The race that never ends
It is only day one of the 1999 Southern Traverse, and already leg muscles are protecting as a team heads towards Mt Arthur in Kahurangi National Park. There are four more painful days and sleepless nights for competitors to endure in . . .
It is the time adventure racers call the “demon hour”—that endless hour before dawn when bodies and spirits are at their lowest ebb, when each footstep takes a monumental effort, when doubts flood in and headlight batteries run out. It is the time when racers question why they are putting themselves through this pain and misery. The time when demons come out to play.
We are 20 hours into the 1999 Southern Traverse, and somewhere out in the night 49 teams are navigating over the Mt Arthur tablelands. Well, 48, actually: one team has pulled out with heat exhaustion after yesterday’s 45 km sea-kayak leg in the hot Nelson sun.
From the transition area, with a full moon reflecting off the karst formations of the Arthur Range, the scene looks deceptively serene. But between the competitors and here lies a brutal 8 kin descent down the Ellis River which will claim a number of victims before the night is out.
Out of the darkness comes the sound of voices singing. With the leading teams not expected for several hours, it must be some of the support crews out for a nocturnal stroll. Suddenly there is an outbreak of cheering at the checkpoint, and four figures wearing race bibs and large grins burst into the pool of light. It is Team Star and Garter. Seasoned adventure racers Steve Gurney, Kathy Lynch and Nathan Fa’ave and rising star Aaron Prince have shaved three hours off the estimated fast time for this leg.
Their early arrival is not entirely unexpected. They are among the race favourites. The dream team. The awesome foursome. As they joke with their support crew, it is easy to forget they have been on the move for 20 straight hours, sea kayaking, mountain hiking and running over a mountain range to get here. Watching them trade running sneakers for hike shoes, I realise that these four are among the best in the world at what they do—and they are having fun doing it!
Adventure racing is a curiously masochistic pursuit in which teams of people push themselves for days on end using various methods of self-propulsion over a barbaric course designed to give ordinary mortals an inferiority complex.
It is also one of the fastest-growing team sports in the world, and the elite tribe of endorphin-addicted athletes who roam the globe in search of greater punishment consider the Southern Traverse one of the top three events. The other two are the Eco Challenge and the race that started it all, the Raid Gauloises, brainchild of French adventurer and journalist Gerard Fusil.
Only the French could have invented such a crazy sport, one which epitomises the Gallic love of l’extreme. In France, people who parapente from Everest, ski impossibly steep peaks or sail single-handedly around the world in the “wrong” direction become national heroes.
But if it took a Frenchman to invent adventure racing, it has been New Zealanders who have made the sport their own. Gurney and erstwhile team-mate John Howard—sometimes referred to as the Michael Jordan of adventure racing—are legends in the international adventure racing scene, and Kiwi teams have dominated the sport in recent years.
Derek Patterson, author of the world’s first adventure racing guide, attributes this success to New Zealand’s abundance of outdoor opportunities: “Many of the top Kiwi racers were brought up tramping and hunting in the bush, learning to navigate on the move. In adventure racing there is no substitute for such experience.”
Gurney agrees: “It’s a kind of lifestyle. We go into the hills most weekends anyway, hiking, climbing, paddling, mountain biking or ski touring. Adventure racing just puts it all together.”
Not that this experience translates into invulnerability. In the 1994 Raid Gauloises, in Sarawak, Gurney contracted leptospirosis from bat guano which infected a cut in his leg during the final caving section. He suffered circulatory collapse, lung and liver failure, and lay unconscious for 10 days in hospital. But that brush with death did not stop him competing the following year in the South Island Coast to Coast race. Nor has it stopped him re-establishing himself at the forefront of adventure racing.
The success of the Kiwis in international competition has also helped attract international competitors to the local event. For the 1999 Southern Traverse, nearly half of the 49 teams have come from overseas, including the US, Canada, Australia, Brazil, the UK, France, Japan and Malaysia.
