It was a long road to Godzone in Rotorua, originally scheduled for November 2020, Covid-19 forced some changes bumping out the date until March 2021. As well as the date change the format was also altered with the addition of support crews for all teams, so this year was always going to be a bit different. With preparations well underway, I did a quick trip up to the Uratawa’s with Bobby to scope out the terrain a bit. With 1 weekend to go in the middle of packing, Auckland was thrust into level 3 lockdown, while the rest of us into level 2. Godzone had prepared for something like this to happen, and there was a couple of days of uncertainty right up until the start of the race.
It was a two car pick up from the airport on Wednesday morning ahead of the race with Bobby and Anna (+ Toni) and we were off to the supermarket to shop like we were planning a 5yrs birthday party, then it was out to our home base for the race, Bobby’s Family holiday house at Tarawera. It was an awesome location to hangout and prepare for the race.
Stage 1: Mountain Bike, 40km
Under level 2 restrictions for the race start, we were staggered into start blocks of about 80 people. We started in the 3rd start block, but it didn’t actually feel all that different to starting any other race in fact it may have even worked out better as we hit the single track in the redwoods. Bobby’s local knowledge of the trails meant that Stru and I had a free pass on the maps while, I had a hard time just matching pace with the Freak Weasel! We quickly caught teams from the waves of starters in front of us which caused a little bit of frustration. At that particular trail end we broke out and all was well again. One hour into the race we exited the redwoods and headed for the next section of trail. We got a little bit of luck when the only checkpoint on this trail became very obvious due to all the other teams milling around in the forest at the side of the track. Checkpoint down we got our hustle on again only to be caught a little later by a fast moving Avaya team, a quick exchange of words and they were gone.
The rest of the ride had quite a fun little downhill and a small road section where traffic was stopped for us. Claire got the most support from the waiting cars,”Go , go, go, beat the boys!”
Stage 2: Packraft/Trek, 68km
Transition to the packraft was pretty much as simple as grab the rafts and run to the beach. It was nice for a bit of a change up, but the paddling felt hard across the lake in the slow rafts. Upon arrival to the shore line of this short section we had to run up the boat ramp through a boat wash, almost like one of this decontamination showers you see on the news when there has been a chemical spill. For Stru it was quite refreshing, but for at least myself if was a chilly. The section of trail between these two lakes was about 2km so there was little point in deflating the rafts. A ridiculous looking precession of multicoloured packrafts made their way through the forest the next put in.
At the end of the next lake section it was deflation time, and we were off into the bush. Initially it was a little daunting taking that first step of track but we hit our target almost dead on. Only thing was we didn’t believe it or look around the checkpoint site well enough and didn’t find it immediately, so we lost a little bit of time going backwards and forwards. Once it was sorted there was a bit of a traverse through the bush which we seemed to make good progress through. Ironically as we exited the forest, Ataraxia popped out onto the trail behind us almost the same distance behind as we went in!
Another lake section had us inflating packrafts and washing down the boats and shoes. This crossing was a bit nicer with a light tail wind, and the sun was out which made it quite enjoyable. We almost made a big navigation mistake on the climb up the hill but sorted it out quickly and things didn’t end up not too bad in the end. We caught up with a number of teams along this bit, and darkness caught up with us here as well. It was difficult to go wrong through here as the trail just seemed to continue all the way along the hill, and a trapline/trail worked its way along the top of the spur too.
As we summitted and started the descent we were with just one other team, 20minutes later and positions 4th to about 10th were altogether in a huge train. On the road to Tarawera falls we put on a bit of a jog which established a gap on a few teams. Ultimately we were joined by Team Mot and Highland events, but I couldn’t handle the pace, I needed water and food, and caused us to drop back. I had some respite with Bobby carrying my pack for a bit which helped keep our position.
Navigating Lake Tarawera in the dark turned out to be not as tricky as I thought it could be. There were a few lights/glow sticks to follow, it was just a long paddle in a packraft We eventually reached the Isthmus track, portaged the boats over the hill and into the final little section of lake. At around 1am we reached the shoreline and then just another short little jog of 5kms into transition for our compulsory 6 hour stop.
