RACE OF THE DEMONS

By Edward Wilkinson Latham

Photography by EWL

Outpost Magazine

It is called the ‘demon hour’ in adventure racing. That time, before the first signs of dawn, when mind, body and spirit are besieged with fatigue. Headlamps start to flicker and spare batteries are nowhere to be found. The compass is lying, you’re sure of it. You are dangerously close to derailing into sleep-deprived dementia, as doubts whisper maliciously in your ear, about yourself and your teammates. Frozen rain stings your face and darkness swallows you whole.

“I never want to see another bloody tussock for as long as I live”, bellows an irate voice from the darkness, referring to the thick clumps of long yellow grass that blanket the rolling highland terrain. Torch beams pan around in the dark as though it were a manhunt, until they home in on four dark figures. It’s a team called Focused Chartered Accountants, who just arrived at the TA (Transition Area). Team assistants, race organizers and journalists gather around the arriving team, like they were returning heroes. I’ve never seen four people look so tired and beaten.

It is the fourth day of the 13th Southern Traverse. Set in the south island of New Zealand, in the wild terrain of Otago. The Southern Traverse is one of the top adventure races in the world, attracting some of the most elite (and eccentric) athletes from across the globe. 411km of grueling terrain is tackled by the competitors in one hundred hours while they snatch less than two hours of sleep a day here and there. It is undoubtedly a competition that requires equal amounts of mental and physical stamina.

The early spring weather in Otago, located on the wind sculpted south east coast, has been as dramatic and changeable as the competition thus far. Navigation errors, over excursion and lack of sleep, have meant that team positions have changed drastically as they traverse the arduous but beautiful countryside. The 70 km trekking section across the cold stormy highlands of the Lammerlaws and Lammermoors, the longest in the competition, has taken up to twelve hours longer than anticipated.

I had been in the highlands following the leading teams amongst the endless rolling hills of tussock, the day before as they battled cold temperatures, even when the sun was shinning. But twelve hours later the weather had now turned for the worse and caught the slower teams in an angry overnight cauldron of storm clouds. One highland checkpoint reported that there had been hail seen, and I presume felt, the size of golf balls.

By the following morning, there had been numerous casualties, team withdrawals and racers heli-vaced out of the grueling Otago hills to Dunedin hospital, suffering from hypothermia, stomach illness and chest infections. Even amongst race officials there is a murmur of fear that another night out the moors for the tail end teams, could be potentially lethal.

It had been so different on a beautiful day, five days ago in the near by city of Dunedin. Situated on the southern east coast of the south island of New Zealand, the city was founded in 1848 as a Scottish Settlement. Built to be the Edinburgh of Oceania, (it’s name means Edinburgh in Old Gaelic), the fine Victorian and Edwardian architecture have a faded gothic glory that is testament to the cities unrivaled success and expansion during the great Otago gold rush era of the late 1800’s.

On that morning, the Town Hall was packed with nearly three hundred international, Type A personalities. Thirty-one teams of self-proclaimed natural endorphin junkies. High fives ricocheted around the auditorium like a Mexican wave. Like excited pupils, the racers awaited their Head Master, who in this instance was Geoff Hunt, founder of the Southern Traverse. Hunt started the race in 1991 to challenge the world’s most serious adventure racers and put New Zealand on the map of adventure racing. Athletes from New Zealand like Steve Gurney and John Howard have become household names epitomizing the Kiwi spirit and have inspired the nations outdoor enthusiasm. Southern Traverse ranks in the top three adventure races, along with Eco Challenge and the one that started it all, Raid Gauloises.

Hunt’s decision to hold this year’s competition in Dunedin was a surprise to many. Dunedin is well known for eco-tourism, with the world's only mainland royal albatross colony and several penguin colonies, including the "Hoiho" penguins, ("noise shouter" in Maori) the rarest in the world, all within the city boundaries on Otago peninsula. While it does not sport the mountains that have become synonymous with the Southern Traverse, the coastal winds and changeable climate, (often three seasons in a day), would be an added hindrance to any team who thought that this years course was going to be about pace rather than endurance.

