the Nokomai River.

“The most demoralising checkpoint of the course will be this to there,” says Leroy, pointing at the stretch between 12 and 13. Runners will have to travel up the Nokomai, an obstacle course of fallen branches and slick boulders.

“It’s awful,” he says. “Especially at night-time.”

The trig at checkpoint 11 is a little way above home base, so I head there, figuring runners will be passing by soon.

Then I wait. And wait.

FRI 0951 / 11 hours

I hear voices. For the last few hours, they’ve been inside my head, but this time, they’re real. Three figures materialise out of the fog from the other side of the hill, moving fast. It’s Tim Sutton, Angus Watson and Ian Evans. They’re in the lead and they know it. Although they’ve been out on the course for almost 11 hours, they look as fresh as they did at the start.

Pity about the clag, I say.

“I haven’t really had a chance to use my hat,” says Angus. He’s wearing a khaki cap with a flap that covers his neck. “It’s a great hat.”

The three of them teamed up near checkpoint 3, because it was easier to find the lunchbox-sized checkpoints with more pairs of eyes. The checkpoints are hidden, so you have to be standing in exactly the right place, looking in the right direction, to see one.

Angus, an energy analyst from Wellington, enters events like the Revenant in pursuit of exactly these sorts of frustrations: thick fog, scavenger hunts.

“I’m always so random with my training and eating and sleeping, I like to embrace my uncertainty,” he told me. “I’m normally that guy that forgets to take something crucial, so I like working through that adversity in races.”

Angus was on a six-month backpacking jaunt in South America a few years ago when he read a newspaper story about a miler in Colombia: the Chicamocha. It was that weekend. He entered, improvising the required gear and buying some energy gels at the start line. Two days later, he was one of 18 entrants to finish within the 50-hour time limit. The race introduced him to three things, he says: chafing, blisters and “the elation of finishing after you’ve been in the doldrums”.

“I’ve really always enjoyed obscure events, not the sort of ones that your mates would understand, not the Ironman or anything. Just ones that are a bit different.”

FRI 1210 / 13 HOURS

Noon passes without the fog lifting. Navigation-wise, it might as well be night. Runners cannot triangulate from features of the land.

The outlines of two more figures materialise beyond the trig. A team—could it be the Navy men? But the guy in front has too much hair to be either of the Americans. It’s Shaun Collins, and Alastair Shelton just behind him. They’re considerably less jolly than the three men in the lead. Shaun says they spent two hours looking for checkpoint 8, and he’s still fed up about it.

Alastair and Shaun do some bad compass work and search the wrong gully, then return to the trig to shoot the bearing again. This time, they find the checkpoint, and they’re off down to the Nokomai.

The mist finally starts to break up. Filmy curtains of cloud draw open and closed over the landscape, hanging in thick folds across the valley, then vaporising all at once to reveal the hills beyond. The land is burned gold, reflecting the light softly, like velvet.

Queenstown builder Dave Viitakangas refuels on his way to checkpoint 9. A late entrant to the Revenant but an experienced adventure racer, he says he felt undertrained setting out on the run. It didn’t prevent him from having a good time: “Never attempting it would have been a bigger failure for me.”

If only it was as smooth as it looks. Tussock ground is lumpen, the tussocks forming mounds at their base. Celmisias are slippery, hebes scratch, Spaniards stab, and clumps of schist are scattered, hidden, in the undergrowth. When tussock is wet, it becomes the vegetative equivalent of a soaped-up plastic sheet on a summer lawn.

To move through it without falling over, you have to be paying attention: you can’t see where your feet will land. In other ultra races, runners can switch off their brains, follow the track, empty their minds and pour all of that mental energy into their bodies. Not this one.

“Tussock is so energy-sapping,” Tim told me. “It breaks your body down just because there’s no efficient way of moving through it.”

FRI 1301 / 14 HOURS

Back at home base, word is that a group of competitors are stuck at checkpoint 8. A volunteer radios in an update: there are 11 people, more than half the field, dipping in and out of the beech forest, looking for the checkpoint. It sounds like one of those cartoon fights, a cloud of scuffling with arms and legs occasionally popping out.

At the beech forest, the runners are up to their necks in scrub, a tangle of undergrowth and bush lawyer high enough to swim through. Eventually, the 11 people organise themselves into a search grid, but this only results in the Americans finding the checkpoint, along with two New Zealand Army men, Bob Hunn and Shane Tebbutt. The four of them gap it for checkpoint 9, leaving the rest behind.

