2014 GodZone: Chapter 3

(Note, for those playing along at home, a full collection of photos can be found here, and maps here).

In the lead up to GODZone Chapter 3, all the pre-event information was indicating a tough race ahead: more elevation, a longer course and more technical paddling.  Having toed the start line of all three editions of GODZone, I can certainly attest to the 2014 race being tougher than the 2013 race, and probably as tough as the first one, although for different reasons which I’ll get into later.

GODZone Chapter 3 made the move from Queenstown to Kaikoura, and again I would be joined by a completely new team with Russ, Danielle and Steve.  The team came into the race with three clearly stated and ordered goals: 1) to finish, 2) to have fun and 3) to race.  I knew with the experience and strength in the team we had what it took to tick off all of those goals and hopefully get a good result if it all came together on the week of the race.  Ultimately we achieved the first goal (coming in at around 24th place albeit on the short course), I’d like to think we ticked off the second goal (although as usual “fun” is generally a retrospective sentiment) and the third goal went out the window pretty early on in the race.

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A gear intensive sport. The team en route to GODZone.

The move to Kaikoura opened up a whole new area of New Zealand to explore.  The only time I’ve been to NZ is to do this race, now on three occasions.  With all the pre-race preparation and faff, it felt like I didn’t get a good chance to explore much of Kaikoura itself, so it was welcome news to see that the first two legs would take in a tour of the headland that the township was based on, first by an abbreviated paddle in the bay and then a coasteering run around the headland itself.  I teamed up with Danielle for this section while Russ ran with Steve, the course logistics mandating a split of the team for these two legs.  One of the most pleasurable aspects of this leg was the fact that we didn’t have to carry our mandatory gear with us, making for an enjoyable run.  Our two pairs finished within a couple of minutes of each other and were out onto the first real leg of the race – a 53km mountain bike ride –  in around 20th place.

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Liam and Dan coasteering on Stage 1.

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Steve and Russ on the Stage 2 ocean kayak

Although starting simply enough, the crux of this mountain bike leg came down to an important route choice requiring an unavoidable hike-a-bike climbing about 400m in elevation between two trail networks.  Choices came down to 1) sticking to the river valley as long as possible before joining up on a track (an option we originally considered in map mark-up, then discarded),2) going straight up the guts on the shortest but steepest route following a fence line through mostly clear terrain (our marked route), or 3) going out of our way to the west on a longer route which did more climbing on trails, but would require a longer distance of travel and a hike-a-bike through forestry.  Post-race discussion suggests that the route up the middle, which we had originally intended was the fastest.

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On the mountain bikes, not long before our trouble began.

When we reached the stockyards for the turn off to the track we were after, the landowner was out front of his place discussing the map with another team.  He suggested that by going on the longer western route, there was actually an unmarked track that connected all the way through to the ridgeline that we wanted.  My only regret to come out of this year’s race was to follow that suggestion and not stick to our original plan.  In hindsight, I’m pretty sure he’d never seen a topo map in his life, because after making the steep climb up the road with a number of other teams we were left with the most horrendous bush bash with our bikes.  I’d rate it as the worst moment of an adventure race.  Ever.  It was the hardest thing I’ve done in an adventure race.  Ever.  We covered less than a 1km in 2.5 hours hauling our bikes through steep, impenetrable forest in the dark and rain, all the time knowing that we were losing time, energy and race positions.  The only silver lining was that we had a number of other teams for company with us.  The final washup was that a leg that should have taken about 10 hours, took almost 14 hours.  I can’t speak for the others on the team, but my spirits were hit pretty hard from that leg, more so for the poor route choice and being back in around 34th position.

MTB Route Choice

Route choice on the first mountain bike leg.

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Not the first, and certainly not the last, bike mechanical.

Despite the hard night, we knew there was plenty of race course ahead of us and we were ready to put the leg behind us.  The next stage was one of the key legs of the race – a long trek through remote terrain with multiple river crossings and climbs up to 2500m elevation.  This leg was a show piece of NZ wilderness.  Travel along the numerous rocky streams and rivers was amazing and passing over the col near Tapuae-o-Uenuku through the snow just after dawn opened up jaw dropping views.  Unfortunately, bad luck was the order for the team.  All the hike-a-bike in bike shoes had cooked Dan’s ankle and she was finding it quite painful over the rough and rocky terrain.  This killed our average speed and we realised pretty early on that we would have to revise our original time estimate of 32hrs upwards to anywhere closer to 2 days.  In the end we were out on that leg for 44 hours.  We also took our first sleep for the race on this stage.  Again, we were unlucky with the timing, forced to sleep late on the second afternoon before full dark on an uncomfortable rocky ridge at 1320m, knowing that if we didn’t stop then, there may be very few other locations to sleep before making it down from the col near Tapuae.  Although we bedded down for 3 hours, I don’t think anyone got good quality sleep on the rocky, sloping ridge with a parade of teams nearly walking on our heads.  A team discussion on the best way forward had us off again with our first goal in mind, with the resolution to see what the rest of the course had in store for us and to manage any issues as they arose.  I was pretty proud of the team at this point: it would have been easy to decide to pull the pin with Dan’s ankle injury and call for a lift out via a track we had crossed earlier that afternoon, but everyone stuck together.

