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Conquering the course in Godzone Fiordland

By March 20, 2018February 15th, 2019News

It all started during Godzone Queenstown when my partner Cat had her first chance to challenge herself to complete an adventure race. She chose the supported version (Pursuit) and I was meant to be chief support crew. That was until a suitable navigator could not be obtained and Cat using all her brownie point credits, bribery …  and other means ….coerced me into the team. I raced with three novices in the team and we had a great Godzone, finishing second, which far exceeded our goal of finishing the full course.

I was then fortunate enough to join Team Seagate due to Nathan Fa’avae’s temporary retirement and had a successful couple of races in China and America before my own temporary retirement. I had also been racing at international level in other sports, so felt the family had been neglected and therefore didn’t join Torpedo 7 for Godzone Fiordland.

However, in the back of my mind I really wanted to do this race as it seemed like the epitomy of adventure racing to include Fiordland, be run by Godzone, and be open for 10 days. I was trying to get my head around a volunteer role with Godzone and maybe to dot watch the race for the first time, when Sarah Fairmaid, Rob Nichol, and Richie McCaw formerly of Team Cure Kids lost their other member Ben Meyer to injury. They asked if I would join them in Team PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) to take on Fiordland.

I cashed in my sole brownie point with Cat from being Captain Bob in the Queenstown Godzone and got a 6-day leave pass. Knowing this would not be enough time, but by this stage I would be well out of cellphone coverage, I said that yes I would love to.

The key to our success was always going to be having the best team dynamics we could, and this meant pooling all of our strengths to get the best result possible, and having a laugh or two along the way.

We had the Red Bull Defiance race in Wanaka as a build-up along with the ARC race in the Coromandel. Both races proved their worth in numerous aspects, through the successes and failures we experienced. Teamwork, systems, roles, strengths and weaknesses were all solidified, along with refining the never-ending list of gear required.

Team PwC was now as ready as we could be for Godzone. We had limited time together and although we can all navigate, we didn’t all have the navigational prowess or adventure racing experience of any of the teams that were picked to be the top 10. We also had the challenge of having two tall, about 100kg, ex-rugby players, which is taxing in thick bush and cosy in the very small packrafts which were a compulsory item in this year’s race.

After map handout, we headed back to our base and although long and challenging, the course was what we wanted out of a Fiordland Godzone. It was fairly straightforward as far as the gear box organisation went but as always requires most of the day to pack and map your course. We could do no more, so we ate and slept well.

Start day was perfect weather for racing and the week’s weather forecast promised nothing more than light rain and sunshine.

Our race started poorly with a broken inflator bag for the rafts and slow lashing systems putting us back around the mid-pack area. We paddled steadily knowing we had so much in front of us. Pleasingly, this pace still boosted us up into the top 10 going into the trek. Our navigation proved impeccable throughout the day and we moved constantly without pushing too hard. We found ourselves with Nathan Fa’avae’s Avaya team at nightfall, which was a surprise to us, although our tactics were similar to theirs – aiming for a smart, not fast race.

We got to the abseil which would have been spectacular if the day hadn’t just gone dark. It was still a highlight for us and I am sure (through a instructional misunderstanding) Richie had the fastest descent, burning through not only his glove but lightly roasting his hand too.

We were happy to be at the bottom and headed off into the night where we were concentrating on keeping up good navigation, as this was possibly a chink in our armour. We enjoyed good steady travel, punctuated by the screams of not only us but another team testing an electric fence, which was definitely on!

At the end of this leg we had an exciting packraft down a river that had a layer of fog over it – making light almost obsolete. It ended in a compulsory dark zone where we managed to find a porch to shelter under from the rain and get a few hours sleep.

The next leg took us onto the MTB and was broken in the middle by a caving section, with a number of checkpoints underground. This was timed out so we all had a catch up in the sun before racing toward the next compulsory dark zone on Lake Hauroko. We opted for the option of taking a good long night’s sleep here as the following day the long 150km trek/packraft began in earnest and the top three teams would show their true colours here, making big gaps on the field.

The day started with a stunning, although populated paddle, amongst many other teams down one of the best known rivers on Fiordland’s South Coast, the Wairaurahiri. It ended out at sea and this was when I felt we were in a position that is the essence of adventure racing. We were finally on our own – a team of four, navigating and moving through the landscape, racing but not knowing where anyone else is, trusting in your decisions and strategies.

After getting the first trek CP 17 of that leg, we opted for a route that looked easier on the feet and bodies than the more direct bush route, which we believed would be energy-sapping. Although nearly double the distance, the gamble paid off when we found a track back up the Waitutu river to the next CP 18, arriving at about the same time as Avaya, who had a 20 minute lead on us going into the stage. We then opted to go over the mountains to the next CP 19 even though the longer tracked route looked just as quick for our team. We met up with Team Bivouac here coming back out and they joined us for most of the trek. We made a slight nav error here which didn’t cost us too much time in travel but a little bit of time in decision making.