“It’s a disaster zone,” says Scott. He sounds pleased. His course is getting the upper hand.

One runner is observed climbing out of the forest to the water race above it. He sits down, takes his shoes off, and shakes his head.

FRI 1358 / 15 HOURS

A shout goes up at home base: runners on the hill above us, descending from their first loop. The camp erupts in applause. Scott raises binoculars to his eyes. He thinks it’s the Americans, and when he sees that it’s actually Tim, Angus and Ian, the look that comes over his face is one of pure delight. I know how he feels: I’m unexpectedly pleased that New Zealanders are in the lead. Ordinary people with ordinary lives.

The three of them collapse into camp, stripping off shoes, socks, shirts, cramming in food. Loop one has taken them 14 hours and 57 minutes. They are so hungry.

“Having fun?” asks Scott.

“Yeah, absolutely beautiful day,” says Tim. “Who’d want to be anywhere else?”

“What’s the best section of the course so far?”

“The Nokomai,” says Tim. “Beautiful. Just stunning through there. We enjoyed that section, didn’t we?”

“It’s got some interesting parts, hasn’t it?” says Ian.

“If you travel at night and turn your headlamp off it’s all glow-worms,” says Scott.

Farm tracks, fencelines, and a hand-shovelled trail on the tops offer some of the few opportunities for running on the course, allowing Shaun Collins to recoup time lost looking for checkpoints. He’s almost back at home base after one loop and about 18 hours on the course.

We watch, cautiously. We are not permitted to help. We can’t remind them to pack spare batteries for their headlamps, or warm layers for the night. Tim talcum-powders his feet, cleans his teeth. Angus is eating creamed rice. They’re stuffing things into their backpacks.

It’s halfway to the 30-hour cutoff, and they all have a chance of making it.

Soon they’re running headlong towards the edge of the ridge, leaping off it, down to the immense valley unfurled below, to repeat the course in reverse. Scott watches them disappear into the thick afternoon light.

“Look at that,” he says, shaking his head, as though he can’t quite believe his eyes.

FRI 1655 / 18 HOURS

The first runner is down. Matt Hamblett taps the bottle of whisky and sinks into a camping chair, conceding defeat. He got stuck at checkpoint 8 and, determined to find it, forgot to keep eating and drinking. His body crashed.

Nutrition during a long-distance run is a fine balance—if you screw it up, there’s no coming back. Ultrarunners train their gastrointestinal tract as much as their legs. The body diverts bloodflow from digestion to other areas, making it difficult for people to replace the calories they’re burning through. Become depleted and that shortfall never gets made up.

In the gazebo, Alastair is handing pages to Scott. He’s finished one loop.

“Are you going out again?” asks Scott, and Alastair says he’ll think about it. He takes his kit into the hut to refuel and regroup. I suspect he’s steelier than he’s letting on, and that’s because Alastair is the main character in a story that gives all trail runners pause: seven years ago, he was running not far from the Jumbo-Holdsworth Circuit in the Tararuas, when he took a wrong turn off a ridge. Immediately he was lost. He spent a night out in the open as the weather closed in—torrential rain, gales, temperatures close to freezing. Certain another night outside meant death, he found his way to Mid-Waiohine Hut, and was picked up near there a day later. Rescuers praised his mental fortitude.

Shaun Collins runs into camp from his first loop, and he’s in a hurry. He’s gunning for the 30-hour cutoff to redeem the hours lost searching for checkpoints.

Doctors and adventure racers Matthew Jeans and Tom Reynolds pick a route towards checkpoint 10. The navigation aspect of the Revenant drew them to the event, and provided its greatest challenges. One commonly experienced frustration navigating through tussock was not being able to travel in a straight line, but having to cut around matagouri, Spaniard and rock tors.
From left, Bob Hunn, Chadd Wright, Shane Tebbutt and Shawn Webber—all current or former members of the military—pass checkpoint 11 as the race clock ticks over 22 hours. None of them expected their first loop of the course to take this long, which means that all of them have run out of food. Determined not to quit, they keep going through the night.

There are smiley faces drawn on his arms with marker pen—he’s been reading research about endurance, and one study found that displaying happy faces subliminally to athletes improved their performance. (The participants didn’t even register the faces consciously—they were flashed on a screen for less than 0.02 seconds. Subliminal sad faces slowed them down.)

Shaun is taking no chances. His kit has a sheet with four checklists on top, one for each loop, to ensure he remembers everything. He’s carrying a handwritten contract, which reads, “I, Shaun Collins, agree to the following: I have entered this race of my own free will. I paid for the entry free, trained hard, made sacrifices (family/fun) in order to do the event. I will not quit.” It’s got smiley faces on it, too, for good measure.

