Tuesday, 7 April 2015

GODZone 2015

Lake Wanaka GODZone Adventure Race provided our team with many challenges both pre race and during. It is fair to say the the logistics didn’t go to plan and unfortunately the race wasn't too dissimilar, having more downs than ups! 

Mid 2014, we looked at our upcoming options and agreed New Zealand would be the ultimate for an Adventure Race and now was a great time to jump straight in the deep end and enter a race which is known to be one of the toughest Expedition Races on the World Championship circuit.

As we descended into Queenstown we were all blown away by the size and steepness of the endless number of huge mountains which surrounded us. It is fair to say that 4th Hill in our home town of Warrandyte and even One Tree Hill in the Dandenongs were like ant hills compared to what we were about to climb. But we were all excited, so "bring it on!"

We had arrived in Wanaka four days prior to the race and had shipped a large amount of gear several weeks earlier with the expectation of it being at our accommodation when we arrived. Although being told it should only take 3 days by the shipping company, we allowed almost 3 weeks. Unfortunately even before arriving in NZ it became clear that this was not going to be quite so straight forward and we found ourselves in Wanaka and our gear still stuck at the other end of the country in Auckland. We had put a great deal of trust in our Australian contact and the NZ shipping contracted company (and spending almost 2 days straight on the phone) that we were able to get it through customs. It is fair to say the stress levels were high all week and not an ideal lead up to what lay ahead. In the end our gear made it to Queenstown on the last flight of the day on Thursday evening and Paul and Bruce made it back 5 min before the compulsory race briefing with the boxes. We had been offered lots of gear by NZ teams, via Facebook and local shops if things didn’t work out, but we were so glad to have got the gear in the end.

We sorted gear and packed boxes on Friday with just a few details of the intended disciplines and distances provided, but found the size and weight restrictions on our gear boxes meant we couldn’t pack what we wanted. We ended up deciding to pack wetsuits for the first white water paddle (given we were expecting to possibly tip out into glacial cold water) and ditching some of the food we’d planned (which in the end turned out to be a poor choice).

We woke before 3 am Saturday to board buses and head to a scheduled stop where we had a short amount of time to get the maps and mark them up. We had two massive hikes (one which included traversing a glacier) and 2 white water canoe legs to tackle before sitting comfortably on our saddles. It was clear that we wouldn’t venture onto our mountain bikes until probably day 2-3. Not ideal but we were happy that the two ride legs were massive rides, being 130-150km each.

Our first trek was 22km of mountaineering up to and across the Brewster Glacier. This trek wasn’t great in that a couple of us suffered a little on the vertical ascent. Karina had never been at altitude before or in freezing conditions so became a little anxious as soon as we became exposed. Bruce wasn’t feeling great and to top that off we managed to drop some crampons on the way up during one of many a falls on the loose rocks. This meant we had to double back some distance to try to find them. This dropped us further down the field which was pretty demoralising. We were then to discover that the wind and rainy conditions had resulted in the cancelling of the glacier section. We contoured around the mountain until we hit another ridge a few hours later and were then able to start descending which allowed us to finally move a little faster. The descent was like walking down a ski run in the off season and was strewn with rocks, holes, tussock grass and low tough alpine shrubs. As we descended further it was more like a mossy water slide going down, we spent that much time slipping over and sliding on our bums, we were grateful for having waterproof pants on as this made the sliding so much easier, though Bruce ended up with a huge hole in his bum having caught himself on a branch. After some quite hairy steep downhill sections and then being stopped several times by a few sheer cliffs we finally navigated through the opening between two cliffs, which shot us out onto a riverside track and into the wet miserable transition where we could prepare for the White Water Canoe leg.

Stage 2 was 22km paddling white water down the fast rising Makarora River which was lots of fun. We definitely weren’t moving at any great speed as Bruce and Paul's double must have had a hole it in or something as they were paddling  their arms off and going no where fast.  We hit transition near dusk, and headed out on our next mammoth 56km alpine trek over the Albert Burn Saddle into the East Matukituki River area.