What have they come for? Up to six days of running, sea kayaking, mountain biking, rafting and rappelling their way across some 443 km of New Zealand’s most challenging terrain. Only a third of the teams will complete the full course. Blisters will form on top of blisters. Some will suffer the ignominy of trenchfoot, an affliction common to World War One troops who spent days at a time with wet feet in muddy trenches.
With the race motto “Move while you can, sleep if you dare,” exhaustion compounds the difficulty of navigating through the wilderness. The 1998 winners, Long International, had three hours’ sleep in five days.
Hallucinations will affect many, and the demon hours will haunt all. Sound like purgatory? Believe it or not, these people pay for the privilege.
Nelson’s Rutherford Hotel seems an incongruous place to hold a pre-race briefing for wilderness-hardened competitors. It probably represents a last taste of luxury before the pain begins. The room is filled with some of the fittest-looking people I have ever seen, looking intense and staring bullets as they size one another up. There is a notable absence of extraneous body fat. But there is also something else: the clubby confidentiality of an AA meeting. You almost expect competitors to turn to one another and introduce themselves:
“Hi, my name’s Joe and I’m an endorphin addict.”
Tonight is the first time the course has been revealed, and the tension is palpable. As Southern Traverse founder and director Geoff Hunt talks through the route, the teams pore over their maps.
It is the athletic equivalent of a Mensa meeting, and the room is pervaded with the heady ambience of overachievement and Type-A personalities.
But it is not all seriousness. Gurney, the clown prince of adventure racing, prances about, squirting the crowd with a pump-action water pistol. Team Elvis’s members are dressed in sequined jumpsuits and sport sideburns the King would be proud of. Team Alien are wearing Star Trek outfits with flashing neon antennas. But this is just the sideshow. Most are focused on the job ahead.
And quite a job it is. Two hundred and ninety-four kilometres of mountain biking, 82 km of mountain running, 67 km of sea kayaking and whitewater rafting, and 60 m of abseiling. And that’s if the competitors take no wrong turns. As Hunt notes wryly, “Navigation is the key. If your head gets weak, you can’t win.” And when sleep deprivation sets in, navigation is far from easy.
Southern Traverse lore is full of examples of teams that blew the race through navigation errors. In 1998, on a mountain run over Mt Hindley, on the edge of Fiordland National Park, one team took a wrong turn in the night and mistakenly followed a valley which led it 180° and 10 km in the wrong direction.
Talking to the competitors at the briefing, I discover that many are multiple offenders. They raced once as a challenge, but now find themselves returning year after yearadrenalin junkies desperate for another fix. Take Arrow International. With an average age of 50, they are not only the oldest team in the Traverse, they also have the record for the most finishes—eight so far, and they’re here to bag the ninth. The team leader, 50-year-old Ron Anderson, took up triathlons when he failed to get medical insurance because he was too unfit. Then came the Coast to Coast. Then the inaugural Southern Traverse, in 1991. Now his contracting company, Arrow International, sponsors its employees to participate in multisport events, reaping the double benefit of team-building and employee fitness.
Anderson’s sister, 51-year-old Sylvia Watts, was a pack-a-day smoker who took virtually no exercise. In 1994, Anderson paid her entry to the Coast to Coast as a birthday present. Watts caught the bug, ditched smoking and now cannot imagine a year without the Traverse.
They return each year because this is a racer’s race. The course, which changes each year and remains secret until the day before the start, has a reputation for being technical, challenging and spectacular. This reputation can be credited to Geoff Hunt himself. Compact, wiry and exuding the physical intensity that seems to characterise these athletes, Hunt is the archetypal adventure racer. With top-five finishes in both the Raid and the Eco Challenge, and having organised nine Southern Traverses, he has a good idea of what makes a course interesting.
In 1999, he moved the Traverse to Nelson, having exhausted course options after eight years of racing through Fiordland, Southland and Otago. At the briefing, he seems to take a perverse pleasure in pointing out the navigational hazards in the route, gleefully noting that he expects many to get lost.
