So it’s taken me a while to decompress and digest the experience that was GODZone Fiordlands. This was my fourth attempt at the race, with my first attempt being the original edition of GODZone that started from the edge of Fiordland National Park in Milford Sound in 2012. That race smashed me and taught me a bunch of valuable AR lessons. Much the same could be said about this edition of GODZone.
Drawn in by the “Ultimate” tag, the 2018 GODZone course was always going to be a mammoth undertaking. In the end it turned out to be the hardest thing I have ever done. Period. By an order of magnitude. For those few people who did the “Soul Crusher” stage of Expedition Alaska over 2 days – it was like that for the whole week of racing at GODZone. On paper we have a result that I’m extremely proud of. 16th overall with only 24 of the original 73 Pure course teams finishing full coursed. The fact that we were the second international team (with the first international team boasting two ARWC podium finishers) is a testament to how this race will always be dominated by hard Kiwi mountain men and women.
By the numbers we were racing for 8 days and 40 minutes. Too long to actually be “racing”, we quickly realized this expedition would be an event of attrition and we were never once chasing places. We averaged more than 4 hours of sleep each night over the course of the race allowing feet to dry out, and even then we were a stumbling mess of zombies on the second to last night trying to chase a darkzone cutoff the next day. So many experiences are packed into 8 days of NZ wilderness that I don’t want to describe a blow-by-blow account of the race itself. Instead, I’d like to share some of the images from the race taken by the team, event volunteers and race photographers along with some random musings on the race.
In what turned out to be a massive stroke of luck, when my original team fell through for GODZone I had the fortune to take up an offer to race with team CBRAR. Lou was as hard as nails on course, Dave was super strong and perennially happy and Prong’s navigation was world class. It took a special team dynamic to stay positive and make it through this race and I would happily race with any of these guys again. There was plenty of swearing and yelling during the race, but only at another shredding fern, crumbling rotten long, muddy bog-hole or at the race directors: never once at each other. Everyone did an amazing job of looking after themselves and each other, and this team dynamics is what I will remember most in years to come when reflecting on GODZone Fiordlands.
If asked what was the highlight of GODZone, I would say the paddling. All of it. The course was essentially a journey from one lake and river system to another, connecting them all up in a fashion made possibly only with the versatile packraft. Some of the rivers were fun, bouncy affairs I’d love to take the kids down one day. Others, such as the Wairaurahiri River which finds its terminus in the Southern Ocean was a 2.5 hour frantic ride down unrelenting grade 2+ white water. In a small moment of inattention, Lou and I caught the edge of our swamped boat on a log while eddying out and in an instant were tipped out and into the main flow. It’s the first time I’ve been pulled under water in a hole. Realising that my PFD was not enough to keep me above water was a scary experience. The boys executed a perfect throw bag rescue to get me to the side of the river and managed to pull Lou and the boat in further downstream, but I had to reenter the river twice to swim down to them before we could gather ourselves together and push on. All the while this was being filmed by about three cameras from a jet boat which had the indignity of swamping us one final time with their wash.
The Bush Bashing.
I have little doubt that it was the bush bashing that would have broken most teams out on course. The terrain was just so thick and impenetrable. We essentially nailed the nav taking straight line options as much as possible and still only managed to travel an average of less than 1km/hr most times. On some tracks, this would blow out to 2km/hr. When CPs were about 12km apart, you do the maths on it – the trudge became boring at times fighting ferns that shred and hide every footstep and holes that open up between a mat of moss covered rotten logs. Travel above the tree-line which has become an iconic part of GODZone was rare in this course, which was a shame. The forest has a certain beauty to it, but it’s the beauty of a predatory animal: something to be observed from a distance and not get too close too.
