Darren’s take on Godzone

I’ve been a little slow to get this up, but below is Darren’s race report from Godzone. He goes into a little more detail on what we experienced through the race in his own “unique” style. Words by Darren Smith:

I thought I’d be sitting here trying to write this race report with two sore feet, but, instead i have only one very sore foot thanks to a barb from a catfish whilst fishing this afternoon. With my simple brain I seem to only register one type of pain at a time, whichever is most painful. I was paddling the ski down the Boyne River with my wife and trolling a lure hoping to catch a barra along the way. Instead i hooked a catfish, and, after dislodging the hook tried to give it a little kick back into the water. Well, that little kick resulted in a barb piercing my booties into my already sore big left toe. Wholly hell did it hurt! For the next couple of hours the pain from that barb was the worst short term pain i can ever recall having. I hope the little bugger never made it back into the water and suffered a painful death. Anyway, i digress from the purpose of this article.

The two sore feet i did have was due to competing in the Godzone Expedition Adventure race in the beautiful New Zealand south island. It was the inaugural Godzone event and the first expedition race NZ had held for 5 years. The event was heavily promoted as intending on putting the “adventure” back into adventure racing. Adventure races can sometimes be more of a long hard slog than a hard core adventure with dangerous areas marked on maps as “out of bounds” or avoided by the course setters altogether. I suspect this is often due to the litigous society we are becoming and wanting to blame others rather than letting the responsibility reside with our own decisions. As we were to find out, the Godzone race sure was to become an adventure and the steep, cold, high, beautiful, rugged, diverse and unrelenting terrain of NZ south island was the perfect place to play host.

Pre-race anxiety as teams arrive is always exciting. All we knew on the Saturday night was to have four crates and our bike boxes packed with all our gear and food for 5.5days for our team of four by 0900 Sunday and be ready to catch a bus at 1100. The bus would be taking us for a few hours drive closer to the race start location where we would receive the course maps and camp the night prior to a 0630 race start Monday morning. Late in the afternoon we received race maps and arrived at Milford Sound. What a fantastic area to begin a race. Looking at the maps it quickly became apparent that this course would be very tough. Plenty of hills climbing and descending over 1000m and maximum altitude we would need to reach would be over 1700m. Generally i like hills, but, coming from Australia to New Zealand the size of the hills are very different…. The night was spent eating cold lasagne, marking up our planned route and contacting maps before heading to our tent for just over 4 hours sleep at around 2300. The alarms would be set for 0300 so we could be ready for a ferry that would take us to the kayaks in Milford sound for a 0630 start.

0400 and we were on the ferry heading to the mouth where Milford Sound meets the ocean. The organisation and effort these race directors had gone too was impeccable. Over 60 double sea kayaks and 120 competitors had been loaded onto the ferries so we could start in a spectacular fashion. In other races to ease logistics i would expect the course to simply start on the shores and do a 15km “out and back” loop, but no, these guys didnt want us to be repeating parts of the course as that could get a little “boring”… 0620 we were in our kayaks and ready to start. It was to be a mass start with 100m or so out and around the anchored ferry before paddling 15km along Milford sound back to the ferry terminal. Our game plan here was to try and avoid the chaos of 60 kayaks all fighting for positions heading into the turn. The funny thing about expedition adventure racing is that the first part of the first day always seems to begin with teams going all out, fighting for every precious second. 0630, just prior to sunrise the race began. How exciting, waves, turbulence and boats trying to avoid collision as we all fought to get around the turn. Following this turn was a fantastic paddle through Milford sound with a following tide, wind and swell. Craig and I had a ball surfing the waves much of the way. Towards the end there was a pod of dolphins popping their heads up to cheer us on. What a fantastic way to begin a race.