We are still unsure as to why there was a 6 hour stand down, maybe it was something to do with the forestry roads and our access, anyway it was what it was and I don’t think anyone was complaining too much! It was great to have some hot food, hot drinks, warm clothes and a sleep. The stop actually went pretty quickly!
Stage 3 – Mountain Bike, 134km
We started out on our bikes for the long ride pretty much at dawn and it was going to be a nice sunny day. The first few hours seemed to be largely downhill and felt like we almost had a tail wind! As we got close to Murapara, I felt some fading going on and started to struggle to keep on the “Weasel pain train”. I was also a bit concerned about getting cooked ahead of the rogaine so I was put on the tow line. It worked well and we all kept close together to the start of the Moerangi Trail. The single track started off pretty steeply then evened out and we made good progress. It was a fun trail to ride, with some steep sides and in some places steep drop off’s, the kind you didn’t want to miscalculate. By the evening we were making our way out of the carpack and onto the Whirinaki trail, to get us into transition. This consisted of more and more climb, and then some descent with more and more climb. We arrived in TA pretty much with the same teams around us again. As we fueled up with some hot food, we had our gear checked off and then made our way into the forest. There was only about 1 hour of light left, so we made best use of this while we could.
Stage 4 – Rogaine, 21km
The rogaine section, I think I got a little bit intimidated by the thought of it and it psyched me out a bit. I only managed to get a small amount of food in before we hit the end of the marked trail and I was a bit unsure of how far along the continuing trapline we were. The travel was so good we continued on it, but it was not taking us quite in the right direction. We took a bit of a gamble here, thinking that when we hit the stream at the bottom of the trapline there might be a continuing trail to the lagoon and where the main trail joined. The rain then really came in and the darkness came with it. We were all pretty soaked by the time we hit the river at the bottom. Unfortunately the gamble didn’t pay off and there was no trail. We had to feel our way along the sides, picking up a few game trails here and there. We did manage to peel off at just the right time to get us to the lagoon though. Full darkness hit us just after the checkpoint, and we made good but slow progress to the First Rogaine checkpoint A.
Things were looking good as I filled my drink bottle prior to the climb. But I fumbled sticking it back in its holder and as I did, I heard a “plop!” My heart sank as I realised it was my compass, and it had disappeared, never to be seen again. We hunted around for a few minutes but it was a goner…. Stru hastily handed over his one, a left handed one, which required me to adjust my style from my right handed one. Stru was left with the less reliable backup one.
CP B did not need a compass, it was just a matter of climbing the spur until we found it. and it was just as simple as that. Climbing down off the spur to the next control proved to be a bit rough and there was a bit of slipping and sliding around on the wet undergrowth. We used a creek bed to get to our attackpoint but it didnt not provide good travel. Eventually we were able to climb out of the creek again, as we did the rain came in worse. We just had to keep following the spur up, which sounds simple, but it was almost a labyrinth sometimes finding the saddle to the next high point with bugger all visibility as the mist had descended into the forest. CP C proved to be tricky, but not impossible.
Travel to D involved a traverse along a spur, then a climb up to a high point. Near the high point we caught up to Team Mot, who were probably no more than 100m in front the whole time, but the visibility was so poor we saw them for about 5 minutes and they disappeared again.
Our plan had deviated a little from the original, and the travel to E was less reliant on handrails and more reliant on compass bearings…. We initially made good progress to the high point and it should have been a straight forward bearing down to the next stream…. however as we started on our bearing, Stru called me back and somehow convinced me we were heading 180 deg in the wrong direction… Now it was early morning and fatigue was probably setting in… I was using an unfamiliar compass in conjunction with Stru using the back up compass which was cheap and relied on being held level to work properly… Down the hill we went, It felt to me like we had just come up from there, and Bobby picked up on it too, but we ignored our instincts and place all our trust in the compass. Once we hit the bottom, things came apparent that the streams were flowing the wrong way and what we were seeing was not matching what it should in reality. After some mucking around we finally decided to head back to the top of the hill, retook the bearing, and were back on track.
