Godzone Adventure Race Report

Rogue in their Samurai Sportswear kitThe inaugural Godzone Adventure Race would have to go down as the toughest event I’ve done by a clear margin in my, admittedly limited, adventure racing experience. In saying that, it was also the most stunningly beautiful course I’ve ever raced on. The race was characterized by its epic trek legs: up to 50km long with only a couple of check points and barely a track to be seen, the course was a true test of wilderness navigation, with multiple route choice options, none of which were a clear best line of attack. The pictures attached only give a glimpse at how amazing the terrain could be at one moment, then how rough and slow going the next.

For the first installment of the race, the Godzone organisers kept the race course a secret right up until the last moment. Indeed teams were only issued maps just prior to arriving at the start line at Milford Sound. This ensured that local Kiwi teams could not gain an advantage by seeking outside information about the course from other sources during preparation time. However, it did make for a hectic last night of map preparation and a restless couple of hours sleep in the tent before being shuttled onto the ferry at 3:45am for the start line. As far as start lines go though, it will be hard to beat Milford Sound as a back drop with teams frantically dodging each other on a following swell, waterfalls pouring into the ocean around us and dolphins breaching beside our kayaks.

Much has been made since the end of the race about the predicted course timings set by the organisers. Given that we weren’t provided the race maps until after our gear boxes were packed and we were on the start line, these course timings were all we had to go by in the lead up to the race. Clearly they got these wrong. When the winning team (who beat the second placed team by over 15 hours) are having whole legs cut short or removed from the course, and only 4 teams completed the amended full course, it is obvious that the predictions for each stage were out. However, this is the only thing they got wrong. The course, the event logistics, HQ location, provision of real kayaks, race format and website with live tracking were brilliant: an outstanding effort for a first time race. Hopefully the Godzone team keep the format the same for future editions: technical long legs requiring constant navigation and route choice putting teams into wild and exposed places where they need to make their own decisions on the best (and often safest) way forward – they just need to make the legs a little shorter or allow more time for middle of the pack teams to make it through. I like the idea of having 3 different short course options pre-defined late in the race, however these short courses were ultimately brought forward too early.

It would be fair to say that as a team we didn’t have a good race, never firing from the start. Too many small errors initially were compounded by a terrible second night of the race during the first trek leg. Having collected both CPs on the trek, we had summitted the northern edge of Snowdon Peak and were making our way down to the Whitestone River Valley just after dark. When our first route choice seemed impassable with deadfall trees, we tried climbing out onto the next ridgeline to make our way down. When this was worse, we dropped into the next creekline, only to get cliffed out in small slot canyons twice. From there we spent a frustrating night trying to find an exit out, only to be turned back by deadfall trees and impenetrable scrub in the dark. Keep in mind, we were only trying to make it down into a valley less than a kilometer away, not find a specific CP. In the end we had to camp down for the remainder of the night, then climb back out and take on our original route choice in the morning.

After finishing the first trek, we were so far behind original time predictions that we were short coursed on the next mountain bike leg, having to drop 3 CPs of hard riding along a river in lieu of riding along a parallel main gravel road. Despite two punctures, a crash by Deb and a number of other mechanical issues, the team started to move along well together over this leg, dealing with these issues as they arose. The next trek leg through the Eyre Mountains was the true highlight of the race for me, and what I had come to NZ for. Despite making the cut off for the final bike and paddle to the finish line, it was felt by some on the team that we wouldn’t make it back in time to be packed up and make our flights home. Hence the team was taken straight back to Queenstown, a decision that still doesn’t sit well with me. That feeling of crossing the finish line, particularly after a tough long race, is why I do these races, and to be denied that feeling has left a hunger to come back and “do this race properly”. I’ll be back to race Godzone for sure.

Although feeling a little bit like we under-represented ourselves on the course, I still believe that this race is well within our abilities and that we are capable of having a crack at a good result. I’ll certainly take away a lot of lessons learnt from this race which I’ll put into practice for next time. More for my own sake, I want to write them down to remember them for next time. Some of these points are obvious in hindsight, but others might find them of interest.

