Anyone who knows my wife Sarah, will appreciate just what a willing partner she has been to all my successes as an athlete. More than that, she has a talent for planning and readily takes on all the logistical work, from preparing for local races to tackling endurance world records. The total commitment that I receive, and the skill with which she completes this administration, not only allows me to concentrate on the activity itself, but also means that, working in partnership, we have enjoyed competing in a host of countries around the world in lieu of enjoying more traditional holidays. However, even I was slightly taken aback with Sarah’s positive response when I casually announced my desire to compete in the New Zealand Coast to Coast race. The impact it would have on our over-stretched bank balance warranted the idea be met with the derision it deserved, and yet, there I was, debit card in hand, about to press enter on my entry for the February 2016 multisport world championships.
With Sarah working on the logistics of a sabbatical, flights, accommodation and transport for what quickly became a three month tour, I fired off my entry form and began to dig a little deeper into the requirements of this challenge. The race format of run, bike, mountain run, kayak and bike over a total of 243km from Kumara Beach on the West Coast of South Island to Brighton Beach, Christchurch on the East Coast sent competitors on foot over the Southern Alps and by kayak down the mighty Waimakariri river in either a one-day or two-day format. Ever the glutton for punishment, I entered the one-day event. Then I set about purchasing the compulsory clothing and equipment as per the race instructions and obtaining the Level 2 whitewater kayaking certificate I required to support my entry.
Only two accredited trainers were listed in the UK and, as one didn’t respond to my email, I found myself attending three days of one-to-one training at the Black Mountain Activities Centre near Brecon. After a day acclimatising on the River Wye, the remaining two were spent at Symonds Yat on a short section of Level 2 white water. With a distant history of reservoir and coastal water kayaking, this was a new challenge for me and the crash course was tiring to say the least. By the end of day two, my ability to read the water and control the kayak was improving. By day three however, I was exhausted and my previous gains were lost as capsize followed capsize. Sensing my frustration, my instructor called a halt to the training and, rather generously in my opinion, he signed me off based on my progress on day two.
With my certificate submitted, my entry was accepted and Sarah and I flew in to New Zealand early in December to start my preparations. As we toured North Island, it was easy to find a balance between training and sightseeing, with plentiful, quiet roads to cycle on and stunning views to appreciate. With Sarah driving ahead, it was a pleasurable, albeit slightly selfish, way to see this fabulous country. At every campsite, there was also an abundance of coastal paths to run on and the deserted sandy beaches were perfect for practicing running form drills and post-training stretching and mobility exercises.
After Christmas, we crossed to South Island and the focus turned to specific training for the Coast to Coast. Whilst I was able to cycle the bike course several times and declined the opportunity for a guided run over the mountain pass, I needed more time on the water to complete my preparations. With the help of three days from Topsport Kayaking’s best and most patient instructors, I made two full runs down the 70 km section of Waimakariri river in my hired Barracuda Beachcomber kayak after the now familiar familiarisation day. Like my experience in Wales, I finished day two with a degree of confidence in the progress I was making. Two weeks later, after my final run down the river, my confidence of making the race cut-off times had ebbed away and I made the late call to transfer my entry to the two-day race.
And so, on a chilly late summer morning, I racked my bike in transition and warmed up on the run down to the Tasman Sea at Kumara Beach, leaving Sarah to drive inland and set up my running kit at the next transition area. As I toed the start line, my intention was to pace myself throughout the two days and I carefully eased myself over the sand and onto the gravel path whilst watching the other competitors race away at an alarming pace. My Inov8 FLites were perfectly suited to this initial mixed running surface and, once we were on the road, I overtook a few tiring runners over this opening 3 km and a few more in transition, running in socks from the bike rack to the mount line.
Out on the bike, I worked with a small group of riders over the first 20 km and we gradually caught the lead group. My policy of caution had paid off. As this now larger group headed inland for the mountains, I found it safer to stay at the back and out of harm’s way, taking full advantage of drafting those ahead of me. However, on a couple of occasions the group fragmented and I had to work to regain my place, towing a number of other tail enders as I did so. As we reached the foothills, the stronger riders accelerated away and, rather than dropping back to a group that was forming behind, I stuck it out alone, consuming some of the energy I had carefully preserved earlier in the day. The advantage of being alone however was that on completion of the 55 km bike, I had a clear run through the second transition.