We were in great spirits as a team, finishing the last checkpoints efficiently and were surprised when we saw team Tiki Tour, who had been bluffed-out in the night on Lake Hakapoua. We assured them they could easily make big gains as there was so much racing left. In fact almost a whole adventure race of standard length.

The trudge through the muddy South Coast track at night was certainly the biggest mental challenge for most on the course and we took another good night’s sleep to keep our bodies going. We awoke and felt like from here we were heading home and that the biggest leg was nearly over, although it is also where we had to pay the most attention to our race.

After a brief catch up with family and friends leading into TA3 and a bit of foot care in the hope we could keep dry feet for a while, we were underway for the 160km MTB stage.

The first part of the ride was always going to be tricky as it was in forestry which generally means mapped roads are not reliable because plantings and felling always change the roads. This was the case and we tried to be accurate and get it knocked out while we had daylight on our side. There was a bit of mucking around in there but by dark we were on our way out to the highway. We had a brief stop at a woolshed offering hot and cold water. We also had an impromptu but very welcome stop at a stall set up by local farmers offering hot sausages and some lovely fruit to all teams.

We continued into the early hours of the morning and were in good spirits after riding with Avaya for a while. Then the euphoria of the day’s highlights wore off and a sleep was well-needed to undertake the remainder of the ride over the Borland and Percy Saddles.

As daylight came in we enjoyed some of the best scenery as we climbed and carried our  bikes before descending down to Lake Manapouri. There was a cold wind in the tops but the downhill was a fantastic reward for our efforts. We moved through transition as efficiently and thoroughly as possible, as the 14km kayak, followed by a 24km trek leg was where a race often catches up with you and mistakes can be made.

The rhythm and peacefulness of paddling made it hard to stay awake and there was some amusing hallucinations going on – causing a lot of team laughter.

Getting to the hut where we transitioned to the trek was a relief and we wanted to make the most of the daylight to get to the junction of the Freeman Burn and Stevens Burn before dark. We were on track and navigation was good until I doubted where I was, near  Lake Herries, as landscape features weren’t making sense. We should have been in a creek but we were amongst house-sized boulders. We spent some time double checking that we knew where we were but once we had worked it out, we were in need of a couple of hours of sleep. As dawn broke, we paddled across the lake.

In hindsight we were right on track and only 150 meters behind Avaya at this time, so our navigation there could have cost us a position or two. On the bright side though we enjoyed Lake Herries and the Delta Burn Saddle in their early morning absolute splendour – glowing with the sun’s first rays, lighting and enhancing all of nature’s colours and contours. It was the highlight of our race and something none of us will ever forget. Scenery and moments like these are one of the reasons we do these crazy races.

It was by no means easy going down the river but we tried to follow deer tracks where we could. A couple of us were nursing sore feet by this stage so route choice was critical and sharing each other’s loads made a huge difference. It was with great delight that we transitioned into the 35km kayak for the final leg home. We knew it could be tight on daylight hours, as this leg has a compulsory dark zone and if the race schedule was correct we would finish right as it kicked in. Then as if on cue, a strong head wind came up and stayed with us for the entire paddle. We needed to paddle hard to get in before the course closed.

The thought of family, friends, a hot meal and comfy beds propelled us towards the finish line. After the final CP we knew it was a reality and there would be no more nights curled up in the bush. It was time for the final push but with that also came the reality that it was all but over. The camaraderie we share, the long training hours, the solitude and the multitude of unknown variables that adventure racing epitomises would all soon come to an end.

To cross the finish line with a large crowd, filled with many friends and family, gave us a great sense of achievement that was amazing. But inside I think we all felt a small emptiness that comes from a combination of the relief, happiness, sadness, accomplishment that this team of four individuals – who you completely rely on, trust in and would do anything for – will now go separate ways. Only those individuals, my team mates, will really understand the entirety of the adventure we just shared.

A lot of that goes unspoken, although some stories and memories will be shared in the future but nonetheless that strong bond will live on, similar perhaps in intensity to those who went to war, or people who have shared in disaster.

What an adventure race is cannot be experienced through words or photos or even video footage. It has to be experienced first-hand and only then can you understand the aura around the sport and the bond that racers have with one another.

For Team PwC the race was a success in more ways than one and we can all pat one another on the back for a huge accomplishment. In reflection, it is in our nature to assess our performance and take on-board our learnings, so that we could also race better if we were to do it again.

This is the lure to race again, after the pain and suffering that you go through. You forget those moments where you swore you will never do it again. The best times are remembered. The cuts, bruises, rashes, blisters and sores heal and there will always be another race if you want to rise to the challenge.

We all know that adventure racing is a huge commitment and without our families and friends it would have never have been possible. The role to support us not only in the race but for months leading in to it involves a lot of sacrifice and time. So thank you to you all.
Also to our sponsors – we owe you all a huge thanks for making it happen.

PwC, Adidas, iSport Foundation, Torpedo 7, NZVel-New Zealand Deer Velvet, Barracuda Kayaks and  Sweet Cheeks NZ