Into transition and quickly onto the mountain bikes for a 50km road ride up through Homer Tunnel and down to the Eglinton river. This ride wasnt just a simple 50km road ride however, it began with an ascent of around 1000m before a fantastic (and damn cold with the wind chill!) descent down to the river. It was on this climb the weight of the packs we were carrying became evident. Due to the potentially cold and wet conditions we would be racing through, we had to carry a lot of mandatory gear the entire way such as fleece, sleeping bags, tent, waterproofs, first aid and the usual food and water. As a result the packs we were racing with were considerably heavier than what we were used to in races in Australia or warmer climates. My pack loaded up weighed approximately 12kg which would no doubt take its toll on us to some extent in the mountain trekking stages to come. Luckily Macpac sponsorship had provided us with great packs with a great harness system, although 400gm heavier than my usual GoLite pack the superior harness system was well worth it for this event. I was feeling pretty strong on this ride and took a few opportunities to take some photos and do some video commentary of the team.

Into transition and we packed our bikes, ate some food, layered up in wetsuits or rain gear (our team was used to training in 20 – 35degree temperatures and water temperatures of 25degrees, not the cold conditions of New Zealand south island!!) and prepared the two man inflatable canoes for a 36km whitewater paddle down the river. The plan by the race organisers for this paddle was for the water levels to be higher and allow us to float over the rocks a lot more. Unfortunately for us though there had been little rain in the past two weeks and the river was the lowest the race organisers had seen it. This made the first 10km or so of the paddle hard, tiring and frustrating work. I was paired with Deb and Liam was with Craig. I was working damn hard in the back trying to steer, push and pull the canoe through water and rocks. Craig and Liam, even though a fair bit heavier than us seemed to be a lot more comfortable (I would hate to admit “more skilled”) than Deb and I. After what seemed like hours we Liam did a map check and we had only gone 6km, with 30km to go!!!! It was mid afternoon and important we got off the river by dark and onto the start of the trek. I was rather buggered and demoralised at this stage so it was time for me to swap with Liam and see if we could move a little faster as a team. In the canoe with Craig i was still the steerer at the back. Normally in races we get to paddle these inflatables with double bladed kayak paddles but here we were given single bladed canoe paddles which made things a little more difficult. It soon became evident that a change in technique was required (I’d hate to admit Cranky Craig barked a few orders and tips to the bozo at the back) after which things started progressing a little better. The river was slowly starting to get deeper and towards the end passed through a magnificent gorge section, definitely the highlight of the paddle. On dusk, after 6hours or so paddling we arrived at transition and set about preparing for the first of the longer legs, the trek in the Dunton Ranges.

This trek was where the race would really begin. It was the first of the big legs, and, as we would later find out, for us the longest and most epic stage. On the map it had some very steep and high sections. Being unfamiliar with this area we weren’t sure had slow the terrain would be. Dusk was fast approaching so unfortunately we only had an hour or so of daylight to try and get the feel of the area. We loaded our packs with enough food to cover a bit longer than our expected time of 20 – 24hrs and donned a thermal top that i would wear day and night for the next 4 days. The trek started with a scrub bash alongside a main road for 4km (yes, a perfectly good road we were not allowed to travel on, instead having to bash through scratchy scrubby crap) before reaching a trail that would take us from 200m up to a pass around 1100m via CP4. Along the way through the scrub Deb trod on a poor little porcupine looking creature. I had no idea they had these in NZ so checked it was alright, took a photo and proceeded to make Deb feel guilty for hurting the poor little fella. I later found out they aren’t native to NZ and are common everywhere so one less would not be a bad thing.

Once up at the pass the track ended, and the terrain opened up slightly. Rather than bush it was now open long grass. 1.5km across the grass and we were looking up at the peak of a mountain a further 500m above us. We had to ascend partway and traverse around this mountain for about 2km to get over the Dunton ranges and onto the ridgeline we wanted to be able to descend to the Upukerora River. This ascent and traverse was crazy stuff. The traverse consisted of exposed scree slopes dropping hundreds of metres below us. It was 11pm at night and the wind was now gale force. I am not kidding when i say the wind was blowing, felt like well over 100km/hr gusts and as the years go on I reckon stories will tell of the winds that night approaching 200km/hr. We did what we had to do, afterwards Craig saying how scarey that was and he wouldnt be telling his wife about what we had just done, after being awake for 20hours and, 17hours since we starting racing. Once around the traverse it was a descent of 600m or so in altitude to the river.

