This year’s Southern Traverse, a grueling international adventure race, was set in one of New Zealand’s pristine locations in the upper South Island. It was the first time in its 9-year history that the race was held away from home in Central Otago.
The decision to move the race was a difficult one. Many competitors had said they wouldn’t return if the race moved base. But it was timely decision by organisers Geoff Hunt and Pascale Lorre as floods and high rivers swept through the lower South Island just a week before the race was due to start. 50 teams entered, making it the largest field of competitors ever. International participation was also at an all time high with competitors from Australia, Brazil, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, England, France, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, South Africa, Wales, and the USA.
Included in the tough course was 67km of sea kayaking, 290km of mountain biking, 80km of mountain trekking, a 200m abseil and a rafting section. First home, Team Star & Garter, pushed themselves to their limits in a time of 71.5 hrs with just 2-˝ hrs sleep.
There were plenty of rewarding sights for the racers. The 450km race took competitors around the idyllic coastline of the Able Tasman National Park, over the mountains and through the forests of the Kahurangi and Nelson Lakes National Parks. After a murderous ascent of Mt Arthur (1790m), the competitors were treated to spectacular 360-degree views of the surrounding national parks. Later, after another killing climb, they passed over the amazing limestone karst area of Mt Owen. This area recently attracted filmmaker Peter Jackson and his crew for the filming of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. At the pre-race briefing Geoff warned, "If by this stage you’re hallucinating hobbits" you might not actually be nuts."
Why do people do it? Well it’s certainly not for the big prize at the end. What the winners collect at the end of the race is just enough to cover the entry fee. Top division winners take home a NZ$4000 reward to be split between the four team members. Are they crazy? No, they’re multisport adventure racers who believe the thrill of a challenge is enough to see them through. Though there are a number of teams who compete for the winner's spot, there are others who enter just to complete the course. In fact many of the teams return each year for more punishment, and it’s not just the young. Team Arrow International with an average age of 50 has been returning for the past eight years.
Although fitness, strength and endurance certainly count, a rational mind is another key to success. Unlike other multisport events, adventure racing is team racing. It’s important to know who’s on your team, their strengths and weaknesses and how to communicate. Gisele Volpi Monte captain of the Brazilian team Expedicao Mata Atlantica (EMA) Light found out the importance of ‘knowing your team’ as the race progressed.
EMA Light was made up of 3 women and 1 man, Joao Lisboa. Nora Audra Defilippi & Karina Bacha, at 21, were amongst the youngest in the field. It was Gisele's first year as captain and I asked her before the race if it meant big changes for her.
She remembers last year’s event when her and her team-mate became extremely ill.
"John Knight (team captain) had to get us out of there, from a place where navigation was critical, we were weak but still had to walk out of there. If I think about this it scares me a little. I hope nothing happens, but I’m responsible for navigation, if something happens I have to get them out of there. The captains have this responsibility but my team is very united, we’re jumping on the same boat and if the boat sinks we go down together. They knows the risks but I still feel responsible for everyone."
"Do you think this feeling of responsibility will influence your physical performance?"
"No, it’s just that I’m feeling a bit anxious now. I want to see everything well prepared so the race flows well. Once the race gets going and I see things running smoothly I’ll be able to relax and enjoy it".
After the first section, a smooth sea kayak in brilliant conditions, EMA light cruised in 32nd place. Their spirits were high and after 56 mins they were on their bikes heading for the steep Takaka Hill on onwards to the Cobb Reservoir. The expected cycle time was 6-˝ hrs.
Leading that first bike section was the local Nelson team, Star and Garter. Made up of international multisport celebrities, Steve Gurney and Kathy Lynch, and two up and coming stars Nathan Faave and Aaron Prince, the team looked like winners right from the start. Watching them cycle up the steep and windy Cobb road made it look as if the ‘not so experienced’ were going to have a hard ride. Cathy pushed the boys all the way, riding out in front and occasionally dropping back to give the youngest, Aaron, a bit of a push up the hill.
When we saw EMA light again it was dark and cold. Karina was slightly ahead of the others pushing her bike. The mood had definitely changed.
Looking a bit despondent, Karina was upset by the number of stops the team had been making. It was already apparent that Joao was not physically prepared for the adventure. Her philosophy was that it was better to keep moving slowly than not to move at all. The mammoth ride took them 11hrs 10mins.
