There’s big mountains and big vistas in the Southern Alps of New Zealand.
And while we have great access to Department of Conservation areas, the chance to have access to some of the most mind-blowing and special landscapes that are working high country stations is too good to turn down.
It’s called The Camelbak Big Easy, but it really should be called The Big Hard.
Starting at 1500m elevation and gaining 1000m of elevation up and over Mt Pisa before a hair raising 2000m descent through Lake McKay Station to finish under the willows at Luggate (Wanaka’s truck-stop-cum-undiscovered-secret).
It only happens once a year, and odds on it’s not only NZ’s most scenic MTB course, but also the best and one hell of a best kept secret (until the word really gets out that is).
Multisport events are quintessential to the gritty fabric of South Island, New Zealand sporting history. A way of interacting with the landscape and traversing however possible via human powered craft.
No rhyme or reason, rather the landscape dictating what you are going to do.
With iconic events such as the Coast 2 Coast which became the breeding ground for some of the the world’s most well known multi-discipline endurance athletes. The modern evolution of the sport has brought ideas, creative minds, pioneering spirit and the ability to open up new terrain bringing a new breed of Multi-sport events to pit people against the elements.
Coming from one of the nerve centres of multi-sport, Wanaka is home to a breed of uber endurance athletes who hone their crafts in the surrounding mountains of the Southern Alps and waters of the Southern Lakes. They say you become a product of your environment and that is exactly what these physically honed species are.
When considering one of these multi-day multi-sport events, it would be wise to consider the depth of what you are getting yourself into.
When a message arrived 3 weeks ago to see if I could step in to cover for an injured team mate, there as a question of ‘why the heck not?’. With no good reason other than no specific preparation and having never met my potential team mate it was head first into the abyss of Red Bull Defiance, the two day, 8 stage, 142km journey of up and down mountains (5,000m of vertical gain), across lakes and down rivers by mountain bike, foot and kayak.
Held in the latter part of January, Central Otago is usually burnt to a crisp having baked in the searing summer sun, but this summer has seen as much snow as winter, plenty of rain and a less than ideal amount of heat.
With the menacing presence of two massive low pressure systems the forecast was far from ideal.
Add to that your first true foray into multisport and having never met your team mate – I was leaping head first into the deep end.
Logistics, gear, hydration, nutrition, planning, planning and more planning. Thursday saw multiple trips to hardware stores, my bike mechanic, friend’s gear sheds, the vet clinic and the local outfitter’s – each time bumping into mildly familiar faces all scurrying around checking boxes on job lists.
(It might be worthy to mention at this point that I spent most of last week chewing tramadol for an untimely bout of something not-so-nice and my mind was churning with ‘as long as I make it to the start line I’ll be fine as this weekend can’t be nearly as rough as the pain of the past few days’……)
With bikes racked, transition bags packed (multiple), compulsory items loaded into back packs, forecasts checked and race kits chosen appropriately the reality was fast setting on what the reality of what was about to be undertaken.
I spend a good amount of time running and riding around the hills when I’m home – it’s the yin to the yan of the rest of my year but racing around these hills non-stop for two days is a whole other story.
As the chopper pilot made some scarily close passes at the Minaret Staton barge transporting us to the start of the first stage of Day 1 it set the tone for what we were in for. A roller coaster of emotions and a fair amount of seeing cross eyed while teetering on the rivet of control versus losing it….the consequences of losing it on a course like this major and potentially fatal.
Having consulted with my teammate Sam about our approach to the race, I knew that the pace would be hot and hasty off the line for the first mountain bike stage 56km of Minaret Station traversing the remote and unaccessible western shores of Lake Wanaka on a mixture of farm track, stock track and walking track and I knew that if you burnt your legs in the first 10km attempting to keep on the front train of the best men’s elite teams, it would more than hurt you as the weekend rolled on.
But sure enough, the pace unrelenting through the first undulating kilometres and I was wondering if this hectic pace could realistically be kept by all around me. Sure enough, the first real climbs saw the macho start to splinter and might I say that one of the most satisfying things to do is to simply be able to ride past guys hiking their bikes up hill. Very quickly it was becoming apparent that this was not just a weekend jaunt on the trails but a savage exercise in masochistic outdoor pursuits.
The climbs were pinching and relentless, the creeks frigid, the bogs…ankle deep in sodden mud trying to suck your shoes off and the descents – sketchy at the best times as the front wheel and obliterated AC joint of a couple of competitors will attest to.