Once we had hit the river, CP5 was only 5km away. Unfortuneately this is where our race started to go pear-shaped. We were very close to the CP but in the dark just could not find it. Dawn came around and we went up and down a couple of ridgelines and gullies again trying to confirm our location. We were struggling in this event not only with the terrain but also due to the magnetic deviation of 24degrees in the area rather than about 12degrees we are used to back home. When tired this just makes the concentration and adjustments necessary a little harder. Funny part about looking for this control was that we could hear someone from some team yelling out quite close to us “Help. Help. We dont know where we are. We are totally lost”. Extremely funny reflecting back. They were probably fine, just stressing a little bit, and besides, all teams had to carry an emergency tracking device that could message to race officials on there location if lost (which would normally result in disqualification). When arrived at the CP we ran into a couple of other teams that said they had been looking for this CP for the past 6hours like us!!! In the end, the 6hours or so wasted on this CP probably ended up costing us 12hours or so of race time as it caused us fatigue, extra time on feet, lack of food and put us into another part of the course the next night that would have been a lot easier to tackle in daylight. From CP5 it was back down and along the river during the day to a hunters hut at CP6. Arriving at CP6 we had only a couple of hours of daylight left, not enough in our condition to get up and over Mt Snowdon by dark so we chose to catch a couple of hours sleep, our first sleep in 37hours. Mt Snowdon involved a very steep ascent of nearly 1000m before what should be a relatively simple descent into the Whitestone River, only about 6km away.

Well, nothing has been simple for us on this trek. We arrived about midnight, a teasing 500m from the main river and just could not find a simple way through. The creek we went into was choked up with treefall. Up we went to a spur and tried to get down another way but again no luck due to gorges. After wasting a good few hours and rather than waste more time we opted to have a couple of hours sleep till daylight to try find a way through. After clambering over a lot of treefall (and i seriously mean A LOT) and getting wet going down a little creek canyon for 1km or so we finally made it to the Whitestone river. We had been on the trek leg now for nearly 40hours and with only food planned for 24hours. This wasnt sitting too well with my stomach. In fact, i think this trek was probably one of the flattest stages i have ever felt in an adventure race. I hadnt gotten my nutrition right and me without food in my tummy is like trying to run a car with no petrol. I also had a bout of diarrhoea which wasnt helping things. At one instance the “moment” came whilst we were in a gorge section of the creek and i had no time or place to go but “pants down” right in the creek. I thought i was being polite pointing the business end upstream away from my teammates, but, i quickly learnt what happens if you poo upstream when standing in the water. I was also out of paper so had to use a couple of rocks followed by the Indian “water splash” method to try and clean things up.

Somewhere during the night hours of this leg i told myself i was retiring from this stuff. I was imagining how nice it would be to be curled up in bed with my wife, after a nice meal, a few drinks and warm and cosy. Yes, a moment of human weakness. I later found a couple of my teammates had decided to retire that night too.

We finally got out of this mammoth trek leg in around 45hours, the longest time any of us had ever spent on a single stage in an adventure race. Our feet were wet the whole time and on average we moved at about 1km/hr. It had taken its toll. We arrived at the transition area mid afternoon surprised when the officials told us we had come in in 17th place!!! How could we have? How could 16 other teams out there had a WORSE time than us in the stage? This did bring some form of smile and satisfaction to our faces as we assembled our bikes and prepared for a ride through the night, looking forward to being off our feet. Whilst transitioning, race officials approached us to tell us we would be the first team to be “shortcoursed” from here.
Shortcoursing is not a nice thing to hear, it basically should mean it is now impossible for us to place any higher than 17th and we would not finish the full course as such. This was disappointing to be shortcoursed after only 2.5days.

On the bikes with a restock of food we rode through the night paying particular attention to the maps to ensure we didn’t waste time. There was a number of tricky sections to be careful of in the dark on this leg. The night was damn cold, and, it wouldn’t be New Zealand if they didnt make us get our feet wet numerous times on river crossings. We later found out some teams had their water bottles freezing up and even jockey wheels seizing with ice!! At times we were only riding slightly downhill sections at 8km/hr because any faster and it was too cold! It was on one of these sections Deb decided to put her bike into a rut and came down quite hard and took a bang to her head. Luckily it was either too cold or too tough for the damage to stop her. Up she got and proceeded to walk on slowly to keep warm whilst Craig, Liam and I fixed up her helmet and lighting. Once done, Liam took off to give to Deb, 50m along the trail. Craig and i roll on to find Liam had taken a fall in a little creek. On goes Craig to try and take the helmet to Deb and he had some issue and had to stop. So, on i go, the saviour, showing the boys how to look after ladies (maybe it’s because i am the most newly married man so am still earning my stripes?) and deliver a repaired helmet and lighting system to Deb.