Endurance sport is mostly a matter of fooling or ignoring the brain, which compels the body to stop long before it has reached its energy reserves. Runners learn to distinguish between pain that’s a problem and pain that isn’t: a slight difference in signal between damage and fatigue.

I check inside the hut and it’s empty. Alastair has gone back out for a second loop.

FRI 1905 / 20 HOURS

A thumbprint of a moon has risen in the sky. The sun is still very hot, the light heavy on our shoulders, as though it’s late afternoon rather than evening. The doctors are debating whether to start a second loop. They won’t complete it in time, not with night falling.

“It’s so brutal,” says Tom. “There’s not much in the way of recovery out there. You just go up or down or up or down.”

They decide to go out for a second loop anyway.

Tom and Matthew usually race in larger teams, and they call theirs Ataraxia, after the Greek word for unflappability, or total calm. The name was Matthew’s idea. It’s a mental state familiar to sportspeople and those who spend a lot of time outdoors: the narrowing of focus to a single point, the feeling when all your decisions, about route and speed and nutrition, turn out to be the right ones, accumulating on each other. The pursuit of this simplicity is why people end up at things like the Revenant.

But there’s something else, too, and it’s to do with limitlessness. I think about a last-man-standing race that Shawn, the American, took part in last October—a race with no end. Competitors run a seven-kilometre loop over and over again until every person drops out but one. He ran 241 kilometres, and there he chose to finish.

Alastair Shelton repacks for a second loop of the course inside the wooden hut at home base.
Runners’ kits are stored here for when they return from a loop. Below, after more than 30 hours, Bob Hunn’s waterlogged feet finally see light.

When you create a race that’s so hard that it seems endless—one that’s so large that the runners cannot imagine the whole thing, but must construct walls around it in their minds, partition it into smaller pieces, tell themselves, Just one loop—then, and only then, have you made a space large enough for those people to find the edges of themselves.

“It’s a little bit like trying to measure oneself,” Ian told me. “It’s a curiosity thing more than anything. What can I do? I know that we are capable of so much more than we think we are—and there’s rarely an opportunity in life to find that out—and a race is still a relatively safe environment for that.”

The challenge may be artificial—a bunch of plastic boxes scattered across a high-country station—but what the runners are pursuing is entirely real, more real to them than anything else.

FRI 2109 / 22 hours

Runners who spent hours lost in the wormhole formerly known as checkpoint 8 are starting to trickle back to home base.

Jean Beaumont finishes one loop of the course, only the eighth person to do so, but she’s busted her knee in the process, and she won’t be going back out.

“I had an old injury from about a year ago and I just started hurting up that river,” she says, and shakes her head. “DNF, for the first time in my life.”

“The beauty is, there’s next year,” says Leroy.

Bronwyn McKeage, Tony Sharpe and Mike Field arrive back together. They never found checkpoint 8, and they’ve walked back over the tops. There’s an embrace and hongi for each of them from Scott and Leroy.

“You nailed us in that bloody bush,” says Tony, laughing. “Lost a few of us in there today.”

“We spent six hours looking for the clearing, and another two hours looking for the tree,” says Bronwyn.

“There were so many of us looking for it,” says Jean. “There must have been about 10 of us.”

“The funny thing was there were a couple of Army guys and a couple of Navy SEALs in there with us,” says Tony. “So if anyone wants to be safe from an invasion of US forces, we know where to stick them.”

“I really have enjoyed every minute,” says Bronwyn. “Apart from maybe five minutes. It was an adventure.”

FRI 2125 / 22 hours

The sun is finally setting, the light in the valley syrupy and soft. No one will be returning till morning. The Americans and the New Zealand Army men have just been sighted at checkpoint 11—they’ll be going up the Nokomai in the dark. Word is that the Australians have lost the pages they collected from checkpoints 2 and 3 and have gone back on the course to look for them.

All of a sudden, the silhouette of a runner appears on the edge of camp. It’s Tim Sutton. He’s tapping out. For a moment, we stare at him in silence. He looked so strong just a few hours before, joking about running the course in the jandals from his kit.

“I was putting on a brave face,” he says. “I think I was just down on energy.”