Meanwhile the all male EMA Brazil overtook EMA Light and took the liberty of a short nap at the transition point. The two Braziilian teams walked out together into the blackness of night for the first mountain trek section of the race.
Navigation became more difficult in the dark but the biggest problem seemed to be the slippery descent into the Ellis basin. This Mountain trek section saw a number of people pull out of the race. Alistar Cross from the Horley’s team slipped, dislocated his shoulder and was helicoptered out to the nearest hospital. The rest of the team carried on but pulled out at the next transition point.
At the Ellis basin hut, Nomad team member Steve Putnam suffered abdominal pain and vomiting making the second helicopter evacuation of the race. The third and final helicopter rescue was for Alan Bishop of team Hastings who was suffering from fever and cold.
Knee injuries, exhaustion and dehydration saw seven others pull out. Some teams chose to carry on unranked without their 4th members, intent on finishing the race. Others pulled out completely.
EMA light complete the first mountain trek safely in 20 hours and 53mins. Nobody said it would be easy. Joao Lisboa decides to drop out coming to the conclusion that the required fitness level is well above his. The younger girls are disappointed; it’s been a long way to come and a lot of money. Motivation levels plummet. They have the choice to carry on and finish the race but Karina has also strained a tendon in her leg. Gisele, Nora & Ceasar (a support crewmember) get on their bikes and carry on but Nora soon turns back, enthusiasm at an all time low. Gisele, intent on finishing, carries on with Ceasar and the high-spirited Team Alien.
Karina and Nora get a ride to the next transition in their support crew vehicle. Now they want to get back in the race, but it’s too late, they had already decided to pull out. Team EMA light is unable to carry on much to Gisele’s disappointment. A story that highlights the need to know your team member’s abilities, the importance of team communication and the teams united goal, to finish the race.
For many teams finishing means everything. Take EMA Brazil whose marathon 142hr 44min effort saw them cross the finish line in ranked position for a shortened course. The boys missed the cut off times for the rafting section and second mountain trekking section but still got to have the enormous satisfaction of finishing an extremely tough race. In the words of Alexandre Freitas, EMA organiser in Brazil, "An awesome race, it’s given me lots of new ideas for next year’s Expedicao Mata Atlantica in Brazil".
Team Cromwell’s finish was miraculous in itself as team member Jim Cotter suffered a serious injury when he slipped on the treacherous Ellis basin downhill and was stabbed in the calve muscle by a sharp broken stick. Luckily Brazilian doctor, Clemar, was there to clean and stitch up the deep wound at one of the transition points. The team came in second in a time of 88hrs and 20mins.
Clemar’s skills also came in handy when Aidan from the Fairydown/Long team who had competed in the EMA earlier this year, discovered the ingrown hair on his leg was in fact a little worm he’d picked up during the race in Brazil. A gory operation revealed a 7mm long healthy larva in his thigh. The Brazilian larva was high on the list of competition gossip, of which there was plenty.
Third place was the most exciting position of the competition to follow; changing at least every transition point as teams pulled out, caught up or fell back. Finally the position went to Team Ice Breaker who came in just 1 hr and 24mins after Team Cromwell.
Team Untouchedworld.com deserves a special mention as the only all woman team in the event and the only all woman team in the history of the Southern Traverse to have completed a full unshortened course. The came in 18th of the full course ranked teams in 142 hrs 14 min.
First time competitors Team Alleged Athletes finished just ahead of the girls. Their support crew deserved ‘support crew of the race’ for their imaginative attire, good kiwi tucker and most important of all their support. Support crews are often underrated but any team will tell you that they are not a team without their support who nurture them, care for them and keep them up when spirits are low. And this support crew had support to share. In a touching moment as they cheered on the girls from Untouchedworld.com, a teary-eyed mum blubbered, "It just makes me so happy to see others supporting our girls".
Another interesting aspect of the New Zealand race is the family connections. Aaron Prince, one of the winners, had his Mum racing against him in another team. Most of the Team Untouchedworld.com support crew were in actual fact Mums and Dads of the girls. Kate Callaghan had her son supporting her throughout the event while Dad was off in another race. Many of the other competitors had partners in the support crew and the Americans team NOC/Perception were in fact two couples. Many Kiwis grow up in the great outdoors, cycling, running, skiing and kayaking. It seems to be in their blood, part of the Kiwi lifestyle.