Geoff Hunt’s two-hour presentation outlined the punishing course over the surrounding Otago countryside. For the first time there is the addition of a new discipline of coastalerring (traversing the coast line), and together with the staggered and repeated use of mountain bikes, kayaks and hiking poles the course seemed to a reasonably fit journalist like myself, as a competition of the super human.

However, a pallid expression began to wash over the teams’ faces while a fiendish grin creped over Geoff’s. Maps were being huddled a round and for many it seemed the race had already begun.

“Tonight, I’m just going over maps and more maps,” said Malcolm Edie, Head of Canadian team Maxion.

“There are some serious chunks of some very tricky terrain. No tracks up there in the highlands. No markers at all. The hills just go on, looking the same.”

Malcolm and fellow Canadian, Northern Pride leader Jim Doucette, both agreed the course was going to be tough.

“We’ve got the coastal section this year for the first time. That is really going to be interesting. How many people train for that?” When asked why they were prepared to punish themselves, their replies seemed numerous in the light of what they new to be in front of them. Simon Donato of team Maxion was here to complete the course no matter what. ‘It’s one of the big ones in adventure racing, he said enthusiastically. “Besides, it will help me finish my poser checklist”.

Some team members are not just taking part to race. Dr Jim Cotter of the University of Otago is a lecturer and researcher in Exercise and Environmental Physiology and has been in three winning teams in Southern Traverse history. This year he is racing with Dunedin’s Omni Graphic team, the best-performed squad on paper. However he will require his teammates to perform an extra task. When Cotter discovered that the race was to be held around Dunedin he saw the potential for the University to conduct new and unique studies. Selected athletes will have muscle biopsies taken and some will take micro thermometer computers, which measure the body’s temperature throughout the race. Cognitive testing will also play a strong part in the study, measuring the active brain electricity before and after the event to see how rapidly and accurate an adventure racer can make decisions as sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion begin to take over the body.

“You can do a lot with a small amount of muscle. It’s only possible to do this now because the athletes are local and available for base line testing well before the event so they can heal”

Asked if he would be thinking of science during the race he replied, “There is a lot on your mind at transition points. There is a lot going on. You’re thinking about food, water, the next stage, planning an hoping to get through in the right conditions”.

The race day started on a sunny spring morning. A crowd of athletes in red race smocks lined up and as the clock struck eight thirty, they were off, hurtling towards the coast like a herd of lemmings. The kayak leg moved quickly down to the Otago Peninsula. Kayaking makes up 109km of this year’s Southern Traverse, and is the first in history to include sea, lake and river disciplines.

I drove though the hills over looking the coast line, past its cypress hedges and pine trees twisted by the wind and emerald green pastures, sectioned with grey stone walls and bright yellow flowered thorn brush. Descending to one of the beautiful coastal villages in this instance Long Beach, I sat in the sun amongst the grassy sand dunes, over shadowed by tree-lined cliffs and bird colonies and waited for the action to appear.

Dunedin’s craggy coastline meant that teams had to scramble along wet cliffs beside colonies of seals, sea lions, penguins and albatross. “They won’t be seeing this wildlife from a distance,” says Hunt. “They’ll be chasing them into the water and often having to jump in right behind them as they make their way along the coast line.”

The rocks were very slippery and progress on these areas became slow. Many teams opted to swim, working as a team to maximize the pace. Seals played in the near by kelp, curious of the racers donned in black wet suits. The rubbery and slippery kelp made it difficult to climb out of the water onto the rocky shoreline and many racers became ensnared. Out of the water the cliffs lead up and over to steep grassy pastures and dense thorny scrub forests.

At the first TA that afternoon amongst the sand dunes and pine trees, the atmosphere had been that of a picnic ground, as the teams sporadically came in to change, feed and repair their feet before the Warrington to Evansdale hike. Jam sandwiches and sausage rolls were being passed around; a small game of soccer was under foot, while dogs chased sticks.