Coming into transition I knew we’d put ourselves in a decent position but like everything to do with this event, you never quite know what is lurking around the corner. Sure enough we hit the climb of run and the marshal points left to the top of the hill. This ain’t a run….it’s a scramble up a near vertical slope covered in braken, fern and rock. Make your way across the first plateau, up the next climb, clip into a harness and send it via rappel. This is not your average ‘trail run’. Scamper through some dodgy rocky outcrops and then chew your way through a few boggy cattle fields, hop a few fences and pop out at the transition ready to paddle 20km back to town.
The weather gods shone down on us for Day 1 (the easier of the two days) and as we re-packed transition bags for Day 2 the next front started to hit.
Arriving early swaddled in rain capes and gumboots, not a soul was to be seen 30 mins prior to the start ensuing in a mad dash of people, packs & paddling gear as all 65 teams set off from the Lake front at 6.30am to ring in Day 2.
The normally epically scenic journey around the lake to the outlet and down the Clutha River turned into an upwind battle as everyone began to string out into a draft train seeking shelter from the oppressive Nor Westerly coming down the lake.
Many twists and turns later and my bet to wear wetsuit booties for the run up the hill to the claybird shoot paid dividends as those around us sloshed and slipped in the mud.
I’m not quite sure what happened in the shooting department as I’m quite sure the bird I shot at shattered…cue a minute to relax before we were allowed on our way.
As I knew would be the case, Day 2 was going to be a day of attrition due to the course and to the weather. Like any event with transitions from one activity to another speed is of the essence, but taking a few moments to throw on the exact layers we’d need up the top of the Criffel Range would prove to be money-in-the-bank.
I had ridden up the descent of this ride last summer after which we affectionately called it the Little Bastard rather than Little Criffel. It would be fair to say that the ascent across the Criffel Station should be referred to as Little Bastard II. Right from the very bottom, the gradients were unforgiving and relentless, the surface a challenge in remaining back wheel traction as well as front wheel contact.
As we started to ascend the first pinch to make our way to the bottom of the real climb to the top of the Criffel Range the first victims of the day were starting to be strewn along the climb. Hiking a bike now would prove to be an extremely long day of pushing sh*t uphill.
But these events are not so much about competition but about completion. Debriefing at the end of Day 1 Sam and I had agreed to attach another towline to my bike should we need it as a matter of self & team preservation to make it to the finish. Teams racing really does add a totally different dynamic to your approach, your thinking, your planning and your execution. Given the magnitude of the weather forecast and that Sam had suffered crippling cramps at the start of the run on Day 1 this was about getting to the finish in as good a shape as possible and doing what ever it took to make that happen.
Having spent a decent amount of time chasing some of the fast kids in this race around and hearing some of their stories of what happens when they jump on planes to do adventure stage racing in China, I was fully aware of the ‘you never know when you’re going to be the one needing help’ and it’s about making sure you all get to the finish as a team. Having been in a few situations where I’ve seen the the strongest guys ‘go down’, it’s not about brute and brawn, it’s about being honest to your team mates and asking for help when you need it. There’s been a few occasions on missions amongst friends when I’ve had to raise the white flag to ask to help and after the week I’d had prior chewing tramadol and perfecting the foetal position, I was hoping like hell it wasn’t going to be me needing to raise the white flag for help.
I’d pulled through Day 1 well and felt like I had plenty in the tank to tackle the two mountains that were between us and the finish. We hooked the tow line over Sam’s stem and I was on a one track mind of firstly maintaining traction in the mud and secondly about passing everyone we could see in front of us.
With the exception of a major near-miss accident involving the only descent on the climb, thigh high overgrown grass, a water table and a corner which sent me ass over end landing on my head in the water table I was back on my bike before Sam knew what had happened with the sole instructions of “AHHH that wasn’t good, I heard a crack in my neck, I landed on my head, my handle bars aren’t straight but screw it – keep riding, I’ll fix the bars if or when we have to hike”. It was an awakening to the seriousness of the conditions and attempting to operate some kind of control while soaked to the bone in temperatures that continued to drop as we gained altitude.
As we climbed with the contours of the ridge, the gradient was relentless and the terrain unforgiving. Slowly but surely gaining on each team we found in front of us we, this was a game of the tortoise and the hare.
Meeting the cloud layer, the temp starting to drop like a stone and we came across team after team stopping in to attempt to put on additional layers. My bet to bust out my winter riding jacket and knee warmers was starting to come in mighty handy.