The stream in front of us looked so obvious and we jumped up onto a spur leading to the CP eager to make up for our mistake. Doubt set in my mind quickly but the guys wanted to push ahead climbing higher, so we did, things didn’t level out with what they should on the altimeter, and we were forced to backtrack and climb once again at the next stream junction.
We climbed out of E heading to G and planned to take the conservative route along the stream bed. This was not a good plan as once again travel in the stream was shit, so we climbed our way out of it and dropped back into another stream bed. We had cut in quite early so it was even more terrible travel up the stream to G. Just one to go now.
As the sun came up we climbed the spur to the final CP I. Unfortunately my brain checked out as it seemed straightforward, it also appeared my backup had switched off too. So when we got to the top of the ridgeline we just failed to find the connecting spur to the higher part. Some how we ended up trapped on top of a hill and in the twilight zone, confused. After much dithering about, trying to figure out why we were about at the right altitude but not able to climb higher we backtracked, and I tried again. This time (and we crossed the same tree for the 3rd time) it seemed super simple and in about 10 minutes we were at I and on our way out of there.
The hardest part of the travel to the next CP was telling the others that we still had about 6kms of untracked bush to go to the TA. I feel like we lost a bit of mojo going up this spur, maybe it was the tiredness. I also managed to loose yet another compass, so we were down to the backup backup compass… After an age of following a hunters trail we popped out onto a forestry road, and thought it was all plain sailing. Stru was in quite a state, a little bit unco and I’m pretty sure he had given up looking at the map. The “straight forward” forestry road provided us with yet another puzzle, we ended up on a parallel trail to the one we should have been on. Eventually this one ended and we had to bush bash a little to cut through. We were almost on the point of giving up when Bobby just went that little bit further and got us there.
Stage 5: Mountain Bike, 70km
I sort of had this faint hope that everyone had had trouble in the rogaine, but somehow most of the teams we were around were now well in front. It makes me a little sick just thinking about how much time we bled away in there now. I guess there was the lost compasses, but I think we lost the fight a bit there for a while partly as we knew there was no way we were going to avoid the packrafting darkzone.
When we started out on the bikes we started out slow, I think it we were thinking that we were going to waltz into transition and have a good sleep and saunter into the darkzone at the very start of the packraft right on time. Turns out we were living in dream world…. The first checkpoint on the mountain bike stage cost us an hour just like that, super confusingly we seemed to be on parallel tracks to the checkpoint and even now I cannot work out how we got it so wrong first time around. Eventually we got it by backtracking and taking a different route to get it.
Things got better a little later on after a nasty bash along into a headwind, then a refreshing deep crossing of a small looking stream. Much amusement was had during the bashing section of the bike carry, probably where most of the teams picked up the majority of their cuts and scratches.
Again we were caught out a little later taking a perpendicular road for a little way resulting in an extra few kms we probably didn’t need to do. Stru was going deeper and deeper into a bit of a mental hole and tiredness was catching up on us all. The headwind remained as we had to bike along the mega wide grass verge of SH5 for 6km or so before the turn off towards the Te Iringa Trail. Some of our support team were spectating at the junction, just the sight of them was enough to spur us along. Darkness set in as the road entered the forest for the final 8km and we persisted for quite some time before lights came out.
Some time around 9pm we rolled into the campsite all ready for a bit of a sleep. The trek to the river bed (and darkzone) was estimated to be about 5 to 6 hours, which meant that there wasn’t as much time as we hoped to sleep. This is where the mistake of taking it easy on the bike started to hit home. We would have to leave by about 1am to ensure we got to the river bed as the darkzone was lifted.
Stage 6 – Packraft/Trek, 54km
It’s never easy waking up after 2 hours sleep in the middle of the night, it feels freezing cold even if it’s not even that cold. Anna was on wake up duty, and apologised profusely for having to. Hot food and drink in before we left was so good though!