On we go and after a couple of flat tyres, crashes and laughter, we nailed the navigation for the leg and arrived at the transition at dawn. The next stage was another trek, and, looking at the maps it didn’t look any shorter than the epic we had just had! This area had us terrified of what we might be facing again. Deb was having coughing fits and not sounding too good to us so, although not ideal wasting daylight we opted for a couple of hours sleep, which would now total 6 in the past 52hours, to see how we would pull up. To our surprise, Deb was awake after a couple of hours sounding and feeling good and keen and eager to go! Off we went wet feet along a river, up and over another ridgeline 1000m in altitude and down again to a CP on the river. We were fortunate to be on top of the ridgeline in daylight and the views of the Eyre mountains were spectacular! Definitely worth the effort (well, a lot of effort and any pleasure in return in appreciated).

We arrived at this CP at night and the next part involved going up and over Shepherds saddle at 1283m. Still scarred from the first trek epic and not being able to see the pass in daylight we were hesitant to commence this in the dark. Also, given the fact that teams were being shortcoursed and leap frogged over various sections of the course rankings for any teams below the top 4 actually didnt mean too much we had lost our sense of urgency. We opted to have a sleep and start the ascent at 0300 which would have us at the pass around daylight. Things here went quite smooth and following that it was merely another 20km or so until the end of the stage. Down into the valley, along a river (lots of creek walking and boulder hopping) before one final ascent/descent of a pass to the transition area. We had been discussing and pondering along this stage the purposing of continuing. We had come over to compete in an adventure race where the course is fixed and we’d have 5.5days to complete it in as fast a time as possible. The way the course was changing on the fly and all teams weren’t even on the same playing field. We weren’t over here to just slog it out for 5.5days and then walk across a finish line when time was up. To add to the confusion was the fact that we had booked our international flights for the morning after, which, if we continued after this TA would have meant we’d struggle to have our gear cleaned and packed to get through customs in Australia. Arriving at this transition we were told we had two options, to ride through the night and then paddle 40km, or, ride a few hours to a ferry, sleep for 8hours or so and catch the ferry across the lake to the finish line. It didnt make sense to us how the second option would still classify a team as “finished”? Unfortuneately this caused a real low point in the team and mixed feelings as to what we should do. We opted for a ride back to Queenstown (via a fantastic pub meal) and effectively get classified as “retired” from the race.

For the effort we had put in and what we’d been through I think on paper it’s an unfair result. In fairness we should probably be ranked midway, around 17th or so. The course was tough, extremely tough in conditions we are not used to. Personnally i was flat since the first trek, never really got my nutrition right (I lost 4-5kg during the 5 days) and probably felt the flattest i had ever felt in an adventure race. Due to many other commitments and activities over the past 18months I had not done any races longer than 12hours for 18months so my body may have lost some memory and the fitness definitely was not what it was 18months earlier. The course organisers had done a fantastic job with the logistics, planning and certainly added adventure back to adventure racing. The area of south island New Zealand has endless scope for adventure races and excitement. I think this race will develop into a world class event that will be a real achievement just to be able to complete the full course. I hope the organisers iron out the issues they had with short coursing teams and rankings. As tough as it was, I certainly don’t wish the race to be made easier, rather I wish that I was better and our team was better. I certainly am not retiring (isn’t is great having a short term memory when it comes to pain and suffering?), rather working on improving as an individual, improving as a team and coming back good enough to conquer, GODZONE.

Darren

PS. 3 weeks on and my two big toes are still totally numb as a reminder.

PPS. Thanks to Macpac for providing awesome race packs and to Samurai for great race clothing.

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Photos taken during the event and of the course maps can be found here:

A video we took during the event can be found here:

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