The farm land had given way to tussock which gave way to a rocky saddle full of shale and single track not much wider than the width of your tire. Fingers were frozen, feet felt like bones in your shoes and concentration was a combo of sweat filled eyes going cross eyed under the exertion and the conditions. One thing was for sure, you didn’t want to stop and you didn’t want to fall.
The descent was sketchy at best busting our way down the to the valley floor dodging stray rocks, busting through matagouri bushes and ass sliding down muddy fence lines to the the raging torrent of a muddy Cardrona River in full flood.
But the real test was yet to come. Shoes off, socks off, tops off, fresh gear on, running shoes on and we made it through transition thankful for the cheers of support from familiar faces that greeted us and sent us on our merry way with the welcome news that the run course had been shortened to the 17km ‘short course’ due to the 30cm of snow that was now resting on the tops.
Making our way through the boggy paddocks we did our best to make gains while we could as we knew the stream of teams we’d passed on the ascent would likely be hunting us down. Not that we were worried, but the quicker we made it up, the quicker we made it to the finish.
I’d had the heads up that this was more of a power hike than a run and as we turned corners, my eyes scanned the skyline and my mind went ‘holy sh*tballs that’s steep…’.
I’d made a solid attempt to keep the chat rolling all the way up as we leant over our poles and trudged up the hill but 80% of the way up I could feel the expenditure of the past two days starting to catch up. Now it was a matter of survival in the cold and I smashed two gels in quick succession (having not used them all weekend) waiting and hoping for the kick to be enough to get me to the end.
Over the tops and the brunt of the weather was in full force. Slipping and sliding through the snowy path the first half of the descent was a scramble down a ridge line before hitting a 4WD track. Two years ago there’s no way I would have even contemplated walking down something like this, let alone embarking on a two day multisport race with 42km of running on a knee that has had 9x surgeries, multiple blowouts and a sizeable amount of regenerative therapy in the hopes of regrowing it. It’s 90% good – but that scramble down the mountain was pitching it at it’s limit. Once upon a time I would have been able to scamper down that kind of slope like a mountain goat….but hey, we’ve always got to have something to aim for and a reason to do rehab eh?!
Descending through the clouds, the view of the finish line was coming into view. Just across the road, down the road and around the track….but don’t underestimate just how hard those last few kilometres are at the end of 14 odd hours of racing.
I had steady (which was probably ‘easy’ on a recovery day) but I didn’t have much more to give by that point. Maybe the towing on the bike was catching up with me, possibly the 3 week preparation. We took the chance to shed some layers while on the move and managed to pass another team of guys in front of us.
I don’t think that run around the lake has ever seemed to take so long as it did on Sunday but the clouds had parted, the lake was calm and the rain had stopped by the time we made it along the beach and through the finish arches.
Red Bull Defiance was done. We were still standing, in one piece and we’d made it.
Standing in the lake in an attempt to make the recovery on our legs a little easier, I don’t think a can of Red Bull ever tasted so good.
To be able to race around the hills of home, battle the elements, overcome the physical limitations of some mega injuries of my past and feel relatively good was a pleasant surprise. There was a whole lot of steady as well as plenty of time spent on the rivet.
If I was to balls up and have another crack, I know what I’d do – and we’d joked most of the way around that this was the ‘ultimate course recce’. But I was more than happy to get from the start to the finish in solid shape merely on the ‘summer fun stuff’ I do when I’m home.
Like many of these more ‘extreme’ events, with a bit of dedication and discipline you’ll be able to make it – if you’re in the off-the-couch category, it might be a bit more of a 3 year journey to the start line.
And I’m not going to lie – you’re going to have to come face to face with some situations and inner reflections either during training or during the event….and deal with them.
It was clear that it wasn’t just the course that was the biggest challenge, it was dealing with the weather. The mountains are a different beast and there is no way anyone would have bet on there being 30cm of snow dumped along the tops. And those that don’t spend a great deal of time in the hills paid the price.
I’d decided that it was going to be a weekend of mental resilience and having come out the other end, I’m pretty sure I was on the money.
If you’re mad enough for a crack and fancy a couple of days of masochist sight seeing in paradise, then sign up. But be warned, you’ll be mesmerised by the experience and left wanting to come back for more.
….just do a little more than 3 weeks preparation and you’ll be sweet as mate. In fact I think I could write a pretty killer training program having dissected most critical elements on the way around as a way of keeping us entertained.
