The question seemed innocent enough, and I must confess to jumping to attention like a new recruit whenever I hear the call go out, and let’s face it, on a Saturday afternoon the chances are you will be escaping the lawn mowing that you’ve been promising for the last two weeks. So when brother-in-law, fellow hiking companion and adventurer, Ray Tong, sounded the bugle I was all set. And even the wry smile on his face didn’t alert me to the journey I was about to embark on so I grabbed my wallet and there I was at the back door panting like a faithful dog ready for a walk.
I assumed this was going to be our chance to discuss the possibility of participating in the London to Mongolia car rally conducted by a group calling themselves the Adventurists’ which was a hot topic for us as one of Ray’s work colleagues had just completed it and loved every moment of the journey. It sounded like our kind of adventure…and I was ready for it.
As the beer flowed there was a long and animated discussion about the merits and cost of such an undertaking, punctuated by bellowing laughter of the trouble we might find ourselves as we headed to Mongolia and by about the time the third schooner had been downed I was convinced we would be heading to London and on our way before long at all. But somehow it was all lost in the translation, the beer Ray was referring to was the one handed to you after completing the Speight’s Coast to Coast Adventure Race in New Zealand and as the liquid amber flowed the implication was lost on me!
It is worth noting that ever since we hiked from Sydney to Newcastle a couple of years ago along the Great North Walk I have been wary of the pay-back for the day I made Ray walk double the distance we had planned, oddly enough, all in the name of getting to the finish and a beer one day earlier. Mind you I figured after I had helped lay about 5,000 pavers in his driveway last year the incident had well and truly been forgotten, clearly not – but I digress…
Sunday morning and I was staring down the barrel of an entry into one of the world’s toughest multi-sport events, and not to mention the disapproving eye Janet was casting between me and the knee-high grass in the backyard. Although on the later, Ray had smoothed Janet over already by telling her I was taking the family on a New Zealand holiday in February – thanks mate!
So just what was entailed to get the beer, Ray laid the information out for all to see. And the teasing grin on Janet’s face seemed to be saying, if only you had mowed the lawn instead! I read on.
The Speight’s Coast to Coast has been billed as the world’s premier multi-sport event, and a benchmark by which all other multi-sport events are judged, in New Zealand and all around the world. The race traverses the South Island of New Zealand from Kumara Beach on the Tasman Sea to Sumner Beach on the Pacific Ocean. There are options for a one day event, or a two-day, both entailed cycling 140 kilometres in stages of 55kms, 15kms, and 70kms. Running 36 kilometres, including a 33km mountain stage that crosses New Zealand’s Southern Alps, and finally a 67 kilometre kayak down the Waimakariri River through the Grand Canyon of New Zealand, the Waimakariri Gorge.
I pleaded, even offering to mow the lawn without further haste, but the King’s Schilling had unwittingly been accepted and like an impressed man my fate already had a predetermined path over the next six months. Entries were dispatched and my acceptance letter from Robin Judkins, the man who conceived this event thirty years ago, into the individual two-day event gave some relief and signalled my surrender to the journey ahead.
I’ve never trained for a multi-sport event, wasn’t much of a runner, I had done a lot of cycling in younger days, but an enthusiastic kayaker having competed in winter marathon events and two Hawkesbury Classics, a 111 kilometre kayak race in Sydney. In more recent times I had been focussing on power-lifting along with rowing on the roster of a virtual rowing team based in America. So I had a good base level of fitness to work from.
A visit to the City Bike Depot in Sydney saw me walking out with a brand new Cannondale CAAD 10 racing bike and a wealth of knowledge imparted by Hugh Flower, a previous competitor in the Coast to Coast. In fact I had regular discussions with Hugh on the various facets of the race and he was always willing to offer soothing advice, perhaps it would have been better had he just given it to me straight! But he had me training up and down the Sphinx Track at Bobbin Head, a wonderful part of Sydney’s North Shore, along with some sound advice on cycling. Janet was even heard to quip on more than one occasion that I must be a shareholder of CBD by now after all the money I had invested there.