At dawn on day one, Pohara Beach forms a natural starting line. Scattered across the sands that give Golden Bay its name are thousands of dollars worth of kayaks ready for the first leg around the coast of Abel Tasman National Park Competitors check maps and equipment and wolf down carbohydrates. After all the preparation, the months of training and the disruption of daily life, it is time to do the business.
The start looms, a media helicopter thuds overhead and Hunt is on the megaphone. “Three, two, one . . .” A blast on the starter’s horn. Paddles flash and boats churn into the rising sun.
On the beach there is an almost anticlimactic atmosphere of relief among the support crews. They are the unsung heroes of adventure racing. They give their time and energy to help friends, partners or workmates compete, often getting less sleep than the athletes, and without the glory of crossing the finishing line. They form a great movable circus that congregates at each transition area, turning the event into something of a week-long party. Arrow International’s crew, who share their team’s record for completed Traverses, regularly dress up to bolster team spirits, and have even been known to pipe their team into a transition and present them with a full Burns supper, complete with the Salute to the Haggis.
As the paddlers disappear around the first headland, someone suggests a gin and tonic. A cheer goes up in the affirmative.
Just two hours later, word comes through from the first checkpoint that the lead teams have already passed and are making rapid progress. It is the first calm day on the ocean in a month, and it looks as if the racers will cut out the kayak leg in half the estimated time. The news flashes around the camp like wildfire. Suddenly, there is a mad scramble to load gear into vehicles and get back over Takaka Hill to the first transition area in time to meet the teams.
Hot favourites Long International and Star and Garter are the first in, looking ridiculously fresh. As they haul their kayaks up the beach at Marahau, one of the checkpoint volunteers, a guide with a local sea-kayak tour company, looks impressed. “These guys are doing in four hours what takes my clients four days to paddle!”
Without missing a beat, the racers ditch their life-jackets and set off on bikes, following forestry tracks leading to the Cobb Reservoir. The November day is unseasonably hot, and the racers will climb and descend over 2000 vertical metres during the course of the ride.
Despite training in the heat and humidity of Malaysia, Team Sabah 2000 is the first casualty, losing a member to heat exhaustion. Race rules stipulate that all four members of a team must finish together to be in the official placings, but there is nothing to stop remaining team members carrying on for an unofficial finish. The other three elect to keep going. But Sabah’s problems are just beginning. As their support crew drive back down the Cobb Road from the transition area, they skid on the gravel and their rented campervan ends up down a bank. No one is hurt, but the van is out of action. With no means of transporting equipment, their race is over.
As evening draws on, the racers start the first mountain run, up and over Mt Arthur. Waiting at the transition area at the end of the run, we can hear the radio traffic between race headquarters and checkpoint officials through the night. At 3 A.M. a report comes through that a competitor has slipped and dislocated his shoulder on the rough section down the Ellis River.
His team-mates get him back to a hut, where he lies in intense pain, awaiting daylight and a helicopter evacuation to hospital. Another racer has gashed his calf deeply. He continues for two more legs before the Brazilian team doctor stitches his wound as he sleeps at a transition area.
Listening to the reports coming in, as I tuck into a hearty meal, I feel a mild twinge of guilt. Then I remind myself that these teams paid nearly $3000 to enter this race, seeking a challenge. And a challenge is exactly what they are getting!
In the pale dawn light, with Star and Garter already well into the next cycle leg, other teams emerge from the Ellis Basin looking stunned. Professional fishing guide Mac Brown, from US team NOC/Perception, staggers by, saying, “That was the worst bit of river I have ever walked down, and I walk down rivers for a living!”
Some teams opt for a quick rest, claiming that even 40 minutes’ sleep can be enough to feel refreshed. The problem, though, is in synchronising four different metabolic rates. When one team member is about to drop, another may be getting a second wind (or a third, fourth or fifth wind!).