Race director Geoff Hunt, the man behind the race, is responsible for the birth of the race 9 years ago. He nursed his baby for 4 years until 1995 when he met Pascale Lorre, which is a story in itself.
Pascale, a French woman, was in fact backpacking around New Zealand in 1994 when she met Geoff. She ended up in Queenstown, got a job cleaning a backpacker’s hotel but decided she needed a second income.
"There was an ad - Working Dad looking for live in nanny for his two girls", smiles Pascale, "and that was Geoff and his two girls. The rest is history". Pascale laughs, "That’s what was really pathetic I fell for the man in Harris Mountain Heli ski guide’s uniform. A nice guy with a charming smile. I really fell for it."
With her background in marketing Pascale decided she could help out.
"The first year I felt I’d been thrown in the deep end. I didn’t really understand the race concept and I was quite frightened by the whole thing. I don’t have any sporting background myself. My idea of a sports outing was spending three hours at a café discussing the world with friends."
"I went from nanny & cook to secretary and marketing manager within about 3 months", she recalls, laughing even more.
I ask her to explain exactly what her part in the race is today.
"That’s a good question", she replies.
" We don’t have a lot of resources. I spend my whole year working on it. From sponsorship seeking to research, finance, logistics and operational stuff. A bit of everything."
"And Geoff"? I ask.
But it’s not all laughs. Pascale helped make the Southern Traverse the success story it is today with a lot of blood and sweat.
"It’s been 5 intense years, rewarding in many aspects but I started to slow down this year, it’s all I’ve done for 5 years. When I started to become involved with Geoff I saw the race as something that needed a lot of attention. I knew we could do something with it and I can see it happening now. At the same time I find it difficult, quite stressful. Too be honest I’ve never worked this hard in my life, I’ve given everything I have, my money, my passion, everything", she says.
When the Southern Traverse started in 1991 there were 22 five-member teams. The numbers dropped to 16 the next year and 9 the following. After talking it over with Ron Anderson, who had always been very supportive of Adventure racing, Geoff decided to change the format to 3 member teams, taking into consideration New Zealand’s small population.
And Geoff is well known for his tough courses. Pascale adds, "I think he scared off quite a few people in those first years. He’s very good at what he’s doing and his standards are very high. He designs a course for a race he would like to compete in. He had to stop thinking of the elite, and think about every one".
As a professional racecourse designer Geoff says, "Being an adventure racer, I know just how much teams can take, and I test those limits."
"It was tough on the assistant crew too", says Pascalle. "You had these races where the assistant had to drive for 10 hours while the competitors were doing maybe 30km over a mountain. He didn’t have a good reputation with the assistants. It needed a more down to earth approach, a more casual approach."
"Was the race harder then?" I asked.
"No, it was probably easier but at the time it was a new concept in multisport racing. You have a learning curve for the competitors too. You can’t come from nowhere to being a first class adventure racer. You have to go through a process of learning. The Kiwis had all the skills but they didn’t have the experience, that’s something you need to build up."
In it’s early days the race lost money. "It wasn’t until 1996 we managed to make a small amount of money for our time", says Pascale. "If you think about its nine years as a whole, it’s lost money. That makes it kind of hard as we’re a high level race in the adventure-racing world. It’s a combination of fantastic people giving it everything they have because they love it. This is why I think it’s so special. We don’t have the big corporate money backup, it’s a very genuine race."
For Pascale the most enjoyable part of the race is to see everything running smoothly. "This year is the best organisation we’ve had", she says proudly.
"My race challenge 5 years ago was to bring the Southern Traverse to another level, I feel like we’ve managed to do that. Everything has been a challenge, when I arrived a stranger to New Zealand I had many things to contend with. There was the language, the different people, being 27,000km away from where I come from, not knowing anyone, starting a relationship that involved raising 2 children and then taking over the management of a race which needed lots of attention at the time. That was my race. We’ve finally got fantastic media exposure and recognition from the New Zealand business community and from international racers, recognition everywhere".
To Pascale it’s everyone involved who makes the Southern traverse work. Many of the assistants work on a voluntary or low paid basis. Some come to help because they are friends of the organisers with a passion for the sport. "It's a great atmosphere"it's like we're a huge big family!" Pascale finishes.