  • Navigating with a 23 degree declination, compared to the negligible 10 degree declination I’m familiar with on the east coast of Australia is tricky on day 3 when you are severely sleep deprived. Next time I will just pencil in my own magnetic north lines during map preparation to take the thinking out of it later on.
  • Unlike Australian maps, the vegetation boundaries on NZ maps seem to be pretty accurate: good enough to use as another navigational aid. These various types of vegetation should be taken into serious consideration during route choice.
  • Sometimes during route choice, you just have to take the hit and climb directly to a higher elevation if it is going to make the travel and navigation easier. Every time I tried to contour around to a desired location, it ended poorly. Next time just climb straight up to hit the spur/ridgeline/creek that you want.
  • Overall I was happy with my gear and clothing choice. Macpac stuff is awesome. I was impressed by how many teams were sporting Macpac gear at the race. It’s obviously tried and tested in the conditions it gets used. The mandatory clothing list is ample for the needs of the race. The only additions I carried was a second buff to keep my face warm while riding at night, and a spare pair of socks, which I used to dry out the feet while sleeping and as a backup in case blisters developed (which they never did). I wouldn’t change anything here.
  • While it was cold at night, the temperature wasn’t so bad that the mandatory kit shouldn’t be enough to keep you warm while sleeping for a couple of hours. What I didn’t take into account is how the body reacts to the cold when fatigued. Every time we lay down at night we would end up just shivering and getting poor sleep. This had us sleeping during day light hours on two occasions just to get warm. When there is only 12 hours of daylight, this can be rather costly. Next time I would aim to push through the first night (as we did), but then sleep just after dusk when it had just gotten dark, but still relatively warm every night after that. If you could time this with a TA or a hut, even better. Our pace was definitely slower when travelling in the late hours of the night, but at least we could stay relatively warm on the move.
  • We carried a Black Diamond Firstlight tent as mandatory equipment. It meets the mandatory size of 2.5 square meters floor space, and as a single skin tent it is super light at 1.2kg. However, for actually sleeping it is too small for four people, and we often had to carry and use a second identical tent, doubling the weight and effort to set up. Next time I would want a larger version of the BD firstlight – ie a single skin, two pole tent that can “comfortably” fit four people, but I’ve yet to find one on the market. If the race was warm enough to sleep outside, then this wouldn’t be an issue, but Godzone is not that sort of race.
  • In Australia, one of the big killers of speed when travelling cross country is lantana. I’ve been told that you are more likely to find lantana on a southern facing slope due to the amount of sunlight (as well as in wet areas like creek lines), so you should be able to avoid it through careful course planning. I am wondering if there are similar rules to the types of vegetation in NZ, or in particular, where you are likely to encounter areas of dead fallen trees, as this knowledge would be invaluable.
  • I would bring two sets of mandatory kayaking gear (throw ropes, repair kits, booties, etc) next time: one for the kayaks and one for the canoes, unless the organisers specifically stated that the logistics were set up so that this wasn’t required (i.e. we saw the same box at both sets of boats). This would save you carrying throw bags between legs.
  • Because the type of terrain had us moving much slower than normal, I didn’t eat anywhere near as much food as I would in a normal race. Therefore I would probably only pack 10 peices of food per 8 hours, as apposed to 12.
  • If the race was held a month earlier, the temperature would be warmer, the days longer and it would be a lot easier getting flights compared to this year when we were competing with Easter traffic. Just a thought.
  • Not having a course overview sheet, getting the maps on the start line, and not being overly familiar with NZ place names, I spent the entire race with no clue as to where we were in the bigger picture of things.
  • Finally, a big shout out to Macapc and Saumurai sportswear for their support of the team.

Anyway, it’s safe to say that Godzone delivered both my lowest of low moments as well as some of the all time true highlights in an adventure race. Despite the disappointment of being short coursed so early after one bad leg, I believe the organising team have a winning formula that requires only a few tweaks. Certainly the location is world class, and that alone is enough to have me come back for more. So, who’s up for 2013? I’m already counting down the days.

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