Brown and the rest of NOC/ Perception choose not to sleep, and head off on the next leg, a 101 km cycle ride through a maze of forestry trails to Lake Rotoiti, in Nelson Lakes National Park. The leg is not expected to be easy. At the briefing, Hunt highlighted it as one where he expected teams to get lost. The difficulty is that forestry roads are somewhat organic. New ones are added as new areas are harvested and what appears on the map does not necessarily match what appears on the ground.
Twenty hours later, I greet Team NOC/Perception at the end of the leg. The ride was expected to take 10 hours for fast teams, 15 hours for the slow. Obviously, all has not gone smoothly. The computer on Mac Brown’s bike reads 166 km.
“We missed a checkpoint and had to double back,” he explains. “Then there were a couple of false turns we followed for a ways. At 9 o’clock, when we realised we would be out all night, we grabbed an hour’s sleep on the side of the road before it got too cold.”
Brown tries to sound upbeat, but it is hard to hide the heartbreak. This thing is tough enough without nearly doubling distances. But Brown and his team are not alone in their problems. Earlier in the night, Long International was forced to pull out when Aiden Craig, who had competed in a Brazilian adventure race just a month before, discovered he had been carrying an Amazonian hitchhiker. Squeezing a large and painful raised welt on his thigh, he was surprised when a small worm emerged, leaving a large abscess behind it and forcing him from the race. It was a bitter disappointment to the team, but the others joined forces with another depleted team and continued.
Why do people put themselves through such pain? In many ways, adventure racing is a Nietzschean rite of passage: “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” It appeals to those born under the Sign of the Masochist—though few will admit it. They tend to laugh off the hardships with a self-effacing black humour.
Answers in a pre-race questionnaire which asked why racers were participating were revealing: “Anything for a week off work.” “Because the lawns needed mowing.” “Because government cutbacks mean there are now no funds to care for the mentally impaired.”
For many, it is humour that gets them through. Says Dave Ritchie, of the Alleged Athletes, “It’s not worth doing this and being miserable. It’s got to be fun. When the proverbial hits the fan, all you can really do is laugh. It’s when we stop laughing that we know we’re in trouble.”
The only all-women team, Untouchedworld.com, has a similar philosophy. “Our goal is to be the first women’s team to finish the full course, to enjoy it and to still be talking to each other at the end,” Katrina Day explains.
But looking around the teams stumbling off their bikes on the banks of Lake Rotoiti, with a 40 km mountain run ahead, I don’t see too many laughing. Nearly 24 hours separates the frontrunners from the rest of the pack.
For the leaders, it is still a race. They are the elite, powering on at a seemingly impossible pace, locked in fierce battle with their rivals. But for the others the event is now less a race and more a mission. There are still rivalries between lower-ranked teams, but getting to the finish is the primary focus.
Up front, where Star and Garter are being chased hard by the all-male Team Cromwell, tactics now begin to play an important role. The next leg is by raft down the Buller River, and safety considerations preclude being on the water in the dark. Star and Garter have two options: speed through the mountain run, arrive during the night and be forced to take a break until first light, or conserve energy on the run, arrive ready to raft, but risk being caught by Team Cromwell. They choose the latter strategy and arrive at 5 A.M. As it happens, they still have a handy lead over their rivals.
Meanwhile, Team NOC/Perception are just about to set out on the 40 km mountain run. In the interests of journalistic integrity, I decide to join them. NOC/Perception are an unusual team in that the members are two married couples. As if just maintaining a relationship isn’t hard enough work, these couples go adventure racing together to add a bit of challenge!
Norm Greenberg and Tracyn Thayer are old hands. Their business card introduces them as an “Elite Adventure Racing Couple,” and advertises their personal website. Their team-mates are Mac and Debbie Brown. Although Mac has been a US champion in short-course adventure racing, and Debbie has a strong outdoors background, neither has competed in a multiday event. After the mistakes on the last leg, the team is well down the field.
To add to its problems, a throat infection Debbie contracted on the long flight to New Zealand has turned into a full-blown bronchial cough.