By day two, the high spirits had packed up and vanished. The first reports of race casualties were coming in. Team Sierra International, veterans of the Southern Traverse, who had raced together for the last decade, was out. Team Mate Rob Harrow became violently sick on the hike and the team took a unanimous decision to retire. The Southern Landrover Team, whose support crew drove robust all terrain vehicles of the same name, didn’t have the drive and retired early when James McAllister was suffering rather unromantically from diarrhea.

“We were worried that we might not get him down off the hill and to the transition point, team mate Simon Dickson said. “When stress is put on the body little things can become a problem and you can deteriorate very quickly”.

Canadian Adrian LaSalle-Lowe had retired after the first day, complaining of an old hamstring injury as well as stomach problems. And Jackson Griffith from the UK team Eventrate.com, just withdrew from plain old-fashioned exhaustion.

The early leaders - Omni Graphics made a strategic mistake after a 20 minutes rest on the trekking section of Whare Flat. Due to fatigue and compass misjudgment they then lost two and half-hours. Frustrated by dence pine forest they attempted to break through impenetrable gorse in the dark but team leader Rachel Barton spent the next twelve hours suffering from bouts of vomiting. Now unranked the three remaining members were going on.

“We’ve had some highs and lows overnight, said Geoff Hunt. “Any human weakness is just going to be punished by the terrain at night”.

The timing of sleep, how long and when to take it, is a strategy that every team dices with. There had been several big moves overnight as Green Decoys moved from sixth overnight to third. Mainland Star and Garter from seventh to forth and Team Nomad had moved from twelfth to ninth.

For team Maxion, the second day’s mountain bike section was not going as they had planned. This was meant to be one of their strongest sections, but the lack of sleep was becoming problematic for the entire team. Kim suffered a series of crashes on the steep inclines, fractured her ankle and suffered a concussion and was now blaming herself for slowing the team. Tempers are fraught and the race feels to many racers, like it will never end.

The clock reads 6:30 am. I open the car door and the cold air dispels the stale warmth of my overnight capsule. The TA (Transition Area), near the misty Lake Mahinerangi, looks like the remnants of a below par traveling circus. Mud splattered RV’s, camper vans and abused rental cars loiter amongst fold out tables, plastic cutlery and lines of drying clothes. These are the mobile support teams that cater to the racers every need and prepare for the next disciple setting out food, new shoes, dry clothes, and plenty of foot cream. They are the unsung heroes of adventure racing, cleaning, packing and reassembling all the kit and needed supplies, for six days and nights. Often a squad of family members, friends and fellow racers they are what keep most racers going and all are professionals of anticlimactic atmospheres, spending long hours if not days waiting.

I find Bill, and Neil, the support assistants for Canadian Team Maxion Nutrition stirring from a cold night. Bill is Billy’s father and, despite living and working for the forestry commission in Newfoundland, follows young Billy’s career fanatically. Neil, an Englishman from Devon moved to Christchurch with his wife two years ago. A racer he also operates a charter helicopter company. I am kindly offered coffee and a jam sandwich and locate an empty deck chair to wait for the radios to go back on. Coverage runs roughly from seven or eight in the morning until eight or nine at night and is the eyes and ears of the competition. “It’s got to be tough out there right now”, says Bill peering at the large angry storm clouds, churning over like waves. Like a father should, he looks worried.

As the radios come back on the overnight story takes shape. Mainland Star & Garter Nelson Mountain Bike Club put down a tent roughly two hours past Check Point 32, in the hope that sick team member Richard Greer would recover. Now there was no option but to be up picked up by a medical helicopter crew.

The kayak section across the lake is temporary the light at the end of the tunnel to those teams still on the moors. A chance to rest legs. But because of high winds and big waves cresting at five to six feet high whitecaps, navigating is very difficult and an easy paddle has become anything but.

“Some teams are in bad shape,” said the voice of one of the volunteers on the other end of the radio. “Roger that. We haven’t seen any flares yet. Over” replies another. “Team 21 has one member suffering from hypothermia. Over” Team 21. Team Maxion.