As time progressed I was actually looking forward to the adventure that the Coast to Coast promised and I threw myself into the training with great vigour. Christmas was always going to present a challenge in balancing training with the festive season, but Ray and I managed to transition this period with little dent to our training regimes, in fact it actually provided some good quality time to train.
By this time we had obtained our grade two kayak certificate, a prerequisite for the event, although we were yet to master rolling in the kayak, perhaps that will come in time! And that brought up the question of kayak selection for the event, would we take one, or hire one in New Zealand? As it turned out Rob Howarth, from Canoe and Kayak in Auckland, a sponsor of the event, was most helpful in this regard and we each hired a Barracuda Beachcomber kayak to use. These boats have proven to be a popular choice for the event as evidenced by the number of yellow boats on the river on race day.
The organisers suggest a familiarisation paddle and run over the mountain prior to race day, so with cheap airfares on offer I headed to Christchurch in mid-January. It is often said some things you have no control over and weather is one of them. I arrived on a Thursday evening, and seemingly my arrival marked the end of a week of fabulous weather and kayaking. Friday was raining, windy and cold and it was against this backdrop I headed off with Rob Howarth and a group of fellow competitors for an introduction to the Waimak. Rob judged that the conditions were not suitable for a kayak through the gorge as the water level had risen significantly in the past 24 hours and the wind was gusting up to 100 kph – welcome to New Zealand!
For me it was a real eye opener as we kayaked the first and last 15 kilometres of the course the race would take, and whilst we avoided the gorge it was a most enjoyable day enhanced by a visit to the Sheffield pie shop, a must do for anyone passing by that way.
The next day was scheduled as a run over the mountain, but the weather was no better and it came as no surprise that the run had been cancelled. In fact, whilst we were kayaking the previous day two groups training for the race were air-lifted off the mountain at Goat’s Pass by helicopter after being caught in the extreme conditions. So I tagged along with Rob for another paddle along the route we followed previous day. The river was completely different, the water level much higher and the flow much faster…
Unable to complete a training run over the mountain I took the opportunity to travel to the transition point at Klondyke Corner, near Arthur’s Pass, on my final day in New Zealand to get a sense of what it was like – it was snowing on the mountains, very cold, and left me pondering whether this beer was going to be worth it…
Having survived the temptations of Christmas only a couple of weeks earlier, a real test was coming up with a planned holiday at Khancoban, a small town on a lake nestled in the foothills of the Australian Alps region. With good intentions I loaded my race bike into the car to enable some cycle training, but on the morning of departure I took it out having decided that with just over two weeks before the event little would be gained from a fitness perspective and the risk of injury was at the forefront of mind. So with that mindset we headed off to Khancoban with our friends and had a great week on the lake, a couple of steaks, a good laugh, and a beer or two!
Fitness is a given for this event and the physical aspect is not to be understated, but often it is mental fortitude that will see you through to the end of a physical endeavour. I adopted this line in any case realising that my training had not been specific enough and too late to correct, so I would be drawing on that mental fortitude to get me across New Zealand’s Southern Alps.
It seemed like ions ago that my entry had been submitted but here we were seated on board an Air New Zealand flight on our way to the inevitable firing of the starter’s gun on Kumara Beach. Once again I was welcomed to the North South Holiday Park in Christchurch by wonderful hosts Julie and Steve Fraser who were pleased to see me back. The park was clearly popular with Coast to Coast competitors with a number of them staying, readily identified by bikes and kayaks atop cars.
One of my greatest fears was my race bike not turning up at the luggage carousel at Christchurch Airport, but it did and in doing so extinguishing another excuse for not being on the start line. The next morning was spent putting it back together whilst Janet headed off to pick-up the Brtiz Campervan she’d organised for our travel.
And who ever said Kiwi’s don’t have a sense of humour? When Janet returned she was in an All-Blacks Rugby Campervan, one that was used during the World Cup series and from that moment on Janet was known as Aussie All-Black, there was no missing us!
With our gear packed into the van we headed in convoy for the West Coast, Kumara racecourse to be precise where we would spend the night prior to the event, pick-up our final registration pack, race numbers, even a six-pack of Speight’s before heading off to the final briefing given by Robin Judkins and dinner at the Kumara Town Hall. And whilst the serious safety stuff was discussed at the briefing, Robin was very entertaining and humourous when recounting past race stories, some of which are now Coast to Coast folklore.