This trek began with several river crossings and after walking up and down trying to find a safe spot to cross we finally made it to the raft transfer point and onto the walking track. It was now 12 hours into the race and getting dark and we could see lights in front and behind for most of the night and 'back and forthed' with a number of teams. Arriving at the start of the Albert Burn track we crossed the river as directed, but shortly after the river tuned gorge like and we noticed other teams going back and forth all over the area. There appeared to be some very unusual routes being taken which made us think the river was not cross-able up ahead. With the other options looking too dangerous with teams scrambling over large rocks and wading in the rapids we then headed across and up along the marked track. As expected we ended up needing to cross the river again, but the fast flowing rapids at the marked spot were looking decidedly unpleasant and all the teams we saw were backtracking to scramble the other side of the river. We ended up deciding here at 3am that rather than spending possibly 2 hrs doubling back, we would bank some early sleep and get up at first light when hopefully the river had dropped and cross it. We planned to sleep 2hrs, but due to none of us waking to our alarm, this turned into 3hrs, but it was still dark so all good. We headed upstream as dawn broke and found a spot that we would try and cross.  We didn’t camp out and bank some sleep to then have to double back, so although the river was still looking quite angry, we were determined to cross. Linking arms and taking one small step at a time we safely made it to the other side. Day 2 was starting well with high 5’s all around!

We now had many km of following the river bank upstream before we hit some mountains again. We weren’t moving very fast here and could only manage walking pace. We crossed the river many times before starting to really climb upwards. There were some quite technical sections as we climbed where you had to hang on to tree roots and small foot holds made all the more difficult by the few hundred feet that had already been through. We had by now realised that this trek would take A LOT longer than anticipated and began to ration what we had left. Thankfully water was everywhere so hydration definitely wasn’t an issue. The walking track was very up and down, the heat of the day was with us now and we were feeling the effects of the combo of hills, heat and limited food supplies. It was along this track that Bruce took a big tumble on some tree roots and landed on his ribs, . He bounced up pretty quickly and powered on, however a bit later the effects of this fall started to cause bigger issues. At the end of this marked track the teams near us all took slightly different routes. We decided to go up high and over the cliffs. This included crawling along on our hands and knees to reach the top of some pinches and then sliding back down the other side on our bums. We probably went a little high and took a bit longer than those who went a more direct route, but  a plus side was we were able to find  lots of tiny snow berries growing on the ground that allowed us to delay raiding our now meager food rations a little longer. Paul was a big fan and devoured every berry he found, which may explain his speed later in the day. On our next upward climb beside a spectacular waterfall, we had to negotiate needle sharp Spaniard grass which pierced skin through even the thickest of clothing.

The rain set in more as we then hiked along river beds with sheer cliffs and cloud covered mountain peaks now towering over us from both sides. It was here that Bruce’s ribs started causing him more grief, so after some drugs and some pack reshuffling we started heading up the climb to the Whare Kea Chalet and our checkpoint. This again involved more hands and knees crawling for some and grabbing onto chucks of grass to pull yourself up. It now became evident that to get to the saddle and chalet we were going to have to climb up high, very high, in fact right to the peak of the mountain ahead.

It was on this ascent that Karina had a moment where she didn’t feel comfortable with the climb and after taking a bit of a slide down the hill, had to admit to the boys that yes “I was scared” and probably needed a bit of help and guidance. The scree slopes that soon surrounded us to Karina looked like slippery rock, so with Gus now having my pack and the boys showing her how safe the scree actually was and that it wasn’t too slippery, we headed to the top of the mountain, then down to the saddle and up to the chalet. It didn’t end up being the best of navigational choices, but plenty of other teams had also ventured up there (including Seagate which didn’t make Paul feel too bad).

We had visioned all day that the Whare Kea Chalet would be a basic mountain hut with a warm fire where we could warm up. The plan was to have some spag bol and get warm. As it turned out the chalet is a $2000 a night boutique apartment and there was no way they were letting any of us wet and muddy racers anywhere near the door! With light fading fast we pushed downwards while eating our much anticipated (but juicy cold uncooked 2 minute noodle style) spag bol. This descent wasn’t much fun, and delivered a burnt out area which was covered in big scratchy branches that caught on our packs and clothes and resulted in several falls in steep and cliffy terrain. We eventually found the path, which resembled more of a muddy, slippery, knee twisting slide. So we slipped and fell our way down this path at a pretty slow pace and seemed to take hours to reach the river. As we were descending, we could hear more and more clearly that the river was raging below us. It was here we were introduced to the New Zealand walking bridge which consisted of 3 wire cables with no netting or safety rope. The river below looked so wild and angry and sounded incredible. This turned out to actually be quite fun, and was a little bit of excitement to wake us up in the middle of the night. The track from here was reasonably flat, but was on the side of the river bank and at times it very slow and technical as it was quite eroded and lots of tree roots to negotiate. We stopped along this track several times to eat and fix feet. Progress here was slow and this track seemed to go forever. Bruce was looking very tired but we just wanted to make transition so pushed on. After passing several teams sleeping along the track we eventually arrived at transition just before dawn.

