How do you capture 128 hours of virtually non-stop racing into a few paragraphs without making it boring or arduous to read? The obvious answer is you can’t. But an early realisation that struck me upon a return to expedition style adventure racing last week was that the word “can’t” doesn’t really make the cut in the vocabulary of competitors (and organisers for that matter) involved in this sport. The key to success (defined more broadly as the ability to move four people (one team) through a 666km course to make the finish line) is to find a way, in spite of the many obstacles and variables that inevitably rear their heads along the way. That is not intended to disrespect any team who didn’t make the finish line. In fact, quite the opposite. I realise the possibility of not making the finish is very real for any team, but respect is earned by the team who willingly toes the start line and takes the chance.
Our team was already Richie McCaw, Simone Maier and Theo Wordsworth. But until five days before kick-off I didn’t know I would be part of it. Rob Nichol was caught in the Auckland Covid bubble and they needed someone to replace him. The decision to race wasn’t easy, but in the end I knew the challenge of stepping in was exactly what I needed. A bit of time spent suffering and riding the waves of emotion and uncertainty that the Godzone gives is good for the soul.
Adding to the adventure of it all, was the fact I didn’t know Richie or Theo at all personally. So I was a little apprehensive about how the four of our personalities and respective strengths and weaknesses would moult together over the ensuing five days of often high stress living.
Day one quickly put my mind at ease as we moved through the initial mountain bike and pack rafting stages with a nice balance of fun, competitive spirit and cooperative energy. We’d enter the mandatory 6 hour stop approximately 16 hours into the race with a collective realisation that we would be competitive in the scheme of the race if we managed ourselves well. It was an energising feeling. So energising however, that I didn’t sleep a wink in that period between 1am and 7am before we embarked on the next chunk of the race, a 138km mountain bike, 21km bush rogaine and 70km mountain bike without seeing our support crew.
The biking went well and we spent plenty of time with Tiki Tour from Queenstown in 2nd and 3rd place, a few hours behind Avaya (the current and multiple world champions). The rogaine was always going to be a crux part of the race and as the 4th of 12 stages, we knew we’d need to get this part right if we wanted a piece of the podium. It turned out to be a test of navigation and route finding at the highest level with lots of bush bashing, scrambling and following compass bearings through a wet and wild night for around 11-12 hours. We elected not to bring sleeping bags or a tent so we were committed to getting through this stage sans sleep. Luckily Theo did an exceptional job and by 5am we were rolling into transition having made good time. We elected for a quick 1 hour sleep in the back of a trailer before continuing on the next mountain bike as the dawn broke and day three rolled around.
It was around midday when we rolled into transition and met Marcel and Ash our support crew for the first time in about 30 hours. The next stage was number 6, a 54km packraft involving about 20km of carrying packrafts and gear (heavy packs!) then a 36km raft down the Mohaka river. The cut off for the dark zone was 8pm so we hoped we might make it to the river in time to make some progress downstream before having to camp through the night. However we’d underestimated how much steep terrain and bush-bashing/crawling/scrambling there would be for the first few hours of the stage and we started to realise we’d almost certainly be having to stop at the river. Knowing this would mean a number of chasing teams would catch up (we were currently in 2nd) we rationalised we’d at least bank more rest/sleep by arriving first.
We hoped to get to the checkpoint at the river then walk the next 4km downstream on a marked track, but in a moment of misunderstanding we were told we couldn’t do this so ended up camping at the checkpoint. Unbeknown to us Tiki Tour did end up walking the extra 4km (legal under the wording of the rules, so good on them) and we’d start the paddle at 7am energised by a solid sleep of about 6-7 hours, but somewhat deflated by the sudden deficit to 2nd place that had occurred overnight.
The Mohaka was a fun piece of grade 2+ river and despite being quite cold for most of it, we really enjoyed picking our way through the rapids and being off our tired feet for a few hours. By the end of the paddle we were comfortably in 3rd and about 40min behind Tiki Tour.