This was the business end of the trip, one last sleep, for those that could, before the silent ride and walk to the start point, Kumara Beach on the Tasman Sea. I needn’t have bothered setting the alarm for I tossed and turned most of the night, as predicted by the old-handers, and before long it was time to get ready. And with one final hug from all Ray and I were on our way, our fate well and truly sealed.
Out of the drizzle and pre-dawn light, in what seemed to be a moment suspended in time, a black helicopter emerged, swooping down onto the beach like a seagull in pursuit of a hot chip, and from it Robin Judkins emerged, megaphone and air-horn in hand. Both Ray and I had been pacing the beach, saying very little to each other, although I probably mumbled bastard toward him at some stage, with a smile of course!
I felt like I should be saying or doing something profound, after all I was about to cross the South Island of New Zealand for goodness sake but I couldn’t think of anything worthy, so I picked up a small pebble and placed it in my bike shirt intending to place it on the East Coast when I finished – I never saw the pebble again, most likely disgorged unceremoniously somewhere along the 243 kilometre route.One minute to go the big fellow bellowed, and in an instant I had an enormous surge of adrenaline through my veins which nauseated me to the point of almost throwing up, but no time for that even, the air-horn sounded and we were off. And I can remember those first few steps I took and thought perhaps this was my profound moment, but I’m not sure why!
The residents of Kumara Junction were out in force, cheery face and clapping as we made our way along the 3 kilometre run to the bike transition, but let’s face it anyone would be cheery in the knowledge you could head back to bed after waving this bunch on their way. Seemingly, in almost no time at all I was clipped into my bike peddles, Ray was tucked in behind me and we were making our way along the 55 kilometre cycle to Aichens Corner in light rain. There was a cruel twist as I cleared the bike transition, a sign that said only 240 kilometres to go!
Settling into the bike ride Ray, who hired his bike in New Zealand, was having some gear trouble and found himself going faster than he wanted to – if only I had that sort of problem I thought! The ride was pleasant and undulating with some small hill climbs. Mind you when I saw the hills the previous day on our drive to Kumara I was cursing under my breath, I thought they said it was flat, but I guess this was Kiwi Flat.
The road had been closed to vehicle traffic for the first 40 kilometres of the ride although we were warned to expect vehicles at anytime, but the last 15 kilometres would be open so the appearance of a road sign warning of oncoming traffic was welcoming as it meant only 15 kilometres to Aichen Corner and the commencement of the run.
The last 15 kilometres passed quickly and in no time I was off the bike and running towards TomO and Janet, both beaming large smiles and clearly happy to see I’d made it to the first transition. They did a superb job of getting me into my running clothes and shoes, and slipping my alpine survival pack with all my sustenance in it onto my back. But it was at this point I diverted from a well laid plan, thought out in the comfort of our living room, and discarded the idea of changing into my running shorts instead opting to leave my bike shorts on for the mountain run. Well blow me down, what a mistake that was and a week later I’m still paying for that spur of the moment decision, mind you it was because of a spur of the moment decision that I was here in any case…
When it comes to training I had done as much running on rough bush tracks as time permitted and some of these runs spanned five or more hours, but I hadn’t actually prepared myself for getting off a bike after 55 kilometres and straight into a run. And yes, it was suggested by the girls that we do this type of training but we never got around to it and here we were slogging it out and that was before we even got to the timing gate!
You wouldn’t believe there could be so many rocks in one place. The terrain had large size boulders increasing from the size of a softball to the size of a car and they had to be negotiated as you made your way up the river valley. Competitors’ in the know cross the river 10 or so times, those that aren’t probably do it twice as many times. Mind you, it was a reasonably warm day and the river crossings provided an opportunity to rehydrate and for this purpose I carried a plastic cup and simply scooped water at each crossing.