As we set off up the side of Lake Rotoiti, the weather has taken a turn for the worse, and as we climb through mountain beech forest the rain turns to sleet. You’ve got to hand it to Hunt, his race has it all: heat exhaustion on day one and now the perfect conditions for hypothermia. Still, at least the weather waited three days before it turned nasty. In 1997, it started bad and got worse. On the first mountain leg, one team became hopelessly lost and never passed the first checkpoint. They were found two days later, burning their underwear in an attempt to keep warm.
Each team has its own internal dynamics, and keeping four people together through the race is possibly as much of a challenge as the physical demands. Some teams have disintegrated under the stresses of the race. “In 1997, a police team had a vigorous discussion about which way to go—using their fists,” Hunt tells me. “But it was really just a pushing match. In the Raid I saw a French team have an all-in brawl. Then they all climbed into a tent and went to sleep.”
NOC/Perception tends to work less as a team of four and more as two couples. Norm and Tracyn, the experts, intense and serious, do the navigating. Mac and Debbie, the novices, follow. And Mac, an irrepressible southern boy from deep in the South Carolina woods, talks. And talks and talks! I get the impression the others are happy to have me along if only so they won’t have to listen to him for a while. But he also constantly encourages Debbie, whose cough is getting steadily worse. As we reach Lake Angelus she can barely speak.
By now we are navigating in whiteout conditions. We are crossing rugged bluffed country looking for Sunset Saddle, which leads into the charmingly named Hopeless Valley. After stumbling around for what seems an eternity, we find a route over the saddle and slide down the snowy slopes on the other side. As we emerge below the cloud we see the abseil point in the distance.
The team has had one hour’s sleep in nearly three days, and is now faced with a dangerous descent over rain-slicked rocks down fixed lines to a 60 m abseil. Time to gather thoughts and composure. The ropes disappear into a misty abyss, and, despite the exhaustion, all members are feeling there is no room for complacency. We hesitate for a moment on the edge, then descend into the swirling clouds.
Now it is a long walk back to the head of Lake Rotoiti, then up and over the Rainbow Range. Debbie is coughing up what she describes as “spaghetti” as her throat lining begins to exfoliate. She can no longer speak, but behind her smile I see a steely determination. She will walk until she drops.
This is the real story of adventure racing: not the heroics at the front of the field, but ordinary people pushing their boundaries and finding reserves of determination they didn’t know they had.
Inevitably, there are times when one team member suffers, and teams deal with this in different ways. A common approach is that used by Star and Garter.
“We call it the ‘honk scale’,” says Steve Gurney. “If we think someone is slowing, we ask them where they are on the scale. A 1 means, ‘I am bonking’—hitting the wall—`dig a hole and bury me.’ A 10 means, ‘I’m feeling great—I’ll carry you up the next hill.’ If someone is honking, one of the others will take their pack or tow them on the bike so that the team can maintain its pace.”
We reach the Rainbow ski area at 4 A.M. on day four. It is cold and we have been on the move for 20 hours non-stop. I am only glad I do not have five more legs in front of me. I consider I have gained quite enough appreciation of what this is all about. Exhausted, I return to the media fold with honour.
The racers, on the other hand, are faced with yet another demon hour and a cold ride back to Lake Rotoiti. Emergency blankets are fashioned into ponchos for warmth. For NOC/Perception, time is of the essence. If they do not finish the rafting leg by 5 P.M., they cannot complete the full course and will be directed into an alternative short course. There is no time for rest.
The Alleged Athletes, just an hour behind, are faced with the same predicament. Still smiling, they set off on their bikes down the rough ski-area access road.
It is soon clear that sleep deprivation is taking its toll. John Thomson, a former NZ downhill mountain-biking representative, is so tired he falls asleep riding down the rough gravel road. He later attributes the mildness of his injuries to the fact that he was “relaxed and probably snoring” as he hit the ground.