That Stage 3
On paper, Stage 3 was always going to be the make or break leg of the race. All told we spent 77 hours (over 3 days and nights!) on this leg. I’m sure whole GODZones have been won in faster times. Lugging back breaking packs, this leg became a race within the race. It’s also where we moved from 23rd place to our final position of 16th. Highlights included the aforementioned Wairaurahiri River and Lake Innes paddles (because they were in daylight), spiking an impossibly placed “spot height” control with just five minutes of usable daylight left, watching an eel harass Lou’s ankles for ten minutes while inflating packrafts, a sleep in the other worldly Westies Hut and the surrealness of being able to see more than hundred meters in a straight line while hiking out the Viaduct rail trail. Lowlights included every agonsing step in between these moments. However, if there is one thing I’ve learnt from AR is that everything has an end, and so too did stage 3. Being conservative, we actually finished with food left over and the team rolled in to TA3 in relatively good shape.
The Mountain Biking
The riding was never to be a major feature of the race, but it should not be underestimated, spread over two stages. The first riding took in a fantastic little caving section, which, along with a 140m abseil and the ascent off the side of Mt Titiroa was an early race highlight. The second bike leg, coming off the back of Stage 3 had a solid shot at breaking us. The initial forestry navigation was extremely tricky and slow with new major roads unmapped and old mapped tracks disappearing on the ground. The grind through the connecting road sections was energy sapping. The team slept before beggining the hike-a-bike ascent over Percy’s Saddle and over slept the alarm by 90 minutes. Perhaps this was fortunate as the hike-a-bike was grueling. Easily the hardest thing I did in the hardest race I’ve done. Three hours of hauling bikes up small cliffs over a mountain pass. I’ll never complain about another hike-a-bike again. To be fair, the views and decent were amazing, but as with everything in this race over all too quickly before the next major push.
The People Around Us
Out on the course, the race volunteers were always a welcome oasis. Having one of the world’s top multisport athletes man a remote CP gives an indication of the kind of support this race gets. We had the good fortune to cross paths multiple times with two kiwi teams: Loose Moose and Victory Boxing. Both were class acts, up for a chat and to share experience and information. Both went on to finish with well deserved full course results. We ran into good friends team Thunderbolt as they were making the difficult decision to pull the pin on the race. I really felt for them having been in that situation in a race before myself – they are a world class team and will go on to have many more top results no doubt. One of the big surprises was the roadside GODZone BBQ from a farming family supporting teams as they road through Clifden. That sausage on bread and bottle of coke was a life saver – it was fantastic to see the race get such enthusiastic local support.
The Darkzone Push
After clearing the epic stage 3, our sights were firmly set on trying to beat the final paddle darkzone so that we could finish the race by Thursday evening. All through the next 3 stages we were continually calculating rates of progression and thought we were in with a good shot. Oversleeping on the bike leg hurt our chances a little, however we were making good time on the final trek up to Lake Herries. In hindsight, this leg was the true showpiece of the course. The lake setting was stunning, and I don’t imagine there would be many people outside of the GODZone competitors who have had a chance to paddle on this waterway. Similarly, the preceding waterfall was thunderous and the portions of trekking above the tree line were something from a tourist brochure. Ultimately though, we were too trashed to take much of this in. By the time midnight fell, we were a stumbling mess, deciding to bivy down on the spot when forward progress had reduced to a literal crawl. Little did we know that at the time we were less than 80m from the check point, again, over sleeping the alarm by 90 minutes. This was enough to see that we missed our window to knock out the final paddle in one hit, necessitating an over night beach side camp just two check points short of the finish. As much as it would have been nice to be showered in our own bed, after punching into white caps and a cold head wind, I was glad to be done with the paddle for the evening and relaxing off the race clock.
Finishing any big adventure race can be an emotional experience, but this race more so than ever. So much had gone into us making it to the finish line as a team, not least of all from our families who supported us in this crazy venture. Eight days away is too long for someone with a young family. We were ushered in to the finish line with the most vibrant rainbow I’ve ever seen that reached down past the trees and into the water next to us. Having so much support on the finish line capped the race off perfectly. Thanks go to my wife and family and to Pete, Dave and Lou for a special race.
What’s next? Well, once the swelling in the feet goes down and the skin heals up, more racing and more race organizing. However the Ultimate edition of GODZone will always be the bench mark by which I stand a “tough” race.