The team plan at this transition was to let Bruce have a quick sleep, while the other 3 of us prepared everything for the whitewater leg. It wasn’t long before first light, so we let him have 40mins sleep  in the inflatable raft before waking him to continue on our way. This white water canoe was 34km on the Matukituki River. The white water wasn’t as big as what we had imagined and made us think that maybe we should have tackled this at night, even floating down. About here the sleep monsters kicked in for Karina, but after a few no-doz she was back in action. We powered down this river passing two teams and finishing strongly into transition. It was a nice warm day and spirits were good as we deflated the rafts and set off on the coasteering/swim leg.

A little bit of a walk/trot out to the section of coastline we had to traverse, where we all packed our gear up into our dry bags. There wasn’t much rock jumping on this part, it was mainly swimming around the coast and walking in ankle deep water before arriving at the CP. It was now late afternoon, but the water was freezing and the swimming much longer than we’d anticipated. Due to our gear box for this leg not fitting much in it, Karina was the only one who had a wetsuit on and she was cold in that. The boys were all shaking at the CP, so after a bit of a dummy spit from Gus and a harden up pep talk from Karina, she grabbed Bruce and Gus’s dry bags tied them to her own and hit the water again. Slowly but surely we arrived on land again, where we had a quick run to transition to warm up and onto our bikes, yippee!!!

We had quite a slow transition, as we all needed to get our body temperatures back to normal. The wind kicked up as we headed out on the bikes towards Wanaka to collect our next maps. It was on this 20km ride into Wanaka that it became clear to all of us that Bruce’s condition wasn’t that great, as he is usually a very strong rider and he definitely wasn’t himself. We realised Bruce's ribs were causing him more grief than we appreciated. We soldiered on arriving in Wanaka at dusk as the sky darkened and the heavens opened.

After a quick interview,  and then Bruce having a chat with the medical team, we marked up most of the maps for the 2nd half of our GODZone Adventure. We were all struggling a bit with sleep at this point and marking up the maps took some time to comprehend. It was here that Bruce voiced his thoughts about not continuing the race. After some discussion it was decided that we would head into town and get some food and then discuss it further. After some damn good burgers in Wanaka, Bruce let us all know that the end of the race for him had arrived. All now feeling unsure of what this meant for the team, we headed back to headquarters to see what our options were.

As we came here as a team of 4, our main goal was to finish as a team of 4, so once this reality was taken from us, not all of us were keen to continue on racing as a team of 3 so a lengthy discussion ensued. You can continue on and just be unranked, but it did mean kayaking wouldn’t be straight forward, so our other options were to team up with another team who had lost a member or just do part of the course in our own time. We spoke to the organisers and they suggested maybe doing the next mtb and kayak legs, as they were very scenic. They also suggested as we now had plenty of time on our side going back to our accommodation and getting some sleep and continuing on the following morning. This seemed like a logical answer, so we headed to our apartment. On waking the next day, our team focus had definitely changed. We’d lost our mojo and we all seemed quite dejected and it wasn’t until just after lunch that we decided if we were going to do it there was no better time than now to get out there and smash it out on the bikes.

Our new “relaxed” approach, was aiming to ride well, but camp out in a cabin and get some sleep, stop for longer to eat, etc. We decided that as we were now quite a way behind (as we did stop for 16hrs) we were no longer racing. This mtb ride was 137km across the Criffel and Pisa Ranges and 2600 m of ascent. The plan of crusing didn’t last long, as we are all mountain bikers, so once we got into the groove on our bikes, we couldn’t help but ride fast and after passing a few teams our normal competitive spirit kicked in and we went even faster. The three of us all enjoyed the ride, Paul navigated it really well through the night and the team moral was back. There was more "hike a bike" than expected, however these sections didn't drag on too much for us. We were going to stop at a cabin and sleep but we were all feeling good and the cabin had many other teams sleeping in it, so we stopped on the side of the track for a few laughs, some yummy dehydrated roast lamb and vegetables and a hot drink, before pushing on into the early hours of the morning . It was half way through this ride that we decided to dig a bit deeper when we started passing teams that were doing maps when Bruce pulled out (effectively having a 20hr head start on us).