Now came the queen stage, a 88km trek across the Kaimanawa ranges, accumulating around 6000m of elevation gain along the way. This was the stage we’d all been keeping on eye on knowing it was likely to present the biggest challenges of the race. Over the next 33 hours (we stopped for a 2-3hr sleep) we’d deal with the usual adventure racing suspects: sore feet, aching bodies, swollen joints, moments of hot and cold stress, mouth ulcers etc, but at the same time we became motivated and energised by the fact this was exactly what we’d chosen to expose ourselves to. Richie would often remind us that we were getting exactly what we wanted from this trek. Simone was also quick to remind us to stop ‘doodling’ which was a kind way of telling us lads to keep the pace on. Theo was finding ridge lines through dense bush and ticking off checkpoints like a seasoned pro (I would sometimes forget he was only 28 years old and doing his first race in the role of lead navigator). After Tiki Tour had crept away from us through the middle of this trek, we couldn’t believe it when we arrived into transition 7 at 10pm with their headlights suddenly just metres ahead of us.
Onto the short stage 8 cycle along the Tongariro cycle trail towards Lake Taupo we were motivated to be well and truly back in the race for 2nd. My knee was pretty swollen and didn’t seem to enjoy moving around the pedals much initially, but Theo towed me as it warmed up and we were quickly moving well. Richie’s feet which had bugged him a fair bit trekking were also much happier on the bike too.
We arrived at the shores of Lake Taupo just ahead of Tiki at 11.30pm and elected for a 2hr sleep. Without knowing Tiki’s plans for this transition we were determined to stick to our own team strategy and not be swayed by what they were doing. It would have been easy at this late stage in the race (about 20 hours from the finish) to get involved in a one-on-one battle. But we knew our best approach would be to consider how best to get the four of us to Rotorua in the shortest possible time. A 2hr sleep made sense.
It was quite surprising to start the paddle just after 2am and find Tiki right on our tail. But once again, we needed to focus on the job at hand and do our own thing. This involved Theo finding his way around the lake in the dark, which again he did incredibly well. At times Simone and I were paddling at the front with our head torches off (so we could see the outline of headlands as key navigational features) under a night sky full of stars. It was magical time in the race for me and I loved every second. It also made staying alert a little tough, so a few No Doze were popped by the team just to help avert a sleep-induced spill into the lake. The dawn would eventually arrive with cloudy skies and make both navigation and staying awake considerable easier.
The stage 9 kayak would take us about 7 hours and by the time we were hobbling up to our mountain bikes, we had created a pretty solid lead on Tiki. All we had to do from here was keep the pace steady through the 56km bike, 13km packraft and 38km bike stages and we’d be looking at an early evening finish back in the Whakarewarewa forest in Rotorua.
By 5pm on Wednesday, just under 128 hours since we’d begun the journey on Friday morning the week before, we crossed the Godzone Pure finish line in second place behind Avaya. We’d managed to keep ourselves healthy, motivated and energetic enough for over five days to get the job done and boy it felt good. The mince pie and Cargo Brewery Lager went down a treat and we could now look forward to a hot shower and a warm bed.
Personally I have often grappled with the idea of expedition racing for a number of years. The lack of sleep, uncertainty of team dynamics and overall toll on the body are things I have considered worthy of caution. But I am also a firm believer that being in the elements, suffering for prolonged periods of time and dealing with stressful moments is very much in our DNA as human beings. In many ways, Godzone is what it truly means to be living. If nothing else it offers us a chance to truly appreciate the comforts of the modern world, which we are all guilty of taking for granted. As Richie would remind us throughout the race: when you think you are doing it tough, there is always someone who is having a worse day than you. This certainly gives a healthy perspective on any situation.
I want to thank my crew at Bivouac Outdoor who stepped up on two days notice to get me some critical pieces of clothing and equipment after my late call up. I also want to thank the iSport Foundation for getting behind our team and for the work they do to keep young people in sport. It’s a wonderful cause and one I believe very strongly in. Thanks to our crew of Marcel and Ash who probably operated on less sleep than us for the week as they chased us around cleaning and organising our gear along the way. Finally thank you to my amazing team mates Simone, Theo and Richie. You three were a true pleasure to race with and I have learned and been inspired by each of you. Thanks for having me on your team and I am super relieved and proud that it all came together for us in the heat of battle. Something I owe the three of you for immensely.
So that is it for the 2021 summer race season. The Godzone was never part of the plan but I cannot now imagine not having done it. It will be a good few weeks before I feel ‘normal’ again but I will certainly have a new appreciation for the warm bed, hot showers and cooked meals I can now go back to enjoying as the body recovers.
Thanks to everyone who followed and supported us.