If you want to know what you might look like after being savaged by the hills and weather of Wanaka this might give you an indication of what you’re in for
Now is likely a good time to give thanks where it is due:
To Mum & Sam’s partner Lydia for picking up our mess and making sure we had hot food & dry clothes as soon as we finished (never underestimate the value of your support crew and shower them in praise…and possibly gifts/bribes). Lifesavers….
Slap me across the face with a wet fish right about now…. I started trying to write this back in August, have tried to finish it on numerous occasions but for lack of a better reason you’re getting it lock stock and barrel now.
In fact, there may just be some keyboard diarrhoea ready to explode onto the inter web in the near future.
I’ve finally made it home, FINALLY managed to unpack and feel like at least part of my life has some kind of order and structure. It’s the small things like being able to open up your draws and find what you’re looking for at a glance rather than having to explode a bag and sift through the destruction on the floor that means you’ve actually made it home.
When I started writing this back in August, the second half of my season was on the verge of not happening. A lot was up in the air and I was on the verge of heading south in search of white gold and the lure of my own bed. The reports coming out of the Southern Alps were that the snow was all-time.
And when it’s on – it’s on….
With not much going on in the first half of the summer, it felt like it had been a good long while since I’d had some hard and fast racing on the water.
From the middle of the Pacific I made the call to fly east rather than west.
The next two and a half months were full to the brim, full-noise action and working out how many cans of nitrous had in the reserve tail at the ready to unleash (thankfully there were plenty!).
When I say I was close to not coming back, I’m not joking.
Every time you make a decision to do one thing, there is always the opportunity cost of what you’re not doing. But for some reason, I had a sense of unfinished business; that I needed to go and finish out the season and see where things were at.
It was a bit of a gamble, but knew that I was carrying some serious form from the first half of the year. If you’re not going to back yourself, why should you expect anyone else too?
It’s the ability to continually evaluate a situation and remain objective that allows decisions to be made on fact rather than emotion.
With a view to taking each weekend and each event as it came, I landed back on the West Coast at the ready to let the high speed roller coaster of racing, travel, more racing and more travel unleash.
From LA to Huntington, to Hood River, Oregon to LA, California to Japan back to LA, up to San Francisco, down to LA, back into the depths of the Orange Curtain and San Diego it was a roller coaster of planes, airports, some toxic chemical burns, never ending logistics, fun, games and plenty of banter for good measure….I’m finally coming up for air after the marathon of the past three months.
With pace in my favour and fitness on my side, a re-found willingness to gamble the odd risk that I haven’t had for a while, the confidence to change up equipment and roll with the consequences, and ‘that’ moment in surf race final of the Pacific Paddle Games when I decided I loved being back in the depths of the pain cave so much that I went for another lap giving away the win….the overall win ……and a decent amount of lunch money in the process, it’s fair to say – I was definitely ‘back in the game’.
Them’s the breaks.
With the willingness to take risks, the heart to charge and a re-found love to compete that has come back stronger than ever, these are the highs and lows that make you fall in love with sport all over again.
Heck I even busted out a couple of cross-country races in San Diego for shits and giggles and seriously surprised myself in the process (not to mention an off-the-couch 110+ miles on the roadie in Oregon on whim…).
Now the bags have been packed, unpacked, packed, unpacked, packed, repacked and finally Unpacked for the year, with only the ‘weekender’ version in the proximity of easy access.
There’s the familiarity of the landscape of home and the security and peacefulness of the mountains that I crave at this time of year.
The bikes have been dusted off and the puffer jacket is in full effect.Even though it is spring, there’s at least a weekly dusting of show half way down the hills and a climate where the changeability of the weather is ever-present in the decisions you make daily on what you are doing and how you are going to do it.
The yoga mat has been unrolled and my annual pilgrimage back to the warmth of the yoga studio has been embraced as much as the awkward positions that my body loves to hate at this time of year have become the norm.
The reconnection with old mates to fix the problems of the world over coffee, wine or a long ride through nature’s playground.
The cry of the mind and the body to simply go and play rings true and louder than ever – for these are the months that are the ‘jackpot’ for the hard yards and investment of energy and time away when you ply your trade from afar.
Following every period of expansion there is the need of the balancing period of contraction.
For me, that is home and it’s the contrasting environment of the mountains.
It’s a world away from the madness of the year. It’s a chance to reflect, recharge, refocus and rebuild the energy required to rise to the challenges of the months ahead.
Thanks for the support, it’s been a roller coaster of a few months – the extent of which most will never know.
I know I’m here for the right reasons and I’m stronger, faster, fitter and hungrier for more than ever before.