But the Traverse was never meant to be easy, and any racer expecting otherwise should have read the fine print. This from the race brochure: “We do not control the weather. If it is cold and miserable, or hot and uncomfortable, we will not postpone the race. You will therefore take the risk of getting dehydrated or hypothermic or worse if you are unable to look after yourself in these conditions. We do not hold your hand; if you get lost you have to find your way again. If you are seriously injured you must use the first-aid skills you have learned until Search and Rescue reaches you. And it can take a while . . .”
Star and garter have finished the final mountain run and are charging hard for the finish line. Forty-three-year-old Kathy Lynch has been bullying her three male team-mates throughout the race. She epitomises the theory that adventure racers reach their peak in their late 30s or early 40s. Hunt thinks it is something to do with the mental fortitude that comes with maturity.
But the youngest member of Star and Garter reflects the growing presence of younger athletes in the top ranks. Nineteen-year-old Aaron Prince is a second-generation adventure racer. His mother is also competing in the Traverse, and Prince has been brought up on a tough diet of triathlons, orienteering and multisport.
But what drives this team on? It is hardly the winner’s purse. First prize is $4000—not much more than the entry fee—and that’s before gear, travel and time off work are taken into account. While a few like Gurney manage to eke out a precarious existence as professional racers, most do it for the challenge, not the money.
At 7.15 A.M., Star and Garter ride into Mapua and cross the finish line, having completed the 443 km in 71- and-a-quarter hours, with a total of two-and-a-half hours’ sleep. They are nearly 24 hours ahead of the expected winning time, and still looking good. In fact, they are so fast that the media only just make it to the finish in time. They are nearly eight hours in front of the second-placed Team Cromwell, winners of the men’s section. It is a virtual rout—a perfect race.
For the others, however, the ordeal continues. This is the cruel catch-22 of adventure racing.
Going fast is painful, but going slower prolongs the agony.
With the rafting leg behind them, and having just sneaked in ahead of the cut-off time, NOC/Perception and the Alleged Athletes head off up the Owen Valley for the last mountain run. This is Hobbit land, an area of bizarre landscapes that Peter Jackson was filming in for his Lord of the Rings trilogy just a week ago.
But at night this area is dangerous, with many bluffs and steep rocky slopes. One team ends up spending the night huddled on a two-metre-wide ledge, too frightened to move either up or down, waiting for first light so they can safely negotiate the bluffs.
NOC/Perception keep moving, and grab another hour’s sleep at the transition area before the final cycle. Somehow, Debbie has walked out the other side of her illness. She has almost got her voice back, and croaks that she is feeling better. The end is in sight, and they know it.
Waiting at the finish line, I again fight back pangs of guilt. As we enjoy beer and pizza, somewhere out there NOC/Perception and the Alleged Athletes are turning a seven-hour ride into another epic. They have been out for over 11 hours now, and counting.
Finally we see four headlights in the distance. Then we hear Mac talking! NOC/Perception have finished. It is 4 A.M., and it has been another tough leg through forestry trails, but they have finished in a creditable 10th place. At the finish line, the team exhibit a mix of emotions. For Norm and Tracyn, there is a niggling sense of disappointment that they did not do better. Debbie has ridden a physical rollercoaster and looks ecstatic. Mac, the garrulous southerner, is near tears.
An hour later, the Alleged Athletes storm in, whooping, hooting and still laughing. Then a huge cheer. It is Untouchedworld.com. They have completed the entire course—the first all-female team to do so. They, too, have achieved their goal . . . and they are still talking to one another.
Among the small knot of supporters and officials gathered on the beach at 6 A.M. I see members of both Star and Garter and Long International congratulating the teams as they come in. For me, this epitomises the spirit of the race. In how many week-long events would athletes wait around for days to congratulate their fellow competitors?
I join Mac and Debbie, who have hobbled away to the water’s edge, where they sit quietly basking in the glow of their achievement.
“What are you going to do to recover?” I ask.
“Well,” drawls Mac, “We’ve got a week left in New Zealand, so we’re going to go and do some of your great walking tracks.”
It seems the word “relax” doesn’t feature in the adventure racer’s vocabulary.