Sarah was waiting with running shoes, cap and my 20 litre Salomon pack containing the prescribed safety equipment for the 33km mountain run. I also had a 1.5 litre bladder of protein drink and, on a length of para cord, my secret weapon. My speed in transition once again paid dividends, closing the gap on the group ahead as we started the run along a boulder strewn grassy surface. Despite the occasional stumble, the first 3 km was the best surface we got to run on that day. At the Morrison footbridge, we crossed the Otira river at its junction with Deception Valley. Not by the footbridge, of course, but through the icy cold, thigh deep water before beginning the long, slow climb of the Southern Alps. I was wearing a pair of Merrell Trail Glove 3s, purchased in haste the week before to replace my Inov8 Trail Rocs which had been stolen when left out to dry! This was to be the first proper test of their traction as I climbed down the river bank and into the fast flowing water. It was not a positive start. The combination of my unsteadiness, the force of the water and the slippery surface of the boulders meant that I fell twice at this first obstacle. No sooner had I joined the trail that initially ran alongside the Deception river, than I stubbed my toe badly and was forced to slow down. The unmarked trail meandered up the valley through dense trees, and, as the group ahead pulled away, I followed their wet footprints in the dust until the path came to an end.
And so I then made the first of twenty-something crossings of the Deception river and its tributaries that were to consume the next three hours of my life. At times, the force of the water would push me over and, at other times, my fatigue or lack of stability would have the same effect. At each crossing however, I caught up with competitors who had stopped to fill water bottles or scoop up water in their hands to drink. It was warming up, and the only aid station was at the top of Goat’s Pass, several hours up the valley. I therefore deployed my ace, pulling out my collapsible measuring spoon on its length of para cord to scoop up water on the go, then packing it away in the side pouch of my pack without stopping. I therefore made every crossing ahead of this group and so began a cycle of being overtaken as I scrambled over the myriad of boulders that barred the route ahead and catching up runners as they paused to cool off and hydrate.
The higher we climbed up Deception Valley, the bigger the boulders became. Skilled mountain runners leapt from boulder to boulder, safe in the knowledge that they would always land without harm. During a pre-race coffee, former world multisport champion Jess Simson assured me that this was the best tactic to effectively navigate this course. Eventual winner of this year’s race, Sam Clark, was rumoured to train with a dog collar around his neck so that he couldn’t look down and just entrusted his feet to find a sure footing every time. In contrast, with no spring in my step and lacking their confidence, it was all I could do to scramble bodily over each and every boulder, grazing skin and bashing bones along the way and I continued to slip and slide at every crossing. So much for my Merrells. So much for my running form!
I reached the Doreen Creek check point in 2¼ hours after which the climbing became steeper and harder. I regretted not having completed a run recce when I made some navigational mistakes which resulted in some energy and morale sapping retracing of steps. By now I was running with a slower group of runners and eventually we made the steep turn to reach the check point at Goat’s Pass. With the sun now directly overhead, I went through the compulsory kit check and refilled my drinks bladder. It had taken me 3½ hours to run 17.5 km!
Eager to get on, I began the descent down the Mingha Valley, however my sore toe painfully restricted my movement. For all my wishing that the climb would be over, I was now praying that the descent would quickly finish. Hobbling slowly downhill, the route once again took us through more forest and now we had the added complication of tree roots to negotiate. This mini assault course was hampering all the stragglers but at least I wasn’t alone. Fellow runners shared encouragement and jelly babies and we laughed at the absurdity of our self-inflicted predicament. We shared water also, because since the top of the pass, the river water had been unsafe to drink. Eventually, I came out of the trees and back into the sun at the Dudley Knob checkpoint. Five downhill kilometres in a little over an hour! The final obstacle was 10.5 km run over small boulders as the path criss-crossed the Mingha river. Leaning heavily upon the last of my will power and remembering those hard won lessons learnt in the army, I found some running form and pushed on for the finish line. At times it was like running on the beach at Dungeoness, and the lighter I could make my footfall, the easier it was to move. Gaining satisfaction from overtaking a few runners, I finally crossed the finish line at Klondyke Corner to complete day one. Those runners wearing GPS were reporting between 35 – 37km of distance run and I could well believe it. Soaking afterwards in an ice bath in the shade, with a beer in my hand, I knew that, with the exception of some army training, this was the hardest 5 hours and 43 minutes of running I had ever endured.