Back into the swing of things, we started with a road walk, where we were going to follow a stream bed up to hook onto a spur that would take us to the top. Only thing is that the stream was difficult to pick up in the dark. I forced us to back track, but we backtracked almost too far, then picked up an alternative route that put us bang on a trap line. It was a simple trap line to follow for the most part until a bend in the spur in the dark had us a bit trapped. It took us a while to work the puzzle out, and once it was worked out, we wondered why it was so tricky. CP down, it was now onto a continuation of the spur traverse which was simple to start with, then got complicated when we had to get around some nasty vegetation. We dropped too far down, then the siddle back to the ridge required us to climb back up again. For some part of this section there was a trap line, but it disappeared and there was some super weird stuff going on there for a while as we bashed and bashed our way up to the high point which would connect us to the track. This took up so much time it was now clear there was no way we would make the darkzone, dawn was rolling in fast, hitting us as we hit the track.
Things were looking up again on the track we estimated it might take us about 2 hours to get the 15 or so kms to the put in. Teams started popping up from all over the place here, some had camped and some were traversing below the actual track (Not sure what they were up to??). At around 10am we hit the Oamaru hut and it was nearly packrafting time.
The river was quite low to start with, we anticipated the river would started out easy (meaning easy going?) the rapids may have been on the easy side, but the river was anything from easy going. The shallow rocks meant it was in and out of the boat. Something also happened to Stru here, it was like all of a sudden the light switch had been turned back on and we were racing again!
We chickened out on the Sphincter rapid which we portaged, truth be told I didn’t fancy being wet and cold for the next 4+ hours. As it was I needed to put my jacket on not long afterwards. We spent the rest of the paddle switching places with the Victory Vets, and it was an enjoyable ride with some really interesting rapids… albeit with not quite enough water to avoid the constant impacts with rocks lurking below the water surface.
After the climb up to TA6 at the exit we suddenly found ourselves with 3 other teams and things were looking up again. The race was about to get real with the 88km trek.
Stage 7 – Trek, 88km
I was looking forward to it with a bit of nervous anticipation, it was just such a long way to go, and because dusk was only 1.5 hours away. It was looking like we would be out for two nights, which as the navigator puts the pressure on. We were the second lot of our group to leave along the road, being fairly straightforward it was the perfect opportunity to eat, and while we did there was a lot of amusement and laughter, spirits were really high. By middle hill hut darkness had set in and as we climbed I started to get really sleepy. It was real windy when we hit the exposed ridge and of course, quite cold. Jackets on, and the hoods up seemed to put me into a different world far away from where we were. Stru was onto it through this section and he took the lead, taking all the correct turns along the tops and back into the forest again. We decided to sleep at the Venison tops hut, which the closer we got the further away it seemed. Our eventual arrival was much appreciated, there was even a whole room to ourselves
Our 4 hour sleep here was pretty darn good, there were a few disturbances as some others came and went during the night, but by 5am we were back on the trail. Dawn arrived as we entered into an open tops section and by about 9am we had a 15 minute stop, where Nutrient Rescue appeared to be hot on our heels. For the next 6km or so they trailed us and only caught us just after Harkness Hut. Having been feeling strong all morning I went into a low patch, while we moved together with them for the next hour or so. They made a break while we just kept surging to catch them and then letting them go again right through the heat of the day until CP27.
CP27 was a little out of the way, a short climb up from the track. I knew this CP was going to be manned and thought there might be a gear check or something here, so I made our whole team go up to the hut while one of the Nutrient Rescue guys went into clip the CP. Turns out this was a backcountry meal hut, manned by Sarah one of my friends from university, so we were able to fuel up with some hot food, while the NR runner from the other team went back down and chose not to take his mates back any food! I suspect they were disappointed, and probably more disappointed to find out we had taken their share of meals too!
The stop at the hut was good, probably a bit long really, as Nutrient Rescue were now out of sight. Travel up the river bed was slow, different travel, from what we had been on but not very forgiving either. We had an episode of bleeding noses and I think I either was getting sweat rash or sunburnt through my pants as my legs were on fire.