Perhaps it wasn’t the gears on the bike that was Ray’s problem as he was now stepping out in front of me, possibly spurred on by the fact that we had been passed by a couple of grand-mothers in hiking boots, bless their souls. He offered plenty of encouragement and I settled into a quick paced walk, albeit slower than his. Realistically very few could actually run the whole mountain, although the fastest time recorded this year was 2 hours 58 minutes, by Trevor Voyce, for the 33 kilometres, but I’m sure he probably spent the last three years living with a herd of mountain goats, for at times there wasn’t even a track to follow.
Eventually it was with some relief that Goat’s Pass Hut came into view framed against a spectacular blue sky. Though I’m not sure I should have felt so much relief as I was only around the half-way point and the downhill was not going to be any easier. I caught up to a young lady named Yvonne, who had twisted her ankle, but still making great progress. With true Kiwi grit she simply said I have to suck it up to which I quipped, with a chuckle, that I was trying my hardest. She had a good laugh and we were the best of mates from that time, mind you she put on a cracking pace despite her injury.
The final section of the run took us down a river gorge towards the Beeley River confluence and Yvonne suggested she had a short-cut and I recall thinking maybe Ray won’t know about it and I’ll catch up to him. I suspect everyone knew the short-cut and it was to no avail as he was at the timing gate to cheer me in from the mountain run. TomO was waiting on the river bed about 500 metres from the finish, I think Janet sent him out on a search and rescue mission as the clock was ticking away and many had finished by this time, but I got a cheer from the crowd as I made my way down the timing chute, and much to Janet’s relief I was in one piece and looking okay, relative to the undertaking of course…
I enjoyed the day immensely despite taking much longer than I anticipated, but equally I was also glad to be sitting in a chair devouring a pie from Sheffield pie shop and reflecting on the past few hours. Dieticians’ might have a differing view on recovery food but let me say for the record, that pie was bloody good!
Prior to the event I spent time researching at length my nutrition requirements and had it covered between gels, liquid nutrition and solid muesli type bars, in fact none other than Em’s Power Cookies, a New Zealand product produced by previous Coast to Coast winner Emily Miazga. But I did struggle to get the solids down on the run and without doubt I was underdone on the nutrition throughout the day – I can see that eating on the run is an art form that requires plenty of training to achieve successfully…
At the conclusion of day one, support crew Team Big Bad Baz went to great lengths to ensure I was okay, constantly checking in on me, in fact Janet is always looking after her boys something TomO and I appreciate greatly. But all I really wanted was a shower and a bit of a snooze. And it was at the point the hot water flowed I realised I had a serious chaffing problem, in fact anyone within a 500 metre radius of the All-Blacks Van would have been alerted to my problem!
I wish I could say I slept like a baby – but I didn’t, and it seemed like I had only put my head to pillow when the alarm jolted me into the start of day two of the event. A 15 kilometre cycle, 67 kilometre kayak, and a final 70 kilometre cycle into Christchurch. I don’t think Janet and TomO actually knew what 4.30am in the morning actually looked like, neither are known as early morning people but dutifully they were up and fussing over me before preparing themselves to head to the kayak transition – they needed to leave the campsite by 5am and down to the Mt White Bridge for the kayak gear scrutineering. Fortunately for me, Leah, Janet’s sister and Ray’s partner, was staying behind with their son Aubrey so I was able to stay in the relative warmth of their camper van until it was time to head over to the start line.
The morning was cold and it was with some relief that we were eventually dispatched in groups of 10 towards the Mt White Bridge on the Waimak River, climbing a couple of hills along the way. The 15 kilometre ride finishes on the highway and it was a requirement to dismount from the bikes and run approximately 800 metres down a dirt road to the kayaks and despite planning to take my kayak shoes, I didn’t and was left to run in my cycle shoes, consequently many people passed me who obviously had the sense to stick with their plans! Before long Janet and TomO were pouring me into my life vest, kayak, and with a hug sent me on my way down the river. This was to be my first encounter with the gorge, an unknown for me, which actually made it quite exciting. Ray hadn’t been on the river at all and due to our different start times he was about 15 minutes ahead. And okay, I’ll fess up that I did think to myself, with a slight snicker, if he falls out I might catch up to him, besides it would have been fun going down the river together…
The first of the braided section was fairly straight forward and the river was quite low which was good and bad. The paddle would be slower, some of the more difficult bits would be gone, but the lower river level would expose many more obstacles to be avoided! I recognised the Rock Gardens, a series of four rapids, seemingly thrown at you as a teaser for the gorge ahead. They had some kayakers in play boats at hand to rescue those who went for a swim, fortunately I negotiated this area with little trouble and was back in to the braided section ahead of the gorge in no time at all.