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The decent off George Saddle in the dawn light down steep scree.

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Waiting our turn to cross the Clarence River via the zip line.

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The team on the climb up from the Clarence River

Despite the slow progress with the injury, we were treated to a spectacular ascent and a brilliant day of trekking.  Interestingly, CP9, a tricky checkpoint tucked away at the base of a small waterfall would be the last CP we would punch out on the course – all remaining legs would be a direct route between TAs with no CPs to collect.  Arriving into the TA on the third night of racing, we were walking zombies reduced to almost a crawl with sleep deprivation.  We crashed out in the transition area for 3 blissful hours of dry, warm, flat, sleep.  Amazingly, Seagate had already finished the next 153km ride and 38km trek leg and were 3 hours into the 101km canoe leg by this stage.  A truly world champion team putting on a show in their own backyard.

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Rogue on beginning the final ascent to the Tapuae col in the early dawn light.

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Team photo at the highest part of the course. A hard earned CP with the upcoming decent behind us.

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One of innumerable crossings of the Hodder River.

With some quality sleep we set out on the bikes early in the morning.  10km in, I managed to strip the thread on my pedal so that it was no longer attached to the crank.  I had more bike mechanical problems this one race than I’ve had in the last couple of years combined, however the pedal managed to survive the next 269km riding to the finish line.  The sole checkpoint of this leg had been removed due to land owners revoking access, and although it made for a slightly longer ride, it was on easier gravel road.  It was great to finally get into a bit of a rhythm as well on the bikes, with Steve pulling big turns on the front as the wide open plains of Molesworth Station slipped by quickly.  Highlights include a stop at the bakery at Hanmer Springs and a visit from my family at the transition area at the end of the ride.

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A 153km mountain bike ride across Molesworth Station.

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“Crossing the map” the easy way.

The next trek was the stage I was looking forward to most after seeing the maps.  Two A3 1:50,000 maps with a transition area at either end, untouched wilderness in between and not a single checkpoint to collect along the way: 100% pure route choice.  We settled on a route that followed a major ridgeline in almost a straight line from point to point.  The climb in the early afternoon went well, and once we were up high above 1400m, we were treated to 360 degree views by the full moonlight of mountain tops peeking out from a sea of clouds.  A very special adventure racing moment.  During the entire trek I was calculating our rate of travel and what we would need to do to finish the stage to give us enough time to get out on the next canoe leg for a couple of hours paddling before the dark zone to ensure we made the looming short course cutoff.  Things were looking good for the first half of the trek – Dan’s ankle was managing the climbing fine and we were moving well, stopping for a 2hr sleep on a saddle between Mt Skiddaw and Skaw Fell.  It was after this sleep that we came across another team back tracking towards Scaw Fell.  They reported that the route uphead was impassable unless you were four dedicated rock climbers, however we pushed on and managed to get through fine.  Their alternate suggested route looked like it was going to add a day of trekking and potentially be even steeper, so it was never a viable option.

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A misty traverse through beech forest at dawn.

Timings to make the cutoff were looking tight, but definitely doable until we hit the final climb up to Jollie Brook Mountain.  This required a traverse through a beech forest in the misty dawn light – again a beautiful part of the world but slow going unfortunately.  To cap it off, the descent off Jollie Brook was also slow, managing to get bluffed out on one particular tricky section.  Ultimately, navigation and travel went as well as could be hoped, but by the time we arrived at the transition area we didn’t have enough time to transition and get enough paddling done to warrant heading out on the boats.

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The ascent up Jollie Brook Mountain after clearing the forest. The ridgelines and terrain we had covered through the night can be seen behind us.

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A sketchy decent of Jollie Brook.

A full night of sleep and we were up early for the opening of the darkzone on the paddle.  The writing was on the wall at this stage, and with river levels dropping it was unlikely that we would make the short course cutoff.  The reality was also that Dan’s ankle probably wouldn’t have stood up to another trek leg anyway.  She had been a real trooper all race, pushing through the pain so that we could finish as a team.  It would have been easy for her to pull the pin at a number of stages, particular with some daunting terrain ahead, so my full respect goes out to such a strong effort.  The paddle down the Hurunui River was another race highlight with consistent grade 2+ rapids for the top section of the river before the flow widened out and slowed over the next 25km.  It’s just not possible to do this sort of paddling back home and another reason why every Australian adventure racer should add GODZone to their bucket list.

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Steve and Russ running the Hurunui River.

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A quick stop to re-inflate the boats.