Tim, Angus and Ian separated not long after starting their second loop. Tim was rapidly losing strength. Near the start of the run, he had dropped a bottle containing energy gels, about five hours’ worth of nutrition. He’d tried to eke out the rest of his food, but knew his body had switched into fat-burning mode during the first lap—he hadn’t taken in enough carbohydrates. It’s happened to him before—it’s like being stuck in a low gear. You can keep going, but you only have one speed: slow. By the time he reached the Nokomai, he couldn’t muster more than a walk. He’s never had a DNF before.

Dave Viitakangas has almost completed one loop of the course despite a recent ankle-ligament sprain. “Everyone has their reasons for wanting to compete in something near impossible,” he wrote after the race. “Having struggled this last year with motivation and with my mind, I was stoked to have done what did.”

Another lone figure appears. Leo Pershall is the last of the group that became stuck at checkpoint 8. He searched for six hours, then left the course with Bronwyn, Tony and Mike. Quitting, though, didn’t feel good.

“And then I quit quitting, and turned around and went back down into the forest,” he says. “When I turned around, I realised, ‘Now I’m on my own’. And that was important.”

He searched for another two hours. He started to recognise individual trees. He still didn’t find the checkpoint.

“The second time I left that forest I was thoroughly beaten. I tried everything and that’s all I had.” He sighs. “It cost me my lap, for sure. I’m certain I could have got a single lap.”

But Leo is also the happiest he’s been in a long time. He’s already thinking about next year. “When I started training, I felt like I came alive again,” he says. “All of a sudden I found this purpose. It was my time to reflect and meditate on life.”

FRI 2305 / 24 hours

I’m halfway asleep when there’s the commotion of a returning runner, a headlamp beaming across home base.

Angus is done. He burned out in the heat, running from the Nokomai all the way up to the trig in the late-afternoon sun. “I went for an hour straight up a fenceline,” he says. “It must have been close to a 45-degree slope.”

Our hopes are rapidly fading for someone to finish a second loop in time to start a third. Shaun and Alastair are racing the clock. Ian is the only person with time on his side.

SAT 0445 / 29¾ hours

The wind has picked up overnight, and the sound of it roaring in the corrugated-tin roof of the hut wakes me up. The moon has set, and clouds are covering the stars. There’s a huddle of people clustered together for shelter and warmth around a van parked outside the hut. Shaun Collins is one of them. He didn’t finish his second loop. He was at checkpoint 11 when he saw the moon had dipped below the horizon, and that meant the time limit was near. There was no way he’d finish the course.

Slowly, everything turns grey and comes into focus. No one knows where anyone is. Scott says one of the Australians had a panic attack going into the Nokomai last night.

“All he could envisage was going up the Nokomai through that bush—all enclosed and claustrophobic and he’s looking at a map and thinking, ‘This could take hours, I just don’t want to go in there’, and he just all of a sudden froze. But they did go up, didn’t they?”

We speculate about where the military guys are. They’re probably fine, we conclude. They’re probably sleeping out on the course. They’re probably together.

SAT 0501 / 30 hours

The 30-hour time limit ticks over. No one is back from a second loop. No one will start a third. Everyone will DNF, no matter when they finish. The course has beaten all the runners.

Questions hang in the air: What happened to Ian? Where is everyone?

SAT 0620 / 31 hours

Here are the Americans at last, in the grey light. They quit after checkpoint 12. Shawn had been leading up the Nokomai, setting the pace, his sense of anxiety rising as the narrow valley went on and on in the dark. He started asking himself: Are we going to make it out? They all started hallucinating.

“I thought there was a film crew sitting on a rock filming as we came by, and I thought, ‘That’s how Scott knows I’m coming back’,” says Chadd.

“Bob thought that music was playing,” says Shawn. “Banjos in the river.”

When they emerged into the tussock, they left Bob and Shane to continue collecting checkpoints in the hills. They were done.

“You guys finally gave me what I’ve always been searching for,” Chadd tells Scott and Leroy. He means: failure. They’ve never been defeated before.

“The hardest thing was finding those boxes,” says Shawn.

“Half the time they were probably hard to find because we were looking in the wrong place,” says Chadd. “We didn’t even come close to doing what we said we’d do.”

He’s near tears, but it isn’t sadness: “It’s going to be weird going home with a different story, not the same old story.”

Mike Field taps the Welcome Rock whisky bottle, ending his race, after 22 hours on the course.

It doesn’t sound like much, dropping out of a run less than a quarter of the way through the course. They didn’t even finish one loop. But Chadd knows he’s achieved something significant. He’s travelled to a place his body and mind have never been, and it has shifted his perception of himself tectonically. He’s going home a different person, in a different world, and that’s exactly what he came here for.