The gorge was spectacular and whilst this was a race I took in the view between negotiating some of the more difficult rapids, although it was whilst looking around admiring the view that I found myself upside down and swimming alongside my kayak – how’s that for karma, sorry Ray! The waters of the Waimakariri River are usually a beautiful turquoise blue and its name roughly translates to River of cold rushing water and it is fair to say it lived up to its name on both counts. After a short swim I was back in the boat only to find myself swimming about 5 minutes later, and my mind turned to thoughts of being the recipient of a trophy, an old washing machine agitator, which is given to the person who swims the most in the gorge. Fortunately this was the last time I swam, and I must say that on both occasions the river was fairly benign where I came out, the first was just after passing through a fairly large wave train, the second time I can’t even be sure, but clearly I was relaxing too much!
There were numerous jet boats and check points on the river, monitoring our progress and Woodstock was the final checkpoint prior to the kayak finish. Woodstock was about 1 hour from the finish and required you to negotiate braided sections of the river, but the river makes you work right to the end with a couple of bluffs with large pressure waves and boils to negotiate literally in sight of the finish.
I rounded the corner and up onto the beach, TomO was excitedly calling to Janet who was anxiously scanning the monitor board. It turns out that they were sending through race numbers as kayakers passed Woodstock and these were being placed on a notice board, but apparently they missed a number of us, myself included…
The transition area for the bike leg was at the top of a small rise, so after a few hours of having your legs cramped in the boat you need to make your way up the hill and onto the bike. TomO led the way and got me onto the bike and pointed me in the direction of Christchurch and the finish line at Sumner Beach. At first I was just going to head-off in my kayak shorts, but a mental whack across the back of my head saw me changing into bike shorts, as planned!
Ray and I had rationalised that once on the bike it was only 70 kilometres to the finish – yeah, right. There was nothing easy about this ride and whilst the wind was initially coming side on from the south eventually it turned easterly into a head-wind just to make it a bit harder. Fortunately I passed another competitor, Robert from the Cook Islands just after the transition and without hesitating he jumped onto my back wheel and simply said move out when you want a break and I’ll take the lead. We did 5 minutes on, 5 minutes off all the way to the finish line without speaking a word to each other – there wasn’t much to say at that stage and the job was still ahead of us, but we gave each other a congratulatory hug as we crossed the line. The value of teamwork well and truly highlighted.
The ride to Christchurch was via long flat roads and starting about 40 kilometres out there were cars parked alongside with people cheering and clapping as we passed. The crowds got bigger as we passed through the city and the police halted traffic at all intersections waving competitors nearing the end of this epic journey through like royalty, ensuring a clear, safe cycle to the finish line…
A sea breeze was blowing as I rounded the final bend, officials were ahead waving me in and at the ready to take my bike so I could make the final sprint, okay … let’s just settle on a jog, down to the finish line.
The announcer’s call went out, number 4-6-0 Barry O’Malley from Australia… Janet and TomO were there smiling ear to ear, Leah, and Deb were fussing over Ray, who glanced my way with a big smile, and the crowd cheered loudly – I felt like a champion and welled inside with pride as Robin Judkins handed me my Speight’s Beer, put his arm around me and said, good onya mate! This was a fantastic event run by an army of enthusiastic volunteers and the flamboyant Robin Judkins is to be congratulated on conceiving it 30 years ago, our friends across the Tasman welcomed us warmly wherever we went, even if they did take the puss out of us about the All-Blacks van, the camaraderie was second to none, and I enjoyed every minute of it…
And over the din of the cheering crowd I could hear a small voice in my head echoing the advice TomO had given me many months earlier… Dad, just embrace it…