There was a little trick to the streams at the end of the river travel that we worked out without much bother, luckily we were there in the daylight as it caught more than a few teams out. At the top of the spur the track just petered out into an overgrown mess. We tried for a while to find the trail, but in the end gave up and set about bashing our way through. By darkness we had made it down the riverbed and we were almost onto the final trek map of 3.
Food in, lights on, bush bash on. Bobby cleared the way through the scrub and we broke out onto the tops. Unfortunately we had again hit the tops travel at night time, so it was going to involve some technical map and compass work. We were up for it though, that was until the fog rolled in. One minute we could pretty much see our path forward, the next we were enveloped into about 10m of visibility. There appeared to be some cairns to follow, but these were only useful if you knew they were going in the right direction!
We made slow and cold progress along to Te Wetenga, possibly the highest point on the whole course, traversed to the saddle, then couldn’t be sure which spur to come down. Given we had taken almost an hour to travel 1km, it was cold and windy, visibility was very low, we were starting to get extremely tired, the brain was also a bit foggy, we decided we needed to stop and sleep. We went back a little way to find a flat spot, and tried to pitch the tent in a sheltered spot.
This is where the race turned into an adventure, We planned to sleep until it got light, which was probably about 6 hours away. In adventure racing a 6 hour stop is a long long time, it was going to set us back quite a bit, but we had little other options.
When dawn broke, the visibility was still low, we didn’t immediately get up until we heard a team going right past our tent. It was then all action stations, we were up and going again. Suddenly, last nights confusion was a distant memory, even though it was 50m visibility out there our path forward was extremely clear. Coupled with our new found enthusiasm, the cramped nights sleep on the scree “shakti mat” had done wonders to our feet and legs. The race was back on.
It took us all of 20mins to catch the teams who had walked past our tents, for them to see us in good spirits laughing, joking and moving fast could have been a little demoralising. They were equally amused to find out it was us that had camped in one of the most inhospitable places on the map! We caught another two slow moving teams, then managed to drag them off course (whoops!) as we got too enthusiastic. It was about 20 minutes before we were back on track and traversed down this spur that looked super nice on the map, but was a horrible gut full of drop off’s and dead ends. We crossed paths with Highland Events many many times through this section all the way to the final CP on this stage.
The weather really seemed to have it in for us. As we broke out into the open for the last section of un-mapped tops travel, we could see the way forward, but as soon as we got to the top, it was back to 10m visibility. There was some confusion as to just how far we had gone along the final spur but eventually we hit the poled route. As it was cold and windy we started to jog, and this was really good, we got into a good mood and made good progress. Claire set the pace for the final 12kms to the TA, running again to keep ourselves warm. On the final descent we caught up to Victory Vets again, had a chat to them for a while before it was back to business.
Stage 8 – Mountain Bike, 27km
Transition was a full family affair with the whole crowd there to help out. Anna informed us that Avaya had gone right to the end from here, so out the window went any thoughts of sleeping later on. It was a bit wet when we jumped onto the bikes, and what a relief it was to be ticking off the km’s at a great rate of knots for a change. This road ride was pretty hectic on SH1 with a wet road, rain and plenty of trucks going full noise. Getting onto the river trail on the otherside was a relief! It was a bit of a crazy feeling to quickly roll into the kayak TA only an hour or so after leaving, quite a contrast to the last 40 odd hours we were trekking for.
Stage 9 – Kayak, 57km
Our old friend the mist was back again and sitting low on the lake, the only good thing about that was that it was super calm and not windy at all. We had a full attendance of support crew at TA again, also super hectic! We were still feeling good after that short and sharp stage, and had our eyes set on Nutrient Rescue, 3 hours ahead of us. Victory Vets turned up on there bikes just as we were setting off, so the race was on at full noise.
We got the first two MWP (Virtual CP) done in the light, as darkness rolled in so did the wind. It was good to be going straight into it, but it would have been nicer to have no wind at all! Proofing that there was no let ups in this race we were dealing with a misty night, it was raining lightly, overcast so there was very little light in the sky to navigate by. Heavily reliant on the compass we made our way through the evening and into the early morning through the course. Once we could see the lights of Kinloch it took forever to actually get there, so much so that we were running out of stuff to talk about to keep ourselves awake. After an eternity we pulled into the eerily calm marina expecting some sort of direction….