After many more hours of riding, we hit what we called the “contour road”. This one should have just contoured around the side of the mountain, however in reality it went up and down, up and down and continued to do this for uncountable kilometres. We would drop 200m vertical, then climb it, then drop, then climb, we bumped into a couple of teams along this stretch and although we were moving quite fast they were hot on our heels. Our competitive spirit was at an all time high was we pushed on, with Gus helping Karina out by towing her as they pushed bikes on foot up the hills. Eventually we started the descent down to the Kawarau River. This was fun riding, sliding our way down the grass out of the deer farm. Now we just had the long 39km stretch of flat, with a few sharp pinches on a rail trail like track to go. It was here that the sleep monsters well and truly kicked in for Karina. After a few no-doz she didn’t seem to be waking up at all. She said she felt like a zombie on a bike, but her legs actually felt ok so  kept pushing just hoping that she wouldn’t fall asleep. This part of the ride seemed to go forever. The view of Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu as we came into transition was amazing, but she was in no state to appreciate it.

On approaching the transition, she had been promised a sleep by the boys. We had been on our bikes for 22hrs at a very fast pace and she was officially smashed. She curled up in a ball, sleeping within 1 min of arriving at this transition. It was here she could hear officials talking around her and about her, talking about keeping an eye on her, is she ok? "I really wanted to acknowledge them but I no energy left for that" she said later. After a 2 hour sleep and then some much needed food that the boys made me, we moved onto the kayak leg. Karina was still in a bad way after the bike leg and her energy levels were very low. She couldn’t really think straight but soldiered on hoping that she would kick back in gear once on the water.

Once kayaking, the boys helped her along by going at a very conservative pace, to try and get her back to normal. We found the couple of checkpoints on the way and Karina eventually woke up and started feeling better. Gus rated her at a generous 50% efficient on this leg, as even when she did wake up, she was still lacking with energy levels. Along this leg we had a few cheers from Bruce, who had hired himself a car and drove past us while we were kayaking to Kingston at the southern end of Lake Wakatipu. The conditions went from dead flat, to a side wind, then some downwind paddling and back to flat on sunset. It is amazing how weather conditions change in NZ.  Makes Melbourne weather look stable!

Arriving at this transition there were mixed feelings.  Gus and Karina had considered this was our new finish line, as when Bruce had pulled out, our team plan was to do the mtb and kayak and then pull out. But Paul had enjoyed the last two stages and was still keen to keep going to the end. At this time Karina's energy was low and the fact that we had already stopped for so long and had a new game plan that we had just accomplished was fresh in her mind. If we were to continue, we had a compulsory 6hr stop here. As a team we decided to go with the plan, pull out here and head back to Lake Wanaka with Bruce.

Our GODZone Adventure wasn’t exactly what we had imagined. Although we did have an epic journey and went to some amazing places we won't ever forget, we had come expecting it to end differently and as a minimum to complete the whole course together. We've been doing this long enough to know nothing is guaranteed though in this sport. There were plenty of highs and lows and once again we all learnt so much about ourselves and each other on this team journey. One of the hot topics after the race was just how tough many of the New Zealand teams were and how fast they moved on the trekking stages, across very uneven ground. We really needed more specific training moving up, down and around in the cold, wet and tussock filled Alpine region, to help us be ready for the length of the climbs, the altitude, the freezing conditions and the exposure of being on top of a mountain with no where to hide.

Two valuable lessons we also learnt were not race related. In future we will make sure we travel WITH all our gear. We wasted a lot of nervous energy with the dramas we had would have had much greater control over getting our gear at the airport. We will also NOT wear our Dynamite T-shirts through customs. We were called in for two explosives searches in a row on our way through with some rather serious looking officers!

Thanks to Hydralyte, Kwik Kopy Braeside, Resicon and Microimage for the support to help us get there. Especially big thanks goes to our families who continue to support us each time we embark on these adventures even though they know it means we'll be away for extended periods training and racing.