The two New Zealand Army men arrive home next. They got their loop—in 30 hours and 39 minutes, which is now the record slowest time for the course. Their food ran out 15 hours ago. Shane, sitting in a camping chair, eats Pineapple Lumps, barely moving, expressionless but triumphant: he didn’t quit.

SAT 0823 / 33 hours

Ian had been going strong all evening. After he overtook Angus, he knew he was the only person on the course with a good shot at the 30-hour cutoff. It spurred him on. He wanted to find checkpoint 8, the tricky one, before dark, and he reached the beech forest at sunset, shot the bearing, hit the checkpoint spot on. That was the hard part sorted. Now, he had it all planned out. He’d reach home base well before the 30-hour cutoff at 5:01am, and that meant he’d be running his third loop in daylight. He could definitely get through three loops. He’d think about loop four later.

“I was falling over left, right and centre, it was uneven ground,” he says. “I went to check my pocket and the map wasn’t there.”

No worries. He had a spare map. Then he realised the envelope was gone. All at once the air whooshed out of him. Game over.

Shaun Collins quit the course just after 4am, knowing he wouldn’t meet the 5:01am cutoff.

A kind of delirium took over. He started frantically looking around for the envelope, losing pages in the process.

“It just mentally broke me,” he says. “I basically meandered and napped for two hours.”

Back at home base, he’s full of unexpended energy: “I never found my physical limit and that’s what’s most frustrating—that I stopped because of an error.”

He says it as though he’s the only one, but in fact, most people stopped because of an error. The frustration that builds when you can’t find a checkpoint. Getting separated from a team, or trusting too much that others knew where they were going. Losing things. Misjudging things: nutrition, terrain, time.

There are three people still out on the course: the doctors, and Alastair Shelton.

SAT 1417 / 39 hours

Rain whipping the tents. Leroy and Scott have decided it’s time to bring in the last runners before the storm moves in. They intercept the doctors at checkpoint 4 and drive them home. But they can’t find Alastair on the course.

Which is fine, because seven minutes later, Alastair arrives, under his own steam. He bows to the few people still at home base in the wind and the clag. He has been on the course for 39 hours and 23 minutes, the only person to complete two loops of the race, the last man standing. Leroy shakes his hand.

“Had a big day,” says Alastair.

“Had fun?” asks Scott.

“Mostly.” Alastair sits down, shakes his head. “Four laps, eh? If someone pulls that off I’m going to be deeply impressed.”

Alastair knew, starting his second loop, that he wouldn’t make the 30-hour cutoff. But he figured he’d do another loop anyway.

“I’d thought about it,” he says. “I thought, ‘I’ve come a long way for this and spent a lot of time and money and effort and I’ll get out there and as long as I feel okay I’ll keep pressing on. I just got stubborn, I guess.”

The black line represents the approximate elevation profile for the four loops of the course. Coloured lines mark each runner according to the last checkpoint found by each person before they quit the course or failed to meet the time cutoff. Because many individual runners teamed up, people often left the course in groups.

The Revenant has been an exhibition of mental fitness more than physical fitness. I think about the immense strength I’ve seen, the muscles people have for surmounting uncertainty, frustration, boredom. It’s not only that these 21 people can run further and climb higher than I can—they can tolerate more. They have greater reserves of equanimity, like inland oceans, holding them steady.

“I’m not the fastest runner out there, I’m generally not going to win things, but I just want to know how far I can push myself,” says Alastair. “I think that’s the appeal. I’m fascinated by the fact that everybody can push much, much, much deeper than they think they can. I’m still exploring how far you can motivate yourself.”

Scott and Leroy have dubbed the 21 runners the Originals, and they’ll keep their race numbers in perpetuity. If any of them return to tackle the Revenant again, they’ll pin on the same number.

As this magazine goes to print, Leroy and Scott announce the 2020 run online. Immediately, the Originals respond.

“016 reporting for duty,” writes Tony.

“006 signing up for some more fun,” says Andrew.

“010 will be there as well,” adds Bronwyn.

It’s only a matter of time until someone stands victorious at the end of four laps, they say.

“I think it’ll be a race for the win as opposed to a race for the finish next year,” Angus tells me.

“It’s going to take everything,” says Ian. “Everything is going to have to line up. But it’s definitely doable.”

I think Scott and Leroy have more complications in store—no one opened the secret envelope—but that’s beside the point. Winning is beside the point.

“You’ve got to be in it for yourself if you want to go through with this stuff,” says Alastair. “If there were no races, I’d still be out there.”

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