But as we pulled the boats up there was nobody about, unsure of where we were supposed to go, Stru managed to find his mother nearby. They hadn’t expected us this early as previous teams had taken around 1.5 hours longer than us in the day time. After an interesting exchange between sleep deprived Stru and sleep deprived Strus’s mum we made our way to the TA. The satisfaction of knocking off the paddle quickly got us through TA quickly, that and the copious amounts of coca-cola that were loaded into drink bottles!
Stage 10 – Mountain Bike, 56km
The news that Nutrient Rescue were now only 1.5 hours up the road, and hadn’t had as much sleep they wanted had set the Stru switch into full turbo mode, we were on a mission. We blasted through this stage. Early on Claire and Bobby had got really sleepy, but eventually came back to life again, possibly the high speed descents into heavy rain which made seeing difficult! As it was early in the morning there was no traffic around at all, so it was very eerie when we passed the power station and milk factory. There was steam all over the road and big flood lights everywhere in the middle of nowhere like something out of a sci-fi movie. As TA got closer, I started to get real sleepy.
Stage 11 – Packrafting, 13km
By the time we arrived at TA for the packrafting stage the rain was bucketing down, I just couldn’t believe how heavy it got. I was also really worried about getting cold, so put on as much warm and dry stuff as I had left, and stepped out into darkness one more time. As we got down to the waters edge, I looked up with my headlight on. I could see nothing but mist/steam coming off the lake, so I turned my light off. I could see nothing but darkness. My head hurt, I was wet, tired uncomfortable, but we had to solve this problem, the lead to the team ahead was down to 1 hour now. A hail Mary compass bearing was the only tool left in the box and that’s what we had to work with. I guided Stru who was steering while keeping an eye on the compass. Halfway across that section of lake I’m pretty sure I fell asleep, I’m not sure for how long, but I woke up enough later on to help guide Stru into the first checkpoint. As the light started to break through and the rain stopped I managed to come back to life again. The next checkpoints all went down without a hitch, and not long after 7am we were getting out and on the final stretch home.
Stage 12 – Mountain Bike, 38km
The lead had come down yet again, it was under an hour now, but the gap was possibly too far to bridge. This didn’t stop us from trying though and we pushed hard right through to the end. We did slow a little in the Redwoods just to make sure we didn’t right ourselves off completely this close to the finish. Only one little hiccup where Bobby or Stru (can’t remember which) took a little unplanned off track detour. The finish line soon came into sight and it was just a few final metres to cover before the finish line.
It was quite the satisfying race to finish, we were super happy to finish the way we did, it was such a different race after our ridgeline camp, like we switched back into race mode. We got the gap to Nutrient Rescue down to about 30mins by the looks of things for a 7th placing. The teams that we were with back 24 hours earlier all finished 5hours + after us, so it really emphasised the strong finish we had.
It was a really interesting course, one of the better ones I’ve done for sure, and long and hard which makes finishing all that much more satisfying. It was a real shame we had so much trouble in the rogaine, as when I look back, if we were to race any better that’s where the time is left out there to be made up. I’m not quite sure what to think of our 6 hour sleep, my racing brain tells me that we lost time by camping up but my logical brain tells me that we would not have finished in as good a shape by having a shorter sleep! On the whole though it was and really enjoyable race, and that’s down to the team mates, there was so much laughter and joking going on it made the hard times that much easier to get through!
And that goes for the support crew too, massive thanks to Anna, who was definitely the 5th team member, sorting out the support crew, and making sure we were not slacking in transition either. As well as Anna, there was her team of helpers, Stru’s family, and Anna’s mum looking after Toni while Anna was out missing sleep and making us meals before the race. The food, hot drinks and TA setup was almost too good, enough to make anyone a full convert to a support crew dependant race!