And, of course, the race didn’t stop there. After Sarah had prepared a huge meal of pasta, we made our preparations for day two and another pre-dawn start. Sarah had to be on the road before 5am to join the queue for kayak inspection at Mount White. With the help of a fellow competitor’s wife, she had the challenge of getting the kayak off the roof of the camper van, successfully through scrutineering and then carried across part of the Waimakariri river to the start line. No mean feat, and four wet crossings of the Waimakariri later, the pair of kayaks were lined up ready to go. Meanwhile, I was curled up in a marquee trying to stay warm as I awaited my start time nearly three hours away. After what seemed an age, 07:40 rolled around and I set off with a small group of competitors in five minute intervals for the 15 km cycle to Mount White. This little warm up for day two was followed by a steep gravel descent of over a kilometre, made harder by having to run with the bike to the transition. A few hundred metres further on, I found Sarah and she guided me across the river to my kayak and helped me into my kit.
The first 10 or so kilometres of the kayak is on reasonably good water and once again I found myself being passed by those more skilled than me. You have to race a kayak equivalent to the type in which you qualified and I was being passed by the less stable but faster racing kayaks. During my two recces, I had made it safely as far as the gorge, some 20 km downriver, before finding myself in difficulties. However, on these occasions, the river level had been high following heavy rainfall. On race day, the water level was lower exposing more boulders in the rapids where my limitations became immediately evident. I did not have the skill to make it through the first challenge and capsized. Thankfully, I went with the flow and resurfaced on the other side of this rock garden. However, it was a good three minutes by the time I had kicked out of the flow and dragged my kayak and paddle to the bank, and another 15 by the time I had emptied out the water and put on a layer of warm kit over my now shivering body.
Back underway, I managed to get through the remaining five rock gardens as a result of some diligent paddle work, and arrived at the gorge. This narrow section compresses the water into a faster flow for some 30 km and the challenge now becomes avoiding the bluffs.
More competitors came by and I increased my pace to follow them for as long as I could so that I could follow their line. After a few hours however, I was on my own and, to my surprise, actually enjoying myself. No sooner had I made this revelation, than I misjudged a turn and, in trying to correct myself, I toppled over for a second time. Feeling tired, it took longer to sort myself out this time and so I took the opportunity to eat as much food as I could. Once again my measuring cup was working well and so at least I was well hydrated. Probably due to the effects of fatigue, I went under once more and had to recover my kayak for the third time. Very cold and tired, I was pleased when I finally came out of the gorge and went through the final checkpoint, knowing that there were only 12 km to go. However, trying to navigate this final section alone was quite a challenge. With multiple braids, the best route changes constantly, with dead ends and long shallows that require man-hauling, both time-consuming and tiring. Finally, in the distance I could see the Gorge Bridge crossing the river and, six hours and forty minutes after paddling away from Mount White, I exited the water.
Even though I made better time from the final check point, had I remained in the one-day event, I would have missed the cut off by 15 minutes. I was exhausted, and Sarah had to support me as I tried to run up the river bank to the final transition. She had been worried about the kayak section and had been waiting patiently at Gorge Bridge for my race number to come up, indicating that I had successfully negotiated the gorge. With my three swims, she’d had a long wait. She helped me out of my wet kayak clothing and into my cycling kit and, as I ran out to the road with my bike for the final 70 km ride down to Brighton Beach, Sarah now had the ordeal of recovering the kayak and equipment alone and driving the long way back to Christchurch. Meanwhile, I had hooked up with a small group on the bike and was making good headway to the finish. I held onto the group until the outskirts of Christchurch when finally my energy evaporated and I was left behind. This made for a lonely and uncomfortable ride home, especially over the earthquake damaged road surface which was tiresome at such a late stage.
Eventually I reached the east coast and turned for the finish. Ever the racer, I took my feet out of my cycle shoes and entered the finishing straight in socks for the final 400 metres run over sand and up the steps to the finish. An ice cold beer and a hot slab of beef burger were a welcome reward for seventeen hours and nineteen minutes of competition, and I discussed the merits of branching out from ultra running by taking on the multisport challenge with former world champion and Race Director, Richard Ussher. Then Sarah arrived and together we walked across Brighton beach to the South Pacific Ocean surf whilst I highlighted the areas where I felt I could improve my performance next time. To my surprise, this suggestion didn’t receive the derision it deserved.