In the end we were just 1.5hrs short of the long course cutoff after missing the darkzone the night before.  All we were left with was a final 123km bike ride to the finish line, only there was one problem: no bikes.  While other teams transitioned and headed off for the ride, we joined race medic Trina for a trip to the pub lunch at Hurunui and a catch up on all the war stories from the race to date.  2.5hrs later, our bikes had arrived and we were off in the late afternoon for the trip home.  Steve’s ironman prowess come to the fore here and he sat on the front of the paceline for the whole 123km – we managed to knock off the ride in a little over 5.5 hours, crossing the line as a ranked team after almost 5.5 days of racing.

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On the ride home.

As I alluded to earlier, I’d rate this as one of the toughest courses I have done.  The first edition of GODZone felt harder, but in hindsight that was because we were dealing with the unknown and unexpected – the NZ terrain was a real eye opener on that occasion.  I’d rate the terrain as significantly harder this year.  If we were to go back with the same team and accumulated experience from this year to do the 2012 race, I think we would find it much easier going than the 2014 race.

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Finish line relief.

Although not quite the result we had hoped for going into the race, I was proud of how the team stuck together and helped each other out through their strengths and weaknesses.  5.5days was certainly enough adventure for me, and we got to see all of the course highlights, although it would have been great to do the final coastal trek with some tricky CP locations on land used in the world rogaine champs a couple of years ago.  In my pre-race write up, I made the call that it would be tough for any international team to do well in this race, and so it proved.  Kiwi teams filled the top 14 places, with only two international teams managing a ranked, full course result and the top Australian team in 20th place.

After chapter 1 and chapter 2 of GODZone, I included a section in my race report of things that I would improve or do differently.  Having done the event three times now, I definitely feel like I’ve I got a handle on what it takes to do well in this race: it’s just a matter of having it all come together on the day.  Being on long service leave in the lead up, I was managing a couple of 8-10 hour training days each week, focussing on long treks/MTB rides with a heavy pack on rough steep terrain.   I still believe this is the perfect sort of training for this race, assuming you have the paddle skills to negotiate the white water canoeing and sea kayaking.  There are a couple of other points to come out of the race though for improved performance.

–          Sleep.  After 4 or 5 expedition races, I’m now of the opinion that it is worth taking a small nap (approximately half an hour) on the first night, particularly if you are a mid-pack team that is going to be out there for 5+ days, not 3 like the winners.  Every time we’ve pushed through the first night without sleep, we seem to have a bad second day and have to pull up for a sleep way too early on the second night.  Having the race start at 1pm made this a difficult option as we had only been racing for around 12 hours by the time you would normally stop for a sleep.  I seem to cope pretty well without sleep, but as a team we were horrifically slow coming off the first trek almost purely due to sleep deprivation.

–          Navigation.  I definitely handled the navigation better when there weren’t other distracting factors around, whether it be other teams, landowners advice or even co-navigating with my own team mates (in some ways, sharing the responsibility is not necessarily a good thing – on a couple of occasions we convinced each other of the wrong option).  However, the reality is that there are always going to be these distractions in any race, so it is matter of learning to manage the job of navigation properly despite these external influences.  I suspect the answer really boils down to concentration.

–          Saddle rack.  I’m still a fan of using a saddle rack on the bike during an expedition race, although in future I’ll opt for a lighter, smaller rack with less load on it.  I was loading up the rack with all my gear and my share of the team gear.  While this was great to get the full weight off the back, it made the bike handle like a pig on any decent or corner, and a nightmare to hike-a-bike.  While I’m at it, a hard tail would be the bike of choice for this race over a dualie.  The riding was either on well graded, undulating roads, or hike-a-bikes up stupidly steep off-trail gradients.  In both cases, a lighter hard tail would be more preferable than a dualie.  The extra water bottle cage would also be welcome.

–          Transitions.  Our transitions, while improved over previous races, were still too slow.  Less is more.  I wore the same knicks and shirt for the last 4.5 days of racing.  While we had great weather and didn’t need much backup clothing on this occasion, I could definitely pack less to simplify things in the TA.

–          Food.  I finally got the quantity and type of food dialled down for this race.  The only food I didn’t eat was for the legs we didn’t do.  9-10 pieces plus a main meal for every 8 hours.

Anyway, a lot of time, effort and expense goes into doing one of these races.  Thanks to Steve, Russ and Danielle for another rewarding experience. There were plenty of funny moments in training and in the race (like Russ dying to do a crap on the final exposed ascent to Tapuae with nowhere to hide as a stream of teams came past).  Thanks also to my family for their support before, during and after the race.  Mum and Dad came over to NZ for a second time to help with childcare duties which is truly going above and beyond.  I hope to make it back to Godzone again in the not too distant future.  With 2015 being an XPD year, I’ll wait and see the announcements on locations, timings and costs on making a call between the two (my assumption is I won’t get a leave pass for both).  I’d certainly love to come back and have the perfect race.  I suspect it is the illusion of the perfect race that keeps me in the sport.

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Family support – at all hours of the morning.

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