The mainstream media described the field of 46 starting teams using terms such as ‘elite’, ‘top’, and ‘the world’s best’. Yet, of these, 6 teams made the official finish line cutoff, with 2 more crossing the line as unranked, post-cutoff finishers. The rest of the field succumbed to a mixture of exposure, injury, fatigue, poor weather, tortuous terrain and vegetation, navigational difficulties, and demanding cut-offs. Race director Geoff Hunt stated that since he “designed the race course just like any other Southern Traverse race route – typically, about 30% of the teams finish”. In truth, a little over 17% of teams eventually made it to the finish line.
The lowdown on the race: Mixed gender teams of four would traverse up to 430kms of the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island, over 4 trekking stages, 2 kayaking stages, 4 mountain biking stages, a whitewater rafting section, a roping section, a caving section, and a beach run to the finish line. The race would be run non-stop and around the clock, with teams – supported by up to 3 support crew members at transition areas – navigating without the aid of GPS or cleared, marked trails, carrying mandatory gear throughout, and eating & sleeping whenever they deemed it necessary. The first team was expected to finish in not less than 100 hours. If an athlete could not continue due to injury, illness or fatigue, his/her entire team had to retire from the course.
As an added twist to the race, the Buller River, which runs through a good portion of the race route, had been found to be afflicted with the weed didymosphenia geminata. To halt its spread, biosecurity authorities had mandated that the ARWC provide disinfecting/washing facilities for teams and equipment such as footwear, bikes and kayaks, including mandatory hot showers for athletes at key transitions.
Balance Vector pried open a slim lead at the start, gradually building it up with a combination of sound navigation & sleep strategy, the availability of daylight on crucial trekking sections, skill on the paddling sections, and an unmatched superhuman effort. Other teams, officials, media, and spectators alike watched in awe as Balance Vector’s lead over their nearest rival grew from tentative, to commanding, to abyssal – 15 minutes, to 4 hours, to almost 12 hours – within the first 3 days of the race. When it came time to bite the bullet – paddling the entire 50km Buller River kayaking section before a dark zone cutoff – the team delivered with 25 minutes to spare. At the point in time when Balance Vector had their hot shower at the kayak take-out, buffered from the chasing pack by a hefty 9-hour long dark zone, they basked in a 17-hour lead. Behind them, defending champions Nike/Balance Bar jostled for second place with their fellow international teams and close rivals Cross Sportswear, Lundhags Adventure, Merrell Wigwam, Halti, and GoLite Timberland. Also, hanging with these top-notch teams were strong local contenders and (up till then) relative unknowns Port Nelson, Sierra International, and Powered by Velvet.
That is not to say that it was plain sailing through the course for Balance Vector, if indeed for any of the other teams. This was a race demanding a high level of skill in the core disciplines. The opening sea kayaking stage of the race was a foreshadowing of the attrition about to befall. Pounding surf at the launching and beaching points challenged many of the teams’ ability to stay upright and remain in control of their sleek multisport kayaks. Mass capsizes; lost, drifting equipment; and damaged boats – including a handful of craft snapped in two – were the order of the day. “Pure carnage,” as one journalist succinctly put it. This was despite a last-minute course change ordered by Hunt when he realized that surf conditions were too dangerous for a launch at Tauranga Bay, opting instead to launch in relatively better conditions at Westport.For the mountain biking lags, familiarity with towing on asphalt roads had to be backed up by accurate navigation to find the correct route along faint singletrack and remote farmland access roads. Failing that, teams had to rely on perseverance and sheer strength to hike-a-bike across streams and creeks, over loose rocks, and through dense bush. Things were not made any better by one particular bike section, passing through the town of Reefton, that was apparently miscalculated (whether intentionally or not, nobody is certain) and touted by Hunt as being 89km long. In reality, the computers on many bikes at the end of that section read somewhere in the region of 130-150km, and according to even the leading teams, at least 50% of the time spent on it was hiking with their bikes. Mikael Nordstrom, captain of Swedish team Halti, was seen at the end of this stage playfully throttling Hunt and complaining, “It was not a bike ride at all”.
But it was the trekking that was the crux for most of the teams. In a field boasting some of the top navigators in the sport, as well as orienteering champions and experienced local trampers, many athletes nonetheless found themselves making difficult progress through dense ‘gorse’ bushland of the Lyell, Brunner, Kirwans and Paparoa Ranges. These west coast mountain ranges, with their numerous false ridgelines, vegetation-choked gullies, and hidden knolls, were shrouded in cloud and fog, hampering visibility throughout most of these sections. Stiff westerly winds that brought in bitter cold and constant, driving rains compounded the challenges faced, making navigational mistakes the norm for even top teams. Some athletes even reported snowfall.
Several teams, upon hitting the more remote checkpoints, huddled around officials’ fires in efforts to regain some warmth while they rested. All the while, the attrition rate mounted, where other teams simply gave up and withdrew, backtracking to transitions or heading for the nearest road to be picked up by their support crews. Even Balance Vector found the going through the Brunner tough on the second night, to the point that they were “unable to make efficient forward progress” and had to stop to break out their tent and get some sleep. One official commented “He (Hunt) has got to do something about it, either shorten or cancel something, or there won’t be enough teams to give the prizes to at the finish”. Eventually, Hunt relented, shortening the third and fourth treks – with the intent of getting the first team across the finish line just in time for a prime-time news bulletin on Friday night. Still, the projected time estimates for the fastest team to complete each of these treks could not be fulfilled. Even Balance Vector completed the last Paparoa trek in only 14 hours, which was Hunt’s projected time for the slowest team for the original distance! “Geoff Hunt lives in a different time zone from the rest of the world.” Fa’avae mused in an overview of his team’s performance later on.
The race was not all hardship and suffering though. A short, exciting and well-needed whitewater rafting section broke up the drudgery of the 2 opening treks, and towards the race end, breathtaking coastal caving and abseil/tyrolean sections. The final beach run to Tauranga Bay was a fitting end for teams that made it that far, with scores of spectators lining the dunes and rocky outcrops along the way to cheer them on to the finish chute. Several teams ingeniously crafted spinnakers from tent flys and branches, making use of tailwinds for added propulsion down the beach.
Of those teams that savoured this last portion of the grueling course, Balance Vector – arriving in timely fashion for Friday night news coverage – claimed a 13-hour lead over second place Nike/Balance Bar, the largest winning margin by far in an elite-level expedition-length event. Then followed the remaining ranked finishers – GoLite Timberland, Port Nelson, Halti, and Merrell Wigwam – in that order.
“Usually (for Southern Traverse), I put in three trekking legs. But since this is a world championship, there should be a fourth. Well, actually it was not until I put the whole course together that I realized. whoops! There was a fourth trek.” Hunt half-jokingly told the support crew and media gathered around him at one of the transition areas. For the adventure racers who took part in this race, its aftermath proved beyond doubt just how tough a world-class race – encompassing some of the most forbidding terrain and weather conditions on the planet – could be borne from the (sadistic?) machinations of a race director such as Geoff Hunt.