By the time the team makes it to the TA, they look half dead. Malcolm and Kim are both in a bad way, their bodies betraying their spirit to go on. On the trek they had been low on food and dry clothing with only a tarp for water protection, but it was during the kayak that Malcolm became borderline hypothermic for 8 hours.

“The temperature just kept dropping during the paddle,” uttered Malcolm shivering as he tried to eat a mug of hot food.”

The tough paddling conditions and worsening hypothermia of two teammates had led to Simon Donato’s demon moment during the kayak.

“I asked Bill and Kim to go to the CP and record the information, but they suggested that we take the two-hour penalty for not getting to the CP and just continue. I snapped and said "If you're not going to do it, then I'll fu*#ing do it. I lost it.”

Apart from cold and utter fatigue Bill and Simon are in reasonable shape. Kim has been in pain and anguish since crashing her bike in the second day.

“I caught her in tears several times as we walked along the fence line heading south”, said Malcolm. All she said was, “ Malcolm, just get me to the road and I'll be OK".

And she was. Braving mind over matter the entire team rests at the TA for three hours. Back in the race once again as a team, I see them leave to battle through the next hike in Waipori Forest before jumping on the mountain bikes.

With sheer stubborn determination I watch them leave, in disbelief of team Maxion’s camaraderie, sticking together and refusing to give up where some better teams may of debated to call it quits.

There are now only nine teams covering the full course following the retirement of Kathmandu and Mainland, Star & Garter Nelson Mountain Bike Club overnight due to illness. Of the remaining teams, six are competing on the adventure course (shortened by three check points) and five on the experience course (missing out all six Lammerlaws check points).

The subsequent stages quickened in pace as did the moral of the remaining racers. The fun down hills and good terrain on the mountain bike section through Berwick Forest boosted a lot of the team’s morals that were still recovering from the trek.

“The treat of a 20 km road ride at the end of the race was great!” Simon Donato of Team Maxion told me after. “The team just formed a line behind Malcolm to draft and he just pulled us the entire way. It was like riding behind a refrigerator, I barely had to pedal”.

The final section of the southern Traverse saw however no easy ending. The first five km of the coasteering were spent on beaches and roads, the next seven were spent on steep, pasture lands over looking cliff drops of 60-150 m. Navigating through dense, thorny scrub forests the teams moved at an almost snails pace over the last 3-4 km.

At 11.29am on November 14 at St. Clair Beach on the outskirts of Dunedin, the Champaign corks popped for overall winners, Team Icebreaker Bridgedale whose members all hail from the South Island. Starting in Dunedin at 8.30am on November 10 they completed the course in 98 hours 59 minutes. As the hours went by and teams came in the atmosphere thinned until final competitors Team Capriccio-Swazi crossed the line 8.59am on Saturday.

Team Maxion, crossed the line at 4:30 am. Proud of their performance and ranking, despite the shorter course they were nonetheless ragged and desperate to get to sleep. Other teams however still had energy to even pose a few questions and complaints to race organizers themselves when they crossed the line. Team Bask from Russia, which included one member from the USA, was unlucky not to make the classic course cut off deadline and was already vowing to return next year. "We want to come back and we want to win next time," said Anna Medvedeva. A first time entry from Korea, Team Go! Global Explorers, which is the focus of a television documentary, placed third on the experience course.

"It was an exciting race for this team of rookies," said Hunt. "They performed very well with the support of a Kiwi team mate."

However some teams even had complaints when they crossed the line. While many cursed the dreaded tussock grass that Hunt had strategically included to test and separate the ‘men from the boys’, others complained about the severity of other sections.

"I hate pushing my bike,” said Lisa from Aberdeen Asset Management, referring to he steep inclines on the earlier sections. With the temperament of a hardened general, Hunt looked at her as if he wondered why she was there. With arms behind his back he leant forward and in tune with the Southern Traverse motto of ‘Sleep when you dare. Move when you can’, unsympathetically replied. "Well, you should bloody well learn to ride it properly then!"

EWL©